Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

northern ireland assembly

Tuesday 17 June 2008

Matters of the Day:
Rosslea Roadside Bomb

Assembly Business

Executive Committee Business:
Public Authorities (Reform) Bill: First Stage
Civil Registration Bill: First Stage
Budget (No. 2) Bill: Consideration Stage
Child Maintenance Bill: Consideration Stage
Charities Bill: Further Consideration Stage
Draft Companies (Public Sector Audit) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008
Donaghadee (Harbour Area) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008

Committee Business:
Statutory Committee Membership
Child Poverty in Northern Ireland

Oral Answers to Questions:
Employment And Learning
Enterprise, Trade And Investment

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Matters Of The Day

Rosslea Roadside Bomb

Mr Speaker: The Rt Hon Dr Paisley has sought leave to make a statement on a matter that fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 23A. I shall call Dr Paisley to speak for up to three minutes on the subject. I shall then call a Member from each of the other political parties, as agreed with the Whips; those Members will also have up to three minutes to speak. There will be no opportunity for interventions, for questions or for a vote on the matter. I shall not take any points of order until the item of business is concluded. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley: We could have been meeting today under the darkest of circumstances and under the darkness of a great tragedy. I am sure that all Members were alarmed by the attack on PSNI officers at Rosslea, and I am sure that we wonder what our feelings would have been today had that murderous attack succeeded.

All Members must worry whether the police have the power and capability to deal with any attacks that may occur in the future. Making my own private investigations, I was alarmed when police officers told me that, had the attack been successful, they would not have had the facilities and the strength to deal with it effectively. That means that we need to take care of those areas that are now subject to attack by caucuses of people who are determined to bring back the bad old days of murder and mayhem in the Province.

Today, we need to alarm ourselves about what is happening. Although we can be confident that the majority of people in the Province have given up the bad and evil road of murdering men and women for their political and other views, we must guard against such attacks, which could continue and could possibly succeed in some cases in again bringing murder to the Province.

We would do well to realise that this is a serious matter to which we should give our minds. The Assembly, as a whole, should make representations to the Secretary of State on the matter so that he is in no doubt about how elected representatives in the Assembly feel about such a terrible matter and the threat on the whole Province as a result.

Mr A Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I want to put on record my party’s rejection of current activities. Not only do I condemn them but I appeal, yet again, to those people who are involved in such activities to reflect on the fact that, in 2008, the vast majority of people in the nationalist and republican community have already set their faces towards a new future. They have spoken through their choices at the ballot box; they have supported our party and given us a substantial mandate. We have had, as a community, a very significant debate on those matters, often in public, but not least in private.

I ask those people who are involved in such activities to reflect, even now, on the futility of that type of operation, and to desist from it from here on in. Respect the will of the people, and respect people’s confidence in their ability to further their political objectives to seek justice, freedom and equality in the country in the time ahead.

Mr Elliott: First, I thank the Member for raising the matter. Secondly, I wish those officers who were injured, and who are perhaps now off duty, well. Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families.

From the outset, I want to say that that is a worrying development. It is worrying not only for the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone but the entire Province.

The device used was substantial and significant. If it had detonated fully it might have maimed or killed. I am informed that, although the officers raised their concerns with their superiors, they were still instructed to go to the scene in the early hours of Saturday morning. I am concerned that they went to the scene without any backup either being provided or being close at hand to assist them.

Police station closures and a lack of resources have raised concerns, to which Mr Paisley alluded, about the present capability of the police service to deal with a major emergency in the Province, whether it be terrorist-related or otherwise.

This morning, I was pleased to be informed that one person has been arrested for questioning in connection with the incident. That gives me some hope. In the days to come, I hope that we will see a resolution to the incident. I hope that the entire community will fall in behind the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the legitimate forces of the Province.

I hope that we will not see a resurgence of violence in the Province — we had that for far too long. It is time for everybody in the community to bond together and give their full support to the Police Service of Northern Ireland and to the authorities. If that means that the security services and the Secretary of State must bring in backup services to support the police in the Province, that is what is required.

I say to the Secretary of State that that must be done. If army backup is required in border areas such as Fermanagh, South Tyrone, Armagh, or other areas throughout the Province, it should be provided.

Mr Gallagher: I, too, condemn the incident. That condemnation reflects the widespread view held in Rosslea and in the South Fermanagh area.

A fleá cheoil was held in Rosslea at the weekend, and the majority of people from the area — and many from outside the area — had a weekend of enjoyment at that community festival. However, a small number of people chose to invent circumstances that they knew would be responded to by the police and detonated a device as the police left the incident.

Fortunately there were no serious injuries or loss of life. Previous Members mentioned alarm and concern: everybody needs to take on board the fact that a small number of people intended to kill or seriously injure others. For that reason, I appeal to everyone who has any information to contact the police so that people who take such mad actions can be brought to justice.

It is very important that the police receive information so that an end can be put to this activity and the threat to life that it poses. The majority of people regard such behaviour as despicable and join us in condemning it.

Dr Farry: The incident is a chilling reminder of the ongoing threat of terrorism in society. That said; those people exist on the margins of society and with little support. However, we cannot afford to be complacent, as the incident in Rosslea so well illustrates. In recent times, we have been extremely lucky that the actions of dissident republicans have not led to loss of life.

The Assembly must send out a number of messages: first; that we in the Chamber stand shoulder to shoulder with all of the police officers right across Northern Ireland, who provide an outstanding professional service on behalf of the entire community. In particular, we should be mindful of the officers who operate in border areas, where they are in particularly vulnerable situations. There is no doubt that the Police Service will be seized of the importance of protecting its officers by ensuring that they have access to proper protection in the course of conducting their lawful duties. The Police Service also needs to address the threat that is posed to its officers, and I welcome the fact that there has been at least one arrest so far in relation to the incident.

Secondly, and ultimately, we must convey the message of utter rejection of the notion that any political or other advantage in society, in any shape or form, will ever be gained from the use of violence. I am confident that everyone in the House will sign up to that message, irrespective of the other differences that we may have about the way forward in Northern Ireland.

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: I have a number of matters to inform Members about today. I advise Members that I received correspondence from the First Minister and deputy First Minister, dated 12 June 2008, in relation to the referral of a ministerial decision to the Executive Committee. I quote from the letter as follows:

“We are writing to advise you of the views of the Executive on those matters on which it is required to respond to you under Section 28B (4) of the Act.

The Executive considers that the decision as described in the Assembly petition did not in its view contravene section 28A (1) of the Northern Ireland Act.

It is also the view of the Executive that the matter of environmental governance is both a significant and controversial matter.

The Executive noted the former Minister’s decision at its meeting on 22 May 2008 and at its meeting today (12 June) noted the intention of Mr Sammy Wilson MP MLA, the Minister of the Environment, to bring to the Executive for discussion and agreement any matters in relation to the implementation of the former Minister’s Statement of 27 May 2008 on Environmental Governance which will require its specific approval under the relevant provisions of the Northern Ireland Act and Ministerial Code.”

I have arranged for a copy of the letter to be placed in the Library.

10.45 am

Mr Ford: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On behalf of the 30 Members who signed that petition, I thank you for the speedy and efficient way in which you carried out your duties. However, you quoted from the letter, and I heard no reference to a formal consideration by the Executive of the matter, merely a noting of the proposals of the current Minister. Can you confirm whether that is the correct impression and whether any vote was taken in the Executive on the matter of an environmental protection agency?

Mr Speaker: A full copy of the letter is in the Library, and Members should take time to read it. The issue of an environmental protection agency is now a matter for the Executive. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 requires the Executive to notify the Speaker, and that is exactly what they have done.

Secondly, I advise Members that I have received correspondence from the nominating officer of the Democratic Unionist Party, the Rt Hon Peter Robinson, nominating Mr Mervyn Storey as Chairperson of the Committee for Education and Mr David Simpson as Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development. Mr Storey and Mr Simpson have accepted the appointments.

I also advise Members that Mr Simon Hamilton has been nominated as Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, and Mr Robin Newton as Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning. Mr Hamilton and Mr Newton have accepted the appointments.

I am satisfied that this correspondence meets the requirements of Standing Orders and, therefore, confirm that: Mr Mervyn Storey is now Chairperson of the Committee for Education; Mr David Simpson is now Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development; Mr Simon Hamilton is now Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel; and Mr Robin Newton is now Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning.

Finally, at the beginning of the sitting on Tuesday 10 June, Mr Attwood raised a point of order regarding the fact that leave had been granted for a judicial review against the Assembly Commission by former members of the Assembly Secretariat.

Although I am of the view that personnel matters relating to the Assembly Secretariat are best dealt with outside the Chamber — and, therefore, I do not intend to dwell on the matter — I wish to inform the Assembly that the application for judicial review to which Mr Attwood referred, and any allegation of bad faith or discrimination, has been withdrawn by the applicants. I will write to party leaders with further details.

Executive Committee Business

Public Authorities (Reform) Bill

First Stage

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr G Kelly): I beg to introduce the Public Authorities (Reform) Bill [NIA 19/07], which is a Bill to make provision for, or in connection with, the abolition of certain public authorities.

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.

Civil Registration Bill

First Stage

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Dodds): I beg to introduce the Civil Registration Bill [NIA 20/07], which is a Bill to amend the Births and Deaths Registration (Northern Ireland) Order 1976; to provide for access to information relating to marriages and civil partnerships and information contained in the Adopted Children Register and the Gender Recognition Register, for the notification of the registration of marriages and civil partnerships, for the Registrar General to supply commemorative documents and for a register called the Record of Northern Ireland Connections; 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.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Dodds): Mr Speaker, I wish to take the opportunity, with your indulgence, to thank on behalf of my mother and family circle all Assembly Members who, in the House and through cards, letters and so forth, conveyed their sympathy and condolences to me and my family on the passing of my father. It was deeply appreciated. I read the Hansard report of Thursday 5 June 2008, the date on which my father unfortunately passed away, and it was a source of comfort, particularly to my mother.

I also thank the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for stepping in at short notice last week to move the Supply resolutions and the Second Stage of the Budget (No.2) Bill. I wish her well with her new responsibilities in that role.

Budget (No. 2) Bill

Consideration Stage

Mr Speaker: No amendments have been tabled to the Bill. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly to group the eight clauses of the Bill for the Question on stand part, followed by three schedules and the long title.

Clauses 1 to 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 to 3 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Child Maintenance Bill

Consideration Stage

Mr Speaker: No amendments have been tabled to the Bill. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly to group the 42 clauses of the Bill for the Question on stand part, followed by five schedules and the long title.

Clauses 1 to 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 to 5 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Child Maintenance Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Charities Bill

Further Consideration Stage

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that under Standing Order 35(2), the Further Consideration Stage of a Bill is restricted to debating any further amendments tabled to the Bill. As no amendments have been tabled, there is no opportunity for discussion of the Charities Bill today. Members will, of course, be able to have a full debate at the Bill’s Final Stage. The Further Consideration Stage of the Bill is, therefore, concluded. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Draft Companies (Public Sector Audit) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Dodds): I beg to move

That the Draft Companies (Public Sector Audit) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.

The Order is intended to ensure that those non-departmental public bodies that are companies, together with subsidiaries of non-departmental public bodies, should be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Before the Companies Act 2006, which applies throughout the United Kingdom, came into force, the Comptroller and Auditor General was excluded from auditing companies established by the public sector.

As a matter of principle, and in line with the recommendations of Lord Sharman’s review of audit arrangements, it is no longer considered appropriate that the form of the organisation created by any public body should prevent the Comptroller and Auditor General from undertaking his work on behalf of the Assembly.

Members will wish to note that the Order lists those organisations that are defined in the Companies Act 2006 as non-profit-making companies that are subject to public-sector audit. To meet that categorisation, an organisation must be a company that is limited by guarantee, exercise functions of a public nature, or be funded substantially from public money, and it must be part of a group where every undertaking is non-profit-making. Although the Comptroller and Auditor General now has the authority to audit any company, it is not intended that that power will be used to audit private-sector companies. The list of non-departmental public body companies that is set out in the Order has been agreed with the relevant sponsor Departments, and the organisations that are concerned have been notified of the prepared change.

As required under the terms of The Audit and Accountability (Northern Ireland) Order 2003, the proposal has been subject to consultation with the Public Accounts Committee. Passage of the Order will ensure that audit and accountability arrangements are modernised to reflect the changing forms of public bodies that are now in existence. The change will be made in England, Scotland and Wales in like manner, and it will bring us into line with international best practice, including with the arrangements that apply in the Irish Republic. The Committee for Finance and Personnel has considered the Order, and no objections have been raised. I commend the Order to the Assembly.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his appointment and to say on behalf of the Committee that it looks forward to having a good, constructive working relationship with him and to an early opportunity to meet with him.

As the Minister explained, for audit and accountability purposes, the draft Order will bring those non-departmental public bodies that are actually companies on to the same footing as statutory non-departmental public bodies. The Committee for Finance and Personnel considered the statutory rule on 23 April 2008 and was subsequently content with its policy implications. At a meeting on 28 May 2008, the Committee agreed unanimously to support the Department in seeking the Assembly’s endorsement of the Order. I therefore support the proposal.

Mr Beggs: I support the proposal to bring the financial affairs of arm’s-length public bodies under the administration of the Audit Office. It is interesting that, in recent times, arm’s-length bodies have come frequently to the attention of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) as a result of their poor financial management and of how they have conducted their business. I therefore welcome the introduction of a recommendation of the Sharman Report that will make those bodies, which are financed largely by public funding, subject to greater scrutiny. I hope that that will mean that public money will be better used and that there will be more accountability in its use.

It is interesting that Rural Cottage Holidays Ireland Ltd and the Northern Ireland Events Company are listed, as those two companies in particular have been highlighted recently because of several issues. Given that those companies and others are now under greater Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) and Comptroller and Auditor General scrutiny, I hope that the failings of the past will be less likely to happen in the future and that they will not happen again. I support the legislation.

Dr Farry: I am content with the draft Order.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I thank those Members who have commented on the Order, and I welcome their remarks. I thank the Public Accounts Committee and the Chairperson and members of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, which scrutinised the Order. I thank the Chairperson for his remarks, and I congratulate Simon Hamilton on his appointment as Deputy Chairperson of the Committee. I look forward to working constructively with both the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson and all the Committee members in the period ahead. I ask Members to approve the draft Companies (Public Sector Audit) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008, and I look forward to its coming into operation very soon.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Draft Companies (Public Sector Audit) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.

11.00 am

Donaghadee (Harbour Area) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008

The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): I beg to move

That the Donaghadee (Harbour Area) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008 (SR 2008 No. 143) be affirmed.

The legislative framework for the harbour at Donaghadee dates from the nineteenth century, and the provisions under which the harbour operates must be modernised. The limits of the harbour need to be clearly defined in modern nautical terms, which will put it on a similar footing to other harbours in the North. The Order will modernise the limits of Donaghadee harbour in line with the manner in which other harbours in the North are established. In essence, the limits will be defined by a series of straight lines that are related to a nautical reference point, rather than by a circle that is drawn around that point.

The Order has been subject to public consultation in accordance with departmental guidelines. The Department welcomes the responses that it has received to the consultation and has noted that no objections were made to the Order. I am grateful for the consideration that has been given to the proposal by my Executive colleagues and by the Committee for Regional Development. The Examiner of Statutory Rules has also considered the Order and is content with it. That has allowed the Order to proceed to the House for the seeking of affirmation.

Donaghadee harbour has long ceased to have any significant commercial importance. Looking to the future, therefore, I believe that it should be transferred from its current status as a trust port to that of a municipal harbour. I intend to instruct my Department to draft a harbour Order that will transfer the undertaking at Donaghadee to the local council. That transfer is linked to the review of public administration (RPA) and the reorganisation of local councils and will happen in parallel with those arrangements. The legislation will be subject to public consultation in due course.

I therefore recommend the Donaghadee (Harbour Area) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008 for the Assembly’s affirmation. Go raibh maith agat.

Dr Farry: I declare an interest as a member of North Down Borough Council. I am happy with the Order as it stands. I am conscious that responsibility for this matter is intended to be transferred to local government at some stage, in the context of the review of public administration. I am also conscious that the harbour requires a considerable amount of capital investment. Running costs must also be addressed. I seek assurances from the Minister that, before any transfer takes place, proper consideration will be given to the burden of future capital investment, and that responsibility to deal with the legacy of underfunding will not simply be passed from the Department for Regional Development (DRD) to local ratepayers.

Mr Shannon: I want to ask a similar question to that of my colleague Stephen Farry, and I declare an interest as a member of Ards Borough Council, which I have represented for some 23 years.

Is the Minister aware that the council is unhappy that DRD might thrust responsibility for the harbour upon its shoulders? I am well aware of the importance of Donaghadee harbour. I am also well aware of the substantial damage that has been caused to the harbour by prevailing winds over the years. It has been intimated that the cost to refurbish the harbour and correct that damage could be in the region of £1·5 million.

Does the Minister believe that it is right that his Department shifts responsibility to Ards Borough Council — or, indeed, to the new council that will be created when Ards Borough Council takes over North Down Borough Council? I am extremely concerned that, right away, the matter will become the responsibility of Ards Borough Council.

The Minister must offer a clear assurance that the cost to upgrade the harbour so that it meets health and safety standards will not be a financial burden on the incoming council. Can the Minister confirm the status of that matter and offer those assurances? Ards Borough Council has expressed clear concerns about the financial burden that the Minister, with respect, is trying to shift towards it.

The Minister for Regional Development: I reassure both Members that, given that the proposition is to transfer the responsibility to the new council arrangements, which will be put in place under the RPA, the responsibility for Donaghadee harbour will not be thrust on Ards Borough Council. The new council will be a much larger entity than Ards Borough Council. The transfer of functions will be subject to legislation, on which there will be full consultation, and all the issues that Dr Farry and Mr Shannon raised can be dealt with in that discussion.

The North has a number of trust ports, as well as a number of smaller entities, of which two are Donaghadee and Coleraine. Those ports have long since come to the end of their life as significant commercial operations. The Department for Regional Development is responsible for managing its relationship with the trust ports at Derry, Warrenpoint and Belfast, which are important commercial ports. Those three ports have a significant impact on the entire region and are economically important. Smaller entities that are not as important, such as the harbours at Bangor and Ballycastle, are operated by municipal councils. The intention is to transfer responsibility for Donaghadee harbour to the council, and consideration is being given to transferring responsibility for Coleraine harbour to the structures that emerge from the review of local government.

The purpose of the Order, and of the parallel discussions on the review of local government, is not to foist responsibilities on local government without providing the resources and the ability to deal with those responsibilities. Its purpose is centred on the discussion of the review of local government. As I said, legislation will be required, as will full consultation on that legislation. It will be part of the undertaking of the new configuration of the council areas, and I am sure that the resource issue will be dealt with in discussions.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Donaghadee (Harbour Area) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008 (SR 2008 No. 143) be affirmed.

Committee Business

Statutory Committee Membership

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


That Mr Edwin Poots replace Mr Sammy Wilson as a member of the Education Committee. — [Mr Weir.]

Child Poverty in Northern Ireland

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

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (Mr Kennedy): I beg to move

That this Assembly approves the Report of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (08/07/08R) on its Inquiry into Child Poverty in Northern Ireland; and calls on the Executive to bring forward a detailed plan of action to deliver its targets to eliminate child poverty.

Before commenting on the substantive matter that is before the House, as Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, I wish to express my gratitude to the people who assisted the Committee during the inquiry. I offer my appreciation to the Committee Clerk and the Committee secretariat for their work in arranging what was a major inquiry, during which the Committee considered submissions from around 50 organisations. I also express my appreciation to the Assembly’s Research and Library Services for the high-quality research and analysis that it provided to the Committee, and to Hansard for its patient and accurate reporting of evidence sessions with almost 30 organisations.

The Committee is grateful to all those who provided evidence during the inquiry, including officials from the seven Departments that were called to respond to questions from members on the policies and plans that the Executive are putting in place to tackle child poverty. I also thank my colleagues on the Committee for their commitment to the inquiry, and for the constructive and collective approach that they all adopted in trying to find evidence-based solutions to the challenge of child poverty.

Since the inquiry’s early stages, it has been apparent that no single policy or programme will eliminate child poverty. That will require action by all Government Departments and agencies and local partners in the public, private, voluntary and community sectors. Furthermore, the elimination of child poverty depends significantly on the UK Government’s actions on taxation and benefits policies.

I shall focus on recommendations for providing the strategic, co-ordinated approach that is necessary if there is to be any chance of achieving the Executive’s ambitious target of eliminating child poverty by 2020. Before that, I shall comment on the changing economic circumstances in which we find ourselves, because, given that the price of an oil fill is rising towards £600, they have implications for families in, or at risk of, poverty.

It is generally accepted that, during the late 1990s and the early years of this decade, Northern Ireland benefited from a positive economic climate, which produced rising employment, decreasing unemploy­ment and increasing incomes for many families. During that period, approximately 25,000 children in Northern Ireland were lifted out of poverty. Nevertheless, the unacceptable reality is that approximately 110,000 children still live in relative income poverty, and, in the past three years, that figure has not greatly changed.

As a consequence of matters that are often outside the Assembly’s control, we now find ourselves in a time of credit crunches and rocketing fuel prices. The Committee was so concerned about the potential effect of spiralling food and fuel costs on low-income families that it asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) to analyse the impact of rising costs on poorer families. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the Department’s analysis revealed that the rising cost of necessities is having a much more significant impact on people who are already on low incomes compared to those from more affluent households. In such an environment, attempts to achieve the Executive’s target of reducing child poverty by 50% by 2010 will be, to say the least, challenging.

My Committee recognises that, at some stage, that 2010 target may need to be reviewed; although, at the moment, the Committee does not consider that to be particularly important. It is important, however, that the Executive responds quickly to the reality of rising costs by developing a specific plan of action to tackle the problem for people on low incomes. Those costs threaten to wipe out the reductions in child poverty that have been experienced in the past decade. A key element of any such plan must be to seek to influence the Westminster Government to use the tax and benefit systems to assist families to deal with higher food and fuel bills.

Furthermore, the Committee believes that the Executive must ensure that Government services respond decisively to the needs of low-income families. Therefore, the Committee welcomes the creation of the fuel poverty task force by the Minister for Social Development, and calls on it to ensure that, as well as considering options for increasing public-sector investment, it considers potential private-sector contributions — including those from the regulated utilities — to minimise fuel costs for people on low incomes.

Moreover, the Committee believes that, during future monitoring rounds, the Executive must prioritise the matter of high fuel costs and consider all options for financing the fuel poverty task force’s recommendations.

I shall return to the Committee’s recommendations for the implementation of an overall strategy for tackling child poverty.

The Committee is aware that the Executive will shortly consider a proposal to adopt the Lifetime Opportunities strategy as the framework for its strategy to tackle poverty and social exclusion. Although, as it stands, the strategy has many limitations, the Committee believes that the Executive should move quickly to adopt Lifetime Opportunities so that it can focus its energy on the production of a properly resourced, cross-departmental, anti-poverty implementation plan which includes SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based) intermediate objectives, targets and programmes that are capable of delivering the long-term target of eliminating child poverty.

11.15 am

In the report, we have sought to identify the range of issues that must be addressed in a new anti-poverty implementation plan and a revised Programme for Government. In particular, the Committee recognises that work is the best route out of poverty and has called for action to remove the barriers to employment created by the current inadequacies in childcare provision. The Committee also recommends that the Executive should increase investment in early-years services, and it has recommended the development of a resourced programme of action to deliver improvements to services for disabled children.

The Committee is concerned that being in work does not always result in families having higher incomes, and it therefore recommends the development of a pilot project to test a “better off in work credit” in Northern Ireland. It also recognises that there must be a robust safety net for those who are unable to work, and has therefore recommended that the Executive develop a cross-departmental benefit uptake strategy.

Even if a new anti-poverty implementation plan that contains all of the above measures is produced, the Committee has major concerns about whether there are adequate systems in place to ensure that the programmes outlined in the plan are implemented by Departments. We are not at all satisfied that OFMDFM has the necessary tools at its disposal to ensure — and, if necessary, enforce — the delivery of crucial child-poverty programmes by individual Departments. We have therefore recommended that a number of new systems be introduced to enable OFMDFM to manage departmental performance in contributing to targets for the reduction of child poverty.

Ultimately, if we are to make significant progress in reducing child poverty, the Executive and the Assembly must show leadership, and there should be the political will to make the radical changes to policy and policy delivery that are required. Through its inquiry into child poverty in Northern Ireland, the Committee has sought to develop constructive proposals to assist the Executive, the Assembly and future Administrations in developing a robust strategy to eliminate child poverty. I therefore commend the report to the House and seek the its support for the motion.

Mr Speaker: Mr Shannon, you have five minutes.

Mr Shannon: I congratulate all those who worked so hard to produce this weighty report, which, as Members will be aware, also includes a CD-ROM. The amount of time and effort that was put into its preparation is quite evident. I particularly want to thank the Committee Clerk and Committee staff for their industriousness and assistance, and the Chairman, who conducted business exceptionally well. If one wants an example of how an Assembly Committee can work on behalf of the people, then one need look no further than this Committee and this report. All the members agreed on the focus of the report, the issues and the importance of our efforts to address child poverty. Visitors to the Committee have told me how impressed they were by the Committee’s work to produce the report.

To do this matter justice, I would need an hour and a half. However, Mr Speaker, you have told me that I have only five minutes, so that is impossible.

Sitting in the Committee meetings, I became more and more disheartened by how some children in the Province have to live and the fact that, for the most part, they have been forgotten over the years. However, the benefit of being made aware of the low point at which some children in the Province are stuck is that we know that the only way is up. We in the Assembly have the tools and the power to make a difference.

Child poverty, in particular, has been a heavy burden on my heart for years. In my constituency office, I am frequently shown evidence that many children do not have the carefree existence that they should enjoy by right.

I was not surprised that the town and borough of Newtownards are among the top-five hot spots of child deprivation in the Province. I see many examples of that poverty every day, and it is not a picture that I like to see.

Children should be worried about only which game to play next. They should not be worried about whether they will have a glass of water instead of a snack when they get home from school because there is no food in the cupboard, or about not being able to afford the 50p admission to a youth club or for a bus in order to go out. Nor should children have to take on the burden of worry as they watch their parents scraping together the money simply to pay the bills and heat the house.

With the cost of living rising so significantly of late due to sharp increases in the price of electricity, oil and gas, more families will tighten their belts to the extent that it is painful and stops the circulation of life to the family. Fuel poverty was a major issue in the report, and I ask Members to support the recommendation to set up a taskforce to deal with rising bills.

This time last year, a loaf of bread cost about 89p. Today, the average price in a local garage is £1.29p — a 40p increase, or almost 50% of the original price. The rate of inflation is said to be 3%, but it is probably closer to 10%. The problem is that no wage or benefit in the Province has risen by 50%. As a consequence, the poverty bracket widens to take in more people.

It is for that reason that I commend the recom­mendation in the report that states that there must be more co-operation between Government Departments. The problem lies with not solely the Department for Social Development or the Minister Margaret Ritchie; it is a Province-wide problem that needs a cross-governmental and Province-wide solution. It is too easy to state the obvious and say that providing benefit and aid to families with no working parents should be extended. Similarly, after-school care, which is not a social development issue, has a major role.

I was heartened to learn that PlayBoard received further funding to continue its after-schools programme. PlayBoard, and other charitable institutions such as Home-Start and Sure Start, are essential tools in tackling fuel poverty. Childcare provision enables parents to get into work. It has been found that a child in a workless home has a 58% chance of being deprived and in poverty, yet that is reduced to 14% in households in which at least one parent works. Those statistics make it abundantly clear that Sure Start, PlayBoard and other after-school clubs are vital to eradicating child poverty in Northern Ireland.

There must be a concerted, co-ordinated and all-encompassing effort across all Government Departments. What is the use of the Health Service funding Sure Start if an education board neglects PlayBoard? All Departments must realise that they have the potential to enhance the effort to eradicate child poverty and to halt its progress. For that reason, recommendation 17 in the report states that there should be:

“a system of financial incentives and penalties in relation to the delivery of cross-departmental priorities, such as child poverty”.

There should be sanctions for Departments that do not do what they should be doing; and encouragement for those which do. Only by working together can we end child poverty in the Province. Times may be tough for families, but the future is, I believe, bright, and the ability to end child poverty is well within our grasp if we work together in the Assembly. The first step in that endeavour is to support the report, and I hope that that support will be unanimous.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I, too, acknowledge the work of the Committee staff and the way that the Committee worked cohesively during the inquiry. I appreciate having the opportunity to commend the report to the Chamber, because, as a member of the OFMDFM Committee, the child poverty inquiry has been a priority in my work for the past year, and in the work of many others on the Committee.

As a newly-elected MLA, the first thing that I did when coming into office was to lobby for such an inquiry. The reason for that was because, like many in the Chamber, I was appalled by the levels of child poverty. In my Foyle constituency, there is a 34% rate of child poverty. I know, Mr Speaker, that you recognise that statistic. That means that more than one in three children in the city of Derry is living in poverty. It is a scandal, and that sense of scandal was shared by all members of the Committee.

The poverty in Derry, and in many other areas on which the Committee touched, is the result of decades of misrule, neglect and discrimination. In this new era of dispensation, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to begin to address the legacy that we have inherited.

The commitments that were given in the Programme for Government, particularly the target of eliminating child poverty by 2020, must be turned into reality. The findings of the inquiry have provided a road map that can enable us to achieve those aims. However, the Committee recognised that that must be supplemented by the proper implementation of equality impact assessments (EQIA) in all Departments so that we can tangibly change current patterns of disadvantage.

The report contains many recommendations that address key areas such as the benefits system, tax credit, affordable childcare, social housing, fuel poverty, and early-years provision. Last week, I attended an early-years conference in Derry, and I was extremely impressed by the wealth of evidence demonstrating how generations of children are being damaged by entering formal education at a very young age; indeed, the Minister also recognises that. Therefore, I am pleased that the child poverty inquiry made specific reference to the need for the early-years strategy to be resourced properly and supported by all Departments.

I call on all parties to support the no-day-named motion on fuel poverty that I tabled some months ago. That calls for the Assembly to explore the possibilities of entering into an international trade agreement with Venezuela, which has already signalled its willingness to examine opportunities to support providing affordable heating oil to low-income families in the North. It is worth our exploring and discussing that option.

Although the implementation of the report’s recommendations can make a real difference, there are many areas over which we have little or no control, and all members of the Committee recognise that. For instance, the report details the huge problems with the bureaucracy of the benefits system, which has abysmally failed thousands of low-income families to the extent that they simply cannot afford to heat their homes or feed their children. Yet there is little that we can do about that system, because it remains the responsibility of British Ministers who have not been elected by the people of Ireland and who spend billions of pounds waging wars on Iraq and Afghanistan while our children go hungry and cold. Surely there can be no more compelling reason for additional powers to be transferred to the Assembly than the welfare of our children. It does not matter whether Members represent the Bogside or Ballysillan — a hungry child is a hungry child, and that should unite us all. Indeed, I believe that it does unite us all.

However, without fiscal control, there is only so much that we can do within the confines of the block Budget from Westminster. We must take control of our destiny and that of our children. Otherwise, we will condemn future generations to poverty, disadvantage and exclusion.

Given that child poverty unites and moves us all, I am confident that the report will win the overwhelming support of all parties.

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

Mr A Maginness: I welcome the report and congratulate the Committee for producing it. It is a very readable document, and we can all agree that it is of great concern that child poverty remains a substantial problem in Northern Ireland. More than 100,000 children live in income poverty in Northern Ireland. That is totally unacceptable, and all parties share that view. We must ask how poverty can be eliminated and how the Assembly and the Executive can tackle the problem of child poverty. It is clear that the Committee’s view is that progress can be made in that direction, but the Executive must adopt a robust cross-departmental policy to tackle the multifaceted aspects of child poverty.

Progress was made in the 1990s but, since the commencement of this decade, there has been a slowdown in tackling the problem. That is a matter of great concern, and the recent horrific increases in fuel and food prices, as well as general living expenses, will impact adversely on the child poverty strategy.

11.30 am

The report highlights two issues. First, we must devise a strategy to create more good-quality jobs that generate higher incomes. In certain sectors, there is a substantial low-wage economy, which will not help to tackle child poverty. We must move our workers to a much higher wage situation. The connection between poverty and unemployment is clear — that is an obvious statement. However, it is curious and disturbing that many employed people — particularly lone parents — experience poverty. In many areas, the lack of effective childcare provides a further barrier to those seeking to re-enter the job market. We must tackle that situation to ensure that people have the opportunity to work.

Secondly, we must place an emphasis on education, because if people are properly equipped and skilled in their early years, they can break the cycle of poverty. Local schools — particularly primary schools — must play a central role in equipping young people and, indeed, their parents. Primary schools are the powerhouses of local communities; we must invest in them.

In my area, Star of the Sea Primary School has 75 pupils — of a total of 300 — with special educational needs. However, that school will employ one special-needs teacher next term, whereas it has two this year and, in the preceding three years, it had four. What chance is there to improve children’s lives and equip them with vital skills?

Ms Lo: Mr Maginness has stolen my speech.

I support the motion and commend the Committee for producing a comprehensive report that highlights the serious issue of child poverty. Child poverty is a cross-cutting matter, and we must adopt a holistic approach to tackle it in both the short and long term. OFMDFM, the Department for Social Development (DSD), the Department of Education (DE), the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) and other relevant Departments and outside agencies must commit to a joined-up Government programme.

Unemployment and low wages are highlighted in the report as the major causes of child poverty. Those factors also cause serious social exclusion in our communities. Interdepartmental collaboration is important in tackling unemployment and low wages.

I am a member of the Committee for Social Development, which is currently examining the neighbourhood renewal projects across Northern Ireland. Those projects are supposed to be supported on a cross-cutting basis by Departments in collaboration. However, some Departments are not buying into those projects, which will possibly lead to a reduction in expectations.

Mr F McCann: Anna Lo mentions the neighbourhood renewal projects and the impact that they should have on the 37 neighbourhood renewal areas in dealing with deprivation. However, the fact that some Departments refuse to buy into those projects weakens the neighbourhood renewal strategy. Furthermore, the intention to move responsibility for neighbourhood renewal to local government will have an impact on the ability of local government to deliver the Government’s main strategy for dealing with deprivation. Should there not be more focus on the responsibility for neighbourhood renewal remaining with the Assembly so that more resources can be put into neighbourhood renewal to allow the projects to deal with deprivation?

Ms Lo: I agree with Fra McCann. The initiatives that were led by DSD should be supported on a cross-departmental basis. Their purpose should be to lift whole communities out of poverty. The Gasworks Business Park in Belfast opened to great fanfare a few years ago. It was intended to provide jobs in the surrounding area, but only a handful of people in the Markets and in the Donegall Pass and Donegall Road areas got jobs, most of which were low-paid cleaning positions on the periphery.

It is important to consider employability and education for our young people. We must also take affordable childcare into account. Many people, particularly women, are in part-time jobs that do not provide a high salary. Affordable childcare will allow parents to go into further education or training and into higher-paid full-time jobs.

We must not underemphasise the importance of education for our children. All rich countries have well-educated workforces. That is the way to go. We also need a good preschool system so that all children can obtain a good nursery education. Furthermore, it is such a nonsense that the Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) are wrangling over the lead responsibility for after-school clubs. Those clubs are essential for many neighbourhoods in which there are people who cannot afford childcare. They also help with homework for children who, perhaps, do not get the same support at home as those children from middle-class families. Working-class families are in great need of after-school support in their neighbourhoods, yet many of those clubs will have to close in the next few months.

Mr Spratt: It is with a sense of achievement that the OFMDFM Committee reports to the House today on its inquiry into child poverty, after many hours of considering evidence on the matter. A report is all well and good, and talk is cheap; however, action is required to tackle the crucial challenge that faces Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole.

I commend the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for establishing the elimination of child poverty as a principal long-term objective of the Executive, as outlined in the Programme for Government. Reducing child poverty by 50% by 2010 and eliminating it by 2020 are noble aims. However, the Committee identified several factors that could make those targets difficult to achieve.

The inquiry identified the rising cost of basic day-to-day necessities, such as fuel and food, as having the potential to increase child poverty in the short term. Granted, the Executive and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister have little remit on those matters, so we must examine ways of lessening the impact of the current economic climate in the United Kingdom. The cost of filling a tank of home heating oil is a major burden for many families in Northern Ireland, particularly those on low incomes. Increased child poverty could be a knock-on effect of such costs.

One major way in which to tackle child poverty is to tackle unemployment. The Committee identified that a child in a workless home has a 58% chance of being in poverty; therefore, getting people into work must be a priority. I welcome the commitment in the Programme for Government to increase employment. If we can make more people economically active, we can make inroads into the problem of child poverty. To do that, barriers — such as lack of accessible childcare — must be broken down, and the path to employment must be made easier.

As a Member for South Belfast, I represent some of the most deprived wards in Northern Ireland where child poverty is an everyday problem. In areas such as South Belfast, we will see real progress towards the eradication of child poverty if we proceed with an agenda of getting people back into work and of improving income through greater uptake of benefit entitlement.

South Belfast suffers from one of the problems that were identified by the Committee’s inquiry; namely, it has pockets of deprivation that might be missed because they are surrounded by areas of wider affluence. It is crucial that such deprived areas are not missed when implementing the report’s recommendations.

Much responsibility for the outworking of the report lies with the Executive as a whole. Tackling poverty and its causes requires the Executive to take a co-ordinated approach, as cross-cutting matters, such as employment, health, social development and education, are the keys to tackling the whole issue. Children who are trapped in poverty must be at the forefront of the Executive’s thoughts.

The Executive have some good mechanisms in place — such as New Deal, early-years provision and Sure Start — to aid the implementation of the report’s recommendations. Let us take steps to improve education and health in deprived areas.

To me, child poverty is the manifestation of the more deeply rooted problem of a society in breakdown. Evidence shows that deprivation is often passed down through generations. If a family’s income is based on benefits, it is likely that the child will grow up to become a long-term recipient of benefits. Educational achievement follows a similar trend. Parents with low educational achievement often have low-achieving children. The key to eradicating child poverty is to break such cycles to remove the dependence on the state and to re-invigorate the family as an entity.

The problem cannot be solved simply by throwing money at either parents or children. It must be achieved through repairing the family.

11.45 am

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

Mr Spratt: I commend the report to the House and I thank the Committee staff for their help.

Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I, too, welcome the report. I have some questions for the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and, indeed, for OFMDFM. Can the report’s 47 recommendations be adequately assessed and implemented? The Committee for Employment and Learning’s recent first report on Training for Success contained 25 recommendations. I declare an interest as a member of that Committee. Can so many recommendations be genuinely taken on board?

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister: I thank the Member for giving way and for her contribution. The answer to her question is found in the final part of the motion, which states:

“and calls on the Executive to bring forward a detailed plan of action to deliver its targets to eliminate child poverty.”

We seek to have all 47 recommendations addressed and implemented.

Mrs McGill: I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for his intervention. Obviously, I expect such a statement to be included in the motion. I am not being critical, but the question of whether all 47 recommendations can be implemented was one that occurred to me. I accept the Chairperson’s point and look forward to the implementation of all the recommendations — that would be very welcome.

Strategy after strategy is produced, and recom­mendations on recommendations are made. It may be because I am fairly new to the process, but I have another, more general, concern. The report states:

“In addition, the Committee is proposing that the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and the Department of Finance and Personnel should consult on the introduction of a system of financial incentives and penalties in relation to the delivery of cross-departmental priorities, such as child poverty.”

I wonder how that system can be implemented. When the Budget and the Programme for Government were being drawn up, I noted that — although equality and good relations were mentioned — an outline of how poverty would be tackled was not included. I did not comment on that at the time, although perhaps I should have done.

Departments are not fully tackling the issue of poverty. My colleague Fra McCann made that point in response to Anna Lo. I submitted a question to each Department that asked what it was spending on neighbourhood renewal areas. Neighbourhood renewal is aimed at tackling general poverty rather than child poverty specifically, but it is closely linked to the subject. The responses that we received indicated that not every Department knows what it should be doing in order to produce an anti-poverty strategy. Departments must make that a priority.

The report is to be welcomed. I am heartened by the Chairperson’s assurance that the recommendations will be implemented.

Mr Shannon: As I am sure that Mrs McGill will have acknowledged, the key theme of Members’ speeches so far is that all Departments should work together. If Departments do not work together, the report and its recommendations will fail. Does the Member agree that sanctions should be placed on Departments that do not deliver? That might help to ensure delivery.

Mrs McGill: That is certainly the case, but it is a question of how that is going to work out.

I wish to make a couple of points about some of the evidence that I have read from groups in my area — the Western Health Action Zone and Western Investing for Health.

A key point has already been made about planning in rural areas: sometimes, Government policies work against those outcomes that the Assembly wants — we saw an example of that with PPS 14. When a planning policy forces young people to move from a rural area — leaving behind their friends and family; their homes; their entire community — it creates a poverty issue that must be addressed.

We need to be clear that Government policies of which we approve can have the opposite outcome to what was originally intended. I support the motion and I look forward to the recommendations being implemented, Go raibh maith agat.

Mr G Robinson: Our children are the future of our country, and I have a sincere desire to ensure that they have the benefits of twenty-first century life, enabling them to have a happy and healthy upbringing. That desire is not made any easier to achieve, however, when children in the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland have seen funding for many of the extended-schools programmes withdrawn.

The withdrawal of that funding does not encourage parents — especially single parents, for whom indicators show a higher level of child poverty — to enter the workforce. Whether those jobs are part time, full time or job shares, the withdrawal of programmes such as breakfast clubs and after-schools clubs can only inhibit the likelihood of employment being achieved because parents understandably need to ensure that their children are safe and well supervised while they are at work.

Parents are increasingly left with less disposable income, which limits the opportunity for children to participate in activities that are not linked to schools but that must be directly funded by parents. That robs children of the opportunity to make choices and to try new or favourite experiences. Those are the realities of life for families in communities that suffer the greatest levels of deprivation.

All Members are fully aware that the consistent rise in the cost of fuel and food is having the greatest effect on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. That not only results in much larger bills landing on everyone’s mat, but it forces producers and retailers to increase their costs in order to remain solvent. Ultimately, everyone pays that bit extra for even basic foodstuffs. Research indicates that a poor diet results in a greater chance of a child doing less well at school. That should help us all realise that child poverty and poverty in general are linked, if not one and the same thing.

The Executive have made plans for the future that will ensure a higher number of people are employed and in better-paid employment. The Programme for Government and the Budget aim to grow our economy by concentrating on the four major economic drivers: skills, enterprise, innovation, and infrastructure.

The main way to decrease child poverty is to ensure the availability of well-paid jobs and a workforce with the necessary skills to fill them. As a result, there will be more people working and greater household incomes, leading to reduced child poverty. To help to achieve that and to ensure that we stay competitive in a global market, business must have the capital to reinvest. The Executive have held down the level of derating, which gives a further boost to the private sector and provides a way of creating the jobs that are required to help to alleviate levels of child poverty.

The Executive are promoting Northern Ireland like never before — the recent US/Northern Ireland economic conference is a prime example of that. The investment that I am sure will result from that conference will be an essential boost to the positive steps that have already been taken by the Executive to address poverty in Northern Ireland in all its shapes and forms.

It is not a sensible way forward to simply state that we must reduce the public sector. Although that may happen in percentage terms over the middle to long term, the growing of the private sector is what we must concentrate on.

The Budget and the Programme for Government have pumped more money into health, social housing and infrastructure in Northern Ireland. Those areas will aid the economy as the private sector grows. Although a value-for-money principle must be applied to all Executive spending, suddenly reducing the size of the public sector will only increase the levels of child poverty that need to be addressed.

I am sure that every Member wants to reduce child poverty. However, there is no quick fix, or magic wand, that will make that happen overnight. A considered and targeted approach is the only way in which poverty can become a less significant factor in Northern Ireland’s society. The Executive have correctly identified growing the economy as the key to reducing poverty, and they are doing what is required to ensure that that becomes a reality.

Mr Beggs: I support the motion, and I thank the Committee for its report and for highlighting issues that need to be addressed.

Poverty is the principal determinant of a child’s life chances in Northern Ireland. Children born into poverty are more likely to suffer from childhood illnesses compared to those raised in other, more affluent, families. Children in low-income families are also less likely to stay at school, obtain qualifications, go to university or obtain well-paid jobs. Poverty in Northern Ireland — and in the UK in general — is perpetuated by current practices, and that is not good enough.

Low income has a stark effect on families’ ability to meet the basic needs that the majority of us take for granted. Home-heating oil, a nutritional diet and the ability to participate fully in educational and social activities are all affected by low income. It was surprising therefore that the Minister of Education decided to reduce the funding for extended schools drastically. That decision was hers, and it was disappointing that schools that had been receiving support for breakfast and after-school clubs through the extended schools programmes had their funding reduced.

It is shocking that around 40,000 young people in Northern Ireland live in severe poverty. Those children are from families with the lowest levels of income and life chances and are most likely to be in poverty for the longest periods of time.

I declare an interest as a member of Horizon Sure Start, which assists parents of children in the 0-4 age group in parts of Larne and Carrickfergus. Schemes such as Sure Start play a very significant role in increasing educational opportunities for preschool children; improving access to health provisions — things taken for granted in ensuring that needs are addressed at an early age — and improving parenting skills. Those skills are an important factor in increasing a child’s life chances. The Committee was correct to examine policies to secure a standard level of income for the most vulnerable in society.

Although the Executive are not in control of taxation and benefits, the delivery system for benefits can have a significant impact on the levels of severe poverty. It is right that a cross-departmental benefit-uptake strategy is implemented to assist low-income families in obtaining their full benefit entitlement.

Low income is only one aspect of child poverty. Poverty affects a child’s ability to achieve at school, have life choices, and improve their life situation. That concerns preschools provision as well as primary schools, and it is essential that children are given good educational opportunities from a very early stage in life.

UK-wide research has shown that there has hardly been any progress in the bottom 20% to 30% of the income range since the Labour Government came into power in 1997, despite the huge changes in taxation that were made to try and assist in the area.

Why is that? Around one in five children in the bottom 20% of the income range is persistently poor, and that figure rises to almost one in three in the bottom 30%. Over the decades, there has been a huge redistribution of taxpayers’ money in the United Kingdom, but we still have some of the lowest levels of social mobility in Europe. Redistribution, associated with the welfare state, should be a safety net so that children and their parents cannot fall beyond a certain point. However, that is not the long-term answer. We need a strategy to address other issues, encourage social mobility and allow children to rise up through education to have better job opportunities.

12.00 noon

Members have stated that we need more jobs. That is so, but we must also ensure that everyone has the necessary skills and education so that they will be considered for job opportunities when they arise. We have more to do than improving benefits and providing jobs; we must increase the levels of skills and mobility in society.

Mr F McCann: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: I am sorry; I am coming to the end of my speech.

It is important that we address a range of issues to increase the life chances of all our children and ensure that society as a whole can benefit.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Members and organisations that contributed to the production of this valuable and detailed report. I will refer to specific aspects of it.

Paragraph 197, which relates to state benefit uptake, represents extremely valuable work. As a founding member of a local benefits-uptake campaign, I know that the sharing of information across agencies is crucial. That applies to young people as well as older people, and particularly to those who have an entitlement on the foot of attendance allowance and the consequences that that might have on pension credits. That work is valuable and important.

Paragraph 226 relates to increasing costs. People would have to be totally unaware of their environment to fail to notice the spiralling cost of fuel. At the moment, some people are fortunate in that fuel costs are increasing during the summer months. However, I dread to think of the effects of those rises on people, such as pensioners, who are at the lower end of the income scale. During the winter, many of them are affected by cold-related illnesses. The dramatic increase in the price of fuel inevitably begs the question of why no increase in cold-weather payments has been forthcoming. The dramatic increase in fuel costs has resulted in a consequent and dramatic increase in revenue for the Exchequer by way of taxation. I hope that, when the report is passed to OFMDFM, that office makes representations to the Exchequer and asks how the revenue from net overall taxation of fuel can be made available to vulnerable sections of the community, such as low-income families and pensioners.

As the winter bites, hospitals will become chock-a-block with patients suffering from cold-related illnesses, and there will be a revolving-door syndrome, whereby people leave hospital only to have to be readmitted because they cannot heat their homes for their families.

In my constituency, I recently encountered a young expectant mother whom the state expects to live on £22 a week and another young woman who is expected to live on £44 a week. Last night, I was telephoned by a mother who has a dependent son and whom the state expects to live on a little over £90 a week. I have heard the argument that the solution lies in putting people into well-paid, full-time work. However, those people would love to work but are unable to do so because of disability. In another case, a woman has had to leave work because her disability has made it impossible for her to continue.

I am glad that Minister Ritchie has taken those situations on board and that she will make representations on the rates of benefit to Westminster, where they are determined.

The reality is harsh. The timing of the report could not have been more opportune, and it is hoped that it will be actively and vigorously acted on by OFMDFM in its efforts to look after the needs of people for whom times are difficult.

I have no hesitation in commending the report, supporting the motion and thanking those who put so much effort into bringing this important matter to the attention of the House. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion and endorse the congratulations that have been paid to those who produced the report. The report is timely, but Committee members must be frustrated that, given the rapidly escalating fuel, energy and living costs, the most recently available statistics on poverty are almost redundant. We are relying on statistics that, in some instances, date back to 2006.

The devastating profile of poverty meant that more than 100,000 children were living in poverty or in households that were experiencing poverty in 2006, but that figure is out of date already. Unquestionably, that problem is deepening, and the report’s many recommendations compel the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to ensure that there is a coherent and cross-departmental response.

There is no single silver-bullet solution to the problem, which affects education, health and employment opportunities, as well as the well-being of society. The Assembly supported, as a priority, the policy of developing the economy, so the Executive must recognise the debilitating effect that poverty has in the community — particularly on the most deprived and excluded — and must acknowledge how poverty will impact on that objective.

A healthy community is one that is secure in the knowledge that it is looking after its weakest and recognises that the benchmarks of a successful society not only relate to training, employment and benefits, but to sustainable employment opportunities. Addressing the issues that inhibit the achievement of such a community is a deliverable priority of the Programme for Government, and it is a goal that compels and commends itself to every party in the Assembly.

For generations, society has known that there is an endemic problem of poverty, but not one of the previous Administrations have developed a sustainable response. That responsibility now falls to the Assembly. The recognition of that in the Programme for Government, and the priorities that have been mapped out, demonstrate that not only is there an awareness of those facts, but a commitment to deliver.

We must ensure that the action plan is followed through consistently by all Departments. It is regrettable that the report recognises that Departments have not yet adopted a joined-up approach or afforded the same sense of priority to matters relating to child poverty — but that is not the headline of the report. The locally accountable Executive members and their parties could — and should — address that, and I am happy to give Sinn Féin’s commitment to doing so. We recognise the difficulties and the limitations; we do not have an infinite Budget, but, through prioritised programmes and action programmes, we can make a tangible difference to people’s lives.

That is the type of action plan — with targets, timelines, budgets and resources — that we want to see emerge.

I support the work of the Committee members, the report that they have produced and its recommendations. I commend the motion to the House.

Mr Weir: I am not a member of the OFMDFM Committee; therefore, I have not been involved with the production of this report. However, I commend the report to the House.

At times, the caricature of this Assembly will be the degrees of disagreement when there is argument across the Chamber. Those issues are sometimes picked up by the media; therefore, it will be interesting to see tonight’s media coverage of a topic that is particularly vital for many people in Northern Ireland.

In many ways, the production of this report shows the Assembly at its best. No one could claim that it is an insubstantial piece of work. A great deal of work has gone into it, and I commend the members of the Committee.

The report shows a detailed examination of the issue and the consensus achieved among the members of the Committee. The tone of the report is shared by the Executive, in that it does not simply provide a list of measures required to tackle child poverty, but acts as a critical friend, suggesting improvements that can be made. I do not believe that the Executive would be so arrogant as to suggest that everything is perfect in relation to child poverty in Northern Ireland. We have a long way to travel, and, to be fair, the Executive have been in place for only one year.

The mood of the report is, perhaps, best summarised by quoting directly from its executive summary:

“Eliminating child poverty will require leadership and political will. The Committee believes that, in unanimously agreeing the recommendations in this report it has demonstrated that the political will exists to tackle child poverty in Northern Ireland. The Committee is of the view that a collective approach to the elimination of child poverty in Northern Ireland, which involves all political parties, and key public, private, voluntary and community partners, can be constructed. The starting point for a consensus on child poverty would be a comprehensive response to this report and its recommendations, in terms of a properly resourced, robust anti-poverty implementation plan.”

There are various elements to that. There are issues that lie outside the remit of the Executive. There are areas — such as the creation of broad financial structures — that, as indicated by others, require lobbying to ensure that the tax and benefits systems do not trap people in child poverty. Furthermore, it has been recognised by several Members who have spoken in this debate that child poverty is not simply about children, but about families. Indeed, successful, financially secure families do help to tackle poverty.

Mr A Maginness: There are many difficulties in relation to tax credits. Indeed, people, through no fault of their own, have been asked to repay large sums of money, due to deficiencies in the tax credits system. The knock-on effect of children being deprived of access to free school meals leads to a reduction in the indices that mark out schools and the levels of poverty, therefore distorting the actual level of poverty in the community.

Mr Weir: Those are salient points. Tax credits and child tax credits, overall, have been good initiatives. However, there have been many problems in the implementation of the system and, on many occasions, things have gone wrong. I suspect that there is not a Member in this Chamber who has not received complaints of some unfair action taken by the tax credit office, sometimes demanding the refund of payments when the system — and not the participant — is to blame. Therefore, I agree with Alban Maginness that that is a knock-on effect.

12.15 pm

The report tackles a range of issues. Sure Start and Home-Start are among a range of groups that play a valuable role. We must ensure that they cover all of Northern Ireland. I have received complaints that Sure Start does not cover Millisle, for example. It may be that Millisle has mixed socio-economic levels of support. However, Millisle, like everywhere else, has its areas of poverty.

It is important, as Harold Wilson said, to realise that in a household in which everyone is unemployed, the unemployment rate in that household is 100%. We must move away from targeting particular areas and towards ensuring that families in poverty receive full support.

An accurate method of measuring poverty in specific areas must be introduced alongside all the other measures. We must then target those policies and actions in a way that addresses particular difficulties. Only then will we get to the real root of poverty.

I commend the Executive for their work, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. The detail that has gone into the report provides a lot of food for thought and will generate many action points for the Executive. I commend the report to the House.

Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I apologise to the Committee Chairperson for being slightly late for the debate and missing his opening remarks.

I join other Members in commending the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for bringing forward the report and motion. I also want to commend the children and young people sector and organisations for ensuring that poverty remains an important issue and on the desks of all Members, at Committee and Executive levels.

This morning, the Commissioner for Children and Young People said that the report was a powerful reminder of the urgent need to tackle the misery that blights too many children’s lives, and added:

“The scar of child poverty is that too many families end up living with too little and opportunities are severely limited for children and young people.”

Those are the words of the Children’s Commissioner, who is in an office that this Assembly fought long and hard to secure.

I, and every other Member, have raised the issue of child poverty time and time again. Therefore, I understand the frustration of my colleague Claire McGill — and there is no difference in her views and those of the Committee Chairperson — because child poverty has been mentioned countless times over the past year, and, indeed, before that, when some Members were involved in local government or local strategic partnerships, or, indeed, Sure Start.

The issue is so serious that the Executive have stated that they will eliminate child poverty by 2020. However, Martina Anderson made the point that that intent must become a reality. We must work now to achieve that target. I like the fact that the report contains not only short-term recommendations and goals, but a long-term strategy.

There is a serious issue about cross-departmental work, and the report states in black and white that all Ministers and Departments have roles to play. Some have a legal responsibility, but all of them have a moral duty and responsibility to implement the Committee’s recommendations. Rather than rely on OFMDFM, Members must be told how Ministers and Departments plan to take forward those recommendations. That would go a long way towards ensuring that the frustration in this Assembly is reduced, and that progress is seen to be made through Departments such as Health, Social Development, Education, and Employment and Learning.

I look forward to a contribution to the debate from the junior Minister Mr Kelly. However, both he and junior Minister Donaldson have a duty and responsibility to consider some of the recommendations and report back on them to the Assembly, particularly because they took the lead in the ministerial subgroup on children and young people.

The report states that a lack of money and low levels of income are at the core of child poverty. We must question how that can be changed. The Committee raised the issue of the rising cost of basic items such as food and fuel, and the report states that that could result in a rise in the levels of child poverty, rather than a downturn. That is a worrying statement.

The report makes mention of a major impact on child poverty by 2012, and eliminating it by 2020. However, the report also states that because of the increasing cost of food and fuel, there is a strong possibility that the level of child poverty could rise, instead of going down.

The report also informs us:

“a child in a workless household has a 58% chance of being in poverty”.

Therefore — and I believe that several other Members have mentioned this point — we must ensure that economic development and employment strategies focus on increasing the quality of jobs that are created. Rather than increasing the availability of low-paid jobs, we must focus on the quality of jobs that are created and their level of pay. If we want to increase the amount of money going into households, we should not create jobs for the sake of having more — we should ensure that there is a proper quality of paid jobs.

Members of the Committee are committed to improving the lives of the most disadvantaged children and young people here. Therefore, although I commend the motion, we must, as a matter of urgency, and before the summer recess, create an outline plan for how the report will be implemented. Go raibh maith agat.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Education (Mr Storey): I wish to comment on the report and pay tribute to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Speaking as a member of another Committee that recently brought recommendations to the House, I believe that this report is more substantive and has more of an impact than that other set of recommendations.

As Chairperson of the Committee for Education, I note, in particular, the recommendations of the report to tackle long-term disadvantage in respect of the educational outcomes of families in poverty. Specifically, the report recommends:

“the Early Years Strategy being led by the Department for Education is properly resourced and is quickly followed by an implementation plan containing SMART targets.”

The Committee for Education is still waiting to be briefed by the Department on that policy and on its thinking on early-years provision, because, unfortunately, the Committee for Education must wait a considerable length of time for a briefing from not only the Department, but, specifically, from the Minister.

The Committee has discussed the critical importance of early intervention and investment in education, together with family-based approaches such as parenting initiatives. Speaking as a parent, I believe that we have a huge responsibility to ensure that we work with schools and statutory agencies to enhance the delivery of education and to deal with any problems that arise.

The Committee for Education’s response to the draft Budget, which was made last December, specifically raised concerns that the draft Budget was:

“removing key services targeting disadvantaged school children and other initiatives now established such as the Extended School, Renewing Community Programmes, and work engaging parents in the life and work of schools.”

The Committee also highlighted recent research from the University of Ulster, which concluded that schoolchildren in areas of high social disadvantage face a diminishing educational experience. We ought to be ashamed of that, because, currently, that is our legacy in respect of child poverty.

The Committee supports the Minister of Education, and I am sure that the Minister will welcome that support. Although we have grave concerns about the process that has led to the financial crisis for extended schools, we welcome the fact that the Minister has made a bid for £5 million in the June monitoring round to bring extended-schools funding for the current year back to its previous level.

We await the Minister’s proposals on the early-years education strategy, as we do with most proposals — we wait and we wait, and time goes on, and problems continue to arise. That is a regrettable situation. However, we can talk more about that later today.

The Committee for Education is pressing the Minister and her officials for short-term measures that significantly increase funding to primary schools. Last week, a delegation of some 130 primary-school principals visited the Assembly. From experiences in their constituencies, all Members, regardless of party allegiance, will be aware of the problems that primary schools face. We must urgently address that issue and not allow the stagnation to continue, because it will have a knock-on effect on the rest of the education system in years to come.

Mr F McCann: The majority of Members who spoke in the debate mentioned education. However, does the Member not agree that cuts in the health budget also have an impact on child-poverty levels? Does he also not agree that housing is a cross-cutting issue and that poor housing has a detrimental impact on child-poverty levels? None of the Members who spoke in the debate mentioned the other factors that have a direct impact on child poverty.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Education: The Member knows that, as Chairperson of the Committee for Education, I must refer to education matters. Despite the concerns of some Members, particularly those on the Benches opposite, I will endeavour to reflect accurately the concerns of my Committee, which, as a Statutory Committee, has a role to inform, challenge and monitor the Minister’s activities.

A reduced, or re-prioritised, budget in any Department will have a knock-on effect. Ministers are responsible for prioritising their resources. Therefore, it is the responsibility of Ministers and their respective Departments to ensure that the money that they are allocated is spent in a way that ensures the best possible outcome.

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

The Chairperson of the Committee for Education: A lot of people wish that that had happened a long time ago. [Laughter.]

Mr Elliott: I dare not comment on Mr Storey’s last remark.

As a member of the OFMDFM Committee, I welcome the debate. The issue has created much conversation — not so much debate — in Committee.

Child poverty is an issue that, rightly, causes much concern across the United Kingdom. The Ulster Unionist Party supports the Westminster goal of eradicating child poverty in the United Kingdom by 2020 and will work with all who are committed to making that goal a reality. However, since 1999, when the former Prime Minister Tony Blair announced the target of eradicating child poverty by 2020, the Labour Government have failed to meet targets that were part of their long-term strategy. It looks all but certain that the Government will fail to meet their target of halving child poverty by 2010.

Labour’s welfare policies have had a detrimental effect on the eradication of child poverty, because they undermine the incentive to work. Frank Field, the Labour MP and welfare expert, said that Government policy:

“has missed its 2004-05 target of a reduction of a quarter in child poverty and fallen further behind last year; has seen no change in the numbers of children in severe poverty; and leaves one in five of poor children in persistently poor households.”

To put it bluntly, the Labour Party has failed those children. However, the 2020 target should remain our goal. Across the political spectrum, both in Westminster and in this House, that commitment must remain.

12.30 pm

Members will be aware that I come from a rural area that for generations has seen many families work the land to support themselves. In light of increasing food and oil prices, and, indeed, shortages, the plight that faces many rural homes is, unfortunately, very real.

Figures released to my colleague Fred Cobain, based on the accepted definition of child poverty as children living in households with an income that is 60% or less of the median income, revealed that, from 2003-06, the number of children living in poverty in my constituency was 8,900. I know that that is not among the larger figures for Northern Ireland; however, given the ever-increasing pressures that face the rural community because of global economic conditions, that number will undoubtedly increase in coming years. Given the increasing costs that families have to meet, that is the future that children in rural homes face.

Given the turbulent global forces that dictate the economic fortunes of the rural community across the United Kingdom, a Government commitment concerning child poverty is of the utmost importance. The Westminster Government, supported by the devolved Administrations, must ensure that support for rural families is accessible and attainable.

Rural communities are built on the values of self-reliance and hard work, and have been so for generations. Cutting child poverty in rural areas has the potential to become a reality within the outlined time frames. However, that can happen only if the Government is committed to working with those values and to strengthening families and communities.

There are many practical measures that the Government could take to help. One significant issue that I have regularly highlighted is about school buses driving past children just because they do not live more than two miles from the school. Surely, there is the potential for a practical measure whereby school buses could pick those children up, especially if the buses are not full. It is a disaster that children have to be left to school by their parents, which involves a double run in a car, when buses actually drive past them. I ask for simple, practical measures that will help the rural communities.

While seeking to eradicate child poverty immediately, we must also look towards the future to secure the progress that we make. Members know that education is the key to social mobility and that it is fundamental to affording children the opportunities that their parents never had. Statistics show that, unfortunately, children who live in poverty are failed on the issue of educational achievement. There are particular dimensions to educational underachievement in Northern Ireland, which a 2006 House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report on literacy and numeracy showed.

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

Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I also welcome the timely publication of the report. As I said earlier, not many Members have raised the issue of housing. One of the factors that has a continued impact on child poverty is housing, or lack of it. With few social houses being built and high waiting lists, it is inevitable that people with no other course of action will be forced into the unregistered private market, which pushes up the rent levels that people are expected to pay. Although that impacts on everyone, it especially hits those families with low incomes who do not get assistance through housing benefit.

People who are in receipt of housing benefit are often forgotten. Housing benefit often does not cover the amount of rent being charged — in some cases, to cover their monthly rent, people pay several hundred pounds over and above the housing benefit that they receive. That places great pressure on families who continuously pay those exorbitant rates.

People who are in receipt of housing benefit are already paid below the poverty rate and have, on many occasions, to get into debt to cover their rent. That becomes a real danger to the survival of many family units. The choice of paying rent or feeding their family is not a difficult choice. However, when people are faced with the possibility of eviction because they choose to feed their family, it impacts on the mental ability to cope of many people.

The current housing crisis will have consequences. It points to our inability to bring that unregistered sector under control. It is a disgrace that a motion calling for the mandatory registration of private landlords, which was passed in the House last September, has been ignored. It also points to the lack of newbuild social and affordable housing schemes, and the direct impact that that has on child poverty. Housing is a cross-cutting issue.

Another feature of the housing crisis is the continued rise in interest rates, and the impact that has on those who increasingly find it difficult to cope. We have seen huge increases in mortgage defaults, which are expected to rise again in the coming year. That also hits those who choose to put a roof over their families’ heads, but who must go without life’s essentials. That is child poverty at its worst.

Fuel poverty is another issue that, along with all the other elements, leads to child poverty. It is having a big impact. What are we to do about it? We await a response from the Minister responsible on how that will be tackled. To make matters worse — if that were possible — the Department for Social Development was late in submitting its response to the consultation, because it forgot about the deadline.

Child poverty needs our attention. We must ensure that those who are most in need in society are afforded the same quality of life as everyone else. We must ensure that the housing crisis is tackled as soon as possible. Building more social and affordable housing will go a long way to tackling child poverty. It is up to the Minister to deliver on that.

Miss McIlveen: In general terms, I am encouraged by the report. Child poverty belongs at the top of the agenda. The manner and conditions in which children are raised often provide a blueprint for the remainder of their lives. We often talk about the cycle of poverty; it is all too common to see disadvantaged children becoming adults and raising their children in poverty.

Members have spoken on a wide range of issues, such as the cost of living and funding for health, which have impacted on the outcomes of the report. Given that I have only a few minutes in which to speak, I do not want to repeat much of what has been said. Like my colleague Mervyn Storey, I have a particular interest in education, and that is the issue on which I want to focus.

Levels of educational attainment among young children living in poverty are a serious cause for concern. Only 37·6 % of school leavers who were entitled to free school meals achieved at least five GCSEs, compared to 70% who were not entitled to free school meals.

Although the report recognises that educational attainment has substantial significance for obtaining and sustaining employment, and that wage returns for GCSE and A levels are in the region of 15% to 25%, it does not significantly address how to improve the levels of educational attainment among children living in poverty. The attainment of qualifications and skills is vital to break the cycle of poverty.

The Committee recommends that more attention is paid to identifying and targeting population groups most at risk of poor educational outcomes. It identifies the need for evidence-based strategies and for those to be sustained over the long term. However, the report does not identify and assess the evidence for particular policies and interventions. I ask OFMDFM to carry out that assessment and liaise closely with the Department of Education on the issue.

Given the Department of Education’s recent decision to cut funding to the extended schools programme, it begs the question: what education policies are focused on assisting disadvantaged children with their educational attainments?

The extended schools policy demonstrated early success in improving educational outcomes in England and Wales. How will we be able to address the long-term implications of poverty if we cannot sustain policies designed to improve outcomes for any longer than 18 months?

Although I welcome that the Minister has submitted a bid in the next monitoring round, I want to ensure the situation does not happen again.

There is some mention of early intervention and early-years provision in the report, but there are no clear strategies for taking that forward and not enough focus on the evidence that, in the long term, it is the mechanism by which to address child poverty. That requires support for parents and children in addressing parenting skills, education and achievement. Research suggests that reading books at home from an early age has a significant impact on educational achievement, and that that is less likely to happen in disadvantaged households. It is important that any strategy to improve child poverty in the long term takes account of all the factors that help alleviate and address the experience of poverty.

I again ask OFMDFM to pay particular attention to that issue.

In conclusion, I thank the Committee, its staff and all those who were involved in the preparation of the report. If we are to progress as a society, the causes and effects of child poverty require attention — it is not an issue that should be ignored like an elephant in the room.

Child poverty is an issue that is all the more important in these days of rising fuel costs and food prices. It may be tempting to pour resources into quick fixes, but medium- and long-term solutions to our poverty issues should be considered. Reports such as this, with tangible, common-sense recommendations, are required.

Mr McCarthy: I welcome this very detailed report on the very important subject of child poverty in Northern Ireland. I congratulate the Committee and its staff for the work, over the past few months, that has produced this lengthy document.

In the twenty-first century, with all the prosperity and advances that have been made in the Western World, it is hard to believe that the most vulnerable, defenceless and innocent members of our society — children — are caught in the poverty trap in many parts of Northern Ireland.

Unfortunately, there are many reasons for that deplorable state of affairs: rent, fuel, the cost of living, et cetera. Other Members spoke about situations in which they saw child poverty and its consequences. As an Assembly, we must all put our shoulders to the wheel to eradicate that scourge once and for all. We have the opportunity; now we should take it.

Children must be at the top of our agenda. The report contains some 47 recommendations that cover all aspects of daily living. To fulfil all of those recommendations, all Departments must work together to ensure that all of their agencies are involved in lifting all of our children out of the poverty trap. In response to comments that were made by other Members, the Committee Chairman, Danny Kennedy, said that he is committed to seeing all of those 47 recommendations being implemented as soon as possible. I welcome that.

The targets that the Programme for Government set regarding child poverty are welcome, but the crux of its failure is that it does not propose sufficient actions. No one would disagree with a target of reducing and eliminating child poverty by a certain date. Unfortunately, other targets have been missed — an important one that comes to mind was in relation to the question of the multi-sports stadium. We are all aware of that episode — targets have been missed, and we may never see the stadium.

We have already heard today that this is a cross-cutting issue. We have heard about issues that are within the competence of the Department of Education, the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department for Social Development. At this juncture, I commend the people involved in the Sure Start, Life Start and Home-Start schemes that are ongoing throughout our communities, and others who work in the field of child welfare.

There is also an issue for the Department for Regional Development concerning transport. Social exclusion is all too often a throwaway term. However, at its heart are issues of mobility — not just the issues that have already been raised. People must have access to appro­priate educational facilities, high-wage employment and leisure centres, and they must have the means of getting to them. That is why the Alliance Party is calling for a more ambitious policy on public transport.

Mr Shannon: Does the Member agree that the work that Peninsula Community Transport did on the Ards Peninsula — and the work that other community transport bodies do across the Province — is one of the ways to address the transport issue?

Mr McCarthy: I thank my Strangford colleague for his intervention. As a member of Peninsula Community Transport, I agree entirely. I very much appreciate the work that it has done and continues to do, and I appreciate the work done by similar organisations throughout Northern Ireland.

12.45 pm

Returning to the involvement of the Department for Regional Development, I expressed concern recently that more expense is being levelled on childcare providers by Driver and Vehicle Licensing Northern Ireland (DVLNI). Members may know that that organisation asked private transport companies recently to pay further — and hefty — insurance costs to bring local children to nursery schools. I am glad to say that discussions on that matter are ongoing, and it is hoped that it will be resolved in the near future, to the pleasure of the providers.

Personal mobility is an issue that is causing difficulty, particularly for those who are registered as disabled. Every indication is that such people are more likely to experience poverty. Members could call for the immediate adoption of the Lifetime Opportunities strategy — which is referred to in the report — with a clear understanding that that is the start of a process that involves many Departments.

We must look again at the principles against which we judge the Executive’s progress. Tackling segregation is essential to tackling social exclusion. People must be able to access relevant employment, and rebalancing the economy is essential if poverty is to be tackled. We cannot continue to subsist on low-wages and on old-fashioned employment and benefits.

The Alliance Party supports the report fully and wishes to see its recommendations implemented as soon as possible. Were that to happen, child poverty could be consigned to being an experience of the past.

Mr Wells: I apologise to Mr McCarthy, a Member for Strangford, for coming into the Chamber during his speech. However, I am confident that if I have missed any of it, I will be able to read it verbatim in next week’s ‘Newtownards Chronicle’. Therefore, I may not have missed anything. Given that I read that august journal each week, I am also certain that I will read Mr Shannon’s speech.

The Committee was ambitious in tackling the subject of the report, and I pay tribute to the sterling work of the Committee staff, who lived with the project for many months. The final document is a testament to their labours. We had an enthusiastic reaction from those from whom we sought evidence, and, judging from the range of Members’ contributions this morning, there is considerable interest in the issue.

However, it is an indictment on society that in 2008 — which is well into the twenty-first century — 100,000 children in Northern Ireland have been assessed as being in child poverty, that is to say, they live in households with parents who earn less than 60% of the median income.

The Executive have a strategy for halving child poverty by 2010 and an equally challenging goal of eliminating extreme child poverty by 2012. However, we must be realistic. I hope that in his response, the junior Minister will admit to the House that those goals are unachievable. There may have been some prospect of achieving them when they were decided on, but events have moved on to such an extent that we must be honest and say that we are trying to hit a target that is moving so fast, it cannot be caught.

It was announced in Parliament recently that the rest of the United Kingdom — England, Scotland and Wales — has also failed to meet its goals on those important targets, which are moving away fast. That is worrying.

The one recurring theme that I picked up from the little bit of this morning’s debate that I heard is that matters will get much worse. The situation in the real world has a frightening impact on child poverty. It now costs a fuel-poor family £600 to fill its heating-oil tank. I looked at a petrol pump the other day and realised that fuel costs 26 shillings a litre — that gives my age away — and thought that that sounded extremely expensive. [Interruption.] I will tell the younger Members later what that means. [Laughter.]

I remember first buying a gallon of fuel for £1·00 in 1977; it is frightening that it now costs more than five times that amount.

Mr Kennedy: Was it red fuel?

Mr Wells: I assure the Member that it was not. [Laughter.]

There has also been a dramatic increase in the price of food. Last week, a frightening statistic appeared in ‘The Times’: in the past 12 months, the input costs for the manufacturers of food products have increased by 28%. Although that does not necessarily mean a corresponding 28% increase in overall food prices, it indicates that a huge pressure is building on the price of basic foodstuffs on which those who live in poverty depend. Therefore, I suspect that by this time next year, the figure of 100,000 children living in fuel poverty will, sadly, be an unrealistic underestimate.

The inquiry into child poverty exposed the difficulties of cross-cutting themes within the Executive. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister deals with several issues that are meant to be cross-cutting, such as sustainability and child poverty. However, the problem is that people in the Executive and in Northern Ireland tend to stick to their silos. It was interesting to watch the inquiry progress, and I saw how difficult it is to deliver results when 11 different Departments are involved in a particular issue.

Unless decisions are taken soon, there will be trouble. A massive campaign to encourage benefit take-up is required. It is ridiculous that the measures to tackle child poverty exist but cannot be implemented due to the lack of take-up. Childcare and rural transport issues must be dealt with as soon as possible.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the motion and the report. I approach the motion as a member of the Committee for Social Development. Mr Elliott mentioned that, in 1999, Gordon Brown and the then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, committed to halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020. That proved, and continues to be, a highly aspirational target. A recent report by Save the Children found that approximately 39% of children in my constituency of Newry and Armagh were living in poverty, which proves that child poverty is a scourge on society.

The Department for Social Development could take several actions to alleviate child poverty. It could intervene to support individuals and families in need through the Social Security Agency (SSA) and the Child Support Agency (CSA). It could also assist by providing social housing, which, as my colleague Mr McCann mentioned, is an important issue.

Work must be done on the regeneration of towns and cities because that could create jobs, contribute to the growth of the economy and act as the principal vehicle for alleviating poverty. The Government’s neighbourhood renewal strategy must assist disadvantaged areas in which the levels of child poverty are much higher than elsewhere. Action is also required to support disadvantaged communities through the support of the voluntary and community sector. Neighbourhood renewal can also play a big part in that.

The benefits system should be central to alleviating the impact of poverty and severe poverty on individuals and families. The Social Security Agency, the Child Support Agency and the Housing Executive (NIHE) should play a key role in supporting individuals and families through the payment of benefits and main­tenance, and an important element of their work should be to help households to claim their full entitlement to benefit. Mention was made of benefit take-up, and that is important when assisting people to maximise their benefits, thereby helping to alleviate poverty.

The Department delivers its most substantial support through the payment of social security benefits. Last year, more than £4·2 billion was distributed in benefits and pensions, of which means-tested benefits of £823 million were targeted at providing a minimum income level for recipients of benefit.

The Programme for Government refers to innovative ways in which Ministers could help to promote their Departments and alleviate particular problems. My colleague Martina Anderson has talked about that, and continues to talk about it. For instance, the Minister for Social Development could go a long way towards helping people who have benefit overpayments. At the stroke of a pen, those overpayments could be written off, particularly departmental overpayments, thus helping to alleviate stress and hardship in the families affected.

Tax credits, which are aimed at helping families in need and encouraging people to get back to work, particularly lone parents, have proved to be an absolute disaster. Childcare provision is abysmal, and for those lone parents and families who make use of childcare provision, the disregard for childcare provision in the tax credit system is only implemented if the child is being looked after by a registered childminder.

In my constituency, a survey carried out about four years ago found that we had some of the worst childcare provision in Western Europe, and that does not augur well for the relief of child poverty.

Members have said much about education: Mr Storey alluded to the fact that the Minister of Education has put in a bid for more funding in the June monitoring round. It is hoped that the Minister of Finance and Personnel will respond favourably to that bid. In conclusion, I hope that support is transformed into genuine commitment to taking the necessary steps to implement the recommendations of the report and finally end the scandal that should shame us all.

Mrs D Kelly: As the party of social justice, the SDLP will take its role very seriously — both in the Executive, through the Minister for Social Development, and in the Assembly — in ensuring that the issue is not lost sight of once the debate on child poverty has concluded. I welcome the initiative that has been taken by the Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, who has written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, James Purnell, asking him to consider, in particular, a sizeable increase in the winter fuel payment. I understand that Minister Ritchie will be meeting Mr Purnell and will impress upon him the need to look at the benefits system generally, and how it impacts on child poverty.

Mr Brady made a comment, which I can not let go unchallenged. He said that the Minister for Social Development could, at the stroke of a pen, cancel out all overpayments: that is not the case. The Department has a statutory requirement that all moneys must be repaid, and Mr Brady ought to know that there is no flexibility in the system.

As other Members have said, we are having the debate at a time of global economic gloom, and there is no one who has not, in the last few months, been forced to rethink their approach to how they spend the money available to them. Although we are not, thankfully, experiencing the shortage of basic foodstuffs that is afflicting many parts of the world, sectors and people are suffering. Sectors such as the construction industry are in the doldrums, yet we have the ability here to assist that industry in some way, if we could get some decisions made by our Executive regarding work, schools, and regeneration projects on former military sites.

In November 2006, the direct rule Government produced the lifetime opportunities strategy, and my party believes that OFMDFM should at least adopt that as a framework. Although child poverty was prioritised in the strategy, it will not, as it stands, deliver for children in poverty. Delivery will depend on the development of policies and programmes that will tackle the root causes and impacts of child poverty, and then putting in place the necessary resources.

There is a need to revisit the targets in the strategy to ensure that they reflect the main issues affecting children who are living in poverty in Northern Ireland. I welcome the presence of junior Minister Kelly, and I hope that, as one of the children’s champions, he will be able to give us some insight into how junior Ministers, who have responsibility for children in particular, are going to take forward some of the actions and recommendations contained in the strategy document.

We also note the finding that almost half of children who live in poverty are in households with at least one parent who works. From that statistic, we must deduce that the parent’s job simply does not generate sufficient income for the household.

1.00 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker: Will the Member draw her remarks to a close?

Mrs D Kelly: I will conclude my remarks, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The Assembly must, therefore, attract to Northern Ireland investment and high-value-added jobs that will offer much better payment.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately on the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm, when the debate will resume with a response from junior Minister Kelly. I warn Members that a quorum will be needed at 2.00 pm for the debate to resume. I hope that everyone will be in the Chamber.

The sitting was suspended at 1.00 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair) —

2.00 pm

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr G Kelly): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. On behalf of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, I welcome the publication of the report by the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, following its inquiry into child poverty. I join other Members in thanking the Committee and its staff for the comprehensive approach that they adopted throughout the inquiry over the past nine months. I thank all the groups and individuals who took the time to write to the Committee and to present evidence to it.

I have listened to the contributions to today’s discussion, and I thank Members for their considered views and opinions. There is almost unanimity across the Assembly on the matter. I use the word “discussion” rather than “debate”, because all Members share the view that child poverty is unacceptable and must be ended. No section of the community, particularly young people, should face a future of hardship, poverty and inequality. It is our collective job to ensure that that happens.

On 5 June 2008, the deputy First Minister said:

“people expect results, and we have come here to deliver for the people. Our people want a future for themselves and for their children, and they want prosperity at a time when the cost of living is spiralling.” — [Official Report, Vol 31, No 4, p184, col 2].

Many Members raised similar points, and they talked consistently about action. They said that, although strategies are necessary, action is needed. Our people do expect results, and the Programme for Government states clearly the Executive’s determination to eliminate poverty, particularly child poverty. OFMDFM is in the process of tabling a paper to the Executive to agree our strategic approach and the actions that are needed to deliver on that commitment.

The Committee’s report on its inquiry into child poverty is timely and welcome in that it lays out a comprehensive set of 47 specific recommendations. Having received the Committee’s final report, OFMDFM will consult with the other Departments. As many Members also pointed out, child poverty is a cross-cutting issue. Consideration will be given to how to implement the full range of recommendations before responding formally to the Committee. Peter Weir said that the Committee was a critical friend of the Executive, and that is exactly how it should be, especially on this subject. We welcome the recommendations, and I look forward to studying them more closely.

The report highlights that around one in four children lives below the poverty line. That is unacceptable to me as a Minister, and it is unacceptable to the Executive and to the families who are condemned to lives of hardship and uncertainty. Since the restoration of devolution, the Executive have repeatedly stated their commitment to tackling poverty and social exclusion. Commitments have been made through targets in the Programme for Government. We have said that we will work to eliminate child poverty by 2020, reduce child poverty by 50% by 2010 and work towards the elimination of severe child poverty here by 2012.

Those targets are extremely challenging — Jim Wells said that they are unachievable. However, they are a part of the Programme for Government and, although they are challenging — particularly when considered against the additional pressures of the rising costs of basic necessities such as food and fuel, increasing inflation and uncertainty in the housing market — we must be determined to achieve those goals. Those challenges should increase the urgency of addressing poverty and of sharing the wealth.

We must act to prevent families from falling into poverty, to help people to escape from poverty and to break what is a recurring cycle of inter-generational poverty. The targets in the Programme for Government will stretch and challenge us in delivering and improving public services, but they must be met if we are to grow as a community. Everyone must contribute to, and benefit from, the opportunities that are now available and ensure that no one is left behind.

Child poverty cannot be considered in isolation. The definition of child poverty is children from families who have an income below what is considered to put them at risk of living in poverty. As the report highlights, children from families who live in poverty are at greater risk of underperforming educationally and of suffering from poor health, poor diet and poor housing conditions.

Indeed, several Members pointed out that child poverty involves all those factors, which have implications for all Departments.

A lack of income impacts on those factors, limits children’s opportunities and destroys hope. Tackling child poverty and its causes will help to ensure that we treat those problems at source, break the cycle of deprivation and, hopefully, prevent poverty and provide a route out of it.

The Executive is committed to tackling poverty and social exclusion in whatever form they are found in our society. Since the restoration of the devolved Administration, OFMDFM has been examining the policy that was established under direct rule to combat poverty and social exclusion, particularly the Lifetime Opportunities strategy, which was mentioned by several Members and was launched in November 2006. That policy promotes a life-cycle approach to tackling such matters, and it retains the principles of targeting objective need and promoting social inclusion. The Committee’s report recommends the adoption of the Lifetime Opport­unities strategy as the basis of the Executive’s strategy, and we welcome that endorsement. Furthermore, OFMDFM recently circulated proposals to Executive colleagues that outline its plans for the formal adoption of an overall strategy to tackle poverty and social exclusion, including the adoption of the broad framework contained in the Lifetime Opportunities strategy.

Although policy and strategy are important, ultimately, it is what we do that makes a difference. The Executive will agree the priority actions for tackling poverty and to make a real difference for the most vulnerable people in our society.

An overall strategy to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation here that is based on objective needs will require concerted, co-ordinated action from a range of departmental programmes, which, collectively, will be able to address many cross-cutting matters, some of which have been mentioned today.

Of course, we, as a devolved Administration, do not have all the policy levers that are required to tackle poverty — specifically child poverty. Although that is important to mention, we do have power, and we must use it. We have many important policy levers that can directly affect the quality of public services that we deliver. In that context, we must: consider ways to break down employment barriers, including skills training and childcare; maximise job opportunities and pathways to employment; maximise the benefits of Government spending and increase social investment; maximise the uptake of benefit entitlements; and provide support for parents during key transition phases in their children’s lives. The Committee’s report makes specific recommendations concerning those areas, and they will be given careful consideration.

In that context, I wish to mention our Department’s good work in developing policies to tackle social exclusion among lone parents. Considering the latest headline poverty figures for 2005-06, it is estimated that approximately a quarter of our children were living in poverty. Of those children, 35% lived in lone-parent households. Therefore, it was extremely important to complete that work, which, as well as having significant input from the voluntary and community sector, benefited from the work of the British-Irish Council’s social inclusion strand. Our findings will soon be presented to Ministers, and the report will be reinforced by some of the messages emerging from the Committee’s inquiry, particularly in respect of barriers to economic activity.

On examining statistics relating to lone parents, we discovered that 45% of adults from lone-parent households are economically inactive — a fact that practically guarantees that children from such families will be among the most disadvantaged in society. Therefore, it follows logically that any action to positively promote the social inclusion of lone parents will have a beneficial impact on children in such households and will help us to achieve our Programme for Government child-poverty targets.

We are concerned with results, and families that face an uncertain future due to rising costs expect us, as elected leaders, to deliver change. I thank the Committee for its work, and, by working together, the Executive and the Assembly can tackle the significant challenges that we face, meet our Programme for Government commitments and deliver an equal and more prosperous future that is free from poverty. I know that the Assembly is united in that goal, and we will, of course, carefully consider the report when we produce our strategy. Go raibh maith agat.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (Mrs Long): As the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, I reiterate the Committee’s thanks to all those who contributed to the inquiry, whether through written or oral evidence. I also thank the staff in the Assembly secretariat for their assistance during the inquiry, and I place on record my appreciation of the contribution that was made by the organisations that submitted evidence. Whether from local government, central Government, statutory bodies, charities, voluntary or community groups, social services and various sectors — including health, education, employment, enterprise and housing — the breadth of experience and expertise that was made available to the Committee during that period was invaluable and has helped it enormously in the preparation of the report. A diverse range of groups had input to the process, and I trust that when they study the report, they will be able to see their contributions reflected in it. In addition, I am grateful to all the Members who contributed to the debate this morning and to junior Minister Kelly for his positive response to the report.

In his opening remarks, Danny Kennedy reflected on the changed economic realities. Even during the inquiry, those realities changed. Although the macroeconomic factors are largely beyond the control of the Assembly, the Executive are under additional pressure to address urgently the consequences of those factors. Jimmy Spratt and Dolores Kelly voiced those concerns. Jim Wells echoed the concerns of several contributors to the inquiry when he questioned how realistic the current targets are in the context of the difficult financial climate. Indeed, some felt that we would need to run very hard just to stand still. I hope that the Executive will be able to prevent more families from falling into the poverty trap, even if they are not able to completely eradicate child poverty in the foreseeable future.

If poverty is not to grow, it is essential that we make the effort to address those issues and to ensure that Departments have well-defined and measurable targets. Jim Shannon mentioned that the Assembly has the tools and the power to address child poverty. He also recognised the need to work with Westminster and other partners in order to address the wider issues; indeed, Patsy McGlone reflected that point.

Jim Wells and Anna Lo both recognised that lack of access to childcare, to play facilities and to early intervention is not only a barrier to work for parents but is an impediment to children reaching their full potential. Indeed, it can compound that cycle of poverty and deprivation that is experienced by households generation on generation.

Martina Anderson referred to the importance of the early-years programme and of school readiness. Those issues are particularly pertinent in disadvantaged areas, and many Members mentioned the need for more creative thinking. Education was also a central theme in Alban Maginness’s speech. He also highlighted the issue of cross-departmental working, which was a recurring theme in the inquiry. He referred to the progress that had been made in the 1990s, which was, I think, due largely to two factors: the realignment of the benefits system; and underlying economic growth. Neither of those is on our side at this point in time. Indeed, most people feel that changes in the benefits system mean that there will be room for improvement only at the margins and that more creative approaches are required.

Anna Lo also mentioned short-terms interventions for emergency situations, but she believed that those had to be made in the context of a long-term strategy to guide cross-departmental working. Like many other Members, she mentioned the link between poverty and social exclusion. She highlighted the issue of after-school clubs and homework clubs — we would like to see the wrangle between Departments on that issue being resolved.

Jimmy Spratt and Sue Ramsey both highlighted OFMDFM’s role in dealing with cross-cutting matters and how fulfilling that role would require leadership. Claire McGill touched on the same issue, and she also mentioned sanctions, with which the report deals. We were not prescriptive about that matter, but we felt that penalties would more likely be the responsibility of the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) than OFMDFM, given how Government operate. Claire McGill also mentioned strategy fatigue, which is taking over from “consultationitis” as a major affliction in the system. If we are to have a strategy, we must be careful that people can see that it has outcomes.

Both Claire McGill and Martina Anderson mentioned poverty proofing. The Committee examined that in some depth with regard to the notion of policy proofing and to incorporating policy measures into a process that is similar to the equality impact assessment process. We are recommending that matter for further consideration.

George Robinson, Michelle McIlveen and Roy Beggs raised the issue of extended schools and highlighted the impact on the most needy families, with regard to the financial and time pressures that they will face as a result of changes and cuts in that service. Mervyn Storey, in his capacity as Chairperson of the Education Committee, rightly reflected on the fact that bids were made in an attempt to rescue the service.

The issue is the service’s position in the priorities of individual Departments. I hope that all Members of the Executive, guided by the work in this report and by the OFMDFM team, will work together to address that issue as a matter of priority, rather than focus on departmental silos. What may be the problem of the Department of Education today, with regard to lack of educational achievement, will be the problem of the Department for Employment and Learning, and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, tomorrow. Therefore, it is important that people work together.

Roy Beggs raised the issue of social mobility, which the Committee explored. We do not have specific answers on that, but there is a conflict there — one that the Assembly will need to tease out in the years ahead — about the emphasis on social mobility as opposed to social equality. The issue is not simply about moving people out of poverty, but about alleviating poverty for those who are not moving out of it. Northern Ireland fares worse, in European terms, than both poorer and richer countries as a result of the degree of social inequality in the system.

Patsy McGlone and Kieran McCarthy raised the issue of the impact of disability on a household, and its risk of increasing poverty. Families with a parent or child who has a long-term illness or a disability are at much higher risk of poverty, and specific interventions will be needed in order to alleviate that situation.

Peter Weir described the approach of the Committee as being that of a critical friend. I am sure that the Minister feels that, at times, the Committee was more one than the other. On this occasion, however, hopefully we have got the balance right. The approach is about supporting and challenging the Executive and OFMDFM to take the matter forward. It is not purely about being critical, but about being supportive and creative in what the Committee is trying to achieve.

2.15 pm

Mr Weir also highlighted the issue of isolated families living in poverty, whereby people, particularly the working poor, live in communities that might not be perceived as being deprived, but are, nevertheless, living in poverty. That is an important and difficult group to reach. In such a case, one approach will not fit all.

Mervyn Storey and Michelle McIlveen raised the issue of parenting initiatives in the context of early intervention and general family support. Hopefully, through the Committee for Education, they will be able to pursue that issue in the cross-departmental working of the Department of Education. The Committee hopes to see some proposals coming forward.

Tom Elliott and Kieran McCarthy raised the issue of rural poverty and the impact of transport poverty with regard to the additional costs and barriers to employment and education that are experienced by many people in the rural community who are on low incomes. Fra McCann identified the issue of housing, and, in particular, the gap between housing benefit and rent. The Committee recognised that there was a balance to be struck between meeting the needs of families who are dependent on housing benefit and the fact that simply matching the rents that are being charged could cause rent inflation, which could precipitate a crisis. The Committee was aware that the problem has become much worse due to high rents and inflation as a result of the particular financial consequences of multiple occupancy. That issue will require a cross-departmental approach.

Michelle McIlveen and Dolores Kelly raised the issue of cross-cutting issues, and how that creates problems. Michelle McIlveen, in particular, spoke about a lack of detailed strategies. The task of the Committee was, where possible, to give direction while respecting the fact that other Committees had their own responsibilities, and we were trying not to step on any toes. Kieran McCarthy helpfully highlighted the complexity of the problem and the range of influencing factors.

I want to turn to the response of OFMDFM, and I thank the junior Minister for having attended throughout the debate. The Committee welcomes his verbal commitment to ending child poverty and breaking the cycle of deprivation, and hopes that we will see that through the actions of the Department and the Executive in the coming months. I also welcome the fact that the junior Minister will consult other Departments before responding formally.

I trust that, despite the complexity of the issues and relationships involved, there will be an urgency to that process. The proposal formally to adopt the framework of the Lifetime Opportunities strategy as a basis for progress, albeit that it will be tweaked for our local circumstances, is also welcome, and the Committee hopes that that happens quickly.

Today represents the conclusion of the Committee’s inquiry into child poverty in Northern Ireland, but it does not signal the conclusion of the Committee’s interest in this matter.

The motion calls for the Executive to bring forward a detailed plan of action to deliver targets and eliminate child poverty, and the Committee will work with OFMDFM to ensure that such a plan is brought forward as soon as possible. In addition, we look forward to receiving the formal response of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to a report in the autumn session and to examining how the Executive intend to respond to the Committee’s recommendations.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to draw her remarks to a close.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister: In conclusion, we hope that the report has helped to highlight this important issue, and we hope that there will be major progress in the autumn session. I commend the report to the House and ask Members to support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly approves the Report of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (08/07/08R) on its Inquiry into Child Poverty in Northern Ireland; and calls on the Executive to bring forward a detailed plan of action to deliver its targets to eliminate child poverty.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question Time commences at 2.30 pm. Therefore, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.30 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 2.20 pm.

On resuming —

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

2.30 pm

Oral Answers to Questions


Heating Fuel for Schools

1. Mr Dallat asked the Minister of Education to outline her proposals for managing the cost of oil in schools; and what additional resources will be made available for capital and revenue costs relating to energy and energy efficiencies.      (AQO 3964/08)

16. Mrs McGill asked the Minister of Education what action she is taking to assist schools with the rising cost of heating fuels.   (AQO 4034/08)

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I shall answer questions 1 and 16 together.

Tá freagracht ar gach eagraíocht brú airgeadais a bhainistíocht i gcoinne tosaíochtaí iomaíocha taobh istigh de na hacmhainní a thugtar dóibh. Ach is eol dom go raibh ardú suntasach ann i gcostas téite, go háirithe i gcostas ola.

It is the responsibility of all organisations to manage financial pressures against competing priorities within the resources allocated to them. However, we all recognise that there have been significant increases in the cost of heating, particularly in oil. Under the common funding formula arrangements for delegated budgets, all schools receive a budget to meet all their associated running costs, including staffing and non-staffing costs.

I have recognised that there has been a significant increase in fuel costs in recent months, and I have registered a significant bid for additional resources to meet those costs in the course of the formal monitoring round that is under way. No additional capital resources have been made available for energy efficiencies in my Department’s budget. However, the Department of Finance and Personnel administers the central energy efficiency fund (CEEF), the aim of which is to improve energy efficiency in public sector buildings through provision of capital funding. In 2008-09, the education sector has been allocated £844,000 in capital funding from a total central energy efficiency fund budget of £2 million.

Mr Dallat: The Minister will know that, in the distant past, children in Ireland brought a piece of turf to school to fight back the cold. God grant that we never return to that again. Does the Minister agree that there is an opportunity to rid every school in Northern Ireland of those draughty and leaky old huts that must be adding to the cost of heating?

The Minister of Education: I remember bringing a couple of bits of turf to school — turf that we cut ourselves. I agree with the Member: none of our schools should be draughty. One of the reasons that we are putting significant investment into our schools is to ensure that our children are being educated in high quality schools that are fit for purpose. I agree that it is important; but equally, there are other issues that we must examine, such as provision — given the increased fuel costs — and climate change.

Mr Storey: Last week, the Minister told the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ that in general terms, people already knew what the criteria for post-primary transfer would be. On my first day in the Chamber as Chairperson of the Committee for Education, may I say that the Minister can bay at the moon and howl at the wind, but she will not get agreement until she faces up to the political reality of academic criteria.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The question is purely about the heating of school premises. I ask the Member to stick to the substance of the question.

Mr Storey: I thought that I was going to raise the temperature in the Chamber at no additional cost to the taxpayer. On the matter of the Minister’s financial management — and following on from the question about heating oil — how can anyone have confidence in her to manage properly the cheque book, let alone the Department’s finances, given her record to date in bankrolling Irish-language schools, wasting £500,000 in my constituency on the amalgamation of two schools, cutting funding for the extended schools programme and wasting money in her attempts to avoid the legal position over post-primary transfer?

The Minister of Education: First, I respectfully suggest that the next time the new Cathaoirleach — the new Chairperson — speaks at Question Time, he should read the relevant question and stick to it. Secondly, I welcome the fact that, true to form, Mr Storey has mentioned Irish-language schools in his first outing as Cathaoirleach. He will be glad to know that I have just come from the launch of two new schools in Fermanagh — Bunscoil an Traoine and Naíscoil an Traoine. On behalf of the House, I welcome those schools and the new work that they have to do; they are tremendous schools.

We are not wasting money on Irish-language schools. We are treating children in the Irish-medium sector in the same way that we treat children learning through the medium of English.

People are getting tired of listening to the rant against the Irish-medium sector.

With regard to extended schools funding being cut, I will meet the Committee later — I look forward to meeting the Member as Chairperson or Cathaoirleach of the Committee — and we can talk about trying to reinstate extended schools funding, if he wishes. The Member will know that I wrote to his party leader many times about extended schools funding, because it is one of the most important and successful programmes in the North of Ireland. I managed to mainstream £16 million of funding, but, unfortunately, that is not the entire amount required. I look forward to the Member’s support, as Cathaoirleach, for getting money for the extended schools programme.

Mr K Robinson: Perhaps someone will light a turf burner behind the Members who sit at this end of the Chamber, because it is extremely draughty.

How will the Department encourage school authorities to make maximum use of renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar power, and the biomass initiatives that are currently in use in many rural schools? Will the Minister undertake to move the balance of energy supply in those schools to sustainable energy?

The Minister of Education: That is a very good question. Sustainable construction is about building and refurbishment projects that promote environmental, social and economic gains now and for the future. Designers of new schools are encouraged to produce innovative designs that will conserve energy, water and natural resources.

My Department’s building branch issues essential guidance on sustainability to all education providers in the North of Ireland in the form of technical notes published by the Central Procurement Directorate (CPD). Those notes cover topics such as: general roles and responsibilities in relation to sustainable construction; targets for recycling; proper disposal of construction, demolition and excavation waste in public procurement contracts; and the reuse and recycling of bulk materials in construction in order to reduce consumption of natural resources, energy, transport costs and waste going to landfill.

All school projects that receive capital funding from the Department are expected to comply with the requirements that are detailed in the technical notes. Building branch has also written to all school authorities that have capital projects in planning, informing them of the requirements of the Achieving Excellence in Construction initiative for the North of Ireland, particularly the ‘Achieving Sustainability in Construction Procurement’ action plan. Building branch also stresses the importance of all projects’ compliance with those guidelines, in particular the Building Research Establishment environmental assessment method, which is used to assess the environmental performance of new and existing buildings.

In addition, projects funded in the education sector through the central energy efficiency fund, which is administered by the Department of Finance and Personnel, complement the need for the overall schools capital programme to take account of energy efficiency and renewable technologies in school buildings.

Several newbuild schools have renewable energy sources. For example, the design of Cavehill Primary School in Belfast has resulted in low projected energy consumption and high thermal efficiency; it maximises the use of natural light; it employs natural ventilation; and it minimises water consumption by means of a rainwater harvesting system. That school also has several photovoltaic solar cells and a wind turbine, which provide a relatively steady supply of renewable energy throughout the year. Enniskillen Integrated Primary School has been provided with a geothermal heating system, and Mount Lourdes Grammar School in Enniskillen and Victoria Primary School are operating biomass boilers to provide heating.

Increased costs of fuels such as oil put a premium on energy efficiencies. I ask all sectors to recognise that reality. Furthermore, all Departments must work together to deal with that important issue and also sustainable energy. I look forward to working with the new Minister of the Environment in developing renewable energy and sustainable development. I welcome his thoughts on all those matters.

Links Between Education Authority and Library Authority

2. Mr McNarry asked the Minister of Education what action she is taking to ensure that the proposed single education authority will have formal ties to the new library authority.   (AQO 3953/08)

The Minister of Education: Tabharfaidh mé isteach reachtaíocht faoin athbhreithniú ar riarachán poiblí maidir le Bille a chuirfeas dualgas ar an údarás oideachais agus scileanna seirbhísí leabharlainne a chur ar fáil do scoileanna a fhaigheann deontas agus do fhorais eile a fhaigheann deontas ón Roinn nó ón údarás.

I will introduce legislation contained in the RPA — an education Bill — that will place a duty on the education and skills authority (ESA) to make library services available to grant-aided schools and to other education establishments that are grant-aided by the Department or by ESA. In addition, my Department is developing a new school library policy that will issue for consultation in early 2009.

The Department provides over £3 million annually in support of school libraries in recognition that the school library is the heart of the school. The school library empowers learners to achieve their full potential and is integral to the success of the school and its pupils. We are all familiar with the statistics and we know that literacy is fundamental to achievement across the curriculum. We know that poor literacy is associated with lower skills, fewer employment prospects and greater risk of social exclusion. Research shows that young children who love books begin reading sooner and go on to fare better in all curriculum areas at school. Books help to develop imagination and curiosity about the world. By embedding a love of reading in our children, we open a world of opportunity and possibility to them.

The school library policy will enable school libraries to fulfil their potential by empowering learners to succeed. My Department and ESA will co-operate closely with colleagues in the new libraries authority and in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) during the development of the policy. That co-operation may lead to formal ties between ESA and the new library authority. The development of the school library policy comes in the context of a changing education environment. Therefore, it is aligned with policies such as the new school improvement policy, the literacy and numeracy strategy, and the revised curriculum.

Mr McNarry: I am grateful to the Minister for her answer. It is obvious that the absence of officials from their boxes is due to their being exhausted from writing answers for the Minister. Can the Minister assure me that the new single education authority will not snub the new library authority, or vice versa? The House would be interested to know whether the Americans snubbed the Minister yesterday, or whether the Minister snubbed the Americans. Will snubbing be common practice if there is no ESA? In that event, how will the Minister propose integration with the library authority?

The Minister of Education: I am well capable of answering questions myself. My officials are busy doing what is important — working on policies and answering all of your questions. As Members know, the Department of Education receives as many questions as any other Department, if not more. On Members’ behalf, I thank my officials for all the time that they spend answering those questions.

I totally refute the suggestion that I snubbed the American people yesterday. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister welcomed the President of the United States of America to the North of Ireland in their official capacity.

It is important that the Department of Education and the new library authority co-operate closely. It is also important that we give young people a love of books and reading. Parents, teachers, educationalists, health workers and everyone else need to work together to improve literacy and numeracy among young people. We are all aware of the relevant statistics, and I am not going to rehearse those now. The Department of Education and DCAL must work together. Indeed, I look forward to working with my colleague Mr McNarry in that regard.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat. The Minister said that the main function of ESA is to improve educational outcomes. What educational improvements does she envisage will emerge from the ESA project?

The Minister of Education: The RPA will provide scope for significant savings in administration, which will free up resources for redeployment to service delivery. However, the more significant benefit of the RPA is that it will improve support services to schools and youth service organisations.

The RPA is the foundation stone for other essential education reforms. It is key to dealing with unacceptable levels of underachievement, and to building on our success. It is key to ensuring equality of access to a curriculum that matches provision with the needs of learners, and to ensuring that education fuels the development of our economy. It is key to managing the transition to new post-primary transfer arrangements; to the better use of resources in dealing with over 50,000 surplus school places; to modernising the schools estate; and to our approach to planning and delivering that estate.

2.45 pm

The case for educational change is clear. Too few of our young people are reaching their full potential. In 2006-07, over a third of year 12 students failed to achieve five GCSE grades A* to C. In disadvantaged areas that figure was over two thirds. There is a wide variation in performance between schools, including grammar schools. In 2006, the percentage of grammar-school pupils achieving three A levels at grades A to C ranged from 35% to 97%.

There is inequality of service provision — for example, access to special education varies significantly between education and library boards, as does the cost of school meals and transport. By supporting and challenging schools, the RPA will lead to improved outcomes for all learners. The ESA will be a critical friend for school leaders: celebrating and rewarding success; identifying and addressing underachievement; and providing improved local access to support services on the basis of equality.

Mr Gallagher: Will the Minister tell the Assembly how teaching appointments will work under the new authority? The special ethos of the denominational schools here — both Catholic and Protestant — which is supported by the great majority of parents, has come about because those school authorities insisted on the right to appoint their teachers. Will the Minister tell the House whether that right will be protected under the new authority or will be taken away from the school authorities and handed over to somebody else?

The Minister of Education: Proposals for the reform of school governance will be in the second RPA Bill. The proposed changes to nomination rights have been screened, and I have concluded that a formal equality impact assessment (EQIA) is not necessary at this point. In developing the policy I will make sure that employment rights and equality rights are respected. I am working closely with all the different sectors who are employers: the Catholic trustees; the transferors; and the education and library boards. I meet on a monthly or six-weekly basis with the chairpersons of all of those different organisations and issues such as the one that the Member has raised are discussed at those meetings.

The rights and the ethos of the different sectors will be respected; however, at the same time, we need a single authority and that is why we need the ESA. In the past there were different organisations with different policies — we need to bring them all together now.

Female Principals

3. Mr McKay asked the Minister of Education what percentage of principals at (i) primary; and (ii) post-primary level are female.      (AQO 4045/08)

The Minister of Education: Is é 50·36 an céadatán de phríomhoidí baineanna sna bunscoileanna agus is é 30·30 an céadatán de phríomhoidí baineanna sna hiarbhunscoileanna.

The percentage of female principals at primary level is 50·36% and the percentage of female principals at post-primary level is 30·30% — that is against a background where approximately 75% of the total teacher workforce is female. Given those figures, I would certainly wish to see more women apply and be selected for principalship.

My Department has made significant investment in the development of school leadership skills, particularly through the professional qualification for headship (PQH), which was introduced in 1999 to prepare teachers for the role of principal. Training is carried out by the regional training unit, and the programme has been very successful, producing 952 graduates to date. It is extremely encouraging to note that from the most recent graduation almost 63% were female.

The employing authorities stressed that the fundamental cause of the imbalance is that females are less inclined to apply for principal posts. Corrective action must therefore focus on addressing those factors that may act as disincentives or obstacles to women who might otherwise wish to apply. With those considerations in mind, employers have put in place a range of family-friendly policies — for example, more flexible working hours and job sharing — to help individuals balance their school and family commitments and to encourage female staff to participate in the professional qualification for headship training programme.

Almost two thirds of current graduates from the PQH are female, although it will obviously be some time before that feeds through into the headline statistics. However, I welcome the question, and I am delighted that focus has been put on that gender imbalance.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her answer. What is her Department doing to address the gender imbalance that exists in the employment of school principals?

The Minster of Education: Go raibh maith agat as an cheist sin. My Department has consulted with employers and trade unions and is finalising the terms of reference of the review of the school workforce. That review will cover a range of issues, including the gender balance at school-leadership level and in the teaching profession in general.

The Department of Education is committed fully to integrating equality and diversity into its core priorities and functions. I recognise the importance not only of promoting equality — including gender equality — in education, but of the contribution that education can make to promoting equality throughout society.

The Department has made a significant investment in the development of school-leadership skills. I have mentioned the national professional qualification for headship, which was introduced in 1999 to prepare teachers for the role of principal; indeed, I have been to a graduation ceremony for those teachers. That programme has been successful and has produced 952 graduates to date, 63% of whom are female.

There is an under-representation of women in society at every level, and it is the job of us all to deal with that gender inequality.

Miss McIlveen: I submitted a question for written answer to the Minster in April that was similar to the question on the gender imbalance in schools that the Member for North Antrim Mr McKay asked. The Minister responded that she was finalising the terms of reference of the review of the school workforce. I am disappointed to hear that those have not been finalised. Will the Minister tell us when they will be finalised and whether she will bring them to the Committee for Education? Will she assure the House that any strategy that she enforces will not be a scheme of affirmative action and that people will be appointed on merit?

The Minister of Education: The terms of reference will be finalised soon, and I will bring them to the Committee immediately.

Thirteen years ago, I attended the Beijing women’s conference. One issue that was discussed was how Governments across the world should sign up to programmes to ensure that women would not be discriminated against, as they are in every society in the world. The Irish and British Governments signed up to similar policies, but to date, neither of those Governments have fulfilled what they signed up to.

It is important that the Executive ensure that women are treated as they should be. It is also important that women are represented at every level of Government and society. Section 75 of the 1998 Act lists gender as one of the nine grounds on which statutory bodies have a duty to promote equality of opportunity. It is therefore important that policies examine any adverse impacts on or obstacles to women’s success.

It is good to see that the Executive are fairly representative of gender — there are four women Ministers. That is still not enough, but it is important to have broad political representation and to ensure that women are well represented.

Mr B McCrea: The Minister will be aware that there are significant difficulties in filling vacancies in the primary-school sector with leaders of any gender. Are those difficulties a result of the antisocial hours, insufficient financial resources, the huge amount of red tape, or the fact that the Minister of Education will not listen to the education sector? Which of those issues does she think makes the job less attractive to women?

The Minister of Education: Go raibh maith agat. There are many different obstacles. First is the lack of childcare in our society. Secondly, women multitask in many different roles and have enormous responsibilities. Thirdly, women often choose not to apply for positions because of the inbuilt sexism that exists in our society.

I refute the point that I do not listen to people. I do not know where the Member has been living, but I have been out and about, speaking with and meeting representatives of every different sector in education, listening to the trade unions, and engaging in exhaustive discussions with people.

Yes, there are huge challenges in education. However, if, as I do, the Member went out and about and listened to a broad cross-section of teachers, he would hear them say that they love their jobs. This morning, in Fermanagh, I met teachers who told me how much they love their jobs, and that their jobs are fantastic. Teachers play a tremendous role in our society. Therefore, Basil should work with me rather than try to pick holes in everything.

North Down: Secondary School Provision

4. Mr Weir asked the Minister of Education what action her Department is taking to ensure adequate provision is made for the intake of new pupils at secondary level in North Down in September 2008.       (AQO 3975/08)

The Minister of Education: Tá soláthar imleor ann do dhaltaí a bheas ag aistriú go hiarbhunscoileanna i dTuaisceart an Dúin 2008.

There is adequate provision for pupils who are to transfer to post-primary school in North Down in September 2008. The South Eastern Education and Library Board has advised the Department that 45 children are currently unplaced in the area. However, 252 places are available in schools that serve people who live there. I am happy to write to the Member to provide him with a breakdown of the figures.

Mr Weir: The Minister is correct when she says that 45 children remain unplaced. However, no places are available for them in North Down, and parents are being advised to look to places as far afield as Lisburn. Rather than say that provision is adequate, will the Minister consider increasing the number of children that Bangor Academy and Sixth Form College can take this year? That could sort out the problem temporarily — it represents one solution.

The Minister of Education: The South Eastern Education and Library Board has advised the Department that the unplaced children reside in Bangor, Newtownards, Holywood, Donaghadee and Dundonald. Transport links enable those children to attend schools in Newtownards, Donaghadee, Dundonald and east Belfast. As the Member knows, there is a long tradition of children from North Down attending schools in Newtownards, Dundonald and Belfast.

The Member mentioned Bangor Academy and Sixth Form College. As part of open-enrolment policy, the Department is willing to consider requests for temporary increases to the admissions number of any school. However, when considering such requests, the Department must take into account the availability of places at other schools within a reasonable travelling distance. The purpose of that is to maintain a viable schools estate.

Newtownards is within a reasonable travelling distance for the children who are currently unplaced. Furthermore, an oversubscribed school must offer places to applicants according to how they meet the school’s admission criteria. Bangor Academy and Sixth Form College has a tradition of serving pupils in Newtownards and Conlig, as well as Bangor, and its admission criteria reflect that. Therefore, even if additional places were given to the school, they would not necessarily be given to children who live in Bangor.

Mr Cree: I support my North Down colleague’s view. Bangor needs to have a brand new academy, and a temporary arrangement set up whereby it can take up the slack this year.

Can the Minister explain why she is closing Donaghadee High School? Parents in the constituency cannot place their children in the area, because parents from other constituencies have already applied, and their children have been offered places at Bangor Academy and Sixth Form College. The South Eastern Education and Library Board has asked the Department to allow alteration to the academy to allow it to take up the slack, but that request has been refused.

Is the Minister satisfied that that represents a good way forward? Should people from North Down be advised to send their children to places in the outback, such as Lisburn or Newtownabbey, or to travel other ridiculous distances? [Laughter.]

The Minister of Education: One of the reasons why we are reforming post-primary education is, as the Member knows, that large numbers of children from North Down transfer to Belfast grammar schools. Figures for this year are not available at present. However, as an indication of the numbers involved, the South Eastern Education and Library Board has advised the Department that, as part of this year’s admissions process, 850 pupils who attended primary schools in the South Eastern Education and Library Board area now travel to Belfast. Therefore, many children in North Down travel substantial distances and, bearing in mind the Belfast traffic, they spend a substantial amount of time doing so.

One reason why we are changing the education system is that so many children travel outside their areas. We are considering the number of unplaced children, the number of unfilled places in the area and where the best place for those children might be. However, the solution is not to increase one school’s enrolment in order to leave places empty in schools nearby.

3.00 pm

Employment And Learning

Vocational Education

1. Mr Lunn asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for an update on proposals to promote and reform vocational education and training.       (AQO 3983/08)

The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): The question relates to an area that is of high strategic importance to the work of my Department. The promotion and reform of the vocational education and training system is being progressed through the implementation of Success Through Skills: The Skills Strategy for Northern Ireland and Further Education Means Business.

The reform of the vocational qualification system is a major development. Employers, through their sector skills councils, will have a meaningful input into the design and content of qualifications. The reform will also ensure, through unitisation, that qualifications can be delivered in a sufficiently flexible way to match the learning needs and styles of individual learners and to fit in with the organisational needs of employers.

The delivery of skills and qualifications to individuals is of prime importance. The provision by further education colleges of a more economically focused curriculum and the implementation of a revised Training for Success programme — both of which will be effective from September — will ensure that learners gain qualifications that are valued by employers.

Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for his full answer. I presume that there is liaison between his Department and the Department of Education. How frequently has the Minister for Employment and Learning met the Minister of Education with regard to developing a secondary and tertiary level education system that will deliver proper vocational training?

The Minister for Employment and Learning: There is a great deal of co-operation between the two Departments, particularly as we develop the 14- to 19-year-old strategy. The Member will also be aware that the careers strategy that is being developed between the two Departments will have a major bearing on the development of training.

As the Member will know, the review of Training for Success is ongoing. We are changing the arrangements for apprenticeships — which is an important issue — and attempting to make them more focused and economically relevant. That is an important development.

The further education colleges will continue to be funded to provide a wide range of courses that meet the needs of an equally diverse range of learners. They will be driven through the workforce development forums by the needs of employers, because there is no point in training people if there are no jobs for them. Likewise, there will be a demand for courses that relate to business areas that have vacancies. That is one of the key objectives of the strategy.

Mr Ross: The Minister will be aware that young people who suffer from disabilities or who are from vulnerable groups are less likely to succeed academically and be involved in training schemes. What measures does the Minister intend to put in place to ensure that those groups are not excluded?

The Minister for Employment and Learning: The Member is correct. Through the disability advisory service and through special arrangements and contracts, the further education colleges are required to ensure that people with disabilities are given opportunities to avail themselves of training schemes, for instance, and they are provided with the resources to do so.

The assistance that is available to people with disabilities will vary, depending on the nature of the disability. They may be provided with special equipment; an individual may be available to accompany someone who is visually impaired; and help will be provided for people with hearing difficulties. As the Member will know, the Department is investing more in the training of sign language tutors. I assure the Member that the Department takes the issue seriously.

However, as Mr Ross said, the success rate to date of people progressing and getting qualifications and jobs is below the level at which we would like it to be. In working with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, we are acutely aware of the needs of certain hard-to-reach learners. That is one of the areas in which we are having difficulty in achieving the right balance between what is possible in the further education sector, for instance, and what has to be done in the day centres that are run by the trusts.

I am aware that several Members have raised that issue in the past year or so, and it lies very much at the heart of my Department’s policy to ensure that people with disabilities can gain the qualifications that will provide them with the basis for rewarding careers.

Mr Gardiner: The Minister has rightly placed economic objectives at the heart of the further education strategy, but will he confirm that, in the coming years, there will still be a substantial number of publicly subsidised recreational courses in further education colleges?

The Minister for Employment and Learning: The Member is correct to say that we have placed the economy at the heart of the Programme for Government. The Member is also aware that we regard the further education sector as a key delivery mechanism. However, I can assure him — and other Members from whom I have received a large volume of correspondence — that that does not mean that other forms of learning will be disadvantaged. Significant sums are still being provided for recreational and leisure courses. That will continue to be a feature of further education colleges.

The emphasis has shifted towards economically driven courses, but the Department recognises that that is not the only function that the further education sector performs. Significant resources will continue to be put into those recreational and leisure courses.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 2 has been withdrawn.

St Mary’s University College

3. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what meetings he has had with representatives from St Mary’s University College since the restoration of devolution. (AQO 3942/08)

The Minister for Employment and Learning: I visited St Mary’s College in September 2007 and met Bishop Walsh, the acting college principal, and a number of staff and students during a tour of the campus. I am due to meet the college principal again, later this week. Of course, my officials are in regular contact with the college principal and his senior staff.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for his reply. Will the Minister confirm that a substantial number of recently qualified teachers are either unemployed or underemployed at present? Does the Minister share my view that it would be irresponsible to continue to churn out an unchanged number of trainees, regardless of their employment prospects?

The Minister for Employment and Learning: The Member will be aware that teaching is held in high esteem by our community. The figures show that eight to 10 students apply for each teacher-training place. However, he is also correct to say is that the profession is under great pressure with respect to numbers, due to the demographic trends that have been established over a number of years.

Furthermore, the scheme for the early retirement of teachers changed on 1 April 2008. It has been the custom to retire between 550 and 584 teachers who qualified for the early retirement scheme each year for the previous three years. However, that will not continue under the new scheme, and that will have further significant implications for those who have trained as teachers but who are not yet in post.

When all those factors are combined, there is high demand, but, unfortunately, there is not sufficient places at the moment. Approximately 30% of teachers who are not yet in permanent posts, and who are on the subbing list, are below 30 years of age. That equates roughly to a couple of thousand young people who have very good qualifications. The Department is proud of those qualifications. However, unfortunately, there is huge pressure on numbers.

Mr Attwood: The St Mary’s University College situation is much more complex than the Minister has outlined in his reply to Mr Kennedy. However, I trust that we will have a full debate on that subject next Monday. Does the Minister acknowledge that a potential crisis situation has now arisen for his Department in respect of St Mary’s University College?

Earlier this year, the college authorities made provisional offers of 130 places for the incoming academic year for liberal arts degrees. Those figures were based on conversations and communications between the college and the Department between July 2007 and February 2008. However, the Department has now told the college that it can recruit only 33 students to those courses.

How will your Department explain to those students, to their parents and to their families that provisional offers have been withdrawn? Is that not a situation that the Department must address immediately?

The Minister for Employment and Learning: My Department did not make provisional offers; that is a matter for the college. However, the college has been aware of the situation for several months. It was made clear to it last summer that the custom and practice of diversifying the decreasing number of teaching places to other subjects was to be discontinued. Therefore, colleges have been well aware of that for a number of months.

I am discussing the details with both colleges, because that issue is not confined to St Mary’s College. That process is ongoing. I held meetings on the matter earlier today, and I have others scheduled later today and this week. However, I caution the Member about his use of a type of language that may, even unintentionally, have a negative impact.

Vocational Courses:  Needs of Contemporary Economy

4. Mr Neeson asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to outline what co-operation there has been with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment on provision of vocational courses relating to the needs of the contemporary economy.          (AQO 3982/08)

The Minister for Employment and Learning: My Department works closely with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) and Invest NI to align skills provision with the needs of the economy. That takes into account the needs of individual sectors, as advised by the 25 sector skills councils, through their sector skills agreements, which articulate the needs of employers. Invest NI is part of the quality assurance of those agreements.

The needs of employers in particular geographical areas are also advised through the work of the six workforce development forums, overseen by quarterly liaison meetings among senior management teams of my Department, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and Invest NI, with whom we have a memorandum of understanding.

The range of initiatives that we have undertaken includes training and conversion courses, particularly in the priority areas of financial services, information and communication technology (ICT), and in the development of an ICT action plan to address the short- to medium-term needs of employers.

Mr Neeson: I thank the Minister for his answer. When the DETI Committee met the board of Invest NI last Friday, the chairman of the board outlined the very close co-operation between the board and the Minister’s Department.

However, the Minister may remember that, a few years ago, when Nortel was going well, local further education colleges created special courses to provide skills that were necessary for that company. Does the Minister envisage similar schemes happening in the future? Does he agree that all Departments must co-operate in order to maximise the potential to grow the economy?

The Minister for Employment and Learning: I vividly recall the Nortel situation because I was DETI Minister at that time. The further education colleges successfully tailored specific courses to the needs of Nortel. Sadly, the world economic situation at that time, and the difficulties faced by the ICT sector, meant that many people who had been trained for Nortel ended up with the qualification but no job in Nortel. However, most of them went on to find rewarding jobs.

We are discussing precisely that type of issue with Invest NI and DETI, and that was referred to in the second Varney Report. I can confirm that if we are given notice of specific skills needed by a potential investor or an indigenous investor, we pursue the concept of training — even when to do so involves some risk. If we get that information early enough, we are able to put in place delivery mechanisms. We closely follow the model used in South Carolina, where the college network system, which is the equivalent of our community colleges or further education colleges, is used as a tool for economic development.

From day one, when potential investors are identified, those college networks are involved and can train staff for those investors, including providing on-site training. We are also prepared to do that, and I want us to move closer to that model because it is more effective. At the economic conference on 8 May this year, we gave an undertaking to provide such training.

3.15 pm

Mr G Robinson: Will the Minister confirm that future vocational courses will be offered in direct response to the skills that are required to ensure that, at all times, there is a well-trained workforce in Northern Ireland, with the skills that are required by employers and investors?

The Minister for Employment and Learning: That is our key objective. I am not saying that we have achieved it, but that is where we are heading. The workforce development forums that are based around each college region and which include representatives of the colleges and key local employers are designed to feed information into the colleges about the needs of the local area and labour-market intelligence from local employers.

The Member will know of recent difficulties in his constituency and that news is not always good. However, the aim of the policy is to do precisely as the Member suggests.

Mr Beggs: Do local businesses recognise the value of vocational skills by offering places for apprentices? What success has the Department for Employment and Learning had in providing vocational-skills training for the foreign direct investment projects that have been announced in recent years?

The Minister for Employment and Learning: The Member has touched on a sensitive issue, since only employers can provide apprenticeships. Some employers have been exceptionally positive in providing such apprenticeships; sadly, others have not. Many employers have not yet made the connection between the bottom line of their business and having well-trained apprentices available to take up new positions. We face a great deal of difficulty in that area.

In discussions some time ago, Mr Attwood asked whether we would abandon our target of reaching 10,000 apprenticeships in the next two years, given our current level of approximately 6,000. I told him that we would not, because we have already opened up the adult apprenticeships scheme and we will continue to encourage employers to take up the slack.

The Citi investment is an example of a recent foreign direct investment success. We had advance knowledge of that investment and, therefore, can now help to train people for positions in that company. Indeed, we now run a graduate conversion course aimed specifically at the information and communications technology sector so that persons with any qualification can do a 26-week course and gain a properly accredited qualification. Such training can be, and has been, provided. However, the question is whether we can extend that training to meet our targets.

Employment Agencies:  Enforcement Powers

5. Ms Lo asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for an update and timescale on the proposals to enhance existing enforcement powers in respect of employment agencies.       (AQO 3981/08)

The Minister for Employment and Learning: As Members may be aware, on 2 June, I launched a public consultation that includes proposals to amend employment-agency legislation to allow very serious offences to be tried in the Crown Court. That will allow for the imposition of unlimited fines — the current maximum fine in the magistrates’ courts is £5,000 — which will deter persistent and serious offenders who seek to exploit vulnerable workers. The proposals will also give my Department the power to seek financial records from third parties when serious offences are suspected. If adopted, the proposals will require primary legislation, which I hope to introduce in the Assembly next year.

Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for his response; I am aware of the consultation. I believe that the Minister’s proposals will be welcomed by most employment agencies, employers, and individuals seeking employment.

If the Department is given the additional investigative and enforcement powers that the Minister wants, does he plan to enhance his Department so that it can deal with those new powers, given its considerable underspend?

The Minister for Employment and Learning: Enforcement will be provided through a programme of inspection by the Department’s two employment-agency inspectors, who will also investigate complaints of alleged offences. However, we seek greater powers, including the ability to seek financial records, which is a way of proving whether an offence has been committed.

The Member will be aware that the qualifying period is an issue. On 9 June, the EU Ministers of Employment and Social Affairs agreed a directive on temporary agency workers. The United Kingdom Government will introduce a 12-week qualifying period, which means that an agency worker who works for longer than 12 weeks will have the same rights as any other worker. My officials will carry out a full public consultation on any proposed legislation, and it will be up to the Committee for Employment and Learning and the Assembly to pass the legislation that I hope to introduce next year.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 6 has been withdrawn.

Construction Industry Training

7. Mr Boylan asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for his assessment of the training available in the construction industry; and whether the further education sector is equipped to help people who wish to diversify and develop their building trade or construction industry skills in other areas of work.      (AQO 4004/08)

The Minister for Employment and Learning: Twenty-five sector skills councils, including construction skills, are working to ensure that skills training meets the requirements of employers. Workforce-development forums in each of the six regional college areas help to ensure that the training provided meets the requirements of individuals and business. The further education sector offers a wide variety of course provision in all priority-skills areas, including construction. Colleges will provide guidance and retraining to those who wish to diversify into other areas of work. Apprenticeship training is built on frameworks for specific occupational areas. Although part of that framework is specific, much of the learning is transferable to other occupational areas.

Mr Boylan: Given the crisis in the construction industry, does the Minister agree that it is important for those who work in the building trade to have a diverse range of skills? Will he guarantee that there are robust measures to ensure that young people who enter further education wishing to follow a certain course can dovetail into other areas?

The Minister for Employment and Learning: The Member’s question strikes a chord because although we have had a prolonged period of buoyancy in the construction sector, the recent downturn in the housing market has had an unquestionable impact on construction workers. For example, in the Republic, about one quarter of construction workers are in severe difficulty because of the downturn.

The colleges are aware of the situation, and we understand the desire of people to transfer to a different occupational apprenticeship and continue to receive training. Consideration of that is on a case-by-case basis. However, as a general rule, the Department wants to provide support — especially if the requirement is due to economic change, such as a downturn in the construction sector.

There is an opportunity for students to seek careers advice and guidance, because if they feel that they are training for a job that does not exist, they will become nervous and seek guidance and help. There will be a positive response from colleges; however, if the Member discovers otherwise, I would be grateful if he drew it to my attention. The support available includes improving skills in a student’s existing profession, self-employment or entrepreneurship; and the development of skills that are appropriate to other sectors of the economy. There are opportunities. However, if Members tell me that transfers are not being considered on a case-by-case basis, I will address that.

Mr Shannon: Is the Minister aware of the close liaison between the manufacturing sector and the South Eastern Regional College (SERC) campus in Bangor for the purpose of training? Furthermore, will he confirm whether there is an intention to develop the relationship between the construction industry and the Ards campus of the college, which would ensure that alternative job options are available for those students?

The Minister for Employment and Learning: Some years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Bangor campus of what is now SERC, and I was impressed at the drive towards technology and the development of useful skills for industry.

Although I cannot provide the Member with answers about specific colleges in his constituency, I am aware that, as a general rule, there has been a close working relationship with the manufacturing sector in that area. Indeed, because of its history, that college probably enjoys a closer relationship with the construction industry than is the case with other colleges.

The nature of the construction industry means that demand for its services is more prone to ebb and flow. That creates difficulties, because students may have started an apprenticeship or a course only to discover suddenly halfway through that the market has deteriorated. The question is what my Department and the college can do to help those young people. A mechanism exists to help students should they want to transfer to another course or proceed to finish their apprenticeships and subsequently seek work. Help will always be available, whether through the careers service or through the college. I spoke about that issue in my previous answer. Such issues can be considered on a case-by-case basis.

If the Member is aware of any students who have difficulties, I urge him to ask them to go to the college authorities and discuss the problems with their tutors.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Given the high number of construction apprentices in the Training for Success programme, will the Minister outline what evidence exists of apprentices dropping out of the training programme, or, subsequently, losing employed status because of the downturn in the building trade?

The Minister for Employment and Learning: I am unable to give the Member specific figures; however, I am aware of anecdotal information. Although I have no evidence of students dropping out of such courses, obviously I am aware of the current downturn. It is a cyclical downturn; it happens in the construction industry as well as in other sectors, and I hope that it does not last long.

My Department can offer guidance. The Member, from his experiences in his own constituency, will know that building contractors are under pressure. However, in my experience, there is always a place for someone who is well qualified and who has those skills, because there is always demand for such people.

There is no doubt that in the current cycle, the industry is in difficulties, and the same amount of work is not available. To my knowledge, that has not manifested itself in people withdrawing from, or failing to complete, courses, but I am happy to advise the Member should I become aware of any such information.

European Social Fund Priority 1:  Match Funding

8. Ms J McCann asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what arrangements he has put in place for public match funding of successful projects under priority 1 of the European Social Fund.   (AQO 4006/08)

The Minister for Employment and Learning: The Northern Ireland European Social Fund (ESF) Programme for 2007-2013 provides projects with 65% programme funding, which is made up of 40% from EU funds and a 25% contribution from my Department. The remaining 35% match funding must be secured independently from other public sources by the project promoters. The same procedure was used for previous ESF programmes.

On 29 January, the Department of Finance and Personnel notified other Departments about the match funding needs that were forecast by successful applicants. The Department for Employment and Learning may contribute to match funding when a project meets the specific policy objectives of the Department.

Ms J McCann: I thank the Minister for his answer. Is he aware that up to 52 projects in the women’s learning and education sector are in danger of collapsing if match funding cannot be found?

Will he explain why match funding was a condition for a project to secure funding when it is clear that public bodies are either unwilling or unable to match those moneys?

3.30 pm

The Minister for Employment and Learning: As I said, the conditions this time are no different to those in the previous round. Members need to be aware that the slice of cake from the European Social Fund has now dropped by 50%, which, in cash terms, means that the European contribution is down by half. The Depart­ment for Employment and Learning has tried to help by making a 25% contribution, which it did not make in the past from baselines. That leaves 35% to be found from possibly more than one other source.

So far, about 70% of match funding has been found for a significant number of projects. I am hopeful that further funds will be found soon. There is a difference between the amount of money available and the number of projects, and the Member is correct in saying that some projects, particularly in the women’s sector, have not yet secured match funding. Perhaps some of them will secure funding over the next few weeks. However, we will have to assess the situation when that work is concluded. I stress that it is the same process that was undertaken in the previous round.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Time is up.

Enterprise, Trade And Investment

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 1 has been withdrawn.

Renewable Electricity Generation

2. Mr Ford asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment how much electricity is currently being generated from renewable sources.         (AQO 4002/08)

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mrs Foster): In the year ended 31 March 2008, 441 GWh of electricity were generated from renewable energy sources in Northern Ireland. That represents 5% of all electricity consumed in Northern Ireland.

Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for her answer. I congratulate her on her appointment to her present post.

That figure, which she has released, shows that although we may well be on line to meet short-term targets for renewable electricity in Northern Ireland, we are not going to meet the long-term targets set at a UK level.

Will the Minister give a commitment that she will engage with other Ministers, especially the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Minister of the Environment, to ensure that blockages to increasing the amount of renewable energy in Northern Ireland are removed and that we can start to make progress given all the natural advantages that we have.

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: I thank the Member for his supplementary question.

Speaking with my former ministerial hat on, I am sure that the Member knows that the Department of the Environment (DOE) introduced planning policy statement 18 for that precise purpose — to ensure that the proper policy was in place to deal with renewable energy. The present target for renewable energy is that by 2012, 12% of total electricity consumption will be met from indigenous renewable energy sources. As I said in my previous answer, 5% of Northern Ireland’s total electricity consumption currently comes from renewable energy sources.

On the basis of existing installed capacity, and providing that all the planning applications, which are at various stages in the planning system, receive approval — bearing in mind that only one wind farm has ever been refused planning permission — there will be sufficient capacity to meet the 2012 target. Wind is only one part of the renewable energy agenda, and the Member will be aware of the SeaGen tidal stream turbine installed by Marine Current Turbines in Strangford Lough, and the fabulous work that went on there. Some groundbreaking work has been carried out as regards sonar devices to deal with marine mammals.

I am happy to work with the Department of the Environment and DARD on renewable energy, because we need to address the issue soon.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat. I congratulate the Minister and wish her well in her new post.

Will she provide an update on any recent developments in the establishment of the single electricity market (SEM), and comment on any initiatives taken by her Department to create an all-island energy market? Go raibh maith agat.

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: As the Member probably knows, the SEM was established in November 2007. That should result in downward pressure on wholesale electricity costs. I hope that will ultimately be reflected in lower retail prices, which is the objective.

The benefits are there from a larger, more efficient and competitive market, and those benefits will become more apparent as the single electricity market matures. It will take some time for consumers to experience the benefits, but there will be benefits for consumers. That will be of some comfort to those who face increasing prices at present, as we all do.

Mr Armstrong: I congratulate the Minister on her new appointment and hope that she continues as she has started. We look forward to working with her.

Do the Minister or her Department have any plans to provide financial incentives for electricity consumers to install wind turbines and generate their own electricity from wind power?

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: The Member will be aware of the Reconnect programme, which ended a short time ago. It enabled domestic users to apply for grant assistance. The Department is assessing how well that programme was delivered in relation to renewable energy and value for money — which is something that we always have to bear in mind as politicians. We want to assess how that Reconnect grant system worked, and we will then make proposals as to how we move forward in the future.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 3 has been withdrawn.

Electricity and Gas Profits

4. Mr A Maginness asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what is her assessment of the level of profits made by electricity and gas businesses.           (AQO 4005/08)

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: The profits of the electricity and gas companies in Northern Ireland are derived from their network businesses. The rates of return are closely regulated by the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation.

Limited competition means that the profitability levels that are allowed to the supply companies are very low, at 1·5% margin on turnover for gas and 1·8% margin on turnover for electricity. The comparable rates in Great Britain are typically 6%-8%. Trading in electricity and gas is also closely regulated, given the current level of competition in the market.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for her reply, and I congratulate her on her appointment and wish her well.

Is the Minister satisfied that the regulator was justified in allowing a 14% rise in electricity prices, given that Northern Ireland Electricity paid out a dividend? The amount may well have been low, but nonetheless, a dividend was paid out at a time when people have to choose between heating and eating.

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: The recent 14% price rise was unwelcome for all consumers. However, the wholesale price of fuel is rising, and there are increasing costs in power generation — hence the increase in electricity charges. It brings us back to the question of renewable energy sources. Northern Ireland is 98% reliant on fossil fuels. As I indicated, the regulator has to keep a tight rein on those issues.

I accept what the Member says about the context of those price rises, but we need to put them in the context of what is happening in Europe and in the Republic of Ireland. While our prices are 2·1% above other regions in Great Britain, they are 9% lower than the western European average and 9% lower than in the Republic of Ireland. I accept that things are not good — particularly when the price of electricity has increased by 14% — but the situation must be put in the worldwide and European contexts.

Mr Ross: I also welcome the Minister to her new role. What impact will the AES Kilroot judicial review have on energy prices?

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: I very much welcome the ruling of Lord Justice Girvan in the judicial review that was sought by the power generator AES Kilroot against the regulator. The ruling of the judge confirms that the single electricity market enables the regulator to cancel the contract of AES Kilroot in 2010. That is very much in the interests of consumers.

The long-term Kilroot contract that was established at the time of electricity privatisation in 1992 is widely considered to be one of the historical factors that led to our electricity prices being higher than those elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The determination of the regulator that was under review was not a cancellation of the long-term AES Kilroot contract, but a statement that the single electricity market satisfies the conditions that are necessary to allow the cancellation decision in 2010, if, at that time, the regulator considers that decision to be in the best interests of consumers.

I reiterate that it is a very welcome judgement and it came at the same time as other matters, which was good. It is a good decision, and I welcome it.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra, agus déanaim comhghairdeas léi. I wish the Minister well in her new position. Has she met the regulator to find out what impact he feels the decision will have on a social tariff?

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: As yet, I have not had the opportunity; however, I envisage a meeting with the regulator, when that subject will be raised.

Inward Investment in North Antrim

5. Mr McKay asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment how many first-time Invest NI inward investment projects were located in North Antrim between 1998/1999 and 2006/2007.          (AQO 4044/08)

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: During that period, Invest Northern Ireland and its legacy agencies offered £8·5 million of assistance to support five projects undertaken by externally owned clients in the North Antrim area. All of those projects were reinvestments by existing clients and, combined, they leveraged £47 million of investment, safeguarded 1,300 jobs and promoted 35 new jobs. No first-time inward investors from the manufacturing and international tradable services industry sectors chose to invest in the area.

Although the question focuses on inward investment activity, it is important to emphasise that, during the period in question, Invest NI and its legacy agencies offered £23 million of assistance to locally owned clients in the constituency, leveraging investment of £121 million. In addition, since it was established in 2002, Invest NI has also supported the creation of over 1,100 new business starts in the area.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I congratulate the Minister on her new post. The Minister failed to refer to the 1999 report from the Westminster Public Accounts Committee, which highlighted the glaring regional investment inequalities faced by socially deprived areas, such as Moyle in my constituency of North Antrim. That report also stated that in the preceding eight years since 1991, the Industrial Development Board failed to locate any new inward investments in Moyle. Does the Minister agree that Invest NI must urgently be instructed to redress those long-standing patterns of regional investment inequalities across the North, by applying fully the general authorising duty, under section 75 of the NI Act 1998:

“to have due regard for the need to promote equality of opportunity”

in discharging all of its functions, including the location of major inward investments?

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: There have been 793 offers of assistance from Invest NI in the North Antrim constituency, which have sustained a large number of jobs. When Invest NI looks for foreign direct investment, its role is to promote the entity of Northern Ireland as a place to invest in. It does not go out to potential investors and tell them that they must come to North Antrim, or, as I would say, to Fermanagh and South Tyrone, or to any other constituency. Invest NI does not determine the locations for a potential investor. That decision is taken by the investor.

Having said that, Invest NI works closely with different companies in preparing visits, and the Member should work closely with Invest NI to promote the benefits of North Antrim. Other Members should also promote their own constituencies as premier places and attract investors to Northern Ireland. The regional office does a lot of outreach work, and I hope to visit all the regional offices soon to hear what they are doing in their areas, and to talk not only about foreign direct investment but about those indigenous industries, to see what more we can do to help them to move out of the Northern Ireland market into wider markets.

Mr Beggs: Scotland is considering Donald Trump’s foreign direct investment project. Does the Minister agree that there would be huge dangers to the tourism product in the Causeway Coast and glens were the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment to encourage inward investment projects, such as those being considered in Scotland, which would be sustained by large-scale house-building in environmentally sensitive areas?

3.45 pm

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: Invest NI has carried out some good work on tourism in north Antrim, and, in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, assisted nine tourism accommo­dation projects in the area during the period to which the Member referred. Galgorm Resort and Spa represents an excellent example of that work, and I recently visited the new Royal Society for the Protection of Birds centre on Rathlin Island. That is an excellent facility, and it is hoped that the number of visitors to the island will increase from 11,000 in 2007.

As the Member suggested, the sustainability of tourism projects must be examined. My officials and I will work closely with the Planning Service and DOE — in particular with the Environment and Heritage Service on the World Heritage site — as we consider which projects are sustainable in North Antrim. The Department wants to protect its assets but, at the same time, to attract tourism, and we must ensure that the necessary facilities exist to accommodate visitors who come to see the beauty of Northern Ireland.

Mr O’Loan: I too wish the Minister well, on her account and on behalf of the people for whom her Department’s economic performance is of the utmost importance. Without intending to criticise officials who may be doing their best in Invest NI as it currently functions, the inescapable fact is that every report that emerges, including Varney II, recommends change to its operation to enhance its performance. The Assembly must move beyond analysis.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Please ask the question.

Mr O’Loan: The question is coming.

Mr Deputy Speaker: So is Christmas, Mr O’Loan.

Mr O’Loan: What are the Minister’s plans for improving the performance of Invest Northern Ireland?

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: The Member and I spent a long time sitting through the debate on the Supply resolutions, and he is, therefore, aware that Varney II recommended a review of the workings of Invest NI. I am awaiting a report on Varney II from the Department of Finance and Personnel to include how it considers that the issues should be progressed, and, on its receipt, I will consider the findings on Invest NI.

Investment and Tourism in Fermanagh and South Tyrone

6. Lord Morrow asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, in relation to the Fermanagh/South Tyrone area, what strategy she has to improve investment; and to outline any additional steps she is taking to further develop tourism.            (AQO 3926/08)

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: The Executive’s Programme for Government established economic growth as the key priority. For the next three years, my Department will focus on building on the successes that have been achieved to date. From 1 April 2002 to 31 March 2008, Invest NI issued more than 1,000 offers of assistance, totalling approximately £35 million, to businesses in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone area. That money generated total investment of £215 million, including key investments by British Telecom, the Quinn Group and Kerry Foods.

Since its inception, Invest NI has offered £5·3 million to support the development of 15 tourism accommodation projects in the area, including the Lough Erne Golf Resort. Fermanagh and South Tyrone is also a key area for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s (NITB) activities. NITB is assisting the Western Regional Partnership to promote the area and plans, subject to approval, to launch a tourism innovation fund later in 2008. The fund will provide assistance to tourism businesses that undertake innovative projects, including those located in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone area.

In the long term, ‘Destination Fermanagh — The Vision for Tourism 2006-2016’ is the tourism strategy that was developed in partnership with the local council and industry stakeholders, and it provides the basis for investing in Fermanagh’s tourism product. To date, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Fermanagh District Council have contributed £41,000 and £35,000 respectively to the strategy, and I am pleased to note the latter’s recent progress on that.

Lord Morrow: I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply, and I join other Members in wishing her well in her new post. Bearing in mind that Northern Ireland is emerging from a 35-year terrorist campaign, and Fermanagh received more than its fair share of that, does the Minister believe that Fermanagh is being properly developed, exploited and marketed?

Is it not true that there is much potential for tourism in County Fermanagh, and will the Minister assure the House today that all steps are being taken to ensure that that potential is being realised in a way that will attract many more tourists to that part of Northern Ireland?

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: Clearly I am very keen to see that Fermanagh’s tourism potential is exploited. It was clear when the signature projects were being discussed that there was a need to look at what could be done for Fermanagh. That is why the council, in association with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, came up with a 10-year vision and spatial strategy entitled ‘Destination Fermanagh — The Vision for Tourism 2006-2016’ , which sets out its key objectives and targets. I hope that Fermanagh District Council will continue to work with the NITB, as they have a very good relationship. Funds have been levered in — £41,000 from the NITB and £35,000 from Fermanagh District Council. That partnership is working well, but if I need to revisit that at any time, and if any Member has any concerns in relation to that, I am quite happy to do so.

Mr Cree: I congratulate the Minister on her new portfolio. It was interesting to hear of the plans for tourism in that part of Northern Ireland, particularly with the regional tourism bodies. Will the Minister update the House on the plans to open the inland waterway system from Fermanagh to Lough Neagh?

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is in the lead in relation to that issue, and if the Member has any particular concerns, he should raise them with the Minister for that Department.

Mr Gallagher: As a constituency colleague, I extend a very warm welcome to the Minister on her first Question Time as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Given that work with a value totalling in excess of £450 million is in the pipeline in respect of the hospitals at Enniskillen and Omagh, will the Minister ask Invest Northern Ireland if it will help local companies who are interested in preparing bids, so that they can sub-contract for a slice of that work? As regards tourism, will the Minister raise NITB’s strategy with them again? It seems to me that they are not getting it right at the moment, as they continue to exclude Fermanagh and Tyrone from their list of signature projects.

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: It will come as no surprise to my constituency colleague that, before I was appointed to my current ministerial position, I was one of the greatest critics of the decision not to include Fermanagh as a signature project, and I have had many a tussle with the chief executive of NITB on that issue. It was very visionary of the council to take on the role of producing the destination Fermanagh strategy — as Fermanagh was not one of the signature projects, the council felt that it needed to do something about that, and therefore it came together with the NITB and produced ‘Destination Fermanagh — The Vision for Tourism 2006-2016’ . I know that the Member, like me, will want that to be a success, and it is certainly something that my Department will work on with the NITB.

As regards the Member’s question about the hospitals and the availability of construction work there, that is something that I will look into. There may be legal difficulties as regards one part of Government helping people to take money from another part of Government. If there are no legal issues involved, I cannot see why Invest NI could not help in that particular part of the world.

Inward Investment and Exports:  Emerging Economies

7. Rev Dr Robert Coulter asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what action her Department is taking to attract inward investment from, and exports to, India and other emerging economies.         (AQO 3960/08)

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: Invest NI focuses actively on inward investment opportunities and developing businesses for local companies, in both new and emerging high-growth markets. Invest NI now has an office in Mumbai seeking new trade and investment opportunities, and has a successful record in securing good quality investment from India. To date, Indian companies have invested more than £85 million in eight projects, promoting over 3,000 jobs. That has included significant investments by leading Indian Companies such as HCL and Tech Mahindra.

Just last month, Firstsource Solutions announced expansion plans that will create over 800 new jobs in Northern Ireland. In 2007, two trade missions, which involved 32 companies, visited India; in April 2008, 14 companies visited, and approximately 20 companies will visit in September 2008.

Invest NI established a permanent presence in Shanghai in December 2005, which has allowed the agency to seek out new trade opportunities. Invest NI has a successful record in taking Northern Ireland companies to China. During the past five years, it has taken 214 companies to that market, which represents the largest participation by any UK region.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I join my colleagues in congratulating the Minister on her new portfolio. I wish her well and look forward to working with her in the future.

Although it is recognised that the United States is the largest direct investor in Northern Ireland, does the Minister agree that emerging economies’ growth rates suggest that they are more immune to the current economic downturn and that in the short term, at least, efforts to attract investment and create export markets should be spread more evenly?

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: I absolutely agree with the Member. He is right to point out that most Northern Ireland companies concentrate on growing their businesses in established markets such as the USA and, indeed, in some of Northern Ireland’s European counterparts — Germany, the Netherlands and, obviously, the Republic of Ireland.

New and emerging markets offer the most high-growth potential for Northern Ireland’s trade and investment. Those markets include India and China, which is why there will be another expedition to India later in 2008. I understand that there are also plans to visit Hong Kong and China later in the year. Certainly, the Department and Invest NI will try to exploit those markets during the current difficult times for world economies.

Mr G Robinson: I congratulate the Minister on her new portfolio. Will she assure the Assembly that her predecessor’s great work to promote ties on a global scale, for which I give Minister Dodds full credit and thanks, will continue under her leadership of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment?

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: One would hope that I would do so. I pay tribute to the former Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, who is now the Minister of Finance and Personnel, in particular for his work in connection with the US/NI investment conference and the great hopes that have arisen from it, and, as the Member rightly points out, his outreach to emerging markets. The former Minister carried out tremendous work in those areas.

As well as the development of markets for Northern Ireland’s products in India, China and such places, benefits have come from that direction. As I indicated in my previous answer, much investment has come from India; over 3,000 new jobs have been created from eight projects, and planned investment comes to over £85 million. Those efforts have, therefore, been extremely worthwhile. I wish that, when certain elements of the media comment on Ministers’ travel, they consider those figures, which represent tangible investment in Northern Ireland’s people.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an Aire as a ceapúchán ina post úr agus guím gach rath uirthi ina cuid oibre san am atá le teacht.

I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and wish her success in her future work. Which emerging industries and industrial segments have her Department and Invest NI identified that would provide long-term strategic advantage for Northern Ireland, given the industrial and technical advantages of emerging economies? What discussions has she had with her counterpart in the Department for Employment and Learning on investment in courses and research and development in relevant subjects and at appropriate geographical locations? Go raibh maith agat.

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: One of my first tasks as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment was to chair a meeting of the Economic Development Forum, which was attended by the Minister for Employment and Learning and the Minister for Regional Development.

That was a well-focused meeting, because it dealt with issues such as where skills should be placed and how we might facilitate those who wish to invest in Northern Ireland. Consideration must be given to satisfying supply and demand, and to how the two can be matched up. I look forward to a close working relationship with the Minister for Employment and Learning to match up those skills so that, when companies from India or elsewhere express an interest in coming to Northern Ireland, we have skilled people in place for them. We do not want to have to tell them we would love to have them here had we the appropriately skilled workforce. We do not want to be in that position in Northern Ireland, and I know that the Minister for Employment and Learning also wants to deal with that issue.

4.00 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker: Questions 8, 9 and 10 have been withdrawn.

Mr Craig: I congratulate the Minister on her appointment, and I ask question 11.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Please just ask the question.

US Financial Crisis: Economic Impact

11. Mr Craig asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for her assessment of the likely impact of the current US financial crisis on the Northern Ireland economy.   (AQO 4049/08)

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: Current global economic conditions, particularly developments in the financial markets, present significant challenges. The economic slowdown will have an impact on the overall volume of inward investment that is available and on the demand for our exports globally, at least in the short term. Therefore, the economic priorities and targets that are set out in the Programme for Government will be kept under regular review. However, the success of the US/NI investment conference, recent investment announcements and our actions to implement the Programme for Government should make the economy more competitive.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Time is up. That concludes Question Time.

Lord Morrow: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I notice from today’s lists of questions for oral answer that several Members who were listed to ask questions were not in their place when their name was called. Mr Deputy Speaker, do you have any discretion on that matter, and is it your intention that, in future, Members who are not in their place but are down to ask a question will be penalised in some way and that other Members will not be disadvantaged as a result?

Mr McCarthy: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I will deal with Lord Morrow’s point of order first. If Members are not in their place, they are not in their place. It is for the respective Whips to ensure that Members are in their place or to inform the Table that a Member’s question is to be withdrawn.

Mr McCarthy: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it not a sad indictment of the workings of the Assembly that we had a day off yesterday, yet we are knocking off at 4.00 pm today?


Mr Deputy Speaker: Order, order. That is not a point of order. I am not aware of any Member who had a day off yesterday. Most, if not all, Members were at least in their constituency office. If you had a pleasant day off yesterday, Mr McCarthy, I congratulate you. [Laughter.]

Earlier today, Mr McCarthy, the explanation was given as to why no plenary sitting took place yesterday. Plenary sittings must be held in public session. Since members of the public were not allowed on the estate for security reasons yesterday because of a certain visit, a full meeting of the Assembly could not take place.

Mr McCarthy: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker —

Mr Deputy Speaker: It cannot be further to that point of order, because it was not a point of order in the first place. [Laughter.]

Mr A Maginness: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I sympathise with the point that Lord Morrow raised, but he implied that certain Members were culpable for their absence. That does not apply to all Members who were not present. I know of at least two Members who could not attend because of difficulties — one had other duties in another place and the other was ill.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I have already answered that point of order. The Committee on Procedures, of which Lord Morrow is the Chairperson, will undertake an inquiry into procedures, particularly those that pertain to Question Time. That report will reach the Assembly in due course.

Adjourned at 4.05 pm.

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