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Northern Ireland ASSEMBLY

Tuesday 20 May 2008

Assembly Business:
British-Irish Council
North/South Ministerial Council
Chairpersons/Deputy Chairpersons of Committees

Executive Committee Business:
Mesothelioma, etc., Bill: First Stage

Committee Business:
Statutory Committee Membership
Standing Committee Membership

Private Members’ Business:
Reclassification of Cannabis
Extended Schools Funding

Executive Committee Business:
Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill: Second Stage

Public Car Parking Spaces in Enniskillen

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

British-Irish Council

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Speaker has been advised by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, in accordance with section 52A of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, that a meeting of the British-Irish Council (BIC) in social-inclusion sectoral format will be held on 20 May 2008.

North/South Ministerial Council

Mr Deputy Speaker: The First Minister and the deputy First Minister have also advised the Speaker, again in accordance with section 52A of the 1998 Act, that a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in aquaculture and marine sectoral format, as well as one in transport sectoral format, will be held on 21 May 2008. Copies of those letters, which set out the agendas for the meetings and the names of the Ministers attending, have been placed in the Library.

Chairpersons/Deputy Chairpersons of Committees

Mr Deputy Speaker: I advise Members that the Speaker has received correspondence from Sinn Fein’s nominating officer, Mr Pat Doherty, that nominates Mr Paul Maskey as Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee. Mr Maskey has accepted the appointment.

I also advise Members that Ms Jennifer McCann has been nominated as Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Ms McCann has accepted the appointment.

The Speaker is satisfied that that correspondence meets the requirements of Standing Orders. I therefore confirm that Mr Paul Maskey is now Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee and that Ms Jennifer McCann is now Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

Executive Committee Business

Mesothelioma, etc., Bill

First Stage

The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I beg to introduce the Mesothelioma, etc., Bill [NIA 16/07], which is a Bill to make provision about lump sum payments to or in respect of persons with diffuse mesothelioma; and for connected purposes.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Bill will be put on the list of future business until a date for its Second Stage is determined.

Committee Business

Statutory Committee Membership

Mr Deputy Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is the motion on Statutory Committee membership. As is the case with other similar motions, it will be treated as a business motion. Therefore, there will be no debate.


That Mrs Claire McGill replace Ms Carál Ní Chuilín as a member of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety; that Mr Paul Butler replace Mr Paul Maskey as a member of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment; that Mr John O’Dowd replace Mr Paul Butler as a member of the Committee for Education; and that Ms Carál Ní Chuilín replace Mrs Claire McGill as a member of the Committee for Social Development. — [Ms Ní Chuilín.]

Standing Committee Membership

Mr Deputy Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is the motion on Standing Committee membership. As is the case with other similar motions, it will be treated as a business motion. Therefore, there will be no debate.


That Mr Paul Maskey replace Mrs Claire McGill as a member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges; that Mr Micky Brady replace Mr Willie Clarke as a member of the Committee on Procedures; and that Mr Alex Maskey replace Ms Carál Ní Chuilín as a member of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. — [Ms Ní Chuilín.]

Private Members’ Business

Reclassification of Cannabis

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind up, and all other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to wind up.

Mr Ross: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the findings within the report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs; and believes that cannabis should be re-classified as a Class B drug.

I tabled this motion some time ago, although it made it on to the Order Paper only after the Business Committee’s meeting of last Tuesday afternoon. Within 24 hours of it being placed on the Order Paper, the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, moved to reclassify cannabis as a class-B drug. Although I would love to claim that there was some correlation between the two events, the more likely explanation is that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet have recognised that the decision to soften the law on cannabis four years ago was the wrong one.

It is not only politicians who have argued that the Government had made a mistake; the Association of Chief Police Officers has also called for cannabis to be reclassified, despite having originally supported the downgrade. The downgrading of cannabis led to confusion over its legal status, and provided an excuse for people to smoke the drug in public, or at least more openly. The decision of four years ago also undermined attempts by parents, teachers and community workers to get the message through to young people that taking drugs is dangerous and harmful. After all, if the Government do not take cannabis seriously, why would anybody else? I therefore welcome the announcement. Although we know that many Ministers have wanted this change for some time, it is pleasing that the Prime Minister and his Home Secretary have now had the bottle to take the decision to reclassify cannabis as a class-B drug.

As a result of the Government’s move, the original motion that I tabled is rendered redundant, which is why the DUP has tabled an amendment — to allow the Assembly a chance to discuss the very serious issue of cannabis and drug abuse in Northern Ireland, particularly among young people.

Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug among young people today, and the strains of it that are now available are more potent than ever before. Even though the Govern­ment have already moved on the issue, it is still worthwhile to have the debate to highlight the dangers of cannabis to the health of individuals and to wider society. There is a misconception that cannabis is a harmless drug that is no worse for us than alcohol. We often see cannabis smoking trivialised in various TV programmes and films. The Labour Government’s decision of four years ago to reclassify cannabis as a class-C drug did little to dispel those misconceptions. In fact, it sent out the message that cannabis was perfectly safe, and led many people to think that it was legal.

At the same time, the Government have, quite rightly, put much focus on reducing the numbers of young people harmed by alcohol and smoking. However, that single decision to soften the law on cannabis was interpreted as the Government saying that they did not see cannabis as a harmful or dangerous drug.

However, that relaxed attitude towards cannabis comes at a time when the drug is more widely available and stronger strains than ever are being used. Rates of psychosis and depression are increasing among young and vulnerable people — making yesterday’s debate on suicide and self-harm particularly relevant.

An estimated 40% of 15-year-olds in Britain have tried cannabis — the highest percentage in Europe. Separate research undertaken by Queen’s University, Belfast, reports that teenagers as young as 14 years old use cannabis every day. Most of them are boys, and two thirds come from the lowest socio-economic groups. Some 10% of teenage cannabis smokers who were surveyed said that they use the drug every day. That is beyond experimental use, and raises the issue of dependency. Such people are also more likely to be in trouble with the police and to be failing at school.

With large numbers of young people smoking cannabis, there are health, medical and public-order reasons why the Government’s decision to reclassify cannabis as a class-B drug is the right one, and one that will send out a strong message.

There is an abundance of scientific research into the long-term mental-health problems associated with cannabis smoking. Research has determined that smoking cannabis almost doubles the risk of developing mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, largely due to chemical changes in the brain that the drug causes. That evidence came from research in New Zealand, although it is only the latest in a long line of inter­national research into the potential link between cannabis and mental-health problems.

Over the past 20 years, stronger and more potent varieties of cannabis have emerged, which are 10 times more powerful and dangerous. Official data earlier this year disclosed that use of skunk, the most potent variety of cannabis, has sharply increased in the past five years, with the drug now dominating the cannabis market in the UK. Home Office figures show that, although super-potent varieties accounted for only 15% of cannabis seized in 2002, that figure is now almost 80%.

Evidence shows that there are more teenagers in treatment with a primary diagnosis of marijuana dependence than for all other illegal drugs combined, making nonsense of the claim that cannabis is not addictive. Research shows that strong strains of cannabis can have the same effect on the brain as cocaine, heroin and alcohol abuse.

A survey of more than 35 studies, published in ‘The Lancet’ medical journal, concluded that cannabis users are 40% more likely to develop a psychotic illness. Indeed, the number of psychotic drugs prescribed to young people has doubled over the past 10 years. In England alone, an estimated 24,000 people, including almost 9,000 who are under 18 years old, have had to seek treatment for cannabis misuse.

Mr F McCann: In recent months, several community organisations in urban areas have said that children as young as nine years old have been smoking cannabis and other drugs. Does the Member agree that research is needed to establish the extent of such behaviour and the damage that it is doing to children so young?

Mr Ross: The Member is absolutely correct: we hear stories, and even media reports, of very young children smoking cannabis. As I said, the younger a person starts to smoke cannabis, the more damage that it can do to his or her brain. That is an issue that needs to be examined. Efforts have been made in recent years through drug education in schools and community groups, and that is the proper way in which to proceed.

There is an assumption that young people will start to smoke cannabis because they consider it to be a rite of passage, especially when they go to university. Smoking cannabis is not a rite of passage — it has an impact on every aspect of a young person’s life. It has a negative impact on motivation and judgement, and will, therefore, have a detrimental affect on school and university grades, and cause broken friendships, family problems and trouble with the law.

Most seriously, however, cannabis severely affects brain development in young people, changing the direction of a young person’s life — physically, emotionally or behaviourally. We too often hear of talented young people who go to university becoming involved with drugs and suddenly losing interest in their studies.

The main addictive chemical in marijuana is Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which can affect memory and learning, motions and motivation, and thinking and problem solving. It can also cause an increased heart rate, anxiety and panic attacks. Cannabis also has an impact on the lungs, given that most people smoke the drug.

10.45 am

Drugs have a negative impact not only on health but on society. Cannabis is harmful to the body and to society. Over the past 10 years, drug crime has doubled, and ever more petty crime and antisocial behaviour have been associated with drugs. In fact, the majority of crime now has a direct link to drugs, and estimates indicate that drug-related crime has cost the UK around £25 billion in recent years.

The Government have now recognised their poor judgement in originally downgrading cannabis. Therefore, it is important that they work to get the message across to young people that cannabis is dangerous and unacceptable. I look forward to hearing Members’ views during the debate.

I support the amendment, which ensures that the resolution of the House will be relevant.

Mr Easton: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “Drugs” and insert

“; recognises the growing drug culture in Northern Ireland; and welcomes the Government’s decision to re-classify cannabis as a Class B drug.”

Everyone in public life is aware of the problems that face young people in today’s society. Role models in the worlds of music and fashion check in and out of rehabilitation clinics as though being addicted to drugs was a badge of distinction. They are seldom, if ever, convicted, and those who supply them with so-called recreational drugs are seldom brought to book.

The trade in drugs is a major criminal industry. Everyone is aware of the dangers of addiction — battling with drugs is dicing with death. The Labour Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, admitted smoking cannabis when she was a student at Oxford University. Members may be surprised to learn that she has taken steps to reclassify cannabis as a class-B drug, but they may not be surprised by any steps that the Labour Party might take to cling on to power at Westminster. Theirs is Government by gimmicks.

In July 2002, the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, eased the cannabis classification to class C. He reclassified the drug not because it had become less dangerous, but because he wanted to apply police resources to fight hard drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.

Changing the law due to a lack of determination to enforce it is a dangerous game. Mr Blunkett’s announce­ment in 2002 was accompanied by the resignation of Government-appointed drugs tsar, Keith Halliwell, in protest over the changes.

Gordon Brown has now gone against the liberal Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and has accepted that cannabis-related problems are sufficiently serious for it to be reclassified as a class-B drug. Members who are concerned about the welfare of young people will welcome that change of heart. They will also welcome the decision of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), which has changed its tune since 2002, to recommend the reclassification of cannabis. The decision to reclassify cannabis will be welcomed by every right-thinking parent, teacher, community group and youth worker in the country.

Since 2002, the use of the dangerous types of cannabis — skunk and super-skunk — has increased from 30% to 80% of cannabis use. Those are serious drugs, and they are more potent, addictive and dangerous than ever. Their impact on the mental health of addicts is devastating, and it can often be fatal.

Drug dealers are remorseless and vicious in targeting the young and vulnerable in society. Their grand lifestyles are paid for by the destruction and denigration of people’s lives. Drug dealers get young people hooked more insidiously than tobacco companies ever did.

I call on the Assembly to support young people by ensuring that there is a robust, zero-tolerance attitude to those who supply drugs. There must be severe penalties for those who are repeatedly caught in possession of small quantities of drugs.

Police officers must be vigilant, and they must clamp down on premises and houses where drugs are peddled. They must also clamp down on cannabis farms and on the organised criminal gangs that are undermining our society. The police must work with community groups and leaders. We should perhaps look to the Keep Safe initiative, which was launched a few months ago in the Kilcooley estate in Bangor, as a possible method of reducing drugs in our community. The police must enforce the law vigorously and with determination to win the war against drug dealers.

If we are serious about building a better Northern Ireland, we must aim to make the entire Province a drug-free zone. The reclassification of cannabis as a class-B drug is a small but vital first step in the process. I support the amendment.

Mr A Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Members who tabled the motion and proposed the amendment. It is worth noting, a LeasCheann Comhairle, that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs’ report recommends that cannabis should not be reclassified from a class-C to a class-B drug. Members are concerned about the increasing problem of the misuse of drugs in communities, and my colleague Mr Easton mentioned the existence of factories that are used to produce cannabis. The days of associating cannabis use with the local hippy are in the past.

The production of cannabis is a high-powered criminal enterprise, and factories that produce serious amounts of cannabis are littered across the country. Those drugs are increasingly potent and potentially dangerous.

My colleagues will outline the effects and consequences of the misuse of such drugs, in later speeches. I welcome the fact that, in recent times, the PSNI has focused more heavily on eradicating the use and growth of cannabis.

Mr F McCann: Several years ago, drugs misuse in Belfast was under scrutiny, and Belfast City Council established a working group to discover the truth about the misuse of drugs. Does the Minister agree — sorry, perhaps my colleague will be a Minister in a few years —

Ms S Ramsey: The Member is revealing our secrets.

Mr Weir: Is Sinn Féin having a reshuffle?

Mr F McCann: That is it. Does the Member agree that the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee on the misuse of drugs could be a useful method of receiving evidence and information?

Mr A Maskey: I thank Mr McCann for reminding the House about that matter. I had briefed him that, if I forgot to make that point, he should interject before I finished my speech; however, I had hardly started my speech.

It is worth reminding the House that Belfast City Council established a working group to tackle the misuse of drugs. The Assembly should, perhaps, consider setting up a similar committee, because drugs misuse warrants a considerable amount of discussion and understanding.

Sinn Féin supports the sentiments behind the motion and the amendment. However, the advisory council’s report raises many issues, and, as locally elected representatives, we recognise that there has been a considerable upsurge in the number of drugs factories being established here by gangs. I welcome the fact that there has been an increased focus on destroying those factories and arresting the individuals involved, because the misuse of drugs is a scourge on our society. The effects on society and, in particular — although not exclusively — on young people’s health, have been highlighted recently by a range of community organisations.

The motion and the amendment provide the House with an opportunity to focus on the problem. I want to make a number of points. Reclassification centres on enforcement and penalties, and, under a class-C classification, penalties range from three months to two years in prison for possession, whereas under class-B status, the penalty for possession is three months to five years in prison. As Fra McCann mentioned, the Assembly should consider the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee on the misuse of drugs.

It might also be worth comparing the range of penalties that are actually imposed with what the statute book dictates.

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

Mr A Maskey: I took an intervention, go raibh maith agat.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member may conclude his remarks.

Mr A Maskey: A LeasCheann Comhairle, I restate our broad support for the sentiment of the motion and the amendment. It is worth noting the penalties. I have welcomed already the fact that several drugs factories have been broken up and that people have been arrested and brought before the courts. It is important that, in future, we not only deal with enforcement but have a wraparound policy on the issue. We must educate our people, and, in particular, we must make our young people aware of the dangers of drugs. The problem with the previous classification of cannabis was that it created an ambivalence that led people to think that the drugs problem was less severe than it is.

Mr McCallister: I welcome and support the motion and the amendment. Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug in the UK. There is increasing evidence that domestic production of the drug has grown significantly through the emergence of cannabis farms and the activities of criminal groups. There is a long-documented history of the negative health impacts that cannabis smoking can have, especially on the young. I, therefore, welcome the Westminster Government’s decision to reclassify the drug from a class-C to a class-B substance. The decision to declassify the drug in the first place was incorrect and has not had the effect that the Government hoped for.

It was appropriate that yesterday we debated the scourge of suicide and the mental-health problems that exist in society. There are many reasons for the mental-health problems that people suffer, but alcohol and substance abuse can damage those who are already at risk. Cannabis use can cause both immediate and long-term damage to mental health. In the short term, acute intoxication can lead to panic attacks and paranoia. Many studies have shown that there is a connection between cannabis use and the development of schizophrenia. To classify the drug as a class-C substance sends the message that those risks are not as serious as they actually are. At a time when we are seeking to improve mental health, it would be wrong to continue to classify the drug as a class-C substance.

Cannabis use can also have a negative effect on the human motor-neurone system. It impairs the ability to perform tasks that require sustained attention. Cannabis is the most common illicit drug that is found in the bodily fluids of people who are involved in car accidents. To classify the drug as a class-C substance sends another message: it is an acceptable drug to use and its associated dangers are limited. Cannabis abuse also has a long-term effect on the respiratory system, increasing the chances of lung disease, chronic bronchitis and, of course, cancer.

The long-term use of cannabis has a damaging effect on both the physical and mental health of users. That comes at a personal cost to the user, but also at great cost to the Health Service and to society at large. Services that could be used to treat other conditions are being provided for people who abuse drugs such as cannabis. That is wrong, and the reclassification of cannabis to a class-B substance will, hopefully, have the necessary impact to reduce its use and reduce the stresses that it creates for the Health Service.

Encounters with cannabis are different for different people. Those from the lowest socio-economic groups are the most likely to become addicted and be affected by the use of cannabis. In 2007, research that was carried out at Queen’s University found that one in 10 cannabis-smoking teenagers who were surveyed used the drug every day. The researchers discovered that 70% of frequent users were boys, and that two thirds of cannabis smokers belonged to the lowest socio-economic groups. A quarter of daily cannabis smokers reported being in trouble with the police on more than 10 occasions, while almost one fifth had been summonsed to court in the year prior to the survey.

11.00 am

We would be failing those young people and wider society had we allowed cannabis to remain a class-C drug. For many people in socially deprived areas, cannabis is a gateway drug. It can lead to further and more damaging substance abuse, and that has a greater effect on our health and criminal-justice systems.

Northern Ireland has suffered from high levels of organised crime, which often develops from paramilitarism into drug production, smuggling and dealing. Use, smuggling and seizures of drugs have increased in recent years. The declassification of cannabis hindered police efforts to tackle those growing problems. Therefore, police services throughout the UK have welcomed the change. The Government have taken a positive step, which I welcome, and, therefore, I support the motion and the amendment.

Mr O’Loan: I welcome the reclassification of cannabis as a class-B drug. This is one case in which the signal that the law sends out is of primary importance. We must send out a message to users and potential users of controlled drugs that all drugs are dangerous and that their use can cause serious damage to physical and mental health.

Figures show that cannabis is the recreational drug of choice in Northern Ireland. Cannabis accounted for more than 66% of all controlled drugs seized in 2006-07. It is a matter of concern that the number of persons charged with supplying cannabis last year rose by more than 30% on the previous year.

A continuing worry must be the prevalence of skunk, which is a purer and stronger variety of cannabis. Skunk allegedly now accounts for around 80% of all cannabis sold. I am also concerned that, according to a survey, 62% of young people in Northern Ireland thought that they could obtain the drug easily or fairly easily.

The previous downgrading of the drug wrongly gave the impression that cannabis was mostly harmless and socially acceptable. That is not the message that we should be sending out — especially to young people.

Acute cannabis intoxication can lead to panic attacks, paranoia and confusion that often require users to seek medical help. Although those effects are short-lived in most cases, in some cases, acute cannabis intoxication can induce a psychotic state that may continue for some time and that requires treatment, usually with antipsychotic drugs. There is evidence that the use of cannabis may exacerbate a pre-existing tendency or predisposition to mental illness. Although there is no evidence that cannabis use causes illnesses such as schizophrenia, there is unquestionable evidence that it can worsen such conditions and lead to some patients relapsing.

There is increasing evidence of a link between road-traffic accidents and drug taking. Cannabis impairs the performance of tasks that require sustained attention and motor control, and that impairment increases when alcohol is introduced. Precise figures are difficult to obtain, but evidence from the police and others shows that driving under the influence of drugs contributes substantially to road-traffic accidents.

We are all aware of the risks from smoking. Smoking tobacco is the single largest cause of ill health and premature death in Northern Ireland. Therefore, smoking cannabis — usually with tobacco — must also present a genuine health risk. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has reported:

“Severe cases of lung damage… have been found in young heavy cannabis users.”

Members have expressed concerns about the link between drugs and organised crime. Where organised crime is involved in the wholesale distribution of all classes of illegal drugs, the likelihood of a user’s moving from cannabis to a class-A drug must be greater if his or her supplier trades not only in cannabis but in all types of illegal drugs.

It seems that one need only pick up a newspaper to read about the discovery of yet another cannabis factory. It appears that the amount of cannabis that is being home-grown — cultivated here in Northern Ireland — is rising. I want an emphasis to be put on tackling the problem of those so-called cannabis farms and the organised criminals who run them.

Education is still the primary means of informing young people of the dangers of drugs. It is important that that continues, and I am pleased that some educational advertisements now highlight the message that the use of drugs can lead to a criminal record.

There is anecdotal evidence that cannabis is used by people suffering from a wide-range of debilitating illnesses including AIDS, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain caused by arthritis, and that its use gives relief from some symptoms. It is necessary for the Government to continue to fund research in that area without prejudice to an overall stance that drug use is illegal.

We have to face the fact that where there is demand for drugs there will be supply. The drugs menace must be tackled on a variety of fronts including enforcement and education. What is really needed, however, is a fundamental change in societal attitudes. Rather like the debate yesterday on suicide, that change needs to focus on a set of positive values and on what life is for. Until we get that change, drug use will continue and families will have to live with the shocking consequences.

Mr Lunn: I support the motion, as amended. There has been a perception that cannabis is a so-called soft drug, that it is harmless and a recreational bit of fun on a par with alcohol and tobacco. However, the facts tell a different story. I note the comments of senior police officers across the water, particularly that of the Assistant Chief Constable Simon Byrne, who is the Association of Chief Police Officers’ spokesman on cannabis. His organisation supports this reclassification unequivocally.

Unlike people in society who favour a more relaxed attitude, those police officers see at first hand the damage being done, and not just to the young: the problem of drug use is evident among people of all ages. The report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which has been referred to many times already, gives a mixed message. The council recommends the continuation of the policy of tacit acceptance of the use of cannabis, even though it acknowledges that cannabis sometimes leads to panic attacks, paranoia, confusion, and in extreme cases, psychotic problems, which can certainly lead to schizophrenia even if there is no direct link.

In many cases, there is a well established pattern of progression from cannabis to harder drugs. The recent advent of skunk, which now appears to dominate the UK cannabis market, is a growing problem. Estimates vary, but it has been said that skunk is anything from four times to 10 times more dangerous than cannabis. Either way, it is certainly a lot more dangerous.

Why should society accept a situation in which mind-bending substances can be pushed, almost with impunity, on our streets and to our children and be treated as something to be tolerated? This stuff is being sold in, and close to, our schools and is readily available in Northern Ireland to anybody who wants it.

Reclassification will be a useful move if it is to mean a new targeted approach to tackling the cannabis farms and the criminals who run them; the introduction of additional aggravating sentencing factors for drug pushers who are caught supplying near schools and colleges; and more robust enforcement against possession, offenders and re-offenders.

I applaud the Home Secretary; Mr Easton was a wee bit hard on her. At least she was able to own up to the fact that she used cannabis once or twice when she was young, and has presumably seen the error of her ways — she has come a long way since those days. I applaud the Home Secretary for ignoring the dangerously liberal approach of her advisors, and going for a more appropriate classification. It would have been easy for her to duck out of that, in her statement she says — [Interruption.]

Mr McCarthy: It is like having music while you speak.

Mr Lunn: Or music while you work —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Someone has their mobile phone switched on. Please continue, Mr Lunn.

Mr Lunn: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker — [Interruption.]

That is not to mention the case conference that is going on as I speak.

The Home Secretary said:

“My decision takes into account issues such as public perception and the needs and consequences for policing priorities. There is a compelling case for us to act now rather than risk the future health of young people. Where there is a clear and serious problem, but doubt about the potential harm that will be caused, we must err on the side of caution and protect the public.”

I could not agree more with that statement.

Some of our schools adopt a zero-tolerance approach to drugs; the penalty for their use or supply is automatic expulsion, which has a dramatic effect on children’s lives and education. However, the people who introduce those children to drugs, especially cannabis, merely walk away with a profit. I hope that the reclassification of cannabis will at least make it harder for such people to profit from its sale.

I thank the proposer of the motion for giving Members a chance to make our views on this matter clear. My party supports the motion as amended.

Mr G Robinson: According to the report ‘PSNI Statistics: Annual Statistical Report: Statistical Report No.4: Drug Seizures & Arrests: 1st April 2007 – 31st March 2008’, Limavady, in my constituency, has experienced an 18·6% increase in the incidents of drug seizure and a 37·7% increase in arrests. In 2007-08 there were 2,968 cannabis seizure incidents in Northern Ireland, an increase on the previous two years. The total number of drug-related offences has increased by 9·8%.

Those statistics indicate that, unfortunately, cannabis is as popular, if not more popular, than ever. The figures also demonstrate that the PSNI does an excellent job in tracking and seizing cannabis plants and products. I commend the PSNI’s ongoing efforts in trying to remove this curse from our streets. Paragraph 3(3) of the PSNI policy directive, PD 03/07, states that:

“Northern Ireland unfortunately has experienced a growing drugs culture since the late 1960s and early 1970s.”

Although that is not unusual in the United Kingdom context, it causes me great concern. Indeed, the strength of cannabis in its various forms has also increased.

Having assessed the medical evidence, I am concerned that people who use cannabis put themselves in great danger of suffering from psychological problems in later life. During yesterday’s debate on suicide and self-harm, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety acknowledged that the effects of alcohol and drugs in influencing people’s actions and perceptions cannot be underestimated.

I stress that I am not saying that any of the tragic cases in Northern Ireland fit that category. However, the potential for tragedy is greater when an individual uses cannabis. That observation is based on paragraph 12·4 of the report by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, ‘Cannabis: Classification and Public Health’, which states:

“The short-term effects of cannabis include acute intoxication reactions and adverse effects on psychological and psychomotor performance.”

If an individual’s mental state has been altered by a drug, it is reasonable to assume that they will take actions that they would not normally take. A drug such as cannabis, which is capable of altering an individual’s state of mind to the extent referred to by the Home Office, should never have been classified as a class-C drug. It is good that cannabis has been reclassified as a class-B drug. That indicates a greater appreciation of the danger of the drug and provides a greater disincentive for the use and supply of cannabis, in all its forms.

Young people are our greatest asset for the future. Therefore, we must protect them from the scourge of drugs, as far as possible. Younger people are statistically more likely to use cannabis, so we must do everything possible to remove it from their easy access. Reclassification is an essential part of that approach. I welcome the more stringent sanctions that reclassification entails for the possession or growing of cannabis.

Any measure that reduces the availability of cannabis should be welcomed. I am confident that the PSNI will continue to tackle the general drug problem. I support the amendment.

Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. As other Members have stated, I am glad that the motion is being amended. Alastair Ross and Alex Easton should take credit for that. Indeed, in amending the motion, they have shown that the DUP Back-Benchers have as much control over the British Government as their party leaders have. That would be a good publicity angle for them to present to their respective constituencies.

Mr Shannon: Does the Member agree that Alastair Ross has been instrumental in changing the British Government’s mind? Within 24 hours of his putting the notice motion down, a change was made.

Ms S Ramsey: That is exactly what I was saying. Both Alastair and Alex can take credit for that.

11.15 am

On a more serious note, however, the British Government are disregarding the advice of the advisory council, having put all their eggs into that basket. The record should reflect that the council is required:

“to keep under review the situation … with respect to drugs which are being or appear to them likely to be misused and of which the misuse is having or appears to them capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem”.

It amazes me that the council did not see the social problem in our communities. Although many advisory groups do very good work, they sometimes spend so much time in ivory towers that they do not seem to live in the real world or take account of those social issues.

Cannabis is illegal. According to the research, it now dominates the illegal drugs trade in Europe. Young people are now of the opinion that, because the classification of cannabis was changed from a class-B drug to a class-C drug, it has become legal. The Assembly needs to send out a clear message to our young people — and those not so young — that it is illegal. That process of education must be continued.

Cannabis use was of particular concern to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs because of the risk of relapse, and several Members have referred to the risk of schizophrenia and psychotic illness. I sit on the Health Committee and I spoke in yesterday’s debate on suicide, self-harm and mental health; and there is concern about the link between those issues and drug misuse. The council also stated that users who are heavily dependent on cannabis often experience depression. That potential link must be highlighted.

Declan O’Loan referred to the link between the misuse of drugs and driving offences. That is another issue that the Assembly has debated on numerous occasions in connection with road-accident statistics.

According to the PSNI’s statistics, the year April 2006 to March 2007 saw a decrease of 6·4% in the number of total seizure incidents on the previous year. However, as in the previous year, cannabis was the illegal drug most commonly seized. Seizures involving class-A drugs have increased by 58·8%, and ecstasy accounts for the greatest number of those. We must accept that drugs — whatever their classification — pose a problem for our communities, and provide the resources to combat them.

I must devote a few minutes of my time to those addicted to drugs. Society has a duty to provide adequate resources for groups which help addicts — whether the groups are of the community and voluntary sector, or of the statutory sector — both to help people end their addiction to illegal drugs and to combat drug-use among young people. Programmes in the community and voluntary sector should be given adequate resources. I am disappointed that those programmes, which we all identify as models of good practice, continue to work proactively against the misuse of drugs but find it hard to access funding. Earlier, I was winding up Alex and Alastair; however, now is the time for them to put a word in the ear of the Finance Minister, to highlight the lack of resources for groups in the community and voluntary sector.

It is important to develop structures that allow young people, their families and communities to deal with addiction to illegal drugs if they so wish, and to continue to push for access services as well. Many community activists warn that, where young people are exposed to drug abuse on a daily basis, to the extent that it is part of everyday life around them, the risk that those young people will become involved in drug abuse is increased.

We need to deal with the reclassification of cannabis from a class-B drug to a class-C drug, and it is important that the Assembly puts adequate resources into the community and voluntary sector, to ensure that we target drug pushers —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Your time is up.

Ms S Ramsey: I took an intervention. I am sorry, please let me continue.

We must also provide education and resources for people who are addicted to wean themselves off illegal drugs. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr B McCrea: I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board — that is mainly why I want to say a few words. I was a wee bit worried when I was approached to say a few words on cannabis; I was not sure how one should interpret such a request. However, it is a serious issue, and no less so for introducing some common talk.

I am concerned that cannabis and its use are linked to all sorts of risky behaviour, particularly among adolescents and young people. There is a connection between alcohol misuse, smoking and other activities that lead to serious problems in society. Sometimes, the Assembly is slightly schizophrenic in its tackling of these issues, because cannabis is not the most widely used drug — alcohol is. However, there is a link between alcohol, smoking and cannabis.

How should we deal with these things? There is, sometimes, a propensity to lecture people or to run advertisements — we have all seen some pretty good ones on television — but they do not really work. The only thing that works is deterrence. There must be some way of prosecuting people and imposing on them some negative impact for partaking in such an unhealthy activity. In retrospect, the reclassification of cannabis to class C was a mistake. It confused the public and sent out a message that cannabis was an acceptable drug, which is not the case.

There has been an increase in the domestic production of cannabis in the United Kingdom. When any activity becomes so significant, it becomes controlled by organised criminals, and illegal immigrants get involved in tending the crops. It also leads to a lot of other issues that are, perhaps, unintended. Such activity does not happen only in other parts of the United Kingdom: it happens in Northern Ireland.

On 8 May 2008, PSNI officers discovered a cannabis factory in Portstewart from which they recovered cannabis with a value of £50,000 — a significant amount of money. Reference has already been made to the recovery in Newry on 11 May of £4,000 worth of cannabis. It is important to stress that there is a real and present danger to young people.

The increase in cannabis production and use can be contrasted to the stark reduction in the number of arrests and prosecutions since the declassification. Prosecutions fell to a 10-year low: there were 2,790 in 2003 and 1,994 in 2006. More importantly, the number of people who were sent to jail for those offences fell significantly, from 697 to 279. A message is being sent out, but in the wrong direction.

The supply of cannabis cannot be separated from organised crime, and the idea that personal use does not hurt anyone is wrong. The use of cannabis has severe knock-on effects for the health system. Furthermore, the increase in the smuggling and selling of cannabis fuels other illicit activities.

Assistant Chief Constable Simon Byrne from the Association of Chief Police Officers said unequivocally that the association wanted cannabis to be reclassified from class C to class B. He also said that the bottom line, from a policing point of view, was that since the reclassification four years ago there had been a significant rise in cannabis farms and organised crime in that market. He also said that it had caused confusion on the streets as to whether cannabis was legal and fuelled public concern about how the situation was being policed. On that basis, we have to look for change.

The other problem is that cannabis use affects people from the lowest socio-economic areas. We must find ways of helping those people, and that is why I am pleased to support the motion and the amendment.

Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Although cannabis has been reclassified, it is important that Members have this debate and send out a message to our young people. Mr Easton mentioned the dangers that face young people, and Mr O’Loan spoke of the type of society that we want. We are one year into this new dispensation, and it is important that we make it clear that we want a society in which young people and their families are not ruined by drugs. I also take Basil McCrea’s point that that message should relate to any type of drug. That is important.

The amendment includes the phrase:

“recognises the growing drug culture in Northern Ireland”.

I checked some statistics, which were provided in answer to two questions that Mr Dodds asked of Mr Paul Goggins at Westminster. Those statistics are included in Research and Library Services very valuable information pack. I was surprised by those figures, which indicated a growing drug culture in Strabane and Omagh.

In 2006-07, six people were arrested in Omagh, and two were arrested in Strabane, for dealing class-A drugs. There were nine arrests in Omagh for dealing class-C drugs, and five such arrests in Strabane. During the same period, the number of people younger than 16 who were arrested in Strabane for possession of drugs categorised as class A, B, or C was zero. The figures for Omagh are identical. Those statistics are particularly relevant when one considers the amendment, given that it indicates that there is a growing drug culture in Northern Ireland — that discrepancy must be analysed.

Several Members have suggested that a growing drugs culture exists, and we also hear that from our constituents. Interestingly, at the end of last night’s Omagh District Council meeting, a number of my party colleagues and other councillors discussed that very issue. No one claimed that the drugs culture in our areas is practically non-existent, which is how those figures could perhaps be interpreted, as they show so many instances of zero arrests.

I wish to return to Mr O’Loan’s point about society and Mr Easton’s point about young people as well as to the points that were made by Mr Ross and others. I emphasise that it is important that the Assembly sends out a clear message. Cannabis has been reclassified, but we must consider how we deal with this issue as a society and as MLAs. My party colleague Alex Maskey mentioned the issue of enforcement, which, as well as detection, is an issue that the Assembly should examine. Mr Maskey has indicated that that is happening in other forums, and I would welcome it happening here. Go raibh maith agat.

11.30 am

Mr Shannon: I congratulate my colleagues on tabling the motion.

Some four years ago, the Government reclassified cannabis from a class-B drug to a class-C drug. In a way, my opinion, and the opinion of many people, has been vindicated in that Downing Street has revealed that there is now an estimated three and a half million regular drug users, which is an increase of 20% since the Labour Party came to power. That statistic is one that the Labour Party has realised calls into severe doubt its initial reclassification. For that reason, cannabis will again be classified as a class-B drug.

More than 10% of 15-year-olds are regular drug users and believe that it is legal to use cannabis. I blame that on the initial reclassification, which has led to confusion about the legality of the drug. Some people simply do not know that it is illegal to possess cannabis and that an unlimited fine or a jail sentence can be enforced if they are convicted of possession. If someone is caught supplying cannabis, a 14-year sentence may be imposed and an unlimited fine. Therefore, there are legal ramifications.

A couple of physical horrors have recently been brought to my attention. I was saddened to read about a GP whose son was using cannabis and was subsequently admitted to a psychiatric ward at the age of 17. He has been practically institutionalised since then because of the awful side effects of that drug.

A definite link has been established between mental illness and cannabis use. Regular users of the drug have been found to have doubled the risk of developing psychotic episodes or long-term schizophrenia. An Australian study found that adolescents who regularly used cannabis are five times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety in later life. It was found that, if people start to smoke cannabis before the age of 15, they were four times more likely to develop a psychotic illness by the age of 24. Such problems arising from the use of the drug are easily compounded and are well illustrated by those findings.

Cannabis users are more than twice as likely to cause a fatal road accident as those who misuse alcohol. Some Members have already spoken about that issue. That statistic outlines the fact that cannabis poses a danger to society as a whole.

I cannot express strongly enough the dangers of the drug. Recent findings have cemented the fact that the use of cannabis cannot simply be deemed as being recreational, such as having a glass of wine after a hard day’s work. It is much more dangerous. The latest reclassification must reflect that danger.

In London, there has been a 29% increase in the number of people found carrying cannabis, which demonstrates that its use is acceptable by some. As a father of young sons, my prayer is that I will never see the outworking of those statistics. I urge the people of Northern Ireland to continue to view the misuse of cannabis not merely as youthful folly but as a serious problem with life-changing ramifications. Let us not accept its use but stand against the misuse of all illegal drugs with a zero-tolerance approach.

Most cannabis that is grown and sold today is much stronger than in the past. A report has found a link between psychotic illness and cannabis use. In Northern Ireland, 27% of 11- to 16-year-olds are regularly offered cannabis. Almost 18% — one fifth — of those 11- to 16-year-olds will take it. Those are horrendous statistics. Were a class of 30 pupils to be in the Chamber, six of them would have tried cannabis in the past year.

What are the effects? Research conducted at Queen’s University Belfast shows that young users are more likely to be away from their families in the evenings and involved in antisocial behaviour. Furthermore, they are more likely to have bad communication skills with their family and be disaffected with school. It is clear that that is not what people want from, or for, their children. I had a good friend during my school days who was very athletic. Drugs ultimately changed his life and destroyed his ability.

Hauls of cannabis have recently been discovered. Indeed, a short time ago, 20 bin bags of heads and leaves and 450 cannabis plants were discovered at a house that had been turned into a cannabis factory, with the lights and the ventilation system adapted accordingly.

Members have commented on the Association of Chief Police Officers, which is clearly concerned about the fact that cannabis is not harmless. The association has made its dangers clear to the community and its advice should be listened to and adhered to.

Given that the side effects of cannabis are worrying and dangerous, doctors do not prescribe it to their multiple sclerosis patients.

Cannabis use is dangerous to individuals and to society as a whole. Its use and possession are illegal and cannot and will not be tolerated.

Mr Ross: Mr Shannon’s last remarks were perhaps the most important that we have heard — cannabis is dangerous not just to individuals, but to society as a whole.

Mr Alex Maskey referred to the fact that the official report on the matter recommended that cannabis should not be reclassified. However, reclassifying cannabis to a class-B drug was the right decision that sent out a clear message about the harm that the drug can cause. As Mr Maskey said, the report recom­mended that the drug should not be reclassified, even though it conceded that regular cannabis use can have real and significant effects on mental health. The report also stated that the higher content of THC, which is the ingredient that causes the so-called buzz, has made modern forms of the drug far more potent than those that were used in the 1960s.

The scourge of drugs in our society has led to real social problems, including the rise of antisocial behaviour and underachievement among our young people, particularly those in socially deprived areas. The Government have sent out a powerful message by reclassifying cannabis. In the words of the Prime Minister:

“cannabis is not only illegal, it’s unacceptable.”

The Labour Government’s policy on drugs has not been good. However, as Mr Lunn said, at least they have now decided that they have had enough of reviews — they have stopped dithering and have made the right decision.

As I said, not only politicians wanted the change in classification; the Association of Chief Police Officers also called for cannabis to be reclassified, despite having supported the downgrade originally. That is a telling point to which Mr McCrea referred. All Members mentioned that the Government made a serious mistake in reclassifying cannabis as a class-C drug. Indeed, their announcement a few weeks ago to reclassify was a public acknowledgement of that mistake.

The UK has the worst level of drug abuse in Europe, with drug-related crime doubling and more young people taking cannabis than ever before. We also hear worrying reports about discoveries of cannabis factories. Several Members referred to the concerning fact that some people use private houses or lofts in houses to grow their own cannabis.

It is important to note that all Members referred to the impact that cannabis has on young people. The drug culture among young people is the most important issue in this debate. My colleague Alex Easton said that celebrity lifestyles influence young people. Drug taking — particularly taking cannabis — is seen as “cool” and something that trendy people do. That is a powerful message. We recognise that the Government’s decision four years ago was also a powerful message. However, I hope that their decision to reclassify cannabis, and the message that the Assembly sends, will prove to be as powerful.

Mr Easton also talked about the impact that drug dealers have. It is important that we clamp down on drug pushers and that the police apprehend those who harm our society. We want harsher penalties to be introduced. It is interesting to note that when cannabis was reclassified as a class-C drug, most people who were caught with it were not punished. The cannabis was simply confiscated, and no criminal proceedings were brought against those people.

Mr Maskey said that given that the drug is now more potent and dangerous than ever, the debate on the matter has moved away from the image of cannabis-smoking hippies. When considering some of the reports that have been produced, it is important to recognise the fact that cannabis is far more potent than it has been in the past. I said earlier that cannabis is now 10 times stronger and 10 times more dangerous than it was previously. Mr Maskey also talked about the drug gangs and factories around Northern Ireland, and he welcomed the police crackdown on those who are involved. He suggested that the introduction of tougher penalties should be considered.

John McCallister indicated that the Government made a mistake four years ago. He mentioned the debate that was held yesterday on self-harm and suicide. He also spoke about the link between cannabis and mental-health problems, including motor-neurone problems. Interestingly, he also mentioned drink driving and drug driving. Problems that they cause have been increasing, especially when evidence suggests that the effect of cannabis and drug use can last much longer than the effects of alcohol — in some cases, upwards of 24 hours. It is important that that is highlighted.

Declan O’Loan spoke about the powerful message that the Assembly can send out. He also referred to the powerful message that the Government sent out by reclassifying cannabis. Indeed, several Members made that point.

Declan O’Loan also referred to the fact that skunk now makes up around 80% of the cannabis market — a point made by other Members. He said that the drug was readily available, and that that was worrying. That goes back to a point that Mr McCann made earlier about the drug being more available, and that young people can get hold of it in schools — not only in secondary and grammar, but in primary schools — and that is particularly worrying. He referred to the need for a joined-up approach between the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department of Education and other agencies.

Trevor Lunn noted the mixed message in the report and how the advisory council wanted to keep cannabis classified as a class-C drug but also referred to the mental-health and other problems associated with the drug, which I referred to at the beginning of my winding-up speech. He also spoke of the progression of young people using so-called soft drugs moving on to harder drugs. Although some commentators say that there is no link, it is clear that young people who start taking cannabis — and who get into the habit of taking cannabis — are more likely to experiment with other drugs and move on to ecstasy, LSD or other harder drugs, and that is a real problem.

My colleague George Robinson spoke of the local impact in Limavady, and the number of arrests and drug-related crime in that area. The statistics in Limavady largely reflect what we are seeing in Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole. He referred to the different types of stronger drugs, how dangerous they are and the impact that they have on the mind.

Sue Ramsey said that I should take credit for making the Prime Minister bow his knee to this Assembly or to me personally. However, she said that we are dealing with a serious issue, and it is important that we get that message across. Cannabis is a serious issue, and it has a serious impact not only on society — as Ms Ramsey said — but on an individual’s health. She referred to the social impact of the drug, and that is important. She also said that it was wrong to declassify the drug four years ago, and referred to yesterday’s debate and the link with depression.

Ms S Ramsey: The Member has taken on board my point that he should not run away from the fact that he may be putting the British Government under pressure. Will he take on board my point that he should have a word in the Finance Minister’s ear to ensure that adequate resources are put into the community and voluntary sector to tackle this issue?

Mr Ross: I was going to refer to that point. Of course it is important that we have adequate resources, and it is important that Departments ensure that the money that they are streaming into various agencies goes to the right places, which can make a real difference to the lives of young people and local communities.

Mr Basil McCrea referred to the fact that cannabis can lead to societal problems and what he called “risky behaviour”. He spoke of the difficulties involved not only with cannabis but with alcohol, and that is a fair point. He also referred to the role of parents, which is important. The decision to reclassify cannabis four years ago undermined the role that parents play in the cannabis debate. Parents try to discourage young people from underage drinking and from taking cannabis. However, the Government sent out the wrong message and undermined parents when they decided to declassify the drug. Mr McCrea also spoke of the link with organised crime — as did other Members — and referred to the recent £50,000 fine on the north coast. He also rubbished the myth that personal use does not have a knock-on effect. That is a fair point.

Mrs Claire McGill spoke about the message being sent out to young people, and the number of families that have been ruined by drugs. As always, she referred to her own area of Strabane and Omagh and the impact that drugs were having there, and she revealed some startling statistics.

In his winding-up speech on the amendment, my colleague Jim Shannon spoke of the Government’s mistake four years ago and how drug-related problems have risen since the Labour Party came into power. We must look at how the Labour Government have failed in their drug policy over the years and, hopefully, we will see a sea change now. He also spoke about the confusion that was created when cannabis was declassified. That was a major issue, which caused concern and confusion, and many young people thought that cannabis was, in some way, legalised.

Mr Shannon told stories about those who were affected by the use of cannabis. Personal stories or insights send out the most powerful message. He also spoke of his role as a parent. Many parents throughout Northern Ireland, irrespective of where they come from, share Mr Shannon’s views.

I thank Members for their contributions. The Assembly, at a local level, can send out a strong message to our communities and young people that cannabis is dangerous for their health and for their future. I hope that Members will unite on the motion and the amendment.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly notes the findings within the report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs; recognises the growing drug culture in Northern Ireland; and welcomes the Government’s decision to re-classify cannabis as a Class B drug.

11.45 am

Extended Schools Funding

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

Two amendments have been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.

Mr B McCrea: I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses concern that the Extended Schools funding for children and young people has not been mainstreamed; and calls on the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Department of Education to ensure that this essential support for children and young people continues.

I am disappointed to have to talk about this subject today. The UUP raised the funding issue during Assembly debates on the Budget and the Programme for Government, and at the Committee for Education. We pointed out to all concerned that there was a problem with the continued funding of children’s services, and, specifically, the extended schools programme.

The situation is absolutely disgraceful, outrageous, totally unacceptable and reprehensible. The Assembly is supposed to promote the interests of all young people in Northern Ireland. Members argue that the Assembly can do better than direct rule Ministers and that it has taken the responsibility for making people’s lives better — yet the Assembly is presiding over cuts in services to the most disadvantaged in society.

Members will have to tell those affected that, having been persuaded to adopt the extended schools pro­gramme, it is being torn down — that is unbelievable. What sort of message does that send out about the competence of this place? The programme is one of the most tangible examples of how the Assembly can provide benefit to individuals and to society as a whole.

In March 2006, Mr Hain promised £100 million for a fund to succeed the Executive programme for children and some £10 million of that was set aside to develop the extended schools programme. Maria Eagle, who was responsible for education at that time, stated:

“funding concentrates on those schools catering for children from the most disadvantaged areas - those children, families and communities on which extended schools will have the most dramatic impact.”

Most tellingly, she continued:

“This is not a short term initiative”.

However, that is not the case now.

One must question what has happened since Maria Eagle made that statement. The answer is that under a devolved Minister of Education — who repeatedly talks about equality and tackling educational underachievement attainment, and repeatedly lectures Members on how they should do more for the most disadvantaged — the budget for the extended schools programme has been cut from £10 million to £6 million. She controls a budget of £1·7 billion, but cannot find a way to maintain the services. How can she not find between £3 million and £4 million?

During the Budget debate, I outlined the trials and tribulations that people would face, particularly in north and west Belfast, if the funding was cut. I suggested a way forward, and I mentioned the benefits and improvements that resulted from a modest investment in the London Challenge programme. However, rather than increasing the funding for the extended schools programme, the Assembly has cut it, and some Members should hang their heads in shame because they have let people down.

Over 500 schools in Northern Ireland, operating in the most disadvantaged areas, are seeing their extended schools budgets cut or totally removed. The breakfast clubs, the after-school clubs, the childcare, the community cohesion — all those things are being taken away. The sums of money involved are not trivial. Often they can amount to £30,000, and those cuts are effective across all communities and all schools.

Not only that, but those particular programmes were working. They have a track record, and are of particular significance to people with particular problems. If we are to do anything in our society to move forward, we must find a way to break the cycle of educational disadvantage, poverty and underachievement. That is what those programmes were doing. I do not know why those on other Benches do not see that point of view. I cannot understand why the programme in question was not defended at all costs. It is not as if it was not pointed out to people. It is not as if people were not aware of, or do not understand, the significance of the programme, yet somehow or other the money can not be found from that huge budget.

One of the things that I particularly like about the extended schools programme is the holistic approach that is taken. It is not just about education, it is about health, social skills, promoting responsible parenting, and parenting skills. Of course, it also has a bearing on the issue of childcare provision, because we live in an increasingly expensive world. People are worried about the increase in fuel prices, the cost of heating and the increase in the cost of living. Families no longer have the luxury of one parent staying at home. Those people depended on that funding for childcare arrangements. The funding has been taken away, and those parents have been left in the lurch. There has been no opportunity to replace the funding, and no attempt to mitigate the circumstances. We have been told that it is too late, and we can do nothing about it.

It is deeply ironic that this particular state of affairs should exist in the Department of a Sinn Féin Education Minister. We are told that she is committed to addressing educational inequalities, yet, when there is a clear means of doing so, the Minister has presided over massive cuts. Breakfast clubs, after-school clubs, and extended schools have all been described, by no less than Polly Toynbee, as a:

“great banner symbolising a social-justice mission”.

Those are exactly the kind of words that we often hear from the lips of Ministers, but mere words do not make up for the lack of funding for those breakfast clubs and other services.

I realise that not everyone will support the motion or the amendments, and not everyone who opposes the motion will necessarily disagree with me. However, today’s debate is a consequence of the Minister’s ideological fixation with a test that happens at the age of 11. For many people, that is a red herring. The real problems in our society happen much earlier. To those unions that the Minister keeps trotting out to prove that she has support, let me say clearly that there is a broader debate in this society about tackling underachievement and inequality. It is not about a very narrow fixation; it is about solving the very real problems of those people most disadvantaged in society.

The report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee on literacy and numeracy concluded by stating:

“We would caution against a simplistic view that structural change is the answer to”

the problem of numeracy and literacy. There are much more profound difficulties at work than the system of selection.

Mr McCallister: Does the Member agree that, if we are serious about tackling such societal problems as teenage pregnancy, drug addiction — which we have discussed this morning — suicide and the mental-health agenda, these clubs and this budget are absolutely vital? Does he also share my belief that the Minister’s idea of equality is to disadvantage everyone equally?

Mr B McCrea: It does, indeed, seem that way. In return for equality, we get a dumbing-down. Any form of advancement is removed. Hope and aspiration are taken away. My party does not regard that as progress.

I want to hear the Minister responding to that issue by saying that she will find money from her core education budget, as the Minister of Health has done. I do not want her to argue for some form of handout from in-year monitoring, because short termism is not the way forward.

The Minister and her party have dropped the ball on issues that must be addressed at a fundamental level. I say shame on Sinn Féin and its supporters. It is about time we saw some action, and not mere platitudes.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr D Bradley: I beg to move amendment No 1: In line 1 leave out all after the second “that” and insert:

“Breakfast Clubs, After-School Clubs and Extended Schools funding for children and young people has not been mainstreamed; and calls on the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Department of Education to ensure that this essential support for children and young people continues and to re-establish a cross-cutting fund for children and young people to fund such programmes, as well as youth services and other projects.”

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The aims of the extended schools programme are extremely important:

“To reduce underachievement and improve the life chances of children and young people by enhancing their educational development and fostering their health, wellbeing, and social inclusion through the integrated delivery of the support and services necessary to ensure that every child has the best start in life.”

The funding was directed to areas of greatest need and was a form of early intervention, aimed at counteracting the effects of social disadvantage. School-age childcare schemes run by community and voluntary groups have similar objectives, but many of them will run out of funding next month. The schemes provide an excellent service in areas of social disadvantage.

Only 37% of school-leavers from the most deprived areas have five or more GCSEs. The average across Northern Ireland is 61%. The skills base in neighbour­hood renewal areas also compares unfavourably when measured against the rest of Northern Ireland, with only 28% of people aged between 16 and pensionable age qualified to level 2. The Northern Ireland average is 45%.

School factors can raise attainment for average pupils by up to 14 GCSE points. Hence, schools are a good place to improve children’s skills. However, a strategy focused solely on improving average school performance is likely to be less effective in dealing with educational underachievement than an approach that includes communities, families, teachers and education­alists in a way that addresses the causes of social deprivation as well as educational underachievement.

There is a broad consensus that intervention in the early years is among the most effective means of improving educational performance and outcomes. Such interventions are an important facet of strategies that help to lift children out of cycles of deprivation and onto positive trajectories. The evidence is promising, and suggests that well-designed programmes raise educational attainment and achieve other, positive, adult outcomes. The most successful programmes are defined by early and intensive intervention and include a follow-through component in later stages of the child’s development.

In Belfast, earlier this year, the American Nobel laureate in economics, James Heckman, said:

“Investments in social policies that intervene in the early years have very high rates of return while social policies that intervene at later stages in the life cycle have low economic returns.”

There is a large body of scientific evidence that shows that early interventions lead to a persistent pattern of strong effect.

12.00 noon

It is significant that those substantial long-term benefits are not necessarily limited to intellectual gains, but are most clearly seen in measures of social performance and lifetime achievement. In other words, people who participate in enriched early childhood programmes are more likely to complete school and are much less likely to require welfare benefits, to become teenage parents or to participate in criminal activities. Moreover, they become productive adults who lead positive lives and who contribute positively to society.

The philosophy of early intervention, which formed the background for the establishment of extended schools, is sound. However, measures can be effective only if they are applied and resourced properly. On-off or reduced funding amounts to short-termism, which will have only limited, short-term benefits. Although the aims were laudable, they were not supported by a strong underpinning policy base. In some cases, schools had received funding, and had already initiated their own schemes, when guidelines were introduced three to six months later. In many cases, links between schools and their local communities were not explored, which resulted in the displacement of local services that were provided by the community and voluntary sector.

Reductions in the budget for extended schools drastically reduce the services that schools can offer. That, coupled with the effects of the displacement of the community and voluntary sector’s childcare services for school-age children, leaves a huge gap in provision that will be difficult to fill without increased resources.

Guaranteed core funding is required to allow the advantages of intervention to continue and to ensure maximum benefit. Through the children and young people’s funding package, and the Executive children’s fund, 58 childcare projects for school-age children were awarded and accepted funding of more than £1·5 million for the period between July 2006 and June 2008. All those projects are approaching the end of their funding.

More than two thirds of women return to paid employment within a year of the birth of their child. Of women with primary-school-age children, 78% are now economically active. Consequently, the demand for formal childcare services that provide a range of quality creative-play opportunities and cross-community programmes is on the increase. The lack of affordable and accessible childcare is still a major barrier to the employment of women who have dependent children, particularly in areas of social deprivation and in rural locations. Some 6,000 childcare places are at threat of either being reduced or lost when funding ends on 30 June 2008. Furthermore, there will potentially be an increase in unemployment as parents discover that they are unable to access or afford alternative provision.

Policy arguments on this matter are strong, but the politics of it are shocking. At the time of the Budget, the SDLP raised concerns about the abolition of the Executive children’s fund, which is a cross-cutting fund to deliver programmes such as childcare that have obvious connections with education, employment, the economy and social care. We were told by colleagues who sit on the Executive that children’s programmes would not suffer. We were told that we were playing politics. However, here we are — extended-school programmes and childcare for school-age children are going to the wall.

The DUP and Sinn Féin play the politics of mutual self-interest at the expense of the economy, of children and of working parents. It is worth recalling their commitments at the time of the Budget. On 4 February 2008, Ian Paisley Jnr went so far as to claim:

“We are confident that the available funding should mean that no child or youth programme will be reduced or cut.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 27, p173, col 1].

Gerry Kelly agreed with his OFMDFM colleague. He said:

“the Budget was good for children.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 27, p175, col 1].

What is good about the present situation?

At the least the Minister of Education is consistent. She failed to seek funding for the reform of education and for school-age childcare in the Budget. Now we must hold our breath to see what in-year monitoring can do to save her blushes.

We supported extended schools; however, even properly funded schools have not universally taken up the option, so it is no panacea. School-age childcare schemes, which are targeted at areas of social deprivation to help parents get off benefits and into work, provide a vital service.

The Executive told us that the economy was their priority, yet they have not seized a golden opportunity to get people back to work at a very modest cost. Even if Ministers ignore the social argument, they should appreciate the financial one. The cost of a childcare place is much lower than the cost of benefit payments to parents.

To conclude, some major questions must be asked. Why has the Minister not put in a bid for social-economy school-age childcare schemes, which will run out of funding next month?

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

Mr D Bradley: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá mé sásta leasú 2 a mholadh.

I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after “on” and insert

“the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Department of Education to ensure that this essential support for children continues; and supports the bid by the Minister of Education to the Minister of Finance and Personnel for in-year funding to ensure that curtailed projects in the present financial year are restored.”

I welcome the debate. I commend the Ulster Unionist Party Members for tabling the motion. Basil McCrea spoke passionately in support of funding for extended schools and its need to be mainstreamed in future.

I hope that Basil will be successful in securing the support of his colleague Minister Michael McGimpsey, whom I hope will be equally vociferous and passionate around the Executive table when the issue is discussed in future.

Mr B McCrea: I assure the Member that the UUP Ministers fully support the motion and will support funding.

Mr McElduff: I welcome that, because the Minister of Education will need support from around the Executive table to deliver on such projects.

In amendment No 2, Sinn Féin has added the Department of Finance and Personnel to the list of Departments that need to sit up and take heed of the demand to mainstream extended schools funding for children and young people. Yes, it is a matter for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), which has overarching responsibility for children and young people, and for the Department of Education. However, it is also a matter for the Minister of Finance and Personnel and his Department, particularly because the Minister of Education bid for in-year funding to ensure that projects curtailed in the present financial year will be restored.

Some Members have described that bid as short-termism, but it is not, because it deals with the reality that we face here and now. It has added to the call for guaranteed core funding, and mainstreaming of that funding through enhanced funding from the Executive.

The extended schools concept is at the core of the funding package for children and young people, which was launched in March 2006 by the then British Secretary of State. The funding package made provision for breakfast clubs; after-school study support; after-school youth, sport and leisure activities; programmes for parents; community use of schools; the creation of a new culture and ethos for schools; and the facilitation of partnerships to deliver better outcomes for children.

I found myself in agreement with Dominic Bradley when he emphasised the points that Professor James Heckman made about the high rates of return from social policies that intervene in the early years. This is what the extended schools imitative is all about — raising the standard of pupils’ achievement and building partnerships with neighbouring schools.

It is about helping to strengthen families and communities through providing opportunities for lifelong learning and personal development. It is about the use of the accommodation and the school estate outside of school hours. Many schemes of that nature in the Omagh and Strabane districts, in my constituency of West Tyrone, provide evidence of the effectiveness of the project, which helps to facilitate many busy working parents.

Members referred to the cost of living, modern lifestyles and the business of assisting women, in particular, with returning to training or to the workplace. I have said that that is relevant to a number of Departments, not only the Department of Education. It is appropriate to look towards OFMDFM and the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) for support on the matter. DFP has a decisive say in budget allocations, including in-year funding to address immediate and current requirements. I know that Members from the four Executive parties care deeply about those projects, and I know that their constituents are lobbying them extensively about the matter. I would like Members from the four Executive parties, in particular, to translate that concern into support at the Executive table.

My colleagues John O’Dowd and Paul Butler will also speak in the debate, and they will emphasise that, from Sinn Féin’s perspective, the Minister of Education is consistent and has pressed for additional funding for the projects at every available opportunity. Basil McCrea emphasised the holistic nature of childcare provision. It also meets health objectives, so it is everyone’s business. I look forward to Basil McCrea’s success in ensuring that Michael McGimpsey is fully onside. I trust that Mr McGimpsey will be as vociferous and passionate as Mr McCrea in his support for the Minister of Education when the matter comes to the Executive table. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Storey: I support the motion. Given that the issue has serious implications for the way in which schools are able to operate, it must be taken with the greatest degree of seriousness.

On 7 March 2006, the then Secretary of State launched the children and young people’s funding package. Its aim was:

“to reduce underachievement and improve the life chances of children and young people by enhancing their educational development and fostering their health, well-being and social inclusion”.

An extended school provides a range of services and activities throughout the school day and, in some cases, beyond. The aim is to help meet the needs of children, their families and the wider community. To do that, extended schools engage in collaboration and partnership with neighbouring schools and statutory, voluntary and community sector organisations that are within the existing spectrum. Focus is placed on healthy living; safety with stability; experiencing economic and environmental well-being; learning and achieving; and contributing positively to community and to society.

I am sure that no Member would wish to belittle any of those objectives; each is vitally important to the development of children and to the family unit. Therefore, it is fair to say that extended schools are an investment, not only for children, but for the future of Northern Ireland. We say repeatedly that the children of today are the adults of tomorrow; we must ensure that the next generation to take over the reins is equipped for the task.

I have had communication from a number of schools and principals, and I am glad that the Minister is in the House. Does she realise and understand the particular implications of the removal of the funding? I understand that some schools have not even received a copy of the criteria and therefore have had no opportunity to prepare for a reduction in their budgets. If, as has been suggested, activities must be provided within existing budgets, then there was no need for the original package.

12.15 pm

In correspondence with me, a school principal wrote:

“Through our local education and library board, we were made aware that the allocated amount may be reduced for all schools during the 2008-09 financial year but there was no indication that it might be completely withdrawn and criteria changed. The way this has happened is totally unreasonable and drastic.”

That testimony is from a practitioner who can appreciate the immense danger and serious implications of the move that is being discussed in this debate.

Although many Northern Ireland children and young people underwent turmoil during the Troubles, thankfully, younger children have had no first-hand experience of the protracted terrorist campaign. Nevertheless, that does not mean that even the youngest children have not suffered from the impact bequeathed by the Troubles. As elected representatives, we must strive to ensure that all possible assistance is afforded to children in order that they might flourish and be steered towards able and productive lives.

For too long, children’s lives were hampered by the terrorist campaign. Often, schools were evacuated due to bomb threats — so much for the happiest days of their lives. Similarly, with regard to external and recreational pursuits, the Troubles ensured that investors were loath to establish businesses and facilities here. Consequently, children’s opportunities were lost.

I trust that we are now experiencing a new Northern Ireland; a place in which there is investment in our children, and where our children and young people are safe and secure. Extended schools offer preparation for that; they provide a nurturing environment, with the emphasis on developing and encouraging scope for diversity. Having said that, the Minister — as she has reminded us over the past several days — is the Minister, and therefore bears the responsibility, and we call on her to act.

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

Mr Lunn: Although the motion is perfectly acceptable to the Alliance Party; if necessary, my party will support the motion and the amendments.

Members are continuing to encounter items that should have been catered for in the Programme for Government (PFG), and this is another to add to the list. This matter has not been prioritised by the Executive, or mentioned in the PFG or in public service agreements (PSAs). Although Government Ministers from all parties signed off on the PFG, we do not know whether any of them attempted to make the case for mainstreaming the funding but were overruled, or whether it was merely overlooked.

Mr D Bradley: Is the Member aware that, on 4 February 2008, Mr Gerry Kelly told the House:

“I have said repeatedly that it is for individual Ministers to determine spending priorities now that the Budget allocations have been finalised.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 27, p 178, col 1].

On that basis, does the Member agree that the Minister of Education could have, but failed to, prioritise that matter?

Mr Lunn: Although I do not recall Mr Kelly’s comments from 4 February, I will take Dominic’s word for it, and I do not disagree with his comment. No doubt, the Minister of Education will tell us what was in her bid to the Department of Finance and Personnel. I note also that the Sinn Féin amendment contains a bid for in-year funding, and I hope that, even as a stopgap measure, that is successful.

It is surely inconceivable that there is any intention to allow extended schools’ services to lapse; however, I am sure that the Minister of Education can confirm whether that is the case. As Basil McCrea said, in that area, a little money goes a long way. Such services are a good use of public money, and they should never have come under threat.

There is a problem with the lack of support for working parents with children at school, and we remain well down European leagues for the provision of facilities such as extended school hours, after-school clubs, breakfast clubs and general youth facilities. The notion persists that mum will always be available to collect her child at 4.00 pm; however, as we all know, that is not the reality in the twenty-first-century workplace or in schools. Nowadays, schools are about more than just the classroom.

In theory, the funding package for children and young people offered excellent facilities that were additional to the classroom. It supported working parents, enabling their children to remain on school premises and have access to genuine educational attainment, be that through further study, sporting and leisure activities, or education in more general lifestyle matters such as anti-smoking, anti-drugs or tackling —

Mrs D Kelly: The Member is right to emphasise the importance of play and leisure in the development of children and young people. Does he share the SDLP’s concern that this year’s Programme for Government allocates no funding to play and leisure facilities for children and young people?

Mr Lunn: I share the SDLP’s concern. How many times must young people say that they have nothing to do before their plea is accepted as genuine? The Assembly has the power to do something about that.

There is concern that youth services will be awarded a small proportion of the education and skills authority’s budget, with the result that it will be as low a priority for the authority as it will be for the Department.

The motion calls for an end to the uncertainty about a vital area of educational provision, and we hope that that uncertainty can be removed as soon as possible. We have no problem in supporting the motion or either of the amendments. It is the Executive’s job to prioritise matters, and youth services and facilities must not be downgraded in the ongoing reform of education. Those services must be treated as a permanent part of educational provision and be funded appropriately.

Miss McIlveen: During the debate on investment in early years learning in January 2008, I asked the Minister of Education a series of questions. One centred on her intentions toward extended schools funding. On that occasion, she responded on behalf of the Executive. It is therefore disappointing to find ourselves discussing extended schools funding, particularly the reductions in that funding that will result in cuts to services. In light of that, I am happy to support the motion.

Not two years have elapsed since funding for the extended schools initiative was announced. The extended schools policy and programme has barely had time to bed in and get under way before cuts have been made. Some of those services will have been running for only 14 months but will have been reduced or cut entirely. All the schools that have been allowed to remain in the programme have had their funding cut by 50%.

An additional issue is that schools are encouraged to cluster in order to provide more effective services and to create more of a community atmosphere. In the first tranche of the programme, schools had to give 15% of their total funding to the cluster, or else their funding would be lost. In the current tranche, that funding has increased to 40%.

In my constituency of Strangford, I have had the opportunity to speak to several school principals on the matter. Through my Committee membership, I have been able to garner the opinions of other school professionals around Northern Ireland. One principal told me that once he has paid for his breakfast and after-schools clubs, he will be left with only £500. However, under the previous tranche of the programme, he had been able to commit the school to providing out-of-hours facilities for a parents’ group and for counselling services for parents and children. He is now faced with having to cut both those services.

Representatives of other schools have said that the provision of after-school care has enabled some of their pupils’ parents to take jobs that require them to work after school hours. Given that the school in question no longer offers that facility, those people now face the prospect of having to give up their jobs or reduce their hours.

Such anecdotal evidence raises clear questions about the implications of introducing policy and programmes that are then changed at short notice with little concern as to how individuals will be affected. Several principals expressed concern that that was another example of an ongoing raft of education policy initiatives that have not been given either the required timescale for implementation or the opportunity to have their success measured.

Some schools feel that they are simply jumping from one policy initiative to another without any one being truly followed through. The principals with whom I spoke gave a clear sense of commitment to involving the community, particularly parents.

Research clearly indicates that the key factors in improving levels of attainment are parental involvement in — and the valuing of — education. For some parents who live in disadvantaged areas, school will not have been a positive experience. The extended schools programme was intended to enable their involvement and thereby improve outcomes for their children.

I am aware that there are a number of examples of the programme working effectively. I spoke to repre­sentatives of Barnardo’s, who particularly highlighted the work that is being carried out at Tullycarnet Primary School. Unfortunately, the cuts in the extended schools programme means that it will be much more unlikely that such outcomes can be achieved. One principal spoke of how ironic it was that the letter that informed him that his school — which ran a successful project — was no longer part of the scheme came from the Department’s school improvement branch.

The key to addressing the problem lies in departmental prioritisation. When launching her vision for a network of extended schools, Maria Eagle informed us that such schools would support:

“The raising of school standards, fostering the health, well-being and social inclusion of children and young people and the regeneration and transformation of local communities.”

Is that vision not any longer a top priority?

Moreover, I am concerned about the changes in the criteria that are used to ascertain whether a school is eligible for funding. Is a rural school treated in the same way as an urban school? Is the Department using people’s postcodes, rather than the numbers of free school meals, to determine eligibility? I have tabled several questions on this issue to the Minister, as have other Members. I am sure that we all hope that today’s debate will provide some of the answers that the Minister, to date, has failed to provide.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 12.26 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —

2.00 pm

Mr McCausland: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Do we have a quorum?

Notice taken that 10 Members were not present.

House counted, and there being fewer than 10 Members present, the Speaker ordered the Division Bells to be rung.

Upon 10 Members being present —

Mr Speaker: We now have a quorum. I call Mr Paul Butler.

Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The motion is one that we can all agree with and support. Reduction in funding is a concern. The vision behind the extended schools programme has been a good one, and we saw some of the results of the programme recently when schools from the Shankill Road and north Belfast gave a presentation to the Education Committee showing how funding was being used to help children in disadvantaged areas. There is concern in places such as north Belfast and the Shankill Road as to how funding cuts will affect programmes that schools are running to raise standards, to foster health and well-being, and to encourage social inclusion.

The extended schools programme also involves wider society by making schools the hub of communities, and increases the value of education among parents, as it were, by getting them involved. In addition, it provides wider social and economic benefits by helping with community regeneration.

The programme ran homework clubs and breakfast clubs; offered after-school youth provision; and, in some schools, helped with GCSE exams. Help was also provided for parents, particularly in areas of social disadvantage. Budget cuts will be widely felt, but it is in socially disadvantaged areas that they will be felt most acutely. Figures suggest that about 500 schools will be affected. That equates to about 120,000 pupils, many of whom are the most vulnerable children. There is about a 40% reduction in funding for the extended schools programme. In stark contrast, more than £1 billion is being spent on similar programmes for schools in England.

Some Members have focused their attention on Caitríona Ruane. However, this is not an issue for just the Minister of Education. Michael McGimpsey, the Health Minister, recently brought a case to the Executive over projects and initiatives with which he was involved but was unable to fund. My understanding is that he has now received funding.

Therefore, it is not an issue solely for Caitríona Ruane. This morning, some Members, particularly those on the DUP Benches, targeted Caitríona Ruane. However, I did not hear much talk about whether they support the amendments, especially amendment No 2, which mentions Peter Robinson as Finance Minister and as a member of the Executive. After all, it is an Executive issue.

Mr Storey: Every time the Minister gets into a corner, her party colleagues try to shift the blame on to the Finance Minister. The bids have been made, the budgets have been allocated, and the House has given an agreed amount to the Minister of Education. Therefore, she must decide her priorities. Over the past few days, the Minister has told us repeatedly that she is the Minister. Therefore, let her make the decisions. That is all that we are saying. We are not attacking her; we are merely stating a fact. If the Minister has the ability, let her produce the goods.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute to speak.

Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Given that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety asked the Executive for funding for certain projects, Mervyn Storey knows that a precedent has been set. Therefore, funding is an Executive decision — it is not a matter solely for the Department of Education. Even at the draft Budget stage, Caitríona Ruane raised the issue with the junior Ministers and with the Department of Finance and Personnel. The funding for children and young people comes from OFMDFM, and the motion — and the Sinn Féin and SDLP amendments — touch on the fact that the funding has not been mainstreamed. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr McCausland: The extended schools programme is an important initiative. Therefore, I am happy to support the motion. The programme has targeted schools in disadvantaged communities. It has contributed to breakfast clubs, homework clubs and extracurricular activities, which have enriched the lives of children. The programme also offers family support, social services and nursing services. All those things have made a marked difference in many needy communities.

All the services that have been delivered are especially suited to the needs of communities, families and schools in areas where there is particular need. We listened recently to deputations to the Education Committee from representatives of controlled schools in the greater Shankill area and in north Belfast, and, in the near future, we will hear from representatives of the maintained schools. Principals from the controlled schools highlighted the daily problems that they face as they try to teach children in those communities. They explained clearly and graphically the benefits of the extended schools programme and other initiatives that have come to an end.

As a governor of three primary schools in north Belfast, I endorse those principals’ representations. They painted an accurate picture of the benefits that the programme has brought. For instance, Wheatfield Primary School has developed a close relationship with the Upper Ardoyne Community Partnership, and it has brought additional money into the community and into the school through the URBAN II programme, which develops communities where the need is particularly great due to the legacy of the Troubles.

The deputations from north Belfast and the Shankill emphasised the shortcomings of short-termism. That is why the extended schools funding should be main­streamed, as the motion suggests. Those teachers were calling for stability and security, and they were calling for the programme to be mainstreamed so that it is reliable and dependable. Schools and principals devoted time and effort in setting up the various aspects of the initiative, such as breakfast clubs or after-school clubs.

They have worked with providers, teachers, parents and the community. Suddenly, after the work has been completed, the ground has been removed from beneath their feet. I fear that that will create disillusionment in schools and, in particular, in the communities. People will claim that they tried to work with schools and contribute to the process — and, in some cases, it is difficult to encourage parents back into school — only to find that the ground has been pulled away and the whole process has collapsed. They will question the point of trying.

It is necessary to mainstream the programme in order to ensure that parents and schools that make an effort are rewarded properly for that commitment. The Minister of Education has a large budget. In the context of that overall budget, the cost of the extended schools programme is a minor proportion. The problem is not the Department’s budget but the Minister’s decision to de-prioritise the extended schools programme.

Dominic Bradley reminded the House of the quote that junior Minister Kelly made on 4 February 2008. As a member of the Minister’s party, the junior Minister outlined that it is the Minister’s responsibility to set her budget.

The Minister made the decision to de-prioritise rather than mainstream, and, therefore, the Assembly must demand that she mainstream the extended schools programme. Paul Butler said that it is not a matter for the Minister of Education only — he might be correct. However, the responsibility lies with the Minister of Education. Much of the focus in the education sector has been on selection and transfer, but the Assembly must focus on establishing provision for children from the start of their schooling, particularly through the extended schools programme.

Mr Beggs: The improvement of educational opport­unity is a practical method of enabling individuals to enhance their situation and widen their future options. During the Budget process, I highlighted the presentation by Professor James Heckman, who spoke at an early years symposium in Belfast in 2007. He is a Nobel Prize-winning economist who works in Belfast, and he advocates a simple message: investing in young people makes economic sense. As Members said, investment should not focus on 11- or 12-year olds, because the earlier the investment, the greater the potential rewards. Therefore, investing in the early years is vital to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds who, along with their parents, will benefit greatly from some assistance.

During the Budget process, I met — through the all-party group on children and young people — the Minister of Finance and Personnel, the Minister of Education, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and both junior Ministers to convince them to provide funding for children’s issues. Additional funding was, subsequently, provided. Thereafter, decisions were to be made by individual Departments, and it is regrettable that the extended schools programme has not been prioritised by the Department of Education.

Mr Storey: I want to reinforce the Member’s point about prioritisation. When the Department of Education submitted its Budget bid, restoration of funding for children’s and young people’s projects ranked 24 of 32 projects. The Minister, obviously, did not consider it a priority. However, lo and behold, the curriculum, assessment and ICT guidance for Irish-medium schools was ranked 13.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute to speak.

Mr Beggs: I thank the Member for that contribution. Choices must be made, and the Minister has announced plans to post a leaflet on post-primary transfer through the door of every household in Northern Ireland. How much will that cost? Could that money pay for half of the community and social economy after-school clubs, which require approximately £1·6 million?

Will the Minister deliver the goods to the children and their parents, or will she fail, having stuck to her dogmatic policies? Those are the choices that she must make, in line with current spending priorities.

2.15 pm

I shall concentrate on breakfast clubs and after-schools clubs, which the community and voluntary sector have provided. My colleague Basil McCrea concentrated on the schools sector. I was shocked and disappointed to learn that a group called Skools Out — in my own constituency — in Antiville in Larne, was among those that had been advised that funding was no longer available. The money that those schools received from the children’s fund was discontinued at the end of March 2008.

In a written answer to me, the Minister acknowledged that responsibility for childcare transferred to the Department of Education. Having allowed some time to pass before tabling any further questions, I learned that, despite her acknowledgement, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety had found money from his budget, even though it did not fall within his policy remit, to extend projects until the end of June 2008. It is essential that those projects continue beyond that date, yet the Department of Education has avoided its responsibility and has not prioritised properly. I hope that the Minister of Education will reinstate the funding.

The Antiville project is vital. It has helped the children educationally and has stabilised the community, which had suffered some trauma in previous years. The project has improved community relations, because the children, their parents and the staff come from a wide range of community backgrounds and have mixed together successfully. Elderly people in the community have taken part in inter-generational work, and people in the area have been involved in community and environmental clean-ups. Cross-community ventures have taken place, involving the schools and Churches on cultural play days. All that work has taken place in an area that had a weak community infrastructure. The project is a model of good practice, in which many improvements have been made.

The involvement of several Departments is essential to such projects. The Department of Education has the primary responsibility, but the project also helps parents to get back to work, which involves input from the Department for Employment and Learning. The project improves community relations, which falls under the remit of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and it promotes neighbourhood renewal and community cohesion, which are issues for the Department for Social Development. Despite all that, no funding is available. If a detailed assessment of the constructive work that has been done in Antiville were to be carried out, I am certain that it would result in continued funding for the project. I hope that that issue will be addressed.

Many of those social-economy projects require only relatively small amounts of funding to provide breakfast clubs and after-school clubs. In Antiville, that would amount to approximately £13,000 a year. The parents have to be charged for the service, but in an area of disadvantage, they are often unable to pay. Without departmental funding, the project is at risk. Children may have to be left at home alone over the summer or their parents may be forced to give up work.

Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the debate, and I have listened carefully to the many points that have been made.

Agus mé ag tabhairt freagra ar an rún, ba mhaith liom a aibhsiú gurb é mo phríomhfhócas aghaidh a thabhairt ar riachtanais oideachais páistí leochachaileacha, go háirithe iad sin i gceantracha is mó atá faoi mhíbhuntáiste sóisialta.

My key focus in responding to the motion and proposed amendments is to address the needs of our most vulnerable children, particularly those in areas of greatest social disadvantage. As would be expected, the Department of Education has a particular interest in actions that serve to raise standards. We are all aware that education can change lives for the better. It is the exit door from poverty and the cycle of deprivation, because a good education expands employment opportunities and earning power.

The challenge facing me, as Minister of Education, is to ensure that each and every child fulfils her or his potential. By ensuring that every child leaves school literate, numerate and equipped for adulthood, we secure our society’s social and economic future. That is a massive challenge, to which each and every one of us must respond.

Although it is obvious that the quality of a school and its teachers is crucial to the educational outcomes that pupils achieve, research here in Ireland and across the world highlights the powerful influence of the community and the home, too. Sadly, the educational outcomes for many of our young people are jeopardised because of the challenges that they and their families face, such as poverty and low aspirations, and because it can be hard to see the value of doing well at school.

We must do more together to address those challenges and to ensure that the value of education is recognised by every parent in every community.

For many years, most schools have sought to expand the educational opportunities for their pupils through a wide range of after-school provision and out-of-hours learning. I pay tribute to their commitment and to the wonderful work that they do. After-school activities are provided voluntarily in some cases and through parental donations in others. However, schools that serve the needs of disadvantaged pupils have many difficulties to overcome in order to run after-school programmes, and the extended schools programme recognised that need by providing access to a full funding stream for eligible schools. For example, the programme enabled children in the most deprived areas to start the day with a good, healthy breakfast — tús maith leath na hoibre; a good start is half the work — to attend homework clubs, to engage in after-school clubs for sports, arts and drama, to have opportunities for family learning, and to take part in many other initiatives.

When visiting schools’ after-school and breakfast clubs, I have been impressed by some of the outstanding work that has been going on. There is no doubt that pupils enjoy the activities, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hard work and enthusiasm of principals and school staff in putting such programmes together.

Extended schools activities are designed to raise standards by making children more ready to learn or by breaking down barriers to learning. Some schools have been able to use the programme to free up staff to become more involved with other agencies, and that improved integration and partnering of services is occurring in an area in which there is much more scope for greater integration for sharing of services.

Thig leis an chlár scoileanna breise cur leis an chomhchuspóir leibhéil gnóthachtála a ardú.

The extended-schools programme can, therefore, contribute to our common goal of raising levels of achievement.

Basil McCrea mentioned the figure of £100 million, and the concern that we do not have it. We do not have that £100 million. Anyone who thinks that one can cut major programmes, involving four Departments, and then tell beleaguered Departments with small budgets to mainstream the programmes is extremely naive. If every party in the Assembly wishes to deal with disadvantage — and I welcome the debate — I look forward to their support for my requests for extra resources. If we are serious about dealing with disadvantage, we must have extra resources.

All Members who spoke talked about the extended schools programme — and it is a good programme. Why has it been cut? It has been cut because the Department of Finance and Personnel has not provided the finances for it to proceed in its current form. As I have said, from the outset of the 2007 Budget process, I have recognised the value and importance of the programme, and I have continually — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister has the Floor.

The Minister of Education: I have continually highlighted that in correspondence with the Finance Minister — many times. As far back as September 2007, I wrote to the Finance Minister, and I highlighted the negative impact that any reduction in the programme would have on schools and on other groups. I continued to register my concerns throughout the Budget process. As recently as last month, I wrote again to the Finance Minister to describe the negative impact that reduced funding would have on the extended schools programme. I asked him to consider making further resources available, and I will continue to press the issue.

Mr Storey: Will the Minister give way?

The Minister of Education: No. The Minister will not give way.

I asked for a meeting with the Finance Minister. What was the response of the Finance Minister whose party is crying crocodile tears over the extended schools programme? His response was that will not meet me.

It is worth noting that £1 billion is being invested in schools in England so that all schools will have extended school status by 2010. What happens here when money that should go into education is included in the block grant? The Finance Minister does not put it into the education budget.

Anyone who thinks that we can deal with disadvantage without putting extra money into the education budget is living in never-never land, folks — [Interruption.]

I wondered how long it would be before we heard discriminatory comments about the Irish language. Children who learn through the medium of Irish deserve the same rights as children who learn through the medium of English.

In taking decisions on budget allocations — indeed the whole way through the Budget process — I recognised the importance and value of the extended schools programme and the need to do everything possible to maintain the level of funding available for that programme. However, I was simply not able to do that within the overall budget available to me. What I did do, which nobody has mentioned, was to mainstream more than £16 million of funding, despite a tight budget — [Interruption.]

I wish people would not rudely interrupt.

Mr Speaker: Order: Members should not be shouting across the Chamber. Every Member, within the time constraints given, has had an opportunity to speak. The Minister is now responding.

The Minister of Education: As part of the 2007 Budget process, I managed to mainstream funding that was previously provided by the children’s fund, which effectively removed that amount from the Department of Education’s budget. That amounted to over £30 million in each of the budget years, £10 million of which was for extended schools. In 2008-09, I have had to divert resources away from other services — in a time of already constrained resources — to continue funding activities that were previously funded by the children’s fund. Take the blinkers off, folks, and give a bit of credit where it is due.

The Assembly needs to find the funding. I found £16 million funding, which is being provided directly to school leavers — that funding has been main­streamed; £8 million funding continues to be available for early-years provision, together with funding for school-based counselling, which I heard many people talking about, and there is £6 million for the extended schools programme.

It has been difficult. I recognise the importance of the extended schools programme, but with the Budget allocation available to me, I was not able to make up the entire amount that was previously covered by four Departments.

I raised the difficulties presented by that shortfall in funding on many occasions. On 20 September 2007, I met the Finance Minister to discuss the indicative Budget allocation. I highlighted the difficulties caused by the removal of the children’s fund, and I followed that up with a letter to Peter Robinson, specifically highlighting the difficult position and the negative impact that the removal of that fund would have on schools and other groups should funding for the extended schools programme stop. I highlighted that the expectation of Departments was that children and young people’s funding would be mainstreamed and would be included in departmental baselines, and that it would, therefore, not be up to individual Departments to find the money from their Budget allocations in the future.

On 5 October 2007, following receipt of the draft Budget allocation for the Department of Education, I again wrote to the Finance Minister to strongly register my concerns about the proposals, especially during the first two years of the Budget period.

On 8 October 2007, I wrote to the First Minister and deputy First Minister, highlighting my concerns for the future of the children and young people’s programme, given the level of allocations being proposed, and pointed out that I did not have the funding to continue with key elements such as the extended schools programme, which has been of great benefit to nearly 500 schools across the North.

In response to a request to the Department of Education on the extent to which the mainstreaming of children and young people’s projects was possible, I wrote to the First Minister and deputy First Minister, highlighting the shortfall in funding for children and young people. Following detailed consideration of the draft Budget allocation, I again wrote to the Finance Minister to update him. I highlighted that the indications were that funding for children and young people was one of the areas where the proposed allocations would have a significant adverse impact, and again pointed out Departments’ understanding that this funding was to be mainstreamed.

I wrote to the Finance Minister again on 22 October 2007, raising my concerns about the level of funding proposed for 2008-09, and 2009-10, and that I would have no option, given that he was refusing to deal with the issue, but to consider a reduction in the budget provision for children and young people’s projects.

On 7 January 2008, I again wrote to the Finance Minister to make him aware that concerns had been raised during public consultation on the Budget in relation to the removal of children and young people’s funding from departmental baselines, and my inability to fill that gap given the proposed allocation. Did he listen to that public consultation? No, he did not.

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

In a further letter on 11 January 2008, I reiterated my concerns over the level of funding that the Executive had made available to me for children and young people’s programmes and the problems caused by the failure to baseline those allocations for Departments.

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I followed that up with another letter, which advised the Finance Minister that the funds allocated to my Department would leave limited scope for making the necessary improvements to primary-school funding and the early-years programme.

I wrote to the junior Ministers and the Finance Minister again, on 17 April. In that letter, I highlighted the negative impact that the reduced level of funding would have on the extended schools programme. I also asked for further funding to be made available for me to allocate to extended schools.

Ní ligfidh mé faill tharam i rith na bliana acmhainní breise a iarraidh leis an chlár thábhachtach seo a athbhunú.

I will continue to press, at every available opportunity during the year, for additional resources to restore that important programme. Although I accept that budgets have been set and that we must implement them, it is also imperative that we are aware of the implications that these cuts will have on children, young people and local communities.

The social and economic impacts of the programme are felt beyond education. Although the issue concerns me, as Minister of Education, I hope that it is also of concern to the Minister of Finance and Personnel. It is welcome that his colleagues on the Back Benches are exercised about the matter; I hope that they will lobby him strongly.

Is léir chomh tábhachtach agus atá an clár seo ón doicheall atá ag scoileanna agus pobail áitiúla roimh na gearrthacha seo. Níor beartaíodh an clár seo mar sceach i mbéal bearna, nó ní mar sin a bunaíodh é; mar sin, tá an doicheall roimh an laghdú sa chlár sothuigthe.

The significant adverse reaction that the reduction in funding for extended schools has provoked from schools and local communities is evidence of the importance of the programme. I wish that schools and local community groups had been listened to during the consultation stage: I hope that they will be listened to now. The extended schools programme was never intended to be a short-term, stopgap measure and it was not set up in that way.

Mrs M Bradley: Will the Minister give way?

The Minister of Education: No, I will not. The response to the reduction in the extended schools programme is understandable. However, funding has been made available to almost 400 schools and targeted especially at schools that operate in the most socially disadvantaged areas. That number is reduced because the absence of postcode data for pupils enrolled in nursery, primary and special schools — in the first years of the programme — forced us to rely on location, rather than the percentage of pupils drawn from areas of disadvantage.

That problem has been resolved in the primary- and special-school sectors. We now use pupil postcode data to identify schools that draw 51% or more of their pupils from the most disadvantaged areas. That means that, irrespective of the level of funding available, 88 primary and special schools that were previously eligible on the basis of location are no longer eligible. That is balanced by 70 previously ineligible schools, across all sectors, which are now eligible.

My officials will check the Hansard report to ensure that any Members’ questions that I have not answered are responded to in the near future.

We must break the link between educational under­performance and social disadvantage. No one should play politics with the extended schools budget. I look forward to working with all Members, including the Minister of Finance and Personnel, to secure the necessary resources. I welcome that there is broad agreement on the matter. As other Members have said, this —

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Minister’s time is almost up.

The Minister of Education: This issue affects schools across the North of Ireland. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister has clearly outlined why the amendment tabled by Sinn Féin is necessary. If the proposer of the motion, the proposer of the SDLP amendment, and those on the DUP Benches opposite, are serious about returning funding to extended schools, they will support the Sinn Féin amendment.

The motion mentions the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister’s responsibility in the issue but no one has referred to that in the debate. I accept that the Department of Education has a responsibility; the Department of Finance and Personnel also has —

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Mr O’Dowd: Let me get on a roll before I give way. The Department of Finance and Personnel also has a responsibility in this situation. The Minister of Education has clearly stated that there is insufficient money in her budget to carry the project forward. Basil McCrea, Mr Storey and Mr Dominic Bradley stated that the Minister has a massive budget within which she should be able to find the necessary money. Would those Members agree to the Minister taking funding away from special-needs schools? Would they agree to the Minister taking funding off the classroom assistants?

I recall that many of those Members carried placards in support of the classroom assistants; do they now think that the money should be taken from the budget for classroom assistants? Perhaps the Members want the money deducted from the school transport budget or from the funding set aside for free school meals.

One cannot tell the Department of Education to find a massive shortfall by the summer; it cannot be done. The Minister has found £16 million to mainstream the issue. She said that the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and other Departments must play their parts. Childcare services are in place to ensure that parents can be economically active. Why should not the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment play a role in providing funding for those services? Is that not an innovative way to approach the funding issue?

The SDLP’s amendment refers to youth services. The Department for Social Development has a significant role in youth services and in the community and voluntary sector, which is also tightly constrained by budgetary considerations.

We must look at this collectively. If we are serious about resolving the issue of extended schools, we must do it in a serious manner. If the true objective is to ensure extended schools provision, party-political point-scoring will not achieve it. If Members are serious about the matter, they should support the Sinn Féin amendment.

Basil McCrea appeared on television only a fortnight ago in an Oscar-winning performance — ‘Wuthering Heights’ would not have had a look-in. He said: “we have let them down”. He did not use the royal “we”; he meant that all Members have let them down. He said that the Education Committee, the Assembly, and the Executive had not played their role. Today, in the Chamber, in another Oscar-winning performance, he said that it is the fault of the Minister of Education. It is not the fault of any one individual. Let us ensure that everyone who has responsibility for extended schools and childcare provision —

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member explain why Sinn Féin supported the Budget and the Programme for Government when it was clear that the Executive programme’s children fund would be withdrawn and no longer protected?

In his former life, as a spokesperson for health, can the Member not recall the commitment given to the Assembly that any moneys left over from the monitoring round would be diverted to the Health Service — not to education?

Mr Deputy Speaker: I give Mr O’Dowd an extra minute.

Mr O’Dowd: I missed your comment about my former life as a health spokesperson.

The Budget was supported by the parties in the Executive, and it was right that the Budget was approved. However, Sinn Féin states — and all parties in the Chamber agree — that a serious crisis faces communities over the issue of extended schools. The time is right for the Minister of Finance and Personnel to meet the Minister of Education: the Minister of Education has informed us that the Minister of Finance and Personnel has refused to meet her to discuss the issue. The first thing that should happen is that the Ministers should meet, thrash out the issue and find more funds for the programme.

I commend the Sinn Féin amendment to the House.

Mr Attwood: I thank all my colleagues who have contributed to the debate. Behind the sound and fury, people privately, if not publicly, agree with all that is in the Ulster Unionist and SDLP amendments.

I will deal first with comments made by the Minister of Education, as some of them raised fundamental issues of governance and accountability. She said that she had written repeatedly to DFP on the matter. I am certain that that can be proved.

On 4 February, the then junior Minister said in the House:

“We are confident that the available funding should mean that no child or youth programme will be reduced or cut.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 27, p173, col 1].

Will the Minister of Education explain how a junior Minister in OFMDFM could make such a statement without contradiction from his colleague — her party colleague Mr Gerry Kelly — who shares that office in OFMDFM, when she had written repeatedly to DFP and put the Executive on notice that she would have to cut childcare provision in her budget?

Considering that you went to such lengths to ensure that you were protected on the matter, why did your Sinn Féin ministerial colleague not dissent from the comments that junior Minister Paisley made in the House? That is a fundamental issue: you are claiming one thing, but your ministerial colleague casually accepted, without contradiction, another junior Minister’s remarks.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members to address their comments through the Chair.

Mr Attwood: Excuse me; I am addressing my comments through the Chair. I ask the Minister to reflect on what I have said and to come back to it.

The Minister is contradicted by the experiences that PlayBoard has endured over the past number of months and weeks. The situation at PlayBoard was highlighted on this morning’s BBC news headlines at 7.00 am, 8.00 am and 9.00 am, when its representatives spoke exasperatedly about their difficulties. I fail to understand why the Minister of Education did not address Play­Board’s concerns in her response to the House. Indeed, I think that Mr Beggs mentioned that earlier.

PlayBoard representatives said that when childcare services were transferred from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to the Department of Education in the past 18 months, it seemed as though nobody took responsibility for the type of projects in which it is involved — childcare services for the six- to 12-year-old age group. Despite writing to the Minister, meeting her officials, writing to OFMDFM and trying to get somebody in her Department to accept political responsibility for something that is in her Department’s remit, PlayBoard has not been successful in having its problem resolved. There is a possibility, therefore, that in six weeks’ time — on the eve of the summer holidays — 6,000 childcare places and 58 projects may be in jeopardy, and thousands of parents will not know what childcare provision will be available for their children over the summer months.

If the Minister were so determined on the issue, and if she had managed her own interests so well as to have written to DFP, why did such a responsible organisation as PlayBoard have to go to the media this morning and shout from the rooftops that nobody would help it and that nobody in her Department would accept responsibility for it?

If I were the Education Minister, I would beware. Churchill said that your opposition is in front of you, and your enemy is behind. I remind the Minister of that, because her party has accepted the primary clause in the Ulster Unionist Party motion stating that they express concern that the extended schools funding has not been mainstreamed. Given that her own party is expressing concern about her conduct in not mainstreaming that project, if I were the Minister, I would be very concerned.

Mr B McCrea: Various Members are attempting to form consensus on the issue. I am surprised as to why Members are able to do that on this issue but not on others. Perhaps it is because attempts are being made to shift the blame and move the responsibility to someone else, because it is something for which nobody wants to take responsibility.

There are several wider issues to the debate. I take exception to the Minister of Education inferring that only Sinn Féin cares and that the rest of us are ogres who do not care. That is not true — we are all here because we care.

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The Minister insinuates that change will happen, but that only Sinn Féin is in favour of it and only the change that it proposes is the right way forward — that is not true either. We all accept that change is inevitable, but the way in which that process happens is just as important as the result that it produces. The Minister is not approaching matters in the right way.

Mr Storey: The Minister also asserted that she had continually written to the Minister of Finance and Personnel — perhaps her letters were in Irish, so he did not understand them. However, the Minister of Finance and Personnel did respond to her, and allocated £26 million in the Budget to the Department of Education, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. As a result of further representation to him, a further £3 million, £5 million and £5 million was allocated over the next three years respectively. Therefore, money was allocated to the sector, but the Minister failed to prioritise it.

Mr B McCrea: I thank the Member for his intervention — I will deal with the question of who is responsible shortly.

The Minister derides those whose view differs from hers. She accuses those who speak out of being naive and leads us to believe that all right-thinking people believe in her, and in her alone. The Minister also suggests that the unions all support her, but that is not true either. She mentions the Catholic Church’s view and implies that that matches her position.

Mr O’Dowd: The Member is reading from the wrong speech.

Mr B McCrea: The Minister talked about a group of educationalists that was now eligible for the extended schools programme. However, had she listened to us earlier, when we talked repeatedly about early-years interventions, the need to invest in the most socially disadvantaged and the need to protect our schools in such areas, she would have had the unanimous support of the House. Instead, she provokes controversy

The Minister mentioned the Irish language in passing, but she misrepresented our position on it. I am not against the Irish language, but I am against its being politicised and resources being taken from other areas to support it, for political gain. That is my problem with it. Mr O’Dowd suggested that we should list the areas from which we can take resources so that we can look after the children, those living in poverty and the disadvantaged in our society. I will point out where money is being wasted — on political flights of fancy.

Mr O’Dowd: Tell me what is on the list.

Mr B McCrea: The Minister says, time and time again, that she is the Minister, not anyone else.

Mr Kennedy: All Members will have heard a voice from the Sinn Féin Benches — that is not the voice of the Sinn Féin Minister but of her little helper.

Mr B McCrea: The UUP will not support the Sinn Féin amendment. That is not because the UUP fails to support anyone who looks for more funds for extended schools — it will give that support and has made a commitment to do so. The UUP will offer whatever support it can towards securing more money for extended schools. However, in-year-monitoring funding is not the way in which to resolve the issue. It is a long-term issue, and the people involved —

Mr O’Dowd: Will the Member give way?

Mr B McCrea: I will give way provided that it is a short intervention.

Mr O’Dowd: The in-year funding is only intended to see us though this year’s crisis. There must be a long-term funding project.

Mr B McCrea: I am happy to accept that intervention. My objection to the amendment is that we want to make it clear that there must be long-term, sustainable funding, which should be mainstreamed. We will support calls for such funding. The issue should be a top priority for the Minister.

I must commend Mr Attwood for his winding-up speech on amendment No 1. The question that must be answered concerns who is to blame for the shortfall. Mr Paisley Jnr, a former junior Minister, stated that there would be no funding shortfall. There has, actually, been a cut in funding — not of 40%, but of 50%, which nobody picked up on.

When I said that we were all responsible, I meant exactly that. However, the person who bears primary responsibility is the Minister of Education. I want to know what the Minister is going to do to address this issue. What is she going to do about the schools that are not going to receive any money and that will have to cancel entire projects? I do not want to hear platitudes; I want results.

How are we supposed to explain the lack of funding? We can take no greater measure than to try to build social cohesion. This matter is not about politics and it is not about grandstanding — Oscars, etc, have been mentioned. We tabled the motion because we believe in it.

The fact that the Minister cannot find £3 million to £4 million out of a budget of £1·7 billion says more about her ability to manage her budget than it does about our ability to address this issue.

We are in a situation in which the famed Sinn Féin machine, which was so effective in opposition, is starting to creak at the seams in Government. Decisions must be taken, people must be included in the process, and issues must be prioritised.

When Minister Ritchie was arguing for more funds for the Department for Social Development, and Minister McGimpsey was arguing for more money for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, I recall people saying that they should not do that because it would lead to the collapse of the Government. Where was the Minister of Education at that time? Did she call for more money for the Department of Education? I heard nothing. The silence was deafening. It is unreasonable for her to expect us to say that the lack of funding was someone else’s fault.

People may ask why we are getting involved in this issue. I have explained that I am passionate about this matter, and that it needs to be addressed. It was put to me by a member of Sinn Féin yesterday that politics and the education of our children are incompatible, and that this issue is too important not to address. I concede that if there is an attempt to bring about a genuine new beginning, and if the Minister and her party accept that we all have a right to voice our opinions, to put our points of view across, and to engage in dialogue and debate, we will find a way of addressing the issue. However, we all have to get out of the trenches, because the people expect us to deliver, and none more so than the poor people who live in areas of social deprivation.

We reject the Sinn Féin amendment because we do not believe that in-year funding is the right way to address the issue. Core funding should be sought. We agree with much of what the SDLP Members have said, but, on this occasion, we are going to sit on the fence in respect of their amendment. We apologise to our friends about that.

Mr Spratt: The opposition is falling apart.

Mr B McCrea: It is good that Mr Spratt has joined us.

We want to bring focus to our message. The motion is the right way to do that, and I commend it to the House.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that, if amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall, and I will proceed to put the Question on the motion, as amended.

Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and negatived.

Question, That amendment No 2 be made, put and negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly expresses concern that the Extended Schools funding for children and young people has not been mainstreamed; and calls on the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Department of Education to ensure that this essential support for children and young people continues.

Executive Committee Business

Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill

Second Stage

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

That the Second Stage of the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill [NIA 15/07] be agreed.

The Bill will provide a comprehensive framework for the regulation of all those who use goods vehicles as part of their trade or business. As it is early in the proceedings, I should point out that — in the context of this Bill — when I mention goods vehicles or heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), I refer to vehicles with a fully laden or gross plated weight in excess of 3·5 tons. Vehicles up to that threshold are commonly — [Interruption.]

Mr I McCrea: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it not in order for Members to leave the Chamber in a manner that is quiet and is respectful to the Minister?

Mr Deputy Speaker: I agree. I ask for order. I ask Members to return to their seats, or, if they intend to leave the Chamber, to do so in an orderly fashion.

The Minister of the Environment: Vehicles up to the threshold of 3·5 tons are commonly regarded as light goods vehicles, and are generally outside the scope of this Bill.

Carriage of freight in Northern Ireland is almost exclusively by road, and it is a vital ingredient in the successful development and maintenance of a growing and vibrant economy. The freight industry consists of approximately 15,000 operators using approximately 35,000 goods vehicles. Many are small businesses, individually or family operated, with one or two vehicles; some larger organisations have vehicle fleets that number in the hundreds.

In 2006 alone, goods vehicles lifted 60·8 million tons of freight in Northern Ireland and transported it by road. It is interesting to note that the most popular commodity in Northern Ireland was crude minerals, followed by food, drink, tobacco and building materials. Internationally, the single largest commodity that was transported was building materials. The Republic of Ireland was by far the most popular location in the European Union for imports to and exports from Northern Ireland.

The road freight industry is regulated under primary legislation that dates back to 1967. A new legislative framework is needed to meet the needs of the modern, twenty-first-century freight logistics industry.

The current road freight legislation is deficient in a number of areas. First, only one quarter of the industry is regulated — those who carry freight commercially, commonly referred to as the hire-or-reward sector. The largest part of the industry — those who carry their own goods as part of their trade or business — is not regulated. That sector is commonly called the own-account sector.

Secondly, the administration and enforcement of the freight industry regarding roadworthiness and transport and traffic legislation is hampered by insufficient funding. In some cases, the hire-or-reward sector already pays more than anywhere else in the British Isles, while the own-account sector contributes nothing, as it is outside the scope of freight-operator licensing in Northern Ireland.

Thirdly, the current legislation lacks sufficient sanctions to penalise operators who act illegally, or to act as a deterrent to other operators tempted to do likewise. Fourthly, the legislation lacks clarity regarding who is or is not required to have an operator’s licence, which leads to the unfair practice of unlicensed operators undercutting the licensed hire-or-reward sector while claiming to be own-account businesses.

Finally, the compliance level of the Northern Ireland freight industry — in the areas of maintenance obligations and transport and traffic law — is amongst the lowest in Europe. The current legislation does not provide sufficient powers or resources to counteract that level of non-compliance in a meaningful way.

What is needed is new legislation that provides the Department of the Environment with sufficient power to ensure that the freight industry is effectively regulated and safe; that non-compliance is properly penalised and reduced; and that everyone in the industry can operate in an environment that is fair and competitive.

I will now set out the key drivers of the Bill. I will then draw attention to its main provisions, and comment on my vision for the future of the freight industry.

There are four key drivers for change — road safety, unfair competition, organised crime and environmental pressures. Perhaps the most important of those issues is road safety. Some statistics make for happy reading, but those that I will refer to do quite the opposite. It does not give me any joy to read those statistics, or to set them before the House.

Last year, a roadside freight vehicle compliance survey was carried out by the Driver and Vehicle Agency at a number of locations in Northern Ireland. Of the HGVs that were randomly stopped, 40% were not roadworthy; over 50% had offences that were serious enough to warrant prosecution; and 30% were subject to some form of prohibition.

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In addition, data gathered from the agency’s testing stations showed that, of the 26,267 HGVs tested in 2007, over 45% of the four-axle rigid vehicles, over 37% of all rigid vehicles, and over 32% of articulated vehicles failed the goods vehicles licensing test the first time round. That is unacceptable, and needs to be addressed before more people are killed or seriously injured on our roads.

The question may well be asked whether Northern Ireland is any better or worse than other parts of the United Kingdom or Europe. I mentioned earlier that compliance with roadworthiness standards by the freight industry in Northern Ireland is among the lowest in Europe — a fact that is all too true. There are only two regions of Europe lower in compliance than Northern Ireland. I will not mention those regions, but I can point out that one of the regions of highest compliance is Great Britain, where there is a comprehensive full industry licensing regime.

It is true that driver behaviour is a greater contributor to road collisions than the conditions of the vehicles used, and drivers are under greater pressure than ever to carry out calls and collect and discharge loads within tight time frames. That leads to the temptation to overload, to drive longer hours and to cut maintenance and rest times. In the 2007 DVA survey, for example, 26% of drivers checked were in breach of drivers’ hours regulations.

The second driver for change is that of unfair competition. There is a belief that it is unfair that only those who carry goods for hire and reward have to contribute to the regulation of the industry. That belief is further exacerbated by evidence of the unlicensed own-account sector and illegal operators taking commercial business from the hire-and-reward sector, thus undermining its viability. That, too, is unacceptable and must be addressed by the Bill.

The third driver for change is crime prevention, particularly organised crime. I, like all Members, welcome the progress made in moving away from the difficult years of terrorism and unrest. However, the problem of organised crime is ongoing in Northern Ireland. Organised crime needs vehicles — particularly freight vehicles. As not all vehicles are presently linked to an operator, there is a weakness in the enforcement capability that must be addressed.

Finally, there are environmental pressures. Operating centres — the places where vehicles are normally kept when not in use — have the potential to affect the owners or occupants of adjacent properties through, for example, noise, night-time working, lighting and vehicles accessing the centres. There is presently no sanction within the road freight licensing legislation against operators who do not pay attention to the environmental standards of their operating centres. That also must be changed.

Having established the deficiencies of the existing legislation and the drivers for change, I now move on to the main provisions of the Bill.

The Bill will provide powers to require all operators to have a licence if they use goods vehicles to carry goods as part of a trade or business. All operators must satisfy standards of fitness and, if carrying goods for others, financial standing, repute and professional competence.

The Bill will allow continuous operator licensing, which will be reviewed by the Department every five years and require all applications for an operator’s licence to be advertised, thus allowing those in the vicinity of operating centres to make representations on environmental grounds.

The Bill will require environmental factors for operating centres to be included in the consideration of an application for an operator’s licence, and it will require operators to give an undertaking to adhere to roadworthiness standards and transport and traffic law.

The Bill will give the Department the power to hold inquiries, exercise discretion, and apply tougher enforcement, including impounding of vehicles against non-compliant operators.

The Department’s vision for the future of the freight industry is for an industry that is safe for its own sake and for all other road users; fair, in that the whole industry can operate in a competitive environment and on a level playing field; highly regarded as being one of the best in Europe, not one of the worst; attractive and an industry that people will want a career in and be proud to work in; valued by its customers and respected by all; and a clean industry, making its own contribution to a better environment.

That vision is shared by both the major freight industry representative bodies — the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association — which are supportive of the efforts of my Department in bringing in the proposals laid before the House today. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr McGlone): A Aire agus a LeasCheann Comhairle, I welcome the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill. The comprehensive Bill of 61 clauses and six schedules will make provision to regulate the operators of goods vehicles. In the Road Haulage Association’s evidence, it told the Committee that in the North, there are more than 15,000 registered keepers of over 35,000 commercial vehicles that weigh in excess of 3·5 tons. The freight industry, politicians and consumer organisations highlighted the need for the Bill. The existing policy and legislation on licences for freight services, and how those services are delivered, must be changed.

I will touch on some of the issues that the Bill is intended to address. In the North, approximately three quarters of those in the industry are own-account operators, who are not required to be licensed. In a welcome step, the Bill ensures that licensing applies to the hire-and-reward and the own-account sectors.

The Bill defines an operating centre as:

“the base or centre at which the vehicle is normally kept”.

The Bill seeks to ensure that the operating centre must be specified on the licence; it becomes an offence to use a place as an operating centre unless it is specified as such on that licence.

The application procedure for licences will become more open and transparent. The Department will prescribe the information to be included on the application form, including details of vehicles and their operating centre. If a person fails to provide that information, the Department may decline to proceed with the application and refuse the licence. The Department will publish a notice of each application and decision in a regular publication that is issued to all statutory consultees.

The legislation also states that the applicant must place a notice of the application in a local newspaper and that a person who owns or occupies land in the vicinity of the proposed operating centre may make a representation against the application on the grounds that it would be environmentally unsuitable.

The Bill provides that, when the Department issues a new licence or amends an existing one, it has powers to attach conditions; for example, vehicles may be prevented from causing danger to the public when entering or leaving any road adjoining an operating centre of the licence holder. Other conditions may prevent, or minimise, any adverse effects on environmental conditions arising from the licence holder’s use of a place as an operating centre, and fines for any contraventions of that licence are introduced.

As with the Taxis Act (Northern Ireland) 2008, enforcement will be important. The Bill proposes that the Department will have powers to stop and enter vehicles and to access the premises in which vehicles are kept. It provides the Department with the power to seize documents when it considers that an offence has been committed, to fine a person who wilfully obstructs an officer or fails to produce documents and to detain a goods vehicle being used without an operator’s licence.

Given the importance of enforcement, the Committee requested details of the current level of resources for enforcement, and it calls on the Department to make available the resources necessary to enforce the Bill. The Committee has already conducted some pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. On three occasions, we heard from departmental officials, and we also heard evidence from the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association.

Committee members were pleased to hear that the Department was involved in extensive consultations with the industry; it invited 15,000 operators to attend a series of industry briefing sessions at eight venues throughout the North in February and March 2008. It was also good to note that, by and large, the presentations were well received, and the general response to those briefings was extremely positive. That provides an exemplar for future departmental consultations.

During the Committee’s deliberations on the Bill, some of the main areas addressed thus far were the financial impact of the proposed new arrangement on operators; the weight requirement of 3·5 tons, which facilitates the regulation of larger vans; and the regulation of a person whose lorries are based in the Republic but who operates lorries that travel and operate in the North. We discussed whether the legislation could lead to the displacement of businesses, particularly in some border areas, and how the road-safety value of the Bill’s measures could be minimal unless they are taken in conjunction with the authorities in the Republic. We also considered the impact of the Bill’s requirement for one-man businesses to have a licence and a yard in which to keep their vehicles.

As previously stated, the Committee has taken evidence from two key freight-industry associations, and looks forward to hearing the views of others when the Bill reaches Committee Stage. Generally, the Bill seeks to increase regulation of the freight industry, and, on behalf of the Committee, a Aire agus a LeasCheann Comhairle, I support the Bill.

Mr Ross: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this latest piece of DOE legislation to come to the Floor of the House.

The freight and transport industry must be recognised as vital in Northern Ireland. Those in the industry are keen that standards are high, and that vehicles on our roads come up to scratch. Unfortunately, the industry in Northern Ireland has among the worst roadworthiness records in all of Europe, as the Minister mentioned — a record of which none associated with the industry could, or would, be proud. It is, therefore, widely recognised that something must be done.

The Bill is a positive one, which aims to improve the road safety of all in the industry, and to improve industry standards. It has been broadly welcomed by those in the industry, and, as the Chairperson mentioned, the Committee heard from key stakeholders, namely the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association. Furthermore, the Committee was briefed on three separate occasions by departmental officials about the content of the Bill. The reaction from the key stakeholders has been very positive, and they obviously recognise the major issue of vehicles that are in bad repair on our roads. The sheer number of unroadworthy vans and lorries on our roads is startling.

It is important to recognise that the Bill should help to target organised crime and improve enforcement. It is welcome that the Bill contains provisions to ensure that any vehicles operating illegally can be impounded. As the Chairperson of the Committee said, enforcement is vital on that issue. Any legislation that aims to reduce the frequency of accidents and generally improve the safety of vehicles on our roads must be welcomed, and this piece of legislation is no different. However, we must also recognise that there are some concerns about the impact that the Bill may have on small operators, as the legislation also places licensing requirements on the own-account sector.

It would be a positive step if similar legislation were implemented in the Irish Republic, and there are some issues about an independent operator parking a van or lorry at home. Those, and other, issues will, no doubt, be examined in more detail in Committee; however, it must be said that, during evidence sessions, the two major organisations representing goods vehicle operators did not share our concerns, even with regard to small, independent operators with smaller vans.

Mr T Clarke: The Member referred to the two transport associations that made representations to the Committee. Is it fair to say that, although they did not share the concerns that were raised at Committee in relation to small operators, they perhaps do not necessarily represent the one-man bands, or the small operators, to whom our concerns were addressed? Will the Member join me in looking forward to examining that issue in more detail when we scrutinise the Bill?

Mr Ross: The Member is absolutely right. There are many independent operators in Northern Ireland — perhaps more than anywhere else in the UK — and it is important that those people have a full input into any deliberations of the Committee on this legislation. Judging from the briefing sessions provided by the Department, and from the stakeholder meetings, the issues of cost in the operating centres did not seem to cause undue concern; again, that is something that we must examine when we scrutinise the Bill.

The Bill will be welcomed by the industry, and I look forward to examining it in more detail in Committee. I support the Second Reading of the Bill.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I echo other Members who spoke in welcoming the Second Stage of the Bill. The legislation is long overdue; however, along with similar legislation that is being introduced in the 26 Counties, it will help to improve the reputation of the Irish freight and transport industry. As was pointed out, we have some of the worst safety records in Europe and rank close to the bottom of the EU countries’ league table.

I welcome the fact that the legislation is at last being introduced. Again, it shows the ineffectiveness of the direct rule Ministers who did nothing about the situation for so long, even though the matter was first raised well over 15 years ago.

The Bill will require own-account operators, who make up about three quarters of the industry here, to be licensed. Enforcement here is not strong enough, and the absence of full operator licensing means that vehicle owners and drivers do not pay enough daily attention to the roadworthiness of their vehicles. The Department of the Environment carries out commercial vehicle enforcement checks annually, and the latest figures show, as the Minister has outlined, that 40% of the vehicles checked last year were found to be unroadworthy. The road safety implications of that situation are stark, and must be addressed urgently.

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We share concerns about how the term “operating centre” is defined and the impact that that definition will have on operators, particularly small operators who do not have a specific storage or parking area for vehicles. Many operators, particularly of smaller vehicles that are covered by the legislation, park on streets and in yards. It is important to identify — and the Committee will help to do so — any possible adverse impact that the legislation will have on the owners of those vehicles.

Will the Minister outline what contact she has had with the Minister for Transport in the South in order to maintain a level playing field across the island, and to ensure that goods vehicles’ standards rise effectively, and quickly, after the Bill is adopted? In March this year, InterTradeIreland’s ‘Freight Transport Report for the Island of Ireland’ advocated a joint approach to the licensing of commercial vehicles and the enforcement of vehicle standards.

The existence of different regulations on the island creates difficulties for companies that operate across Ireland. That is an issue that people in the industry have identified and that they want addressed. My party welcomes the measures contained in the Bill. When the Bill becomes law, our roads will be significantly safer and the image of our freight and transport industry will improve. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Gardiner: I support the legislation, which will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

If it achieves nothing else, the legislation will be important in hindering cross-border fuel smugglers. It will also enable more effective enforcement and contribute to a reduction in organised crime. The Bill will create a level playing field in the haulage industry and improve overall road safety, which must remain a serious concern for all Members, bearing in mind Northern Ireland’s appalling road death figures.

The Bill introduces minimum standards that govern an operator’s fitness to hold a licence. It also distinguishes between those who carry their own goods and those who haul cargo for others, under restricted or standard operating licences. That basic — some would say minimum — level of regulation is good, fair and sensible.

The criteria of “good repute”, “financial standing” and of licensees having to be “professionally competent” that the Bill incorporates, are set out in European legislation. There is a continuing requirement to meet those criteria.

Legislation is only as effective as its enforcement regime — and the regime envisaged in the Bill is strong and effective. The central elements include an impounding scheme and minimum standards for vehicle maintenance and operating centres.

I commend the Bill to the Assembly. I look forward to its detailed scrutiny by the Environment Committee. It is good to see a Bill going through its usual stages in the House. Far too many recent Bills have been granted accelerated passage, and that damages the Assembly’s integrity. I support the Bill.

Mr Ford: As the sixth Member to speak in the debate, and at the risk of being extremely boring, I also support the principles of the Bill and I welcome its introduction. I thank the Minister and her team for the manner in which they have engaged with the Committee in pre-legislative discussions. I regard that as an example of how legislation can be properly processed through this House, while ensuring that the issues are covered.

It is remarkable how much unanimity has been expressed in the House on one or two points of common concern. The Bill is necessary on a fundamental level; it is a key component in dealing with organised crime and with road-safety concerns. The minister highlighted the fact that, even though GB’s freight sector has one of the best records in Europe for complying with maintenance obligations and with transport and traffic law, Northern Ireland has the third worst.

Clearly, that is an example of why the legislation should be similar to that which applies in GB. That said, the Assembly should not talk down key players in the road-transport industry, because, undoubtedly, the best firms in Northern Ireland are the equivalent of the best in GB. The problem is, however, that serious concerns about a long tail of operators, particularly among the own-account sector, as opposed to the hire-and-reward sector, must be dealt with.

Issues that have arisen, and have already been mentioned in the debate, include the conditions of road vehicles that have shown up in roadside tests, not only in Northern Ireland, but, sometimes, in vehicles from Northern Ireland that have been stopped across the water. Other issues, such as drivers’ hours, show that a great deal must be done in order to reach the required standard.

I share concerns that Members have raised from different sides of the House, particularly on the issue of the requirement for operating centres to ensure that freight vehicles are parked overnight away from residential areas. Clearly, that is positive. However, there are concerns as to how that will affect a large number of operators, particularly one-man businesses, that have vehicles that fall just inside the 3·5-ton limit — Transit-type vans, for example. The Assembly must consider exactly how the details of that will work to ensure that residential neighbourhoods are protected and that certain businesses are not subjected to particular financial penalties.

I also want to highlight the serious problem — and welcome the fact that it has been raised by Mr McKay, among others — that that will not be done in parallel with the Republic, where similar legislation is needed. As the Chairman highlighted, cross-border issues may need to be considered, such as how businesses may operate across the border without being subject to the same level of regulation. In that context, it is absolutely clear from evidence that the Committee has already received from the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association that there is a need to proceed with legislation in Northern Ireland. I urge the Minister to continue to make representations to her opposite number south of the border to ensure that the Irish Government take that action. It is understood that some of their officials want legislation to be introduced alongside that of Northern Ireland.

The Bill is before the Assembly. I endorse its principles and look forward to the Committee’s engagement in serious scrutiny.

Mr Weir: It will come as no surprise that I, like other Members, suggest that the Assembly can largely be united on the Good Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill. The previous Bill that the Department of Environment dealt with at Committee Stage was the Taxis Bill. I remember that, during its Second Stage, I made the somewhat rash statement that I looked forward to the Committee Stage. Many weeks later, I began to eat my words. I shall, therefore, make no similarly rash comments about the current Bill.

Like other members of the Environment Committee, I believe that there is a sense of anticipation that the good job and detailed scrutiny that was carried out on the Taxis Bill will be replicated with the Good Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill, which is similar to the Taxis Bill because it will have a large element of detail. By the end of the process, it will be ensured that, although there is broad support for the Bill’s principles, its detail matches its aims.

Mr Elliott: I hope that the Member is aware that there are legitimate concerns about the Bill that must be dealt with. In particular, people are anxious that it does not give unfair advantage to illegal operators, who will continue to operate illegally, over those who operate legitimately, and that it must also put a much higher cost on such activity in order to clamp down on illegal operators and put the squeeze on them.

Mr Weir: It is important that whatever the regime — which is part of the detail that must be teased out in the Bill — it deals particularly with sanctions against illegal operators. One of my hopes for the Bill is that it will create a much more level playing field than that which currently exists.

As the Member, and, indeed, others have indicated, genuine concerns must be dealt with, such as ensuring that the regime does not place undue burden upon small operators. It is important that that is carried through in the Bill’s detail. As Mr Ford mentioned, the issue of operating centres must be dealt with. I suspect that that matter will exercise the mind of Mr Elliott.

One matter that worries me, which the Assembly must ensure is tackled properly, is the unfortunate attitude that the Republic of Ireland’s Government seem to have towards the issue.

They seem to be living in a form of Neverland; I am referring not to Michael Jackson’s ranch, but to the fact that they are in denial. We do not want to reach a situation where a range of businesses have to hop across the border to take advantage of a very lax system. In the same positive manner in which the Assembly will address the issue and ensure that road haulage is brought up to the mark, the Republic of Ireland’s Government, too, must face up to their responsibilities.

Like other members of the Environment Committee, I welcome the fact that we have already had an opportunity to deal with the issue to some extent. The Committee was given a heads-up on detailed scrutiny of the relevant issues through contributions from departmental officials and submissions and evidence from the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association. Like most members, I did not possess a great deal of knowledge on the issue and found the submissions informative; they will help to frame the debate.

Members’ broad welcome of the Bill in the Chamber today has been largely mirrored by the industry. The responses at a pre-consultation round of meetings across the country have been broadly positive. However, there are some concerns that must be addressed and dealt with properly.

I am glad that a large section of the industry has welcomed the Bill. I want to highlight some of its advantages, on which other Members may have already touched.

As Mr Gardiner said, we need legislation that brings us into line with the rest of the United Kingdom and, beyond that, with most of Europe. It is important that we have a level playing field. Many road-haulage firms already operate at a high standard, but are penalised for doing so because a minority do not behave responsibly.

The Bill will help at an international level. Evidence submitted to the Environment Committee indicated that Northern Ireland is in the bottom three road-haulage industries in Europe, along with the Republic of Ireland and Romania, in what might be described as the relegation zone. Our system may not turn into the Manchester United of the haulage world overnight, but perhaps we can emulate Fulham Football Club, by moving up the table to escape relegation.

It is deeply shaming that Northern Ireland’s haulage system is considered one of the worst in Europe. From a practical point of view, it has a detrimental effect on reputable road-haulage firms. Evidence submitted to the Committee indicated that Northern Ireland-registered vehicles are targeted for vehicle checks across the water in mainland Britain and parts of Europe because of the poor reputation of Northern Ireland and the belief that there is a greater chance of finding fault with them than with vehicles from England, Scotland or Wales. Consequently, the present regime penalises Northern Ireland’s many reputable firms. Those firms will benefit from the raising of standards to meet international requirements.

As has been said, the Bill also has a role to play in reducing organised crime. It is important that we ensure that measures are put in place to achieve that.

Finally, the Bill is important for road safety. Road safety will be improved if the regulations ensure that drivers work regulated hours and take appropriate breaks. Again, it comes down to the level playing field. An operator that is not complying with the regulations will be able to transport a customer’s goods in three days, because its drivers do not take rests or follow a proper shift pattern. An operator that does meet the standards in full will not be able to compete, because the journey will take its drivers four days. That creates a situation where those companies that act in an unregulated manner not only undercut the competition, but threaten safety on the roads.

3.30 pm

A wide range of measures has been debated in the Chamber including alcohol limits, speed limits and issues concerning young drivers. A safe system is also required for road haulage in this country because, given the nature of the vehicles concerned, accidents are much more likely to involve fatalities. Therefore, the legislation will be an important contribution towards road safety.

The legislation has been welcomed across the Chamber, and it can be scrutinised in great detail in the coming weeks. We can produce a piece of legislation which is not only beneficial to everyone in Northern Ireland, particularly the industry, but on which the Assembly can look back with a sense of pride. I support the Bill as proposed.

Mr Elliott: I support the Bill in principle, but some concerns have been raised with me by people who live in the west of the Province near the border with the Irish Republic, where a number of operators will not operate to the same standards as those whose vehicles are registered in Northern Ireland. That gives me huge concern, although I know that nothing can be done about that. I am sure that the Minister will take the issue on board and raise it at the North/South Ministerial Conference.

In addition, some protection must be given to smaller operators: perhaps they could be given some flexibility as regards the exemptions. Although they may be operating on a legitimate basis at the moment, additional costs may drive them out of business. Across the Province, a number of businesses have only one or two goods vehicles, and this legislation will put significant additional pressure on them. I want the Bill and the exemptions to include some flexibility. The exemptions are quite tight, and I would like the Committee for the Environment scrutinise them to see whether more flexibility for smaller operators can be built in. I broadly welcome the Bill, but I want to see more scrutiny of it by the Committee.

The Minister of the Environment: I am grateful for the valuable and informative contributions that Members have made to the debate. The matter will now be taken forward to the Committee for the Environment.

The Chairperson of the Committee outlined the need for the Bill and said that change to existing legislation was necessary. He said that, similar to the legislation on taxis, enforcement would be a huge issue as regards the implementation of the Bill, and I agree. He knows that, as a result of the recent comprehensive spending review (CSR), the enforcement capability of the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) is being enhanced by an increase in resources over the next three years. In addition, further improvement in the resources dedicated to freight enforcement will be expected because of the fairer licensing system and structure that the Bill will introduce. I will take that on board in the next CSR period. I thank the Chairperson for his positive reaction to the Bill and his acknowledgement that much work has been carried out on those issues in the pre-presentation of the Bill with the industry and with the Committee.

Mr Ross talked about the importance of the freight industry to Northern Ireland, and I endorse his comments. He talked about some of the key drivers of change in the industry, which I mentioned in my opening speech. Along with other Members, he also mentioned the impact of the Bill on small businesses. Measures in the Bill will only affect businesses that use vehicles and combinations — vans and trailers — with a gross plated weight in excess of 3·5 tons.

In an intervention, Mr Trevor Clarke made the point that the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association do not necessarily represent the small operators. That is absolutely right, and, with that in mind, the Department contacted all keepers of goods vehicles of 3·5 tons and over to inform them of the proposals and their likely impact. Given that that matter is — if I may use the term — a key contentious issue for the Bill, I look forward to it being discussed before the Committee for the Environment.

A large proportion of small businesses are already licensed as hire-or-reward operators, and are therefore already in the system. They will appreciate a more equitable licensing system, and the Bill’s impact will be helpful to them in future.

Mr McKay welcomed the Bill and said that it was long overdue. He spoke about road-safety implications and the definition of “operating centre”, and he asked whether we had been in contact with the Minister for Transport in the Republic of Ireland, which we have. Although there is no all-Ireland approach to operator licensing, officials have met their Irish counterparts specifically to share their respective plans about those matters. Furthermore, officials regularly meet to share information about compliance, enforcement operations and the impact of their respective policies on each other’s jurisdiction.

Mr Gardiner supported the legislation, and was happy that Northern Ireland is being brought in line with the rest of the UK. He spoke about many of the legislation’s drivers, such as road safety, organised crime, fairness and the enforcement regime, which he hoped would be on a par with that in the taxis legislation.

Mr Ford supported the Bill’s principles, commended the pre-legislation discussion with the Committee and acknowledged those who currently comply with the law in Northern Ireland. It is absolutely right to do that. Many people in the freight industry act in compliance with the law, and I entirely endorse Mr Ford’s comments about that. To use his phrase, the legislation is being introduced to deal with the “long tail” of operators.

Mr Ford, like Mr McKay, raised issues about operating centres and the fact that people find it difficult to park on the street or at the side of their homes. In any event, when not in use, vehicles should normally be parked at a designated operating centre. On-street parking is not permitted; however, in certain circumstances, by designating his house on the license, an operator may be allowed to park his vehicle at the side of that house. Given the large number of single-vehicle operators in Northern Ireland and the number who currently park at home, officials are considering implementation options, including the possibility of short- or long-term grandfather rights — it says here. [Interruption.]

Those are grandfather rights — not grandmother rights.

The requirements for operating centres will be detailed in subordinate legislation, and, as with the taxis legislation, there will be son-of and daughter-of types of legislation. This is the enabling legislation, and the issues relating to operating centres will be subject to full public consultation, of which, I am sure, the Committee will wish to take notice.

Mr Weir expressed concerns about the Republic of Ireland’s enforcement system, and those comments were endorsed by Mr Elliott, who was concerned about illegal operators coming from the South. Existing enforcement powers are effective, and I propose to replicate them in the Bill. However, I will also add new powers, such as the power to impound any goods vehicle, and its contents, if it is detected as being used on the road without a proper operating license. In addition, I will include a power to curtail a license where the operator is undergoing disciplinary measures, either in the short or long term, for certain misdemeanours — action proportionate to the so-called crime. In such circumstances, the maximum number of vehicles that are permitted to be used may be reduced, or one or more of the vehicles may be removed from the license.

Finally, Mr Elliott asked about exemptions. He felt that there should be more flexibility in the Bill. Flexibility will come from the regulations. The Bill includes the power to make both temporary and permanent exemptions using subordinate legislation. Temporary exemptions will be for emergency situations, and no decision has been made about the list of permanent exemptions. For example, some people have asked about agricultural vehicles.

Officials intend to examine the issue of permanent exemptions in further detail, and I am sure that it is something that the Committee will want to address.

I thank Members for their contributions to the debate on the Bill and for the questions and issues that have been raised. I am confident that the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill will enable Northern Ireland to develop the policy it needs to ensure the safe and proper use of goods vehicles, promote fair competition in the industry, improve road safety and lead to better-quality services for all.

My officials and I look forward — unlike Mr Weir — to working closely with the Environment Committee as it begins its detailed scrutiny of the Bill. I have no doubt that this scrutiny will prove very valuable, as it did with the taxis legislation, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Second Stage of the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill [NIA 15/07] be agreed.

Motion made:

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


Public Car Parking Spaces in Enniskillen

Mr Deputy Speaker: Before we begin, I inform Members that the Minister for Regional Development has written to me to advise that, due to unavoidable diary commitments, he regrets that he is not available to respond to this adjournment topic today. He has arranged for the junior Minister Mr Gerry Kelly to respond on his behalf.

The proposer of the debate will have 15 minutes in which to speak. All other Members who are called to speak will have 10 minutes.

Mr Gallagher: The widespread hope of the people of Northern Ireland was that the restored Assembly would be responsive to local needs. I have brought this issue to the House because the needs of a scattered rural population in Fermanagh and in west Tyrone need to be addressed.

The town of Enniskillen suffers from serious traffic congestion — it has poor traffic management and inadequate parking provision. The Department for Regional Development (DRD) intends to extend pay-and-display parking in Enniskillen, and there is much local consternation about this proposal. That is not a knee-jerk reaction to the proposed increase in costs — local circumstances are such that the consequences of this plan, were it to be implemented, would be very serious for this area.

There is inadequate parking provision, given that people have no option but to use their car to get to work. There are currently 95 free car-parking spaces at Queen Street in Enniskillen, which is located on the north-west side of the town. The social security office, hospital, Housing Executive and tax office are all located at the same side of town. If parking charges were introduced here, the only free parking space with reasonable capacity left locally would be at Hollyhill, on the other side of the town. Those who presently use the Queen Street parking facility would have to travel right through the centre of Enniskillen to make use of it. This is a town where it can take up to 45 minutes to travel less than one mile. The people — and their political representatives — have been calling for a bypass for more than a decade.

The cost implications for drivers, should these new charges be imposed, would be punishing. Members will be aware of the recent AA report highlighting car charges, which shows that the cost of running a car has risen by £2,000 over the last 12 months. This is unwelcome news for motorists everywhere. For some, leaving the car at home may be an alternative, but the poor system of public transport in the west means that there is no such alternative. The car is a necessity for people getting to work.

I have spoken to some people who travel to Enniskillen, and I can safely say that the cost of fuel every week for their travel is at least £25.

For some, the cost is much higher. Therefore, fuel costs are about £25 a week, or £100 a month. If parking charges are to be introduced, those workers will have to pay a further £15 a week, or £60 a month. That will put pressure on household budgets. We are all too aware that many households are already struggling with the mounting demands on their budgets — the increase in rates, grocery bills, electricity charges and the price of heating oil, not to mention the dreaded water charges that are also being proposed by the Department for Regional Development.

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It is little wonder that some of the 650 workers who signed the petition against car-parking charges are saying that if the charges go ahead, it will not be worth their while continuing to work. Any assertion by Roads Service that the Queen Street car park is necessary for town-centre shopping is undermined by the fact — and it is a fact — that that car park lies vacant on Saturday and Sunday.

Implicit in this matter are issues of fairness and equality. Many of the workers who use the Queen Street parking facility are at the lower end of the pay scale. As I said, in the absence of public transport, they have no alternative but to use a car to get to work. DRD must recognise the specific needs of local people and that its failure to invest in infrastructure in the west — in this case, Enniskillen — means that it has an added responsibility to ensure that the people of that area are not even more seriously disadvantaged.

Finally, I must stress that any plans to extend pay-and-display car parking in Enniskillen must be scrapped.

Mrs Foster: I commend Mr Gallagher on securing this debate. As he said, car parking in Enniskillen is an issue that exercises many people, not least the workers who use the free car park at Queen Street. The fact that the price of fuel is going up instead of down is already putting a strain on people’s budgets, but now they are faced with the prospect of being charged to park their car while they do their day’s work.

It is not an exaggeration to say that traffic in Enniskillen is often in gridlock. One has only to visit Enniskillen at lunchtime on Saturday to experience that gridlock. Trying to find a parking space on a Saturday in Enniskillen can sometimes be very frustrating. We are all very aware that Enniskillen is an island town, but when one drives around it five times on a Saturday in search of a parking space, one becomes even more aware of that fact.

There is a shortage of car-parking spaces in Enniskillen, and on-street parking is also a problem. Many towns and villages throughout Northern Ireland have witnessed the advent of the “redcoats” and can use on-street parking facilities for a limited time only. As a result, in Enniskillen, people do not stay in town as long as they would want to because they are ever mindful of the fact that they must return to their cars within an hour.

Like Mr Gallagher, I met the Enniskillen Workers’ Protest Group in spring. At the time, the Roads Service told us that there were 1,430 off-street parking spaces available in Enniskillen. However, all car parks there operate at capacity, with the exception of the Hollyhill Link Road car park, which is a considerable walking distance from the town centre. I would say that all off-street car parking facilities in the town operate at about 98% capacity.

Fermanagh District Council has proposed building a multi-storey car park to resolve some of the parking difficulties in Enniskillen.

I support them in that endeavour. The council has spoken to the strategic investment board about that matter, and I mentioned it to the DRD Minister. There might, therefore, be a solution in the offing. However, it will not happen overnight, and it is an issue that DRD, the Planning Service and the council need to examine together.

Quite apart from workers and those who visit Enniskillen, business people, too, are frustrated with parking difficulties with regard to deliveries, obstructions and traffic control. Unfortunately, Enniskillen does not have a chamber of commerce. However, that did not stop business people coming together on the issue of parking, which has caused them a great deal of angst.

Enniskillen is a market town, and traders are convinced that parking difficulties have taken trade out of the town. Several big supermarket outlets, including Tesco and Asda, have recently come to Enniskillen, and they are, of course, welcome. However, there is concern among traders that trade is not getting to the town centre because of parking problems, and those concerns should be heeded

Enniskillen is a tourist town as well as a place of work and a shopping destination, and visitors are always welcome to Fermanagh, the jewel in the crown as far as Northern Ireland is concerned — and I hear no voices against that in the Chamber today. The people of Enniskillen want to encourage visitors, and more car parking is needed for that to happen.

I commend the Member for bringing this matter to the House. I am interested in hearing what the junior Minister has to say, which I hope I am able to do because I have a meeting at 4.00 pm.

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I, too, have a meeting at 4.00 pm, so I will not procrastinate. I agree with much of what has been said. As other Members did, I met the group that is campaigning for more parking provision in Enniskillen and listened to its concerns. As the Member has just said, Enniskillen is an island town. Anyone who has sat in traffic on the Sligo Road on any evening — never mind at the weekend — knows that there are difficulties in getting around the town. Indeed, having people driving around looking for car parking spaces only adds to the congestion.

A long-term solution to the needs of the town must be found, and there are a number of sites in Enniskillen that are suitable for a multi-storey car park given its topography.

I have a number of concerns. First, the fact that Enniskillen is an island town and space is restricted means that there will be pressure on capacity. However, the review of car parking capacity — and if Mr Gallagher mentioned this when I was not in the Chamber, I apologise — was carried out before last Christmas, and any car park will be at full tilt in the run-up to Christmas. Perhaps Roads Service would take into consideration the time of year when the review was carried out, because that would skew the results.

Workers are concerned that they are being driven out of the town, and that the distance between car parking availability and their place is work is increasing. A moratorium is needed on any plans to increase charges in Enniskillen car parks while a solution is being sought. Roads Service is in discussion with the council, and the council has been proactive in the matter and will be making its views known. However, there must be a stay of execution on any plans for changing free car parking to pay car parking, or on any plans to increase the cost of pay car parking, in order to give everyone a chance to seek solutions to the problem and to create a partnership approach between elected representatives, the council and traders. I would welcome such an approach in trying to find a solution to this problem.

There have been many complaints about traffic wardens and about enforcement. As someone who has received a few parking fines in Enniskillen, I understand the difficulties there. However, there must be some level of enforcement, because if someone parks on double yellow lines and snarls up the whole town, that causes a problem for everyone. Sometimes the zeal with which the traffic wardens in Enniskillen carry out their job is quite extraordinary, especially if the time has just run out on the parking meter. Nevertheless, there are serious parking problems in the town. I park primarily in the Buttermarket car park, but it can take a long time to find a space in it.

We want a more conducive atmosphere for everyone who comes to Enniskillen, regardless of whether they are coming to work or to shop, or whether they are tourists. It is a lovely town, but issues such as parking can cause difficulties. In Dungannon, which is the other major town in the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, there are similar parking problems that are off-putting for people who wish to come into the town.

We are competing with other towns. In Newry, for example, the two main shopping centres — the Quays and the Buttercrane centre — have over 2,000 spaces. Their capacity is impressive. The car-parking capacity in Enniskillen must be increased, and we must be fair to the people who are coming into the town to shop or to work. I have raised the issue several times with the Minister for Regional Development, and he has taken my views on board. There is simply not enough capacity in Enniskillen, and we must find solutions to that problem. Judging by the tone of today’s debate, we are all keen to work together to find solutions for the good of everyone who comes to Enniskillen. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Elliott: Unlike the previous two Members who spoke, I do not have a meeting at four o’clock. However, I have a meeting in a couple of hours on the other side of Enniskillen, and the Members know what it is like to get through the traffic there, so I will be as brief as possible.

I thank the junior Minister for coming here to listen and to respond. I do not know whether there is any truth in the rumour that the Minister for Regional Development has gone to meet members of the Royal Family at a garden party in Hillsborough — perhaps someone can clarify that.

There are approximately 1,700 off-street car-parking spaces in Enniskillen. If one drives into Enniskillen during the week or at the weekend, it is almost impossible to believe that there are so many spaces, because you can never find one, especially in the middle of the day. About 50% of those spaces are free, and that is the crux of the matter. The Department for Regional Development is considering the possibility of reviewing that and converting some of those free car-parking spaces into paid spaces.

The major issue relates to people who work in Enniskillen. If people spend an hour or two in Enniskillen doing their shopping, they do not mind paying for the car park. However, the difficulty arises when people work there five days a week and have to pay considerable amounts of money for parking. Enniskillen needs a multi-storey car park. I do not believe that Roads Service can develop such a car park in the near future, unless we hear otherwise today. However, there may be an opportunity for a private developer to progress that project, perhaps in conjunction with the council or others.

The surveys showed that there is a high usage of the car parks in Enniskillen. The former Eden Street car park on the west side of the town is to be transformed into a mixed-use development. The developer of that site must provide the same number of car-parking spaces that are on the site at the moment. However, I do not know whether there will be an insistence on providing additional spaces for the retail units. That is an important issue. That car park is highly used, and if more retail units are built there, it will bring more shoppers to that immediate area; therefore, there will be a need for more parking spaces.

That leads me on to the position of the overall project. We cannot look at car parking as a single issue.

4.00 pm

It must be examined in the context of a strategic assessment of the entire Enniskillen area. Road infrastructure, car-parking facilities and future parking requirements — taking into consideration the potential development of more retail units — must be examined. We must also consider the proposed southern bypass at the Cherrymount link road — which is a 10-year scheme — and the possibility of a north-west link road from the Irvinestown Road to the Belleek Road.

If those projects were completed, it would result in a ring road around Enniskillen. Without an overall strategic examination of the situation, we will be unable to progress. There are proposals to build new schools in Enniskillen; some have already been built. The new south-west acute services hospital will be built in Enniskillen, and, therefore, we must examine all those developments collectively.

If half the existing Queen Street car park becomes a pay car park, office workers in that area will seek free parking elsewhere. The current Erne Hospital site is an obvious target; however, it is already chock-a-block, and that will cause greater traffic congestion. Furthermore, it will cause access problems for emergency vehicles at the Erne Hospital.

The “redcoats” have had a significant impact on car parking in Enniskillen. An overall assessment must be conducted — as opposed to examining individual car parks — and, for that reason, car-parking payment systems should not be changed at the moment.

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr G Kelly): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am aware that there are two Ministers in the Chamber who have to attend meetings, and, therefore, I will be brief. I want to scotch the rumour that the Minister for Regional Development is in Hillsborough — he is actually in Cardiff at a BIC meeting. [Laughter.] I thought that I should clarify his whereabouts, although I do not know with whom he is dining.

I am speaking on behalf of the Minister for Regional Development, Mr Murphy, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss public car-parking spaces in Enniskillen. I have asked Minister Murphy’s officials to consider the Hansard report, because I will be unable to respond to all the issues; those issues can be forwarded to the Minister on his return.

By way of background for Members who are unfamiliar with Enniskillen — which is probably only me — I will briefly summarise the public parking provided by the Department for Regional Development and Roads Service in the town. There are 13 Roads Service car parks, which provide approximately 1,430 parking spaces. Of those spaces, 622 are free of charge, and 644 are charged at 30p an hour. A further 164 spaces at the Shore Road West and Quay Lane South car parks charge 30p for three hours.

Moreover, there are approximately 391 free on-street parking spaces in the town centre. Of those spaces, 369 are limited to an hour’s waiting in any two-hour period, and 22 are disabled parking spaces. An extension — planned for the current financial year — is proposed to the car park at Wellington Place, which, when completed, will provide 36 additional free car-parking spaces for the western end of the town. In addition to Roads Service car parks, recent new developments in Enniskillen by Asda and Tesco have increased the overall amount of off-street parking by approximately 760 spaces. Furthermore, work has recently commenced to provide 350 additional spaces in conjunction with the extension of the Erneside shopping centre.

Roads Service is currently conducting an annual review of car-parking tariffs in major towns in the North. The review considers the demand for parking spaces and whether tariffs should be increased, decreased or introduced to help to manage demand. The review of parking tariffs in Enniskillen is based on car-park usage information gathered during surveys. Those surveys indicated that most free car parks — with the exception of Hollyhill Link Road car park in the east of the town — have reached, or are near to, capacity.

A couple of Members said that given that some of the statistics had been gathered in December and around the Christmas period, they gave a false impression. However, the exercise was carried out over a longer period, and although it is accepted that that particular survey was carried out over Christmas, it was balanced out by other parts of the overall exercise.

The Hollyhill Link Road car park is usually used at less than 20% of its capacity, and 150 free spaces are normally available in that area. The surveys also indicated that the pay-and-display car parks in Enniskillen are well used and regularly exceed 80% of their capacity. To provide adequate availability of parking spaces for shoppers and short-stay users, it is recognised that 20% of spaces must be readily available. A survey that was undertaken in June 2007 indicated an average usage of 82%, and a further survey in December 2007 indicated an average usage of 98%. However, it is accepted that car-park usage during that period skews the statistics.

Those surveys also indicated that additional short-stay car parking is required at the western end of Enniskillen, as the pay-and-display car park at Head Street is normally fully used, and the free-of-charge car parks at Queen Street and Wellington Place are also full during the working day. To improve the availability of parking spaces at the western end of Enniskillen, Roads Service proposed the introduction of pay-and-display at the 30p hourly tariff to Queen Street car park. It is expected that that will change the existing parking bays into 95 short-stay spaces for shoppers and other visitors, allowing a more fluent turnover of parking spaces throughout the day and short-stay access to many more vehicles.

Meanwhile, short-duration car parking is also required at the eastern end of Enniskillen, as the car parks at Quay Lane North and Quay Lane South are normally used fully. Roads Service proposed changing the car park at Quay Lane South to the 30p hourly tariff, which, again, would adapt the existing parking bays into short-stay spaces, resulting in increased capacity throughout the day. Roads Service is consulting with Fermanagh District Council and representatives of traders in Enniskillen about the proposed tariff changes arising from the review. Roads Service is considering comments and objections to the proposed tariff changes. Furthermore, comments that Members have made today will also be taken into account. Therefore, this is not a done deal, and there will be some consideration of what people have to say.

The challenge for Roads Service is to develop proposals that will increase the level of short-stay parking and that will be generally acceptable to the council and to traders, shoppers, workers and visitors in Enniskillen. Roads Service expects to make revised tariff proposals in the next six to eight weeks. Members should be reassured that a further period of public consultation on the revised proposals will be held before commencement of the legislative process, which is required to introduce amendments to current car-parking tariffs.

Some Members raised the issue of parking enforce­ment. I am aware that concerns have been expressed in the past about the level of enforcement in Enniskillen and that Roads Service representatives attended a public meeting of local traders, councillors and members of the public about that issue in January 2008. Illegally parked vehicles not only create obstructions that increase congestion, but they frequently pose a serious road-safety problem. What is more, motorists who park illegally in designated bays, such as those reserved for blue-badge holders, prevent their use by those people who are entitled to park there.

A suitable level of parking enforcement is therefore needed in all our towns and cities to deter motorists from parking illegally or dangerously. In Enniskillen, Roads Service and NCP Services Ltd continue to monitor the performance of traffic attendants in the town to ensure that they carry on providing the necessary level of enforcement and customer service.

Several issues were raised during the debate, including that of a multi-storey car park. I am sure that Members are aware that the Department for Social Development is currently running a private-developer competition to redevelop Roads Service’s Eden Street car park in Enniskillen. Those proposals include the provision of a multi-storey car park to replace the existing Eden Street car park.

Two meetings were held to discuss enforcement — one occurred in January and the other in March. The January meeting attracted a fair turnout of traders, shoppers and other interested parties. I remember television news reports that contained accusations that the enforcement officers were petty and had adopted an overenthusiastic approach to ticketing cars that were slightly outside parking spaces, and so on. I believe that only six people attended the second meeting. I have been told that that turnout was due to the perception that action had been taken and that, due to discussions with those involved, the situation had improved.

It might be worth pointing out that — although I accept that there are problems with car parking in Enniskillen, Omagh, Strabane, Cookstown, Magherafelt and Dungannon, as Members have articulated — Enniskillen has the largest number of parking spaces per capita. There are 1,434 spaces in Enniskillen, of which 622 — 44% — are currently free of charge.

If I have missed any issues, DSD officials will consult the Hansard report, and Conor Murphy will write to Members to fill in any gaps. Minister Murphy asked me to assure Members that Roads Service aims to ensure the good management of all car parks. In the absence of charges, all-day parkers would take up all the parking spaces that are most convenient to town and city centres. The use of charges in busy town-centre car parks, such as those in Enniskillen, encourage all-day parkers to use free or less expensive car parks on the periphery, keeping available the most convenient spaces for shoppers or other visitors. The aim is to help the vitality and viability of town centres, not the opposite.

I hope that I have addressed Members’ concerns. However, I restate that I have asked officials to take note of the Hansard report of this debate, and I hope that any gaps in my answers will be filled shortly. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Adjourned at 4.12 pm.

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