Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 23 June 2008
Executive Committee Business:
Private Members’ Business:
Oral Answers to Questions:
Private Members’ Business:
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mr Attwood: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At the start of business on Tuesday 17 June, you said:
“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for judicial review to which Mr Attwood referred, and any allegation of bad faith or discrimination, has been withdrawn by the applicants.” — [Offical Report, Bound Volume 31, p303, col 2].
That concerned a judicial review case against you and the Assembly Commission. As I understand it, it is correct that the application for judicial review was withdrawn; however, will you seek clarification about and confirm whether the allegation of bad faith or discrimination has also been withdrawn? It is important that the House be kept fully and accurately informed about this matter.
Mr Speaker: The Member raised this matter on a previous occasion, and he knows that it is not a point of order. I have allowed the Member some latitude on this matter, and I am not prepared to say anything further, or take any more points of order, about it. It is a matter for the Assembly Commission, which is dealing with it.
Mr Speaker: I will try again. I inform Members that the Libraries Bill has received Royal Assent. The Libraries Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 became law on 17 June 2008.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I beg to introduce the Health and Social Care (Reform) Bill [NIA 21/07], which is a Bill to make changes to the administrative structure for health and social care and for connected purposes.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Mr Speaker: The Bill will now be printed and put on the list of future business until a date for its Second Stage is determined.
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 that are tabled to the Bill. As no amendments have been tabled, there is no opportunity to discuss the Budget (No.2) 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.
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 that are tabled to the Bill. As no amendments have been tabled, there is no opportunity to discuss the Child Maintenance 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.
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I beg to move
That the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.
The uprating Order is an annual Order that increases rates of contributory and non-contributory benefits, together with the various premiums that form part of income-related benefits. As usual, the increases are based on changes to the relevant price indicators over the 12 months ending in September. Most social security benefits rise in the usual way in line with the retail prices index, which this year is 3·9%. Income-related benefits — income support, housing benefit and income-based jobseekers’s allowance — are increased by the Rossi index, which sets the increase at 2·3% this year.
The basic state pension is, and will remain, the foundation of pensioners’ incomes, and this year it rises by £3·40 a week to £90·70 for single pensioners and by £5·45 for couples to £145·05 a week. Increases in pension credits mean that no single pensioner will need to live on less than £124·05 a week, and couples need not live on less than £189·35 a week.
The Order provides extra money for disabled people and carers and those who are of working age. Child-related allowances, paid in the income-related benefits, are increased in parallel with child-tax credits. From April, the allowance paid for a child who is dependent on income-related benefits increased by £5·14 a week to £52·59, which is a rise of almost 11%.
The uprating provides an opportunity for us to deal with anomalies and make the system simpler. The single-person rate for income support and jobseeker’s allowance is now the same for all 16- to 24-year-olds. For the relatively small number of 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds who claim, that amounts to an increase of £12·30, raising their weekly benefit from £35·65 to £47·95. The change will give extra help to a small number of vulnerable teenagers, as well as simplifying the benefit structure.
My Department has no power to set different benefit rates for Northern Ireland, and is empowered to uprate benefits only to the same rates as in Great Britain.
The total cost of uprating benefits for this year is approximately £150 million. I am sure that all Members will wish to ensure that people in Northern Ireland, including some of the most vulnerable, will be able to receive these new higher rates of benefit.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Simpson): The Committee for Social Development considered the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order (Northern Ireland) 2008 at its meeting on 13 March 2008. These regulations are a parity measure, and set out the increased rates of contributory and non-contributory benefits in order to reflect changes in the rate of inflation. The Committee recommends that the regulations be confirmed by the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order (Northern Ireland) 2008 (SR 2008 No. 92) be approved.
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I beg to move
That the Occupational Pension Schemes (Levies) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 (SR 2008 No. 145) be approved.
The Pensions Act 2004 set up on 6 April 2005 a UK-wide pension protection fund in order to provide compensation for members of eligible occupational pension schemes where the sponsoring employer is insolvent and the scheme has insufficient assets to pay benefits at the fund’s compensation levels. The pension protection fund is funded through an annual levy that is charged to all qualifying defined benefit occupational pension schemes. The administration on eligible schemes means that they, rather than the general taxpayer, will fund the board’s administration costs.
The proposed regulations amend the Occupational Pension Schemes (Levies) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2005 in order to provide for the rate at which the pension protection fund’s administration levy is payable in respect of 2008-09 and in subsequent years. The amount payable by an individual scheme depends on the number of members in the scheme. The smallest schemes, those with fewer than 12 members, pay £42 per year. Larger schemes pay a levy per member on a sliding scale, subject to a prescribed minimum.
The combined effect of the regulations, and the corresponding Great Britain regulations, is to set the levy at a level that is necessary to collect £22·6 million to cover running costs of £19·9 million, and to recover a £2·7 million deficit from 2007-08.
I am sure that Members will agree that it is important to ensure that the pension protection fund has the resources to enable it to carry out its very important task efficiently and effectively.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Simpson): The Committee for Social Development has considered the Occupational Pension Schemes (Levies) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 at its meeting on 3 April 2008. The regulations are a parity measure, and, as the Minister said, they will provide an increase in the rates of levy in order to cover the running costs of the board of the pension protection fund. The Committee recommends that the regulations be confirmed by the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Occupational Pension Schemes (Levies) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 (SR 2008 No. 145) be approved.
Further Education Lecturers’ Dispute
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister for Employment and Learning that he wishes to make a statement regarding the further education lecturers’ dispute.
The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): Members will be aware of yesterday’s joint statement from the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges and the University and College Union announcing an immediate suspension of industrial action and action by college employers to remove any threat of staff being suspended. It has been a long-running dispute, which has been debated in the House several times. Indeed, over the past 13 or 14 months, I have received copious amounts of correspondence from Members on the issue.
The dispute was inherited, and it arose from the decision of Her Majesty’s Government to impose a pay policy throughout the United Kingdom on public-sector workers, which includes further education lecturers. In fact, they are the only group of education workers in the United Kingdom who are covered and affected directly by the dispute.
I welcome the significant step forward in what has been a prolonged and damaging dispute. At the end of last year, I took steps to help to mediate in the dispute, with the appointment of Sir Joseph Pilling. However, the proposals that emerged from the negotiations arranged by Sir Joseph Pilling were rejected. Since then, I have urged college employers and unions to re-engage in discussions in a further effort to find a resolution.
Last Thursday, I had a lengthy meeting with the union, which coincided with the employers issuing a letter threatening to suspend college lecturers if they failed to comply with requests to honour all aspects of their contracts. Although there has been no recent strike action, there has been action short of that in some colleges, which has impacted on a series of important information-gathering reports. Furthermore, no help was given with the recruitment process for the academic year commencing September 2007.
I am delighted that both sides have affirmed their determination to address the matters again. I fully appreciate the difficulties imposed by the constraints of the public-sector pay policy and the extent to which it has proved to be a stumbling block to a resolution. Earlier this year, the Executive concluded, with reluctance, that Northern Ireland would have to abide by that pay policy. Despite those constraints, I remain confident that, with goodwill on both sides, it will be possible to identify an acceptable way forward.
The involvement of the Labour Relations Agency is a positive step. Although the agency is an NDPB of my Department, it treasures its independence and will not be influenced by the Department or anyone else in the advice and help that it offers to employers and employees. I assure honourable Members that my Department will fully support those discussions in any way possible.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning (Ms S Ramsey): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement and for his commitment to finding a resolution to the dispute. I asked that the dispute be put back on the Committee’s agenda because I was concerned about the approach that was being taken by employers, which I did not think was an appropriate way to do business in 2008. Therefore, I welcome the news that there will be breathing space for further work. Have any sanctions been imposed, or disciplinary action been taken, against staff in further education colleges? Will the Minister provide a timetable for a resolution to the dispute?
The Minister for Employment and Learning: At this point in time, no action has been taken against staff. The letter stated that action would be taken, but I am not aware of any lecturer being subject to disciplinary action on the issue.
Given the imminent summer break, there was anxiety that individuals who are suspended at this stage would have no pay during the summer months and no solution until the autumn.
College employers and the unions decided to withdraw the letter that threatened to take action, and the ongoing low-level industrial action has been suspended. Furthermore, all the necessary information that has been requested of staff by the colleges will be provided, and the Labour Relations Agency will be asked to assist. Moreover, a three-month negotiating period will begin on 1 September 2008, which will provide an opportunity to consider the pay settlement for 2008-09. That settlement has not been considered during any previous agreements, and it must be addressed.
I pay tribute to Sir Joseph Pilling’s efforts. Unfortunately, his proposal was unacceptable to the trade unions, and several ballots — one of which was held approximately one week ago — rejected the proposal. The wage negotiations will focus on the 2008-09 pay deal and, of course, the overall situation must be resolved. Members will know that, had we been left to our own devices and had the public-sector pay restraint not existed, we could probably have settled the dispute for half of 1% additional in September 2007.
However, that is not the current situation, and it is important to support the negotiations fully and hope that they result in a positive outcome. The Department is involved only because of its obligation to enforce public-sector pay. Industrial relations issues are better dealt with by employers and employees; departmental involvement is not normally advisable.
I am glad that the employers and the unions are meeting; we have advocated that since the beginning of the dispute. I discussed that matter with those groups on 19 June and made it clear that I will not, for a third time, approach the Executive to suggest breaching pay policy; that will not provide a resolution, and, furthermore, it could jeopardise the Executive’s spending programmes.
I support the steps that the employers and unions are taking, and I hope that they are afforded the time and space necessary to resolve this long-running and damaging dispute.
Mr Newton: I welcome the Minister’s statement. The educational profession will, undoubtedly, breathe a huge sigh of relief at the developments. The Assembly welcomed the Minister’s initiative to appoint Sir Joseph Pilling to liaise, work and produce a report. I urge the Minister to be innovative in settling the holistic aspect of the dispute. It is important that we all —
Mr Speaker: The Member must ask a question.
Mr Newton: I do not have a question; I want to welcome the statement. The trade unions’ goodwill gesture, which the Minister mentioned, is welcome and must be built on. The Association of Northern Ireland Colleges and the trade unions should continue their engagement. This side of the House welcomes a resolution.
Mr B McCrea: I warmly welcome the Minister’s statement. It is important to realise that, when a difficult situation arises, everyone tries their level best to sort it out. The Minister has discussed this matter with his Executive colleagues — will he confirm to the House that he received the complete support of the Executive for his proposed way forward? What steps will he take to arrive at a satisfactory resolution of the dispute?
The Minister for Employment and Learning: I shall first deal with the points that were made by the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning, Mr Newton. It is my belief that the employers and the unions will get together with the Labour Relations Agency. As is normal, that agency will do its best to bridge the gaps that exist and help to facilitate an agreement. Flowing from that, it may be that suggestions will be put to the Department.
Mr Newton called on the Department to be innovative. The Department will have to see what proposals are put to it. I assure Mr Newton that the Department will do all that it can to resolve matters. The only reason that the Department has become involved is because of implications for public-sector pay policy.
I turn to the questions that were posed by the Member for Lagan Valley Mr Basil McCrea. I brought this matter to the attention of Executive colleagues on several occasions, because of the public-sector pay dimension. On at least two occasions, the Executive have taken the view that we cannot breach public-sector pay policy because of the repercussive effects on other budgetary issues in Northern Ireland. A clear Executive position was expressed on at least two occasions. I have little doubt that, had I raised the matter again, that position would have stayed the same. It is to be hoped that we can put that behind us and concentrate in the months ahead on finding a solution that will satisfy the lecturers’ needs.
I wish to put on record that those education workers are vital to our long-term economic development policy and to the implementation of a range of social and economic policies. I am sure that the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee will agree with that. We have placed a great deal of emphasis on essential skills, upgrading skills and addressing the needs of hard-to-reach clients. The lecturers have an important role to play as changes in policy for their sector take effect.
The days are gone when the colleges taught the courses that they decided to teach. It is now a demand-led service, which forms a vital part of our economic strategy. It is important that the lecturers be rewarded, motivated and valued. Sadly, we have been caught up in a national dispute that was not of our making. I hope that we can find a way through, because it is in everyone’s interests — particularly the students, who are the beneficiaries — that the colleges are able to provide the skills necessary to obtain good, rewarding jobs in future.
I assure Members that that aim will be at the forefront of my mind. However, in common with everyone else, we were put in this position by the Government’s pay policy. Will that change, or will it be possible for the Government to maintain their current pay policy? The Chancellor is trying hard, but the current rate of inflation will make it very hard to keep public-sector pay rises below a 2% ceiling. That is something that we will have to discuss on another occasion. Let us take what we have got, work with it, and try to deliver a solution.
Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome the agreement of the union and the employees not to continue the industrial action. The Minister is right: the further-education sector has gone through a great deal of change, and morale has been very low because of this long and damaging dispute. Is the Minister confident that, with the help of the Labour Relations Agency, the dispute will be resolved in the next few months and before the start of the new academic year in September?
The Minister for Employment and Learning: As the Member rightly said, the sector has witnessed many changes. In the past year, 16 colleges have been amalgamated to create six. Changes on that scale in any organisation produce anomalies and difficulties, and it would be foolish to deny that. There has been an impact on morale. To my knowledge, that group of workers has never been on strike before, although seven days of strike action were taken before devolution was restored. Those workers lost money as a result. Any dispute between an employer and its workforce is bound to have a negative impact on morale. The trouble is that such a negative impact can express itself through the organisation performing less well than we would like. That is always a risk.
The Member asked whether I am confident. As the Member knows well, there is no absolute guarantee of success, but I am as confident as I can be. The expertise and skills of the Labour Relations Agency, the fact that it is engaged in the work that it is there to do, and the fact that both sides have been willing to connect with it are all positive points. I am, therefore, confident that we can see the beginning of the end of that long-running dispute.
Stranmillis and St Mary’s University Colleges
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning (Ms S Ramsey): I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to delay the introduction of a new funding model for Stranmillis and St Mary’s University Colleges to allow sufficient time for the consideration of the future funding and educational options for the two institutions, in view of the Committee for Employment and Learning’s stakeholder review of teacher training.
Go raibh maith agat. At the outset, it is important to state that the Committee agreed to table the motion at its meeting on 4 June. However, it was divided. Eight Committee members were present, six of whom voted yes and two of whom voted no.
It is also important to state that the Committee’s problems and issues with the way in which the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) is reforming teacher education are entirely to do with the process, or rather the lack of process that has been followed to date. I am sure that all Committee members will have different views on the best way in which to structure teacher education.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
The problem is that the Committee has not had the opportunity to hear the range of arguments and information on the matter from key stakeholders. I venture that the Executive Committee have not heard the full range of issues and arguments either. That is why my Committee has formally launched a stakeholders’ review of teacher education, the objective of which is:
“To collate and consider the options and views of those involved in, and affected by, proposed changes to teacher education and to produce a report of recommendations to the Minister of Employment and Learning.”
The Committee will take its first formal evidence in that review when it hears from representatives of Queen’s University on Wednesday.
The review will not make any judgements on what the Minister should, or should not, do about future funding. The Committee simply asks for time to listen to and consider evidence from stakeholders. Today, we will hear many statistics about teachers’ difficulties in finding work. The fact is that many statistics on the issue exist, and they have not been fully aired and challenged. The Committee’s review will allow that process to happen. Statistics on teacher employment comprise only one element of the issue. We are talking about the future of two of our highest-quality third-level teaching institutions.
It is important that I outline the sequence of events that led the Committee to table the motion. The Minister asked for the opportunity to brief the Committee in closed session on his proposal to introduce a new funding model for the teacher-education colleges.
That meeting took place on 12 March 2008. The critical aspect of it was the Minister’s statement that, although a new method of funding for teacher-training colleges is needed, he is open-minded about future options. Importantly, the Minister also asked that the Committee be involved and that it assist in processing policy options. The Committee is now striving to do that.
The Committee took evidence from representatives of both Stranmillis and St Mary’s University Colleges on 16 April 2008. During that meeting, the Committee learned how far the proposals for changes to the structures of funding had advanced. The proposed merger of Stranmillis University College with Queen’s University was also raised at that meeting. Members of the Committee were told that there would be sufficient time for full consideration of the relevant options. However, the chairman of the board of governors of Stranmillis University College appeared on news bulletins the next evening stating that the merger was effectively a done deal.
Rarely have I encountered such anger in a Statutory Committee of the Assembly as I did regarding the manner in which the process has been handled. The Committee learned that not even the Minister had been made aware of the detailed level of negotiations that had taken place between the two institutions. Indeed, the Minister forwarded to the Committee a copy of his correspondence with the chairman of the board of governors of Stranmillis University College. In that correspondence, the Minister reminded the chairman that due process must be followed if the merger is to be successful. There has even been confusion about the precise nature of the legislative vehicle that the Department will have to introduce to facilitate that merger. Surely the fact that the Minister was kept in the dark proves that the reform process has moved too quickly without due process being followed and without recognition of the democratic structures and political institutions.
Teacher education has been on the policy agenda for many years. Importantly, although policy work was conducted and options were considered during direct rule, no direct rule Minister made any difficult decisions. The mechanisms that allow for full consideration and local accountability are now in place. However, the pace of reform is not allowing for adequate consultation and scrutiny.
It is important to note some of the issues that were raised in the key policy reviews that have been conducted in the past few years. The Taylor and Usher Report of 2004, ‘Aspects of Initial Teacher Education in Northern Ireland’, examined issues such as diversification, population projections, and costs. Colleges were encouraged to diversify, and, indeed, Stranmillis University College, with its early childhood studies, and St Mary’s University College, with its liberal arts degree, have both developed successful courses in that regard. Those two courses fit perfectly with tackling social disadvantage, as outlined in the Programme for Government. However, it appears that both colleges are being penalised for diversifying.
Taylor and Usher also discussed improving the ratios of teachers to pupils and the potential for specialised educational delivery, such as improving the provision of education for children with autism. The Osler Report of 2005 also assessed the potential for teacher growth areas in subjects such as citizenship and modern languages. Indeed, the Minister has indicated that he wishes to explore building the capacity of the colleges in areas such as continuous professional development.
Since devolution, the Committee has worked with a range of stakeholders from the field of education and training. Committee members have made it clear that they want local proven capacity and capability to be protected. The Committee does not want capacity to be reduced, only to be required at a later date. There is evidence of such a situation having arisen in Dublin, when a decision was made some time ago to close and sell off a college. It is very difficult — if not impossible — to rebuild quality capacity after it has been removed.
The motion aims to allow the necessary time to be given for the full consideration of those topics and to allow the Committee to assist the Minister with reform. Taylor and Usher also recognised the difficulties of producing comparative costs for each teacher. That is the reason that further time must be allowed for a full analysis of the financial statistics that are often quoted in this policy debate.
As I mentioned, the Committee does not have hard-and-fast views on what constitutes the best teacher-education model for the future. I stress that the Committee wants value for money to be delivered in this policy area. Given the failure under direct rule to deal with teacher education, the Committee asks simply for due process to be facilitated in the democratic institutions.
A delay in the funding model will not increase public expenditure. Rather, it will allow both institutions to operate as they have been in recent years; that is, as distinctive, high-quality institutions that produce excellent teachers for our education system and that add significantly to the local communities in which they operate.
I look forward to the Minister’s response to the debate because I know that he has been involved in intensive negotiations on the matter. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mr Newton: This is an important motion. I am a member of the Committee for Employment and Learning, and, as the Chairperson said, the future funding and educational options for Stranmillis and St Mary’s have come before the Committee and caused concern across the political make-up of the Committee.
Northern Ireland is approaching a time when extensive discussions on the matter are required and when decisions must be made in the best interests of the children, the provision and professionalism of teacher education and the economy. I am sure that all Members are concerned that we achieve the highest standard of education for all children and young people, and that the education and levels of motivation to achieve their full potential and ensure a bright future are the foundation stones on which educational provision will be built.
Everyone knows about the demographic trends and the influence that those trends will have on the future provision of teacher education. The population of school-age children will decline rapidly in the coming years. In that context, we have to implement a demand-led strategy at the same time as ensuring that the available provision is of the highest quality and one that will produce teachers with excellent qualifications, good teaching practice experience and bright career prospects.
So often, we have encouraged intelligent and well-qualified A-level students who have gone into the teaching profession, yet the potential for them to secure a career is diminished by the over-provision from the teacher-training colleges, which are not aligned to the demographic trends.
The projected need for teacher numbers will fall. That is becoming increasingly evident, and it will impact on the primary sector and lead into the second-tier provision. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to argue for the full retention of the status quo. In determining future policy, synergy must be identified between the need for a professionally equipped teacher supply and a need to address the scale and costs of future provisions.
The Assembly’s thinking should be driven by the efficient and effective use of the public’s money. It is not an option to merely do nothing on the matter, and the Committee for Employment and Learning has already received evidence from Stranmillis and St Mary’s. In both cases, their concern was evident, although Committee members have been concerned about the process entered into between Stranmillis and Queen’s University regarding a potential merger. That has already been mentioned by the Committee Chairperson. A few eyebrows were raised on that issue — especially since the Minister was unaware of the merger dinner that was held to commemorate the done deal and the fact that senior civil servants were not involved in the process. That is a totally unacceptable position.
The Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning are carrying out a review of teacher education. In a reply to a question for written answer — AQW 6038/08 — from my colleague Mr Ross on the review of education, the Minister of Education said that the review was almost complete and that she and Sir Reg Empey, the Minister for Employment and Learning, will consider carefully the way forward on all aspects of teacher education in the coming months. They will consider matters such as the introduction of a bursary scheme to support teachers continuing professional development and the way forward on all phases of teacher education — initial teacher education; induction, early and continuing professional development, and so on.
There is a need to look at the oversupply of teachers and to ensure that teacher education is of the highest quality and can be benchmarked favourably against the standards of excellence anywhere in the world and that any future system will enjoy the confidence of the teaching profession throughout Northern Ireland.
Mr B McCrea: I oppose the motion, mindful of the good intentions of my colleagues on the Committee for Employment and Learning. The motion fails to recognise the urgent need for a new funding model for Stranmillis and St Mary’s University Colleges, and it fails to recognise the imperative need for the Minister for Employment and Learning to act now to provide a sustainable funding arrangement for teacher education in Northern Ireland.
Year on year, the Minister of Education has repeatedly reduced the number of teachers required. The cumulative effect of that has obvious implications for our teacher training colleges. The Minister for Employment and Learning must respond to the demand figures produced by the Department of Education. That reduced demand has revealed a further problem — the funding formula appears to give more money to colleges for producing fewer teachers. That unsustainable position must be addressed. Some people feared that the new funding formula would result in the closure of one, or both, of those university colleges; some felt that that was a long-term ambition of the establishment. To my knowledge, that is not the intention of the Department.
There are prolonged and ongoing difficulties in resolving the education debate, and I can understand why some Members might be concerned that we now enter a similar situation. However, those Members need not be concerned. I hope that the Minister for Employment and Learning will take a somewhat different approach to that taken by the Education Minister, seeking to engage, inform and build consensus on a cross-cutting and important issue.
Almost every week, we hear from the Minister of Education that we must accept change. The UUP accepts the need for change — change is all around us and we are all the better for it. However, change does not take place in a vacuum, it seldom goes unchallenged, and it usually has unforeseen side effects. Those who are being asked to make changes can be sure of one thing: it will not be easy. Those involved are not sure whether those changes will be of any benefit to them. It is important that we explain to those affected why change is necessary. We must sell the benefits of change and we must take time to understand and address the concerns of everyone who might be affected.
Through discussions with stakeholders, I have sought to understand the situation as best I can. I was pleased to discuss matters with St Mary’s about its liberal arts course — and I confess that that was, beforehand, something of a mystery to me. I was pleased to learn about the important work that colleges do in encouraging participation, and I have been made aware of those colleges’ fears regarding the funding formula. However, I understand — and the Committee Chair did mention it — that the Minister, the colleges and the Departments have had positive and constructive discussions and perhaps the Minister will be in a position to tell us more.
It is worth mentioning for the record that the Minister of Education is responsible for policy in this matter. It is she who sets the pupil:teacher ratios, the curriculum, and the rationalisation of the school estates. Furthermore, over recent years, she has forecast a reduction in the number of teachers required. We must address that and the 50,000 empty desks.
Although there are shortages in STEM-based subjects — and perhaps even in some languages — which will allow a modest increase in initial teacher education, the overriding concern is the need to develop some form of activity that will maintain the status of university colleges as teacher-training colleges. Although diversification subjects are useful as part of the solution, they do have limitations. One could anticipate the use of professional development courses, but that is in the gift of the Department of Education.
When it comes to a situation of this sensitivity, I can think of no better person than the Minister for Employment and Learning to handle it. I believe that he will find a way forward for the betterment of all concerned.
The UUP has heard the change of beat in the education debate and looks forward to playing its constructive part in a four-party mandatory coalition.
Mr Attwood: I acknowledge that the issue has been very healthy for the Committee. It is a good example — if not one of the best examples since the Assembly was set up — of a Committee punching at its weight and fulfilling its statutory responsibilities of oversight and calling a Minister to account. The Assembly can learn something, generally, by looking at how the Committee has handled the matter, even though it has created some tensions, as one can hear in the background.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say because I want to hear that there has been some change in student numbers and in funding for Stranmillis University College and St Mary’s University College. However, although there may or may not be adjustments in those two matters, I want to hear the Minister addressing some of the four fundamentals that lie behind the motion and the issue.
The first fundamental is the future of teacher training. It is not a full argument for Basil McCrea to say that numbers of students in teacher training are reducing, and that the Department of Education has been responsible for that. The full picture is that for the past five years, the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Education have been conducting a review of the future of teacher training, and that review has not concluded.
Is it fair to teacher training in the North, and to Stranmillis University College and St Mary’s University College in particular, that five years after a review commenced, it has not concluded? Earlier this year, when one of the colleges involved sent a submission to the Department, that submission was not even acknowledged. Is it appropriate, or fair, for the Minister to announce a change in the student funding formula earlier this year when there had not been any announcements about the overall review of teacher training? That is the key issue. Those colleges have a big role to play in the future of teacher training, especially if their responsibilities are to include addressing all the needs of students and pupils in the North. That is a fundamental issue that must be addressed by the motion.
Secondly, St Mary’s University College is one of the most successful teacher training and liberal arts institutions in Northern Ireland. That is not just speculation from a Member for the West Belfast constituency; it is hard fact. Why is it that a college such as St Mary’s University College, which is second in attracting students from the lowest economic backgrounds in Northern Ireland and Britain, has had questions raised about its viability? Why is it that a college for which students need more points for entry than are required for the University of Ulster, and which is not far behind the level of points required for entry to Queen’s University, is not being promoted, protected and valued?
Why is a college that has a 91% student satisfaction rate — the highest in the North — having any issue raised about its future? The truth is that St Mary’s University College is a model that should be protected and enhanced in the future — not have questions asked about its viability now and in coming years. That is the second fundamental issue that the Minister must address. A college with that profile and success should be protected in the future, rather than have further question marks over it.
Thirdly, there is the West Belfast issue. The Minister knows from his previous ministerial experience, when he received the West Belfast Task Force report, how important a college like St Mary’s University College is to the economic community and for providing access to education for people in that constituency. In the future review, both by the Department and by the Committee, I want that to be centre stage. How does one protect such a college, given its importance to the constituency of West Belfast?
My final point is this: senior people who are involved in the issue told me that the original proposals from the Department were intended to provoke a situation and that the Department did not want to have a half-baked mini-university on the Falls Road. That is not a good attitude to St Mary’s University College or teacher training or Stranmillis. That has to change.
Ms Lo: We are all waiting for the Department of Education and DEL’s review of education. It is frustrating that it has taken so long for that review to be published. The Taylor report of 2004 and the Osler review of 2005 identified the challenges facing initial teacher education (ITE): demographic changes are leading to declining demand for, and overprovision of, teachers. Every Member has heard complaints from constituents that newly qualified teachers are unable to secure teaching jobs and that some are unemployed and forced to apply for jobseeker’s allowance. It is very demoralising for a young person who has been through three or four years of higher education to be unable to get a job.
The new funding model has obviously put a lot of pressure on the two colleges. It is bound to have had some impact on the decision by Stranmillis University College to rush to agree to the proposed merger. Senior teaching staff in Stranmillis, who are my South Belfast constituents, told me that they heard all the rumours about the proposed merger, but no one told them officially and they first heard the decision announced on the radio. There was a lack of consultation with staff, the Department and the Committee.
The Alliance Party wants to see a wider debate and an examination of overall provision of ITE in Northern Ireland. At present, five institutions provide 590 student places — that is only the size of a primary school. There must be duplication of resources in that arrangement, and it is unsustainable. There are many changes —
Mr B McCrea: Does the Member suggest a merger of the two colleges?
Ms Lo: The Taylor report provides for a fourth option: a fully integrated or federated structure, with overarching responsibility for all the providers of ITE.
We are going through many changes. There is widespread political consensus in Northern Ireland that there must be change, and change in the transfer procedure is proceeding. We need to take a wider view. We have the opportunity to go further and include in the debate all the institutions, together with the Departments, and bring together all the bodies to provide a single structure so that there is more efficiency and integrated education.
However, as the Taylor report suggests, we must be determined to break down barriers and prejudices in Northern Ireland, so that we can all work together, teach our children together and embrace a better and shared future.
Mr Ross: I consider that the Committee’s approach is sensible. It will ensure that a comprehensive review of teacher-training models will be conducted, and how that will impact on St Mary’s and Stranmillis.
As my colleague Mr Newton stated, decisions must be taken. It is a shame that the review is taking so long.
There is little doubt that teacher training in Northern Ireland must be reformed. According to a written answer to me from the Minister of Education, in the region of 7,000 young teachers cannot find a job in Northern Ireland. Each year, we train young people — at a significant cost — to be teachers. However, if those young people want to follow a career in that profession, they must travel to England, Scotland or Wales to find positions.
There is an article in today’s ‘Irish News’ about the crisis facing newly qualified teachers. The article states:
“Fewer than 40 of 800 graduate teachers got jobs in Catholic schools last year … Figures show that a relatively small number of graduates secured employment in the Catholic sector and most were only awarded temporary contracts.”
It goes on to state:
“Just 38 of these gained employment in Catholic schools — 18 securing full-time posts and 20 being called in to cover maternity leave or secondments.”
The article continues:
“Of the 229 new jobs in primary schools last year only 12 were given to newly qualified staff.”
Despite those figures, the Minister of Education insists that there is no requirement to decrease the number of teachers who are trained at St Mary’s. In fact, she recently said that additional teacher-training places were required there. Furthermore, the Minister is unwilling to introduce an induction year, which would allow these young teachers to gain experience in a teaching post before applying for full-time positions.
We cannot continue to train so many young people for a profession in which they have no prospect of getting a job. Therefore, reform of teacher training is necessary. However, there are concerns about the manner in which that process of reform is being conducted — in particular the way in which the Stranmillis and Queen’s University merger has come about.
As the Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning said in proposing the motion, both Stranmillis and St Mary’s are widely recognised as first-class teacher-training institutions. Both institutions are very important to the areas in which they are situated, and both have a distinctive ethos. Although a merger of Queen’s University and Stranmillis may be in the best interest of the long-term future of Stranmillis University College, all members of the Committee have raised questions and concerns about how the merger process was conducted.
The Minister briefed the Committee in closed session on the future of teacher training in Northern Ireland on 12 March. At that stage, the Committee was asked to become involved in the process. On 16 April, representatives from Stranmillis and St Mary’s presented evidence to the Committee.
During that evidence session, the Committee learned of the impact of proposed changes, in particular the advanced nature of a possible merger of Queen’s University and Stranmillis. After questioning from my colleague Mr Spratt and, I believe, Mr Attwood, the chairman of Stranmillis University College’s board of governors — Mr Steven Costello — left the Committee in little doubt that the decision to merge had already been taken at a high level by the two institutions. Indeed, that was confirmed the following evening when Mr Costello announced that the merger was to proceed.
A significant step such as that requires detailed discussion, not least on the legal framework in which the merger would be conducted under the Colleges of Education Order (Northern Ireland) 2005. However, the Minister for Employment and Learning stated that he was unaware of the merger, reiterating that such a merger would require legislation in this House, and that there was no done deal.
However, that was not the impression given by Mr Costello, who is either certain that the merger will go ahead or naive in not recognising the legislative process required before such a merger could proceed. Indeed, not only had meetings taken place between officials from the Department and the institutions — meetings between the two institutions had been taking place for some time — but, as Mr Newton said, a dinner took place on 26 May to celebrate the merger.
I have already stated that a merger may be the best option. However, there are genuine concerns over the impact on the ethos of Stranmillis University College, given the secular ethos of Queen’s University. There are also concerns about assets and staffing issues. Moreover, the Department, the Minister and the Committee have yet to see the business case for the merger, and they have received no assurance that the ethos of Stranmillis University College will be protected — a point that I have raised with the Minister before in the House.
Mr Attwood raised issues that concern St Mary’s, such as projected student numbers, required teachers and the impact that a revised funding model will have on that institution. Those concerns must also be addressed.
The Committee has therefore decided that it should review the merger and discuss options with stakeholders and student bodies. That is a good approach to take. Ultimately, the Minister’s decision may prove to be the correct one. However, we must ensure that the process adopted is the right one and that we achieve the right outcome for children, teachers and students, and for educational training in Northern Ireland.
Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I declare an interest as a former resident of the parishes surrounding St Mary’s and Stranmillis.
Therefore, I have a keen interest in the motion. I am a member of the Committee and I commend the other members, and the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson, for proposing this motion.
All joking aside, and thinking particularly of St Mary’s, where I spent more time than at Stranmillis, the quality of teacher training at both institutions has been repeatedly mentioned in Committee and in the House. Members have been granted power over the future, and it would be unacceptable for us to lose St Mary’s, which, as its mission statement makes clear, is dedicated to Catholic teacher training.
Mr Ross has mentioned the ethos of Stranmillis, and the threat faced by that college. I do not want either college to lose its ethos. I welcome the fact that discussions are ongoing but, to repeat what has been said earlier, there are difficulties with that process.
When I first heard about the proposals I was concerned that there was a done deal, and I was worried about what would happen to St Mary’s. There is a lot of talk about the number of teachers needed to meet the requirements of the pupil population. Nobody wants graduates to be unemployed. However, it is possible to address that issue.
In my time in both colleges, I had uniquely valuable, college-specific experiences. Therefore, the ethos of each college is tied into its role, whether the institution is Catholic, non-denominational or controlled. We must protect the particular culture, ethos and good quality training that they provide.
I am open to correction on the figure, but ‘The Irish News’ has been referred to, and I see that Stranmillis is funding £400 of the £440 it costs for distance learning at the University of Glasgow in the certificate in religious education that St Mary’s provides. The religious education certificate enables Stranmillis graduates to teach in Catholic schools.
It is important that Members consider all the issues. The Minister for Employment and Learning recently attended a meeting of the Committee, during which the Chairperson questioned him about the delay in the funding model. I welcome the fact that the Minister appeared to have his ears open, and I think that he will be reasonable. The debate, therefore, is welcome. I hope that all the issues can be satisfactorily resolved. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr McClarty: The five teacher-training providers in Northern Ireland offer an outstanding service, which produces particularly high-quality teachers of whom we should all be proud. In comparison to other parts of the United Kingdom, we generate teachers who are extremely well-respected and who are crucial to our society and to our economy.
Our main priority should be to ensure that the high standards in all our teacher-training facilities are maintained and, indeed, built on. Having worked with my colleagues on the Committee for Employment and Learning and with the Minister, I know that, although some differences exist, our shared aim is to ensure the maintenance of those high standards.
As has been mentioned already, initial teacher training is the responsibility of the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Education. DEL is responsible for the funding and administration of teacher-training institutions, and the Department of Education is responsible for the determination of student-intake numbers. Although high standards are being produced, an anomaly currently exists in the way in which teacher training in our two university colleges — St Mary’s and Stranmillis — is funded.
The current funding model is based on a block-grant allocation, which is uplifted annually for inflation, with a deduction for student fees then applied to it. However, that model results in a situation whereby a reduction in student intake can result in an institution being allocated more of the block grant. The fewer the students, the more central funds are made available to an institution. That is, surely, not a defensible practice at a time when we are so concerned about increasing efficiency. Although I recognise the concerns of my colleagues on the Committee, the Ulster Unionist Party cannot support the motion.
In light of that anomaly, the Minister and his departmental officials have developed a revised teacher-demand-based funding methodology, which is based on the practice in similar institutions in England. The desirability of change is exemplified by the reducing intake numbers and the number of trained teachers currently seeking employment. As we have already heard, the number of teachers on the Northern Ireland substitute-teacher register is in the region of 7,000. The 2006 school census confirms that the school population is set to decline by 13,109 pupils by the academic year 2011-12, and there are 50,000 empty school desks. Those are compelling reasons why change is necessary.
If we do not change the funding model and respond to the need to reduce student numbers, we will be failing the taxpayer as well as new teachers, who will not be able to find a job. Failing to change could cost the Department for Employment and Learning millions of pounds every year and add to the already saturated teaching sector.
Diversification in the colleges has been discussed today. That policy served a valuable purpose when it was introduced in 1997, and it still does today. However, it would fundamentally change the character and ethos of both Stranmillis and St Mary’s if we continue to allow them to increase their allocation of diversified places by the number of initial teacher-education places that are cut. Questions would be asked about the duplication of opportunities that are available elsewhere in higher education in Northern Ireland, and the specialised nature and high standards of the colleges could be jeopardised.
Changes to the funding and diversification models should guarantee the colleges’ futures rather than jeopardise them. The Minister seeks to introduce a fit-for-purpose model that is transparent, open, and understood by all, and that guarantees the best use of public money while respecting both institutions’ ethos.
Although it is correct to scrutinise the Minister on this crucial issue, we should also recognise that the Minister has informed the Committee, his Executive colleagues, and the university colleges of his plans throughout the entire process. I am sure that he will continue to work with the Committee and to respect its input and any report that it produces. However, passing the motion would hurt the colleges. Change is needed — we cannot, and should not, shy away from that necessity. I oppose the motion.
Mr K Robinson: I declare an interest as a former student of Stranmillis University College, many years ago.
I was also involved in initial teacher interviews. I agree with my colleagues who spoke about the quality of students who entered the college and their standing — once they have completed their course — as being among the best prepared teachers in the United Kingdom.
Although I recognise Members’ concerns, the funding model for Stranmillis and St Mary’s is neither sustainable nor defensible. Rather than being based on student numbers, the recurrent grant allocation of the colleges is calculated by uplifting the previous year’s gross estimated requirement by the same percentage as that used for the universities with the student income fee deducted. Therefore, when there are fewer students, less fee income is deducted and the Department provides more central funds to the colleges — the fewer the students, the more the Department and the taxpayer are forced to pay, which is an indefensible position.
As several Members have mentioned, there is an over-provision of teachers — more than 7,000 teachers are seeking employment through the Northern Ireland substitute-teacher register, 30% of whom are under 30. No profession is sustainable in the long run without new blood, so that must be challenged. Therefore, the Department of Education is expected to reduce the student intake numbers incrementally over the next five years.
Continuing with the current funding model under those circumstances would potentially cost the Department for Employment and Learning millions of pounds. At a time when we have a Budget that somewhat relies on efficiency savings for feasibility, it could be considered negligent not to make a change. Equally, not reducing teacher numbers would be detrimental to those teachers who cannot find jobs, and to any students who enter the system. That could also add to the recognised problem of the brain drain from Northern Ireland.
It is part of the Minister for Employment and Learning’s role to fit together the higher-education sector, the employment sector and the economy. In this instance, the Minister of Education, in her role of setting intake levels, must recognise those departmental and Executive goals.
Much has been made of diversification. Since 2005, it has become the practice for both colleges to seek approval to increase their allocation of diversified places by the number of initial teacher-education places that have been cut. With a speculated reduction in the number of initial teacher-education places, there could be a fundamental transformation of teacher-training colleges in Northern Ireland.
It is of paramount importance that teacher training be the main priority of colleges and that their expertise in those areas, which has been built up over generations, be maintained. Therefore, the Minister for Employment and Learning was correct to suggest a cap on the number of diversified places.
Some of the Members who spoke in the debate referred to the ethos of the two colleges, which is central to the role of both. Much understanding has gone into the fact that diversification would help colleges to address problems that they were suffering from at that level. However, we must look towards the future. If diversification continues, it must be strictly controlled or we shall risk tipping the balance in a direction that none of us wants.
Change is required — the new funding model will make the colleges sustainable in the long term, which is vital for our whole society. The new model will be open and transparent. Further diversification of the colleges would undermine their expert role as teacher-training colleges, and will raise questions about duplication in other areas of higher education, which should not escape scrutiny. Such scrutiny should not be focused on only the two colleges, because there are other institutions that also deal with teacher training.
The Minister respects, and will try to guarantee, the ethos of both colleges — it is important to say “both colleges”. Any amalgamation between Stranmillis and Queen’s University will require legislation, which will have to be scrutinised by the Committee for Employment and Learning and the Assembly. Therefore, in its present form, the motion should be opposed.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Education (Mr Storey): As the Chairperson of the Committee for Education, I wish to raise an important issue that relates to the debate, but not directly to the issue of the new funding model. As part of the Committee’s scrutiny of the draft Budget proposals, the Committee examined the cost of employing newly qualified teachers to cover part of the planning, preparation and assessment time of teaching principals, and of introducing a guaranteed induction year for newly qualified teachers, as is the case in Scotland.
At that time, the Committee heard about the numbers of qualified teachers who were not employed in the teaching profession, as has already been mentioned. I note that an article in today’s ‘Irish News’ highlights the fact that fewer than 40 of 800 graduate teachers secured jobs in maintained schools last year, which the newspaper describes as “the crisis facing young teachers”.
The Committee specifically recommended to the Minister of Education that active consideration should be given to using newly qualified teachers — at a cost of approximately £24,500 — as opposed to using experienced teachers as substitutes, at an approximate cost of £42,000.
The Committee welcomed the allocation of some £12 million in the current Budget period to specifically help primary-school teaching principals, but very much regrets that measures suggested to address the employment of newly qualified teachers have not, to date, been prioritised in the Education budget, and have not been progressed.
I assure Members that, as part of its scrutiny role, the Committee for Education will continue to raise this issue with the Minister.
Mr Beggs: To do nothing about the current teacher-training situation is not an option. Over recent years, there has been an oversupply of teachers in comparison to the vacancies that exist. Thousands of newly qualified teachers are seeking employment in the teaching profession. The current system is not good for students who wish to become teachers and it is wasteful of our limited resources.
Changes have occurred, and there has been a gradual reduction in the number of teacher vacancies at our colleges. However, I recently learned of a situation in which there were 55 applications for one teacher vacancy. That is a reality that does not seem to have been addressed. Indeed, the Department and the colleges are lagging behind the job opportunities, because there is still a significant oversupply of teachers. Therefore, changes are required.
I understand that there are likely to be even fewer teaching vacancies in future because it is less likely that existing teachers will be granted early retirement packages. I draw Members’ attention to an answer to a recent question that was posed to the Minister of Education in which she acknowledged that 440 teachers who took early retirement packages are currently being re-employed in primary schools as substitute teachers. That means that those teachers were effectively being paid twice from public funds: they received a retirement package, and were then paid a second time. That also means that there are fewer job opportunities for young teachers who are seeking to get on a career path.
The motion calls for a delay in the introduction of a new funding model. Sometimes, a delay is used as a mechanism to stop change. If that is the aim of the motion, I oppose it, because change is required.
As other Members indicated, the current funding arrangement is not viable. It is ridiculous that more public money should go into teacher colleges for producing fewer teachers. What part of the private sector, or, for that matter, what other part of the public sector would agree to such funding arrangements? There is huge pressure on the public purse, and we must ensure that we get value for money from our limited funds. Therefore, it is right that changes to the funding package occur.
An intermediate stage to allow the colleges to readjust to the package should be considered. However, fundamental changes to the outdated and outmoded funding arrangements must occur.
Other Members have drawn attention to the article on the front page of today’s ‘Irish News’ about the fact that fewer than 40 of the 800 graduate teachers produced last year have secured employment in the maintained sector. In fact, only 18 graduates gained full-time employment; a further 20 were employed to cover leave. That is a drastic situation, which must be addressed.
Should such a teaching mechanism be in place? Speaking in a personal capacity: why must trainee teachers be taught separately? Why can there not be an arrangement whereby trainee teachers are taught together, but are provided with the options and modules that are required by their particular educational sectors. Why can trainees who require a certificate of religious education not be provided with that option? It is good practice for all teachers to be taught together under one system. Ultimately, if we want children to be taught, to live, to play, and to work together, teachers should also be taught under one system.
There are sound economic reasons for opposing the motion. In the long term, to continue with this outmoded system is not in the best interests of the public purse, students, and the colleges. I oppose the motion.
The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): In the time that is available, I will do my best to address the many issues that have been raised.
I welcome the opportunity to address the motion, and I thank the Members who contributed to the debate. I also thank the Committee for Employment and Learning for its constructive approach to this important issue.
During his contribution, Mr Attwood said that he felt that the Committee was punching above its weight, and that it was doing its job in holding me to account. I strongly support that. I remind him that, during the 1998 negotiations, I was involved in designing the Committee system, which I support fully. I strongly believe in the Committee system. Indeed, had my party had its way, there would have been no Ministers — only Committees and Chairpersons. However, during the negotiations, it was clear that Mr Attwood’s party was keen to appoint Ministers. He may not be particularly keen on the fact that his party has ended up with only one Minister, but that is the way the negotiations worked out.
I want to be clear: my first and fundamental priority is to ensure that initial teacher education in Northern Ireland continues to be of the highest quality. That is where everything starts, and we should remain focused on that. The calibre of our teaching workforce is well known and it makes an immense contribution to society and to the economy. Nevertheless, we are faced with a situation whereby supply outstrips demand, and many highly committed newly qualified teachers are unable to find employment in their chosen career. Throughout the debate, we heard numerous Members draw our attention to that.
Results from the ‘Destination of Leavers from Higher Education’ survey show that 79% of students qualifying in teacher education in 2005-06 were employed in the teaching profession six months after qualifying. However, of that 79%, only 20% held a permanent contract. Members made reference to the number of empty desks and substitute teachers in schools. The Chairperson of the Education Committee commented on that matter. There is an issue about who takes those posts, and the Department is cognisant of that. The Assembly can certainly work on that issue, which will help. We, as an Assembly, must pursue that.
The new pension arrangements, to which reference has been made on numerous occasions, could result in up to approximately 400 fewer places per annum being available. That is big issue, which we must address.
There are five providers of initial teacher education: the colleges, the two universities, and the Open University, which provides a small number of flexible places. Members are aware of the breakdown of numbers between the Department of Education and my Department on that matter. The Department of Education has consistently reduced those numbers, and we know that that is anticipated to continue for the next number of years.
I recently met representatives of the senior management of both colleges, and those meetings went extremely well. I am pleased to tell the House that I had discussions with the Education Minister and that we reached agreement on the number of initial teacher-education students for the forthcoming year. That is a policy decision taken by the Minister of Education — my task is to provide the funding and administration — to improve the situation in which we find ourselves. Nevertheless, based on enrolment figures supplied by the colleges, and intake figures supplied by the Department, initial teacher-education student numbers for the forthcoming academic year will decrease marginally compared with the 2007-08 figures.
While diversification by the university colleges into other areas of provision may appear to provide a simple solution, that is not always the case. In 1998, following a report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO), the colleges were allowed to diversify, to a controlled extent, into non-teacher-education provision. Each college was given an allocation of 200 places, which were filled between 1999 and 2001. The diversification provided an opportunity to reduce costs; it was driven by trying to keep the cost base down. However, the audit report recommended that diversification should take place only in areas related to teacher education. Currently, colleges are operating at diversification levels of just over 30%.
Over recent years, reducing teacher-education intakes also highlighted the fundamental deficiency in the historic approach that was used to fund the colleges. Members have clearly articulated the difficulties that we face. The model seems to indicate that the fewer students there are, the more money the Department will provide. With the best will in the world, that is a model that no one in this House could defend and the general public would find hard to understand.
I listened very carefully, however, to members of the Committee who are concerned about “viability” — a word used by Committee members and a number of other Members. That is a matter for the Committee, but it is my view that postponing or delaying the introduction of a new funding model will add to the uncertainties, which will continue. People will wonder what will happen next year, and they will wonder when the new model will be introduced. However, I believe that we have a solution that will provide stability for the period ahead and still meet the Department’s ambitions to move to a new funding model.
Because there will be a period of change, I believe that we can justify a conversion arrangement in which resources are made available to the colleges to help them bridge the gap. Initially, I anticipated that that would be available to the colleges in 2008-09. However, after representations and discussions with the colleges, I believe that it is more appropriate to extend that into 2009-2010, in order to provide a two-year period for the colleges to work with us and the Minister of Education, and to deal with the options that are open to them.
For the next two years, that arrangement — combined with other matters that I will mention with regard to numbers — will provide the colleges with a stable platform to work out a way forward. I hear the Committee’s anger about the announcement by Stranmillis University College, but the danger is that two issues are being confused. I have to wait and see what the business case is for Stranmillis before the Department can sign off on it. It has then to go through the legislative process.
A number of Members talked about the celebratory dinner. Last week, I met Sir David Fell — the chairman of the senate at Queen’s University Belfast — and Mr Costello in my office. I asked specific questions about that matter, and I received all of the paperwork. Previously, I had been furnished with some of it, as were other Members, but the initial letter was not presented until then. I was assured that the dinner was not a celebratory event; rather it was an event that brought together all those who would be involved in the arrangements and discussions for reviewing how the proposed merger might work.
I reiterated, ad nauseam, the concern that had been expressed and the issues about staffing. They have agreed to set up a communication network with the Department, and I have also urged them to engage significantly with the staff to ensure that anxieties are allayed. Nevertheless, in order to give the colleges space, I have proposed that conversion funding be made available for the next two years.
I had a good meeting with representatives from St Mary’s University College last week. The colleges and the Department now have a clear vision of the way forward, which will be to concentrate on teacher education. We have asked, and the Minister of Education has agreed, to consider the issue of early development, and continuous professional development, and find out whether it is possible for that workload to be allocated to those colleges in order to bring in additional work that is related to teaching. The Minister of Education has agreed to consider that issue urgently and, if that can be achieved, we would be moving in the right direction. St Mary’s University College made it clear that it is keen to pursue such additional work, and that also goes for Stranmillis.
As regards a dispute over the number of diversified students, the Department set a target of 260 in a letter to the colleges in March. The colleges argued that that was misleading, because if they go by the correspondence from last summer, they should have been able to recruit more diversified students in the coming year. I did not want to get into an argy-bargy over letters and who said what. I decided that, in order to move matters forward and to give the colleges the breathing space that they need, the current number of diversified students — which I believe is 286 — will apply for next year as well as this year. The net effect will be that the colleges will have extra time and space to enable them to work with the Department over the next year to settle the matter and find a clear way forward. The colleges have accepted that, and they recognise that their concerns, and the concerns expressed by the Committee on several occasions, are being met.
Mr Attwood referred to the significance of the college to West Belfast. He does not need to tell me about that, because I accept the situation fully. However, I was concerned when Mrs McGill spoke about losing the college. I want to make it absolutely clear that I have no intention of closing either of the colleges as venues for initial teacher education; that is not required. Northern Ireland is not about to become an ethos-free zone. Parental choice is an issue, and that cannot be ignored.
I cannot tell what the future may bring, but I understand fully that there was an unfortunate interface between higher and further education in the West Belfast constituency that has left a sour taste. St Mary’s University College has enormous potential. However, if both colleges cease to become primarily initial teacher-education institutions, as some of my colleagues have suggested, the focus inevitably shifts, and that brings uncertainty into the picture. Other universities may expand their campuses in the Belfast area, and that may bring a suite of courses within walking distance of north and west Belfast, especially if the University of Ulster were to expand its site at York Street. That will put a college that depends on one humanities degree at great risk.
The future for those colleges is clear; they will continue to do what they do best by educating teachers. Research must be carried out to determine how to introduce continuous professional development, and conversion funding should be extended for a second year to achieve that. This year, in accordance with the agreement I reached with the Minister of Education and the understandings we reached on diversified places, the colleges should be given the breathing space that the Committee members are keen to provide and for which I accept that there is a requirement.
That will allow the Department to get on with solving the problems that have been mentioned, such as the oversupply of teachers. However, we must also bear in mind that, because of the new economic circumstances, we must improve the continuous professional development of teachers. Additional work is required to achieve that. It is not a matter simply of shifting the existing workload but of expanding continuous professional development and introducing early development. The issue of induction, to which the Chairperson of the Committee for Education referred, is critical.
I say to the Committee that a requirement to retain the existing funding model would be a constraint and would increase uncertainty. My Department and the Department of Education have gone as far as they reasonably can to meet the genuine concerns that the Committee expressed.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank all those who stayed to listen and take part in the debate. Members who do not sit on the Committee for Employment and Learning contributed also, which demonstrates the wider interest in the issue and makes the debate worthwhile. I thank the Committee staff for their work over the past couple of weeks: it is appreciated. They have been working flat out to ensure that the stakeholder review will be arranged before the summer recess.
Every Member who spoke in the debate mentioned the positive work of Stranmillis University College and St Mary’s University College, and I agree with their comments. Most, if not all, Members mentioned the need for reform that I stressed in my opening remarks. I went as far as saying that the Committee may reach the same conclusion as the Minister, but that members wanted a review because of the many other issues involved, not least the proposed merger of Stranmillis University College and Queen’s University. The Committee, and I, as its Chairperson, simply tried to obtain as much information as possible to enable us reach a collective decision.
In the course of the debate, it struck me that there are two main themes, one of which is policy; and the Committee argues that the policy must be reformed. Notwithstanding the proposed merger of Queen’s University and Stranmillis University College, the process caused the Committee members the greatest concern.
I agree with the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee who said that children and the economy must come first, and that that ties in with the Programme for Government. I highlighted the fact that in Dublin a decision to close a teacher-training college was taken based on population trends, but that there is now a realisation that the college is needed. It is important for the Committee’s review to continue and that we talk to all relevant stakeholders.
Alex Attwood said that St Mary’s University College had a good record of achieving participation by lower socio-economic groups, and, based on evidence from the West Belfast Task Force, I agree with him. However, I must stress that Stranmillis University College has a good record also.
Anna Lo expressed her frustration that the review is taking so long and at the lack of consultation with staff from both colleges. I cannot argue with that, and it is important that people working on the ground in the community and voluntary sector and in the colleges are aware that the Committee is being proactive.
Alastair Ross mentioned the need for reform and, given that that was the reason that the Committee tabled the motion, I agree with him. In fairness, the debate has reached this stage only because the Committee was able to press for the debate. We will continue to carry out a review of stakeholders. The Committee will probably work closely with the Minister, and we may reach the same conclusions and possibly make his job of introducing some of the proposed changes a bit easier.
Claire McGill mentioned the quality and ethos of both Stranmillis and St Mary’s. Those are important issues and were mentioned by a lot of Members. That is why the Committee is inviting submissions from everybody; the Committee is open to anyone who wishes to discuss the matter.
Ken Robinson, David McClarty, Basil McCrea and Roy Beggs all mentioned the quality issue, the funding model, and efficiency savings — I think they must all be subject to a 10-line whip, because their speeches referred to the same issues. However, I could not argue with any of that. As Chairperson of the Committee, I am not just concerned with a single issue, and I know that the former Deputy Chairperson shares that view. Rather, we are concerned with a number of issues, and wished to open those issues to discussion.
A number of Members, including the Minister and the Chairperson of the Education Committee, mentioned statistics, and in my opening remarks I said that in the debate we would hear a number of statistics regarding the difficulties faced by teachers seeking work. The fact is that there is a range of statistics on the issue, and that has not been fully aired and challenged. St Mary’s is actually challenging some of the statistics provided by the Department, and the Committee’s review will allow those challenges to be heard. We are trying to get through all of those issues.
I welcome the commitment of the Minister and his officials in trying to come to a conclusion on the issue. The Minister is highlighting and outlining the process. I know that he has been working up until the eleventh hour, and I commend him for his commitment. The priority is to maintain the quality of those two institutions, and the fact that the conversion funding arrangements have been extended from one year to two years is to be welcomed. I agree with the Minister that that provides a stable platform to allow us all collectively to come together to try to propose a way ahead.
Having heard what the Minister and other Members have said, I am not going to push the motion to a vote. I beg leave to withdraw the motion. Go raibh maith agat.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
Free and Fair Elections in Zimbabwe
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion has also tabled an amendment, which has been selected. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the motion and the amendment and 10 minutes to wind up, and all other Members will have five minutes.
Mrs Long: I beg to move
That this Assembly condemns the threats against the opposition in Zimbabwe; calls for free and fair elections in the presidential run-off election on 27 June 2008; further calls for appropriate international monitoring of the election; and encourages all sides to accept the outcome of the election.
I also beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert:
“condemns the threats and violence against the opposition in Zimbabwe; recognises that an environment for free and fair elections does not exist; expresses alarm that Morgan Tsvangirai felt he had no alternative but to withdraw from the presidential run-off scheduled for 27 June 2008; and calls on the international community, including the United Nations and the African Union, to take all available steps to ensure democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Zimbabwe.”
I thank the Assembly for setting time aside to debate the motion at such a critical juncture in Zimbabwe’s history. I thank the Speaker for accepting the amendment, which reflects the changed situation, which has been rapidly deteriorating even in the course of the last few days.
Zimbabwe formally became independent from the UK in 1980, the last southern African country to do so, having had a rough journey to its sovereignty. Its first elections in its new status were won by Robert Mugabe and his ZANU party (Zimbabwe African National Union), which was relatively unknown, but throughout the 1980s came to be seen as the voice of relative calm in an unstable region. However, after the democratic successes of neighbouring states, such as Mozambique, Botswana and Zambia, the Zimbabwean Government’s behaviour became at best erratic, and at worst sinister.
The flight of Zimbabwe’s white population, which even the highest estimates now place at under a sixth of pre-independence levels, was hastened by Government land grabs in rural areas. However, that has been followed by mass emigration of all tribes, even the majority Shona tribe, to the extent that a quarter of the population was thought to have crossed the border to South Africa or other neighbouring countries by 2007.
Furthermore, the economy has collapsed entirely and the currency is now valueless. Life expectancy has fallen to the lowest in the world — around 35 years of age in 2006. Education levels, which were once the highest in Africa, have fallen as a result of the brain drain. Law and order has broken down almost completely. Institutionally, the country is effectively a malign dictatorship.
The challenges that Zimbabwe faces are not unique to the region. However, the extreme nature by which they manifest is stark. As Members will be aware, the Zimbabwean general election was held in March 2008. ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front) lost its parliamentary majority, and almost certainly lost the election outright, given that that loss of majority became public knowledge rather than be suppressed. However, the questionable final result in the presidential election meant that a run-off would be required between President Robert Mugabe and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, a well-known trade unionist. Tsvangirai was forced to leave the country and has spent most of the time since the election in Botswana. In the intervening period, there have been several increasingly violent so-called re-education campaigns to try to ensure a win for Mugabe in the run-off.
Human Rights Watch indicates that, around the country, the ruling party and its allies have blocked access to villages and have prevented people, including those who need medical treatment, from fleeing. A great deal of violence has been aimed at ex-ZANU-PF supporters who voted for the opposition. Local institutions have identified at least 2,000 beatings and cases of torture. At least 36 people have been killed, including abducted MDC activists. Such activists have, in fact, been fleeing the country for some years. News of individual attacks continues to leak from Zimbabwe, despite the ban on free reporting and the exclusion of the world’s media.
Amnesty International has indicated that the leaders of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network — a coalition of 38 organisations that deployed local observers during the elections — are being harassed actively by the authorities in an attempt to prevent their observing any possible run-off election in coming weeks. Five days after their arrests, dozens of people who sought refuge at the MDC offices remain in custody, where they risk torture or other ill-treatment. Even people who are not MDC members, but simply potential voters for the opposition, have, during the past several weeks, been forced to trade their election-registration cards in order to access food and aid. None of us can take fair and free democracy, human rights or freedom for granted. Even to our community, which is emerging from conflict, the scale of abuses that we see on our television screens and the degree to which fair and free democracy has been compromised in Zimbabwe is difficult to comprehend fully.
My party’s concern and focus when it tabled the original motion was whether it would be possible to have fair and free elections in a context of suppression, intimidation and violence. We tabled the motion in the wake of Morgan Tsvangirai’s visit to the recent Liberal International conference in Belfast, and as a result of our ongoing contact with exiled MDC members in Belfast and members of the Botswana Civil Society Solidarity Coalition for Zimbabwe. The debate was timed to precede the presidential run-off election, which was due to be held on 26 June. Members are all aware that the MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, has now withdrawn from the election, not only because of concerns at how free and fair such elections can be but in the hope that his doing so will halt the escalation of violence and intimidation against party activists, supporters and others who are in opposition to the Government.
Many of us will have seen the footage that was shown on television yesterday of violent gangs of Government supporters attacking people who had tried to attend an opposition rally, for which permission by the courts had been sought in order for it to proceed. Even if the run-off is to be a farce, the timing of the motion is, nevertheless, appropriate. The UN Security Council will meet today to discuss the situation. It is clear that if Zimbabwe’s future is to hold out any hope for people who are currently suffering, collective pressure and diplomacy by the international community are critical. Nowhere is that more so than in the African Union’s response. It is not only best placed to challenge the notion that Mugabe has peddled in his own community — that opposition is simply a Western-led construct — but it has most to lose if the current humanitarian crisis and political instability that is bubbling up boils over into wider conflict and regional instability.
Some may wonder what impact the Assembly can have on the situation. We have a duty to highlight issues that are important to our constituents — and this issue is important to the people of Northern Ireland. We can also demonstrate that, despite media suppression and interference with international-development and aid agencies, which try to assist those who are most in need, the world is watching and seeing what is happening in Zimbabwe.
We can offer our support for human rights and democracy not only here, but in other places. Perhaps most importantly, we can offer support and solidarity to those in our midst who have been exiled from Zimbabwe and to those with whom they have contact in Zimbabwe and who are suffering the worst excesses of that Government’s regime.
In commending the motion and the amendment to the House, I reflect on the words of Robert Mugabe. Recently, he stated that only God could remove him from power. I simply pray that, for the sake of the people of Zimbabwe, He does, and swiftly.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Shannon: I support the motion, as amended, and I congratulate the Members who brought this matter before the House. Robert Mugabe said that God put him in office and that only that God can remove him. Along with the previous Member who spoke, I pray that God removes him sooner rather than later.
In Zimbabwe, one in five people has AIDS, 80% of the population is jobless, the life expectancy of a woman is 34 years, a loaf of bread costs $10 million and the monthly wage of a farm worker is $30 million, which is enough to buy three loaves of bread for the month, and nothing else. People who once worked for the Government in a menial capacity are able to relax on $60,000 a month — not even the price of a tenth of the price of a loaf of bread.
Those are the facts for the majority of people who live in Zimbabwe. Those facts are the reason that, in the elections of 29 March 2008, Mugabe’s Government was overthrown by the voice of the people, who elected Morgan Tsvangirai. Officially, his party, the MDC, won 47% of the vote to Mugabe’s 43%, but that was not the true margin of victory. Mugabe rigged and manoeuvred so that the polls were more favourable to him. The burning question is, given that Mugabe’s wrangling and illegal machinations left him with only 43% of the vote: how low was his original figure?
The people have spoken, yet they are now to be silenced. A second round of elections has been put off to enable Mugabe to coerce and beat more people into voting for him. Yesterday, photographs and television coverage clearly showed Mugabe’s young pretenders in police uniforms rushing into rural areas to punish people for their lack of loyalty. That punishment can be anything from beating people to within an inch of death, to burning people’s homes to the ground. On some horrible occasions, men have been tied to the door of their home while it was burned.
I have recently been emailed some disturbing and incredibly graphic photos from missionaries who are serving in Zimbabwe. The photos show the beating and burnings that people have endured, the mere sight of which turned my stomach. None of us can imagine the pain and oppression that those people face, but we must do all that we can to stop it.
Members of the opposition MDC have confessed to rigging election votes in their favour, but the fact that those confessions took place in torture chambers gives a sense of how real they are. The confessions are not true; they have been forced out of people through beatings. Mugabe did not get the result that he wanted, so he is reverting to form. In 1976, he said that:
“The people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.”
He is sticking to that view now, which we have heard before.
People who are illiterate will have the thoughtful help of a policeman or a Government official to fill in their voting form. It is clear where things are and where they are going: this black Hitler has sworn that he will not give up his role, no matter what. He is quoted as saying that:
“No matter what force you have, this is my territory and that which is mine I cling to unto death.”
Anyone with a radio or a TV can be under no illusion about the situation, although I doubt that everyone understands how bad it is in Zimbabwe.
It is time for the UK to take a stand and employ diplomatic measures to evoke change and ensure that the will of the people prevails. How can that be done if Mugabe will not listen to Western opinion or take notice of sanctions? The answer is to apply international diplomatic measures, and pressure to neighbouring African nations. Mozambique, Namibia and Angola refused to offload weapons from China that were intended for Zimbabwe because they feared that those weapons would be used against the people. The outcome of that was that Mugabe had a boatload less of weapons by which to intimidate and kill people into submission.
Such diplomatic pressure must be replicated even more strongly throughout Africa, not least on the nations that surround landlocked Zimbabwe — Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique and last, but by no means least, South Africa. Those countries have a humanitarian duty to act, and we must apply as much pressure as possible to ensure that they fulfil that duty to bring about true democracy in Zimbabwe. No country has more power to act than South Africa, and it and its outgoing president, Thabo Mbeki, have much to answer for.
Sanctions can and must be employed to bring about democracy and to stabilise that once great African nation — the breadbasket of Africa. I sincerely urge Members to join me in asking the UK to take a stand and do as much as it possibly can to help that country.
Evil triumphs when good people do nothing, and that hard lesson was learned with Hitler, when propaganda was allowed to gloss over the loss of democracy. The self-named black Hitler should feel the same disapproval from upstanding people. No man is an island, and Zimbabwe’s corrupt cabal of officials must not survive. I urge Members to support the motion and the amendment.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún. I support the motion and the amendment. The peoples of the African continent and, indeed, many others in the world who have experienced the consequences of imperialism and colonialism are deeply disappointed by the manner in which Robert Mugabe is handling the situation in Zimbabwe. That disappointment was reflected in South African President Thabo Mbeki’s comments when he said that his priority is to help Zimbabwe to find answers through dialogue and negotiations, rather than by an imposed solution from abroad. Yesterday, his spokesperson added that the situation requires a mediated settlement.
Over the weekend, the crisis in Zimbabwe deepened with the announcement that the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change had pulled out of the presidential contest. Zimbabwe was once a prosperous country; today it is in crisis. The people responsible for that are not from the former colonial power, Britain, but from Robert Mugabe’s Government. Therefore, I welcome the motion and the amendment.
Zimbabwe’s history of colonisation and oppression at Britain’s hands means that it is all too easy for the Mugabe regime to opportunistically represent Britain’s protests as western imperialism. However, he cannot, and must not, dismiss the will of his people, and those from other African nations, who have worked tirelessly to secure a peaceful resolution to the situation in Zimbabwe.
In particular, I praise the African Union and the South African Development Community for taking a lead in the search for a peaceful solution. I also commend the efforts of ordinary workers in South Africa and Mozambique to support human rights in Zimbabwe. At the end of April, it was dock workers in the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union who refused to unload weapons shipments that were bound for Zimbabwe, and it was the International Transport Workers’ Federation that was decisive in preventing Mozambique from being used as an alternative destination.
In the interests of all people in Zimbabwe and, indeed, the entire African continent, the people must be allowed to express their democratic will, which is clearly not the case in Zimbabwe. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have confirmed that opponents of the Mugabe regime — particularly those in the Movement for Democratic Change — have been brutalised, tortured and murdered, and that the country’s economy has collapsed causing untold poverty and hardship for millions of ordinary citizens.
Against that backdrop, MDC decided to pull out of the presidential run-off election. I fully understand that decision; however, I hope that there can still be a peaceful and negotiated settlement in Zimbabwe. The entire African continent wants that, and we must remember that Zimbabwe, as a nation that has emerged from a brutal colonial past, has an opportunity to become a beacon for other struggling peoples.
Zimbabwe can demonstrate that it is possible to create a better society, and the Mugabe regime must afford its people genuine democracy and freedom. I hope that we will soon witness the drawing together of genuine democracy, freedom and equality in Zimbabwe and, indeed, in all nations that have been victims of imperialism and occupation — including my own.
Mr Kennedy: I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate, and I thank the Members who tabled the motion for doing so.
In the present climate in Zimbabwe, there was little hope of this week’s election being either free or fair. Now that Morgan Tsvangirai, the candidate for the Movement for Democratic Change, has withdrawn from this week’s election, it has become a complete farce. The past weeks in Zimbabwe have been characterised by a campaign of terror; dispossession; enforced famine; murder; and violence against supporters, activists and officials of the Movement for Democratic Change.
Regime change in Zimbabwe is an urgent necessity. It is not just an issue of removing the tyrant Robert Mugabe from the presidency; it is one of removing his henchmen, the military and security-service leadership who may have done his bidding in the past but whose prisoner he has now effectively become. Mugabe is little more than a figurehead for a gang of murderers who know that if they lose power, they will face justice and well-deserved punishment for their heinous and wicked crimes. After 28 years of Mugabe’s patronage, ZANU-PF stalwarts hold nearly all the positions of power and enjoy all its perks. All military chiefs and senior Government officials, most judges and media editors, the majority of bureaucrats, and now, ironically, the owners of most big farms, owe everything to ZANU-PF. Therefore, it is not just Mugabe who has to go, but the whole apparatus of his regime. The dimensions of the issues that surround any hopes of ridding Zimbabwe of Mugabe are far greater than might be first imagined. Indeed, they might be compared to the difficulties that the Allies faced in dealing with the Nazis in Germany after World War II.
The supine role played by the South African Government, and, in particular, President Mbeki, has given Mugabe succour and enabled him to survive for too long. South Africa needed to show greater leadership in dealing with this pan-African problem. It is sad, pitiful and disgraceful that the South African regime has not shown greater strength in its dealings with Robert Mugabe.
Likewise, we must not forget the other disturbing dimension to this conflict — the involvement of the emerging great military power of China, which is working in the shadows behind Mugabe. China is mineral hungry and is very active in Africa, including in Zimbabwe. It already gets 5% of its oil from the Sudan, where genocide has already occurred in the Darfur region. China has supplied Mugabe with a radio-jamming device for a military base outside the capital, preventing independent stations from providing media coverage to balance that provided by the state-controlled media during the election campaign. The list goes on. Chinese companies will build new coal mines and three thermal power stations in the Zambezi valley on the Zambian border. In exchange, Zimbabwe will provide China with chrome. Mugabe has drawn strength and succour from all that. He has boasted that the Chinese are coming and will bring in billions of dollars in investment and that soon everything will be restored.
Beneath Zimbabwe’s outstandingly fertile soils lie deposits of mineral wealth. However, Zimbabwe has barely resorted to exploiting that reservoir of wealth. It could rapidly become the world’s greatest producer of quality platinum, with ore reserves markedly greater than those remaining in South Africa. Zimbabwe still boasts an infrastructure and a business, academic and professional base that outstrips any in other parts of Africa.
In addition, there are still many senior professionals, academics and civic leaders who can help to rebuild that country. However, we need regime change immediately.
Mrs Hanna: I welcome this debate and thank those who proposed the motion.
There are very few who do not recognise that Mr Tsvangirai, whose party is the largest in the Zimbabwean Parliament, and who secured the largest vote in a hotly disputed first round of presidential elections amid allegations of widespread vote-rigging by ZANU-PF, is entitled to be considered by the rest of the world as the democratically elected leader of the Zimbabwean people.
It is clear that the evil, wilful tyrant Robert Mugabe has absolutely no intention of heeding the ballot box, and is determined to hold on to power to the bitter end and at all costs, even if that means the destruction of his own country. The tragedy of Zimbabwe is destabilising the rest of southern Africa, particularly South Africa and Botswana. It is for the other African states, particularly the 14 member states of the Southern African Development Community, and for President Mbeki, to help to bring this awful situation to an end.
Mugabe has been clever in playing the racial card, in sowing division among his opponents, and in heaping blame on Britain, the former colonial power. Few would deny that colonialism has left a very negative legacy.
The appalling humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe can be glimpsed in a number of statistics: female life expectancy has declined from 63 years to 34 years, and male life expectancy from 60 years to 37 years. The infant mortality rate has climbed from 53 to 81 deaths per 1,000 live births. An estimated 1·8 million of a population of 12 million Zimbabweans have HIV, while 3·4 million people have fled the country as a result of economic hardship — most of them to South Africa, which is struggling with enormous problems of its own.
The destruction of the apartheid regime was one of the most heartening events in my life, and I remember the feeling of hope for the future that we all had when Zimbabwe won its independence on 18 April 1980, after 100 years of British colonialism. The country is fertile, and has a high literacy rate. Sadly, Robert Mugabe, in whom the hopes of millions were invested at the outset, has been a crushing disappointment as, year by year, he has mutated into an ever more vicious tyrant.
I want to focus on the humanitarian implications of this crisis for the ordinary people of Zimbabwe. NGOs estimate that up to four million people could be dependent on food aid, medical support and clean water in order to survive. The situation has been made worse by drought. All aid and humanitarian agencies have been ordered out of the country, and they have been blackguarded by Mugabe’s party, which claimed that they were supporting the democratic opposition. NGOs must be allowed to continue to provide assistance to vulnerable communities, in which up to four million people — almost half of those remaining in Zimbabwe — could be dependent on food aid when the current, very poor, harvest ends.
Though we are thousands of miles away here, it is important that we stand up for justice, and let people know that we really do care.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley: I want to thank those Members who put down this motion for giving us the opportunity to express ourselves in this House today.
People may well ask what influence this House can have on the situation in Zimbabwe. It is the influence of knowing that the people of Northern Ireland, as represented in the Assembly, are expressing the deep feelings that are in their own hearts and minds.
Those thoughts and attitudes about the situation are vital.
Our eyes are now on the United Nations. It has the authority and the backing of the world if it should care to take the right road, and I hope that it will do so. Otherwise, I would feel very sad for the people of that land. I have some missionary connections with that land, and I receive up-to-date weekly appraisals of the situation from the missions and churches in which I have an interest, and it is a terrible, sad story. One would have thought that the world would have left behind such stories, but now the story is being repeated: a country is being devoured by the wolves of terrorism in an evil and vicious way.
Yesterday’s rally in Zimbabwe could not take place, even though it was backed by the courts of the land. There have been massacres in the country, and, when the full story is told, what a terrible story it will be. The UN must take definite steps; it is not enough to call in the leaders of other African countries to tell them to take action. The UN should give those countries the leadership and support that they need, because no country in Africa can afford to break the unity unless they are assured that they will be supported in doing the right thing, which is to intervene. It will lead to some direct occupation, because some Zimbabweans are determined to take over the country irrespective of the ballot’s results. Therefore, I trust that the UN will heed the message from countries all over the world and show that it has the strength and determination to see the matter put right. It will be put right only through a fair system of voting, and people can express, without threat, whom they desire to rule over them.
Mr A Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Members have covered a lot in their contributions. However, it is a matter of deep regret that, throughout the decolonisation process, many Zimbabweans fought for the liberation of their country, and people throughout the world looked up to Robert Mugabe and others who fought for their country’s freedom. In fact, they demonstrably proved that there could be a better way forward, and they fought to bring democracy to their country. Indeed, for some years, there were good examples of the type of transformation that emanated from Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, however, the situation has deteriorated to a point where Zimbabwe is now being held up as an example of deep failure, which has cost many of its people dearly.
It is important to acknowledge that asylum seekers have fled Zimbabwe and arrived in Belfast to seek refuge. I have spoken to, and worked with, a number of those families, and our thoughts are with them, because they are concerned about the events unfolding in their country. Although all parties and all Members have criticised the current circumstances in Zimbabwe and have recognised its serious difficulties, we must also express solidarity with people who seek refuge on our shores.
Mr Shannon: Does the Member agree that neighbouring countries such as South Africa should do more for Zimbabwean refugees, instead of allowing tribal warfare to take place on the border, where Zimbabwean refugees who flee to neighbouring countries encounter further pressure?
Mr A Maskey: I thank the Member for his intervention. Although people here — such as Members during today’s debate — express disappointment at events in Zimbabwe, we must extend our solidarity to refugees who arrive on our shores. I appeal to political parties here to support families who seek refuge here and who need society’s support. Our thoughts are with those people.
Neighbouring countries — such as South Africa — have a responsibility, and I welcome the recent contributions from the African Union and some surrounding African countries, because Africa has experienced a long and sad history of colonisation and a positive history of decolonisation and liberation struggle.
We must ensure that we do not seek to impose solutions on the people of Zimbabwe. However, we must echo the comments about the necessity of finding a solution to the difficulties in Zimbabwe in order to allow people to escape the poverty and chaos shown daily on TV. The fact that people have been forced to withdraw from the electoral process means that Zimbabweans will be unable to exercise their franchise and vote in elections that were scheduled for next week. That is a bitter disappointment to all of us who want the process of decolonisation to continue successfully, not only in Africa, but globally.
Mr Simpson: This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the massacre of British missionaries by Robert Mugabe’s people in Vumba, Zimbabwe. Some weeks ago, I tabled an early-day motion in the House of Commons to remind Parliament of that disastrous event, during which nine missionaries and four children were killed. A six-year-old boy, a five-year-old girl, a four-year-old girl, Mr Roy Lynn from Northern Ireland, his wife and their three-week-old daughter were among the casualties. According to witnesses, the missionaries were praying for their killers as they died. In 1978, the world should have recognised the brutality of the devil that they did not yet know — politically, Robert Mugabe is undoubtedly that.
In succeeding years, Mugabe has inflicted considerable distress on his own people. In 1998, economic problems provoked riots, and strikes paralysed the country. In 2000, war veterans — backed by the Government — seized hundreds of white-owned farms claiming that they had been seized illegally by colonists. In 2001, ZANU-PF devised tough laws on security, media and election rules solely to keep Mugabe in power. In 2002, the Commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe, and the EU imposed travel bans and froze the assets of Mugabe’s associates. Furthermore, Mugabe ordered thousands of white farmers from their farms. In 2003, the EU and the Commonwealth renewed their sanctions, and, in the same year, Mugabe vowed that the MDC would never rule Zimbabwe.
The leaders of the main trades unions and dozens of rights activists were arrested as riot police broke up protest marches. The IMF announced that it had begun steps to expel Zimbabwe, saying that its policies failed to address economic woes. When the Commonwealth submitted an agreement to continue Zimbabwe’s suspension, Mugabe quit it.
In 2005, the US labelled Zimbabwe as one of the world’s six outposts of tyranny. Tens of thousands of shanty dwellings were destroyed, and the UN estimated that about 700,000 people were left homeless. After a four-day visit, UN humanitarian chiefs said that Zimbabwe was in meltdown.
In 2006, inflation exceeded 1,000%. In 2007, Morgan Tsvangirai was hospitalised after his arrest at a rally, and one man was shot dead as riot police moved to disperse the gathering. Zimbabwe officially ran out of bread as wheat production collapsed. This year, Mugabe lost his majority for the first time since independence in 1980.
Just this month, Mugabe announced that foreign non-governmental organisations and aid agencies were to be banned from Zimbabwe with immediate effect. Some four million Zimbabweans — approximately one third of the population — depend on food aid. On 5 June 2008, British and US diplomats were held while trying to investigate political violence. On 18 June 2008, four opposition activists were found beaten to death. Now, under threat of a nationwide massacre and in the teeth of widespread violent repression, the opposition has been forced to pull out of the planned elections.
When the West decided that Ian Smith’s regime had to go, it decided that Mugabe would be assisted in his efforts to assume control of Zimbabwe. For too many years, too many people turned a blind eye to the cruelty and brutality that have marked Mugabe’s rule. The West stood to one side and watched as he abused and traumatised his entire nation. Sadly, as is often the case, the United States has said little and done less. Zimbabwe’s near neighbours have failed utterly in their responsibility to assist the peace and security of that part of Africa.
What we are doing here today is only a small step. I support the motion and the amendment.
Mr Deputy Speaker: As Question Time commences at 2.30 pm, I suggest that the House take its ease until that time. This debate will continue after Question Time, when the first Member called to speak will be Mr David McNarry.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Office Of The First Minister And Deputy First Minister
Regeneration at the Maze/Long Kesh Site
1. Mr Poots asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what consideration it has given to regeneration projects at the Maze/Long Kesh site other than the master plan agreed by the Maze implementation panel. (AQO 4115/08)
The deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): At this point, we have not considered regeneration projects for the Maze/Long Kesh site other than those contained in the ‘Maze/Long Kesh Masterplan and Implementation Strategy’ that was published in 2006. We are developing a paper to bring to the Executive.
Mr Poots: The First Minister has suggested that, given the value of the site, it would be wrong to allow it simply to grow weeds. I assume that the deputy First Minister agrees with that. On that basis, if plan A, which we are currently examining, is discontinued, will he put a viable and deliverable plan B in place before dropping plan A?
The deputy First Minister: It is a very valuable site, and under no circumstances will we allow it simply to grow weeds. However, a plan B will not be considered unless, and until, the present proposals reach a conclusion. We are considering the current proposals for the development of the Maze/Long Kesh site, including the Department of Finance and Personnel’s assessment of the business case; moreover, we are assessing the outcome of the major procurement process for the appointment of a private-sector development partner for the site. That procurement is based on the delivery of the key master-plan elements, such as the multi-sports stadium, the international centre for conflict transformation, the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society showground, light industrial development and other related proposals.
Development plans of that size and complexity require very careful consideration, and we aim to make an informed decision on the complex proposal as soon as possible.
Mr Kennedy: What is the deputy First Minister’s response to the stinging attack that was made by the former Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure on the obstruction of the Maze project by leading civil servants? What action will the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) take to address the issue that was highlighted by Mr Poots? In particular, will it hand over the Maze project to the Strategic Investment Board or private developers, as the former Minister has suggested?
The deputy First Minister: I will not respond at all, except to say that we are in possession of an assessment, or analysis, by the Department of Finance and Personnel, which we will have to consider in order to take the matter forward. Any allegations that may be made are a matter for those who wish to make them. I am interested in hearing from people who can furnish me with facts, figures and details. However, that has not happened thus far. I have heard only the media reports.
If we are to take the matter forward sensibly, we must do so in a way that deals with a site that is very valuable to our economy and our people. As we progress, it is incumbent upon everyone to recognise the importance of seeing the matter through to its final conclusion. A big debate, involving many different interests, surrounds the project at present. I understand that, and I can understand that people are fighting their corners. However, it is sensible for us to analyse the situation and bring a paper to the Executive, and that is what we propose to do.
Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the deputy First Minister’s comments, in particular that the master plan for the site has not been ruled out, because it best fits the objectives of regeneration of the site. Furthermore, it meets the strategic and long-term needs of all three sporting organisations. Will upgrading existing stadia meet those needs? Go raibh maith agat.
The deputy First Minister: To date, there has been no assessment of the cost of building new stadia to meet the needs of football, rugby and Gaelic games. However, the outline business case for the multi-sports stadium estimates that enhancing those sports’ existing facilities to an acceptable standard would require between £86 million and £95 million, excluding infrastructure costs. Upgrading existing stadia would not meet the strategic needs of the three sports and would be subject to considerable planning and infrastructural constraints.
NI Executive Office in Brussels
2. Mr Neeson asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister when its Ministers last used the Executive’s office in Brussels. (AQO 4108/08)
The deputy First Minister: The Executive’s office in Brussels is available for use to the Assembly and its Committees, to wider civic society, including local government, universities and other groups seeking to engage in Europe, as well as to the Executive’s Departments and Ministers.
Ministers in our Department have used the office on five occasions over the past year. Most recently, on 2 April 2008, junior Ministers Donaldson and Kelly used it to prepare for a meeting with Commissioner Danuta Hübner on the launch of the report of the European Commission task force. In January 2008, the office facilitated a high-level visit by the former First Minister Ian Paisley and me to meet the European Commission’s President Barroso to discuss the task force. That visit also included meetings with Commissioner Hübner, Commissioner Fischer Boel and the Irish and UK permanent representatives to the European Union. Indeed, members of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will visit the office later this week.
Mr Neeson: I thank the deputy First Minister for his response. Clearly, he appreciates the importance of having a Northern Ireland presence in Brussels. However, compared with the UK’s other devolved institutions, Northern Ireland is underrepresented in Brussels. Will the deputy First Minister consider reviewing the resources that are available in the Northern Ireland office in Brussels? Will he encourage greater use of that office by ordinary Assembly Members, rather than it being used only by the Executive?
The deputy First Minister: I receive the Member’s second point positively — we should encourage as many people as possible to use the office. The officials who work in the office are anxious to assist all Members of the House in carrying out their duties.
During our stay in Brussels, the former First Minister and I visited the Welsh and Scottish offices. It is true that resources in those offices — particularly in the Scottish office — are much greater than in ours. There must be an ongoing monitoring of the situation. EU institutions must develop policies that are relevant to us, and up-to-date information must be available to Ministers and Departments. We must ensure that our interests are fully represented in policy development in the EU institutions. We must raise the Assembly’s profile among European policy-makers and opinion formers. We also need to form interregional links with other parts of Europe and improve the Assembly’s and local government’s contacts with the EU.
The Northern Ireland office in Brussels exists to assist all areas of Government, civic society, local government, universities and other organisations in their dealings with the European Union. In addition to providing space for visitors from here, staff in the office are often asked to speak to groups and organisations that are visiting from other countries.
We must ensure that we have adequate resources, on a level that is comparable to the Welsh and Scottish offices, to stake our claim and our place in Europe. We will monitor that situation on an ongoing basis.
Mr G Robinson: I am sure that OFMDFM is well aware of the value of the office in Brussels as a means of promoting Northern Ireland and attracting inward investment and tourism to the Province. Will the deputy First Minister assure the Assembly that the Executive’s office in Brussels will continue to play a central role in all that?
The deputy First Minister: I state without fear of contradiction that our office in Brussels will play a central role.
It is critical that we are represented in Brussels, that we have access to all regions of the European Union and that they know what we have to offer. The staff in Brussels do an excellent job on our behalf. Tourism is a huge earner for our economy, and it is important that we use the office and get the best out of it with regard to inward investment and tourism.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. How does the role of the office in Brussels fit with the wider international strategy?
The deputy First Minister: In pursuing strategic international objectives, the importance of our relationship and interdependence with Europe in economic and social terms cannot be underestimated. Our approach to Europe is outlined in the strategy document for 2006-2010, ‘Taking our Place in Europe’. The strategy provides a framework for the Government and civil society to engage in Europe, and it has been given a significant boost by the European Commission task force report, which will help us achieve our economic goals through a strengthened long-term partnership with the European Union.
The task force forms the basis of a reinvigorated working relationship between this Administration and Europe whereby we exert even greater influence on policy, make maximum use of the wide range of available opportunities and become firmly embedded in the European networks.
The work of the Executive’s office in Brussels is critical to the success of our strategy in Europe and of the work of the task force.
Mr Speaker: Question 3 has been withdrawn.
Joint Working for Sustainable Development
4. Mr F McCann asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail the extent of joint working between Departments in the promotion of sustainable development. (AQO 4123/08)
The deputy First Minister: A Cheann Comhairle, as you and the House will be aware, we recently instructed OFMDFM officials to begin work on developing a new sustainable development strategy. One reason behind that decision is our desire to encourage greater co-ordination of sustainable development-related activities across all Departments as a means of promoting a more strategic approach to the issue.
As part of our work on the new sustainable development strategy, OFMDFM officials are meeting with their counterparts from other Departments. They are in discussions with colleagues from other Departments to examine ways in which the principles of sustainable development can be incorporated effectively and harmonised across the regional development strategy, the regional economic strategy and the forthcoming rural White Paper. Equally importantly, we will ensure that our new sustainable development strategy is developed in such a way that those and other major plans, such as the Programme for Government and the investment strategy, are taken into account fully.
With the support of almost every other Department, our officials have developed a comprehensive training programme that is being delivered with the co-operation of the Centre for Applied Learning, which is part of the Department of Finance and Personnel. In developing the course, with the assistance of officials from across the Civil Service, we have sought to ensure that training on sustainable development is as current and relevant to all participants as possible.
One of the key outcomes of that programme will be to raise awareness of sustainable development across the Government and for Departments to promote the principles and practices of sustainability in the execution of their functions.
Mr F McCann: The deputy First Minister has answered my question.
Mrs Long: I thank the deputy First Minister for the information that he has provided. During a recent Committee review of sustainable development, it was highlighted that a draft memorandum of understanding between the Sustainable Development Commission and OFMDFM was drawn up — I think that it was done about a year ago. I understand that it has not been signed or redrafted for further discussion, as yet. Will the deputy First Minister inform the House how and when that will be taken forward and formalised?
The deputy First Minister: That is still under consideration, and it is hoped that it will be dealt with expeditiously.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: Under its remit for the oversight of the machinery of government, and in the interest of good Government, will OFMDFM investigate how the entire planning process could be simplified and streamlined if the unreal distinction between local and regional planning were removed?
The deputy First Minister: That question would be more accurately directed to the Minister of the Environment. There have been difficulties in planning for some time, and both the previous and the present Minister of the Environment have indicated that the issue will be tackled conscientiously.
5. Mr Lunn asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what plans his Department has to reduce the number of peace walls. (AQO 4107/08)
The deputy First Minister: A Cheann Comhairle, we recognise that the continuing presence of peace walls needs to be reviewed, and we are working hard to create the conditions whereby the need for those walls no longer exists. We all look forward to a future without barriers, where society is characterised by respect, integration and interdependence, and where sectarianism and racism are things of the past.
On 22 April there was a very useful Adjournment debate on interfaces in north Belfast during which it was recognised that although no one wants a continuing need for peace walls, they are a reality. We can, and should, only seek the removal of peace walls when local communities feel safe and comfortable. That must happen at a pace with which the communities are content and be considered in conjunction with a security assessment from the police. It is essential that plans to remove peace walls must be community driven primarily and with the benefit of the views of locally elected representatives. Policy responsibility for the erection and removal of peace walls remains with the NIO.
Mr Lunn: I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer. He will be aware of the campaign that is under way by the Peace People to appoint a Minister for peace. In the meantime, what steps have been taken to assign responsibility for a strategy to bring down peace walls to either, or both, of the junior Ministers?
The deputy First Minister: All of the Ministers in the Executive are Ministers for peace: they are all anxious to see a normal society. Every Member recognises his or her responsibility to lead by good example and to show people that we can do things differently.
Some of the greatest barriers are in our minds. It is only when people feel comfortable with each other that communities across the North will recognise the importance of working together to rid our society of sectarianism and racism. That will not happen overnight, but all indications are showing that we are getting there.
A few days ago, alongside the former First Minister Ian Paisley I was privileged to attend an inspirational event in Ballymena. School principals supported by education authorities and a large number of young people — between 200 and 250 — from all nine post-primary schools in the Ballymena area, came out to declare that this is the new way forward. That gives me tremendous hope and encouragement for the future. When our young people are engaged in the reconciliation process; that more than adequately complements the work — work that I think is tremendous — that has been done in the Assembly over the past year.
It is still early days, and there is still much more work to do. However, the greatest barriers are in our minds, and when we bring down those barriers, the dismantling of the peace walls will be a very easy operation indeed.
Mr McCausland: Does the Minister agree that peace walls, which are predominantly in north Belfast — and of course the wall in west Belfast between the Falls Road and the Shankill Road — can only come down completely with the consent of the people who live adjacent to them? Those people must have confidence that their safety and security are ensured, and that can only take place in the wider context of a strategy for creating social cohesion. It is wrong to consider peace walls in isolation.
Would the deputy First Minister agree that it would be a good step, with respect to the wall between the Falls Road and the Shankill Road, if, on Saturday, the members of the Whiterock Orange Lodge and the Whiterock band were able to come onto the Springfield Road to get as far up as their hall which is celebrating its 50th anniversary? It would be a generous and welcome development —
Mr Speaker: Order. I remind Members to stick to the question.
The deputy First Minister: I agree with the sentiments of the initial question about the responsibility of all of us in political life to recognise the importance of the views of people who live alongside the peace walls. I believe that we are as one in respect of how we should try to make that happen in the time ahead.
I place on record my recognition of the work that went on behind the scenes that resulted in last Friday’s Tour of the North parade being an example of how dialogue can significantly reduce negativity and tension all round. The interviews with the leaders of the Orange Order and the local communities reflected their desire to find an accommodation that would benefit all of the people of north Belfast. I take great heart from that.
No one will take last Friday’s good outcome for granted ahead of the Whiterock parade, which is due to take place this weekend. Nothing good happens without a lot of hard work, constructive dialogue, and sensitivity about the issues that are important to people and communities. The people who have enabled the last few peaceful summers know that only too well. Each time agreement is reached by communities, the record of success is extended, and we build on that for the future.
The First Minister and I are keenly interested in the progress that has been made in north Belfast, and the junior Ministers are actively involved in supporting the work on the ground, as are all Members who represent those communities. North Belfast has significance beyond the area itself, and I am sure that we will all want to recognise what has been done by interface workers, the Churches, community leaders and by the Loyal Orders. Those discussions are not easy — they are intensive and fraught. What is gained for individuals, communities and, ultimately, our society — as we saw last Friday night — is a significant reduction in the tensions and negativity of past years. That allows for the mutual respect and dignity of the communities involved to expand.
The conduct of everyone who is involved in dialogue, agreement and the positive actions that emanate from agreement should be commended. All of the difficult dialogue that has taken place to bring about the reduction in tension has been worth every minute. We commend more widespread dialogue toward local resolutions, and a calmer summer.
I will finish by saying that the a Cheann Comhairle, himself, our own Speaker, has played a very powerful role in the north-west, along with others, in bringing about a totally transformed situation in the city of Derry. It is the type of leadership that has been given by elected representatives, by the community and voluntary sector that will see us through all of these difficulties in the end. I hope that those difficulties continue to diminish as the years go on.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. What steps is the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister taking to establish a task force in north Belfast on interfaces and conflict resolution? Go raibh maith agat.
The deputy First Minister: In his closing statement during the Adjournment debate on interfaces in north Belfast on 22 April 2008, junior Minister Donaldson confirmed that Carál Ní Chuilín’s proposal to create a task force for the North Belfast constituency would be considered.
That work has been progressed in the interim period under the auspices of the junior Ministers and a north Belfast working group. In the meantime, the Department and the north Belfast community action unit is continuing to engage with communities on an interdepartmental basis to address the important interface and conflict resolution issues that exist in the area.
We recognise the invaluable work that communities have undertaken to build sustainable relationships, which have been the foundation for the peaceful summers over recent years. Increased funding of £100,000 has been provided to the north Belfast community action unit for summer youth diversionary programmes to help reduce tensions over the coming months. An additional £400,000 has been provided by OFMDFM for summer diversionary activities to all five education and library boards, and £160,000 of that is for Belfast — at least £40,000 of that will be specifically allocated to the youth sector in north Belfast.
Over the past few years, the north Belfast community action unit has facilitated a working group, comprising representatives from statutory agencies and community groups, to develop an action plan for interfaces in north Belfast. The action plan contains 10 key recommendations for addressing interface issues. The unit continues to work with the interface working group, and is facilitating the group in developing an application to the International Fund for Ireland, to help progress the key recommendations of the action plan.
I commend everyone in north Belfast from the loyalist, unionist, nationalist and republican communities for the tremendous efforts that have been made on our behalf on a day-to-day basis. I have recently attended various events in north Belfast, and it is inspirational to see people who previously were opponents working together proactively and in the interests of all the people of that area.
Mr A Maginness: I wish to associate myself with the remarks of the deputy First Minister in relation to the Tour of the North. A big step has been taken towards securing a peaceful summer in north Belfast, throughout Belfast and, perhaps, throughout Northern Ireland.
However, I urge the deputy First Minister and the First Minister to make a public demonstration of their will to take down the peace walls by visiting north Belfast and urging communities to find a way forward. In that way, they could demonstrate publicly their commitment to tackling sectarianism and division in Belfast and elsewhere.
The deputy First Minister: The First Minister and I are absolutely dedicated and committed to leading by example, and are resolutely opposed to any sectarianism, racism or communal division in our society. We will have to consider how to demonstrate that. The key people in the process are those who work proactively on the ground.
The First Minister and I are showing leadership at a political level by being in these institutions together, and by working in a spirit of co-operation with each other. That work will continue. How we express that in the community has yet to be decided, but we will do so in a sensitive way and in one that does not disrupt or create controversy among communities that, at present, beaver away on their own and make an extremely good job of it. They have our full support.
Ministerial Subcommittee on Children
6. Mr Beggs asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister when the next meeting of the children’s ministerial subcommittee will be held. (AQO 4073/08)
The deputy First Minister: The next meeting of the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people will take place tomorrow, Tuesday 24 June.
Mr Beggs: The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister previously held responsibility for administering the Executive programme for children. Until April this year, the centrally controlled children’s fund supported 57 childcare projects administered through Playboard, which provided breakfast clubs and after-school clubs. Will the deputy First Minister ensure that such funds will be discussed at the ministerial subcommittee?
Current funding arrangements have failed. The Minister of Education, who has responsibility for childcare and extended schools, has refused to incorporate funding for those projects to date. Does the deputy First Minister acknowledge that those projects bring benefits to a multitude of Departments, yet individual Departments do not recognise their importance? Will he ensure that funding of such childcare projects is discussed at the ministerial subcommittee for children?
The deputy First Minister: All the issues raised in the Member’s question will be seriously discussed at the ministerial subcommittee.
The children and young people’s funding package, which incorporated the children’s fund, ended in March 2008. The decision was made that, in cases where individual projects were considered to be of significant value, their funding streams should be incorporated within the Department’s programmes, rather than managed through central funds. However, additional money was secured in the Budget to develop programmes that were previously supported by the central package, and the junior Ministers urged ministerial colleagues to mainstream and protect funding for children and young people throughout the budgetary process.
The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety acted as a central distribution point for centrally earmarked resources to fund 89 children’s fund projects. The children’s fund, as the Member knows, was formerly an Executive programme and was an element of the children and young people’s funding package.
The children’s fund came to an end on 31 March 2008, and the junior Ministers, who have particular responsibility for children and young people, held several meetings with Departments, including the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and the Department of Finance and Personnel, to identify a way forward for all projects. Following discussions, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has agreed to continue to administer funding for all projects for a further year — that is, until March 2009 — to enable sufficient time for it to source alternative funding or implement an exit strategy.
Some of the concerns that have been expressed need to be dealt with through a joined-up approach by Departments. I have no doubt that that will happen.
Mr Speaker: Question 1 has been withdrawn.
Tree Preservation Orders
2. Mr Easton asked the Minister of the Environment what plans he has to increase fines for those who break tree preservation orders. (AQO 4058/08)
The Minister of the Environment (Mr S Wilson): I thank Members for their congratulations.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
The Minister of the Environment: At present, any person in contravention of the provisions of a tree preservation order — that is the cutting down, uprooting or wilful destruction of a tree, the wilful damaging of the tops of trees or lopping a tree in such a manner as to be likely to destroy it — is guilty of an offence under article 66 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. That person is liable, on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding £30,000, and, on conviction on indictment, to a fine determined by the courts. I am satisfied with the legislative measures in place and have no plans to change them.
Mr Easton: I congratulate the Minister on his elevation — it is richly deserved.
In light of the Minister’s comments, is he disappointed with the number of prosecutions for breaking tree preservation orders? Dozens of such orders have been broken in my constituency. There seems to be a lack of will to prosecute those breaking tree preservation orders.
The Minister of the Environment: I thank the Member for his congratulations. He will know that I, as a keen environmentalist, sought this post — [Laughter]. I hope to fulfil my obligations in it.
Over the past five years, the Department of the Environment has investigated more than 60 cases, in which it was alleged that trees protected by tree protection orders had been destroyed or damaged contrary to the Order. The Department can take several approaches to dealing with such violations, one of which is to seek negotiations with developers to insist that they replace such trees with mature trees, which can be an expensive undertaking. Such action would avoid court proceedings.
Although Members can identify cases in their constituencies, the Department has been successful in many prosecutions. For example, the City of Derry — city of Londonderry — Golf Club was convicted of cutting down and destroying trees and was fined £200.
Although the maximum fine is £30,000, it is up to the courts to decide what fine is appropriate, and that is sometimes outside the control of the Department. However, in some cases, for example in Hamiltonsbawn, someone who cut down a tree was fined £2,500 and was made to pay court costs of £6,600. Moreover, the Department insisted that a tree costing £7,000 should replace the one that had been cut down. The Department is not soft on the issue.
Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also congratulate the new Minister of the Environment. I hope that he will uphold his reputation as a champion of the environment and as a “tree-hugger”, as someone from this side of the House said. [Interruption.]
At the weekend, a colleague of mine had to intervene and literally throw herself in front of a developer who was cutting down trees in Dunmurry. However, the Planning Service does not seem to provide an out-of-hours service to report such actions by developers. As the Minister — as a champion of the environment — may know, many developers cut down trees early on a Saturday or Sunday morning and do not care about the fines imposed.
Will the Minister tell the House what measures will be taken to establish an out-of-hours service in order that the Planning Service can be telephoned when trees are being damaged?
The Minister of the Environment: I thank the Member for his congratulations. I wondered whether Sinn Féin had nominated me for the post, just to get me away from the Minister of Education in the Committee for Education. I do not know whether that is true. I will probably see more of her in the Executive than I did at Committee meetings.
I understand the point that the Member made. I am sure that all Members, in their constituencies, have experienced the difficulty that he has outlined. Even if departmental officers were available 24 hours a day, developers could still mount pre-emptive strikes, because it does not take long to cut down trees.
Members of the public must have more opportunity to contact the Department. However, rather than expecting a 24-hour service, the real answer is to deliver the message to developers who want to cut down mature vegetation or defy tree preservation orders that there will be severe penalties and that the Department will follow up on those penalties. That is the real answer to the question that the Member asked, and I hope that developers will increasingly get the message that their pockets will be hit if they continue to defy the law.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: May I also congratulate the Minister on his elevation and wish him well in his portfolio.
I come from Ballymena; therefore, will the Minister state how much money has been received in fines for breaches of tree preservation orders over the past three years?
The Minister of the Environment: I thank the Member for his congratulations and for asking me a question to which, to be frank, I do not have an answer. [Laughter.]
Mr Durkan: Resign. [Laughter.]
The Minister of the Environment: I am not avoiding questions being asked by Members, and, if I have notice of a question as detailed as that, I will seek out the information. However, now that the Member has raised the issue and given me a puzzle in the form of a question that I cannot answer — I hope that there are not too many of those today — I will write to him with the figures.
3. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of the Environment to outline the new money that he plans to spend to increase road safety. (AQO 4098/08)
The Minister of the Environment: The Department’s budget for road safety in 2008-09 is approximately £59 million, comprising allocations of £5 million for road safety division and £54 million for the Driver and Vehicle Agency. It does not take into account any income as additional resources to the Department. Additional funding for road safety division, which was approved in the most recent comprehensive spending review, amounted to approximately £500,000 for 2008-09, £1·2 million for 2009-2010 and £1·6 million for 2010-11.
Mr Lunn: I also congratulate the Minister on his appointment and wish him well.
Given that young novice road users and cyclists, in particular, are among the most vulnerable groups on the roads, what priority will he give to road safety and cycling proficiency instruction in schools?
The Minister of the Environment: I thank the Member for his congratulations. Today is probably the only day on which I will be congratulated by everybody in the House; therefore, I am basking in it while I have the opportunity.
The Member asks an important question. He knows, as a member of the Committee for Education, that young people are being encouraged to walk or cycle to school. That will succeed only if parents believe that there is a safe environment for their children to do so. It is not a responsibility solely for the Department of the Environment; the Department for Regional Development has a responsibility, and it is trying to create better and safer cycle routes to school for children through the Safe Routes to School scheme. The PSNI and the schools also have roles to play.
The Department will use some of the additional money for a road safety strategy. That strategy will cover a range of issues and I hope that, when it comes out for consultation, the Member will find that it includes the issues that he has raised today.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also congratulate the Minister and I wish him well — he has been left a very good foundation to start from.
On a serious note, every week — especially at the weekends — we hear of road tragedies. Will the Minister outline his plans to meet his counterpart in the South and the Road Safety Authority, so that they can deal with the serious road safety issues relating to border roads?
The Minister of the Environment: I hope that the Member was serious when he was congratulating me, not just when he was raising the other, more serious, issue.
The Member has identified an important issue. There is, of course, a flow of traffic across the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, so road safety issues do not stop at the border. In fact — and this may come as a surprise to the Member — I hope to meet my Irish counterpart on Thursday to consider the issue of disqualifications. It is important that people who are disqualified from driving in the Irish Republic, or who have a reputation for bad driving, should not be able to wreak havoc on the roads in Northern Ireland, and vice versa.
That is one area of cross-border co-operation that I do not believe anyone could possibly take offence at or regard as being political in any way — it will simply enhance the safety of road users in Northern Ireland. Although I will be discussing a focused range of issues with the Irish Minister of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on Thursday, I hope that we will widen the range of our discussions over the year ahead.
Mr Ross: I, too, welcome the Minister to his new role. The Minister will be aware that graduated driver licensing has been introduced in other parts of the world and has had a positive effect in reducing fatalities on roads. When will the consultation on graduated driver licensing be launched? Does he support the graduated driver licensing scheme?
The Minister of the Environment: It is important that, before young people begin using the roads, they are well-trained and have all the skills that are required to drive safely. It is also important that there is additional training and help for them for a period after they have obtained their driving licences.
My predecessor indicated that she was happy to consider the graduated driver licence scheme, and the Department will be consulting on a range of the issues relating to that scheme fairly shortly. As the Member will know, some of those issues are fairly controversial, so it will be interesting to see the response to that consultation. Some of the elements of the graduated driver licence scheme could profitably be applied to Northern Ireland and would save the lives of young drivers.
Water Extraction Licences
4. Mr Storey asked the Minister of the Environment to outline the steps taken to minimise the cost for farmers of a water extraction licence. (AQO 4102/08)
The Minister of the Environment: In order to ease the administrative and financial burden on those farmers who require an abstraction licence, the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) has introduced the following steps: an advice and guidance service; a tailored application form; no requirement for flow metering; assistance with locating abstraction points; the provision of a water-usage estimation tool; and a recommendation that no annual charges will apply to the vast majority — 95% — of farm businesses.
EHS believes that, taken together, those steps will significantly minimise the cost of a water abstraction licence to those farmers who require one.
Mr Storey: Although I do not want to buck the trend, I am almost reluctant to congratulate the Minister on his new position, given that he has transferred responsibility for checking the green credentials of the Education Minister onto my shoulders. However, I welcome the Minister to his first Question Time in his new capacity.
Water extraction licences were described by the Ulster Farmers’ Union as another layer of unnecessary Brussels bureaucracy and could even be called an EU water tax. Will the Minister reassure the House that no charges — either for registration or for the volume of water that is used — will be introduced until he has examined the responses in the consultation, which is due to finish at the end of the month, especially as the proposed commencement date for the charges is 1 July?
The Minister of the Environment: I echo the Member’s sentiments. Too often, regulations and directives are imposed on us by Europe. As one who believes that the touch of Europe on Northern Ireland should be much lighter, I totally agree with him.
The Member will know that the Water Abstraction and Impoundment (Licensing) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006, to which he refers, are a result of two EU directives — the water framework directive and the habitats directive. Therefore, I agree that the situation is a result of interference from Brussels, which may cost people money.
The consultation is due to finish today, 23 June. Before I came to the Chamber, I checked the responses to the consultation and noted that some groups that should have a significant interest in the issue have not yet responded. I hope that those groups respond and make their views known before the end of the consultation period.
Given that the consultation period ends today, it would be unfair and unreasonable to impose charges by 1 July. Although the charges and how they will be applied are in the consultation, I want time to analyse the results and to make a judgement on the appropriate action. One reason for including the charges was the statement in HM Treasury guidelines on fees and charges that any new regulations should be cost-neutral — in other words, the full cost of applying the regulations should be recovered. However, a case can be made against the charges and, after examining the consultation, I will ask whether they are necessary.
Mr K Robinson: I, too, congratulate my East Antrim colleague on his elevation to the Front Bench. However, I hope that the party that entrusted him with ministerial power will not entrust him with the nuclear option for East Antrim. [Laughter.]
What steps has the Department taken to protect the level of the water table in the context of the debate on extraction licences? Is a comprehensive record kept of all private water extractions to ensure that the water-table protection is enforceable?
The Minister of the Environment: I thank the Member for his congratulations. There are several nuclear options for East Antrim that we want to avoid.
Although there is an EU directive on water extraction, it is not as important in Northern Ireland as it is in other parts of the United Kingdom or in Europe, because most water extraction here is from surface rather than underground collection. That is an example of the problems that are caused by EU directives that apply across the union, regardless of whether they are suitable for each member state. As I said earlier, there will not be a requirement for flow metering.
The Member will be aware that if that kind of measurement is required, an additional cost will be imposed. The people who will be hit most severely by that cost, and, probably, by the monitoring, will be the extractors who take out more than 100 cu m a day. I do not think that the Member will want — for I certainly do not want — a farmer, who may have sunk a borehole and who extracts very little from the water table, to be subject to over-regulation.
Environment and Heritage Service Enforcement Officers
Mrs McGill: Ceist uimhir a cúig.
The Minister of the Environment: I assume that that means “Question No 5”. It would be helpful were Members to speak to me in a language that I understand.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
The Minister of the Environment: I was wary about saying that, because some of my constituents might ask me how I understood what was asked. I would then be in trouble were I to admit that I understand Irish.
5. Mrs McGill asked the Minister of the Environment how many enforcement officers the Environment and Heritage Service currently employs. (AQO 4119/08)
The Minister of the Environment: The Environment and Heritage Service has 63 members of staff, whose main role is the enforcement of legislation. Other staff in EHS regulate the industry and also conduct some enforcement action in the event of breaches of legislation.
Mrs McGill: I thank the Minister for his answer. I also congratulate him on taking up his new post. I wish him well and congratulate him on his knowledge of Gaelic. [Laughter.]
Are protocols and processes in place in EHS that enable its officers to deal with illegal dumping quickly and effectively?
The Minister of the Environment: I thank the Member for that question. The whole issue of illegal dumping causes many of us concern. In my constituency, I have seen the eyesore that illegal dumping causes, and many areas of natural beauty that are huge tourist attractions are spoiled by such actions.
The issue must be considered on two levels. The first level concerns small-scale illegal dumping, which the Department addresses quickly. The Department is considering measures that fall short of court action but that result in quick responses and get the message across quickly to offenders that they will be punished through the imposition of fines, penalties and other sanctions.
The second level concerns the almost industrial scale of illegal dumping. The Member will be aware that we have taken action by setting up the environmental crime unit, which will be established fully during 2008. Considerable successes have already been achieved through using existing law. To date, hundreds of thousands of pounds have been obtained from those who are guilty of illegal dumping, and vehicles can now be seized. I hope that the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), which has taken over the Assets Recovery Agency, will also penalise those who have profited from such activities.
Mr Gallagher: I also congratulate the Minister on his recent appointment and wish him well. Given his initial comments on assuming office, which were widely reported, I also wish the environment well. [Laughter.]
The Criminal Justice Inspection’s review of the performance of EHS was published a few months ago. Does the Minister support the review’s findings?
The Minister of the Environment: I do — and let me assure the Member that the environment is safe in my hands.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
The Minister of the Environment: I hope that the Member will pass on that message to those in his party who would love to spoil the countryside with the unregulated building of houses.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
The Minister of the Environment: Perhaps Mr Gallagher will also pass that message to his colleague, the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, so that, at least, the SDLP maintains a degree of consistency.
The Department and I have accepted the findings of the Criminal Justice Inspection’s review, and the Department has already taken action to implement some of the recommendations. In a 12-month period, the Department has taken 19 cases to the Public Prosecution Service and secured 12 convictions. The Department has looked at the findings of the Criminal Justice Inspection’s review; it has committed itself to implementing the review’s recommendations, and, as a result, has started to see some success.
Mr Ford: On behalf of Guardian-reading muesli-eaters, I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I am sure that he will be as robust in protecting the environment as he was in defending grammar schools in his previous role.
As regards EHS’s enforcement activities, I refer the Minister to the two recent major pollution incidents that took place in the Ballymartin River and Sixmilewater River. Talking about prosecutions fails to recognise the fact there have been two huge fish kills. Recently, I discussed how that might be remedied with some of the Minister’s officials. Will the Minister assure the House that instead of pursuing prosecutions, he will pursue resources for EHS to ensure that those types of incidents do not happen again?
The Minister of the Environment: I thank the Member for his question. He has ‘The Guardian’ bit; the muesli-eating bit and the beard bit, but I wonder whether he is wearing his sandals today — I am not too sure; perhaps we will ascertain that later.
Anyone who saw the vivid pictures of the destruction that was caused on 18 June cannot but be outraged. I am not running away from the matter; I want to address the Member’s question.
However, the first point that I ought to make is that, in all instances, EHS is not responsible for the pollution in rivers. The people responsible are those who, in order to avoid costs, deliberately dump pollutants into rivers. Let us point the finger of blame at those people.
I accept that the Department is responsible for ensuring that the careless or callous people responsible for that particular incident are pursued, and that officers on the ground seek to ensure that everything that can be done will be done. Officers were at the scene and taking samples within 50 minutes of the incident being reported. Those samples are being tested to discover which chemicals or pollutants resulted in the fish kill. Prime suspects — who, as the Member will know, were found to be responsible for previous pollution incidents — have already been visited.
Officers are going along the river banks to identify pipes through which pollutants may have flowed into the river. Every action is being taken to identify the perpetrators; it will then be up to the Department to present a robust case to the courts, which must ensure that the maximum penalties are imposed.
That is certainly the message that I have given to my officials. I felt that the courts have been slightly dilatory in this matter, so I have asked officials to contact the Lord Chief Justice and remind him of the nature of the problems and devastation that those instances cause. It is hoped that the magistrates and judges will take the necessary action.
Downturn in Property Market
1. Mr Savage asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel for his assessment of the current downturn in the property market and the effect this will have on his ability to meet the budget capital spending plans. (AQO 4097/08)
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Dodds): Although recognising the current state of the property market, it is essential that Departments in Northern Ireland secure the planned level of capital receipts that was set out in the 2008-2011 Budget. I am confident that Departments will work with the support of the capital assets realisation team to maximise the level of capital receipts.
That is necessary so that capital investment projects such as schools, primary healthcare facilities and hospitals, roads and the newbuild social housing programme can be taken forward as planned. Furthermore, it should be remembered that the current market conditions should lower the cost of delivering capital projects; for example, in both the acquisition of land and in construction costs. Therefore, with the current downturn in the property market impacting on the cost of capital projects, as well as the receipts from asset sales — and with the support of the capital assets realisation team — I am content that the Budget capital spending plans are manageable.
Mr Savage: Will the Minister detail the implications of the recent revelation that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) site at Crossnacreevy is now worth less than £6 million, compared to the original valuation of £200 million? Will the Minister detail the roles of the Department of Finance (DFP) and Personnel and Land and Property Services in that flawed valuation on which budgets were based?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I thank the Member for his question. As the Member knows, the anticipated level of receipts for the Crossnacreevy site — which was £200 million — that was included in the Budget document was based on the planning assumptions at the time. In light of the more recent information regarding likely planning permission, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development raised the issue of the valuation of the Crossnacreevy site with my Department as part of the June monitoring round. The Executive will consider the best way forward regarding that issue in the strategic stocktake that is planned for the autumn.
I remind the House that income from the sale of the Crossnacreevy site was not factored into spending plans until the financial year 2010-11. I assure the House that the provision of £50 million for the farm nutrient management scheme has already been built into Budget 2008-2011 for this financial year, and that will not be altered.
Mr Simpson: Will the Minister indicate when the capital realisation task force report will be published?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I thank the Member for his question. The capital realisation task force report is an important issue, from which arose the capital asset realisation team. In the Chamber, on 31 March 2008, my predecessor, Mr Peter Robinson, indicated that it was important that the task force report was published as soon as possible, so that all of its recommendations could be implemented.
As I mentioned, the capital assets realisation team, which was a particularly important part of that task force report, is already up and running. The team is getting up to speed very quickly since the Executive have already made assumptions regarding the likely level of further disposals in this financial year.
Mr Ford: The Minister referred to the programme as being manageable, on the basis of reduced capital costs on issues such as building land as compared to reduced assets. However, given that other aspects of the capital programme — such as IT systems — are not experiencing the same reduction, will he assure us that he is satisfied that the departmental budgets are robust at this stage?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I appreciate the import of the question and the thrust behind it. It will be the responsibility of individual Departments to address the shortfall in capital receipts by identifying other surplus assets for disposal, or by making adjustments to their capital investment plans.
Members will recognise that several issues are involved, not least equal pay. The Executive want to support the Departments that have taken every possible action to address the shortfall in capital receipts.
Procurement Guidelines: Equality
2. Ms J McCann asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel how the new procurement guidelines can be applied to create equality of opportunity and deliver the Executive’s priorities of tackling poverty and disadvantage. (AQO 4155/08)
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: Guidance on integrating equality of opportunity and sustainable development in public-sector procurement was launched by my predecessor on 29 May 2008. That guidance provides practical advice and case studies for policy-makers and practitioners to assist them to more effectively integrate equality of opportunity and sustainable considerations into public-sector procurement. Although the guidance has been developed by Central Procurement Directorate, working in conjunction with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, it is for individual Departments to determine how best to apply it in their respective business areas.
Equality considerations must be mainstreamed into all decisions, including high-level or overarching policies and strategies. Departments are individually responsible for ensuring that equality of opportunity has been properly mainstreamed, and in providing such assurances to Ministers. It is the implications of the guidance — supported by appropriate training — that will support the Executive’s approach in the delivery of their priorities under the Programme for Government.
Tackling poverty and disadvantage requires concerted and co-ordinated action across a range of departmental programmes that can collectively address the many cross-cutting issues.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat. Will provision be made in any future public-sector procurement to allow local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and social-economy enterprises the opportunity to bid for contracts from which previous parameters would have largely excluded them? Will there be provisions in procurement requirements to specifically target and benefit geographical areas and resource profiles that help to address poverty in disadvantaged priorities?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I listened carefully to what the Member said, and I will bear it in mind. She knows about the background to the policy and the new guidelines that have been introduced, because discussions have taken place on that matter with her and others.
The fundamental principle of best value for money underlies all procurement policy. However, as part of that, we can take into account the optimum combination of whole-life cost and quality to meet the customer’s requirement, which allows for the inclusion, as appropriate, of social, economic and environmental goals. As part of that, I take on board what the Member said about the role of SMEs and social-enterprise bodies. However, as part of the Executive, the Department is constrained by procurement policy and rules.
Mr McClarty: Will the Minister detail the procurement guidelines that exist to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises can compete fairly and equally for business from the Northern Ireland Executive and the wider public sector in Northern Ireland?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: The question that was raised by the Member, and touched on by the previous Member, is important. We all want to ensure that the many small and medium-sized enterprises in Northern Ireland are able to compete — as far as possible — for part of that business. A considerable amount of investment for infrastructure in Northern Ireland — almost £20 billion — will take place under the investment strategy for Northern Ireland. The Member raised an important issue, and I will be happy to liaise with him. As far as we can, we should encourage as much investment as possible to go towards our own indigenous companies and industries.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. My question is not unrelated to the previous question. Is the Minister not concerned that some procurement opportunities are structured in such a way that local firms cannot easily avail of them, if at all in some instances? Will he commit to conduct an in-depth review of the present procedures with a view to ensuring that local firms compete on a level playing field?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: Should the honourable gentleman wish to highlight in writing any particular concerns about a specific procurement exercise or company, I would be happy to examine the information. All Members share a common view on how to progress and create a level playing field for everyone, subject to the rules that must apply when dealing with public money.
Performance and Efficiency Delivery Unit
3. Mr Weir asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel for an update on the latest developments in the performance and efficiency delivery unit. (AQO 4090/08)
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: As previously indicated, the initial focus of the performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU) was on the planning process and rate arrears. PEDU staff met those in charge of the Planning Service and have been analysing and assessing detailed information on their processing times for planning applications. PEDU staff also met those in charge of Land and Property Services, and they are currently examining performance information on rate arrears and the method used to set the agency’s cash collection targets for rate revenue.
More widely, my Department, in consultation with PEDU, requested delivery plans for the schemes being supported through the innovation fund. PEDU’s main role was to produce guidance on delivery plans and, in due course, it will assess those plans to gauge whether each scheme has robust delivery arrangements in place.
PEDU continues to lead my Department’s work on the establishment of a robust performance management and monitoring system to drive the delivery of the commitments and targets to which the Department signed up when it secured funding from the Budget.
Mr Weir: I welcome the Minister to his first Question Time in the capacity of Minister of Finance and Personnel; an occasion that seems to have escaped the attention of other Members in the House.
I am a firm believer that PEDU can make a positive contribution. However, will the Minister offer some assurance that PEDU’s work will not lead to cuts in jobs and particularly in front-line services?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I am grateful to the honourable Member for his comments. I assure him that PEDU’s role is not to remove funding from the front line but to ensure that, through efficiency and the proper targeting of resources, additional funding can be released for front-line services. Efficiency savings must be genuine and achieved by using fewer resources to deliver the same, or even additional, outputs. I will not stand for cuts in services being dressed up as genuine efficiencies; nor would anyone in the House condone that. PEDU aims to reduce bureaucracy and costs, not services. It is in the interest of every Member, Department and the public services generally to ensure that PEDU is able to work effectively in close co-operation with departmental officials.
Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also congratulate the Minister on the first Question Time in his new role. Given the recent underspend by all Departments and the non-delivery of several PSA targets, including one of the Department of Finance and Personnel’s targets, will the Minister detail how DFP can become more involved with PEDU to ensure that services are delivered, the departmental spend is more efficient and targets are met? Go raibh maith agat.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I am grateful to the Member for his comments. His question goes to the heart of PEDU’s role. Going by the gist of his question, the Member shares the Department’s aim that PEDU should be concerned with ensuring that Departments deliver the PSAs and objectives that are set out in the Programme for Government. It is one thing to secure funding from the Budget for Departments, all of which request resources to enable them to implement particular programmes and objectives. After the money has been allocated, the objectives set and the agreements entered into, Departments must ensure that they deliver. There must be a commitment to, and a focus on, delivery, and on the most effective and efficient use of resources.
The aim is not to make cuts but to ensure that the hard-pressed taxpayers, ratepayers and others in Northern Ireland who contribute so much to public services receive the services that they deserve. That should happen with a minimum of red tape and bureaucracy but with the level of support and administration required to deliver a first-class, even world-class, service.
That is what we in Northern Ireland must be about, and I am determined that, in working in collaboration with other Departments, that will be the true aim of PEDU.
Mr Burnside: I also congratulate the Minister on his promotion. Performance efficiency units sound very well, but we must judge them on how they deliver results. How much discretion does the Finance Minister have to, for example, send the performance efficiency unit into a chosen Department to evaluate, qualify and quantify the performance of its Minister, permanent civil servants and consultants? Could that unit be sent to, for example, the Department of Education, which, by any performance and efficiency criteria is the worst-run Department by any Minister of any operational Department since the formation of the present Executive?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I am grateful to the honourable Member for his best wishes. He raised the issue of discretion with regard to what we can do where specific Departments are concerned. I am always willing to hear of any areas in which Members think that the resources of PEDU can be best utilised. It is getting up and running, and it will take time to get to full speed. I stress that PEDU has no different remit to that of the Department of Finance and Personnel. My Department, as well as PEDU, is charged with ensuring that value for money is secured for the taxpayer, to which the efficiency and effectiveness of public spending is central. However, having a single unit that is dedicated to focusing on a particular issue is extremely helpful to the Executive and the Assembly.
I assure the Member and the House absolutely that, in so far as the Department of Education is concerned — or, indeed, any other Department — I, along with colleagues, will scrutinise carefully all expenditure to ensure that there is minimum waste and that there is no diversion of resources from the key goals that were outlined in the Programme for Government.
Central Procurement Directorate: Maze/Long Kesh Regeneration Site
4. Mr Poots asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what has been the role of the Central Procurement Directorate in developing the process to engage private-sector delivery partners at the Maze/Long Kesh regeneration site. (AQO 4136/08)
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: Northern Ireland public-procurement policy requires that all procurement is undertaken by a centre of procurement expertise. The Central Procurement Directorate (CPD) acted as the centre of procurement expertise in the procurement of a private-sector delivery partner for the Maze/Long Kesh regeneration site, using the competitive dialogue process.
Public procurement must comply with The Public Contracts Regulations 2006. The competitive dialogue process is one of the procedures that can be used to lead to the award of a public contract that is compliant with the regulations. The CPD advised the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Strategic Investment Board (SIB), and their legal advisers in the preparation of the tender documentation. The CPD also administered the procurement process.
Mr Poots: Will the Minister join with me in commending the CPD’s work in that particular procurement exercise, particularly the building in of a pain/gain mechanism that will ensure that the private sector will bear the burden of risk? As a consequence, the figure of £379 million that was quoted in the press can be halved, and further tens of millions can be wiped off that for the cost of regeneration at the Maze.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I am happy to hear what the Member said about the role of the CPD, and I concur with his view about the excellent work that that body has done. It had no input into the development of business cases for the projects, or any involvement in the business-case assessment. The Member and the House will, of course, be aware that a preferred bidder has not yet been appointed and that the procurement process is therefore still live. Detailed information on the bids cannot therefore be made public at this stage, as to do so would be in breach of procurement rules.
Mrs D Kelly: Perhaps the Minister will give some indication of how many millions of pounds of public money have already been spent on the Maze/Long Kesh project. Does he agree that the divisions in his party on the Maze project are another indication that a huge economic and social opportunity is being lost in favour of what some see as the DUP acting out of short-term political necessity?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: It never surprises me when the Member seeks to ask such a question. Facts are stubborn. The fact is that the outline business cases that were produced by the accounting officers in OFMDFM and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) have concluded that a value-for-money case has not been demonstrated for the scale of public expenditure that is involved in the proposals that they sent to my Department. In those circumstances, there is nothing to approve since no unqualified recommendation has been received from either Department.
In order to inform future Executive considerations of the proposals, DFP has produced a strategic analysis of the material that the two Departments provided. All of the facts and figures that DFP analysed and quoted came directly from the material that was supplied by the two Departments concerned. Therefore, conclusions that were reached by the officials and accounting officer in DCAL, their counterparts in OFMDFM and officials in DFP all concur on the value-for-money position. Therefore, when the Member has sat down and read the documents, got the facts into her head and realised what the factual position is, perhaps she can come up with a more sensible question next time.
Mr Lunn: Given the requirement that the Maze site be developed for community use, will the Minister outline what the likely cost of regeneration would be without the stadium, as opposed to with the stadium, and thereby give the House an indication of the real cost of a stadium at the Maze?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: So far, the Department has received outline business cases from DCAL and OFMDFM. In a previous answer, I explained the position as regards those outline business cases. It is highly unusual that they should be put forward without a recommendation on value for money. Nevertheless, the Department will consider all of the options carefully. It is absolutely essential that the tremendous and valuable site at the Maze should be regenerated and used for the benefit of the local community and the wider community of Northern Ireland. There is a fantastic opportunity, which we want to realise as quickly as possible. We will do so on the basis of all of the facts and available information. Ministers will make the final decision.
Cost of Fuel: Mileage Allowance
5. Mr Boylan asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel, in the light of the current high cost of fuel, whether he will raise the mileage allowance available to civil servants and individuals employed by statutory bodies. (AQO 4145/08)
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I am committed to ensure that civil servants are properly reimbursed when they provide their vehicles for carrying out official business. The current mileage rates that are payable to civil servants who use their cars to travel for business reasons are 40p per mile for the first 10,000 miles and 25p per mile thereafter. The rates are based on those that have been set by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and have remained unchanged since 2002. I understand that those rates are in place in the Civil Service elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
I realise that since 2002, fuel prices have increased by more than 30p per litre. In view of that, I have asked my officials to review current rates in order to determine whether they are still appropriate. It is worth noting that if mileage rates were raised above the HMRC-approved rate, there would be tax implications for each individual as well as additional cost to Departments for the administration of any sum that exceeds the approved amount of 40p.
It is not within my remit to comment upon the mileage rates that are payable to individuals who are employed by other statutory bodies.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I congratulate the Minister and wish him well in his new post. I thank him for his answer. Given the current fuel crisis, which seems certain to continue, and the Assembly’s commitments on climate change and environmental protection, will the Minister agree that it is imperative that the relocation of public-sector jobs throughout the North — not only to deal with those issues, but with the imbalance in the distribution of jobs — should be given serious consideration by the Executive? Go raibh maith agat.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: The Member raises a wider issue about the location of public-sector jobs. He will be aware that Sir George Bain is currently carrying out a review on that particular matter, which I hope to discuss with him soon. I understand that he plans to bring forward proposals as quickly as possible.
When considering the location or relocation of public-sector jobs, all the issues come into play, and people having to travel to work is one of them. Given the recent increases in the price of petrol and diesel, driving and maintaining a car is much more expensive than it used to be. That is why I have instigated a review of Civil Service mileage rates. I will inform Members of the outcome of that review when it is known.
Mr Armstrong: I congratulate the Minister on his new role; I hope to work with him in bringing jobs to Mid Ulster.
Given the high cost of fuel, does the Minister agree that the proposed increase of 2p a litre on fuel duty in the autumn will disadvantage consumers and the economy? Will the Minister detail any representation that he has made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the effect of spiralling costs on the people of Northern Ireland?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I am grateful to the honourable Member for his comments. The 2p fuel increase is an important issue, and I have already made representations on it in another place. As the Member is aware, tax revenues are a matter for the national Parliament, not the Assembly. However, he can be assured that we are continuing to raise those issues. He will also be aware that the Executive have established a fuel poverty task force, led by the Department for Social Development. That task force has already committed to make representations to increase the winter fuel payment. I support that; I have supported it elsewhere, and I will continue to make representations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer as appropriate.
Mr A Maginness: I congratulate the Minister on his promotion and on his translation from his previous Department. Perhaps “translation” is too much of a Church term.
I listened to the Minister’s reply carefully. I ask him to be wary of any mileage increase for public servants because it may create reasonable resentment among ordinary workers who do not have that advantage. Will the Minister seek ways and means of alleviating the problem of travelling for other workers? It is becoming a huge burden, particularly on those who travel from country areas to Belfast.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I thank the Member for his comments; he made a good point about the danger of carrying out such a review on public servants. However, it is intended to reimburse civil servants and other public officials when they are using their own vehicle in the exercise of public duties. In those circumstances, it is fair that they should be reimbursed at a reasonable rate, and all of that will be reviewed.
The Member asked what could be done on the wider issue. Many of the solutions to the wider issues fall outside the remit of the Assembly and the Executive. Nonetheless, we are conscious of their impact, and that is why the fuel poverty task force was set up. That is why the Executive decided to freeze the regional rate, which should allow extra income to remain in people’s purses and in their household budget.
We will consider other ways in which we can lessen the effect of the rising cost of living on people’s budgets. That is one of the benefits of devolution: we may not be able to deliver everything that people want, but at least we can tackle the issues in a much more sympathetic way than would ever have been the case under direct rule.
Proposed Competition Analysis Board
6. Mr Attwood asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what action he will take to set up a competition analysis board with an obligation to issue annual reports, based on the model of the National Competitiveness Council in the Republic of Ireland, as recommended by Sir David Varney. (AQO 4054/08)
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I appreciate why Sir David Varney recommended the establishment of a competition analysis board.
It would be helpful to the Executive to have contemporary data on our competitiveness performance in order to ensure that, if necessary, timely remedial action can be taken. Nevertheless, I must further consider the practicalities of making progress with that proposal, and, if a decision is taken to set up such a board, it is important that it should be established in a manner that allows it to operate as efficiently as possible.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
Free and Fair Elections in Zimbabwe
Debate resumed on amendment to motion:
That this Assembly condemns the threats against the opposition in Zimbabwe; calls for free and fair elections in the presidential run-off election on 27 June 2008; further calls for appropriate international monitoring of the election; and encourages all sides to accept the outcome of the election. — [Mrs Long.]
Which amendment was:
Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“condemns the threats and violence against the opposition in Zimbabwe; recognises that an environment for free and fair elections does not exist; expresses alarm that Morgan Tsvangirai felt he had no alternative but to withdraw from the presidential run-off scheduled for 27 June 2008; and calls on the international community, including the United Nations and the African Union, to take all available steps to ensure democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Zimbabwe.” — [Mrs Long.]
Mr McNarry: In the House, taking part in a debate is a right that, perhaps, is easy to take for granted. The traditions of British parliamentary democracy are a cherished inheritance that have shaped proceedings in the House, other United Kingdom devolved assemblies and democratic parliaments across the globe. That tradition finds expression in free and fair elections, respect for an independent judiciary, the rule of law and religious freedom.
Those are characteristics of decent, civilised societies, and they are principles that are valued by diverse societies in every continent — in countries large and small — that secure peace, prosperity and freedom. However, those principles are rejected and trampled underfoot by a dictator who is clinging to power in Zimbabwe — namely, Robert Mugabe. His refusal to accept the Movement for Democratic Change’s (MDC) election victory in March is another example of his regime’s moral bankruptcy.
Now, more than ever, his regime holds on to power through fear and violence alone. In recent weeks, the violent repression of the opposition has reached dramatic levels. In addition to denying political and civil rights, Mugabe has acted to deprive Zimbabweans of their religious freedoms. His decision to deploy riot police against Anglican congregations in Harare because Zimbabwe’s Anglican Church dared to criticise his regime is a most disturbing development. Denying the right to religious freedom is a sure sign that a regime is moving towards totalitarianism.
Furthermore, under Mugabe, a once proud and prosperous country has been economically bankrupted and brought to its knees. Zimbabwe was once a food exporter — the breadbasket of Africa. Now it faces a serious food and a drastic humanitarian crisis.
Mugabe’s regime has presided over economic mismanagement of criminal proportions that has crippled Zimbabwe with hyperinflation. A Government that delivers 100,000% inflation must be held to account for its betrayal of the national interest and the destruction of an entire society’s economic well-being.
Faced with the crisis in Zimbabwe, the international community’s inaction has been little short of a scandal. South Africa’s moral cowardice in the face of Mugabe’s dictatorship is a betrayal of millions of Africans’ hopes and dreams, and China’s insistence on providing political and economic support for Mugabe’s regime is nothing but the export of its abuse of human rights to the heart of Zimbabwe.
There is a real need for meaningful and effective international action to remove Robert Mugabe in order to free the Zimbabwean people from his violent regime. I believe firmly that further pressure must be instigated by African countries, which can no longer spectate from the sidelines. As the largest regional power, South Africa must demonstrate, by its actions and deeds, that it is fully prepared to defend democracy and the freedom of the Zimbabwean people. It is paramount that it sets an example to the region.
In this small country, acting with credibility because of our understanding of conflict and our withstanding of terrorism, we would do well to send a message that Northern Ireland supports the people in Zimbabwe who are making sacrifices in order to restore law and order and the democratic process. In that vein, and with that in mind, I support the amendment.
Ms Ritchie: I support the motion and the amendment. There are two types of abuse happening in Zimbabwe. On the one hand, there is the completely illegal violence that the Mugabe regime has visited on the democratic opposition. That has already resulted in hundreds and thousands of deaths. On the other hand, there is the harassment and repression of the opposition party, the MDC, the constant arrest of its leaders, and the false charges up to and including treason, where some facade of legality is retained. That led to Morgan Tsvangirai’s withdrawal yesterday from the presidential campaign.
The Mugabe regime is aided by various kinds of repressive legislation, which a supine Parliament passes and a judiciary that does not meet the proper standards of independence implements. Mugabe is increasingly resorting to threats of illegal violence. He has openly incited the war veterans to oppose an MDC victory by violent overthrow, but he is also using and abusing emergency legislation and emergency powers to retain his grip on office.
It is not enough for us to oppose his violent methods. We must also oppose and condemn his use of repressive legislation and technically legal policing methods to defeat democracy. We must remember that regimes that seek to hold on to power in the face of rising democratic opposition have always used a combination of illegal and technically legal methods. It happened here, too.
In South Africa in 1963, the apartheid regime wanted to introduce legislation to suppress the wave of protests that followed the Sharpeville massacre. On that occasion, speaking to the all-white Parliament, the then Minister of Justice, B J Vorster, said that he:
“would be willing to exchange all the legislation of that sort for one clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act.”
He was referring, of course, to the famous section that gave the Minister of Home Affairs here the power to determine that anything that he had forgotten to make an offence in the legislation would, in any case, be an offence, if he said so.
On Saturday, I met a group of South African housing activists, and it provided the opportunity to make the point that South Africa, with its history of, and emergence from, tyranny, has a special and vital role to play in pushing for true democracy in Zimbabwe. Today, as Robert Mugabe surveys the rising tide of democratic opposition, he may be thinking that it would be nice if he could just lock them all up for a while — say, for 42 days or so. He could probably get another piece of emergency legislation through the Parliament, citing some clear and present danger to the country, because, as has often been said, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. It should be no problem for Robert Mugabe to produce some credible-sounding intelligence information that shows that the MDC is, after all, a major threat to national security.
However, respecting human rights is not just about lecturing dictators, nor is it a political option among many. It is about living and legislating according to a basic, consistent code of decency. It is about sticking to the rule of proper law and the basic tenets of a lawful society in good times and bad.
We have come a long way in this part of the world, but we do not yet occupy the high ground. Even as we speak, there remains the unresolved screaming injustice that has been visited on Robert McCartney and his family and the wall of silence that surrounds the murder of Paul Quinn. Let us redouble our efforts to help the families of those people, too.
In conclusion, we must condemn Mugabe and do everything in our power to support democracy in Zimbabwe. We hope that the rest of the world — the European Union, the American continents and other countries — can put pressure on Zimbabwe in order to bring about a proper regime of justice and democracy, and, of course, we must finish the job of establishing a just democracy in our own land.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún agus ár gcéad tacaíocht a thabhairt do mhuintir Zimbabwe.
I support the motion and the amendment, and I thank the Members who brought this matter before the House.
It goes without saying that all in the Assembly should be in favour of fair and free elections, and that those who participate in any forthcoming election should allow it to take place in a peaceful and democratic atmosphere.
The decision of Morgan Tsvangirai, taken against a backdrop of wholesale violence against his supporters, is a cause for great concern, and undermines any sense that the election on 27 June will have any legitimacy. The recent presidential election was, obviously, very flawed, and those flaws were pointed out by international observers.
Zimbabwe’s neighbours South Africa and Mozambique said that the democratic process in Zimbabwe was in disrepute, and placed an unnecessary strain on the region, with regard to not just the electoral process, but to the democratic, economic and social stability of Zimbabwe. Their effort to find a way forward has, at its core, the people of Zimbabwe, not narrow political considerations. Irrespective of the previous colonial relationship between Zimbabwe and the British Government, the Government in Harare cannot reject the will of the people — nor can they abdicate, through rhetoric, that it is in the interests of Britain or Europe to see the end of Robert Mugabe. It is the people who are sovereign, and only a free and fair election is the way to determine their will.
To ignore that not only postpones the moment of truth, but sows the seeds of mistrust and further misrule, with the inevitability of conflict. We are right to call for free and fair elections, and the sovereignty of Zimbabwe and its people must be paramount. We must recognise, too, those in this country who are seeking refuge, particularly those who have fled the political situation in Zimbabwe.
We must also be supportive of the African Union Commission, and the steps that it is taking to ensure that any forthcoming elections are free and fair. We must ensure that the necessary economic assistance is in place in order to alleviate the dire circumstances in Zimbabwe. Sin an tslí ar aghaidh. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Weir: The motion, particularly considering the amendment that takes account of the tragic events of the past few days, when Morgan Tsvangirai felt that it was impossible to carry on with the election, is something around which this House should unite.
I was disappointed that a previous contributor attempted to draw analogies with proposals for 42-day detention in previous legislation. Such a comparison is facile, and is not a fair reflection of the facts. Indeed, it is offensive to compare anything that is happening in the UK with the situation in Zimbabwe.
Although is it right for the Assembly to unite in condemning the violence and the denial of freedoms and civil liberties in Zimbabwe, their outworking is a humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe on a scale that none of us can fully comprehend with respect to the effect on people’s daily lives.
I do not wish to rehearse statistics that were quoted earlier. However, under Mugabe’s rule, Zimbabwe has gone from a country that was once described as the “breadbasket of Africa” to the basket case of Africa. The country descended into mediaeval conditions a number of years ago, and is now moving into Stone Age conditions, with levels of life expectancy plummeting.
Furthermore, what has happened in Zimbabwe in the past few months should come as no great surprise to many of us who have studied the history of that country. As David Simpson said, some of Mugabe’s thugs were involved in the most brutal violence even before independence, so we should not be surprised that he abuses his position when he is in power. There were early warnings of that abuse in the 1980s when Robert Mugabe fell out with his one-time ally Joshua NKomo. Indeed, there were massacres and genocide on an enormous scale in Matabeleland, where ZANU-PF has failed to attract support through tribal loyalties.
At the beginning of the decade, so-called war veterans seized land. They did not do it for social justice reasons; rather they did it on behalf of a despot who was attempting to maintain power.
I, too, have met Zimbabweans who have had to flee the country, and some of them have managed to find homes and settle in Northern Ireland. Those people gave up everything to come here. They gave up their possessions, their life savings and their jobs, yet they — and it is hard to have to say this — are the lucky ones, as they managed to get out of the country. Others who have managed to get a much shorter distance are in great difficulties in South Africa. However, millions of people are still trapped in the brutal regime in Zimbabwe. The one message of hope that we can draw on is the courage and strength of the Zimbabwean people.
More than five years ago, during the Cricket World Cup in 2003, two of Zimbabwe’s cricketers — Henry Olonga and Andrew Flower — effectively gave up their international careers by taking the courageous stand of wearing black armbands, which was a political gesture, to mourn the death of democracy. In many ways, they put their families’ lives at risk. In fact, Henry Olonga and his family had to be smuggled out of Zimbabwe. Sadly, the lessons were not learned at that stage.
There is a limited amount that the Assembly can do, but, in one clear voice, it can tell the British Government that they need to ratchet up the level of sanctions that are being imposed. We need international co-operation through the UN to ensure the removal of the Mugabe regime. We need the African Union to step up to the mark, particularly in its regional strength. South Africa, which is the largest and most powerful country in that region, has, at times, been too indulgent of the regime in Zimbabwe. South Africa and other neighbouring countries must send a clear signal that enough is enough. I urge Members to support the motion and the amendment.
Mr Hamilton: I support the motion and the amendment. As my colleague Peter Weir said, at times there is a sense that what we say during a debate on such an important subject is of no consequence. Yet, we must say something. We have long-standing connections with Zimbabwe. Britain was a former ruling power in Zimbabwe, which gives us a heartfelt connection to that part of the world. As several Members said, many people, including white farmers and members of the MDC, have had to flee their homeland and seek refuge in this part of the world. As Peter Weir said, we have all met several of those people and heard about their plight.
We should say something today simply because it is the right thing to do. We have all heard, and it has been repeated today, that Zimbabwe is hurtling towards failed-state status. We have heard about violence, corruption and inflation. Last week, there was utter pandemonium when our most recent inflation rate of 3·3% was released, but Zimbabwe’s inflation rate has probably increased by 3·3% since I started speaking. There is abject poverty, hunger, disease, countless refugees, and millions of Zimbabweans have been displaced in their country. All of that is well documented.
As Peter Weir correctly said, what was once the breadbasket of Africa has been transformed into a basket case.
We have all experienced difficult elections in Northern Ireland. However, we cannot compare our experiences to the electoral situation in Zimbabwe. There should not have been a run-off election at all. We have all stood in councils awaiting our own results or others’ results for two days. However, that wait was not to allow the incumbent the time to fix the vote and to design a result to suit his ends.
Withdrawing from the elections yesterday, Morgan Tsvangirai — whose courage I praise — listed seven reasons: state-sponsored violence; the inability to campaign viably in Zimbabwe; MDC’s decimation through violence and murder; lack of confidence in an electoral commission that has been hollowed out by ZANU-PF activists; lack of access to the media; Mugabe’s defiant assertion that only God could remove him; and the anticipated election-rigging, which we all know is likely to happen. In the luxury of standing where we do, we might claim that he should have fought on and that democracy would have triumphed eventually. However, Tsvangirai illustrated the situation aptly when he said:
“We cannot ask the people to cast their vote … when that vote will cost their lives.”
That sums up the gravity of the situation. Many people have died, but, perhaps, the biggest blow has been to Zimbabweans’ hope that their ordeal was coming to an end.
It appears that Morgan Tsvangirai’s gamble of going in to a run-off election has failed. However, his actions send a clear message to the world that, at the minute, it is impossible to conduct free and fair elections in Zimbabwe. The response, which has hitherto been hallmarked by inaction, must change radically. In particular, the United Nations has a legal right and a moral duty to intervene decisively.
The force of freedom and the power of democracy are wonderful things, which an increasing number of people, globally, are experiencing for the first time. Freedom and democracy are irresistible forces, and I hope — as we all do — that the people of Zimbabwe will soon discover how freedom feels, instead of feeling the force of the jackboot of a horrible dictator.
Mr Dallat: Although I welcome the motion, I worry that it will have little or no impact on those people who can change the course of history in Zimbabwe. Why has the Western World, for so many years, observed while the people of that beautiful, fertile country have suffered in despair? Can anyone explain why a tyrant — in a long line of tyrants — has been allowed to commit genocide while no one seems to care? Is it because there is no oil in Zimbabwe? That question has been asked a few times. More than likely, it is. However, Britain, surely, has a moral duty to come to the aid of its former colony, once called Southern Rhodesia.
Although it is difficult to say with certainty where Cecil Rhodes’s soul is today, surely someone in Britain must accept that he, as a British citizen, laid the foundation stone for one of the sorriest stories of this century.
Until recently I received emails from a friend in Gwanda, a small town south of Bulawayo, the second city in this once-prosperous country, aptly named — as others have said — the breadbasket of Africa. Those emails told horrifying stories of murder and torture on a scale that no one here could imagine. I do not receive those emails any more, and I do not know whether my friend is still alive.
For us in the Western World, it is difficult to understand why Robert Mugabe survives and why neighbouring countries — particularly South Africa, and its President Mbeki — ignore the atrocities. South Africa is considered a model for peace and reconciliation, yet it ignores the situation on the northern border. That is, undoubtedly, connected with the past and the hatred for the empires that previously plundered their continent. In Malawi — where my wife Anne is — there is support for Mugabe.
He goes there regularly. Last year, a road outside Blantyre was named in his honour. I mention that because he and his cohorts murdered tens of thousands of Malawian migrant workers, whose crime was to work on white-owned farms — the very farms that were producing food for Malawi. I make the point because Mugabe did not just create famine in his own country, but in neighbouring countries that were dependent on Zimbabwe for survival.
As Members know, Mugabe turned up recently in Rome, at the heart of the European Union. My God, where does it end? Searching the Internet last night, I saw an article that described Zimbabwe as a beautiful country to visit, and mentioned the Victoria Falls, the wildlife preserves and the capital, Harare. The article went on to rule out the possibility of going there because of the breakdown of law and order, the violence and the criminality. That is a shame, because Zimbabwe is truly one of the most beautiful countries that I have ever had the privilege of visiting, and its people are beyond reproach.
It has been a long time since Cecil Rhodes and his form of tyranny; and it has been a long time since Ian Smith finally gave in to democracy. Could anyone have predicted that such a tyrant as Mugabe would have emerged from the ashes of a particularly cruel form of apartheid? It is more pertinent to ask why the world has looked on for so many years and done nothing to bring relief to the millions of people who are now expected to live to no more than 37 years of age in the case of men and 35 years in the case of women.
Why does a country that had the highest levels of literacy now have few teachers? It was because they were not paid. Why have many female teachers left the classrooms and gone to Harare to survive as prostitutes? Why is Zimbabwe riddled with HIV/AIDS? Why is the most fertile land in the world lying idle — occupied illegally by so-called war veterans? As Dr Paisley said earlier, what is the United Nations doing? Why is America plundering Iraq when it could be involved in peace-keeping duties in Zimbabwe? Perhaps that is a daft question, and not a good idea, but I am sure that oil rather than human rights is dictating the activities of the big powers of the world. That is rotten to the core.
Finally, what are we going to do? Let us hope that the Assembly’s all-party group on international development can do something. Perhaps the Assembly’s branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association can debate the issue. In the meantime, we look on in despair. The re-run of the election is a farce, now that the MDC has pulled out. However, who could have expected that party to carry on with most of its campaign team murdered? Cry, Zimbabwe.
Lord Browne: I support the motion and the amendment. As previous contributors have pointed out, the withdrawal yesterday of Morgan Tsvangirai from the presidential election run-off has radically altered the political landscape of Zimbabwe. Obviously, it is pointless to call for free and fair elections, since the violence and intimidation employed by the supporters of President Mugabe have made that impossible.
It is now imperative that the United Nations Security Council takes up the issue and intervenes to prevent civil war breaking out in Zimbabwe. The Assembly should call on the United Kingdom Government to use all their influence in the United Nations and in other forums, such as the European Union, to achieve that aim.
Mugabe is justly reviled by all right-thinking democrats throughout the world. However, it is not often recognised that he is a very intelligent and, of course, dangerous man. He had a broad education at a Jesuit mission school and won a scholarship to the University of Fort Hare in South Africa where he received a bachelor of arts degree in English and history. He subsequently became a dedicated and committed Marxist. By the mid 1960s, he had abandoned the principle of liberal democracy and embraced the abhorrent doctrine that intimidation and murder are appropriate instruments with which to achieve political ends.
After independence was achieved in 1980, it appeared that, for several years, Mugabe had succeeded in establishing a multi-racial liberal state, with a Government that were committed to social justice.
Unfortunately, it subsequently became clear that Mugabe had in no way abandoned his allegiance to authoritarianism and political violence. As Members will be aware, he has not hesitated to use brutality and murder to suppress political opposition and to intimidate all the people of Zimbabwe. Today, we have heard vivid accounts of the savage methods that he has employed in his country.
Mugabe’s career is an object lesson for us all. It shows that an intelligent and well-educated individual can become addicted to political violence and corrupted by power to such an extent that he despises and silences anyone who dares to criticise him. Even worse, he callously turns his back on the terrible economic deprivation suffered by his own people and intimidates and murders men, women and children without a second thought.
There can be no end to the tragedy in Zimbabwe while that man remains in power. As it is impossible for the Zimbabwean people to express their wishes democratically, action by the United Nations is essential. Therefore, I wholeheartedly support the motion and the amendment.
Dr Farry: It is a matter of regret that the Alliance Party had to table an amendment to the original motion, which was overtaken by events; however, for the people of Zimbabwe, those events have been a tragedy. It is right and appropriate that the Assembly speaks out on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, as Dr Paisley said, and expresses its solidarity with the Zimbabwean people. We should note that people from Zimbabwe live among us, many of whom are members of the Zimbabwe Solidarity Campaign and of the local branch of the MDC.
We owe a debt to Morgan Tsvangirai, and we must recognise the impossible position in which he has been placed: he had no alternative but to withdraw from the election. It is worth noting that there has been a history of election problems in Zimbabwe, particularly in recent years. In the past, Mr Tsvangirai has been in very difficult situations, and we should not forget that he was once sentenced to death on a charge of treason trumped-up by the Mugabe regime.
The outcome of the recent presidential elections was far from clear, although there was a school of thought that there was a clear winner. Rather than force the issue with Mr Mugabe, the international community put pressure on him to allow the run-off to take place. Now the run-off cannot take place because the environment for a free and fair election does not exist. The international community owes a debt to Zimbabwe on which it must follow through.
I wish to examine some of the issues on which the international community must follow through. There has been much talk about the United Nations and its role. I have no doubt whatsoever that the situation in Zimbabwe is a threat to international peace and security, which is the formal legal trigger to initiate international involvement by the UN. However, that requires the votes of both Russia and China on the UN Security Council, and those countries have taken a very constrained view of the appropriate approach of the international community towards what some would deem to be the internal affairs of states.
We must recognise the growing school of thought that says that we all have global responsibilities and that the international community has a responsibility to protect the weak and to engage in humanitarian intervention in all its forms.
It is worth noting that, ironically, the first time that the United Nations recognised a domestic situation as being a threat to international peace and security was in 1965 when Ian Smith made a unilateral declaration of independence from Britain. The international community, led by the UK, regarded that, rightly, as intolerable, and, for the first time, the Security Council imposed sanctions on what was then Rhodesia.
Ironically, Mugabe’s regime is just as illegitimate as Ian Smith’s was. Mr Mugabe should reflect on that, rather than travelling around the world bemoaning so-called British colonial interference.
There is scope for increased sanctions from both the UN and the European Union. The African Union also has a particular responsibility to treat this matter extremely seriously. At the very least, fellow leaders should shun Mugabe when he travels internationally. The farce of Mugabe’s attendance at a summit of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome must not be repeated.
The Mugabe regime should be formally shunned. A formal ban should be imposed on Mugabe’s international travel and a referral to the International Criminal Court could also be considered. Sadly, Zimbabwe is not party to the International Criminal Court. However, the UN could declare that Mugabe is committing crimes against humanity and that he represents a threat to international peace. I support the motion and the amendment.
Mr O’Loan: The Assembly is limited in what it can do about the situation in Zimbabwe. However, it is valuable for any democratic legislature to register its disgust at this appalling travesty of democracy.
In 1980, many people’s hopes were high when Zimbabwe won independence and Robert Mugabe took office. Mugabe was a man of great ability and — despite the war of independence — Zimbabwe was a land of immense promise. Julius Nyerere, the then President of Tanzania, told Robert Mugabe:
“You have inherited a jewel in Africa — do not tarnish it.”
Indeed, Robert Mugabe declared to a gathering of world leaders in 1980:
“The wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten. If ever we look to the past, let us do so for the lesson the past has taught us, namely that oppression and racism are inequalities that must never find scope in our political and social system.”
Therefore, it was not unjustified to hope that Zimbabwe would have a peaceful and prosperous future and, indeed, that it might become a beacon and a model for the rest of Africa. The reality has been very different. Amnesty International’s 2008 report ‘The State of the World’s Human Rights’ summarised the situation in Zimbabwe as follows:
“The human rights situation in Zimbabwe continued to deteriorate in 2007 with an increase in organized violence and torture, and restrictions on the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression. Hundreds of human rights defenders and members of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), were arrested for participating in peaceful gatherings. Scores were tortured while in police custody. The economy continued to decline. About four million people required food aid due to the declining economy, erratic rains and shortage of agricultural inputs such as maize seed and fertilizer. Victims of the 2005 mass forced evictions continued to live in deplorable conditions, and the government failed to remedy their situation.”
In the first presidential election earlier this year, votes were rigged; thousands of additional ballot papers were manufactured; journalists and observers were excluded; and those who opposed Robert Mugabe were brutally attacked. Despite all of that, Morgan Tsvangirai won a clear victory and, as Naomi Long pointed out, the MDC was convincingly victorious in the parliamentary elections.
Extreme violence has ensued since Mugabe forced a second poll; at least 86 people have died. Mr Tsvangirai responsibly decided to withdraw from that second poll. In doing so, he has probably saved many lives.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.
Mr O’Loan: I appreciate the time constraints — I have not been fortunate with those today. I strongly support the motion and the amendment.
Mr Ford: Since our debate began, the BBC website has posted a report headed ‘Tsvangirai seeks embassy refuge’. Last night, Morgan Tsvangirai sought refuge in the Dutch embassy in Harare — such is the threat to his life.
On 16 May, however, Morgan Tsvangirai was an honoured guest in our capital city when he attended the Congress of Liberal International. Belfast was one of the few places outside southern Africa that he visited in the time between what should have been the two rounds of elections. Despite the violence that had been perpetrated by ZANU-PF thugs across Zimbabwe, even before the first round of elections, it was clear at the time of Morgan Tsvangirai’s visit to Belfast that the MDC had won the parliamentary election and he had come within a whisker of winning an outright majority in the presidential election — even on the basis under which that election was conducted. Few of us will believe that he was not the proper leader of Zimbabwe.
It was a privilege to host him, and to see that he was prepared to visit Belfast and to give his view, as the leader of Zimbabwe. He spoke as a man who had political and moral authority and as one who had a vision for the future. Not only did he speak of taking power — as one would expect a politician to do during an election campaign — but he spoke about the need for national reconciliation and building a new of way of governing Zimbabwe. He did not talk of revenge; he talked about a way in which the people of Zimbabwe could move forward together. Considering what he and his supporters had to tolerate, those words are an example to the world.
I welcome the positive responses that have come from every side of the Chamber during today’s debate; however, much needs to be done before the required action will come from the bodies that can make the necessary difference.
Morgan Tsvangirai came to Belfast with the assistance of President Waad of Senegal; yet it is clear that few African leaders provided the type of support that was deserved. Most notably, President Mbeki of South Africa failed to make the necessary changes in his country’s policy. As has been highlighted, the dockworkers of Durban did more for the people of Zimbabwe than the South African Government did in recent weeks.
I welcome the belated and tentative moves by some of the regional authorities and such bodies as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to see what can be done at local level. However, an enormous responsibility rests on world agencies. The people of Zimbabwe demand and require action in what they face — particularly by the United Nations, and by bodies such as the African Union, the European Union and Zimbabwe’s neighbouring countries.
Before the first round of elections, the bulk of violence was directed in rural areas that traditionally supported the opposition. Since the first round of elections, violence has shifted into areas that previously supported ZANU-PF, but which changed in the run-up to the recent election, and even into Harare and other major towns. That violence has been carried out in the face of the world media, despite international observers. That is the measure of the corruption of the Mugabe regime, and the failure to take account of what needs to be done and what should have been done. It is obvious, therefore, why Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC had no option but to pull out of the election that was due to be held on Friday. A free and fair election would have been impossible. The amendment was proposed in recognition of how the situation had changed since the motion was tabled.
There were 17 contributions to the debate, and that shows the Assembly’s widespread interest. Naomi Long opened the debate by delivering a well laid-out description of how, in recent months, Zimbabwe had descended into a malign dictatorship. It was interesting that Jim Shannon joined her in the prayer that Robert Mugabe will soon be removed from power in the interests of all the people.
Moreover, Jim Shannon talked about the need for the United Kingdom to take a stance, and Martina Anderson pointed out that there are difficulties for those in the United Kingdom, given Mugabe’s attitude to the former colonial power. However, things can be done, and other Members highlighted how the European Union, in conjunction with some of the development agencies, can ensure that its voice is heard.
Danny Kennedy mentioned the patronage of ZANU-PF. He said that there was more to the situation than the simple matter of Mugabe being a dictator: the institutions that support him are also at fault.
Carmel Hanna pointed out the role that has been played by independent international non-governmental organisations in development work and that that is why they have now been expelled from the country — because they are telling the truth about what is happening. She made the situation very clear in her opening remarks when she said that Morgan Tsvangirai is the democratically elected leader of Zimbabwe.
Dr Paisley talked about the updates that he has received from his missionary contacts and about the role of the UN. I do not know what the level of the UN role is — I am not sure that it is up to this Assembly to prescribe it — but it is certainly the role of the Security Council to carefully consider what must be done and the options for moving things forward.
There was an interchange between Alex Maskey and David Simpson over the question of Mugabe’s role as a liberator as opposed to his role in the massacre of missionaries, which happened before liberation occurred. Both ignored the point that was made by Peter Weir, subsequently and which concerned the massacre of several thousand people in Matabeleland in the 1980s as part of the action taken against Joshua Nkomo and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union. The way in which Mugabe behaved then was clear, and that has led a number of people — including John Dallat and Declan O’Loan — to ask why nothing has been done before now.
Raymond McCartney made the point strongly that there would be a lack of legitimacy in any election held at this stage. The necessity to move away from that second round of elections, which would have been flawed and would have further added to the violence, was summed up by Simon Hamilton when he talked about hope having died. We must ensure that hope does not die in those authorities where the Assembly has influence — the British and Irish Governments and the EU — and that people take their opportunities to learn from this crisis and move forward for the benefit of everyone.
John Dallat asked why the world has done nothing so far and what we can do now. There are clear issues that we can pursue. Lord Browne made the point that we have a role in persuading the UK and Irish Governments to get involved in UN and EU activities that support — however limited that support has been — those African states that have been supporting the cause for democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Zimbabwe. We must ensure that the notion that Robert Mugabe is perceived as a liberator and can therefore do no wrong is utterly out of date.
Mugabe was likened in the Chamber to Hitler: my memory does not go back as far as Hitler — some people’s does — but what is absolutely clear is that Mugabe is a force for evil across the world. He has created huge problems, not just for the people in Zimbabwe, but for those who have been forced out of Zimbabwe and are now living in this city; in other places across these islands; in Zambia — and particularly for those now living in South Africa where we have seen recent violence and difficulties. The point was well made by Stephen Farry when he said that a UN trigger motion could be successful — it is absolutely clear that the internal affairs of Zimbabwe are now a threat to international security and action should be taken.
Although individual Members have taken their own approach and received their information from different sources, it is absolutely clear that the House is united. I thank those who have contributed and who have supported the motion — which was appropriate when tabled — and this morning’s amendment. I trust that if nothing else happens, the media and visitors in the Gallery will report back to those Zimbabweans living among us that we have taken the debate seriously. The message can go back to their friends and family at home in Zimbabwe that they are not forgotten.
The main point of the motion is not just to outline the problems that have happened but to call on the international community, through the UN, the African Union and the SADC, to take all available steps to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The motion is not prescriptive; that is for others to decide. However, it is clear that the people of Zimbabwe spoke on 29 March: they gave the MDC a parliamentary majority and they chose Morgan Tsvangirai as their president; not Robert Mugabe. All of us who believe in democracy and the rule of law have a duty to assist in ensuring that that decision is put into place with the utmost urgency.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly condemns the threats and violence against the opposition in Zimbabwe; recognises that an environment for free and fair elections does not exist; expresses alarm that Morgan Tsvangirai felt he had no alternative but to withdraw from the presidential run-off scheduled for 27 June 2008; and calls on the international community, including the United Nations and the African Union, to take all available steps to ensure democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Zimbabwe.
Adjourned at 4.50 pm.