Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 2 June 2008
Executive Committee Business
Private Members’ Business
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Appointment of New Clerk to the Assembly/Director General
Mr Speaker: The Assembly Commission has asked me to announce the appointment of Mr Trevor Reaney as the new Clerk to the Assembly/Director General. Mr Reaney will take up the post by 1 September 2008.
Child Maintenance Bill
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I beg to introduce the Child Maintenance Bill [NIA 17/07], which is a Bill to amend the law relating to child support; and for connected purposes.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Mr Speaker: The Bill will be put on the list of future business until a date for its Second Stage is determined.
Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for this 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.
The Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services (Mr Newton): I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses its concern and deep disappointment at the planned closure of, and service changes to, certain local Post Offices; approves the report of the Ad Hoc Committee set up to consider, and make proposals for, partnerships that could enhance the economic case for viable local postal services; and agrees that it should be submitted to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform as a report of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
I welcome the opportunity to propose the motion.
The Assembly first debated this issue on 21 April 2008, and, on that occasion, Members from across the Chamber expressed concern. Indeed, the week following that debate, an Ad Hoc Committee was established to consider ways to enhance the viability of local postal services.
I pay tribute to those Committee members who took the initiative on the matter. The Committee had a short period of time in which to take evidence and to produce recommendations. I acknowledge the contribution of those members and their deputies for their hard work on and commitment to this important matter. Several members went out of their way to ensure that a quorum was present for the evidence sessions; indeed, some drove a considerable distance to be at the meetings.
Many organisations and individuals provided oral and written evidence to the Committee, and I thank them all for responding at such short notice. I thank the Assembly staff for their professionalism and diligence in supporting the Committee’s work.
It is worth pointing out that Post Office Ltd has acted as the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform instructed and that as a result, the Committee felt that the whole process has been seriously flawed.
Given that post offices are a reserved matter, the Committee calls on the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to suspend the closure and network-change programme to allow Post Office Ltd to consider innovative alternatives fully. Those alternatives include collaboration with Departments and agencies and with organisations such as citizens advice bureaux and the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland.
In planning the closures and network changes, there appears to have been little recognition of the fact that Northern Ireland is different to the rest of the United Kingdom in that it has a more rural population, poorer road networks and public transportation systems, and is recovering from many years of conflict.
The Committee heard evidence that suggests that the access criteria that Post Office Ltd used failed to recognise the unique socio-political situation of some communities in Northern Ireland, particularly the urban.
The Committee has serious concerns about the access criteria and the statistical methodology that Post Office Ltd used. The statistical analysis that was applied to the UK population as a whole did not reflect regional variations, such as those in Northern Ireland, where the population is affected more adversely by the closures than anywhere else in the United Kingdom.
The definitions used for the terms “urban” and “rural” were not those that are normally used in Northern Ireland, which has some of the highest levels of social deprivation in urban areas. The Committee urges Post Office Ltd to ensure that, wherever possible, the national thresholds for access in urban and rural areas are applied fairly and equitably.
The Committee was amazed to learn that the distances that Post Office Ltd determined to assess the criteria were measured as the crow flies, perhaps giving a new slant to the term “pigeon post”. The distances that were measured were between those post offices that are earmarked for closure and those that will remain open, rather than between people’s homes and the new post office — that is, the real distance that customers will have to travel.
Although the consumer body Postwatch stated that its representatives walked the new routes, the Committee saw no clear evidence that the fact that steep hills, a lack of footpaths, or infrequent or no public transport could have a significant effect on people who do not have a car had been considered.
It is worth noting that several issues emerging from the evidence sessions perturbed the Committee. A recurring concern was that the six-week deadline for responses to consultation on the implementation of closure was much too short. Furthermore, Post Office Ltd had only three weeks in which to consider those responses and to firm up its decisions. I am sure that Members will agree that that is clearly not sufficient time. It can be assumed, therefore, that either Post Office Ltd did not expect many responses, or that it had little intention of heeding them. That is incredible, given the potential impact of closures, not only on vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our society but on small businesses and retailers in affected areas.
Post offices are often at the very heart of communities. Post Office Ltd appears to have paid little or no attention to the impact of post office closures on elderly and disabled people. The post office is frequently their only social outlet — a place where they catch up on news; get information on benefits; access their money; and, crucially, are known by staff who would notice if they had not called to collect their benefits or pensions. Pat McFadden MP — speaking on the BBC’s ‘Politics Show’ yesterday — acknowledged the social aspect of post offices. Post Office Ltd recognises the social role of post offices and, yet, it diminishes that role without providing an obvious replacement.
Those in receipt of benefits and pensions — who are, furthermore, the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our society — rely most heavily on post offices. Post Office Ltd has not acknowledged the difficulties that closures will create for people with mobility problems, who may have to encounter busy roads and garage forecourts or go to post offices with difficult wheelchair access. Moreover, longer queues and strange areas can be distressing for vulnerable people.
The Committee found that Post Office Ltd had not given enough consideration to the impact of closures on the viability of other businesses in affected areas, or on businesses that host a post office that has been nominated for closure. A serious concern was that, although small businesses should be encouraged to develop by the use of eBay and the Internet, such businesses would suffer unduly from post office closures. Those businesses rely on getting to the local post office, quickly and easily, to send and collect parcels. Having to travel further and queue longer will cost those businesses time — and, in business, time is money.
It is well known that businesses feed off each another by increasing each other’s footfall. Post office closures are likely to affect neighbouring shops; fewer people will be in the area to collect benefits and pensions and, therefore, will not pop into the other shops to buy goods. That domino effect will be particularly relevant in rural areas and could lead to the closure of a village’s last remaining shop.
Another recurring theme of the evidence sessions was the proposed closure of profitable post offices. Parkhall post office, in Antrim, received an award in 2007 for having the highest sales growth in the entire United Kingdom. Incredibly, however, it is one of the post offices marked for closure. In my constituency of East Belfast, post offices were encouraged to invest to facilitate customers.
The Committee is not naive. It appreciates that post offices must change to reflect the needs of the modern world. However, Post Office Ltd should consider alternatives to post office closures. For example, the Committee assessed the viability of one-stop shops that would deliver a range of services such as a citizens advice bureau kiosk, local-council services and health services. The Committee believes that the closure and change process should be suspended until more consultation and research has been carried out, to ensure that —
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is almost up.
The Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services: The changes needed, and the resulting services, must reflect the needs of the people and businesses of Northern Ireland.
Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I declare an interest: I am closely related to someone who runs a rural post office. However, that post office is not earmarked for closure or for a change to the services it offers. Let the record reflect that.
The motion refers to planned closures and to changes in the services offered by existing post offices. I want to keep that in the minds of Members. Mr Newton referred to the hard work of the Committee: I thank him for that, and I pay tribute to him for his work as the Chairperson of the Committee. At the meetings I attended, Mr Newton made sure that each member was heard, even if our remarks were parochial. On occasions, I made particular points about post offices in west Tyrone and Mr Newton tolerated them.
The criteria used by Post Office Ltd were flawed. During some evidence sessions, the Committee pointed out that there was insufficient transport to rural post offices. However, we discovered that it was not simply rural transport that was needed for a visit to the post office; people were — evidently — expected to visit their post offices by helicopter or plane. The access criteria used by Post Office Ltd used distances that were measured as the crow flies. I want to put that on the record. In my view, that is totally unacceptable.
In some of the documents we received, circles were drawn on maps: perhaps we should have picked up from those circles that the Post Office Ltd was measuring distances in that fashion. In the documentation that I read — and I did not read all of the documents — there was no mention of measuring distances as the crow flies.
I had difficulty with another aspect of the process, which was that Post Office Ltd had requested those postmasters and postmistresses whose working practices were subject to change to subscribe to a confidentiality clause so that they could not speak about it. That is intolerable. If there are to be post office closures and changes to the services on offer in existing post offices, it is important that Post Office Ltd is upfront and transparent about its proposals.
Mr D Bradley: The Member referred to the possibility of post office closures. Is she aware that if the Government do not award the contract for the Post Office card account to Post Office Ltd in 2010, it is estimated that a further 3,000 post offices may close as a result? Does she agree that all Members should make representations to ensure that the Post Office card account remains with Post Office Ltd?
Mr Speaker: The Member can have an extra minute.
Mrs McGill: Thank you. I will respond to Mr Bradley at the end of my speech because I have some points to make. If I do not get an opportunity to respond to him, I will speak to him outside the Chamber.
The Committee discovered something else during the evidence sessions — when we were fighting against post office closures we discovered that if one post office were spared closure, another would have to close instead. I found that approach unacceptable.
Perhaps I should have picked it up at the meetings that we attended elsewhere and in the presentations that we received. I definitely found that distasteful. Post Office Ltd did not tell us about that before. I remind Members, therefore, that if a post office that is earmarked for closure does not close — due to a submission — another one will close in its place.
I told a postmaster and postmistress who run a post office that is earmarked for closure about that arrangement, and they were speechless. They could not believe that if they were successful in their fight to retain their post office — and they will know where they stand after tomorrow’s announcement — another one would close in its place. They do not want that to be the case; they do not want to be working against other post offices.
Dominic Bradley mentioned the future; we must ensure that something is in place that we can all live with. I have a couple of other points. One is —
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mrs McGill: All right. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Burnside: I welcome the work of the Ad Hoc Committee, as other Members have. I am pleased that the Parkhall post office in south Antrim has got a reprieve. That reprieve is due to the tremendous campaign from the local community and political representatives, and to the effective consultative programme that was carried out during the process.
Sometimes, consultation is a waste of time — a con job. Early in the campaign, we asked that there be a proper consultative programme. Antrim Borough Council produced an economic assessment of the area and stressed that there should continue to be three post offices in the greater Antrim area. Last year, Parkhall was the star post office in performance and customer service. We, therefore, expressed our arguments and received the support of the local community. Tomorrow’s announcement will, I believe, state that the Parkhall post office will continue to operate.
Consultation is sometimes a con job, but in this case it was pleasing. The Post Office deserves credit for carrying out the consultation and listening. I know that the Post Office is under threat and that it has to make money, but all public bodies that have a national parameter should listen to the community. A number of post offices can be saved if they are economically and financially viable and if they continue to offer a service to the local community.
Post offices are especially important to old people. Some old people in Parkhall would have been left stranded between the post office in the centre of the town and the other one in the town, so I am pleased that Parkhall got a reprieve.
I welcome the report and the work that has been done by the Ad Hoc Committee. Furthermore, I praise the postmistress and her colleagues in Parkhall for achieving a satisfactory outcome to the consultative process.
Mr Burns: The proposals to close up to 96 post offices are unwelcome. The policy dictated by the British Government for a mainly urban society does not suit us. The proposed closures will have a devastating effect on villages and small rural communities. I was concerned that the six-week consultation period was too short, and it suggested that the Post Office and the Government in London did not want to spend much time listening to what people have to say.
I agree with my South Antrim colleague Mr David Burnside that, although the time was short, the tremendous campaign to save the Parkhall post office brought the whole community together. Parkhall post office serves a side of the community at the fast-expanding end of the Antrim town area. The post office has won awards, and it provides everything that one might ask of a post office. It has disability access and easy parking, and it has won awards. The people who run Parkhall post office have put a lot of effort into it, and it was disappointing for them to find it on the list for closure. A tremendous campaign has been fought to save that post office.
Instead of cutting back on the number of post offices, we should try to add to the financial services that they provide. The Post Office must offer more to the community.
Mr D Bradley: I agree with the Member that the Post Office should offer more services. Measures can be introduced to provide further support to post offices. Is the Member aware that many post offices across England, Wales and Scotland are eligible for business rates relief? For example, in Wales, post offices with a rateable value of £12,000 or less are eligible for relief. Post offices with a rateable value of £9,000 or less receive 100% rates relief, and those with a rateable value between £9,000 and £12,999 receive 50% rates relief. Does the Member agree that a system such as the Welsh scheme should be introduced in Northern Ireland in order to support our existing post offices?
Mr Speaker: The Member has one minute added to his time.
Mr Burns: I agree entirely that a rates relief scheme would help the survival of some post offices, as long as it is provided on an even playing field. Many people from rural communities would be absolutely devastated by the closure of the post office in their area. The local post office is one of the most important parts of a rural community — it is the hub of such communities. Many post offices now operate from the local shop, which, in some cases, also serves as the petrol station. That may be the only shop in a village community, and the closure of the post office may threaten the shop’s viability, and it could mean that the hub of that community is lost.
It is bad enough that people living in rural communities get up at about 7.00 am, get into their cars and leave the rural community to drive to their place of work, because they are forced to do their business elsewhere, and then return to their community at 6.00 pm. If the services provided by the post office are no longer available in their community, more and more people will be forced to do business elsewhere.
The idea that the Post Office provides a social service is dropping further and further off the agenda. Ways and means should be found to provide financial help for post offices that are serving the community. The Post Office should not be a profit-driven organisation.
Ms Lo: I have been campaigning against the closure of the Lisburn Road post office and have found unwavering support for its remaining operational, having received over 100 letters of support from local residents and businesses. I have visited residents in the area, who unanimously expressed grave concerns about the potential loss of the post office. I am particularly concerned at the impact that the closure will have on elderly members of the community, who rely heavily on the services provided by the post office.
I have visited the post office in question and witnessed at first hand the constant stream of trade that it receives, with virtually every customer giving great praise to the service and staff. The Lisburn Road post office is a family-run business that has been in operation for more than 15 years. It is a well-established hub in the Lisburn Road community and provides services that are often above and beyond the Post Office remit, while maintaining an enviable level of revenue.
At a recent public meeting, people voiced their anger over the proposed closure. Owners of several local businesses said that were the Lisburn Road post office to be closed, they would lodge their daily takings at a bank rather than use the nearest available post office.
The Lisburn Road post office continues to be viable. Its revenue levels remain healthy — around £70,000 is banked there each week. Therefore, there is a great deal of dismay as to why such a successful business should be closed.
I share the view of many local residents that the assessment criteria that determine post office closures are too rigid. The Post Office should adopt a more holistic approach to determining closures. To make an assessment based simply on statistics, rather than to undertake a genuine consultation that takes account of local opinion, is not reasonable. It is also not sufficient for the Post Office to justify its proposed closure schedule in that way.
Instead of closing post offices, a cultural change in the provision of their services is needed. Services should be expanded and made more flexible, in order to meet local communities’ needs. We could learn lessons from the Republic of Ireland, where a postal service that was previously in deficit has been turned into a profit-making one. We could also adopt best practices that are used in England and other parts of the world.
The Post Office is a very good brand, which local people trust. We should make use and take advantage of that. Instead of shrinking services, we should consider post offices working in conjunction with other service providers, such as social services and the Citizens Advice, to promote public information, provide forms and assist with tax returns. Rather than closing post offices, we should be promoting them.
Mr Buchanan: I, too, support the motion. For many years, the post office network has been the hub of rural communities. For young mothers and the elderly, local post offices have been a place of social activity. They benefit many small, rural shops economically. The announced changes to the network — with imminent closures being proposed — will affect both rural and urban areas. The proposed changes have not only torn the hearts out of small villages and towns but have caused widespread concern among businesses, rural communities and political representatives.
The Post Office’s methodology for deciding which post offices should close, and which should be affected by changes to opening hours and service provision, is open to speculation and much criticism. The fact that the consultation period was not extended beyond the six weeks that the Ad Hoc Committee, and others, requested is greatly disappointing. It would appear that the Post Office planned the closures first and then set its criteria for closure. In other words, the cart was put before the horse. The Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee, Mr Newton, has highlighted those issues. Analysis from the Assembly’s Research and Library Services indicates that Northern Ireland will be poorer as a result of the changes.
One hundred per cent of Northern Ireland’s population live within six miles of a post office. However, whatever methodology is used, Northern Ireland still does not meet four of the remaining five access criteria. Even using the crow-flies methodology, only 75% of Northern Ireland’s population live within one mile of a post office, which falls far short of the 90% target recommended by the UK Government.
There is poorer access to post offices in Northern Ireland than in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Therefore, is it not ironic that, although the postal service is in crisis due to financial cuts, the chief executive of the Post Office earned £3 million last year? That questions the integrity of the reasons that were given for the closure of post offices.
In West Tyrone, there were proposals to close one post office and to change the operation of 11 others to part-time status. I am happy to announce that the decision to close that post office has been overturned — an announcement will be made tomorrow. However, it is important that post offices be allowed opening hours that meet the requirements of people who live in the area, particularly in rural areas.
Although much is said about equality and rural proofing in the House, the proposals from Post Office Ltd fly in the face of such sentiments. I support the motion.
Mr Armstrong: The motion addresses an important matter that affects many people in Mid Ulster and Northern Ireland. I am pleased to speak in support of the motion. I was a member of the Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services, and I pay tribute to the work of the other members and the support staff.
The vast majority of people want to retain local post offices because they like to know that one is available to them. That is even true for people who do not use a post office but, nonetheless, regard it as part of the fabric of community life. That is particularly true in rural communities, where the village shop, the post office and the village school are all regarded as institutions that are worth preserving.
No one can reasonably expect Post Office Ltd to run a large number of post offices at a loss, but I have serious concerns about the way that it handled the announcement that 42 branches in Northern Ireland will close and that others have been earmarked for outreach services.
There has not been sufficient recognition of circumstances that are peculiar to Northern Ireland. The six-week consultation period was not long enough to allow a meaningful response, and, therefore, gave the impression that the closure plans were a done deal — it was a case of Post Office Ltd going through the motions.
I am also concerned about the lack of understanding that was shown on circumstances that are unique to Northern Ireland in the identification of the post offices that will close. In rural parts of England, it might make sense to close a post office where there are others in close proximity. However, the history of Northern Ireland means that there are many areas where people are nervous to travel — even short distances — to avail themselves of shops and other services, because they are seen as hostile and unsafe areas on account of community identification.
Before legislation is introduced, it must be equality proofed. What would the equality impact assessment have been on the likely impact that the closures would have on the most vulnerable and socially excluded in our society? I am particularly concerned about the impact that the closures will have on rural areas, where people will have to travel to another village or town to access a post office. What if the elderly, the disabled or young mothers in rural areas do not have access to a car or the same level of public transport that is available in urban areas? More attention should have been paid — and still must be — to the retention of post office services in other businesses and organisations, such as availability of the electoral register, driving licence and passport applications, and banking services.
Those would have a great impact on young people, because post offices are looked on as places that older people frequent. Facilities for young people no longer exist, despite young people being the backbone in making many places successful. Post offices have an image problem, in that — as I said — they are viewed as businesses for older people. Services need to be retained, and the facilities that young people want to use should be provided.
I support the motion and endorse the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services.
Mr Irwin: I mentioned previously in the Chamber that there are proposals to close two post offices in my constituency at Battlehill and Eleven Lane Ends. There are also proposals to reduce significantly the opening times of post offices at Loughgall and to operate mobile services in other locations such as Cladymore, Lisnadill and Jerrettspass.
The proposals represent a significant change in how Post Office Ltd views the existing service provision. There is no doubt that rural communities in particular will suffer in my constituency. I am deeply disappointed that Post Office Ltd refused to extend the deadline for consultation submissions, because I feel that the entire process was rushed and did not provide enough time for local people to comment.
I agree entirely with the Committee’s report that the three-week consideration period — during which time the responses to the consultation would be deliberated on — could not make for a meaningful and structured position on which Post Office Ltd could proceed.
In my largely rural constituency, little regard was given to the impact that such proposals would have on elderly and less mobile people. The Committee’s report bears that out. The report’s recommendations represent a common-sense approach that seems to have been lacking in that taken by Post Office Ltd. It is not too late for Post Office Ltd to halt its proposals and to give the entire issue greater consideration. Surely the consumer and the facility owners deserve no less.
It concerns me that, with further changes to the network envisaged for 2011, we could be faced with a repeat performance by Post Office Ltd. Again, I agree with the Committee’s report that a much greater degree of investigation and consultation must precede any further proposed changes.
In my area, the local post office is more than just a shop. It is a vital part of the rural infrastructure. As studies elsewhere have shown, there is a need to expand the role and remit of post offices to provide the community with a greater range of services.
The closure of post offices and the inconveniencing of elderly and less mobile people is an unwelcome approach. I urge Post Office Ltd to reconsider.
Mr Dallat: This is the second or third time that I have taken part in debates in this and previous mandates on the vital issue of post offices. Up until an hour ago, I believed that I would be making the winding-up speech, but that facility has been withdrawn.
The post office is the hub of the rural community. It is also the life of suburban, socially disadvantaged areas, some of which are under the hatchet of closure.
Post offices in Northern Ireland are remote from decision-makers in Britain. We need to find a way to take control of decisions that affect not only post offices but everything else that depends on them, including small rural shops, convenience stores, butchers’ shops and bakeries. All such businesses are sustained by the existence of post offices. We can lie down and allow them to die, or we can get up and fight for their survival.
The report has a number of interesting recommendations, all of which I support. If we do not have faith in what we are doing, and if we do not have a belief in, and vision for, the future, I am afraid that more speeches on this issue will be given in the Assembly next year, the year after, and so on.
We cannot allow announcements about closures to go unheard. To be honest, it will be a big fight, because, on 31 March 2008, we were more or less told that post offices are closing.
Indeed, last Friday, some of us received emails that totally ignored the fact that the debate would be taking place in the Assembly today. Other announcements are to be made later this week. For a fledgling Assembly that has pledged itself to fight for the survival of rural areas and socially deprived suburban areas, that was not a nice way to be treated; it was contemptible to say the least.
Post Office Ltd could easily have considered the examples in other parts of the world where post offices have been given serious work to do. For instance, Government services in Japan are handled by post offices, and passports constitute a significant amount of post office business in Australia and the Republic of Ireland. In some parts of the world, there are partnerships between post offices, the voluntary sector and financial institutions, which fulfil another requirement — delivering services to the people who are most socially deprived.
In this country, 8% of people at the lower end of the social spectrum have no access to banking. In recent years, services developed by Post Office Ltd have contributed to the lowering of that figure. Throughout this island, there are fine institutions in which the vision and commitment of people has transformed how things operate. In particular, I mention credit unions — organisations that I have been associated with for many years. In the 1960s, they were set up in the most socially disadvantaged areas, with little prospect of profit. However, as services developed, people participated in them and supported them. Post offices should not end their lives by being gradually culled until none is left.
Those who know the history of post offices will be aware of the Penny Black stamp and the stagecoaches. The service has a fine history, but its existence is under threat. A number of postmasters have been in touch with me because they have heard through the grapevine that they are next on the hit list. If any criticism is to be made of the Committee’s report, it is that the National Federation of SubPostmasters did not have an opportunity to contribute. However, I fully understand why that was not possible, and I commend the Chairperson for the excellent job that was done in the time available.
It seems that this work is only beginning, rather than being completed. We need much more time to ensure that we have the opportunity to save a very important institution that has served us for many years.
Mr T Clarke: Like others who were members of the Ad Hoc Committee, I was very pleased to be involved in the process to examine post office services. The experience was more than eye-opening because of the in-depth work that was undertaken to consider the criteria that were — allegedly — applied by Post Office Ltd in relation to the planned closures.
It was amazing to discover that Post Office Ltd had already decided on the number of post offices that would be closed before it applied the criteria to certain post offices. In my eyes, that means that the entire process was flawed. The number of post offices to close should not have been determined before taking into account the criteria, the distance factors, and those who would be affected by the decisions. The process was flawed from the outset.
Then there were the viability factors relating to money; one of the most important of which was the Government’s statement on how many millions of pounds were being lost on the service year on year. However, in my area, one of the post offices earmarked for closure boasted of making a profit. Post Office Ltd insinuated that post offices were costing money, yet many of the post offices earmarked for closure are making profits.
Dr W McCrea: While honouring the embargo that permits Post Office Ltd to announce its decision regarding the Parkhall post office in Antrim, I ask my honourable friend if he agrees that Councillor Smyth, Councillor Graham and the community association did an excellent job — and set a wonderful example to all — by presenting a solid case in a professional manner via a public meeting that allowed parties from across the spectrum to come together and take a united stand with the council?
It is now up to the community to continue to actively support the post office in that area.
Mr Speaker: The Member will have an extra minute added to his time.
Mr T Clarke: I concur with the Member’s remarks. When Barbara Roulston from Post Office Ltd came to the Ad Hoc Committee, she referred to the public meeting held in Parkhall and the strong feeling conveyed there.
To return to the other criteria, research was commissioned by the Northern Ireland Assembly that called into question the distances between the post offices — something that was referred to at public meetings. When Post Office Ltd came to the Committee, it questioned the results of that independent research. However, when the Assembly researcher met Post Office Ltd, it was found that Post Office Ltd was measuring distances as the crow flies, whereas the researcher’s results were based on global positioning systems (GPS) and the actual distances that people have to travel. That shows that the process has been flawed. Post Office Ltd’s main aim was to axe 42 post offices — 96, including those that will be replaced by outreach services — and did not take into account the social impact on communities. It was oblivious to the viability of the businesses involved, many of which could go to the wall when those post offices are closed, resulting in small shops being taken out of our local communities.
The process has been interesting. I commend the work of the Committee and all those who gave evidence and put forward suggestions as to what could be done if we were faced with a similar situation. I support the motion.
Mr Kennedy: Mr Speaker, call upon no man suddenly.
I welcome the report of the Ad Hoc Committee and pay tribute to those Members who served on it and to the officials who carried out important work. I share the concern of other Members about the predetermined nature of the recent consultation exercise undertaken by Post Office Ltd. I met senior executives of Post Office Ltd on at least two occasions to discuss the proposed closures in my area and the new arrangements, including mobile units for many of the smaller outlets.
Post Office Ltd is due to announce its final recommendations tomorrow. However, I fear that the two proposed closures in my area will proceed and, if that is the case, it is to be regretted. I pay tribute and put on record my compliments to the owners and operators of those sub-post offices for their dedicated service over many years. The local community will be disappointed if those closures go ahead.
A great many operators of sub-post offices have made major contributions to community life over the years. Many of those are small, family-orientated and family-run businesses. As an example, I told the House about the sub-post office in the hamlet village of Jerrettspass, which has been operated by the Porter family for generations — almost 100 years. The reduction in services there will probably mean that the viability of that post office will have to be questioned, and the Porter family may not be able to carry on the work that it has undertaken on behalf of the entire community. That would be a great pity.
I join Mr Dominic Bradley in expressing my concern that the contract for the Post Office Ltd card account is up for consideration. That has the potential to create a serious, if not fatal, impact on the future viability of many post offices.
In the village of Loughgall in my constituency, a considerable campaign was mounted against the curtailing of services. I pay particular tribute to the local group that presented an excellent counter argument to Post Office Ltd’s proposals. It remains to be seen how successful that campaign was. There is speculation that an increase in the hours that are provided by the mobile unit in Loughgall will be granted. However, the logic of the decision to reduce the profile of Loughgall sub-post office is seriously flawed.
I directly encourage local people, not only in my constituency of Newry and Armagh, but throughout Northern Ireland, to be more active in their support for, and use of, their local post offices. If they are not, I fear that the spectre of a further programme of closures and rationalisation will loom large in the not-too-distant future, and I am sure that every Member would oppose and deeply regret that.
Mr Attwood: I join my colleagues in congratulating and commending the members of the Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services, particularly given that they had a tight time frame within which to work.
To continue the theme that John Dallat and Danny Kennedy introduced, about this time last Friday, I received a call in my office from people who had heard that the decision about one post office had been made. Last Thursday night, the manager of that post office was told that the appeal process had concluded and that it had been unsuccessful. As other Members mentioned, that was some three or four days before the House had the opportunity to debate this important matter. Therefore, Post Office Ltd made its decision in advance of the debate, of the report’s publication, and of any consideration of the unanimous view of Members, who speak on behalf of the public in the North.
In a high-handed and, as my colleague John Dallat said, “contemptible” manner, Post Office Ltd usurped the proper authority — for what it is worth — of the Chamber. I am not as coy as some Members. We all know who made that decision, and I ask them: who the hell do they think they are? I know that I may be sailing close to the wind by asking that, but it is a fair question. Why was a small group of people able to act in a unilateral and high-handed manner, in advance of hearing the views of those who speak for the community in the North, on a matter as representative of the nature and character of a society as the provision of post offices and public services generally? I hope that Post Office Ltd will give deep consideration to the consequences of making such a statement about the authority of the House, as it did when it made decisions in advance of the views of the House becoming public.
I want to put on record why some of the decisions are so flawed. I will use one decision as an example, as did other Members; that which was made on the post office on Blacks Road, which is in the Suffolk area of West Belfast. It is quite clear that, in making the original decisions, the Post Office did not take into due regard the vision and aspiration for a shared society in the North.
There is no more graphic example than the proposal to close the Blacks Road post office, which sits in West Belfast on what is essentially an interface between a growing nationalist community and a declining and vulnerable unionist community. It is clear that, in coming to its decision in respect of that post office — a decision that, it has now told the post office manager, will not be changed — the Post Office did not take into account what it is like to be a vulnerable and declining unionist community, which, despite all its experiences, has somehow survived over the past 40 years in the constituency of West Belfast. It did not take into account the statement that could be made about that area: that a growing nationalist community and an existing unionist community could use a shared facility in what is, in essence, a de facto interface.
Mr A Maginness: Does the Member agree that a similar situation exists at Carlisle Circus? It is likely that the post office there will be axed, and that is equally deplorable.
Mr Attwood: I concur with that. I anticipate that the Post Office, as shrewd and calculating as it is, will acknowledge the issue of a shared society by keeping open one or two post offices that might measure against that standard, while, as my colleague Mr Maginness has indicated, going ahead with the closure of other post offices — especially in urban areas, and especially where there have been civil conflict and sectarian tensions — and not acknowledging the need to make a broader statement, given the nature and character of our society, about the need to have shared services in those particular areas.
That issue is compounded in the Blacks Road case by the ludicrous suggestion that an old woman on the Blacks Road, or a woman pushing a pram, can somehow cross the Lisburn Road, a main arterial road, to get to Dunmurry, and, worse than that, cross the exit and access roads of the busy M1 motorway. That is how ludicrous the Post Office has been in respect of the Blacks Road. On the one hand, it does not recognise the needs of a shared society, and on the other, it is saying to vulnerable people that they should walk a mile across some of the most treacherous roads in this part of the world.
I ask the Post Office to think again, but, if it does not, I say to the DUP that, if it feels it necessary to vote through the terror legislation due to come before the House of Commons in 10 days’ time — and I hope that it does not — it should get something in return, by getting the relevant British Minister to order the Post Office in Northern Ireland to rescind its decision.
Lord Browne: I support the Ad Hoc Committee’s call for the Post Office to suspend all closures. There is no doubt that the proposed closures will affect and disadvantage vulnerable people in cities and towns and, indeed, right throughout the countryside.
As some of my colleagues have stated, there are alternatives to the proposed closures. Those should have been fully explored before any decision was taken. Decisions that have a local impact have been taken at Westminster without due consideration of the effects that those decisions will have on local communities. I know that many communities in Northern Ireland will be aggrieved by the Post Office’s proposals to close 42 branches and to limit services in a further 44 branches. That equates to 18% of the post office network in Northern Ireland, and that figure is significantly higher than the United Kingdom national average.
If the proposals go ahead, my constituency of East Belfast will particularly suffer. Of the proposed 10 closures in Belfast, three are in East Belfast.
I refer to the post offices at Orangefield, Belmont and Summerhill. Indeed, the Victoria area of East Belfast, which has the highest proportion of elderly people in the city, is one of only two areas in Belfast that face the closure of two post offices. For example, 15·4% of households in the Belmont ward are occupied by lone pensioners and 37·4% are occupied by one or more persons who have a long-term illness.
There is strong public feeling about those closures. Recently, all of East Belfast’s representatives attended a public meeting on the closure of those post offices, particularly the Belmont branch. Over 200 members of the public were present. That shows how strongly the people of the area feel about the matter.
The proposed closure of those three post offices in East Belfast — Summerhill, Orangefield and Belmont — will affect over 20% of the area’s population. It will seriously affect over 2,000 pensioners and almost 1,800 people who are physically disabled. One could ask whether that contravenes section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which seeks to ensure that disabled people are given the same opportunities as those who are not disabled.
As Members are aware, post offices are not only used by people to buy stamps and to post letters. Nowadays, they are used for many other services: International Datapost; Parcelforce; US dollars; and US, euro and sterling travellers’ cheques are all in demand. In addition, particularly in East Belfast, those three post offices provide photocopying and fax services to a significant percentage of the community who have no other access to those facilities.
Surely, instead of withdrawing those invaluable services, the Post Office should develop its business in order to provide other services, such as passports, motor tax and ATMs, to name but a few. The Post Office should also consider ways to provide joined-up services, such as community pharmacies. I understand that, in Saintfield, the local post office has successfully co-located with its neighbouring pharmacy, which has resulted in mutual benefits that include increased usage and reduction in overheads. Why has the Post Office not endeavoured to evaluate all those options before taking the decision to close those extremely valuable community services?
The post offices at Orangefield, Belmont and Summerhill not only provide invaluable services to the people of East Belfast, but, as I am sure that I will hear from other Members, they are communities’ focal points, which offer security and a friendly environment to the most vulnerable people. There are many reasons to keep local, community post offices open. Surely, before any final decision is taken, the Government should evaluate seriously all the alternatives to closure and listen to strong public opinion. I support the Ad Hoc Committee’s report.
Mrs Long: First, I want to put on record my thanks to the Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee, the other members, the Committee’s staff and researchers, and the various groups who provided evidence, which is an important part of the process.
All Members recognise that the current crisis is not of Post Office Ltd’s making. The Government’s policy has reduced the number of unique services that are available through post offices and, in doing so, has limited the viability of branches. They have also limited the amount of subvention that they are prepared to make, without any regard to the social impact of post offices. That contrasts particularly with their attempts to shore up banks that have entered into risk by their own volition. Although they are prepared to shore up those banks, the Government are unwilling to make comparatively tiny subventions in order to keep post offices’ socially necessary services viable.
The Post Office is, however, responsible for the strategy that it has adopted to deal with the crisis. I accept that it must operate within its budget and become sustainable. However, the only strategy that it seems to consider is that of closure. Clearly, it has learnt nothing from the past. The previous round of closures in East Belfast delivered nothing but continued decline, which, as has been mentioned, is evidenced by the fact that three further closures are proposed for East Belfast.
Post Office Ltd has reduced its effective customer base over time by reducing the number of post offices and increasing the distances to — and the complicated journeys between — post offices. Post Office Ltd has accelerated the change and the decline in its services. It has diluted the personal touch that is a hallmark of post office services, and which people value.
I suspect that, after the new round of closures, services will enter further decline. There will be no post office along the main route between Hollywood, in North Down, and Strandtown, in my constituency of East Belfast. There will be no post office between Dundonald village, in the Strangford constituency, and Ballyhackamore, in East Belfast, along the main arterial route. Huge swathes of East Belfast will be left with no services.
Lord Browne: During the last round of cuts, Knocknagoney and Knock Road post offices were closed. Does the Member agree that those closures will be followed by others, if this situation continues?
Mrs Long: I concur with that entirely. That is one of the reasons that has left such a huge suburban population without post office services.
The report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services states:
“There is uncertainty surrounding the future of the post office network after 2011.”
I suspect that that is a rather optimistic view. Uncertainty about the future of post office services beyond 2011 is inevitable if closure remains the only tactic that is used to try to make the business work.
Other Members have reflected on the fact that the access criteria were applied using as-the-crow-flies distances. That is bad enough in an urban area, but, in a rural constituency, measuring distance as the crow flies can take one mile off a real journey. It is ludicrous to imagine that pensioners will climb through hedgerows and walk across fields to get to their local post office by the route measured by Post Office Ltd.
It is also worth bearing in mind that no one starts their journey at a post office — the distances are measured from one post office to another. Lord Browne has already referred to Knocknagoney post office. When it closed, much of its business was transferred to Belmont post office, at Belmont Church Road, which is about one and a half miles away. An additional mile is being added to those journeys. Therefore, people have considerable additional distances to travel.
In at least two of the three cases in East Belfast, the only alternative post office that is served by a bus route is not compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA). The only one that is DDA compliant is not accessible by bus. In the case of Summerhill post office, there is no bus connection between the arterial route on which it is located and the arterial route where other services are effective and accessible.
Those who are most vulnerable and most excluded from society are, again, being hit the hardest. We were all angry about the consultation, which focused on which offices were to close, not whether offices were to close. That has deliberately pitted community against community during the process.
I suspect that there was an implied threat, which was more for the benefit of those in elected positions than it was for the local communities. If a Member campaigns too hard for a post office in his or her constituency, he or she may well carry the can for another closing. At least we have resisted the temptation to become overly concerned about that.
The short period of consultation on which post offices should close was clearly insufficient. More than 1,000 people contacted me before the consultation closed. That figure is now steadily creeping towards 1,500. Many people are still writing to me.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is almost up.
Mrs Long: Mr Speaker, I thought that I would receive additional time for taking an intervention.
Mr Speaker: I apologise; that is correct. Please continue.
Mrs Long: Thank you, Mr Speaker. The short time for deliberation suggests strongly that Post Office Ltd was not intent on a major change of its processes or on taking on board strategic matters that were raised.
Many post offices that are earmarked for closure are co-located with other businesses, which are dependent on footfall. That applies not only in rural constituencies, but in urban areas where short, small nodes of shops exist, which are also dependent on footfall. Those businesses, and the services that they provide, are now also under threat.
It is important that we unanimously support the report. We must also proactively engage with central Government at Westminster and with Post Office Ltd in the next few years to ensure that we are not in the same position in 2011.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr Shannon: I congratulate the Ad Hoc Committee on its excellent report, which makes sensible and helpful recommendations. I support the report’s content.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
I am aware of the fact that my Strangford constituency has not been the constituency worst affected by proposed post office closures. In April, I expressed disappointment in the Chamber that Ballyhalbert post office was to have a reduced-hours schedule. That was to be introduced despite the fact that my enquiries about the breakdown of business at Ballyhalbert post office found that 28% of its trade comes from holders of benefits cards; 28% is mail-related; 20% comes from conveniences and services; 8% comes from bill payments; 2% comes from foreign-currency exchange; and 14% comes from banking.
This wus cleerly a’ wied range o’ facilities bein uised that wur impoarten needs fer ivery dae life o’ oany community.
It wus sum whut interestin that Talbotstoun haes three hunner custimers a’ week an whun a’a press’d tha fowk that maks decisions on it’s viability they dinnae hae oany figures, but they did sae that whiel ther wur three hunner custimers, that viability isnae based oan tha amoont o’ custimers but oan tha velye o’ aw transactions.
A wide range of facilities, essential for the daily life of any community, is provided there. It is interesting to learn that Ballyhalbert post office has 300 customers a week. When I pressed the decision-makers on its viability, they did not have the figures. However, they said that viability is based not on customer numbers but on the value of all transactions. They conceded that they were prepared to be flexible with opening hours, that opinions should be given during the six-week consultation period and that they would review the decision after six months.
Now that that six-week period is up, a decision has been reached to extend the opening hours by an extra four hours. That is not what I had hoped for, and it is certainly not what the community had hoped for. I put the point to Post Office Ltd that Ballyhalbert post office is not only viable but is an integral part of life in the village. Given that Ballyhalbert has grown three times in size, an active post office is needed, especially considering the fact that Ballyhalbert’s redevelopment potential is being explored through the Ards and Down area plan. I, therefore, urge a review of the decision, because neither I nor the community is convinced that the decision was made solely on the basis of cost.
The service van that looks after post offices in the area goes down the Ards Peninsula through Ballywalter, and it passes Ballyhalbert to get to Portavogie and Portaferry. Where exactly is money being saved? The van drives through Ballyhalbert, so a detour of only 100 yd is needed to reach its post office. In order to get elsewhere, the van must pass Ballyhalbert post office, of which an expanding community makes good use. Surely that is a case for its retention and enhancement. Such matters must be taken into account.
There is a real need for partnerships to be set up. Partnerships would increase the economic viability of Northern Ireland’s post offices, and that would allow the retention and enhancement of services, which are indispensable to so many people. The Committee’s report made, and expanded on, that point. The chief executive of Citizens Advice said that two choices are available — either free up post offices to allow them to operate commercially and to compete properly or recognise that a universal postal service is an important part of the social infrastructure, and apply cost-benefit analysis to subsidise it accordingly.
The second choice should be made. Instead of a half-hearted approach to post offices, dedicated investment is necessary. Such investment would, undoubtedly, bring not only financial returns but social returns. It cannot be overestimated just how much elderly people, especially in rural areas, depend on post offices. The funds are not available to bail out post offices continually, but we have three years in which to devise a business plan to enable the Post Office to stand on its own feet and provide for the community.
The report is well written, and, if its recommendations are adopted, it is clear that post offices in Northern Ireland have a future. Therefore, it is vital that the Assembly embraces the report. It is time for Members to nail their colours to the mast and offer their support, in order to ensure that post offices are considered not as being deadweight but as being essential. All must be done to explore ways to make post offices as much of a success financially as they are socially. I support the motion and the report’s recommendations.
Mr Savage: On 21 April 2008, I spoke in the House on the cuts in local postal services, and I highlighted the impact that those cuts would have on the rural community.
As a rural dweller, it is my pleasure to speak again on behalf of other rural dwellers. Over the past six weeks, I have been privileged to sit with other Members on the Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services, and I thank the Chairman for the professional way in which he conducted matters on that Committee.
The Committee could, and perhaps should, have covered much more ground; however, in our deliberations, time was the key factor. With that in mind, I do not understand how the Post Office considered six weeks to be sufficient consultation time. Sadly, six weeks only provided the Post Office with an opportunity to cut and run, and Members must never allow such a thing to happen again. I call on the Post Office to do the decent thing — more importantly, the right thing — and consult for longer and more widely in Northern Ireland before deciding on post office closures.
I am proud of the fact that we are part of the United Kingdom; however, on this occasion, there are certain factors that make us unique. The Post Office simply cannot make brushstroke decisions about the make-up of our society’s cities, towns and villages. Northern Ireland is not identical to other parts of the United Kingdom. What about equality and freedom of choice? The Post Office has not fully considered the consequences of post office closures, which will have a detrimental effect on the most vulnerable people in our society.
With the proposed closures, we are witnessing the slow death of community life. The Post Office appears to be more concerned about profitability and productivity than practicalities. Post offices were designed, first and foremost, to provide a service. Sadly, that ethos has gone to the wall, leaving postmasters with an uncertain future. The key question still to be answered by the Post Office is about how essential services will be provided for those who are most in need. Such fears are sincerely held, and post office closures will further erode community cohesion.
Senior managers in the Post Office are awaiting the outcome of this debate; therefore, I ask them to pull back from the brink and give further consideration to enhanced shared services. Everyone — whether they live in Belfast, Banbridge, Donaghacloney or Portadown — requires the use of a local convenience store, a pharmacy and a post office. Rather than the Post Office putting its head in the sand and proceeding with ill-conceived and poorly managed closures, it should consider incorporating post offices in local convenience stores and pharmacies.
I am intrigued to know what the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Executive have been doing about post office closures, and I trust that junior Minister Donaldson will brief the House about that. I trust also that the Post Office will learn about its mistakes from this debate and, in future situations, will handle matters more professionally and with more integrity than it has shown to date. I am sorry to say that the debate has highlighted the fact that we have little control over post office closures. We cannot allow such circumstances to arise again.
Mr G Robinson: I shall begin with a simple question. Is the Post Office sure of its facts and figures? I ask that because of inaccurate information in the list of post offices due to be closed. Drumraighland post office, in my East Londonderry constituency, is listed as being in the Strabane District Council area. It is actually in the Limavady Borough Council area. That is enough justification to call on the Post Office to withdraw its current plans immediately, re-examine its hit list of post offices for closure or outreach services and bring proposals to the Assembly and the public that are accurate and include a substantially expanded consultation period. I urge Members to examine the list for similar inexcusable errors in their constituencies.
Given that that scenario is most unlikely, I will defend those people who, due to the proposed closure of post offices, will lose a vital service as well as the heart of their community. Indeed, they may lose their jobs.
During a meeting that I attended between Post Office Ltd representatives and my party colleagues, I was thoroughly disillusioned by Post Office Ltd’s concentration on everything except the fact that the closures will affect people. They failed to appreciate that the services that post offices provide are for and about people and that the changes that are being planned will affect people. It may have escaped their notice that not everyone drives a car and that bus services in rural areas may be restricted to one or two a day. Not everyone has a bank account into which benefits can be paid directly, and not everyone wishes to use the modern technology that could enable them to access their money.
Bearing that in mind, I conclude that those plans suit only Post Office Ltd and that it is operating without giving much thought to the customer. Of the four branches that are earmarked for closure in East Londonderry, three are in rural locations. Their closure would be a tremendous blow to those areas.
We cannot overestimate the level of inconvenience that the proposed closures will cause to rural populations. That is especially true for those who have no transport or who have medical problems. As well as the older people and the infirm being inconvenienced by the proposed closures, at the other end of the age range, young mothers who visit post offices for benefit or catalogue payments or for mobile phone top-ups, for example, will also be affected. The common factor between the two groups is that the proposed closures will result in an immense inconvenience for them both. Having to take a bus or taxi to the nearest post office represents a reduction in household income. At a time when energy bills are soaring, the proposals will result in the most vulnerable and income-fragile people in society being worse off financially.
A good example in my constituency is Millburn post office, which serves a diverse area. The population that that post office serves covers the complete economic and social strata of society, conducting over 1,000 transactions a week. It is situated opposite a school and is on the perimeter of a major public-housing area. It is beyond comprehension how the closure of that branch can be justified; indeed, Postwatch agrees with those sentiments.
I cannot — and will not — support needless closures and what are, effectively, cuts in benefit. I do not believe that Post Office Ltd has considered fully the ramifications of its proposals. The Assembly must ensure that Post Office Ltd is made fully aware of the consequences of its flawed proposals, and especially of the effects that those recommendations will have on a rural population that includes retirees and those who do not have transport.
The six-week consultation period is woefully inadequate. It must be extended to at least twice that to enable local communities to prepare fully their cases to support the retention of their local post offices.
Mr T Clarke: Although there is a six-week consultation period, is it not important that Post Office Ltd considers the merits of all cases, regardless of the duration of the consultation period? I know that the House is debating the motion today, but minds have been made up and a decision has been made already about the closure of post offices. Whatever the length of the consultation period, it should be meaningful, and Post Office Ltd should listen to the concerns that are being raised.
Mr G Robinson: I agree.
Given that I have doubts about the accuracy of the information, I called earlier for the proposals to be withdrawn and for new ones to be produced. I repeat that call in the strongest possible terms.
It is a matter of great urgency that this unacceptable situation is addressed. In supporting the motion, I hope that Post Office Ltd will take note of our conclusions and act accordingly in the ways in which I have suggested. I remind Members that the closures could result in job losses for some post office staff — I am opposed to that. I hope sincerely that the Post Office is not deaf to the opinion of the Assembly, as it was to the suggestions that were made at the meeting that I attended. I support the motion and the recommendations.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I shall begin by summing up the remarks that Members have made today. The Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services, Robin Newton, said that post offices are at the heart of all communities, both rural and urban. He noted that the social aspect of those services is crucial and must be taken into consideration, and I could not agree more. I pay tribute to the Chairperson for his fine work.
My party colleague Claire McGill said that the criteria that were used during the process were flawed. She added that public-transport timetables should have been taken into consideration when making decisions on closures, but that they were not.
Mr Burnside pointed to a meaningful outcome of the consultation process. He claimed that Parkhall post office had been saved from closure because communities had gathered evidence in support of it, and that that had made a difference. That is an example of good community planning, and it shows a way forward for people in the North. Communities can work together and present evidence, but they must do so at an early stage — that is the crux of the matter. It is essential that the information be presented early, and that people are allowed to process it.
Thomas Burns also talked about the campaign to keep Parkhall post office open and said that the entire community had come together to save it. A similar campaign was launched in my constituency of South Down, with mixed results. The post office in Attical, a rural area, is to be saved. In Killough, a decision was made to extend the opening hours of the service. Therefore, when communities come together, they can make a difference. However, a consultation period of at least 12 weeks would have been needed for all communities to make a difference.
Anna Lo said that the viability of the busy Lisburn Road post office was clear to be seen. She said that there was a contradiction in the process because, although the post office was viable in the community’s eyes, Post Office Ltd seemed to be working under a different set of criteria. Again, she felt that the social element of the service should be recognised in the criteria, and she also mentioned the need for an expansion of services.
Mr Buchanan talked about the major gaps in the services offered by post offices in the North, compared to those offered in England, Scotland and Wales. He felt that it was essential to rural-proof any decisions. Billy Armstrong said that the North has different needs that must be taken into consideration.
William Irwin felt that the consultation process was not long enough, and that there could be larger cuts in services, possibly in 2011. He also mentioned the need for an expansion in services. In the build-up to 2011, it is vital that the Committee continues its work in some capacity to help in community planning and to continue to process information regularly.
John Dallat mentioned how rural businesses are sustained by post offices. He highlighted the importance of fighting for the survival of post offices and of forming partnerships. He said that the work needs to continue.
Trevor Clarke stated that Post Office Ltd had decided how many post offices were to close before the communities had even had a chance to express their views. I agree that that was wrong. Danny Kennedy was disappointed that, in his view, the outcome of the consultation process was predetermined. He called for the public to support post offices by using their services — I echo that call. There is no point in people simply jumping up and down about the closure of post offices — everyone, whether in rural or urban areas, must make a conscious effort to use the services.
Mr T Clarke: I thank the Member for giving way. I did not notice this point being mentioned today, so I want to make it now: Post Office Ltd said that some post offices had only 30 customers a week. The Member has called for people to support post offices, and I also encourage people to do so. However, in some instances, Post Office Ltd has decided to close post offices that had between 1,200 and 1,600 customers a week. Again, that showed that the process was flawed. I support the Member’s remarks about the need to use post office services.
Mr W Clarke: I thank the Member for that point.
Alex Attwood said that the concept of a shared society was not taken into consideration.
He talked about Blacks Road post office, and how statements received from people in that area were not, in his view, taken into consideration.
Member Browne spoke about the need to expand the services provided by post offices, and about the high number of disabled people in the North. Naomi Long talked about the major subsidising of banks compared to post offices. She said that the criteria were flawed, and that public-transport timetables were not taken into consideration. She added that businesses are dependent on the footfall from post offices.
Jim Shannon talked about Ballyhalbert post office; I agree with him that the draft area plan, and its forecast for an increase in housing, should have been taken into account.
George Savage said that rural communities will suffer as a result of these proposals, and called for further consultation. He also asked what OFMDFM is going to do with regard to this report. George Robinson said that, in his constituency, errors had been made in the process. He pointed out that not everyone has a car, and that getting public transport to a post office will cause great hardship, particularly to the most vulnerable.
I think that I have covered most Members’ comments. This has been a very interesting debate. The proposed post-office closures and changes to services affect many people across the North of Ireland. They affect businesses and individuals in rural communities and towns and cities. The Ad Hoc Committee was established in response to the Assembly’s concerns about the closures and their impact. The Committee had a short time in which to report. As a result, its considerations were not as exhaustive as they could have been. Nevertheless, oral and written evidence was taken from key stakeholders, and from individuals whose communities are affected by the closures.
Public responses were received from people in Groomsport. The Committee also received a presentation from Wandsworth community group, which showed the impact of post office closure on people in east Belfast. The Rural Community Network talked about the effect on people in small towns and villages, as well as in more isolated areas.
The Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee on Local Postal Services: The Wandsworth community group, to which the Member is paying tribute, is in my constituency. One could not but admire how the group went about its consultation in that every MLA for the area and a number of councillors, along with representatives of every other aspect of civic life in east Belfast, including businesses, schools, parents and users of the local post office, were invited to a public meeting. More than 200 people packed the meeting at which the Wandsworth community group was charged with the responsibility for taking the matter forward.
Despite what would be regarded as a best-practice case in consultation, there is still no indication that, having been through that process, the post office that the group was representing will be saved from closure.
Mr W Clarke: I concur with the Member. That approach is a template that other communities should use.
The Committee also heard evidence from Help the Aged and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, both of which were concerned about people with disabilities, and older and vulnerable people. The business community was represented by the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association. The Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland, the Federation of Small Businesses, and NILGA provided written evidence to the Committee. If I remember correctly, NILGA received 18 responses from local authorities in a week, which the association felt was unprecedented in so short a time. That shows how vital post offices are to local authorities.
Post Office Ltd gave evidence to the Committee to support its proposals. Recognising the Committee’s concerns, its staff met Assembly officials to clarify the statistics that it used. Postwatch addressed the Committee on its role in ensuring that the needs of post office users would continue to be met.
I want to add my thanks to those of the Chairperson of the Committee, to all those who took an interest in this issue and who helped the Committee in its work. Reflecting on what has been said in — [Interruption.]
Give it another minute.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member has 10 minutes.
Mr W Clarke: I will have to race on then.
I commend the report to the House and ask Members to approve it and to agree that it should be submitted to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform as a report of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly expresses its concern and deep disappointment at the planned closure of, and service changes to, certain local Post Offices; approves the report of the Ad Hoc Committee set up to consider, and make proposals for, partnerships that could enhance the economic case for viable local postal services; and agrees that it should be submitted to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform as a report of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
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 in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures (Lord Morrow): I beg to move
That this Assembly approves the Report of the Committee on Procedures into Committee Systems and Structures.
The report is the first major piece of work to be brought to the Assembly by the Committee on Procedures. It sets out its detailed consideration of the operation of Committees in the Assembly.
Before I introduce the report to the Assembly, I thank everyone who gave evidence to the Committee, including the officials and elected members in other legislatures who so kindly took the time to meet us, thus allowing a comparison of practice and procedures elsewhere. The report examines key areas, but it makes only two recommendations, which says a great deal. The systems and structures, practices and day-to-day workings of Assembly Committees are robust and seem to be working well, and the Committee saw no need for change for change’s sake.
I will briefly cover the areas in which the Committee saw no need for change, before moving to examine the two key recommendations. The Committee spent considerable time in discussing how many Members should sit on Committees. Research carried out in October 2007 showed that more than 70 Members sat on three or more Committees, and that figure was of major concern. Based on the experience of our Members, which was gathered in a survey, and on information gleaned from our visits to other legislatures, the Committee on Procedures felt that it would be difficult for Members to carry out their Committee roles effectively if their time and energy were split between competing priorities. However, when the Committee examined the same figures in April 2008, it noted a dramatic decrease in the number of Members sitting on multiple Committees. It was apparent that party management had stepped in to address that concern. Although the amount of time that Members spend on Committees is in excess of other legislatures, the Committee is content that no reduction in Committee membership is necessary at this stage.
Furthermore, the Committee examined the issue of substitutes and weighed the potential benefits and weaknesses. Although it recognised that there would be benefits in allowing substitutes, the Committee recognised that that could lead to a loss of continuity, a breakdown in composition and, ultimately, a reduction in the effectiveness of a Committee. Although those weaknesses could be addressed by putting in place robust procedures, the decision of the Committee was to not allow substitutes at this time. However, they have not been ruled out completely. The Committee has taken a holding position, and it may revisit the issue in the future.
The Committee on Procedures took a similar approach when considering the possibility of using rapporteurs in Committees. Although there was some consensus on their usefulness, the Committee had concerns regarding the time and resources necessary to support such a role. There were also concerns that the political impartiality required to conduct such a role might place unrealistic demands on Members. On the basis of the Members’ survey, the Committee also agreed that no change was required to the times and days on which Committees meet. However, it agreed it would revisit the issue if the number of Committees meeting on plenary days were to increase. The Committee will keep a close eye on the issue and revisit it if necessary.
I come to the Committee’s two main recommendations, which relate to joint committees and quorums. The Committee explored the issue of quorums in some depth and concluded that it found merit in a proposal that Assembly Committees might operate with a smaller quorum in certain limited circumstances.
The rationale was not based on Committees having difficulties achieving quorums, and the decision will not provide them with the excuse to meet routinely with four members. Allowing for a smaller quorum in certain instances reflects the circumstances in other legislatures and, more importantly, enables Committee work to progress. For example, Committees are being encouraged to hold meetings outside Parliament Buildings as a way of engaging with people who may have difficulties attending Stormont. However, such visits can take up an MLA’s entire day, and often this impacts on the quorum of the other Committees of which the MLA is a member.
The issue could have been addressed by reducing the size of Committees or by allowing substitutes. However, the simplest solution was to provide for a quorum of four members in limited circumstances, which is similar to the procedure used in other legislatures, such as the Scottish Parliament. In practice, the measure will allow Committees to commence a meeting with four members, provided that that meeting will solely hear evidence from witnesses. Amended Standing Orders will make it clear that Committees operating with a reduced quorum cannot make decisions or take a vote.
Finally, the Committee is recommending the introduction of joint Committees, which would enhance scrutiny of issues that fall within the remits of two or more Committees. Where there is joined-up government, there should be joined-up scrutiny. It is not envisaged that joint Committees will be permanent Committees; they will meet, do their job and disband and, therefore, will be similar to Ad Hoc Committees.
The Committee has set out the three options in the report that it has examined in detail. We have thoroughly examined the logistics of those options and have considered areas such as membership, proportionality, chairing, quorums, voting, decision-making, reporting, staffing, resourcing and so on.
The Committee favours two of the options. The first option is to allow two Committees to meet jointly. There are major practical weaknesses in that option, such as room size and ensuring that all members have the opportunity to participate. However, the Committee believes that those weaknesses can be overcome through discussions. For example, meetings could be held in the Senate Chamber or in locations outside Parliament Buildings.
The Committee also supports the concept of a joint Committee that comprises a specified number of members drawn from the membership of the relevant Committees. We have considered details such as membership, chairing, decision-making and reporting and have concluded that the option is workable. Members are already familiar with the concept, and such a Committee would operate in a similar manner to an Ad Hoc Committee. The major difference is that Ad Hoc Committees are established to undertake work that falls outside the remit of Statutory Committees and Standing Committees. For example, an Ad Hoc Committee to investigate suicide and self-harm was considered unnecessary because the issue was within the remit of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
The third option is for subcommittees to meet jointly. Although the Committee has not ruled out this option, we do not favour it. During our scrutiny of the option, we examined procedural issues and the benefits of creating such a model. We examined whether such a subcommittee could take evidence jointly, agree a position and make reports to the Assembly. The Committee concluded that joint subcommittees could only take evidence. Subcommittees do not have the power to agree positions or produce reports, and the Committee on Procedures does not wish to alter that principle.
The Committee has not reached a final decision on which option, or combination of options, will be selected. At this stage, the matter has been left open deliberately to allow us to hear Members’ opinions during the debate and, subsequently, draft Standing Orders accordingly.
In responding to those options, Members may wish to think of examples, such as a joint committee on national parks. Were a proposal for a national park to be put to the Assembly, its consideration would fall equally to a number of Committees and would require joint scrutiny. Setting up an Ad Hoc Committee would not be suitable, because the expertise lies with the members of the relevant Committee. However, the facility for a joint Committee could enhance the scrutiny role of the Assembly Committees.
I look forward to hearing the opinions of other Members, and I commend the report to the House.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don tuairisc. I apologise for arriving late and missing some of the Chairperson’s comments. I welcome the publication of this report.
Mr S Wilson: Tut-tut.
Mr McCartney: Thank you, Sammy, for reminding me that I was late.
The Chairperson outlined the work undertaken by the Committee on Procedures in this inquiry, and he is to be commended for the way in which he steered the Committee through weeks of deliberations. It is work that we could describe, at best, as mundane. It certainly required a great deal of attention, but no headlines were created by the Committee as it prepared its report.
I would also like to place on record the efforts of the officials, whose professionalism, and keen eye for detail, was exemplary.
Mr S Wilson: I am glad that the Member has given way. He was commenting on how mundane the issues were; they have clearly been regarded as very mundane by the Members of the party to my right, who have been so exercised by the report that they have come in their masses to participate in the debate.
Mr McCartney: It is either that or they are considering the offer of a pact with the Member’s party. Perhaps there are tensions elsewhere this afternoon.
The main recommendation of the report was the proposal for joint Committees in circumstances in which areas of work overlap, or where two Committees come together to make a better recommendation. It is a practical proposal, which should help with the smooth running of the Assembly, and it should be supported. The recommendation on quorum is straightforward and practical, and avoids the prospect of a meeting falling because the number of members present slips to four. The Committee felt that big decisions should not be taken in such a circumstance, but a quorum of four would allow for the smooth running of other business.
The Committee examined other aspects of Committee working, such as size and composition, and will undoubtedly return to the work that was carried out on those matters in future; however, the broad thrust of the report is one that the Assembly should support. Sinn Féin welcomes it and will support it in future. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr O’Loan: I welcome the report and commend the efforts of the Chairperson and the Committee Clerk, who did an excellent job of steering the Committee through the considerable amount of work that had to be done to produce the report. The work of the Committee on Procedures may not be regarded as the most politically exciting, but nevertheless, for a functioning Assembly and, particularly, a new Assembly, it is important. It is necessary that the systems of the House are the right ones and that they meet our needs.
I support the two specific recommendations in the report; that the quorum should remain at five, but should be four under limited, non-decision-making circumstances; and the introduction of joint Committees to deal with certain issues, which is a sensible and necessary proposal. As the Chairperson said, the precise mode of working of those Committees has yet to be determined; that will entail further work for the Procedures Committee.
There were other issues about the size of Committees. There was a degree of attractiveness about the idea of reducing Committees to nine members. We all accept that Committees of 11 place a considerable burden on members.
When we compare the level of Committee membership here with that in other legislatures, it is clear that there is a significantly greater burden here than in most other places. Although the ways in which the Assembly works demand that Committee membership remains at 11, we will need to return to that issue, particularly if the overall number of MLAs decreases, which many Members agree is necessary.
The SDLP was keener than others on the use of substitutes. We could see significant advantages for that at certain times, although the operation of a system of substitutes would have to be clearly defined. The party was sorry that that view did not prevail, and it accepts that there was no consensus for change. However, I would not be surprised if the Assembly were to reconsider that issue in the future, and I hope that it will do so.
Similarly, the SDLP argued strongly for the use of rapporteurs, because it saw merit in their use. The use of rapporteurs is widespread in other legislatures, and I wish to draw Members’ attention to that, because there must be good reasons for it. A rapporteur is a member of the Committee who is charged with researching an issue and is provided with the necessary administrative and professional research support to do so. That might apply, for example, if a Committee did not wish to produce a full-scale report but thought that some work on an issue would be valuable, or if the Committee was unsure of the way in which to proceed on a topic and thought that some preliminary research might be useful. Indeed, as often happens, if a member had a significant interest and expertise on an issue, it might benefit the Committee if he or she researched that topic. Again, I hope that the Assembly, through the Committee on Procedures, will be willing to return to that matter in the future.
The Committee’s useful work has produced a valuable report, and I support its specific recommendations.
Mr Neeson: I support the report’s content and recommendations. I thank the staff, particularly the Committee Clerk, for all their hard work. I greatly appreciate the role that the Chairperson played in guiding members through the sessions.
It is appropriate that the Assembly is considering Committee structures at this time. All Members had an opportunity to have input into the report. There was consultation further afield, especially with other elected institutions, including Westminster, the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and Dáil Éireann. That shows clearly the willingness of this Assembly to recognise the benefits that can be gained from the experiences of other places.
Most Members had no appetite to change the number of members on each Statutory or Standing Committee, despite the fact that individual Members served on two, or even three, Committees. That demonstrates the level of Members’ commitment to ensuring that the Assembly works well.
There was widespread agreement on the establishment of joint Committees to deal with issues of common interest. For example, the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development has been considering renewable energy, although the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment has overall responsibility for energy issues. The Chairperson, Lord Morrow, has already spoken about whether membership of joint Committees should involve all Members. We can establish Committees with fewer members, but, as the Chairperson said, that remains to be agreed.
The Committee also considered the use of rapporteurs to advise Assembly Committees, closely based on the European model. However, the majority of Members were opposed to that. I speak as someone who has served on the European Union Committee of the Regions and who currently serves on the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in Europe, and I can see merit in the rapporteur system.
That, and all the other issues, can be revisited in the future; I commend the report to the Assembly.
Lord Browne: Like others, I welcome the recommendations in the report and thank all the staff whose advice was invaluable during the extensive deliberations.
I welcome the recommendation that the Assembly endorse the creation of joint Committees and that the quorum remain at five members, but that Committees be able to carry on with fewer than five members but not take votes.
I appreciate that the exercise was designed to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the Assembly. However, as this Assembly has been in existence for just over a year, it would have been wrong to have introduced too many radical changes. With the passage of time, as Members — especially newly elected Members like me — become more familiar with their remit and develop working relationships, many of the issues that were considered could be revisited. I would be pleased to have assurances on that. For example, would it be in order for all Members not holding ministerial or junior posts to be encouraged to sit on at least one Assembly Committee?
I support the report and thank the Chairman for conducting the proceedings in a most professional manner.
The Chairperson of the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group (Mr S Wilson): I am glad to take part in this debate, which has captured the imagination of the whole House. At least the members of the Committee got on well and can come in here and congratulate each other on the excellent job that they have done.
As the Chairman of the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group, I welcome the report. It is something that the Chairmen of the various Committees have discussed at two or three meetings, and we looked in detail at the key findings and recommendations of the group.
One thing that has come out of discussions in the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group is that, by and large, the Committee structure is working quite well, with no major issues or difficulties arising since the restoration of the Assembly. That is probably one of the reasons why there are no major restructuring proposals in the report. The Committee structure seems to have been working reasonably well, and that is down to the excellent work of the Chairmen and many of the members.
I note that, as Lord Browne mentioned, there are some in this Assembly who have so far not deigned to serve on Committees, and I hope that that will be rectified in the future.
A Member: Name them.
The Chairperson of the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group: I am sure that we all know who they are.
I want to deal with two of the recommendations in this report: the joint Committees and the reduced Committee quorum in limited circumstances, which should help to enhance and improve the operation of the Committees.
The liaison group supports the introduction of joint Committees and believes that it will assist, as other Members have said, in considering issues that fall within the remit of two or more Committees, so enabling those things to be dealt with on a more joined-up basis. We look forward to the early introduction of detailed procedures for their operation.
I know that the Education Committee, which I chair, overlaps a lot with the Committee for Employment and Learning — I am sure that work concerning secondary education and further education would be improved if there could be occasions when those Committees met jointly. The national parks issue has also been mentioned.
The recommendation that the quorum should remain at five but could, under limited circumstances, be reduced to four is sensible and practical. On occasions, witnesses appearing at Committees have had to wait because a quorum had not been achieved. That does not reflect well on the Assembly, and any measure that can be taken to avoid such embarrassment is welcome. Although the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group does not wish the quorum to be reduced to a level that enables Members to abdicate their responsibilities, the limited circumstances in which the quorum could be reduced — as outlined by the Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures — provide a sensible compromise.
As to when Committees should meet, it was the view of the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group that that decision should be left to the Committees to make. Such flexibility is desirable and ensures that Committees respond to the needs of individual members and the situations that they have to deal with. We agreed that there was no need to reduce the size of Committee membership, introduce substitutes or rapporteurs, or change voting arrangements. I support the Committee on Procedures’ report.
As Chairperson of the Committee for Education, I will make a further point. It is important that Committees are able to scrutinise the work of Ministers. Therefore, last Friday, the Committee for Education was surprised that the information necessary to assess and comment on departmental in-year monitoring bids was not made available to it. That happened in spite of the Committee for Finance and Personnel’s recommendation that all in-year bids should undergo Committee scrutiny before going to DFP. Such situations must not arise on a continual basis.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures (Mr Storey): I place on record my appreciation to the Chairperson, members and staff of the Committee on Procedures for the way in which this enthralling report has been presented to the House — it has clearly caught the imagination of Members, the country, and the general public alike. That said, the significance of the issue should not be diminished. The Committee on Procedures has an important role to play in ensuring that procedures of the House are carried out to the best working of the Assembly.
My colleague Lord Morrow said that the report contains a small number of recommendations. Significantly, it is not recommending changes in many areas. As Mr S Wilson — the Chairperson of the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group — pointed out, the Assembly is generally working well. I wish to emphasise that Committees are busy and are struggling with their workloads on many occasions. However, the Committee on Procedures deems the systems and structures that are in place to support Committees to be robust and fit for purpose. The aim of the two recommendations in the report is to reinforce those support structures.
The recommendation on joint Committees is the most innovative one. Mr McCartney regards the introduction of joint Committees as a practical recommendation that the Assembly should support. Mr O’Loan views joint Committees as sensible and necessary. Mr Neeson referred to the co-operation of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development on energy from renewable sources and suggested that a joint Committee could be established with smaller numbers.
Lord Browne and Mr S Wilson also value the recommendation on joint Committees. It is rare that an issue has such cross-party acceptance in the House; perhaps we are moving towards consensus. The survey of MLAs carried out by the Committee on Procedures showed a high level of support for joint Committees. Investigation leads us to believe that joint Committees will increase Committees’ scrutiny role and, thus, increase the accountability of the Executive.
That is important for the Assembly. Increasingly, more and more cross-cutting issues arise that require joint scrutiny of Government actions. The report notes that there are three potential models. The Committee on Procedures wanted to hear the thinking of Members on each model before it decided which combination of the three to allow for in Standing Orders. As we have heard, there are advantages and disadvantages to each of the models, but the scope which may be provided by joint Committees is too valuable for us to lose.
Mr O’Loan recognised the attractiveness of reducing the size of Committees and made the point that the Committee will return to that issue in the future. I want to place on record that that will take place. The Committee came close to recommending a reduction in membership from 11 to nine. In the course of its visits to look at best practice, the Committee found that most other legislatures ask elected Members to sit on only one Committee, or a maximum of two: that was a startling revelation and had a real impact on the Committee’s thinking. The belief is that it is best for the individual elected member to focus on one specific area and build up expertise. In that way, elected Members can make a bigger impact. To have members on a particular Committee simply because it needs bums on seats is a slightly scattergun approach. However, there was no real desire among Members or political parties for a reduction in the size of Committees, but that is not to say that the issue will not be revisited at some time in the future.
I turn to the issue of days and times of Committee meetings. On its visit to the Scottish Parliament, the Committee was most impressed by the way in which parliamentary time was organised. The Scottish system allows for one-and-a-half days of Committee and one-and-a-half days of plenary session, allowing two days for constituency work. I hope that Members absent from the Chamber are in the Building and not working in their constituencies. All Members will agree that time is precious and a scarce resource for any MLA.
What is attractive about the Scottish system is that it uses time effectively and efficiently, and serious consideration was given to introducing a similar model here. The Committee decided against it because such a radical readjustment of parliamentary time is probably better done at the beginning of a mandate, and there was no real demand for change from Members or political parties. The survey of MLAs showed a desire for flexibility, but the Committee believes that that can be achieved by better internal management and that no change to Standing Orders is required. If a number of Committees decide to meet on plenary days, the Committee on Procedures will revisit that decision. The current system copes with two Committees meeting on plenary days, but it may not be efficient if a number of other Committees begin to meet on Mondays or Tuesdays.
Mr McCartney regarded the recommendation to reduce the quorum as a practical suggestion that will allow for the smooth running of Assembly Committees. The Committee on Procedures spent some considerable time deliberating on that issue. Its recommendation is based on good practice elsewhere and will enable the work of Assembly Committees to be conducted more efficiently. In this mandate, Committees have found no difficulty in achieving a quorum. Nevertheless, the Standing Order will be very tightly defined. It is not an excuse to operate a Committee on a quorum of four: a reduced quorum is to be used only in limited circumstances and will not become common practice.
Mr O’Loan made the point that the Committee was keen on the use of substitutes, but if such a system were to be adopted, it would require careful design. He wanted to see that considered at a later stage. He also recognised merit in the use of rapporteurs, since the practice is widespread elsewhere, and he gave some good examples. That might be something that the Committee would like to explore later. Mr Neeson also recognised the value of using rapporteurs.
The Chairperson of the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group: Does the Member accept that the use of substitutes can severely impair the continuity of Committee business and that regular use of substitutes can prevent Committees from doing their work properly?
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures: I agree with the Member, and the Committee expressed similar concerns when it was considering the use of substitutes. It is imperative that all Committee members be focused on the issue that is being investigated or deliberated on. I, therefore, accept Sammy Wilson’s concerns.
The possible introduction of substitutes and rapporteurs was considered carefully and, for the moment, just as carefully ruled out by the Committee on Procedures. I stress “for the moment”, because, as stated in the report, the option to revisit the viability of their introduction has been left open if the situation changes in the future. The main concern on the use of substitutes is that with them comes the potential for loss of continuity and breakdown in the composition and effectiveness of the Committees. For the time being, therefore, there will be no substitutes — and that is in respect of Committees; not the Northern Ireland, or any other, football team.
If substitutes are permitted in the future, it will be on the basis that parties will be allowed one substitute per Committee and on the observation of tightly defined circumstances that will be introduced. For instance, a substitute will be used only if a member or someone in his or her family is ill; if a member cannot attend a meeting because of severe weather; or if there is a major constituency emergency that requires his or her attention.
Similar thinking was applied to rapporteurs. Although their use appears inviting, on the surface, it would be time- and resource-consuming for any MLAs who take on such roles. As we saw during a visit to the Irish Republic, the use of rapporteurs is also fraught with difficulties. Some of the members of the Committee on Procedures know elected Members of other legislatures who act as rapporteurs, and they were able to inform the Committee of the benefits and downsides of their use.
The report is based on sound evidence that has been gathered from witnesses, research, a survey of Members and visits to other legislatures. The Committee’s two recommendations will strengthen the support systems that are in place for Committees. I commend the report and its recommendations to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly approves the Report of the Committee on Procedures into the Committee Systems and Structures.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Members will be aware that Question Time will commence at 2.30 pm. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until that time.
The sitting was suspended at 2.18 pm.
On resuming —
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
Health, Social Services And Public Safety
Review of Prescription Charges
1. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for an update on the cost benefit review into the current system of prescription charges. (AQO 3743/08)
8. Mrs Long asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for an update on the review of prescription charges, including when he expects to publish results and bring forward proposals. (AQO 3742/08)
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I will answer questions 1 and 8 together. As I indicated in my response to AQO 2774/08, I have received a report from the prescription charge review group and am considering carefully the options that are presented in it. I hope to be in a position to say more on that issue in the next few weeks.
Mr Lunn: Will the Minister consider drawing up proposals for a simplified system to ensure that everyone who receives incapacity benefit receives the free prescriptions to which they are entitled?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: The review has been extensive. Members are aware that there is a list of medical conditions that qualify for exemption. A problem with the current system is that that list was drawn up in 1968 and is, consequently, out of date. We can discuss, and argue about, the other exemptions that exist, but a review is being conducted. I am examining how to progress the issue, and I expect to be able to say more in the next few weeks.
Mrs Long: I apologise to the Minister for arriving late. I have raised several issues about prescription charges with the Minister, including exemptions for people who have long-term medical conditions. More recently, the cost of continuing medication for students was brought to my attention. Is the Minister considering that issue in the review?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: The review is extensive and examines exemptions for various reasons, such as age, medical condition and income. As I said in answer to the previous question, the medical conditions list dates back to 1968, which was 40 years ago. The review is extensive, and I am considering it carefully and examining the cost attached to each option. As I said, I will be in a position to return to the House to make a full statement in the next few weeks.
Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. How does the Minister intend to address the hardship that is experienced by many low-paid families that have to pay for prescription charges and the impact that that has on areas such as west Belfast, which have higher than average rates of ill health and lower than average wages?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: That is one of the reasons that I commissioned the review. The Health Service is supposed to be from the cradle to the grave and be free, so there is a problem with charging people for medicines. I am examining all the options that are available across the whole gamut, and economic hardship is one factor that must be addressed.
Mr McCallister: In a previous answer, the Minister said that the medical conditions list had not been updated since 1968. Will he assure the House that that list will be pivotal in the review process, given that circumstances have changed dramatically in the past 40 years?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: The remit of the prescription charge review group includes reviewing that list, which is one of many options that I am examining.
Ambulance Call Times
2. Dr Deeny asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what proposals he is bringing forward to ensure that time spent on recording ambulance call times does not have an impact on the care provided by ambulance crews. (AQO 3746/08)
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service has advised me that information on ambulance response times is generated electronically by means of radio status and code messages, which are transmitted by ambulance crews and recorded automatically by the Ambulance Service’s command and control system.
The codes are transmitted by pressing a button at various stages of the operation; for example, when the call is made, on arrival at scene, and when the ambulance is clear. That is not a time-consuming activity, and it does not impinge in any way on patient care.
Dr Deeny: I thank the Minister for his response. Patient care should always come before administration.
Up to 25% of ambulances in the west may not meet the required standard. During one incident, a door literally fell off an ambulance. Will the Minister ensure that the entire fleet of ambulance vehicles will be brought up to — and maintained at — the acceptable and required standard?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: There are 132 accident-and-emergency ambulances in the system. A total of 67 of those are crewed, which leaves a balance for standby and backup. They are maintained to a higher level than manufacturers’ specifications. When vehicles leave the depot, they are properly maintained.
There has been a problem with investment in that area over the past number of years, which is a matter that I am seeking to address.
Mr Buchanan: The Minister may be aware that the morale of ambulance crews that serve Castlederg, Omagh and Enniskillen is at an all-time low. That is because crews are moved about in an effort to provide piecemeal cover, with staff often having to travel in excess of 150 miles during any shift, without having looked at a patient. What is the Department doing to address that matter, and to ensure that facts and figures are no longer manipulated in order to make everything appear as though it is OK? Only by addressing that problem will a safe service be provided for the people of west Tyrone, Fermanagh and Enniskillen.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I regret the tone of Mr Buchanan’s remarks about figures being manipulated as though that were a routine matter in the Ambulance Service. I deeply resent that, on behalf of the ambulance crews.
I am not aware that morale is at an all-time low. I recently visited an ambulance headquarters and met a number of crews, and I did not get that impression. It is easy to make such remarks if someone adopts a particularly negative frame of mind.
Last month, I announced additional ambulance cover for Fermanagh and west Tyrone, which included a new ambulance for Enniskillen and one for Omagh. The Castlederg ambulance station operates on a 24/7 basis; a first-responder service is being developed; and a paramedic thrombolysis pilot that has been under way since March 2007 in the south-west will be rolled out across the region in 2009. Furthermore, the Ambulance Service and the Western Health and Social Services Board are working on a costed action plan that will enable those improvements to be implemented.
All of that is in addition to the investment that has already been made in that area, including the additional 24/7 accident-and-emergency ambulance that has been in place since August 2006, for which 11 additional staff were recruited and trained. I am sure that the Member is aware of that.
Other investment includes a new accident-and-emergency ambulance that has been in operation since January 2007; an intermediate-care crew that has been in place since July 2006; and two paramedic rapid-response units that are operational between 8.00 am and 8.00 pm. Furthermore, a new ambulance deployment point has been in place at Fintona fire station since March 2007; two intermediate-care vehicles were commissioned in the Omagh area and have been operational since February 2007; and, a paramedic-led thrombolysis pilot scheme to deliver clot-busting drugs to heart attack victims was introduced in March 2007.
That is a comprehensive list of investment. In addition to that, as I said in an earlier answer, I want to invest strongly in the Ambulance Service in the near future.
Mr Gallagher: I thank the Minister for that information. Will he inform the House of the number of vehicles that his Department plans to use for the rapid-response unit? Furthermore, will he give us an idea of when the recently announced first-responder initiatives will be in place?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: A total of 18 rapid-response vehicles are currently in place. The Department is working towards a strategy to increase that number. It is anticipated that a first-responder system will be implemented in the near future, although I do not have a specific date for the Member.
One of the key aims of the first-responder system is to get help to patients as quickly as possible. Ambulance crews aim for a target of reaching the patient within eight minutes of being dispatched, which is achieved 70% of the time. Time is of the essence, and the rapid-responder units will consist of people who have suitable experience. If they live close to the patient, they can be called and dispatched earlier. The Department is very keen on that system, which I want to see implemented as quickly as possible.
Attacks Against Healthcare Staff
3. Mrs M Bradley asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what progress has been made on reducing the number of physical attacks against healthcare staff. (AQO 3731/08)
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: In June 2007, I launched a campaign that clearly spelled out a zero-tolerance message. Since then, each health and social care trust has put in place accountability arrangements for staff safety. Additional measures have been introduced.
I intend to introduce two new pieces of legislation that will help to further reduce the number of attacks on healthcare staff. The first is provided for in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. That will allow certain staff to remove those who create nuisance or disturbance from hospital premises. The second involves the creation of a new criminal law that will make it a specific offence to assault or impede healthcare workers in the course of their duties. Draft proposals for that legislation have already been drawn up, and are currently being considered by the Northern Ireland Office.
Mrs M Bradley: I thank the Minister for his reply. Can he confirm that the legislation that is about to be introduced will also ensure the protection of staff who work in mental-health hospitals, in view of the aggressive behaviour that is sometimes seen in that sector?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: Mrs Bradley makes a pertinent point. Although the protection of healthcare workers is a reserved matter, I can confirm that the new legislation will make it a specific offence to assault or impede healthcare workers in the course of their duties — that includes all healthcare workers, wherever they are based.
That is in line with the type of protection that is afforded to police and fire services, due to the special demands of their work. Over recent years, the number of attacks on healthcare staff has risen dramatically. However, the number of attacks has plateaued over the last year and is now fairly stable. That number is still far too high, so the Department is doing what it can to reduce it. The legislation will play a part in that.
Of those attacks, 6% take place in accident-and-emergency units; 19% take place in general hospital wards; and 75% take place in mental-health-community and home-help settings. From those figures, it is obvious that most attacks occur in mental-health areas. Therefore, those are key areas in which staff require protection.
Mr McClarty: Over recent months, staff at the Causeway Hospital in my constituency have been subjected to some appalling physical attacks. I thank the Minister for personally intervening to try to prevent those attacks.
Can the Minister provide an idea of when he hopes to introduce the two pieces of legislation to which he referred? In the interim, will he continue to take steps to ensure that staff are and will continue to be protected?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I thank Mr McClarty for those remarks. I know that staff at the Causeway Hospital — and other hospitals — are grateful for his support.
The first piece of legislation — which is provided for in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 — has just received Royal Assent and will come into force early next year. Owing to the fact that the protection of healthcare workers is a reserved matter, the other piece of legislation is with the Northern Ireland Office for consultation. The Department will be ready to make progress with that legislation once that process has been completed.
Mr McCarthy: Is the Minister aware that some attacks on healthcare workers go unreported? What practical methods can the Minister put in place to accommodate people who were assaulted but did not report the incident?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: It is difficult to deal with the situation when attacks are not reported. A director with specific responsibility for staff safety and for taking supporting action in cases in which staff have been attacked has been appointed in each trust, and we have taken several steps to encourage staff to report attacks.
As the legislation stands, if staff are attacked, they have to take the prosecution case themselves. In future, under the proposed legislation for the protection of healthcare workers, that responsibility will move to the employers and the trusts. We must deal with that important piece of work, because it is unfair that healthcare workers who suffer attacks are individually responsible for prosecutions.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 4 has been withdrawn.
Child and Adolescent Mental-Health Services: Training Places
5. Mrs D Kelly asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety how many training places are available for those seeking to work in child and adolescent mental-health services. (AQO 3733/08)
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: A wide spectrum of training is available for those who wish to work in child and adolescent mental-health services. Therefore, it is not possible to give a definitive number of available training places. The service is multidisciplinary and covers a wide range of specialisms. The Northern Ireland Medical and Dental Training Agency provides training in child and adolescent psychiatry that typically lasts three years of a six-year psychiatry course. There are nine specialist registrars in training in Northern Ireland, and the agency has confirmed that 16 places are available — eight for core psychiatry training and eight for training in year four and beyond. There are 117 commissioned undergraduate mental-health nursing places, and some of those nurses will undertake further specialist training to enable them to work in child and adolescent mental-health services.
Mrs D Kelly: I welcome the fact that training places are available. Does the Minister believe that there are still insufficient inpatient places in specialist treatments for children and adolescents who suffer from mental-health problems?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I have announced already that we are currently building two new units for child and adolescent mental-health services. The first of those buildings, which will provide 18 places in the adolescent unit — for 14- to 17-year-olds — will be ready in 2009-2010, and that will be followed by the child-and-family centre, which will provide 15 inpatient beds. That is an important piece of work that dovetails well with the Bamford recommendations. The Bamford Review sees most of that provision providing support in a community, rather than an institutional, setting, and the new units are geared along those lines. There are around 400 vacancies in mental-health and learning-disability nursing, and I am seeking to address that issue.
Mrs I Robinson: We all agree that there must be investment in training and recruitment if services are to be improved. Rather than dishing out expensive drugs to young people, how many new psychologist posts have been created to provide talking therapies for them?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: As far as the provision of such a service is concerned, I am governed by the Bamford Review. A Bamford implementation process is under way. I attended a meeting of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety last week, and the Executive Committee have approved the implementation process. It is the blueprint for the future. In this comprehensive spending review (CSR) period, we are aiming for a 13-week minimum wait for psychotherapy; a reduction of 15% of those who are resident in mental-health hospitals; a reduction of 10% in mental-health admissions; and 200 multi-professional staff for community mental-health teams. I have read that list out before, but it is important to remind ourselves that we are investing in those services and that we have a current budget of around £187 million for mental-health services. As a result of the final Budget settlement, extra money of around £26·6 million is being added, recurrent in year three. In addition, we will need investment further down the line.
However, the combined amount provides my Department with the capacity to make a solid start on the implementation of the Bamford Report.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Can the Minister assure families in north and west Belfast that past failures to provide prompt and appropriate intervention during periods of great stress and distress in young people’s lives are being addressed? Both are areas of high deprivation in which there are high rates of youth suicide.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: The Member is aware of the mental-health strategy, through which several measures are in place. Families play a key role in the implementation of the suicide strategy. Funds have been allocated to those strategies, and I have made several announcements on suicide over the past year.
In addition, the Health Committee recently published a report that I have described as being of huge significance and to which I will give a detailed response, because it contains several good ideas. I agree with the Member that north and west Belfast are suicide hot spots, but the problem extends far beyond those areas; it is region-wide.
Rathlin Island Residents: Healthcare Needs
6. Rev Dr Robert Coulter asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety if he will visit Rathlin Island to meet local residents to discuss ongoing health and social care needs. (AQO 3752/08)
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I am pleased to confirm that I intend to visit Rathlin Island to meet local residents and discuss their health and social care needs.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I thank the Minister for his answer, and I look forward to his visit in the coming months. Will he join me in paying tribute to Sister Nicola McGlinchey, who is the resident nurse on the island from Mondays to Fridays and provides an invaluable service to the islanders? On his visit, will he keep open the possibility of future investment in the island, so that the population can avail itself of a first-class health service?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: As I researched the island, I was looking forward to meeting Nicola McGlinchey, because she provides a first-class service to the people of the island. They are well served by both the provision of daily cover and the out-of-hours and emergency service. The rising numbers of visitors to Rathlin Island demonstrate its potential, and it would be foolish for my Department to ignore what could develop in the future. I am, therefore, happy to do so.
Mr Storey: I welcome the fact that the Minister has agreed, for the second time, to visit Rathlin Island. I raised many issues about the island in a letter of 30 April 2008, and he replied that he would be delighted to accept the invitation. At least Members are now doubly sure that he will visit the island. However, I must ask the Minister —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Are you coming to the question?
Mr Storey: I must ask the Minister whether he agrees that there is grave concern on the island. Recent correspondence from the Rathlin Development Community Association referred to an undoubted reduction in the level of service provision. I join the other Member from North Antrim, the Rev Dr Robert Coulter, in paying tribute to Nicola McGlinchey. Will the Minister comment on the most recent evacuation that highlighted the fact that neither the responding —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order, please. You must put the question.
Mr Storey: I will put my question. The recent incident on the island caused grave concern. I ask the Minister, when he visits the island, to address all the issues in a way that satisfies all the islanders that they are receiving the service that the Minister claims is provided to them.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: That is precisely why I am going to visit Rathlin Island.
Mr O’Loan: I welcome the Minister’s interest in the island and its community. In conjunction with other initiatives being taken by the Executive, his visit and reassurance will contribute to the island’s sustainability. During his research on, and his visit to, the island, will he pay particular attention to the lack of weekend cover for the nurse and to the needs of the elderly population? Elderly people make up a growing proportion of the population, and living on an island means that they have particular health demands.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I am happy to give Mr O’Loan those assurances. I am informed that nursing services at the weekend are covered by the trust from 9.00 am to 1.00 pm on Saturday and Sunday and that after that there is an out-of-hours service. Last year, 12 people on the island used that service; a triage service is also available. The island is well supported, but I look forward to speaking to islanders. No doubt Mr O’Loan, Mr Coulter and Mr Storey — and perhaps even you, Mr Deputy Speaker — will be there.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I would love to take up that offer. Question 7 has been withdrawn.
Guide Dog Waiting Lists
9. Mr Shannon asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety how many people registered as blind have received a guide dog; and how many are on a waiting list for a guide dog. (AQO 3722/08)
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: There is no Health Service waiting list for a guide dog, and there are no figures available on how many people registered as blind have received a guide dog. Guide dogs are provided by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association.
Mr Shannon: I cannot say that I thank the Minister for that reply, because it was very negative. Would it not be in order for the Minister to discuss with the association to ensure that the necessary help is provided? Plenty of help is needed. A deputation in the Long Gallery outlined that many people are waiting for guide dogs and that some people have not even been put on the waiting list. What will the Minister do to liaise with the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association to ensure that waiting lists are reduced?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I am sorry that Mr Shannon finds the reply negative, but his question is for the association that is responsible for providing guide dogs. As I understand it, the Health Service does not fund the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association; guide dogs are provided on a voluntary, charitable basis. I understand that the total number of guide dogs in Northern Ireland is 90 and that there is a small waiting list of about 25 people who are waiting for guide dogs. It is a valuable service that the association provides. I will give the association whatever support I can, but it is the association that runs and provides the service. If it feels that it needs my support, I am happy to listen to what it has to say.
Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association has carried out sterling work in providing the dogs and the training needed for those who are blind, and it has done that work on an entirely voluntary basis. I share Jim Shannon’s concerns, and would like to put on record my sincere appreciation for the work that the association does for people who are blind. What is the Minister doing to ensure that people who are blind or partially sighted are given every support to achieve their full potential?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I agree with Mrs O’Neill. There is a UK vision strategy that my Department supports through the eye clinics and eye clinic liaison officers that work in Northern Ireland. We continue to improve and support those. My Department is also pushing forward the physical and sensory disability strategy for those suffering disabilities. For example, in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, there is an eye clinic liaison officer, an eye help desk, and a low-vision clinic. In the Northern Board area there is similar provision, as there is in Antrim Area Hospital and in Causeway Hospital; we also provide other facilities, such as low-vision clinics in Newtownards, Bangor and Downpatrick. There is provision, but we can always improve on it. Some 46,000 people suffer visual impairment, and we must do whatever is feasible to give them the support that they merit and require. I certainly do that, with the support not just of the Health Service but also of the Royal National Institute of Blind People and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Are there specific targets to reduce avoidable sight loss, and what measures are there — including the wider availability of drugs such as Lucentis — for treatment of age-related macular degeneration?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: A few months ago, I launched a programme to screen for diabetic retinopathy, as one possible consequence of diabetes is visual impairment. Other eye conditions are treated as required. It would be difficult to set targets for a reduction in the number of people who suffer from visual impairment. However, the Department can devise strong policies for conditions such as diabetes that can cause sensory deprivation.
1. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister for Regional Development whether his Department is on target to construct traffic-calming measures in more than 190 streets as set out in the Roads Service Business Plan 2007-08. (AQO 3703/08)
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The target for the construction of traffic-calming measures in more than 190 streets was contained in Roads Service’s business plan for 2007-08. That target was exceeded by 14%, with traffic-calming measures being implemented in 217 streets. The target for 2008-09 has been increased to 200 streets. Although it is still the start of the financial year, Roads Service is confident that that target will be achieved.
Mr Kennedy: I welcome the Minister’s answer. He will be aware of the ongoing request for traffic-calming measures to be implemented in the hamlet of Jerrettspass in my constituency of Newry and Armagh, which the Minister also represents. Will he undertake an urgent review of traffic-calming measures, including the possible introduction of speed limits, on the A56 road at Jerrettspass in order to deal with that request?
The Minister for Regional Development: The Member will be aware that the number of applications for traffic-calming measures far exceeds the resources that are available to carry them out. They are, therefore, carried out according to priority across a range of assessments.
I know that the Member has been in contact with Roads Service about Jerrettspass. I can advise him that a traffic survey was carried out there between 15 and 21 October 2007 and that the average speed that was recorded was 56 miles per hour. No contact was made with the police because that average is within the speed limit for the main road. However, having discussed the matter with the Member, I understand that the objective is not that cars will travel within the 60 mph limit but to reduce the speed limit for the hamlet of Jerrettspass. I am happy to engage in further discussion with the Member in order to establish what progress can be made on the matter.
Mr Irwin: In light of the number of applications for traffic-calming measures and, indeed, their necessity, has the Minister considered other measures for Northern Ireland that are similar to the modern methods that are used in England, Scotland and Wales?
The Minister for Regional Development: The Department seeks to introduce traffic-calming measures that meet the highest current standards. The Member is quite right: their necessity far exceeds the Department’s ability to meet demand, not only in villages such as Jerrettspass but in housing estates, developments, towns and streets in urban areas, from where requests for all sorts of traffic-calming measures are received. Roads Service keeps abreast of developments in Britain and elsewhere that will improve traffic calming and safety on the roads, which is its priority. If innovative measures are being developed elsewhere, I am sure that Roads Service will make itself aware of them.
Mr Burns: What consideration has been given to the implementation of schemes such as the ‘20’s Plenty’ campaign, introduced by the Scottish Parliament, for the provision of a 20 mph speed limit outside schools?
The Minister for Regional Development: I am aware of the ‘20’s Plenty’ scheme for advisory 20 mph limits and zones in Scotland. My officials have discussed its operation with Transport Scotland and with some local authorities.
However, experiences from there and elsewhere have shown that those more economical schemes are effective only when they have the support of the entire local community and when the roads on which signs are placed do not carry through-traffic.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Mr Francie Brolly to ask question 3.
Mr McCarthy: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Does question 2 not come before question 3? [Laughter.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: My apologies. I call Mr Kieran McCarthy to ask question 2.
Mr McCarthy: I accept your apologies, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Maintenance of Rural Roads
2. Mr McCarthy asked the Minister for Regional Development what plans he has to reallocate funds in the roads budget towards the maintenance of rural roads. (AQO 3755/08)
The Minister for Regional Development: I almost escaped Strangford once again.
Members will appreciate that there are many competing funding priorities in my Department’s programmes. The Budget that was announced on 22 January 2008 means that funding available for structural maintenance is some £56·3 million, £71·8 million and £70 million a year over the next three years. That is a total of almost £200 million during the three-year Budget period of 2008-2011.
Roads Service gives priority to the main strategic road network and to roads that carry the greatest volumes of traffic. Remaining funds are used to treat other roads, including rural roads, on a priority basis that reflects both structural condition and traffic volumes. In that context, there are no plans to reallocate budgets.
That said, I assure Members that Roads Service will continue to make strong bids for additional structural maintenance funds as part of the in-year monitoring process.
Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for his answer. I also thank him for his recent visit to my Strangford constituency to see for himself the deplorable conditions of the roads there, especially those in the Ards Peninsula.
Does the Minister agree that rural taxpayers are entitled to a reasonable roads service? Will the Minister admit that rural roads have been neglected for centuries, and that the time is right for additional funding for rural roads?
The Minister for Regional Development: I can answer for my Department’s performance over the past year, but I cannot stand over what happened to rural roads in the centuries before that.
I agree with the Member that people are entitled to a reasonable standard of road.
As with all Departments, when the budget is not what people initially bid for or seek, we must make do with limited resources. I am sure that every Minister in every Department would like to have more money to spend, but we receive a block grant from the Treasury. That is the basis on which this institution works. I would prefer to change that at some stage, and I would welcome the Member’s support for doing so.
Given that we have to stretch limited resources, we must prioritise roads that experience the heaviest traffic. That means that lesser-used rural roads will not receive the same allocations. Nonetheless, people living in rural areas are entitled to expect roads of a decent standard. Roads Service’s target is to provide a decent road service across the rural road network.
Dr W McCrea: Does the Minister understand that people who live in rural communities are unwilling to accept the present situation and the condition of their roads? Does he agree that there must be investment in the improvement and maintenance of rural roads?
I have a simple question for the Minister: how many times do officials from his Department have to be sent out to paint yellow lines around potholes before someone has the sense to fill them with tarmac?
The Minister for Regional Development: The Member will know how much money was allocated to Roads Service, because he voted for the Budget. I assure him that my Department’s budget is being spent as best as it can. It is spread as evenly as it can be across all the North’s rural areas and districts.
If the Member has a problem with certain potholes in his area, he should take it up with the applicable Roads Service division. I assure him that Roads Service operates on a limited budget, which was agreed by the Assembly. It is not as much as I, or Roads Service, would have liked, but we must try to cut our cloth according to what the budget provided.
Mr Burnside: Does the Minister remember the statement that his colleague Michelle Gildernew made on 3 May 2006, in which she blamed the appalling number of deaths on the rural road network directly on decades of underfunding from direct rule Ministers?
Since he has taken over responsibility for the Department, he has spent only 18% a mile of the amount that is spent on road maintenance in England. Does that not make him a worse Minister than his direct rule predecessor?
The Minister for Regional Development: No, I am not a worse Minister. The Member will do well to reflect on the fact that a block grant was allocated from the Treasury, to be distributed across all Departments. That Budget is not sufficient to meet our current needs, resulting in substandard facilities for roads, the rail network and other areas. I want to change that; however, the Member and other Members want to stay in that system, and they think that it is beneficial to the people of this part of the island. I want to change it, and I look forward to the Member joining me in that. Let us be in charge of our own affairs and of our own Budget, rather than spending what little is given to us by the Treasury.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I now call Mr Francie Brolly for a question.
Mr Brolly: Are you sure? Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Bilingual Road Signage
3. Mr Brolly asked the Minister for Regional Development what progress has been made on the bilingual road signage policy being taken forward by his Department. (AQO 3800/08)
The Minister for Regional Development: My Department has prepared a draft policy for the introduction of a range of bilingual road signs in response to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The issue of bilingual signing cuts across the responsibility of my Department as well as that of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, which has responsibility for the charter, and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which has responsibility for tourism. I am considering a draft policy, and I am in discussion with departmental officials about taking the proposals to the Executive Committee.
Mr Brolly: What exactly is the current legislative position?
The Minister for Regional Development: A LeasCheann Comhairle, there was doubt about the legislative powers that were available to my Department. Recent advice from senior counsel has confirmed that my Department has the power to proscribe or permit traffic signs that include a second language in addition to English. However, the proposed signing will need to be proscribed or authorised in accordance with article 28 of the Road Traffic Regulation Order 1997.
Mr G Robinson: Does the Minister agree that, given that budgets are already stretched, as he said in his previous answer, spending money on new bilingual road signage is an unjustifiable waste of money, especially considering that other Ministers, particularly the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, have not been consulted and nothing has been agreed?
The Minister for Regional Development: I outlined the way in which the proposal will be developed, and it remains to be seen what others will say when the proposal is put to them. Under the proposed policy, Roads Service will erect bilingual signs; however, the responsibility for costs lies with the party that requested them. That is the relevant district council, or, in the case of Tourist Board-approved signs, the private premises or the owner of the tourist attraction. Therefore, the cost to the Department will not impinge on its budget, to which the previous couple of questions referred.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra a thug sé dúinn go dtí seo. Ba mhaith liom a fhiafraí de an aontódh sé liom nach bagairt ar bith iad fógraí dhátheangacha do dhuine ar bith — leoga, a mhalairt atá ann ar fad. Má amharcaimid ar an Bhreatain Bheag, mar shampla, feicfimid go saibhríonn comharthaí dhátheangacha an tír sin ó thaobh cultúir agus turasóireachta de. An aontaíonn an tAire liom go mbeadh an scéal amhlaidh sa chuid seo den tír?
I will translate for the benefit of those who could not follow what I said. Does the Minister agree that bilingual signage, in itself, threatens no one? In Wales, for example, bilingual signage enriches the country culturally and is a major benefit to cultural tourism. Can the Minister provide a more precise timescale for the development of his Department’s policy? Go raibh maith agat.
The Minister for Regional Development: I agree with the Member that bilingual signage does not present a threat to anyone. Last week, Minister Poots and I were in Cardiff and, on the way to our meeting, we saw that all road directional and motorway signs there are bilingual, not just those that are specifically requested to be bilingual. That does not seem to pose any significant problems, such as those that have been raised about reading the signs, or issues with decision-making time.
Therefore, that does not seem to be an issue in Wales. Nonetheless, our proposal is for bilingual signs, when they are requested, and I intend to put such a proposition to the Executive soon. Depending on the outcome of that discussion, we will make progress with the matter.
Impact of Development
4. Mrs Long asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline how the cumulative impact of development is taken into account by the Roads Service development control section and by Northern Ireland Water in their responses to the planning consultation process. (AQO 3760/08)
The Minister for Regional Development: The Roads Service’s development control section works closely with the Planning Service to develop area plans, and a development’s cumulative impact on traffic is considered at that stage. Developers are required to submit a transport assessment form for proposed developments or redevelopments, and the Roads Service considers such forms during the planning and consultation process. The transport assessment form demonstrates how a development would function with regard to transport and identifies possible adverse impacts. If a development — irrespective of its size — is considered likely to have significant transport implications, Roads Service may request a full and detailed transport assessment through the Planning Service. In that analysis, the impact of developments that have extant approval must be taken into account. Developments still under consideration are not taken into account in the analysis.
During the planning consultation process for new developments, Northern Ireland Water informs the Planning Service about the availability of water and sewerage services. Such advice is based on the capacity of the sewerage system and associated waste-water treatment works and the availability of supply from the water-distribution system. It also takes account of development in the area, the level of environmental compliance and the investment programme for water and sewerage infrastructure. Although Roads Service and Northern Ireland Water are consultees in the planning process, decisions on whether to approve or refuse planning permission are taken solely by the Planning Service.
Mrs Long: Although I thank the Minister for his answer, the area-planning process to which he referred is at too high a level to handle small, cumulative developments that have a large impact and are the problem, such as back-land development and garden-grabbing.
In light of the Minister of the Environment’s recent circular to her staff emphasising the need to consider localities and the cumulative impact of development more coherently, and given that Northern Ireland Water and Roads Service have informed us that they are still considering developments one at a time and not cumulatively, will the Minister consider undertaking a similar exercise?
The Minister for Regional Development: My Department does consider cumulative impacts. As I said, we are consultees of the Planning Service, and, although we may offer advice about the impact of applications on water services or on the road network, it is not up to us to decide whether an application proceeds. We are obliged to consider extant applications — applications that are live and have been approved — but not those that are in the pipeline.
Perhaps, in conjunction with the reform of the planning process, we could investigate looking at areas holistically and in light of mooted developments. Currently, we consider developments with planning permission — even if they have not been developed. We are consultees to the process, but we do not dictate how it is carried out.
If the Planning Service wants to take account of possible developments rather than those for which applications have been submitted, we will be happy to work with it.
Mr McCausland: Although Northern Ireland Water and Roads Service are only consulted about individual developments, is there provision in legislation to prevent them from commenting on the cumulative effect of probable further developments?
The Minister for Regional Development: At the moment, we are considering potential developments in the Titanic Quarter, and cross-departmental groups are examining the potential implications for transport and other services. Furthermore, I have written to some of my Executive colleagues about similar potential developments in west Belfast. Therefore, when we are aware that significant portions of land are being zoned for development, or in circumstances such as those raised by the Member for East Belfast in which there is potential for further development on excess land and gardens — although we have begun to close that potential down — there is scope for the Member’s proposal to consider existing and potential applications.
There is a precedent in respect of Departments’ consideration of major developments that could be translated for developments that are not of such a nature or size.
Mr K Robinson: Has the Minister carried out any assessment of the impact of tarmacking at public and private developments on surface-water run-off, and the contribution that that has made to local flooding events? Have Roads Service and the Planning Service considered the introduction of new, improved porous surfaces, which permit surface water to escape, or the use of straw bales and barriers to slow water run-off on slopes, as is the case in the United States?
The Minister for Regional Development: Question Time can be a great education on initiatives from all over the world. It is incumbent on Roads Service — and on all Departments — to keep themselves abreast of technological developments elsewhere and to ensure that they are up to speed.
The potential impact of development on surface drainage is a material planning consideration, and is considered in the preparation of development plans, and in the determination of planning applications by the Department of the Environment. During the preparation of a development plan, the Planning Service consults on drainage issues with Northern Ireland Water and other bodies that have relevant responsibility.
As the Member suggests, we can always learn from new techniques that are used elsewhere.
Pilot Residents-Only Parking Scheme: Alternatives
5. Mr A Maskey asked the Minister for Regional Development what plans his Department has to alleviate parking problems in communities which are currently being consulted as part of the Residents-Only parking pilot schemes, in the event of those communities rejecting the proposals. (AQO 3813/08)
The Minister for Regional Development: The Roads Service has — in response to numerous and ongoing requests from residents and their elected representatives — established a policy to allow the introduction of residents’ parking schemes to address the problems associated with all-day commuter car parking in the worst-affected residential areas.
The Member referred to a consultation exercise. That represents the next step of the process, whereby the broad principles of the policy will be applied to specific localities, and local residents will be consulted on the designs for their areas. I hope that the residents of the first five areas where there has been consultation will recognise the benefits that those schemes can bring, so that we can make progress. However, I do not intend to continue the development and implementation of the scheme in areas where it is not supported by local communities.
Roads Service officials are working actively on preliminary scheme designs for a number of other areas where a need has been identified. There is a list of other areas that are awaiting survey and assessment. Should residents of any of the first five areas reject the proposals, Roads Service, with regret, would have to move on to those other areas.
The only practical way to deal with all-day commuter parking in those areas is through residents’ parking schemes. I have seen no workable alternative. I am happy to proceed with the schemes in all five of the areas where there has been consultation, as long as they have the support of local communities. The Department’s resources would, regrettably, be deployed elsewhere if that support did not exist.
Mr A Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Although provision has been made for the charge associated with the schemes to be reduced from £80 to £40 per household in areas of social disadvantage, can the Minister advise Members why there is any charge for such schemes?
The Minister for Regional Development: In answering that question, I hope to explain some of the background to the scheme. Over the past several years, there have been ongoing requests — from residents and their elected representatives — for schemes to stop the plague of all-day commuter parking in residential areas. That has particularly affected the Belfast area, but also other towns across the North. Those requests were brought before the direct rule Administration at the time. A residents-only parking scheme was consulted on, and the initial proposals included a charge of £80 per household.
I was made aware of the outcome of that consultation when I took up office, and of some of the objections that had been raised, particularly about the cost of the scheme. A cost is associated with the scheme because there is a level of infrastructure that must be put in place in a residents’ parking area, including signage, pay-and-display units, additional enforcement, and legislation. I undertook to have that cost reduced in areas that qualify for neighbourhood renewal. However, no money was included in the Roads Service budget to cope with those costs — the schemes were designed to be self-financing.
The reduction of the charges in neighbourhood-renewal areas would mean that it would take many more years for those schemes — if implemented — to become self-financing. Nonetheless, I felt it important to respond to the issue that was raised in the consultation that people in some areas would struggle to meet the charges. I have outlined the reason behind the charges.
I have met residents from some of the areas involved, and the bottom line is that, if residents examine the proposition and conclude that they do not wish the scheme to be introduced, that will be entirely their choice — the scheme will not be imposed on them.
Ms Lo: On 17 April 2008, the Minister issued a press statement in which he said that the introduction of a residents’ parking scheme would mean:
“There will be improved traffic progression, which will lead to better access for all, including bin lorries, doctors, ambulances, carers and other essential services.”
Public access is clearly a problem in those areas, and it must be addressed. If the schemes do not go ahead there, what plans does the Minister have to deal with that problem?
The Minister for Regional Development: I had the opportunity to meet residents, particularly from the Markets and Donegall Pass, and they told me about ongoing problems that they face. For them, the key problem is all-day commuter parking. Commuters are parking legitimately on streets in the area — they just do not happen to live there — so nothing can be done about it.
However, illegal parking is also a problem. We discussed the matter with residents, and we assured them that we would ask NCP, which has responsibility for enforcement measures against illegally parked vehicles, to patrol those areas and do what it could to stop people from blocking entrances and from parking on corners and footpaths — in other words, ensure that whoever is parked in those areas has done so legally.
Residents tell us that the bigger issue is that people park their cars in the area at 7.00 am or 8.00 am, leave their cars there all day and then return to them at 6.00 pm or 7.00 pm. Nothing can be done about that, because those people are parked legitimately — so long as they are not committing a parking offence, of course. Therefore, a specific scheme must be devised to deal with that issue. Although I argue that the residents’ parking scheme is the way in which to tackle all-day commuter parking, we will certainly help to ensure that NCP tackles illegal parking.
Dr McDonnell: I listened to the Minister’s answer to an earlier supplementary question, but I was not quite sure whether he was saying that the charges were absolutely necessary. However, if residents’ groups have a plan B — a plan that is tailored to suit their particular area — will he consider them? Such plans might vary from area to area.
The Minister for Regional Development: The general proposition for residents’ parking was put out for consultation about a year before I came into office. We are now involved in a specific local consultation on schemes that are designed to suit specific areas, many of which are in the Member’s constituency. I have had the opportunity to speak to some of the residents in the affected areas. Thus far, no one has approached me with an alternative scheme. Through consultation, our policy idea has been developed over the past number of years. I have not heard of a better scheme or one that might more effectively tackle the problem.
I appreciate the situation in which people in those areas find themselves. It is not of their making — no one is suggesting that it is. The scheme does not represent a tax on residents who park outside their front doors; rather, it is designed to create space for local residents by stopping people who should not be in those areas, or who do not reside in those areas, from parking outside other people’s front doors.
I am happy to talk to residents and to listen to the feedback from the consultation process. I had the opportunity to speak to elected representatives at the launch of the consultation process for the first five proposed residents’ parking schemes. The consultations in the five individual areas are ongoing, and, as I said, I am happy to hear feedback. However, I have not heard of any proposals for an alternative scheme. Indeed, residents in many other areas have expressed an interest in implementing the scheme as it is currently devised.
We wanted to tackle first the areas in which the all-day parking problem is worst. I hope that some of the five affected areas will sign up to the scheme. If they do, they will see that it is very effective. That certainly seems to be the experience in Dublin and other cities that have implemented such a scheme.
At present, people who park in those areas all day do so legitimately, unless they are illegally parked on a double yellow line, or in a driveway. In order to differentiate between those who live in the area and those who park there all day, a scheme must be devised, legislation introduced, and a system put in place to tackle that issue.
6. Mr W Clarke asked the Minister for Regional Development if he will consider developing criteria that can be applied when considering the introduction of park-and-ride schemes. (AQO 3815/08)
The Minister for Regional Development: There are 37 park-and-ride sites across the North, providing almost 3,200 spaces. My Department has developed plans for further park-and-ride sites along the strategic transport network, and a number of local park-and-ride sites on the outskirts of Belfast. The proposed sites have already been appraised against a range of objectives, including environment, safety, economy, accessibility and integration.
It is proposed that the new park-and-ride sites around Belfast will be roughly 3 km to 6 km from the city centre along the main radial corridors. That is typical of the distance of park-and-ride facilities from other towns or city centres. That distance balances several factors, including the need to avoid potential users’ getting stuck in traffic before they reach the site, or the site being so far out that the number of potential users is too small.
The distance from the park-and-ride site to the city centre, and the opportunity to provide priority to enable park-and-ride buses to bypass traffic queues, also have a significant impact on the cost, frequency and reliability of the park-and-ride bus services. The availability of land, planning permission, environmental impact and cost are also assessed for each site.
Renewable Energy in Social Housing
1. Mr McKay asked the Minister for Social Development what action she is taking to introduce renewable energy into social housing. (AQO 3780/08)
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): We are investing in renewable energy solutions in the social housing sector. The Housing Executive has recently installed solar water-heating panels in more than 2,000 dwellings, and has tested different types of renewables through pilot schemes, including such technologies as solar photovoltaic panels, solar ventilation systems, solar photovoltaic and thermal roof tiles, ground-source heat pumps, wind turbines, and wood-pellet boilers.
More could be done for renewable energy in housing. In that respect, I was disappointed that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment ended support for the Environment and Renewable Energy Fund. That was impacted upon by the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s decision not to proceed with the proposal to put renewable energy at the heart of building regulations. I understand that, shortly, there will be a new Minister of Finance and Personnel; and, if that proves to be the case, perhaps Mr McKay will consider speaking to the new Minister.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her answer. Has the Minister set a target for the percentage of new housing that will have renewable energy? Has she had any contact with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment regarding the need to develop renewable energy technology to ensure that Housing Executive tenants are not over-reliant on oil, and that pushing for the reintroduction of coal fires will stop, given that oil is expected to reach $200 a barrel by the end of the year?
The Minister for Social Development: I thank Mr McKay for his question. There is obviously some dichotomy in Sinn Féin because a question further down the list asks me to favour solid fuel. I thought that Sinn Féin supported renewable energies. Perhaps Mr McKay can clarify that matter.
I could not agree more with the Member with regard to the credit crunch. As a result of the impact of the credit crunch and rising fuel and power prices, and although I do not have responsibility for energy tariffs, I took the ministerial lead and set up the fuel poverty task force. The task force has four work streams and not only involves making representations to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, but, importantly, dealing with short-term measures and working through the summer to ensure that people keep warm next winter.
I have written to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment asking for the Environment and Renewable Energy Fund to be reinstated. The fund did help, and I will continue to press for its reinstatement.
Mr Hilditch: The solar water-heating scheme has been helpful for people on low incomes, and I heard you say, Minister, that 2,000 systems have been installed to date. Are there any plans to expand the scheme?
The Minister for Social Development: Those issues continue to be explored. The Housing Executive has carried out good work in that respect, but more could be done. I look forward to the support of all my ministerial colleagues when I make my representations this week in respect of in-year monitoring, particularly for the warm homes scheme.
Mr Kennedy: Research by the Energy Saving Trust suggests that homeowners who install microgeneration technology could feed electricity into the national grid, and that that could cater substantially for the UK’s electricity needs by 2050. To that end, Her Majesty’s Government announced in June that they would remove all planning restrictions on home-based micro-wind turbines. Has the Minister had any discussions with her ministerial colleagues with a view to implementing that United Kingdom policy in Northern Ireland?
The Minister for Social Development: I would like to consider the matter further and discuss it with some of my ministerial colleagues. I had some initial discussions with the Minister of the Environment, as she has lead responsibility from a planning perspective.
Allocating Funding Based on Objective Need
2. Mr Ford asked the Minister for Social Development for her assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of using objective need to allocate funds, as opposed to targeting funds at certain predetermined social or cultural groups. (AQO 3779/08)
The Minister for Social Development: I have set three key priorities to guide the work of my Department. They are: first, investment in social and affordable housing and addressing the housing crisis; secondly, building communities, tackling disadvantage and encouraging social responsibility; and thirdly, creating vibrant cities, towns and urban areas. In striving to achieve those priorities, my Department is delivering funding and is providing support for individuals and groups on the basis of identified need. Funding is provided through programmes that have established, transparent objectives and criteria and funding procedures. As such, all the funding that my Department provides is allocated on the basis of addressing need.
I detected a change of tack in Mr Ford’s question, as he mentioned targeting funds at certain groups, which is at odds with the principle of addressing objective need. Disadvantage takes many forms and impacts on communities in different ways. My Department addresses disadvantage and need as we find it, designing the intervention to best address the specific circumstances. However, the two propositions in the question are not mutually exclusive, and the reason for targeting particular sections of the population or particular issues within disadvantage is that the specific issue can be better addressed through a more tailored intervention than our more generic strategies can deliver. In an environment where all our budgets are increasingly under pressure, targeting funding for particular needs can often deliver greater value for money than more broad-based interventions. However, targeting must be done within an overall strategy to address disadvantage in Northern Ireland.
Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for a comprehensive answer to a convoluted question. Presumably, her intention is to ensure that needs are targeted on the basis of objective need, and not on the basis of some political decision-making by her predecessors under direct rule. I would welcome her assurance that that is what she meant by her answer. Is that the Executive’s policy, or is it only DSD’s policy?
The Minister for Social Development: I assure Mr Ford and Members of the House that when I talk about need, it is based on objective need as identified by the Noble indices of deprivation, which refer to the 10% most disadvantaged electoral wards in Northern Ireland. Obviously, funding goes to the next level of identified need, namely through the areas at risk programme.
Moreover, I assure Mr Ford that it is a departmental policy to which I want my Executive colleagues to commit. We should not make political judgements, because disadvantage and deprivation is particularly pernicious in certain areas of Northern Ireland and it must be dealt with in a fair and equitable manner.
Mr Campbell: The Minister outlined how she intends to allocate funding. Setting that aside, does she accept that there is a legitimate need for funding in a range of communities — particularly, although not exclusively, working-class loyalist communities who have been marginalised and disadvantaged — to ensure that the parasites who live on the backs of those communities are isolated so that the communities can move forward without them?
The Minister for Social Development: I thank Mr Campbell, the Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, for his question. I emphasise that I intend to target need where it is most pernicious. During the past year, I have visited many working-class communities in loyalist, republican and nationalist areas. The Member referred specifically to working-class loyalist communities. On 10 November 2007, I announced the next stage of the areas at risk programme. Through that programme, many areas received funding. I visited housing estates in Newtownards, Fintona and Derry’s Waterside area. All those places — located in working-class loyalist and republican areas — were identified as being disadvantaged. I try to be fair and equitable, and if Members have any issues or details that they want me to consider, I will do so.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Department plan to work with energy companies to develop social tariffs in order to ensure that people who experience fuel poverty are given the help that they need?
The Minister for Social Development: As I said in response to Mr McKay’s question earlier, I do not have the lead ministerial responsibility for energy and social tariffs. However, I established a task force because I am responsible for alleviating fuel poverty. The task force will comprise four subgroups and four principal work streams, which will examine social responsibility, winter fuel payments, and how best to use public money. They will also identify the households that are in most need of help.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is a member of the task force and the work streams and, therefore, will offer its experience and input on the social tariffs. Furthermore, the work streams will comprise representatives from the energy regulator and the Consumer Council, who have an in-depth knowledge of such matters. The four work streams will work throughout the summer to equip me with short-term measures — aimed at keeping people warm this winter — to bring to the Executive for consideration.
3. Mr McElduff asked the Minister for Social Development if her Department will provide vouchers to low income families who cannot afford heating oil. (AQO 3798/08)
The Minister for Social Development: The Member refers to “vouchers”, which, essentially, means money. There is a need to increase this year’s winter fuel payment, and Mr McElduff will be aware that, currently, only pensioners receive the payment. However, I have written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, James Purnell, to ask him to increase the winter fuel payment for pensioners and, more importantly, extend the payment to families on low incomes.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s response and her attempts to secure an increase in winter fuel payments. I ask her to pay particular attention to low-income families that have children with disabilities. I mention that at-risk group in particular, because the evidence that is emerging from the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister’s inquiry into child poverty points to such families being most at risk of poverty.
The Minister for Social Development: That is the very reason that I wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I want him, the British Government and the Treasury to extend the remit and focus of the winter fuel payment so that it not only includes pensioners but people who are on low incomes and people with disabilities who are on low incomes. The credit crunch and high fuel prices have an impact not only on those people who receive benefits but on those who are on low incomes.
Mr Cobain: Perhaps, along with the vouchers about which Barry McElduff spoke, we should introduce food vouchers and clothing vouchers; perhaps we should get badges for people that say, “I am poor.”
It is clear that this issue requires ministerial and Executive drive. Will the Minister tell the House whether there is any possibility of setting up an Executive subcommittee to deal with the issue of the huge increases in the cost of living over the past few months? Electricity prices are to rise by 14%, the price of gas is to rise by 35% and water charges are on their way. Many people say that inflation here is 12%, not 2·5%. I will be glad if Members on the opposite Benches, including those from Sinn Féin, remember those people when it comes to water tax.
The Minister for Social Development: I set up the multi-disciplinary, interdepartmental task force in order to address the problems created by the credit crunch, rising food prices and the inability of some people to pay their mortgages because of rising power and petrol prices, and to determine short- and long-term measures to alleviate fuel poverty. I will present the task force’s report to the Executive after the summer recess.
Dr McDonnell: I thank the Minister for her answers so far. Where does the responsibility for energy costs lie in our system of devolved Government? Does the Minister have any thoughts about how we might address the ever-rising cost of energy and keep it affordable for those people who are on low incomes?
The Minister for Social Development: The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the energy regulator have overall responsibility for energy policy. The cost of energy is largely outside Government control. I have responsibility for supporting energy efficiency in homes. However, there must be a joined-up Government response to the question of fuel poverty. As a consequence, as I said earlier, I have taken the lead in tackling fuel poverty. The interdepartmental task force will report back to me later in the summer. I intend to secure Executive support for a package of short-term measures to help those people presently in greatest need.
The Westminster Government announced long-term measures to alleviate fuel poverty on 30 May 2008. Although those measures are welcome, I realise that it is important to do something in the short term. After I have brought my proposals to the Executive, it will be important that we all work over the summer to ensure that the most vulnerable, the most disadvantaged, elderly and disabled people keep warm during the winter.
Jobs and Benefits Offices
4. Mr Brady asked the Minister for Social Development to outline her plans to retain the 35 jobs and benefits offices and the front-line services they provide; and what plans she has to centralise some of the functions of these offices. (AQO 3816/08)
The Minister for Social Development: The jobs and benefits offices provide a valuable, joined-up, work-focused service to clients across Northern Ireland. I remain committed to the retention of a strong network of jobs and benefits offices and the front-line services that they provide. I am also committed to continuing to work in partnership with the Minister for Employment and Learning to ensure the completion of the roll-out of jobs and benefits services across Northern Ireland.
As part of the strategic business review, the Social Security Agency is also developing proposals to enhance behind-the-scenes, back-office processing work as part of a new service-delivery model. The analysis shows that processing staff are spread too thinly across the local office network to assure the continued delivery of a high-quality service into the future. We must consolidate those skilled resources to ensure the availability of a critical mass of staff to sustain that important area of work. The proposals are being subjected to an economic appraisal, in a business case, in order to identify the preferred way forward.
As he is a member of the Committee for Social Development, Mr Brady will know that my officials have already briefed the Committee on the principles and objectives of the strategic business review and on general progress to date.
Following consideration of the business case by the Department of Finance and Personnel, I will put the proposals to public consultation. I anticipate that that public consultation will be complete by the end of the year. I will then consult with my Executive colleagues before making any final decisions on implementation.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat. Given the proposed social-security staff cuts, is the provision of quality front-line services sustainable?
The Minister for Social Development: The provision of quality front-line services is a priority for which we all should strive, because quality of service to the consumer is of paramount importance. My staff in the Social Security Agency and the Child Support Agency, particularly those at the public interface, have a very difficult job to do. I support them in their work, and I hope to implement the strategic business review’s proposals that I outlined in my original answer.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for providing, as always, a detailed response. Pension advisers provide one of those front-line services. In my constituency, pension advisers deliver a vital service to pensioners. Will the Minister assure the House that the role of pension adviser will continue and will not be diminished in any way?
The Minister for Social Development: I am conscious of the role of pension advisers and of the service that they provide to elderly people, in a very professional manner, face to face and telephonically. They deal with people in a good, sensitive, empathetic and sympathetic way. At present, there are no plans to change the role of the pension advisers.
Mr K Robinson: In response to the staff-related recommendation 14 of the Public Accounts Committee’s report, the Department for Social Development achieved £0·8 million in efficiency savings in its efficiency-delivery plan by moving staff from an agency to a division in the Department. Will the Minister specify exactly how those savings were made? Will she explain how agency status makes an operation more expensive?
The Minister for Social Development: Mr Robinson must have been referring to the recommendation that is contained in the Public Accounts Committee’s ‘Report on Northern Ireland Resource Accounts Northern Ireland Child Support Agency Client Funds 2003-04 – 2006-07’.
If I may go back to the beginning, Sir David Henshaw undertook a review of the Child Support Agency in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He said that, at that time, the agency, and the service that it provided, needed to be enhanced and improved in order to ensure better service delivery to children.
As a result of that review, in GB the service was taken at arm’s length. I took a different view and decided to bring that service within the Department, because one of the most important things that I am concerned about is to ensure the efficient delivery of that service to parents and, more importantly, to children. We must ensure that children, many of whom may be living in disadvantaged circumstances or in poverty, are given the best possible money and the best possible service.
We must not forget that children are at the heart of the Child Support Agency. I hope that all Members support the service that my staff — and the agency, now within the Department — provide for those children under very difficult circumstances.
Social Housing: East Belfast
5. Mr Newton asked the Minister for Social Development how many people are currently on the social housing waiting list for East Belfast parliamentary constituency, and what is the average monthly waiting time for social housing in East Belfast. (AQO 3697/08)
The Minister for Social Development: On 31 March 2008 there were 1,969 applicants on the social housing waiting list for East Belfast. The waiting time varies greatly depending on the applicants’ circumstances; however, almost 50% of applicants are rehoused within a year and almost 70% within 24 months.
Mr Newton: I acknowledge that the Minister has made a number of visits to East Belfast, for which I am grateful. The question was really about the number of people on that waiting list, not the number of applications. Each application is made on behalf of a number of people — perhaps three or four people within each application — and that masks the position.
Although I accept the average figures that she has given, will the Minister tell my constituents, some of whom have been waiting for years for the opportunity of acceptable housing, what alternative avenues she is exploring to reduce that unacceptable waiting list?
The Minister for Social Development: I announced on 26 February that we will build record levels of new social homes in the coming years: 5,250 houses by 2011, and 10,000 houses by 2013. That will help all those families across Northern Ireland — in East Belfast, as well as other parts of Belfast — on the waiting list for housing.
I am bringing forward new and affordable housing schemes that will help those people who are currently on the waiting list solely because of the affordability gap created by house-price inflation from previous years. I hope that many of those on the waiting list in East Belfast will be able to benefit from that. The Member will recognise that I am very conscious of the needs of the people in East Belfast, just as I am conscious of the needs of the people in north, west and south Belfast.
Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the Minister’s announcements on the need for additional social housing and her outline of how many houses will be built over the next few years. However, those are only dates, and if you have been sitting on a social-housing waiting list for a number of years — coming from a constituency background, she can appreciate this — that is not enough.
Will the Minister outline the progress that has been made in addressing the chronic shortage of social housing, especially in West Belfast, where over 2,000 families are waiting for their needs to be addressed? Half of them have been identified as being within housing stress.
The Minister for Social Development: I thank Ms Ramsey for her question, with its particular relevance to West Belfast. As I said to Mr Newton, the secret in all of this is that we hope and want to build more social and affordable houses in this period of devolution than were previously built under direct rule.
The direct rule Administration did not place any particular emphasis on social and affordable housing. When I came into office in May 2007, I was given funding for just over 600 new starts, but, by the end of March 2008, I was able to start 1,595 houses. That represents my commitment to the people of Northern Ireland and to the people who are on the waiting list. The secret is to build more houses in the social-rented sector. I also hope to introduce shared-equity schemes that will aid those who are in the affordability trap, irrespective of whether they live in an urban or rural area. I hope that that will help to assuage the concerns of Ms Ramsey and her constituents.
Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for her answers to the previous questions. Bearing in mind the credit crunch and the formidable difficulties in the housing market, what progress can the Minister make in reducing homelessness in Northern Ireland?
The Minister for Social Development: I have some good news on that matter. In the past two years, the number of people who have presented themselves as homeless has fallen from 21,013 to 19,030, which represents a reduction of nearly 2,000. I assure Mr Maginness that further progress can be made through my new housing agenda.
Not-for-Profit Mortgage-Rescue Scheme
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 in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
Mr Craig: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Social Development to investigate the establishment of a not-for-profit mortgage-rescue scheme for Northern Ireland, in line with other parts of the United Kingdom.
I welcome the Minister for Social Development to the debate. I also welcome the statement that she made on 26 February, outlining a series of measures to tackle the housing crisis. Those included plans for a not-for-profit mortgage-rescue scheme.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
The House cannot afford to ignore this issue. Statistics published by the Northern Ireland Court Service in July 2007 indicated that there were 1,540 orders for repossessions in 2001-02. That figure had increased to 2,413 by 2006-07, and continues to rise sharply. The Council of Mortgage Lenders recently predicted that the number of mortgages with more than three months’ arrears will have increased by 17% over the course of 2008. In the UK, 170,000 people are in serious trouble with their mortgage and home ownership.
The Northern Ireland housing market has a growing affordability problem — house prices increased by 45% last year. This year’s market correction has not entirely helped the situation. Indeed, it has created the further difficulty of negative equity. That is a massive problem, especially considering that 69% of all homes in Northern Ireland are owner-occupied.
Sub-prime lenders and those who deal in secured loans have also caused huge problems in the mortgage market. They are a major contributing factor to Northern Ireland’s mortgage debt and repossession problem.
Sub-prime lenders aggressively marketed their products to people with poor credit histories who were unable to afford the credit that they had already. Those people have slipped further and further into debt. Levels of homelessness in Northern Ireland are on the increase, whether we like it or not: over the last five years, they have risen by 48%. Five years ago, there were 14,000 homeless people on the waiting list; this year, there are over 21,000. Repossessions have increased by 38% on last year, and now sit at their highest level since 1991-92, when the entire British economy was in serious trouble.
Mortgage-rescue schemes exist to allow householders to sell their homes and rent them back. In Northern Ireland, there is no option: one has to go to a private company. The problem is that, in the UK, such companies are unregulated. According to the financial institutions, they are perceived not as offering a financial product, but as carrying out a housing transaction. In many cases, these companies do not advise clients to seek independent financial help. There is plenty of evidence of profiteering in that market. People have been offered 20% less than the market value of their houses, and, because of their circumstances, been forced to take that value and move on. Worse still, the rents set by some of those companies are no better than the mortgage repayments that were there at the start of the process. That leads people further and further into debt. Not all the private sector is like that, but such practices do occur.
What are the perceived benefits of a not-for-profit mortgage-rescue scheme? I know of four ways in which such a scheme can help. First, it can assist people to remain in their own homes, without seeking excessive profit. If people, deep in debt, can sell their mortgage and rent their house instead, they are saved from two problems: they will not be put out on the street and have their home repossessed; and they will not add to the ever-increasing list of the homeless.
Such a scheme also helps to maintain sustainable communities. The vast majority of repossessions happen in working-class estates, where people have worked hard and purchased their own homes. If there is some form of rescue for people in debt, it will help to sustain those communities.
The next advantage is that, under most of the schemes that operate in the UK, if the purchase of the home realises any equity, the former owners are allowed to use that equity to pay off any debt secured against the home. That can make a massive difference to those who find themselves buried in debt: they can clear their debts with the equity that has been secured from the transaction.
The other side benefit is that, when the system works, lengthy court cases which would have led, no doubt, to misery for everyone concerned, with individuals losing their homes, can be avoided.
The Housing Rights Forum has been deeply concerned about the dominance of the private sector in Northern Ireland: it has called for a not-for-profit scheme to be established. I wholeheartedly agree.
I have dealt with a number of cases in which people, for various reasons — usually health related — can no longer afford to pay their mortgage. Under the current arrangement, such householders can seek a way out of their situation by going to the private sector or, as some have done, managing to get a housing association to buy their property. According to the regulations in Northern Ireland, the individuals involved have to leave their property, because our system does not allow them to remain there. The person to whom the property is allocated receives it through the Housing Executive’s points system; there is no legal way around that. It adds to the tax burden, because the individuals who have moved out of the house are, usually, placed in private rented properties, because there is insufficient public-sector housing and most of that private rented accommodation is paid for by the taxpayer.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún. I welcome the motion, as tabled by the DUP. The impact of the current crisis in the provision of social and affordable housing has not been lost on Members. The credit crunch that was mentioned during the Minister for Social Development’s questions for oral answer will bring even more pressure to bear on vulnerable families and individuals.
As outlined in the research that was provided to Members in preparation for the debate, the Council of Mortgage Lenders estimates that measures taken since December will save 55,000 repossessions this year — 40,000 as a result of the new procedures for dealing with arrears cases, and 15,000 as a result of the direct payment to lenders of the mortgage interest element of income support.
Through the Minister for Social Development, the Executive must recognise the increasing financial difficulties that individuals and families are facing. Those difficulties have impacted on people’s ability to obtain or secure their homes. Considering the doubt about the future of the co-ownership scheme — Jonathan Craig mentioned the Minister’s statement of 26 February — the House is looking forward to the introduction of the Minister for Social Development’s cast-iron proposals. It is imperative that all Members try to provide support and leadership for some of the most vulnerable members of society — most of whom, as Mr Craig said, live in working-class communities.
Collectively, Members must provide the opportunity to pilot such innovative schemes, and, in keeping with the motion, call for an investigation into the establishment of a not-for-profit mortgage-rescue scheme as one example.
The fact that no detailed schemes have been proposed in the House sends out a message that Members are unsympathetic to the plight that people are facing and the pressures that they are feeling. I repeat my thanks to the Members for tabling the motion, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
As mentioned during Question Time, the constant rises in the cost of living are of great concern to everyone. The rising costs of energy, food and other essentials have impacted greatly on our already tight budgets. However, the earnings of the majority of the workforce have not increased significantly, and it seems that that trend is set to continue.
Most people aspire to owning their own home at some stage. It is in that context that there are major concerns about unscrupulous private companies that will — and often do — promote and proclaim to offer immediate solutions to homeowners who are in financial difficulty and who are in danger of having their homes repossessed. Such mortgage schemes are offered by private companies. Most of them are unregulated, and they rarely — if ever — advise applicants to seek independent advice about their financial and legal status. Furthermore, unregulated private companies offer little security of tenure.
According to the research provided, most tenant agreements are fixed for a period, after which the tenancy is set on a month-by-month basis, which leaves tenants vulnerable. If private companies decide to terminate a tenancy — as they often do — families are faced with the threat of homelessness.
Not-for-profit mortgage schemes are virtually non-existent here, but I have no doubt that those private companies offering such rescue packages will make their mark here in the not-too-distant future.
One of the key elements of a not-for-profit scheme involves providing immediate support for people who are in immediate danger of having their homes repossessed. Another key element is that an applicant should have the opportunity to buy back all, or a share of, the property, should his or her financial situation change — that is something that the Assembly will agree with. However, I would include the caveat that the tenant should be able to buy back their share at the market rate that was current at the time of their application.
As Mr Craig indicated, the Housing Rights Forum and many other housing groups and activists have urged the Assembly to engage with organisations such as the Housing Executive and housing associations to establish a public-sector mortgage-rescue scheme. On behalf of Sinn Féin, I support the motion and I urge all Members to do likewise. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Cobain: As other Members have said, in February, the Minister for Social Development announced that she intended to introduce proposals for a not-for-profit mortgage-rescue scheme. Therefore, we are pushing at an open door as far as that particular issue is concerned.
The number of repossessions is increasing at an unacceptable rate. We must not lose sight of the fact that such statistics represent a great deal of personal difficulties for many families who are living in the shadow of repossession. It is critical that people who are experiencing mortgage difficulties seek professional advice as quickly as possible from those who can give it — Citizens Advice, Advice Northern Ireland, or, if they prefer, their own mortgage lender. As other Members have indicated, people should contact those organisations before they fall into the hands of those who are operating a mortgage-rescue scheme, which can often be a deceptive scheme that leaves the mortgagor worse off than they were before.
Mortgage rescue is an emotive and fraught subject. Many unscrupulous schemes have been operating in the private sector, exploiting vulnerable people who have run into difficulties with their mortgage repayments. It is hoped that the Mortgage Rescue Network, which offers a system of accreditation for good practice in mortgage rescue, will prevent some of the worst excesses by some of the most unscrupulous private-sector operators. The Mortgage Rescue Network runs training programmes for which certificates are awarded, provides standard paperwork written in plain English, offers an emergency fund for distressed tenants and facilitates easy access to mortgage-rescue schemes led by local councils and housing associations and access to debt counsellors. Those improvements are all greatly needed in the private sector.
The bad practices of some equity-release schemes that, in the past, targeted older homeowners, as well as the current horror stories about some private-sector mortgage-rescue schemes, all point to a need for regulation. Ultimately, a state-backed scheme is needed in Northern Ireland to ensure that good practice is the order of the day from day one.
Turning to how a properly-constituted Government-sponsored not-for-profit scheme might operate, it should be noted that many housing associations and councils in other parts of the United Kingdom already offer a shared- or part-ownership option as a solution to mortgage-rescue situations. Under those schemes, the owner can purchase a proportion of the property. The individual then pays a smaller mortgage and a smaller amount of rent, which, in total, should be less than the mortgage that they were paying.
In most schemes, it is possible for the individual to repurchase either full equity of their property or a great proportion of that equity at a later date, as their circumstances improve. Such a sliding-scale or mortgage-ladder method of operating allows the system to be flexible and tailored to individual circumstances, and it should be remembered that all such cases are individual.
It is very difficult to have one scheme that fits all requirements. The preferred model should have a minimum of intervention and should retain an equity stake for the owner. It should also enable quick reinstatement of the owner’s original status and situation once their financial circumstances improve. It is this model that I commend to the Minister.
There are, of course, other refinements needed for any not-for-profit mortgage-rescue scheme. For example, if the market value of the property is higher than the mortgage, a chunk of equity may be left that could be used to pay off other debts. However, with many properties teetering on the edge of negative equity — if not already in it – that is less likely to apply in the present circumstances.
Such a scheme would reflect the same mode of operation as the shared-ownership schemes in the UK and the co-ownership scheme in Northern Ireland. In many ways, it is a logical extension of it.
The Westminster Government have missed a great opportunity in the present bad economic climate. They should have used the £50 billion made available to banks to create a national mortgage company — much like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the United States. They could have used Northern Rock — into which they have injected another £25 billion — to deliver the scheme. This would have been a better use of public money —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?
Mr Cobain: The creation of such a company would also introduce much needed competition to the banks cartel that has created the present crisis.
Mr Burns: The credit crunch is affecting people in all walks of life in many different ways. Inflation is rising at an alarming rate and the price of oil is going through the roof. Whether it is the petrol or the diesel that we use to travel to work or the heating oil that we use in our homes, oil is becoming hugely expensive. This expenditure leaves less money available for people to pay for other things — in particular, their mortgages. One of the most important things that people have is their homes, and no one would ever want to see people being put out of homes that have been repossessed.
The Minister should be congratulated for showing leadership on the issue through the creation of a task force to examine the not-for-profit mortgage-rescue scheme. Furthermore, I know that she plans to meet the Council of Mortgage Lenders later this week to address this problem in our housing sector. With repossessions at a record level, I look forward to hearing about the progress that the Minister has made on the not-for-profit mortgage scheme that she announced earlier in the year.
The scheme is needed and welcomed. However, it should not be designed to encourage overspend in the housing sector, but instead should be used to help people facing repossession. I cannot emphasise enough how bad it must be for those who are in arrears with their mortgage when the dreaded letter arrives telling them that their home is to be repossessed. Many people get into mortgage arrears through illness or through a change in circumstances from when they first took out their mortgage.
I am very concerned by the rising number of privately run mortgage-rescue schemes. Those companies target those with money problems and seek to make profit from a bad situation. They buy property at much less than the market value and offer short-term rental agreements. That is immoral. A not-for-profit scheme should help to reduce the number of such private companies. Similar schemes operate in Britain, such as the mortgage-to-rent scheme and the flexible-tenure scheme.
Any Government scheme should provide debt counselling, fast-track people who face having their homes repossessed, pay the market value for homes and allow people to retain a share in their property — a staircase up and a staircase down. The scheme should also provide housing benefit to those who are eligible, so that they can rent back the property. Those who participate in the scheme should also be able to buy their homes back at a later date and be given long-term rental agreements.
I am confident that the Minister plans to introduce imaginative proposals, and I look forward to hearing what she has to say.
Ms Lo: I support the motion and urge the Minister to investigate a not-for-profit mortgage-rescue scheme.
Although we have been concerned about the difficulties that exist for people who want to get on the first rung of the property ladder, we must also show concern for those who have become homeowners but face problems in keeping up with mortgage repayments. With the rising costs of heating, food and petrol, households are under increasing financial strain. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Council of Mortgage Lenders has predicted that repossessions in the UK will go from 30,000 to 45,000 by the end of 2008, which is an increase of 50%. Northern Ireland will have a higher-than-average rate of repossessions — thousands of householders here are at risk of losing their homes in the coming months.
As well as the increase in home repossessions, there has been an increase in unregulated private companies offering mortgage-rescue packages through sale-and-rent-back schemes, which exploit people in vulnerable positions. Such schemes often make people worse off financially and offer only short-term security for people to stay in their home. In reply to a statement that the Minister made in February, I voiced my concern about this exploitation by private companies.
I support the calls from other Members for the implementation of a not-for-profit mortgage-rescue scheme in Northern Ireland to allow householders to remain in their property and give them the chance to buy back their home if their financial situation improves. There are good schemes in England, Wales and Scotland — the mortgage-to-rent scheme in Scotland, which is funded by the Scottish Executive and administered until recently by Communities Scotland, provides a subsidy to a social landlord to buy the property. We should examine that scheme and try to learn from it. In 2006-07, 173 households benefited from the £9 million subsidy, which has been increased to £10 million this year. It important to learn from the experience of the Scottish scheme.
Any scheme should be targeted at those who are most in need to ensure that it has the maximum impact — there should be certain criteria. The scheme should be flexible, offering either mortgage-to-rent or shared ownership, depending on the circumstances of the applicant. An affordable social-subsidies rent should be charged on the property post: purchase. I urge the Minister to take account of the Scottish example.
Mr Hilditch: I also welcome the motion. As other Members stated, the slump in the housing market and the credit crunch are continuing, and the number of people who have been threatened with repossessions because they cannot keep up with mortgage payments has shot up by some 16%.
As Mr Craig said, over 38,000 people are on the waiting list for social housing, 20,000 of whom have been assessed as being in housing stress, and over 9,000 of whom are officially homeless. It is, therefore, inevitable that action is required to alleviate the crisis.
Throughout the UK, some councils and housing associations offer mortgage-rescue schemes that buy homes quickly but let the owners rent them back as tenants, or as part-tenants/part-owners. Depending on the terms and conditions of the contract, some options exist to buy back such property when the financial hardship passes. Such schemes are an option for those who experience short-term financial difficulties.
If the scheme is run by a local council or a housing association, there are usually rules on eligibility. For example, it may be available only to people who face a large reduction in income; have not yet built up high levels of mortgage arrears; need to stay in the area for other reasons such as schools, work or needing care and support; and are able to make small monthly payments.
Constituents will want to know whether they can still claim housing benefit after signing up for such a scheme. The answer is yes. In the UK, if people sell their homes but continue to live in them and pay rent, they should be able to claim housing benefit, provided that they can show that they would not have been able to carry on living there had they not sold them. If that is not the case, they will have to wait for five years to be eligible for the benefit again.
What are the benefits of such schemes? Struggling homeowners may be able to stay in their homes and, therefore, avoid the trauma of repossession. Any equity that homeowners have can be released to pay off other major debts, although mortgage debts should always, in such cases, be the priority. The homeowner and the lender avoid the costs of going to court and having the house repossessed.
Some people rent for years and then find themselves in a situation in which they want to own their own homes again. A major disadvantage of the scheme is the restrictive agreement in the contract that they signed, which means that they face the prospect of having to start from scratch on the property ladder. Such issues should be examined in a Northern Ireland context.
The bottom line is that people finance the purchase of their property, but will receive no benefit from the increases in property prices and the equity of the house. Given our housing crisis, the fact that mortgage debt in Northern Ireland is rising faster than anywhere else in the UK, and that housing repossessions via the courts have risen by almost 40% in just six years — a figure that is predicted to increase over the coming months — we, as an Assembly, must consider a not-for-profit mortgage-rescue scheme as an option to alleviate the emergency housing lists. There were over 2,400 mortgage repossessions in 2007, and we cannot allow that figure to increase.
I hope that the Assembly and the Minister for Social Development will investigate the establishment of a not-for-profit mortgage-rescue scheme in Northern Ireland in line with other parts of the United Kingdom.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion, and I commend the Members who tabled it. The motion is timely because possibly thousands of people face ruin because they are unable to meet their mortgage payments and are in danger of losing their homes.
Unfortunately, any scheme will come too late for the many people who have already fallen foul of increases in interest rates that have seen their mortgage payments rocket beyond their means of payment. Over a long period, people were bombarded with advertisements inviting them to borrow as much as they wanted and to buy into an overinflated housing market. Mortgages were never easier to get as people on relatively low incomes were able to obtain one and were advised that it was the right thing to do by banks, estate agents, building societies and speculators who were rolling in huge profits. That was despite the fact that some experts predicted the dangers ahead. Unfortunately, such predictions fell on deaf ears.
When the collapse did happen, although several financial institutions felt the pinch, their executives did not lose their homes. It was the people who had been encouraged by them to take out mortgages who felt the pain. Low earners were convinced to buy and are now being traumatised by the prospect of losing their homes. What advice did those banks, building societies or financial institutions offer? In many cases, people were advised to take out a loan to cover the mortgage arrears, and when that falls apart, homes are repossessed. There is something wrong with a system that encourages people to take out a mortgage, then, when times start to get hard, moves to cover the loans by repossessing people’s homes.
It is crucial that the Executive establish a scheme that will be effective.
I am aware that the Department for Social Development has been investigating various types of rescue schemes and has been speaking to a wide range of agencies and organisations about the best way to move forward.
I am sure that all Members have spoken to people who are at their wits’ end and who feel that they have nowhere to turn because of the situation in which they find themselves. Even now, financial agents are trying to convince many people that borrowing again is the only way to get out of their situation. The sooner a conclusion is arrived at, and a scheme implemented, the better.
Homeowners who are in financial difficulties can become targets for private companies that claim to offer the opportunity to stay in their homes and find immediate solutions to their problems. The growth in the number of those profit-making organisations is of some concern. They are not regulated by the Financial Services Authority, because it does not consider those bodies to be offering a financial product, but merely buying a property and renting it back. Their advertisements are not scrutinised for inaccurate or misleading information.
Privately run schemes often purchase homes below the market rate, and homeowners can lose as much as 20% of the true value. Shelter revealed that landlords are able to seek evictions when the fixed-term contracts end, merely by serving the correct notice. That may leave the householder homeless. Shelter has had experience of a number of clients who lost out financially and risked future homelessness by selling their homes to mortgage companies.
The not-for-profit housing market is a very small sector that operates several different services. In England, Shelter stated that flexible-tenure schemes can be an effective way to prevent homelessness, because they provide assistance to households at a time when they might be struggling to meet mortgage payments. Those schemes also allow people to remain in their homes.
The benefits of those schemes include householders being able to stay in their homes and in their community, therefore avoiding the trauma of repossession and homelessness. Allowing those people to stay put would also contribute to the sustainability of those communities. Any equity could be released to pay off other debts, and lenders would avoid having to pay the costs associated with going to court and repossessing a home.
In England and Wales, those schemes are run by local authorities, housing associations, mortgage lenders and others. When local authorities and housing associations run those schemes, criteria are usually applied to determine the eligibility of householders. Those criteria take account of the ability of the householder to face a large reduction in income. They also consider cases in which people have not built up high levels of mortgage arrears, and cases in which people need to stay in an area due to other commitments such as school-age children or family support. In addition, they consider whether people are able to pay small monthly payments.
The danger is that setting eligibility criteria that are too restrictive could have an impact on the people whom the schemes are designed to help. That could lead to the same result, as people could be forced into the arms of the private sector.
The Minister needs to tell the Assembly when her Department will initiate a plan that will offer a way out of this cul-de-sac for the thousands of people who, unless we act now, face the repossession of homes, financial ruin and homelessness. Go raibh maith agat.
Mrs I Robinson: I congratulate my party colleagues for securing this debate, which could have significant implications for homeowners from all parts of Northern Ireland.
Owing to the fact that the economy has continued to falter over recent years — as the credit crunch continues to deepen across the globe, and as the price of energy continues to spiral — it was inevitable that Northern Ireland would not remain immune from the effects. Of all the issues that they currently face, the significant rises in the cost of living are at the top of the agenda for families across the Province.
Crude oil recently reached an all-time high of $135 a barrel. It now costs in the region of £600 for 900 litres of home heating oil. That represents a rise of 277% from 2002. At the same time, the price of petrol and diesel has also reached an all-time high. Diesel now costs almost £1·30 a litre, while unleaded petrol can cost £1·12 a litre.
It should be pointed out that, excluding fuel tax, the UK has the cheapest fuel in the EU, but, thanks to the Labour Government’s oppressive taxation, we have the most expensive. As a result, the increased costs have been passed on to the consumer. It was recently revealed that the average household must now pay an extra £900 a year for its food. Last week, it was revealed that the cost of food has increased by almost 16% since January 2008, with 13p in every pound now being spent on food. That has added £514 million a month to the nation’s grocery bill.
The cost of energy is no different. Northern Ireland Electricity announced a 14% increase in costs, with a further rise due in the autumn, and Phoenix Natural Gas announced recently a 28% increase in its costs. The cumulative effect of those financial pressures is stretching the budgets of households to breaking point. The growing number of bankruptcies and individual voluntary arrangements (IVAs) is set to continue.
In 2003-04, there were 582 bankruptcies and 360 IVAs registered in Northern Ireland. By 2006-07, those figures had doubled to 1,008 and 736 respectively. Unfortunately, it is expected that the figures for 2007-08 will be even greater, given that the credit crunch had not bitten in those previous years.
Recently, Gordon Brown’s ropey management of the UK economy has, more or less, depended on consumer spending to keep the country afloat. It was necessary for people to spend themselves into debt in order to fill his coffers. The Chancellor is now faced with the prospect of greatly reduced consumer spending and a growing crisis in the housing market.
Many people are coming to the end of their fixed-rate mortgages and are finding new products much more expensive. Bills are greater than ever before. Many families are struggling to cover their debts while still having enough money on which to get by. Therefore, I have no qualms in adding my voice to the motion, which calls for the Minister for Social Development to investigate the establishment of a not-for-profit mortgage-rescue plan for the people of Northern Ireland, similar to that operating in other parts of the United Kingdom. I support the motion.
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I thank the DUP members on the Committee for Social Development — and their DUP colleague — for tabling the motion. It gives us a timely opportunity to examine the issue of a specific mortgage-rescue scheme for Northern Ireland. I also thank the other Members who contributed to the debate. If my response fails to address any of their specific points, I will be happy to write to them separately.
The motion calls on me to:
“investigate the establishment of a not-for-profit mortgage-rescue scheme”.
As far as the motion is concerned, I am happy to say that I am already well ahead of the game. When I announced the new housing agenda earlier this year, I made it clear that I wanted to support people who are striving to stay on the housing ladder. I said that I wanted to establish a mortgage-rescue scheme and that, by the summer, I would introduce detailed proposals on how I would do that. Although I still intend to publish those detailed proposals for full consultation in the coming months, I am happy to give Members some indication of what our scheme may look like, while addressing some of the concerns that have been raised today.
I said at the outset that today’s debate was timely. That is the case on two counts. During the first quarter of this year alone, 754 applications were made to the courts here for repossession orders. That represents a 33% increase on the same period last year. Given the difficult economic conditions that we are experiencing, and that Mrs Robinson outlined, we can only assume that that trend will continue throughout the rest of this year and into the next.
Many Members, including my party colleague Mr Burns, referred to the problems of the credit crunch. We all know that those are real problems, but they are real problems for those who are directly experiencing them.
However, we are not alone. The number of repossession orders in England and Wales is expected to rise by over 50% this year. When I was in America earlier this year, I was shocked to learn that over 1·6 million families there will have their homes repossessed.
Although the problem is not unique to our shores, I am determined that the solution will be. I examined different schemes not only across Great Britain, as called for in the motion, but further afield. When I was in America recently, I took the opportunity to observe how the problem was being dealt with there. I also listened carefully to the views of housing experts here, particularly those from the Housing Rights Service in Belfast, who work day in, day out with those who are in danger of losing their homes.
I am satisfied that, having taken all the issues into account, my Department now has the basis of a scheme that will be unique to Northern Ireland and tailored to meet its specific needs. Carál Ní Chuilín requested unique, innovative solutions, and I intend to provide them. I plan to introduce a mortgage-to-rent scheme for homeowners who can no longer afford to buy their homes. A housing association will purchase eligible homes and rent them to their former owners, and that will ensure long-term security of the scheme’s affordability and of the lease.
Mr Cobain was correct in saying that one scheme will not fit all. For those who struggle to meet the full mortgage on their property, I will introduce a scheme that works in a similar way to co-ownership, but in reverse. I will allow housing associations to buy a stake in the house and convert it to an affordable rent. That allows the family to retain some ownership in its home and have the prospect of buying it all back if, and when, its circumstances permit.
Mr Craig was correct that a new scheme will help to create more sustainable communities, and I want to ensure that that happens. So many times in the past, the Assembly has articulated its wish for more sustainable communities, and all Members agree that that is what they want.
However, that is only one aspect of what the mortgage-rescue scheme will seek to deliver. For those who fall behind in their mortgage payments, the best, and by far the easiest, way to avoid a repossession order is to seek help and advice sooner rather than later. The earlier the advice is sought, the more solutions there are available. My colleague Mr Burns emphasised that people need to receive good independent advice, and I concur with him. Therefore, I will insist that all applicants to the mortgage-rescue scheme seek the specialist advice that is already offered freely by a range of providers. I intend to ensure that the best advice and support is available.
However, the financial institutions and lenders also have a role to play, which is the second reason for the debate being timely, as I am due to speak to the Council of Mortgage Lenders in Belfast tomorrow afternoon. The inescapable fact is that many of today’s problems were caused by some lenders, usually sub-prime lenders, who encouraged people to borrow more than they could afford to pay back. The sharp increase in the number of repossessions today is the price being paid for the bad lending — and bad borrowing — of yesterday.
In the past four years, the average price of a house here rose by 74%, and the corresponding mortgage increased by 61%, but the rise in the average income was nowhere near as much. Based on those figures, it can be no surprise that more and more people are in danger of overcommitting themselves. Tomorrow, therefore, I will ask the Council of Mortgage Lenders to work with me on the problem, which, based on Members’ contributions today, is what the Assembly wants me to do. I will specifically ask the council to look sympathetically on those who default on their mortgages in the coming months, as the effects of the wider economic problems, such as higher fuel, food and energy prices, hit people harder. I will ask the council to examine how it communicates with its customers when the potential for them to default on their mortgage is first identified.
I think that they can be persuaded that patience and compassion is not only the right approach but, over time, makes good business sense. I was pleased to see that the motion called for the establishment of a not-for-profit scheme to be investigated, and I would support nothing other than that.
Mr Craig mentioned private schemes. I have become particularly concerned at reports of private companies who offer their own brand of a sale-and-rent-back scheme. Those schemes may be helpful for some clients, but, frankly, I am concerned that consumers are not being given the opportunity to make well-informed choices, during what are undoubtedly difficult and trying times for them. Members may be interested to know that the Office of Fair Trading is looking into those sorts of transactions, and we can expect its report by September. Personally speaking, I would like to see those companies regulated, but in introducing our own not-for-profit scheme, we may be able to do better than that, and remove the current vacuum in which they can operate so freely.
Our plans will obviously require funding. Although I have some modest resources, my budget is tight, so I will be submitting a bid later this week to the Minister of Finance and Personnel for an additional £5 million to fund the mortgage-rescue scheme. It is a new scheme to Northern Ireland, and one that is needed now more than ever before. I ask the DUP Members who tabled the motion whether they will prevail on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to ensure that that funding is forthcoming.
As I said earlier, I will publish my detailed proposals in the coming months. I am confident that, as a result of today’s support in the Assembly, I can make a strong and convincing case for funding.
Before I conclude, I will deal with the detail of the scheme, about which David Hilditch and Carál Ní Chuilín had some queries. They both raised issues concerning housing benefit, the value of homes if bought back by their former owners, and other issues. I will publish that level of detail in the coming months and will, of course, consult widely on those plans. Those issues will be addressed as part of that consultation.
I welcome today’s motion, and it goes without saying that I welcome a strong vote of support for the work that I have already undertaken to deliver the proposals. My proposals, if properly funded — I stress that point — have the potential to make a very positive impact on the lives of so many families who are facing tough times. They come through the doors of all our constituency offices to explain their affordability problems and the difficulties that the credit crunch and higher food, fuel and electricity prices create. Moreover, many are in receipt of low incomes when compared with similar groups of people who live in Great Britain.
I have outlined clearly what will be contained in the not-for-profit mortgage-rescue scheme. I look forward to further discussions with the Council of Mortgage Lenders tomorrow, and I will be bringing further detail on the matter to my colleagues later this summer.
Miss McIlveen: It is unusual for me to be involved in a debate in which everyone is in agreement, in particular the Minister. Nevertheless, I thank all Members who spoke for their positive contributions. It is particularly timely that such a matter comes before the Assembly. At a time when an economic crisis looms and when money is becoming increasingly tight, the people look to us to provide leadership. The people of Northern Ireland want to see what their local devolved Administration can provide for them. Certain polls suggest that we have yet to win over a significant proportion of the electorate when it comes to what we can do in the House. We have yet to prove to those people that we can do more than would have been achieved under direct rule.
For me, a not-for-profit mortgage-rescue scheme would send a clear message that the Assembly can make a difference.
Sub-prime lenders bring forward more than half of the UK’s repossession orders, despite accounting for just 6% of total mortgages. Given the squeeze on that specific sector, it is hard to envisage anything other than an increase in those figures. As the Assembly has heard, people who have poor credit histories and even those who may have missed payments on a car, for example, generally have no alternative but to turn to such lenders to purchase a home. The payments on such mortgages are higher; sub-prime lenders will argue that that is because they take a greater risk on those mortgagors, given their poor credit histories. According to the rating agency, Standard and Poor’s, more than one in five borrowers with sub-prime mortgages in the UK have already fallen behind with their payments in the first quarter of the year.
As we have heard, difficulties are not confined to sub-prime mortgagors. A considerable number of those who have sub-prime mortgages are coming off cheap fixed-rate deals and will encounter what is euphemistically known as “payment shock”. It is expected that there will be a 50% increase in repossession applications on sub-prime mortgages, and that was referred to in the debate. My party colleague Jonathan Craig pointed out that house prices in Northern Ireland increased by 45% between July 2006 and July 2007. Since then, house prices have fallen dramatically. According to figures that have been released by Nationwide, there has been a fall in prices of around 13%.
There was a rapid rise in house prices during the so-called boom. Now, those prices are falling. All Members referred to the spiralling costs of living. Fuel costs are increasing, as is the price of food. The president of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) anticipates that a barrel of crude oil could cost $200 when, only a year ago, its cost hovered at around $100. The price currently stands at $127 per barrel. Food prices have increased dramatically. In 2008, inflation on food prices has hit almost 16%. Members are aware of NIE’s recent announcement that electricity prices in Northern Ireland are to rise by approximately 15%. As Members have stated, salaries have not increased to keep pace. Essentially, Northern Ireland is faced with the potentially explosive cocktail of negative equity and dwindling disposable income.
The Assembly is aware of the critically low number of available social-housing units. Surely, the proposal will assist in dealing with that. If a family loses its home, that will, naturally, add to the — already long — housing list. According to the Minister, when she outlined the housing agenda for Northern Ireland, 38,000 people are on the waiting list for social housing. The Assembly simply cannot afford for that number to increase, and must do all that it can to minimise any further escalation.
Members have heard figures for repossession applications in July 2007, which, compared with those for 2001-02, have risen from around 1,500 to 2,400. It stands to reason that they will rise further during 2008. Members have pointed out that a certain amount of leeway for negotiation exists throughout the process. However, such leeway may be limited by a lender who is under pressure in financially pressured times. A well-run Government-backed scheme can give a little more assistance to families who negotiate their way to staying in their own homes. It may also result in a better value being obtained for the home. Many houses that are repossessed are sold at auction and do not obtain their true market value, whereas, through such schemes, homes are purchased for open market value, less the value of required repairs.
Open market value being paid for homes means that families who are in financial difficulty, whose homes are in negative equity or have little in the way of equity, will be in the minimal amount of financial hardship as a result of defaulting on their mortgage repayments. The prospect of families being a further £10,000, £20,000 or £30,000 worse off than would be the case if such a scheme were in place would, inevitably, result in further insolvencies and continued financial hardship.
It has also been highlighted that in excess of 21,000 households in Northern Ireland currently present as homeless. That is a frightening statistic. It is essential that the Assembly does all that it can to ensure that those families keep their homes, especially in situations where children are settled at local schools and when families have put down roots in their areas.
Finally, I thank the Minister for her positive response to the debate and the quest for the establishment of a not-for-profit mortgage-rescue scheme.
We realise that families in Northern Ireland are not alone in the problems that they face. We appreciate that the Minister is taking into consideration those people’s specific needs. We also appreciate that she is looking for a unique scheme rather than one that is replicated from elsewhere.
We welcome the information that she shared with us today. We look forward to seeing the detail of that in the coming weeks. I call on the Assembly to support the motion.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Social Development to investigate the establishment of a not-for-profit mortgage-rescue scheme for Northern Ireland, in line with other parts of the United Kingdom.
Adjourned at 5.01 pm.