Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 30 June 2008
Executive Committee Business:
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mr D Bradley: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At the conclusion of last week’s debate on Irish-medium education, Mr McCausland gave the winding-up speech. He implied that a Dr Réamaí Mathers was, or had been, associated with a paramilitary organisation. In the meantime, Dr Mathers has contacted me and asked me to raise the issue with you. He asks that you investigate the matter, with a view to correcting the Official Report.
I ask that you give the matter your urgent attention, as Dr Mathers considers that the remark could be detrimental to his personal security and to that of his family.
Mr Speaker: Mr Bradley has raised two issues. First, Members do have privilege in the House. That privilege goes only so far in certain issues; however, in this issue, the Member concerned does have privilege.
Secondly, Mr Bradley does not have a right of reply on that particular issue. I will look into the issue further and report to the House or by letter to Mr Bradley.
North/South Ministerial Council —
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development that she wishes to make a statement regarding the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) trade and business development sectoral meeting. Before proceeding, I advise Members that I understand that neither this statement, nor the next that the Minister will deliver today, relates to agricultural or rural development matters. I remind Members again that the questions that follow the statement must relate to its subject matter.
The Minster of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to give the following report on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in the trade and business development sectoral format, which was held in Enniskillen on 29 May 2008.
The Executive were represented by Minister Nigel Dodds in his capacity as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and by myself, as an accompanying Minister. The Irish Government were represented by Micheál Martin TD, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and by Dr Jimmy Devins TD, Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of Education and Science. The statement has been agreed by Minister Dodds, and I am making it on behalf of us both.
The Council welcomed the appointment of the new board of InterTradeIreland, including its chairperson, Dr David Dobbin. Dr Dobbin and the chief executive of InterTradeIreland presented a progress report on the work that has been carried out by the body since the previous NSMC trade and business development sectoral meeting, which was held in June 2002.
Examples of InterTradeIreland’s work include the recent launch of the entrepreneurship network and masterclass programme, and in the area of design, the organisation is scoping the potential for co-operative initiatives that will deliver competitiveness benefits. It is also examining co-operation with other industries and the private sector in order to explore the potential for initiatives on environmental goods and services.
Furthermore, the body is working with Enterprise Ireland and Invest NI to identify suitable projects for submission under the EU seventh framework programme for research. It also published recently a report mapping research and technological development centres on the island of Ireland, and it is exploring new opportunities for the aerospace sector.
The Ministers welcomed InterTradeIreland’s creation of 39 North/South business networks and the provision of information, advice and services to more than 14,500 companies. The direct participation of more than 1,300 companies in its programmes resulted in the generation of £134 million — or €171 million — in trade and business development, with an additional £260 million — or €331 million — forecasted from ongoing programmes.
The Council noted the increase in cross-border trade of 19·6% between 2003 and 2006. Indeed, recent figures show that cross-border trade increased to €3·1 billion in 2007. The Council also noted InterTradeIreland’s annual review of activities and its annual report, prior to their being placed before the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Oireachtas.
The Council approved InterTradeIreland’s 2008-2010 corporate plan and noted its two core strategic goals. Those are: first, to generate business values by enhancing company competitiveness and capability through co-operative North/South initiatives; and secondly, to improve the competitive environment for mutual benefit through co-operative policy research, reports and networks.
The Council supported the priority that InterTradeIreland will give to science, technology and innovation in its corporate plan and noted the targets that were identified in the 2008 business plan. First, a total of £47 million — or €69 million — in reported trade and business development activity will be generated by the North/South business networks of InterTradeIreland and by firms that are engaged in its projects. Secondly, 400 firms will become actively involved in developing the competitiveness of their businesses through the utilisation of the resources of InterTradeIreland, which are offered through its co-operative North/South initiatives. Thirdly, 2,000 firms will develop their business capabilities through the utilisation both of InterTradeIreland’s information and knowledge services resources and 25 North/South co-operative business and economic networks.
The Council agreed that the next meeting in trade and business development sectoral format would take place in September or October 2008. Go raibh míle miath agat.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Durkan): There is something of a presentational oddness about the accompanying Minister making a statement in this manner. I, as Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, have not been given any reason or briefing as to why the statement was made in such a way.
I am not in any way criticising the Minister who made the statement. I want my concern recorded in order that that oddness does not pass without comment, which would enable the practice to be cited as a precedent.
I thank the Minister and her ministerial colleagues for their work in the meeting. On behalf of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, I join her in complimenting the new board and new chairperson of InterTradeIreland for their work. The Committee also appreciates and commends the previous board’s work.
Will the Minister elaborate on the potential for initiatives on environmental goods and services, and how far those will complement InterTradeIreland’s work to improve co-operative policy research North and South? Issues such as climate change, renewable energy and waste management present business opportunities as well as challenges for public-sector expenditure.
Lord Morrow: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you confirm whether this is the first time that a Minister who has not headed up a particular Department has made a statement to the Assembly on behalf of that Department?
Mr Speaker: I am not sure, Lord Morrow. However, it is in order for the Minister to make the statement. The Executive may select whom they wish to make a statement on their behalf to the House.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I am relieved that Mr Durkan was not being personal when he commented on the presentational oddness of my making the statement.
As accompanying Minister at the NSMC meeting, I did not expect to deliver the statement either. The subsequent ministerial reshuffle means that the lead Minister is no longer in post. Therefore, it was considered appropriate that a Minister who attended the meeting deliver the statement.
It was the first sectoral meeting on InterTradeIreland since 2002, so much of it was taken up with discussing the progress report in detail and work that had been done to date. That a great deal of other business had to be conducted meant that no detailed discussion on environmental issues took place. With the Member’s permission, I will forward his question to officials in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) and ask the Minister to respond to it in writing.
Mr Hamilton: I am almost dumbstruck by your initial ruling that the statement does not deal with an agricultural matter, which means that I am unable to ask questions about Comber potatoes or other local produce.
I noted with interest the positive section in the Minister’s statement about an increase of almost 20% in cross-border trade between 2003 and 2006. The Minister may not have the figures to hand, but will she provide a breakdown of that increase, including how much of it benefits Northern Ireland companies that sell to the Irish Republic? Furthermore, has any assessment been made of the proportion of that increase that is directly attributable to InterTradeIreland’s work, rather than to organic growth, which would have happened anyway?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I thank the Member for his question. I do not have the figures that he requested. However, since 2002, InterTradeIreland has developed and rolled out a series of programmes and initiatives in accordance with its corporate and annual business plan.
In particular, between 2003 and 2007, the organisation created 39 new North/South business networks and engaged with more than 14,500 companies, to which it provided information, advice and services. That would not have been the case without InterTradeIreland’s hard work and dedication. It has also improved the range and effectiveness of its portfolio of trade and business-development programmes in the areas of science, technology and innovation, sales and marketing, and business capability.
I apologise for being unable to quantify the number from the North, but more than 1,300 companies that participated directly in InterTradeIreland’s programmes have generated trade and business worth more than £134·5 million — €171 million — with an additional forecast of £260 million, or €331·2 million. Therefore, that body has done a huge amount of work in the space of four years. That is a significant achievement that gives us great encouragement for those business links being developed for the future.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also thank the Minister for her statement. The statement mentions:
“exploring new opportunities for the aerospace sector”.
Will the Minister comment further on that? What potential does the aerospace sector offer for the island of Ireland as a whole?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: As I say, we did not go into a great amount of detail. InterTradeIreland has considered the aerospace sector, but, primarily, Invest NI should deal with that matter. Therefore, I do not have enough detail to be able to respond to the Member’s question. At the trade and business sectoral meeting, there was no specific discussion about Enterprise Ireland’s role in the aerospace sector or Invest NI’s plans and projects. However, we are happy to respond to the Member in writing.
Mr Beggs: Like other Members, I find it very strange to be told that an accompanying Minister will present a report but may not be able to answer Members’ questions. Nevertheless, I will proceed with my question.
The statement mentions £134 million of cross-border trade, with a further £260 million anticipated. First, will the Minister clarify the time periods to which those amounts refer? Secondly, does the Minister agree that what is more significant to the economy in Northern Ireland is not cross-border trade but how that trade may help businesses here to improve their efficiency when they export to Great Britain, Europe and the rest of the world? Will the Minister give more detail on that issue?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The fact that I may be unable to answer Members’ questions is less to do with my being the accompanying Minister than the fact that the sectoral meeting was dealing with four years’ worth of work, and, therefore, there was not much time to go into the minutiae of the work that had been done over that period of time.
InterTradeIreland’s vision is of a globally competitive enterprise environment in which Ireland, North and South, co-operate to ensure the optimal utilisation of economic resources — particularly knowledge resources — to drive additional trade and wealth creation. Its mission is to enhance the global competitiveness of the economics of both jurisdictions for mutual benefit through collaborative business, policy and research programmes as well as partnerships and networks.
From the figures, we can see that InterTradeIreland has been very successful in a short period of time and is continuing with its efforts to ensure that we are punching above our weight and achieving economic development across the island. That body will continue its work on economic and policy research to identify co-operative actions that will lead to mutual benefit. As I have said, the target areas will include science, technology and innovation, infrastructure, enterprise and business development, labour market and skills, trade and investment and the regulatory environment.
There are several key performance indicators for 2008-2010, such as the business value generated through InterTradeIreland’s initiatives, the number of firms engaged in InterTradeIreland’s initiatives and the number of trade and business development networks supported by InterTradeIreland.
Mr Neeson: I welcome the continued work of InterTradeIreland, an organisation that, at times, did not have the full support of all Members of the Assembly. I also welcome the increase in cross-border trade. Does the Minister agree that, if that aspect is to continue to grow, it is important that infrastructure — that is, roads and rail services, particularly on this side of the border — is improved?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: That is absolutely essential, and InterTradeIreland has produced research that maps the correlation between the level of job creation and business development in different areas with the location of the major arterial routes across the island of Ireland.
Those pieces of research provide the stark message that where there are roads, there will be business creation and development. The Minister for Regional Development recognises the importance of those arterial routes in the encouragement of business creation and development. InterTradeIreland will work closely with other agencies to develop the support that they can offer.
Roads infrastructure is crucial, as is technology infrastructure. The difficulties with broadband provision in rural areas, for example, are well documented. There are limitations to what InterTradeIreland can do, but it has done excellent work with the resources and time that are available to it.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister explain why the meeting that she attended was the only meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in that sectoral format since the restoration of the Assembly? Go raibh maith agat.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I do not understand that question. It was the first meeting of InterTradeIreland since devolution. I do not know why it took so long before the meeting was held, but I was glad to attend it and I recognise the importance of InterTradeIreland’s work in the development of business and economic links across the island of Ireland. The meeting in May was welcome and, because another one is scheduled for September or October, the work of the body is progressing and being taken seriously by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
Mr O’Loan: The second report by Sir David Varney, ‘Review of the Competitiveness of Northern Ireland’, refers to ‘The comprehensive study on the all-island economy’, which is a North/South intergovernmental document that was published in 2006. The Varney II report proposes that the programme of work that is detailed in that document be intensified across eight areas and that that study be updated. That recommendation is very important. Was it discussed at the meeting, and how will that proposal be advanced in the trade and business development sectoral meetings?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Given that the meeting was a stocktake of the progress that was made in the past four years, it did not go into that level of detail.
Mr P J Bradley: Mr Speaker, you said from the outset that the report makes no reference to agriculture. However, given the importance of agricultural trade on the island of Ireland, why was it omitted from the agenda of the meeting, and will the Minister provide an assurance that it will be on the agenda of the next meeting in September or October?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The Member will be disappointed to learn that I have a substantial answer to that question. Several months ago, InterTradeIreland indicated its enthusiasm to fund a study of the agrifood sector throughout the island. In recent years, the agrifood sector has been the subject of intense examination in the North. InterTradeIreland identified a shortage of information about the networking possibilities in the sector and, prompted by the Confederation of British Industry and the Irish Business and Employers Confederation in the South, felt that such a study would be valuable.
Officials are content, and new terms of reference have been accepted. The proposed study offers potential benefits to a very important sector in both jurisdictions. Therefore, I am pleased to say that InterTradeIreland is advancing that study and the group will be supported by an industry advisory panel comprising representatives from the local agrifood industry.
North/South Ministerial Council — Tourism Sectoral Meeting
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development that she wishes to make a statement regarding the North/South Ministerial Council tourism sectoral meeting.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am not sure whether Members want me to proceed, but I will carry on regardless.
I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the NI Act 1998 regarding the recent meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in tourism sectoral format. The meeting was held in Enniskillen on 29 May 2008. The Executive were represented by the then Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Mr Nigel Dodds MP MLA and myself. Martin Cullen TD, Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, represented the Irish Government. This statement has been agreed with Nigel Dodds, and I make it on behalf of both of us.
The Council welcomed the appointment of the new board of Tourism Ireland, including the chairperson, Mr Hugh Friel. It considered a report from Mr Friel on the work of the Tourism Ireland board since the previous NSMC meeting in tourism sectoral format in November 2007. The Council noted the issues that were raised at the three board meetings that were held in the interim and the views of the board on the key components of competitiveness.
The Council also received an update from Tourism Ireland’s chief executive, Paul O’Toole, on the progress in implementing the Tourism Ireland 2008 business plan. An analysis of the visitor and revenue targets, including the more challenging trading environment that has arisen from increased economic uncertainty in some key overseas markets, was also noted.
A paper that proposed the opening of a regional hub to manage new and developing markets, such as China and India, was presented. The Council noted the increasing importance of those markets for the future growth of overseas visitors to the island of Ireland. It welcomed Tourism Ireland’s proposals to open a hub office for new and developing markets, which will enable the company to operate more effectively in the face of increasing global competition. The Council approved an increase in Tourism Ireland’s staffing complement by four to enable the company to recruit the staff for the proposed new and developing markets hub.
The Council considered a paper on tourism statistics that summarised the core requirements for tourism statistics, identified actual or potential gaps in key statistics and identified areas in which pragmatic cross-border co-operation may play a useful and effective role in filling such gaps. The Council noted the paper and requested that officials engage with the relevant agencies on the issues that were identified in the paper, with a view to reporting to the next appropriate NSMC meeting.
The Council agreed that the next meeting of the NSMC in tourism sectoral format should take place in November 2008. Go raibh míle maith agat.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Ms J McCann): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement. Does she have any further information about the proposed opening of a regional hub to mange the new and developing markets such as China and India? Does she know exactly where that hub will be located? Furthermore, is there a timescale for its opening? Go raibh maith agat.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The work on the hub has not yet been fully completed. Officials from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism are working together to agree the location of the new hub office and the timing for its opening. I expect that work to be expedited, and more information will be provided at a later date.
Mr Hamilton: A widely recognised weakness in Northern Ireland’s tourism industry is the lack of visitors coming to the country from the Republic of Ireland. Indeed, that weakness has been identified and targeted in the Tourist Board’s draft corporate plan. Did a discussion take place at the meeting on how we could work better with our counterparts in the Irish Republic to attract more visitors from the South to Northern Ireland?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Some discussion took place on attracting visitors from nearby areas. The South of Ireland market is valuable and one that we would like increasingly to exploit.
The main discussion was about infrastructure and how we can best identify needs in that area. The Irish market is primarily the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, not Tourism Ireland Ltd; therefore, discussion was limited. However, that sector’s importance has been recognised.
Mr Savage: I also welcome the Minister’s statement, especially where she mentioned managing new and developing markets.
Does the Minister agree that Northern Ireland produces some of the best produce in the world, while, at the same time, adhering to the most stringent of quality standards? With that in mind, does she believe that Northern Ireland’s agricultural wares are being marketed to the fullest potential? If not, how does the Minister feel that that can be improved?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I thank the Member for his question. That issue was discussed at the meeting, and we were shown some of the —
The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Durkan): You were there?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Of course I was there. I think that the Member regrets not being there. We talked about developing opportunities, the quality of our produce and how it should be marketed.
During the presentation, I noticed that the first item on a website directed at the French market examines the food and cuisine that we have to offer. Tourism Ireland recognises that we should boast about the quality of our produce, which can be used to attract people to visit. To tell the French about the standards and quality of our cuisine is nearly like selling snow to the Eskimos. It is a recognised and increasing part of the overall package to attract visitors and to enhance their experience while they are here.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas a rinne sí. Táimid a coinneáil gnóthach ar maidin.
I thank the Minister for her statement. We are keeping her busy this morning.
Given the effects of the credit crunch, increasing oil prices and the generally worsening economic climate, will the Minister tell the House how Tourism Ireland’s business plan intends to ensure that the tourism industry in Ireland remains competitive in the face of those growing pressures? Go raibh maith agat.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Tourism Ireland recognises that a more difficult climate exists in which to attract tourists. Although the situation is fairly difficult in 2008, it also accepts that that will become increasingly so in 2009 and 2010.
The business plan has estimated the 2007 visitor and revenue out-turn figures for North and South. A total of 7·739 million people visited the South, while 1·782 million people visited the North. That accounted for £2·643 billion in revenue to the South and £334 million to the North.
Tourism Ireland’s business plan for 2008 has set ambitious targets for challenging global trading environments and increased global competitiveness, to which Mr Bradley referred. It acknowledges the considerable challenges that the new market will face in trying to influence a wide range of Asian markets. It is incumbent upon me to congratulate Tourism Ireland on recognising the importance of developing new markets and on the strategic approach that it is taking to achieve that.
Mr Neeson: As the Minister knows, the people of Ireland are an island race, which, over the centuries, has been dependent on the sea. Both the North and the South have a rich maritime heritage, including shipbuilding, emigration, and so forth. Will the Minister agree that an opportunity exists for North/South co-operation to promote maritime heritage as a tourism package?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I agree that the potential exists. At the meeting we did not go into that level of detail so I do not have any specific information. However, certain aspects, such as the Titanic Quarter, are being examined. That is a strong base on which to attract visitors.
Mr Newton: I also welcome the Minister’s statement. She will recognise the huge potential of the many festivals and cultural events that the Loyal Orders organise and the long and proud history of such events. Will the Minister outline the discussions that took place on maximising the potential of those events and confirm how the strategy is being evolved and developed?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The Executive have set ambitious targets for increased visitor numbers and revenue. To achieve those we must identify all those who might be attracted to visit the region. As we move closer to lasting political and social stability, there should be less reluctance to expose aspects of the recent past that might be considered sensitive or controversial. Indeed, it must be hoped that as community tensions diminish our international image will further improve. That should create an opportunity to promote the diversity of tourism opportunities.
Although there are good reasons to promote cultural and political tourism, it must be done within a framework of principles that enjoy widespread acceptance. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is developing proposals for such a policy framework.
The entire issue of cultural tourism should be promoted and used. At the meeting, I made the point that, every day, visitors flock to take photographs of the murals at the bottom of the Falls Road. People come here to see what our past is all about, and we should not try to hide it. We welcome the fact that people come here with an interest in political tourism because it gets them here in the first place. They can then see what else we have to offer. Political tourism is an important part of the strategy that is being developed by DETI.
Mrs M Bradley: What is the Minister doing to promote agritourism, particularly in the context of the restrictive planning regime in the countryside? Will she guarantee that the revised PPS 14 will support agritourism businesses?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Although PPS 14 was not discussed at the meeting, the potential development opportunities in my Department’s rural development programme were discussed. I talked about some of the projects — such as self-catering cottages — that were funded by my Department. Rural areas have good tourism projects, which we want to be highlighted and promoted.
I also discussed the benefits of natural-resource tourism and the fact that the forestry sector is in my portfolio. There is the potential for us to consider other partnerships that create more natural-resource tourism and attract more visitors here. It dovetails nicely with the work that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and I are involved in — maximising the potential for tourism right across the Six Counties and in rural areas.
Mr Beggs: The Minister mentioned that the increased economic uncertainty in some key overseas markets was discussed. First, were the effects of fuel surcharges, particularly on long-haul flights, discussed? Secondly, was there any discussion about the importance of our near-at-hand market — that is, tourists from England, Scotland and Wales?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The answer to both those questions is yes. Tourism Ireland noted the increasing importance of new and developing markets. We are not unique in experiencing fuel surcharges and similar issues; those are global phenomena that affect tourism markets across the world.
The fact that Tourism Ireland plans to open a new hub office indicates that it is considering new markets, because older markets that we relied on in the past — for example, the US market — are no longer as stable and cannot be relied on. The infrastructure must be in place to encourage people from other parts of the world to visit. Tourism Ireland is trying to influence visits to the island of Ireland in a challenging global environment. In such times, we agreed that it is all the more important to adjust the emphasis on target markets while maintaining a substantive presence in our traditional markets.
The Member specifically referred to tourism from Britain. It is recognised that that British market is important for our tourism potential. During the first half of 2008, Tourism Ireland invested more than £7 million in a wide-ranging marketing programme. The budget for 2008-09 and beyond includes provision for increased effort in the British market. It is recognised that it is important to encourage our nearby neighbours to visit. Numerous significant marketing campaigns have taken place in Britain to attract visitors to the island of Ireland.
Diseases of Animals Bill
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): I beg to introduce the Diseases of Animals Bill [NIA 22/07], which is a Bill to amend the Diseases of Animals (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, including provision for preventing the spread of disease; 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.
The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr G Kelly): I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Public Authorities (Reform) Bill [NIA 19/07] be agreed.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, the Bill contains provisions relating to certain public bodies that are the responsibility of several Departments, but it has been co-ordinated and introduced on behalf of the Executive by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Bill arises, in the main, from proposals for change to several small public bodies as a result of the review of public administration. It abolishes the Fisheries Conservancy Board (FCB) and provides for the transfer of its functions to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL). It also abolishes the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board for Northern Ireland, following which arrangements will be made by the Department for Work and Pensions, through separate legislation, to extend the remit of the equivalent board in Britain to cover our interests.
In addition to those provisions, the Bill repeals primary legislation that is no longer required following the dissolution of the Pig Production Development Committee, Enterprise Ulster and Laganside Corporation. The dissolution of those bodies has already been effected by separate subordinate legislation introduced by the relevant Departments.
As we will no doubt hear shortly from its Chairman, the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister was briefed on the contents of the Bill prior to its introduction, and it consulted all the other departmental Committees in view of the cross-cutting nature of the Bill. I am grateful to all the Committees involved for their consideration of the content of the Bill and look forward to further engagement during the formal Committee Stage.
I will explain in more detail the rationale behind the provisions that will effect the abolition of the Fisheries Conservancy Board and the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board.
The Fisheries Conservancy Board is an executive non-departmental public body of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. It is responsible for the conservation and protection of the salmon and inland fisheries, other than those that fall within the responsibility of the Loughs Agency of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission. In 2002, a review of the Fisheries Conservancy Board concluded that, while there was a continuing need for the functions of the board, there should be radical change in the means of delivering them. The report recommended that the functions of the board and those of the inland fisheries branch of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure should be combined into one unit. That recommendation was confirmed as part of the review of public administration in 2006 and endorsed following the restoration of devolution by the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure.
The Fisheries Conservancy Board was set up to be financially self-sufficient and to derive an income from the sale of fishing licences and agency work. However, now that the board can operate only with substantial Government funding, the Assembly has already considered its future, debating a motion calling on the Executive to abolish the Fisheries Conservancy Board and transfer its responsibilities to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure as a matter of urgency. Members considered that the board was not fulfilling its main role of fisheries protection and was falling short of its other responsibilities. In response, the then Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure explained that, although his Department had taken steps to support the operational activates of the board, he hoped that Members would facilitate the passage of the Public Authorities (Reform) Bill through the Assembly to allow a timely transfer of the board’s functions to the Department.
The Bill will enable the Fisheries Conservancy Board’s resources and expertise to be incorporated into the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Organisational restructuring has been planned, resource needs have been assessed, and bids have been made to provide for a more integrated and strategic conservation and protection service. The basis for the service will remain the statutory remit outlined in the relevant legislation. In due course, policy and strategy will be reviewed in light of priorities and emerging best practices in fisheries management to ensure that the service is consistent with the needs of the public.
The Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board provides advice to the Department for Social Development (DSD) as required on disability living allowance and attendance allowance matters. The board does not have any staff, assets or executive functions; its members are paid fees and expenses for attendance at board meetings, and the Department for Social Development provides the accommodation and secretarial support.
The total cost to the Department is estimated at approximately £40,000 to £50,000 per annum.
There is a statutory requirement for the board, which meets four times a year, to include members with prescribed medical and professional knowledge, a carer, and people who are themselves disabled. In practice, it has proved very difficult to fill some of the vacancies on the board that require medical and professional expertise so that the statutory requirements can be met. In addition, the board’s functions here correspond to those of the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board in Britain, which currently advises the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
Given the policy of maintaining parity in social security matters, there is merit in consistent advice from a single, authoritative, source being provided to both the Department for Social Development here, and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. A single board will also bring the provision of advice in that area into line with the Social Security Advisory Committee, and the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, which provide advice in both jurisdictions. It has therefore been agreed with the Department for Work and Pensions that the remit of the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board in Britain may be extended here, thus establishing a single board that will also advise the Department for Social Development. Moreover, it has been agreed that the new board will have at least one member from here, to provide a local perspective, and to ensure that our interests are represented. Again, that will mirror the arrangements of the Social Security Advisory Committee.
The Bill will streamline the delivery of functions currently undertaken by the Fisheries Conservancy Board and the advisory board. Furthermore, it will contribute — albeit in a modest way — to the reduction of the number of public bodies currently in operation here, and I am sure that that will be welcomed by Members. I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. With regard to the general theme of the Bill, it is very important to get this statute in place, and it is hoped that it will remove more quangos. However, I have concerns about how we are to ensure that there is some local input to the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board. Can the Minister reassure the House that there will be local input and accessibility to the advisory board, particularly to deal with issues involving poverty and stress-related illnesses? In England, Scotland and Wales back-up support is in place, whereas that support is not in place here. Decisions in relation to disability living allowance (DLA) therefore may be taken that, although taking circumstances into account, do not take into account that lack of back-up support. Can the Minister reassure the House that that issue will be considered, and that there will be local input to ensure that local circumstances are taken into account when decisions are made regarding DLA? My understanding is that, currently, many such decisions are taken at a distance from local offices.
Mr B McCrea: Members will note my pink tie and pink badge, which, I notice, are sported by other Members as well. The issue of breast cancer is something that must be addressed, and we must all support the fight against it.
I welcome the Bill, and recognise it as playing a vital role in reforming and streamlining numerous Departments, by transferring the functions of some public bodies, and dissolving others. I strongly welcome the transfer of the functions of the Fisheries Conservancy Board to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. That will generate substantial savings to central Government, departmental payments to the board for services received, and grant-in-aid will no longer apply. I am pleased that the Ulster Unionist Party’s call for this move has been heeded. Such a shift will benefit not only Government, but anglers and conservation groups alike, who, over the years, have had continued problems with the Fisheries Conservancy Board.
Angling is a major sport in Northern Ireland that, unfortunately, has been repetitively hit by pollution incidents and mismanagement. This move will greatly improve the conservation of our inland fish stocks, and the health of our rivers.
The Bill makes further provision for the dissolution of the Laganside Corporation, and repeals further primary legislation. It is essentially a tidying-up mechanism. Previous provision has been made for the dissolution of the corporation, as it has achieved its statutory duty.
I congratulate all the people who worked for and with the corporation, which carried out excellent work during the past 15 years to transform Belfast’s riverside. Sometimes, people take that for granted, but the improvements that have been made during the past 15 years have been nothing short of remarkable.
Belfast’s waterfront is now unrecognisable. Its transformation has been a catalyst for the regeneration of the entire city and the new Titanic Quarter development. The Laganside Corporation is an excellent example of what can be achieved. A similar model can and must be introduced for the redevelopment of the Maze site, which is in my constituency. Members are aware that the Maze project currently faces some difficulties. Such a scheme could be introduced for the redevelopment of the entire site, not just for the proposed stadium. It is of paramount importance that, at a time when the Assembly has received criticism from Westminster on its handling of the Maze project, it shows that it can deliver. If the Assembly does not prove that it is competent in handling valuable assets, the Westminster Government will reject any further demand for assets. Unfortunately, they would be right to make such a rejection.
Mr Speaker: Order. It is important that the Member’s remarks stick to the Bill’s contents and remit. They have gone slightly beyond that.
Mr B McCrea: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your direction. Of course, I will try to keep to that. I will conclude my remarks by pointing out that the Bill makes further provision for the abolishment of the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board. That will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK. My party supports the Bill’s provision for the winding up of the pig production development committee. It also makes further provision for the dissolution of Enterprise Ulster. The Ulster Unionist Party welcomes those moves and supports the Bill.
Mrs M Bradley: Perhaps the Minister will inform the House how much money will be saved to the public purse by the reduction in the number of quangos.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the transfer of the Fisheries Conservancy Board’s functions to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. That said, I want simply to put on record concerns that the FCB brought to the attention of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure.
There is concern about the criminal proceedings involving fish kills that will not have reached conclusion, and about whether cases that involve civil claims will be resolved. There is also concern about the potential loss of the considerable expertise in fishing legislation that solicitors’ firms have built up when, after a prosecution file has been prepared by FCB, alleged fisheries offences are prosecuted through the court, and the lack of knowledge about whether the Department will continue to undertake functions such as the provision of a bailiffing service and support to angling clubs in the training of private-water bailiffs.
Those are some of the concerns that were raised by the FCB to the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee. I want to put them on record and to support comments that were made earlier in the debate by my colleague Mr Molloy.
Dr Farry: Although I broadly welcome the Bill, I want to raise a few points and questions from the Alliance Party’s perspective. There is concern about the delay in the process. This is yet another Bill that has emerged from decisions that relate to the review of public administration (RPA), which were announced in autumn 2005 with respect to health and education, and in March 2006 with respect to a list of various quangos and boards. Similarly, there is concern about the Bill’s breadth as regards that list. I appreciate that, at that time, the Secretary of State indicated that 81 boards and quangos were under consideration. Certain changes, such as those that were made to Land and Property Services (LPS) and the Driver and Vehicle Agency, have already come into effect. There are questions about whether OFMDFM and, indeed, all of the Executive have been comprehensive in their consideration of the entire list.
It would be useful if the junior Minister were able to set out the work that still needs to be done in following up on that decision or whether the Executive have taken different views from those that were inherited from the Secretary of State.
I cannot resist making the point that, in that statement, the Secretary of State looked forward to the creation of an independent environmental protection agency. He saw that as being the inevitable outcome of the review of environmental governance that was being established. It is worth noting formally that that is not part of the Bill.
The Bill proposes a UK-wide approach to DLA. The Alliance Party supports that, but it is important that the House is clear that to support the Bill will further entrench parity in social security provision on a UK-wide basis. At times, comments have been made from the Floor of the House about trying to do things differently with regard to social security. It is important that, as a body, we talk through and resolve exactly what we want to do on that important issue.
For my part, parity has been an important aspect of social security provision across the United Kingdom since the late 1940s. Social security is formally devolved to the Assembly, but, given our society’s relevant dependency and the number of people who receive benefits, it is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland not only to retain but to further entrench the principle of parity. It is important that the parties, particularly those on the Executive, take a collective view on where we are heading on the issue of parity and that we do not continue to send out mixed messages. I am sure that the Minister for Social Development will concur with that.
Undoubtedly, the Committee will have detailed comments to make, which I look forward to hearing. The Alliance Party is broadly supportive of the legislation, but we note that it is an extremely limited piece of legislation that has been brought forward after considerable delay. We are not sure what the justification for that delay has been.
Mr Dallat: I too welcome the Bill. I am sure that the Minister will accept that angling is a critical part of the developing tourism industry. Has the enormous power that has been held by absentee landlords since 1604 been addressed? Will that be a critical element in the development of tourism and angling in the future?
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (Mrs Long): As the Chairman of the Committee is unable to be present, I respond to the Second Stage of the Public Authorities (Reform) Bill on behalf of the Committee.
On 12 March 2008, the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister was briefed by OFMDFM on the proposals for the draft Public Authorities (Reform) Bill. The proposals for the Bill had been subject to public consultation in January 2007. It was originally proposed that the Bill would make changes to a small number of public bodies, either through dissolution or a transfer of functions, and that it would remove statutory nomination and consultation rights from several public bodies.
Following public consultation, the scope of the Bill was significantly reduced. In particular, a decision was made to retain the Housing Council and to leave provisions for statutory nominations as they are. The Bill, as introduced, simply seeks to transfer the functions of the Fisheries Conservancy Board to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and to abolish the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board for Northern Ireland, with its functions being delivered by a UK-wide disability living allowance advisory board. The Bill also includes several repeals of primary legislation, which relate to organisations that have already been abolished, such as Enterprise Ulster, the pig production development committee and Laganside Corporation.
At the Committee meeting on 12 March, members raised several issues with officials from OFMDFM. In particular, concern was expressed at the limited progress that has been made to reduce the number of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations (quangos) in Northern Ireland. The original RPA proposals indicated that the number of quangos would be reduced from 81 to 53. However, on 31 March 2008, the Committee was advised that a total of eight decisions to abolish quangos had been reversed and that decisions are pending on the abolition of another 10 quangos.
The Committee agreed to write to the other Statutory Committees to seek their views on the draft Bill.
The Committee received a response from the Committee for Social Development about the abolition of the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board for Northern Ireland. The response advised that the Committee for Social Development was not opposed to the board’s abolition; however, the Committee wished to highlight its need to continue to receive quality and timely independent expert advice about disability living allowance and attendance allowance matters under the proposed new arrangements.
The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development requested that the Committee for the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister seek to have provisions included in the Bill to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board.
The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister considered those responses together with information from OFMDFM on 23 April, 14 May and 18 June 2008. It noted the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development’s views and forwarded them to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Furthermore, the Committee sought information about the matters that it intends to explore during the Bill’s Committee Stage.
In particular, the Committee is seeking assurances that specific and appropriate mechanisms are in place to ensure that the UK-wide Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board is fully aware of the Northern Ireland perspective when it develops advice. The Committee will work with the Committee for Social Development to ensure that the interests of people in Northern Ireland who are in receipt of disability living allowance are fully protected. Furthermore, in light of the decision to retain the Housing Council, the Committee looks forward to receiving details of the more challenging remit that is to be set for it.
The Committee has ongoing concerns about matters that are relevant to, but not directly addressed by, the Bill, and it will pursue those matters with OFMDFM. We are still some way from delivering the reduced number of quangos that was proposed in the review of public administration. Therefore, the Committee has requested details of the cost-benefit analysis that informed the decision to retain quangos that were previously identified for abolition, and, as part of its role to scrutinise the implementation of the review of public administration, the Committee will continue to monitor progress towards streamlining decision making and improving accountability.
The Bill is relatively short and has limited scope, and the Committee has no objections to it passing Second Stage. However, the Bill contains some contentious areas and does not address others, and I hope that the Committee will be able to resolve those matters during the Committee Stage of the Bill.
The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr G Kelly): Go raibh maith agat arís, a Cheann Comhairle. I am grateful for Members’ contributions to the debate. Although the Bill is at an early stage, the opinions expressed have been valuable and informative. I shall now attempt to address the points that were raised in the debate; however, if I miss any, I will write to the relevant Members.
In my introductory comments about the benefits of abolishing the Fisheries Conservancy Board, I referred to concerns about the services that it provides and its financial position. The board’s abolition will create opportunities to reorganise the conservation and protection of inland fisheries, which, as I also said, the Assembly previously supported.
After transferring functions, policy responsibility and former Fisheries Conservancy Board enforcement personnel will be under a single management system, which will result in a more integrated and strategic conservation and protection service. Such rationalisation will enable better utilisation of Fisheries Conservancy Board and Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure networks, intelligence and contacts.
Furthermore, transferring functions will provide an opportunity to streamline regulatory and decision-making processes, and utilising, when necessary, core departmental operational staff will offer greater flexibility in the provision of on-the-ground resources. Given that the Department already has regional out-stations and resources, work will also be able to be better organised regionally.
Consideration has been given to stakeholder representation after the transfer of Fisheries Conservancy Board functions to the Department. Following the issue of the public consultation document in December 2007, about establishing a stakeholder forum, a panel has been set up to analyse responses.
In the interim, when required, the Department will continue to assist the Fisheries Conservancy Board both on the ground and in filling key vacancies within the organisation. The Department will monitor the board through monthly meetings and by representation on the board and its executive committee.
Funding has been secured to ensure that the Fisheries Conservancy Board remains operational until it is abolished. In all the circumstances that I outlined, we are confident that the correct course of action is being taken.
As I mentioned earlier, the proposed changes to the delivery of the functions of the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board will bring that area into line with the other two statutory advisory bodies that exist in the field of social security: the Social Security Advisory Committee and the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. Those bodies advise both the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Department for Social Development.
The changes will also go some way towards further reducing the number of quangos — and several Members raised that point — while ensuring that the Department for Social Development continues to have access to expert independent advice on disability living allowance and attendance allowance. There is no evidence that the Social Security Advisory Committee or the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council have failed to consider the needs of people here. We believe that there is no reason to suppose that a Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board with a remit to cover our interests will fail to address any particular local needs or circumstances.
Francie Molloy mentioned the loss of local input. As I said, both the Social Security Advisory Committee and the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council operate throughout Britain and Ireland already, and they do so very successfully. Les Allamby, director of the Law Centre (NI), is the Northern Ireland representative on the Social Security Advisory Committee, and he plays a very active role in the committee’s work. We are considering how best the North can be represented when DLAAB takes on its new role. The issue of individual cases was mentioned, but board members do not consider individual cases in these circumstances.
Mary Bradley asked about the cost-benefit analysis, which is an issue that the OFMDFM Committee raised recently. The relevant information on that is being gathered from lead Departments, but that process will take time. However, we will endeavour to provide the Committee — and, indeed, Mrs Bradley — with that information by the end of June. John Dallat mentioned absentee landlords, but the Bill, which is a parity piece of legislation, does not address that issue specifically.
The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will continue to promote angling through its public angling estate and will work for the improvement and development of angling in general.
Several Members mentioned quangos. Stephen Farry resisted the temptation to say anything about quangos, so I will resist saying anything about quangos and the Alliance Party. However, the OFMDFM Committee’s interest in the wider issue of reducing the number of quangos in general is welcome. OFMDFM officials are working to provide the Committee with the information that it has requested in order that it may consider the matter fully. However, I suggest that the purpose of today’s debate is to consider the general principles of the Bill, rather than to speculate on what might have been included in it. In any case, most of the bodies for which earlier decisions to abolish or transfer functions were reversed by Ministers would not have been included in the Public Authorities (Reform) Bill. The Bill’s scope did not extend to bodies where functions were to be transferred to local councils after devolution. Only the decision to retain the Housing Council affected the provisions of the original Bill.
Naomi Long mentioned the Agricultural Wages Board, and on behalf of the Committee, she also mentioned quangos. I am aware of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development’s view that provisions that relate to the Agricultural Wages Board might be included in the Bill.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development has not requested the inclusion of such provisions. Furthermore, it is not the role of the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to sponsor the Bill on behalf of the Executive or to introduce such provisions unilaterally without the Minister’s agreement.
In response to Stephen Farry and Naomi Long; each Minister has a responsibility to review, departmentally, the number of quangos. The Department welcomes the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister’s interest in reducing the number of quangos. We will consider that suggestion.
I think that I have answered all questions; however, if I have overlooked any, I assure Members that I will respond to them later. I thank Members for their contributions to the debate on the Public Authorities (Reform) Bill and for their questions. I am confident that the Bill will provide greater effectiveness in the delivery of salmon and inland fisheries and of disability living allowance and attendance allowance advisory functions. The Executive are conducting the most wide-ranging reform of public services for a generation. A commitment to world-class public services that meet the needs of the economy and wider society is at the heart of that reform programme. The Bill’s main provisions are consistent with the Executive’s commitment to the delivery of more efficient and effective public services. I commend the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Public Authorities (Reform) Bill [NIA 19/07] be agreed.
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I beg to move
That the Charities Bill [NIA 9/07] do now pass.
I am pleased that this important Bill has reached its Final Stage. I introduced it to the Assembly in December 2007, and although its passage has been lengthy and time-consuming it has been productive. Today, I want to reiterate the main purpose, aims and objectives of the Charities Bill and thank the Committee for Social Development and other Members for their careful and detailed scrutiny. Furthermore, I look forward to future implementation developments.
To date, much of the legislation’s focus has been on the establishment of a proper regulatory framework for charities in Northern Ireland. That important step will keep us in line with developments in Great Britain and Ireland and help to ensure public confidence in charitable giving. However, it is equally important that we will be able to give proper recognition to the unique role and voluntary ethos of the charitable sector.
I want to establish a strong, accessible and supportive regulatory body in Northern Ireland. Although its main function will be to regulate and monitor charitable giving, it will also play a key role in the development of effective relationships and partnerships with those who serve the sector. The commission will be required to develop an ethos that promotes confidence in charitable giving, encourages sharing of best practice and, ultimately, helps to raise standards.
I have been pleased with the universal welcome that the Bill has received and for the cross-party support in the Committee for Social Development and in the House. However, despite the widespread acceptance of the principles of the legislation, there has been detailed and thorough scrutiny of the 186 clauses and nine schedules. I thank the former Chairperson and members of the Committee for Social Development for their extensive and considered evidence taking, their useful suggestions for amendments and for their comprehensive report, which was published on 13 May 2008.
I am confident that the process has produced better legislation and that it will lead to appropriate regulation for charities in Northern Ireland. I particularly welcome the engagement with faith-based charities and ethnic minority groups; their input was invaluable, and I did not hesitate to propose amendments to the Bill where that was the right thing to do.
During the Bill’s Consideration Stage on 3 June, I referred to the progress of the Bill as evidence that local democracy was working. I reiterate that message today. The passage of the Charities Bill and other primary legislation shows that Assembly Members and others can influence the decision-making process. It also shows that politicians listen and take action.
The Bill, as it stands to be voted on by the Assembly, shows how a Minister and a Committee, working together with the joint aim of achieving better legislation, can achieve very positive outcomes. I will continue to work with the Committee as we make proposals for the implementation of the Charities Bill and the consequent regulations.
I will now proceed with the public appointment process for the new charity commissioners. I hope to be in a position to announce the names of the successful candidates by the end of October, and I would like the commission to be up and running by the end of the year. I have given a public commitment to locate the body outside the greater Belfast area. The decentralisation of public-sector jobs can make a significant contribution to improving the regional economic balance across the North. I hope to make a decision on the commission’s location in the near future. It will take some time to get the necessary subordinate legislation and other mechanisms in place, but I trust that we can all look forward to better regulation of local charities and improved public confidence in charitable giving. I commend the Charities Bill to the House.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Simpson): The Charities Bill comprises 186 clauses and nine schedules. It has been welcomed by everybody, including, most importantly, those in the voluntary and community sector. It creates a modern legal framework to support and encourage a vibrant and diverse third sector, and it provides robust controls around registration, regulation and supervision.
The Bill presents a perfect opportunity for the Assembly to give legislative recognition to the important role that charities play in Northern Ireland. Without the operation of charities, we would have a very different kind of civil society. We are indebted to charities for providing vital services, strengthening communities and representing the marginalised people in our society. On behalf of the Social Development Committee, I support the motion.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As has been said, the Charities Bill is a long and complex piece of legislation containing 186 clauses and nine schedules. I thank the departmental officials who went through the Bill clause by clause and facilitated the Committee in understanding its complexities.
The Bill will provide a definition of “charity” and “charitable purpose”, and it will establish a charity commission and a charity tribunal. It will also create a register of charities and deal with the regulation of charities and public charitable collections.
Initially, there was a lot of discussion around the issues of designation of religious charities, in relation to the number of years that they have been established and to the number of members. Evidence was received from some smaller Churches, and the amendments made seem to have resolved the situation and satisfied the majority of people.
As has been said, evidence was also taken from members of the voluntary sector. There was a lot of discussion around the make-up of the commission. The voluntary sector felt that the commission should be a small body with a chief and deputy chief commissioner, and possibly a staff of five. That was considered adequate, and the consensus was that if the commission’s staff continued to grow unchecked in the future, its effectiveness would be negated.
However, it has been accepted that staffing levels must be adequate in order to deal with the workload. The inclusion of one or two legally qualified persons on the commission is acceptable in the short term because of the need to interpret the complexities of the legislation.
The charities here have recognised that anything that boosts public confidence in them is important; the fact that charities will have to submit accounts for scrutiny will reassure the public. Overall, the Charities Bill can be considered a welcome piece of legislation. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr Dallat: Will the Minister tell the House how the charity commission will be staffed?
Ms Lo: I wish to add my thanks to the departmental staff and the Committee staff. In particular, I thank the Minister for Social Development for her open-mindedness and her willingness to listen to representations from rural communities as well as ethnic minority communities on the issue of designated religious status. The staff were very patient with the Committee and helped us to plough through our scrutiny of the 186 clauses of the Bill.
The voluntary sector and the charities certainly welcome this long-awaited legislation, which has been applicable in other parts of the UK. The charities see it as a positive Government intervention. We all now look forward to the establishment of the charity commission, and we hope that the Department will appoint a body of people with the appropriate knowledge and experience of charities in Northern Ireland, and that it will be given the proper resources to meet its objectives and carry out its many functions.
The Committee believes that it is important at the outset to have an awareness-raising campaign to help charitable bodies to obtain the proper advice and information on becoming established in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Minister will also comment on the timescale for the establishment of the charity commission.
Mrs M Bradley: I welcome this legislation, and congratulate the Minister on the volume of legislation that she has laid before the House. Has the Minister any thoughts on where the charity commission will be located?
The Minister for Social Development: First, I wish to thank the Chairperson of the Social Development Committee and other Committee members, namely, Mr Brady, Ms Lo, Mr Dallat and Mrs Bradley, for their contributions to the debate. The progress of the Bill has been greatly assisted by constructive input in the House and in the Committee.
I look forward to working with all Members as we introduce the necessary Orders and regulations to enact the legislation. I am also committed to full consultation with the charity sector on important issues, such as the public benefit test and the proposals for the regulation of charity fund-raising. It is only by working together that we can ensure that a system is put in place that meets the requirements of regulators, donors and charities alike.
I wish to take the opportunity to address the issues that have been raised in the debate. Mr Brady and Mr Dallat asked about staffing, and I wish to reassure them about that. The charity commission will have a board comprising one chief charity commissioner, one deputy chief charity commissioner and three to five charity commissioners.
I have already approved the process for those public appointments, which will be regulated by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments for Northern Ireland. I intend the posts to be publicly advertised in early July and to have commissioners in place by the end of October. The charity commission will have up to 16 staff, including a chief executive, based on comparison with the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.
Mr Brady raised the issue of staff numbers. Although I have said that there will be 16 staff, I will review staff numbers as and when required. If more staff are required, I will consider further recruitment.
I have already referred to the location of the charity commission, but I shall restate my position. My officials have been examining accommodation options for the commission. They have visited premises throughout Northern Ireland, and I hope to make a decision on the location shortly. I will consider a range of factors, including value for money and accessibility.
Members will be aware that I met Sir George Bain on 12 June, and I put forward my views on the potential for decentralising public-sector jobs, because that can make a significant contribution to improving the regional economic balance across the North of Ireland. I understand that Sir George will publish the outcome of his review later this year. However, I have stated publicly that I intend to locate the commission’s office and its jobs outside the greater Belfast area in order to afford greater accessibility to people, address the current regional economic imbalance and provide the opportunity for other areas to become hubs, as the regional development strategy promised.
The charity commission will be responsible for appointing its own staff, and the legislation provides for staff to be directly recruited or appointed through secondment. As I mentioned, there will be about 16 staff members.
Ms Lo asked about the timescale. I hope to decide quickly on the charity commission’s location and, when the Bill receives Royal Assent, to advertise publicly for potential commissioners. I hope to fully implement the appointment process, in accordance with the appropriate guidelines for public appointments, by this autumn and to have the commission up and running by the end of this year.
In conclusion, I thank all Members who debated the Bill, whether in Committee or in the House, for their substantial contributions and for their considered advice on, and attitude towards, this new departure for charities in Northern Ireland. That attitude clearly demonstrates that Government and local democracy are working, and it shows what can be achieved when a Minister and Committee — in this case the Committee for Social Development — work together for the common good of the people of Northern Ireland.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Charities Bill [NIA 9/07] do now pass.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I beg to move
That the Draft Children and Young Persons (Sale of Tobacco etc.) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.
I seek the Assembly’s approval to introduce the aforementioned statutory rule. Subject to the Assembly’s approval, that rule will substitute “aged 18” for “aged 16” in the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 and in the Children and Young Persons (Protection from Tobacco) (Northern Ireland) Order 1991.
The rule’s main purpose is to make it illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone aged under 18, as opposed to under 16, which is the present limit. It will also require the replacement of existing warning statements in retail premises and on tobacco vending machines in order to reflect the change in the law.
My Department will fund replacement signage. That measure will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland on age of sale, with effect from 1 September this year.
Smoking is well recognised as the single greatest cause of premature death and avoidable illness in Northern Ireland, claiming some 2,300 lives here each year. It is a major risk factor in coronary heart disease, strokes, cancer and other diseases of the circulatory system, which kill two in every five men and women here. Those diseases are also leading causes of disability. A lifetime non-smoker is 60% less likely than a current smoker to have coronary heart disease and 30% less likely to suffer a stroke. Smoking is also a major cause of health inequalities and is the principal cause of the gap in life expectancy between rich and poor. For example, instances of lung cancer are 71% higher in deprived areas.
Although much work remains to be done, we are having some success in reducing adult smoking prevalence, which is currently 25% — the lowest figure since the continuous household survey began in 1983. Significantly, 79% of adult smokers in Northern Ireland took up the habit in their teens, and 11% of children aged between 11 and 15 here are regular smokers. If we are to achieve a significant reduction in smoking prevalence, we must deter young people from taking up the habit. That is why I recently agreed the inclusion of Northern Ireland in a Department of Health-led public-consultation exercise on the future of tobacco control. The consultation seeks views on a range of issues that are likely to impact on children’s smoking, including advertising at point of sale and access to tobacco-vending machines. I also intend to introduce proposals in due course that will impose sanctions on retailers who persist in selling tobacco to underage customers. That is important, because research in England found that 57% of children obtain their cigarettes from shops.
I have no doubt that controls already in place, such as smoke-free enclosed public places and workplaces, will have a positive impact on reducing smoking prevalence, especially among young people. My Department provided resources to facilitate the appointment of additional enforcement officers to maximise compliance with smoke-free legislation from April 2007. That funding is continuing and is linked to enhanced enforcement activity on underage sales. Our ‘A Five Year Tobacco Action Plan 2003-2008’ identifies children and young people as a key target group. That will remain an important element of the plan as my officials begin the review process, with the aim of rolling out the plan for a further five years. In developing the plan, my officials will continue to consult the statutory- and voluntary-sector agencies on how best to discourage young people from adopting the habit.
Members will be aware that I launched a 12-week consultation exercise on 29 October 2007 to help me to assess the public’s view on the age of sale. I am pleased to say that the consultation elicited 90% support for increasing the legal age of sale to 18. Members will also recall that the Assembly debated that issue in November last year and strongly supported increasing the age of sale to 18. In that debate, I gave a commitment to bring to the Assembly any proposals to increase the age of sale. The motion fulfils that commitment, and I believe that I have the Assembly’s support for increasing the age of sale of tobacco to 18.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): The Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety is grateful to officials from the Department who briefed Members at a meeting on 17 April 2008 on the proposals. The Committee fully recognises that smoking is the greatest preventable cause of death and illness, and welcomes any measures that will help to discourage young people from starting to smoke in the first instance.
The Chief Medical Officer’s annual report, which was published just last week, showed that almost 80% of adult smokers started smoking in their teens and that an alarming 11% of children aged 11 to 15 are already regular smokers.
The Committee also supported the introduction of the smoking ban in public places last year. The draft regulations that are before the Assembly, which propose to increase the age at which cigarettes may be sold legally from 16 to 18, were considered and agreed by the Committee at its meeting on 19 June. As the Minister explained, the aim of the draft regulations is to make it more difficult for young people to obtain cigarettes and to make the sale and availability of cigarettes among young people less culturally acceptable. I support the motion.
Mr B McCrea: I am vehemently anti-smoking — at any age. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety explained the detrimental effect that smoking has on the lives of young and old people, and the rest of society. I realise that in making such a strong statement, there might be some concern about the 25% of people who do smoke. It is not my intention to criticise those people, but, as the Minister and the Committee Chairperson said, one must consider the age at which people start to smoke. Tobacco smoking is addictive, and many people start to smoke cigarettes when they are young.
Research carried out by the Health Promotion Agency revealed that 50% of children in forms 1 to 5 tried smoking cigarettes before the age of 13. The evidence also confirms that the younger children are when they first try smoking, the more likely they are to become regular tobacco users and the less likely they are to quit.
The Minister also stated that the number of deaths in Northern Ireland that are directly attributable to smoking is somewhere between 2,300 and other higher estimates. The most common age at which people start to smoke is 12 or 13; at that age, young people do not see themselves as real smokers but as social smokers. That is the age at which they should be offered some protection. Retailers also face the difficulty of trying to work out what age young people actually are.
The emphasis that is placed on alcohol consumption and the sale of alcohol to minors is astonishing, because tobacco is the one product that is guaranteed to kill, even if it is used in moderation. That is why the Assembly must be strong in trying to convey a message that zero tolerance will be exhibited against those who sell cigarettes to young folk.
I acknowledge the Minister’s initiatives on this issue, but I hope that he will consider further measures. Perhaps, in his winding-up speech, he will comment on the sale of 10-packs of cigarettes — the purchase of which are prevalent among children — and retailers’ practice of selling individual cigarettes to children on their way to school. There is a case for secret shoppers or some other initiative to stamp out such practices, because their impact on young people is so severe. I thank the Minister for introducing the proposal, and I support the motion.
Mr McCarthy: I support the motion, as have other Members. The statistics provided to the House by the Minister are horrendous, and they affect every member of society. Smoking is, undoubtedly, a killer, and our Government have come a long way in tackling the scourge. Cancer is a hellish disease, and, if we can prevent our young children from smoking, we will have achieved much.
The motion goes some way to putting tobacco products out of the reach of children, and I am sure that Members will support the Minister’s proposal.
I take this opportunity to say that I support the next item on the Order Paper, which is also smoking related.
Mr Speaker: Order. We will deal with one issue at a time.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I am grateful to the Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Iris Robinson, and other Members who participated in the debate for their comments and support. Basil McCrea mentioned the availability of 10-packs of cigarettes and the sale of individual cigarettes, and he asked how the Department intended to stamp out such practices.
We are doing that through a mixture of public information, education and enforcement: I am dealing with enforcement in consultation with colleagues in the rest of the UK, and I am looking to the next phase of the tobacco action plan, which is under review.
I recognise that raising the age of sale will not, by itself, solve the problem of children smoking; rather it will compliment improved enforcement activity and the ongoing prevention work that is being undertaken by agencies, including health boards and trusts, the Health Promotion Agency, the education sector and the Ulster Cancer Foundation. It also represents an important milestone in the construction of what we all hope will be a solid platform to help us to reach our long-term goal of a tobacco-free society in Northern Ireland.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Draft Children and Young Persons (Sale of Tobacco etc.) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I beg to move
That the Draft Smoke-Free (Exemption, Vehicles, Penalties and Discounted Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.
I am seeking the Assembly’s approval to introduce the aforementioned statutory rule, which arises as a consequence of the previous motion. Subject to the Assembly’s approval, the statutory rule will substitute the words “aged 18 years” for the words “aged 16 years” in the Smoke-Free (Exemptions, Vehicles, Penalties and Discounted Amounts) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2007. That means that under the smoke-free legislation, the existing provision whereby smoking may be permitted in a designated room in specified residential accommodation used by persons aged 16 years or over, will be amended to read “aged 18 years or over”. I commend the motion to Members.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): On 19 June, the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety considered the draft regulations and strongly supported the provisions. I support the motion.
Mr B McCrea: I want to bring to the attention of the Minister and Members the positive outcomes that have been achieved since the banning of smoking in public places of work. On Friday 30 May, I attended a meeting at which the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health reported that following the introduction of the smoking ban, there were significant improvements in air quality. Research by the Ulster Cancer Foundation found that the exposure of bar workers to second-hand smoke fell by 94%. In the home, and socially, exposure to second-hand smoke fell by two thirds.
Most importantly, the effects were felt by the people themselves — bar workers reported an astounding improvement in their health, with 33% reporting less eye irritation, runny noses, sore throats, coughs and other significant improvements in their health. I, therefore, commend the Minister for his action.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I thank Mrs Robinson and Mr McCrea for their positive responses. As Mr McCrea said, there are already positive outcomes flowing from the legislation that we have put through, and I believe that that can be reinforced by the measures that we have agreed today.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Draft Smoke-Free (Exemption, Vehicles, Penalties and Discounted Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.
Statutory Committee Membership
Mr Speaker: As with similar motions, the motion on Statutory Committee membership will be treated as a business motion. Therefore, there will be no debate.
That Mr Ian Paisley Jnr replace Mr Mervyn Storey as a member of the Committee for Finance and Personnel. — [Mr Weir.]
Mr Speaker: It is obvious that business in the House has moved on faster than some Members realise. I ask that Members take their ease for a few minutes.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Durkan): I beg to move
That this Assembly notes with concern that rising energy costs are hitting families in Northern Ireland harder than in the rest of the UK; and calls on the Executive to:
(i) give further priority to measures to promote energy efficiency and combat fuel poverty;
(ii) drive a coordinated energy policy to diversify our energy supplies, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, increase competition in our energy market and harness the full potential of renewable energy;
(iii) cooperate with other Governments, including through the British Irish Council, to develop a longer-term strategy for these islands, and;
(iv) urge the UK Government to re-direct the windfall VAT revenue from higher energy bills to be used to mitigate the escalation of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland”.
I welcome the opportunity to debate rising energy costs. It is the first motion that the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment has tabled for debate. The Committee has received a substantial amount of evidence from a number of key stakeholders. It is unanimous in its concern that urgent steps must be taken by the Executive to address what is fast becoming a critical situation.
From evidence supplied to the Committee, it is obvious that the increase in energy prices is a complex issue that touches every family and business in Northern Ireland. Today’s debate is timely, given the escalation of energy costs and the news that senior energy industry insiders predict further increases of up to 40% this year. That, according to figures outlined in Westminster last week, could plunge an additional 1·6 million people across the UK into fuel poverty, and the Bank of England has warned consumers to brace themselves for:
“the most difficult economic challenge for two decades.”
As recently as last Thursday, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) warned that oil prices could soar to as high as $170 a barrel in the summer, bringing further misery to consumers and additional stress to businesses. In evidence to the Committee, the utility regulator warned that the spike in energy prices is not a temporary blip; the supply-and-demand and political factors that lie behind the crisis will continue in the long run.
Northern Ireland faces sharp increases in the wholesale prices of gas, oil, electricity and carbon. Coal prices are also at record levels, partly influenced by the cold winter in China. Normally, China is a substantial exporter of coal, but it did not export enough last winter. In the medium to long term, other global factors must be considered, such as the emergence of massive new markets in China and India and the globalisation of gas prices. Liquefied natural gas will become the marginal unit, as it can be transported in a way that pipeline gas cannot. Politically, the EU is tightening its emission limits, and that, coupled with political uncertainty in the Middle East and Russia, is causing energy prices to reach boiling point.
The utility regulator assured the Committee that only genuine costs are passed on to consumers and that he will continue to bear down on monopoly costs. However, he warned that if Northern Ireland is to address the energy crisis and successfully combat fuel poverty, it must change its ways.
I do not wish to pre-empt Members from focusing on the effects of rising energy prices, it is equally important to talk about promoting energy efficiency as a means of combating fuel poverty, which is a bigger problem in Northern Ireland than in other regions of the UK, partly because of relatively low incomes and the higher cost of fuel. In 2006, some 34% of people here were deemed to be living in fuel poverty, and the Consumer Council has warned that the increase in fuel prices will cause that figure to rise sharply to over 40%.
The Committee acknowledges the work of the fuel poverty task force and its progress in identifying the fuel poor. Alarmingly, however, a recent Audit Office report on the warm homes scheme confirmed that 30% of the grants went to homes that were already energy efficient and to those who were at little risk of fuel poverty. The report went on to state that significant numbers of the fuel poor were being excluded from assistance, including the low paid and those who are eligible for, but do not claim, benefits. The Committee requests that the task force urgently examine the report’s recommendations.
Another energy efficiency issue is that the Reconnect scheme that provided grants of up to 50% to householders to install renewable energy systems has ended, and the Committee urges the Executive to undertake an evaluation of that situation as a matter of urgency.
The Committee unanimously supports a co-ordinated energy policy. The challenge faces not only Northern Ireland but all people and Administrations throughout these islands, and a co-ordinated energy policy is required to diversify energy supplies, increase competition in the energy market and harness the full potential of renewable energy.
Northern Ireland’s reliance on fossil fuels is of concern: 70% of consumers burn oil as their main source of heat. Northern Ireland uses more carbon-rich fuels than anywhere else in the UK and its consumers are, therefore, more exposed to carbon costs than elsewhere in the UK or Ireland.
Importing fossil fuels presents its own risk. There is increased competition for energy resources in the face of growing global energy demand. Increasingly, reserves are concentrated in fewer, further away places and in markets that are neither transparent nor truly competitive. To ensure security of supply, a co-ordinated energy strategy is needed to maximise the economic production of our domestic energy sources, which, together with co-ordinated energy-saving measures, will greatly reduce our dependence on energy imports.
Only last week in Westminster, I attended an event that examined fuel poverty throughout the UK. There, a key player in the energy sector, speaking on UK policies, said that the strategy of having no strategy was not working and that the whole emphasis of public policy over the years, which amounted to reliance on market solutions, was not enough. Other, more active interventions and co-ordinating measures are needed. That is why the motion raises issues not just at a regional level but at a British-Irish level.
Increased competition in our energy market is vital. The Committee welcomes the utility regulator’s efforts to address monopoly costs and his assurance that substantial costs have been removed from the gas network. However, we urge that measures be taken to encourage greater competition. Such measures are a necessary vehicle for maintaining efficiency incentives and ensuring that consumers benefit from any improvements further up the value chain.
More efficient use of the all-island gas infrastructure is urgently required. The acceleration of gas roll-out will help to drive out use of the most carbon-intensive fuels and reduce dependency on oil. Of all the fossil fuels, natural gas is the cleanest and most environmentally friendly. Compared with oil, it emits over 30% less carbon dioxide, and compared with coal, it emits over 50% less. Given those benefits, the Committee was concerned to hear from Firmus Energy of continued delays in connecting to the gas network in the public-sector estate and delays in releasing funds to complete the Northern Ireland Housing Executive’s heating-replacement programme. We urge the Executive to consider that issue, given the significant contribution that gas can make to reducing Northern Ireland’s CO2 emissions.
In the longer term, most important may be the need to harness the full potential of renewable energy. However, great challenges lie ahead. In the west, the grid is weak and is not currently capable of receiving the large expansion of wind generation that is likely to be required. Our planning system is also a worry — it will make it difficult to respond rapidly to change. There is only one interconnector with Great Britain, and only one other is planned. Even with two interconnectors, it is questionable that that will be sufficient to facilitate the use of Northern Ireland’s large wind-energy resource.
To achieve all that, and in order to develop a longer-term energy strategy for these islands, it is crucial that greater co-operation with other Governments takes place. That should include co-operation through the British-Irish Council and North/South structures.
The Committee urges the Executive to challenge the UK Government to use the estimated £10·5 million of extra VAT revenue that is forthcoming as a result of rising fuel prices to help vulnerable households this winter. The Committee identified those moneys because it did not want the motion to demand that the Executive make more money available from their hard-pressed Budget, but to point the Executive in the direction of other revenues for which they could lobby. The word from the Treasury is that it is not interested in making that money available. However, the Treasury also recently insisted that it would not address or revise tax issues but, as a result of political pressure, it had to do so. Therefore, we urge the Executive to bring those issues directly to the Treasury.
Mr Hamilton: As the Chairman said in his opening remarks, this is a big issue. Individual Members take it seriously and the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment took it extremely seriously, as is evidenced by the mammoth amount of evidence that it took over the past few weeks.
Members have only to go to their constituencies and talk to folk to realise how important rising energy costs are to people’s everyday lives.
The gravity of the problem is demonstrated by the fact that, in the height of summer — such as it is in Northern Ireland — we are discussing rising fuel costs. Had the debate occurred in a particularly bad, cold winter, we may have been able to see past the massive percentage increases that we have been experiencing. For example, the price of gas has increased by 28%, coal by 25%, electricity by 14%, and that, indeed, may increase further before the end of the year. The price of oil is at a record high. Those increases are bad at any time, but this time of year only accentuates the severity of the problem.
The motion deals quite properly with the problem and suggests how it could be dealt with in the short and longer term. Similar to any such difficulty that creeps up and hits us like this, there are short-term problems that require short-term solutions. However, we should not be foolish enough not to consider the long-term measures that will be needed to overhaul our whole approach and attitude towards our energy supply.
Fuel poverty will be raised time and again during the debate. I represent Strangford, which most perceive to be a fairly well-off constituency. However, even in a constituency such as that there are, according to the most recent estimates, some 7,000 households living in fuel poverty. That is approximately one quarter of the total households in Strangford. Indeed, that figure can only rise, given what is happening more widely with the price of fuel.
I welcome the existence of an Executive subcommittee on fuel poverty. The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment mentioned the Audit Office’s criticisms of the warm homes scheme. Those criticisms aside, I am thankful that that scheme exists and that it has been able to alleviate some people’s problems and take others out of fuel poverty. There is more good than bad in the scheme, and now that difficulties and issues have been identified, they can — and should — be overcome.
Although the motion does not specifically mention the winter fuel allowance, it has not risen in line with the rise in fuel costs. A windfall levy on VAT should be considered. The Government may argue that falling prices in the construction industry have resulted in their losing revenue in areas such as stamp duty. However, it is evident that there is potential to use the massive amount of VAT that is made on fuel of all kinds in order to help alleviate fuel poverty.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
Longer-term solutions are also required, and we in Northern Ireland must play our part by taking a longer-term approach to rising fuel costs. As the Committee Chairperson said, the utility regulator, in a sobering evidence session before the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, indicated that price rises will not slide away and return to normal, whatever that means. We will see such price rises time and again unless action is taken.
Opening the Northern Ireland market to competition would be a powerful tool, but in many respects, our energy market is too immature for that. However, the real potential lies with renewable forms of energy.
It is almost the set answer when discussing matters such as this to suggest that renewables are the future and the answer. However, that point is particularly important in Northern Ireland, not because renewables have the potential to ease some of our difficulties, but because of the potentially massive economic advantages that Northern Ireland has in renewables. Indeed, we could be the Saudi Arabia — so to speak — of wind power, and wave energy also has huge potential. I support the investment that is required to bring our electricity grid up to the standard that would allow it to deal with some of those renewables. We are still at a low level, but it will take massive investment to do that. That investment is certainly required.
The motion calls for intergovernmental co-operation, which I support. We are a very small part of the world, and if we cannot solve the problem on our own, we will need to work with neighbouring Governments, our own Government in Westminster, and the European Union.
Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I speak today in my capacity both as the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel and as an individual MLA.
I welcome the Committee report and the debate, which is timely in the context of the spiralling energy costs that have exposed our heavy reliance on fossil fuels and highlighted the pressing issue of fuel poverty. The debate also intensifies the focus on climate change and sustainable development.
The issues that are encapsulated in the motion are cross-cutting at governmental and departmental levels. A not-so obvious but important example relates to building regulations, which were studied in detail by the Committee for Finance and Personnel, of which I am Chairperson. As part of its consideration of the Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill, the Committee published a report, which Members received during the past week. That report contains recommendations that apply to the themes of this debate, such as promoting energy efficiency and harnessing the potential of renewable energy.
While scrutinising the Bill, the Committee took evidence from stakeholders, including the Energy Saving Trust, Northern Ireland Environmental Link and the Sustainable Energy Association. Their evidence highlighted the immediate and longer-term challenges to the Executive that are posed by our reliance on fossil fuels. As well as climate change and sustainable development, those challenges include fuel poverty and cost-of-living increases, which all MLAs are addressing at constituency level.
In its evidence, Northern Ireland Environmental Link pointed out that energy use in buildings represented 81% of non-transport-related energy consumption, with oil the primary heating fuel. It emphasised the importance of diversifying sources of energy and of reducing energy consumption, particularly in the face of increased oil prices and issues of security of supply. It is worth noting that only 4% of our electricity comes from renewable sources. Less than 1% comes from indigenous renewables, to which Mr Hamilton referred.
The Committee for Finance and Personnel concluded that building regulations can play an important part in achieving increased renewable-energy targets. The Committee wants building regulations to be used to encourage the take-up of renewable energy technologies. Incentives must be provided. It is imperative that the relevant industries respond to that demand.
The Committee has made proposals on how to stimulate demand for renewable-energy technologies. Those proposals include developing the capacity of the local renewables industry to support commercialisation.
The evidence also highlighted the critical role of planning policy in promoting renewable energy through, for example, granting development rights for small-scale renewable systems and for micro- and macro-generation schemes, such as community heat networks and larger-scale wind generation for new housing developments.
Economics and environmental concerns are forcing serious consideration of such issues. The Committee also considered evidence about how progress is being made on that matter, south of the border. Committee members welcomed the fact that local planning services were seriously considering those issues.
Bearing in mind how important it is to stimulate demand for renewables and to support the early-adopter market, the Committee called on the Finance Minister to work with his Executive colleagues to ensure that priority be given to funding in order to encourage the uptake and development of renewable-energy technologies.
In highlighting the relevance of the work of the Committee for Finance and Personnel to the matters under debate, I support the call for windfall VAT revenues from higher energy bills to be returned to the Assembly and Executive in order to mitigate fuel poverty. The Committee recently raised a range of measures that the Executive might consider in an effort to help to ease increases in the costs of living and the hardship imposed on many households by rising energy and fuel prices.
I support the motion and I look forward to hearing other contributions to the debate.
Mr Cree: It is not an exaggeration to say that Northern Ireland — indeed, the entire United Kingdom — is heading towards an energy crisis that will mean extreme hardship for the most vulnerable people and families this winter.
However, increasing energy prices, coupled with increases in the cost of food and consumer goods, is having a serious impact on all hard-working families, many of whom will be facing fuel poverty.
It has been estimated that average bills will have increased by 61% by the end of this year. That is an unprecedented increase that will have a crippling effect on many households, who will face stark and tough choices. Businesses, and even Government services, are also struggling with the increased costs. The problem is greater in Northern Ireland as we have lower wages and higher energy costs than the rest of the United Kingdom.
It is vital that we take steps to reduce the outlay of the thousands of families and businesses that are struggling with energy costs. Historically, Northern Ireland has had a non-competitive energy market, so I applaud the steps taken towards creating a single electricity market by the previous Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and that Department. Equally, steps that have been taken to open up the natural-gas market should be applauded.
Although much of the groundwork for producing a competitive electricity market in Northern Ireland has been done, we must ensure that that work results in genuinely open competition that will give consumers more choice and make prices more economical. Currently, such competition does not exist. It is, therefore, vital that we continue to work with our British and Irish counterparts to ensure the long-term success of our fledgling energy market and our future energy policies.
The more energy efficient that people’s homes and businesses become, the less energy they will have to use, which will therefore reduce their energy bills. It is thought that, in the UK, a typical house is using five times the energy that it should. The warm homes scheme should be commended; however, the delivery of that scheme could be improved. We must guarantee that those who are most in need benefit from the scheme, especially in the run-up to winter.
It is crucial that all households and businesses do what they can to conserve energy. We must instil an ethos of improving energy efficiency throughout society. As an Assembly and an Executive, we must set an example and provide all the necessary information and help to those families and businesses seeking to improve their energy efficiency. Building regulations and the planning review have crucial strategic roles, as do sustainable development strategies, which must ensure that we have the most energy-efficient and environmentally friendly development.
In Northern Ireland, we are overwhelmingly reliant on fossil fuels for our energy needs. As the price of a barrel of oil has now reached $140, we are all feeling the pain of such reliance. In the long term, it is crucial that we become less dependent on fuel imports. We must increase the security of our energy supply. By diversifying into renewable energy sources, we can simultaneously meet our EU climate change and renewable energy obligations.
As we all know, climate change is one of the most pressing problems facing the world today and, regardless of anyone’s opinion on it, renewable energy is the direction in which Europe is looking for a large proportion of its energy supply. Northern Ireland now has an immense opportunity for the development of that sector; however, to date, we have been sleepwalking behind the Labour Government on the issue. The launch of a consultation on the UK renewable energy strategy is a great opportunity to place Northern Ireland at the forefront of renewable technology and development in the UK and Europe. The Executive must ensure that we are represented in any future renewable strategy and policy. In 10 years’ time, for example, we do not want a situation in which the British renewable markets have developed while we in Northern Ireland are as reliant as ever on fossil-fuel energy production.
We cannot simply assume, however, that all our energy needs can be met by renewable technology and production, because they will not. In order to reach the EU target of 15% energy production from renewable sources, we must increase our renewable production tenfold. That is a highly ambitious target.
The final point in the motion causes some difficulties for the Ulster Unionist Party. We are currently facing a severe downturn in the economy, which is affecting Government revenue intake in many areas. It is estimated that Westminster is facing a £5 billion annual shortfall on stamp duty alone. Fiscal responsibility must be shown, and calling for narrow redistribution on a fuel windfall is, perhaps, not the best way forward.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?
Mr Cree: I will, certainly.
However, if such a move were to be made, any redirection of funds must be made to pensioners. With that reservation, I support the motion.
Mr Neeson: I support the motion. The recent establishment of the all-party group on energy, which meets tomorrow, shows the importance of the issue.
I have a vested interest in the issue of energy, because the Kilroot and Ballylumford power stations and the electricity and natural-gas interconnectors are in my East Antrim constituency. No issue has caught the imagination of the public as much as the rising cost of energy — I hear concerns about the rising cost of energy, petrol and diesel on a daily basis. Therefore, this is a big issue — it is not a local issue, it is a global one and must be tackled as such. A report in ‘The Independent’ today states that every household in the country will face a £213 rise in its annual energy bill if the UK is to meet EU emissions targets. That is just one example of the problem.
Recently, the Kilroot power station has been installing a flue gas desulphurisation plant, which costs millions of pounds. However, it is not widely know that that is funded by the Government rather than the profits of AES, which is the company that owns the power station. That arrangement was agreed when the electricity industry was privatised.
The Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment has heard a considerable amount of evidence from a wide range of sources. Energy has dominated much of the Committee’s time since the return of devolution, and rightly so. In the last mandate, I suggested a six- to eight-week inquiry into energy, which in fact lasted 10 months. That shows the complexities involved in the issue. Much of the evidence that the Committee received focused on the need for a co-ordinated energy policy that promotes energy efficiency, diversifies our energy supplies and harnesses the full potential of renewable energy.
The Consumer Council has provided helpful information to the Committee on a range of issues: for example, half of the fuel poor in Northern Ireland are under 60, and 23% of those people have children. Fuel poverty in Northern Ireland is double the average in GB and triple the average in England. Those statistics show the enormity of the problem. However, there are ways to deal with that. For example, I commend the warm homes schemes to Members, because they have been active throughout Northern Ireland and made a major contribution towards better energy efficiency in our homes.
Energywatch states that rising prices between 2003 and 2006 resulted in a 94% increase in average domestic gas bills and a 60% increase in electricity bills. The Energy Saving Trust, which makes a major contribution to the attempts to educate the population of Northern Ireland about energy efficiency, states that the most effective way to ensure affordable warmth in a household is to reduce the amount that is spent on heating, hot water and supplying electrical appliances. Obviously, there is a big education process in progress.
Members have already referred to the development of the single electricity market, which I welcome. However, the generators have encountered problems, which will — hopefully — be addressed when we return from recess.
There is no shortage of coal throughout the world. Speaking as someone with experience of working in the solid-fuel market, I believe that coal distributors have taken advantage of the current situation.
Mr Newton: I support the motion and I thank the Chairman of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment for tabling it.
The background to the debate is that Phoenix Natural Gas announced a price increase of 28% in April 2008 and NIE announced a price increase of 14% in May 2008. It is anticipated that an additional increase will be confirmed shortly and will be implemented in the autumn, which will take the NIE price increase to around 33% within approximately six months. There may be further increases.
Over many years, the cost of energy in Northern Ireland has been high and has remained above that paid by our neighbours in the rest of the UK. That has been the case for both the business community and householders, and, in many ways, the high cost of energy to manufacturers and the business community in general has driven up normal living costs for individuals and families. It costs more, in energy terms, to produce a loaf of bread in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the UK.
There is no doubt that we are now in a global situation in which oil and gas are being traded on the high seas, and prices have significantly increased for end-users over the past 12 months.
Oil has not yet peaked in price, and, when combined with increasing demand from developing countries, there seems to be no prospect of a reduction in cost. Local oil users have experienced cost increases of approximately 75% during the past 12 months.
Gas is tracking the oil price, and, with self-sufficiency of supply in doubt, there will be a growing dependency on imported gas in the coming years, with all the potential implications that that may mean.
Mr Neeson was right to say that there is no shortage of coal in respect of world supply. However, high shipping costs have resulted in increased prices and there is a high demand from other countries, leading to uncompetitive prices.
The motion calls on the Executive to drive a co-ordinated energy policy to diversify energy supplies. I agree that something must be urgently done. Difficulties are being experienced by the people of Northern Ireland now, and they are looking for some action to alleviate their current levels of hardship. Fuel poverty is a greater problem in this part of the UK than in any other region. Approximately 144,000 homes have been identified as experiencing fuel poverty, which is much higher as a percentage than in England, Scotland, Wales and the Irish Republic.
The answer lies — I take a different view to that of Mr Cree — in the windfall VAT revenue that is derived from increased revenue due to higher energy prices, which could be used to mitigate increasing fuel poverty.
Statistics confirm the seriousness of the situation, with 24% of Northern Ireland households — including 40% of senior citizens — in 2004 being identified as being in fuel poverty. In 2006, 34% of Northern Ireland householders had been identified as being in the same situation. The increased cost of energy equates to an increase in domestic energy bills of approximately 94% from 2003 to 2006.
The Government are doing nicely out of the increased taxation that has been raked in as a result of escalating prices, and they hold the answer by reducing taxation or redistributing the excessive amounts that they have already clawed in. I ask for that point to be taken on board and followed up by the Executive, because that is the only prospect that I can think of to attempt to address the issues within a reasonable timescale.
There is a growing need for proper consideration of nuclear energy. French consumers benefit from the right mix of energy generation, and nuclear energy is part of that. The Prime Minister indicated that he will upgrade and replace GB nuclear power plants. It is probable that we are already getting electricity from a nuclear source. The nuclear debate is controversial, but it is inevitable that that debate that will have to occur.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Questions to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will commence at 2.30 pm, so I propose that Members take their ease until that time. This debate will resume at 4.00 pm, when the first Member to be called to speak will be Mrs Claire McGill.
Health, Social Services And Public Safety
Containing Infection: Staffing Levels
1. Mr O’Loan asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what plans he has to address problems with staffing levels of microbiologists, antibiotic pharmacists and infection control nurses as highlighted by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority review. (AQO 4219/08)
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): In recognition of the growing need for medical microbiologists and infection-control nurses, my Department has already invested in increasing the number of specialists in those fields. The package of measures to tackle healthcare-associated infections that I announced in January 2008 included recurrent funding for five antibiotic pharmacists — one for each trust.
My Department is considering the recommendations in the interim report of the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) and preparing an action plan. That work will include consideration of the workforce issues and any resource implications. The review team aims to produce its final report by the end of July 2008. Before finalising the action plan, the Department will wish to consider any further recommendations that the RQIA makes.
Mr O’Loan: Will the Minister tell us what the contribution of the three specialisms is to the solution of the current clostridium difficile outbreak in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust area? Will he provide a progress report on the outbreak?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: As I reported to the House recently, the incidence of clostridium difficile in the Northern Trust area and in Antrim Area Hospital has reduced greatly. It is anticipated that we will shortly be able to declare that the outbreak is over.
The three disciplines concerned are antibiotic pharmacists, infection-control nurses and medical microbiologists. If an elderly, frail person presents with a severe chest infection that is liable to cause a fatality, the standard treatment is antibiotics. Unfortunately, clostridium difficile is a side effect in some cases, which can be just as deadly as the original infection. Therefore, antibiotics must be targeted. Pharmacists are needed in each trust area to provide advice to the doctors who treat the patients. Infection-control nurses must ensure that infections are contained and that best practice is followed in wards.
Mr McLaughlin: I thank the Minister for his statement. He anticipated one of my questions. I welcome the announcement that he expects the final report by the end of July 2008.
Will the Minister indicate how many of the 30-plus interim report recommendations are being implemented?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I presume that the Member refers to the work that was carried out as part of the RQIA review. As he said, I anticipate that that will be finalised by the end of July 2008. We are drawing up an action plan to ensure that good practice is achieved in all the trusts.
Mr McCallister: My colleague Basil McCrea and I are not wearing pink ties to wind up Mrs Iris Robinson. We are wearing them for a much more serious reason — to highlight the breast cancer campaign. It was great that the Minister visited the group this morning.
I congratulate the Minister on his policy of unannounced hospital inspections. It has led to the recent RQIA report into cleanliness at Craigavon Area Hospital. Following the publication of the report, will the Minister indicate what measures have been put in place to swiftly address the shortcomings that were identified? Will he continue to give high priority to hospital cleanliness so that confidence is maintained in the Health Service?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: As far as Craigavon Area Hospital is concerned, an action plan was immediately put in place by the trust. That is being followed through as we speak. The RQIA also inspected a number of other hospitals, and reports will issue in due course.
As far as continuing work is concerned, I refer to the previous measures that I announced, which included the changing the culture action plan, the ward sisters’ charter and, primarily, the £9 million package of measures that I announced in January. Those included restrictions on hospital visiting; dress code; the hand hygiene campaign that I launched last week; rapid-response units; cleaning teams; and unannounced hospital inspections.
Loch Cuan House, Newtownards
2. Mr Shannon asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to provide a timescale for the newbuild of Loch Cuan House in Newtownards and explain what is being done to accommodate the remaining 12 residents. (AQO 4213/08)
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: It is not possible to provide a timetable for the development of the newbuild at the Loch Cuan site at this stage. The South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust has indicated that an equality impact assessment and full public consultation are necessary before any final decision on the future of Loch Cuan House can be taken. The trust will then have to develop a business case outlining its proposals for the site and submit it to my Department for scrutiny and approval. Once the business case has been approved, it will become clear what the expected timescale for the newbuild at Loch Cuan will be. Consequently, there are no formal plans or an associated timescale to move residents out of Loch Cuan House at present.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members to ensure that their mobile phones are switched off, as there is interference with the transmission.
Mr Shannon: I am concerned that there is no timescale for the newbuild. However, I am sure that that is not the Minister’s intention, as he will want to reply quickly. Nevertheless, 12 elderly, frail and disabled residents remain in Loch Cuan House, and they and their families are concerned and need to know what is happening. I am aware of the health and well-being of some of the residents. Will the Minister confirm the date for the business plan and the commencement of building?
I have another supplementary question, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will part of the building be knocked down and the newbuild erected on site? Will the 12 residents move into the newbuild, and work then continue on knocking down the old building? I apologise for being long-winded.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Minister can select any one of those questions. [Laughter.]
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I refer Mr Shannon to the answer that I have given. The trust has said that an equality impact assessment and full public consultation are necessary and, as he is aware, that has not happened or begun. After that, a business case will have to be developed, and clearly that has not happened either. The matter is in the hands of the trust. However, I assure the Member that immediately formal plans or associated timescales are decided, I will let him, the residents of Loch Cuan House and their families know.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 3 has been withdrawn; Mr McGlone is not in his place for question 4; question 5 has been withdrawn; and Mr Dominic Bradley is not in his place for question 6.
LGBT Groups: Mental-Health Needs
7. Dr Farry asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for his assessment of the mental-health needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups. (AQO 4240/08)
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: Everyone is valued equally and is entitled to have his or her mental-health needs assessed and treated in the most appropriate way. I am aware that anyone who has a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender sexual orientation often has specific and heightened mental-health needs arising from rejection or hostility from his or her family, the workplace and the wider community. That stigmatisation and discrimination can make them reluctant to engage with mainstream mental-health services. I expect any treatment or support by health and social care staff to be offered in a way that is sensitive to the issues arising from a patient’s sexual orientation, and to be delivered in a way that leads to the best outcome.
Dr Farry: I thank the Minister for his positive answer. Will he confirm that sexuality is biological and that it is not accepted practice in either psychiatry or psychotherapy to try to cure homosexuality? Furthermore, will he confirm that there is no direct correlation between sexuality and the prevalence of mental disorders, but that it is environmental stresses, such as the intolerance of society, that create problems?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I confirm the first part of Mr Farry’s remarks. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association concluded that there was no scientific evidence that homosexuality was a disorder and removed it from its diagnostic glossary of mental disorders.
The World Health Organization followed suit, as did the British Government. As far as treatments are concerned, the issue is that although sexual orientations are not mental illnesses, members of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups do have specific mental-health needs. They experience discrimination, homophobic bullying, harassment, family rejection, and so on, often leading to suicidal behaviour and self-harm.
The evidence suggests that there are higher than average levels of suicide and substance abuse among those groups. Therefore, their mental-health needs are commensurate, and they are entitled to be treated equally, and in a way that best deals with the problems that they encounter, and their reaction to those problems. In fact, one of the key principles of treatment is that taking a non-judgemental attitude lies at the heart of much of the therapeutic activity. Indeed, the Bamford Review made strong recommendations along those lines.
Mrs I Robinson: Over the past few weeks, some people have attempted to suggest that I indicated that homosexuality is a mental-health issue, and they have twisted everything that was said on Stephen Nolan’s radio show. I have got broad shoulders, and can take the brickbats that followed from that. However, nothing could be further from the truth. What I did say was that homosexuality —
Some Members: Ask a question.
Mrs I Robinson: I am getting to it. Homosexuality, like all sin, is an abomination. That is what I said. My point, however, is that there are some people —
Some Members: Ask a question.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Will the Member ask the question?
Mrs I Robinson: I am getting to the question.
Dr Farry: You are reading a statement.
Mrs I Robinson: No, I am not.
Dr Farry: Yes, you are.
Mrs I Robinson: Who is the Speaker here?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Will the Member come to the question?
Mrs I Robinson: I certainly will. Does the Minister agree that there are some people who, in their teenage years, are sexually confused, and that they could do with help from practitioners to assist them with talking therapies, to help them to realise exactly what they are — whether they are heterosexual or homosexual?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I am not in a position to talk about sexual confusion. What I am in a position to do is to reflect what the American Psychiatric Association concluded. There are cognitive-behaviour therapies available, and one of the thrusts of the Bamford Review concerned the need for provision to deal with depression, panic disorder, social phobia, bulimia, obsessive and compulsive disorders, and so on. That is very much the thrust of the work that my Department is undertaking, and of the budget allocation that I am making for the provision of mental-health services.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. To a degree, the Minister has already answered my question. Does he agree that there is a high incidence of mental-health problems, including suicide and self-harm, among young gay people particularly, who are only becoming aware of their sexuality, and does he agree that there is a need for people to be very sensitive and tolerant in their use of language — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: A key issue is that those providing therapies in the health and mental-health services take a non-judgemental attitude. That lies at the very heart of therapeutic activity and interventions designed to support people. The Member is right, and I have made the point that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups experience high levels of discrimination, harassment and social isolation, and that leads on to — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: That leads to a higher-than-average incidence of suicidal behaviour and self-harm, which must be dealt with. I intend to continue to deal with that issue, not least, for example, because the UK-wide mental-health group Mind is concerned that such prejudice and discrimination may even extend among health and social care staff. I take that issue extremely seriously.
Glenside Adult Training Centre, Strabane
8. Mr Bresland asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what funding has been provided to Glenside Adult Training Centre in Strabane in each of the last three financial years. (AQO 4196/08)
The Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety: The Western Health and Social Care Trust provided Glenside Adult Training Centre in Strabane with the following funding during the past three financial years: £432,204 in 2008-09; £404,097 in 2007-08; and £371,001 in 2006-07.
Mr Bresland: I thank the Minister for his response. Glenside Adult Training Centre provides day-care support to profoundly disabled adults. At present, it has places for a maximum of 10 adults and a waiting list of six adults who require special-needs support. The current special-needs facility is a 23-year-old Portakabin. What action will the Minister take to ensure that adults who have multiple disabilities in the Strabane area will be provided with a facility that meets their needs?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: The Glenside Adult Training Centre receives funding from the Western Health and Social Care Trust. The amount of money that is paid to the centre increases each year. The centre uses those resources to provide valuable support to people in the area. It facilitates 50 people who are aged between 19 and 70. Capital provision is a matter for the trust, and I have created a capital priorities group that works with it. The trust must come forward with capital projects and an ongoing review to indicate its priorities in each trust area and criteria.
Mrs M Bradley: Adult training centres are the only respite available to many carers. Can the Minister assure the House that those centres will remain in place and will all be funded?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I agree entirely with Mrs Bradley that respite care is absolutely essential in the areas of learning disability and mental health. The Caring for Carers strategy operates to that end and is kept under review. That is an important piece of work. Members will recall my struggle to obtain funding for mental health and learning disability in the Budget allocations. The provision of respite-care packages is a key part of that. The packages that the Department has been able to add to its allocation will provide respite for around 800 people.
NHS Surgery Targets: Private Procedures
9. Mr Buchanan asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety how many patients referred through the NHS are having their surgical procedures carried out in private hospitals to meet departmental targets, broken down by Health and Social Care Trust area. (AQO 4191/08)
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: A breakdown of health and social care patients who are treated in private hospitals is not available in the form that the Member requests. In 2006-07, 5,353 inpatient day-case patients were managed by the independent sector. A significant proportion of those patients were managed in health and social care facilities as part of waiting-list initiatives to improve access to outpatient, diagnostic and surgical procedures. The use of the independent sector has been essential to allow the Health Service to tackle the significant backlog of patients who must wait for prolonged periods for treatment.
Mr Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his response. What good follow-up practices are in place for patients should any complications occur following surgery? How much does it cost the Department each year to carry out that surgery in private hospitals and clinics?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: In the summer of 2005, 47,000 patients were waiting for surgical procedures, and some of those patients had been waiting for several years. In April 2006, 110,000 people had been waiting for more than three months for an outpatient appointment, and some people had been waiting for more than five years. That position was totally unacceptable, and a wide range of measures was put in place, including the involvement of the independent sector.
In April 2006, 110,000 outpatients were waiting for more than 13 weeks for a first appointment. That waiting list has now completely disappeared, and no one is waiting for an appointment. Ten thousand people were waiting for over 21 weeks for inpatient or day-case treatment, but no one now waits for over 21 weeks.
Tremendous progress has been made on what was a burning issue for all of Northern Ireland, which is to the credit of the service. The Health Service is providing backup and support.
Mr McClarty: I commend the Minister for ensuring that waiting lists have continued to drop over the past 12 months since he became Minister. That is a sure sign that the Ulster Unionist Party is delivering for all the people of Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that, if he had listened to, and taken the advice of, the whingers on some of the Benches during the Budget discussions in the autumn of 2007, he would not now be in a position to continue to fund those decreasing waiting lists? Therefore, I praise him for ignoring such advice and for his determination in continuing to put patients first through renewed investment in the Health Service.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I can answer yes, yes and yes to the Member’s question.
We obtained a significant increase in allocation as a result of the arguments and consultations that I took to the people of Northern Ireland. I received a huge response and enormous support for those consultations. I am aware that I have the support of the general public in Northern Ireland in finding resources for the Health Service. It is the number one priority for people. Progress on waiting times has been significant, and tens of thousands of patients have gained from the massive improvements in waiting times over the past three years. I will continue to work to achieve further improvements.
10. Mr B McCrea asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for his assessment of funding for after-school projects after June 2008. (AQO 4269/08)
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: In November 2006, responsibility for childcare transferred to the Department of Education, leaving my Department only with statutory responsibility for children in need, as defined under the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 and the regulation of certain childcare settings.
My Department’s involvement in the support of after-school provision has been solely to act as a funding mechanism for centrally earmarked resources. However, rather than abandoning the schemes at the end of this month, I have committed over £400,000 from the health budget until the end of this year to allow time for departmental responsibility to be clarified and to give the after-school projects time to find other sources of funding or to put in place a planned timetable for closure.
After-school projects are not, and have never been, the policy function of my Department. Therefore, I am not in a position to help any further after the end of this year. My own view is that they sit inside the definition of extended schools, but that is for others to decide.
Mr B McCrea: I thank the Minister for his answer, and I assure him that Mr McCallister’s decision to wear a pink tie is not an attempt to upstage Gerry Adams, but to raise the important matter of breast cancer.
I also thank the Minister for putting his hand in his pocket on two occasions in order to ensure that there was funding for after-school clubs. Does he agree that it is a disgrace for the Sinn Féin Minister of Education to wilfully abandon children in need by refusing to fund projects that play such a valuable role in local communities?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: Of course, Mr McCrea and the House would not expect me to comment on an Executive colleague; however, I can restate the position in which I found myself when I was faced by the closure of, for example, 55 after-school projects.
Having worked in inner South Belfast, I know how small groups that work on small amounts of money are affected, and, therefore, I stepped forward. I also supported part of the now-defunct children’s fund, on the understanding that I would have to bid for those moneys.
Historically, the Health Department did not provide such funds, but merely acted as a facilitator for the provision of funds — it acted as a conduit, or go-between, between the Executive and various applicants. The Health Department administered applications, but it did not provide money. Therefore, other Departments must consider how to meet that need. Having worked on the ground, I concur with the view of many Members that such projects — some of which are run on sums as small as £3,000 to £5,000 — play a vital role in disadvantaged communities.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 11 has been withdrawn.
Craigavon Area Hospital: Unannounced Inspections
12. Mr Simpson asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail all unannounced inspections that have been carried out at Craigavon Area Hospital. (AQO 4256/08)
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: In March 2008, the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority carried out an unannounced inspection of hygiene standards, and, in 2006-07, two unannounced audits of environmental cleanliness standards were carried out by consultants KPMG. In addition, trust managements undertake regular unannounced audits, as required by the Cleanliness Matters strategy, and the Southern Health and Social Services Council conducts Bugwatch surveys.
Mr Simpson: I wish to place on record the commitment of everyone at Craigavon Area Hospital to ensure that it leads the Province in that and other areas of understandable public concern. Will the Minister give favourable consideration to the trust’s funding bids for initiatives such as rapid-response cleaning teams?
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I announced response packages to hospital-acquired infections, and rapid-response cleaning is included in one of those. Craigavon and other hospitals are working on that. As a result of the RQIA audit and report, Craigavon Area Hospital has put in place, and is working through, an action plan.
Sharing best practices amongst hospitals and trusts is another key matter on which we are working. With regard to resources, in January this year, I made £9 million available for such measures. That was not the first amount of money that I made available, and I am prepared to provide whatever funds are necessary to drive hospital-acquired infection rates to as low a level as possible.
Clostridium difficile and MRSA are in the population, and it is not possible to eradicate them; however, through the prudent use of antibiotics, hand hygiene, environment cleaning, isolation nursing, and personal protection by staff, we intend to maintain infection rates at low levels.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Time is up for questions to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
Review of Regional Development Strategy
2. Mr W Clarke asked the Minister for Regional Development how he intends to proceed with the fundamental review of the regional development strategy; and what involvement those working outside government will have in terms of shaping the new framework. (AQO 4296/08)
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): In my statement to the Assembly on 9 June, I said that I want the review to be inclusive and that I want to hear, and benefit from, a wide range of views and opinions. I have set up an external working group, which includes individuals representing business, trade unions, the voluntary and community sector and councils, and its first meeting was held on 4 June. I am also considering how to engage with local groups as the review develops to ensure that the process is fully inclusive. External involvement and maximum public participation are central to the fundamental review of the regional development strategy, and I will continue to keep mechanisms for maximising that potential under consideration.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I congratulate the Minister on Armagh’s win over Down in yesterday’s Gaelic football game. I thank the Minister for his response to my question. What is the role of the external working group?
The Minister for Regional Development: Unfortunately, I had no role to play in Armagh’s win over Down, other than to turn up and cheer them on. Nevertheless, I am sure that the people in the county of Armagh are happy to hear such an acknowledgement from a Down supporter.
The purpose of the external working group is to act as a sounding board as the policy on the 2010 review of the strategy is developed. That group comprises individuals who represent business; trade unions; the voluntary and community sector; the environmental sector; rural communities; house builders; academia; planning professions; social and equality groups; language organisations; cross-border networks; and local government. A very constructive first meeting took place on Wednesday 4 June, and the intention is for subgroups to be set up to consider particular aspects of the review, which will meet in the early autumn.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for the second part of his response — I am not so sure about the first part, but that is by the by.
Will the Minister confirm that sanctions are in place to ensure that developers deliver on their commitments to provide new finished roads and street lighting? Such matters are clearly an essential part of any new framework and regional development strategy for the Province.
The Minister for Regional Development: Developers who undertake housing developments, in particular, have contractual arrangements with Roads Service. Until those arrangements are fulfilled, Roads Service will not adopt roads, footpaths or street lighting. In other words, it will not adopt roads if they are not up to a certain standard. Roads Service can either introduce sanctions to ensure that the builder delivers to that standard, or withhold the bonds that are paid with respect to the developing of roads before a project is started.
The regional development strategy is a much broader strategy that deals with development across the Six Counties and beyond — there is a very advanced level of development across the island, and further co-operation is needed. Rather than deal with individual concerns, the strategy will operate at a much higher level. We are working to address issues such as compliance with the regional development strategy. The review will involve an external working group, a group of very senior civil servants and a ministerial subcommittee. I will work with ministerial colleagues, particularly the Minister of the Environment, to ensure that planning and enforcement processes fit in with what the Executive will eventually conclude to be the regional development strategy.
Mr O’Loan: Ahead of the production of any revised regional development strategy, will the Minister confirm that the Narrow Water Bridge project and the proposed motorway to Derry will proceed as priority projects, irrespective of any future discussions?
The Minister for Regional Development: It might help to point out that the regional development strategy is not about specific projects, so it will not have a bearing on the two projects that the Member mentions. I can confirm that it is not in my gift to deliver on the Narrow Water Bridge project, as the Member will know from my previous responses to questions on that subject. Louth County Council has undertaken that project, under the direction of the Dublin Government. The regional development strategy is about overall regional policy. It will involve the fundamental rewriting of the original ‘Shaping our Future’ document to develop a strategy that takes us up to 2025, and that takes into account the rapid rate of change over the past years.
It is not about specific projects. However, I can confirm that the roads project between Belfast and Derry — for which I am responsible — will progress according to plan and schedule.
Urban Regeneration: Co-operation
3. Mr B McCrea asked the Minister for Regional Development what co-operation takes place among Translink, Roads Service and the Department for Social Development in relation to urban regeneration. (AQO 4307/08)
The Minister for Regional Development: Roads Service has worked closely with the Department for Social Development officials and other interested parties on a number of projects associated with urban regeneration. For example, Roads Service was recently involved with the Department for Social Development and Translink in implementing environmental improvements in lower Chichester Street, Belfast.
Roads Service also contributed professional and technical expertise to the selection process and negotiations with prospective developers on proposed development schemes in Coleraine, Enniskillen and Holywood. In addition, Roads Service manages the implementation of a significant proportion of the environmental improvement and public-realm schemes, which the Department for Social Development (DSD) funds in towns in the North. Roads Service is currently a consultee in the Belfast public-realm Streets Ahead project, on which it is represented at different levels to ensure that the project is designed and implemented to conform to the required specifications for road safety, street-lighting materials, drainage and construction. Translink is also involved in that project, because the proposals have significant implications for city-centre bus operations.
Members may be aware that the Belfast metropolitan transport plan identifies several key projects for the city centre. Moreover, a working-group structure is operating with representation from all key stakeholders, including Roads Service, DSD, Translink and Belfast City Council, to co-ordinate the proposals and ensure best practice. That is an ongoing process, and I assure Members that Roads Service will continue to work with all parties to ensure that the best service is provided to the public, with minimal disruption during the delivery of public-realm improvements.
Mr B McCrea: I thank the Minister for his explanation of best practice. Will he undertake to raise with his Executive colleagues how valuable the Laganside Corporation is as a role model for the Maze regeneration project in an attempt to break Ministers’ inaction, which is currently preventing the development of that important site?
The Minister for Regional Development: That area is not my responsibility. The Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) are responsible for those projects. However, I assure the Member that, if and when that important project is brought to the Executive for discussion, Roads Service will play its part in its development.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 4 has been withdrawn.
Gortcorbies Climbing Lane
5. Mr G Robinson asked the Minister for Regional Development what progress has been made on the Gortcorbies climbing lane. (AQO 4194/08)
The Minister for Regional Development: The Gortcorbies climbing-lane scheme, on the A37 Limavady to Coleraine road, is part of the Northern Ireland road safety strategy, which allocates £374 million to deliver local road improvements and road safety schemes between 2002 and 2012. The scheme will improve overtaking opportunities for Coleraine-bound traffic.
However, Roads Service has advised that it has encountered substantial environmental issues around the disposal of 100,000 cu m of surplus material from the construction scheme. As a result, Roads Service is examining an alternative design — widening the embankment parts of the scheme — to reduce the amount of surplus material that is used. It is also examining the best method to connect a local road to the new design. Therefore, I am currently unable to provide a date for the commencement of the scheme.
Mr G Robinson: Given that it is a major transport corridor for the north-west, will the Minister give assurances that the scheme, and the Dungiven bypass, will progress with haste, unlike the traffic in those areas?
The Minister for Regional Development: The amount of surplus material requiring disposal from the climbing-lane scheme presented Roads Service with a particular problem, which it is working hard to overcome in order to get the scheme back on track. On several occasions, I have said in the House that Roads Service recognises the congestion and pollution that the through traffic from Belfast to Derry causes in Dungiven. We intend to deal with that issue through the construction of a bypass as soon as possible.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister provide an update on the bypass at Ballykelly?
The Minister for Regional Development: Several possible corridors are being examined, and, this summer, I hope to announce the selection of a preferred corridor. Subsequently, Roads Service will examine a range of possible routes in the preferred corridor in order to select a preferred route for the new road.
Mr Armstrong: Has the Minister conducted any investigations across the Province on how improvements to the configuration of roads could reduce accidents and road deaths? Furthermore, will he comment further on the Frosses Road near Ballymoney?
The Minister for Regional Development: The Member’s original question referred to a road which is part of a road safety scheme. A key element of investing in roads is to improve road safety and to reduce the all-too-frequent deaths on our roads. Roads Service has responsibility for that issue; however, it cuts across the Department of the Environment and the Department of Education. Enforcement issues are also a key part of the issue.
In relation to the Frosses Road, not so long ago I had a meeting with some Members from North Antrim and told them that we were moving towards the idea of a preferred route option. I hope to make an announcement on that in the near future.
Emerald Fund: Motorway Infrastructure
6. Mr Burnside asked the Minister for Regional Development if he is making any bids for additional moneys from the Emerald Fund to construct motorway infrastructural links at key economic locations. (AQO 4199/08)
The Minister for Regional Development: I will not make any bids for additional resources from the Emerald Fund to construct motorway infrastructural links at key economic locations.
Mr Burnside: That is a very disappointing response. I am not clear how much money has been invested in the Emerald Fund, but the Minister could bid for some moneys as a way of dealing with his Department’s problems. He comes to the House time and time again and says that his budget allocation is not sufficient. For instance, we are way behind spending in comparable terms with England. Surely the Minister and his Department should take the initiative and request millions of pounds from the Emerald Fund for cross-border strategic motorway dualling or simply for improving the roads between the North and South. I find it amazing that he is not participating in bidding for those available moneys.
The Minister for Regional Development: I welcome the Emerald Fund’s commitment to invest in the development of public and private infrastructure across Ireland. The Emerald Fund will provide further financing options for the private sector to develop infrastructure, and that may include public sector infrastructure projects, such as contracts to construct motorway infrastructural links at key economic locations.
In relation to the Department’s ability to tap into the Emerald Fund, the provisions of the budgeting framework mean that borrowing from the fund will result in a reduction in the capital funding that the Executive receive from the Treasury. Therefore, the overall net spending power will not be enhanced. Borrowing from organisations such as the Emerald Fund and the European Investment Bank are not free, as the loans must be repaid with interest. Therefore, even if the borrowing did not result in a reduction of funding received from the Treasury, the Executive still need to consider the longer-term implications for public finances.
Mr Newton: The Minister will be aware of the successful economic hub that is being generated around Tesco and IKEA at the Holywood Exchange, where planning permission has just been granted. What plans does the Minister have to alleviate the traffic congestion that occurs as a result of the successful trading in that area?
The Minister for Regional Development: There are plans to try to improve the flow of traffic around the Sydenham bypass to take account of the significant developments in the area, including the expansion of the airport. There is a significant developer-led element to those plans. We have considered the early plans, and we hope to implement some of them in the near future.
Mrs M Bradley: Could an application be made to any fund, other than the Emerald Fund, to help the development of the Dungiven bypass, as the problem seem to be worsening every day?
The Minister for Regional Development: As I said in an earlier reply to George Robinson, it is our intention to start work on that scheme as soon as possible using our own resources. The problem is not that there are no funds to carry out the work — it is that one must go through the relevant statutory processes to design a major roads project. The people who live in and around Dungiven have rights, as do the people whose land will be acquired to construct the bypass. Furthermore, the environment must be considered. Those issues take time to go through the relevant statutory processes, but work will begin as soon as possible.
Mr McCarthy: On the subject of the Emerald Fund, what is the Minister’s assessment of the impact that the Republic’s unfortunate decreasing tax receipts will have on the Irish Government’s intention to fund road projects in Northern Ireland? I had hoped that Southern funding would make its way into the road network in the Strangford constituency.
The Minister for Regional Development: I suppose that one way of pursuing that is to bring about constitutional change so that we can have one budget for all our roads. I welcome any support that the Member might give me in that regard.
The Dublin Government have committed funds to two roads projects — the A5 Derry to Aughnacloy road and the A8 Belfast to Larne road. That commitment still stands, and there has been no reduction in that commitment. We have not discussed support for any further roads projects with the Dublin Government, but I assure the Member that if there is any possibility of such support, we will certainly avail of it.
School Buses: Road Safety Features
7. Mr Dallat asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail the revised plans in place to allocate £3·4 million to Translink to enhance road safety features on school buses. (AQO 4230/08)
The Minister for Regional Development: My Department was allocated £3·4 million to enable Translink to introduce signage and lighting in school buses in 2007-08 on the understanding that new legislation for signage and lighting on buses would be in place. However, the regulations, which fall within the remit of the Department of the Environment, have not yet been introduced. In accordance with the guidelines, the money was surrendered to DFP for reallocation. My Department will bid for the required funding to be available for use in 2009-10, when the regulations will come into effect.
Mr Dallat: Without blaming the Minister, does he agree that it is an absolute disgrace that £3·4 million for signage on school buses was lost at a time when there have been so many fatal accidents involving school buses? Will he assure the House that, in future, he will insist that the Department of the Environment has the legislation and the technical data in place to ensure that when money is available to improve road safety for schoolchildren, it will be used for that purpose?
The Minister for Regional Development: I assure the Member that, having made a bid for the money, we are keen to carry out the project. The Minister of the Environment has advised me that the regulations are novel and technically complex, and, as a result, drafting has taken longer than anticipated. Under the guidelines, we had to surrender the money to the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP). However, we will make a bid for that money in order to carry out the project in 2009-10.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister give details of what Translink is doing in the meantime to increase safety features on school buses? Is he able to give the House a sense of the degree of co-operation between his Department and the Department of Education on safety measures for the fleet of buses that are used by the Department of Education?
The Minister for Regional Development: Translink has introduced measures to improve safety on buses used for school transport. Those include the fitting of large yellow warning signs to the rear of buses, and the installation of bumper cameras, which allow the driver to view the front of the vehicle on his monitor for up to 30 seconds after the door of the bus has closed. Furthermore, all buses recently purchased by Translink have been fitted with a reflective rear strip. A retrofit programme for that strip has also been put in place.
The Member is correct when he says that co-operation is required, not just between my Department and Translink, but with the Department of Education, and, in this case, as the original question suggested, with the Department of the Environment on the subject of regulations. Safety on school buses, and on buses in general, is an issue that cuts across several Departments. There is a good degree of co-operation with other Departments in order to ensure that we achieve the highest standards of safety on buses, and particularly on buses that carry schoolchildren.
Mr I McCrea: Has the Minister given any consideration to reducing speed limits on roads outside schools? Furthermore, does he agree that not only the work that has been done with Translink, but the installation of flashing signs at schools by Roads Service, has improved safety for schoolchildren?
The Minister for Regional Development: Road safety outside schools is a key issue, and several pilot projects are in place to examine reductions in speed limits outside schools for that purpose. The current thinking on such matters is that permanent speed limits outside schools tend to be disregarded in the summer months when the schools are closed, and that that becomes a pattern of behaviour. Pilot projects are under way at several schools; I believe that there is one in rural Antrim and one in rural Derry, in Articlave. In those pilots, the traffic is limited to a speed of 20 mph at peak times outside the school, but is not a permanent speed reduction.
We will examine closely the results of that pilot scheme to establish whether it will provide an additional safety measure that we can roll out for other schools. As the Member rightly said, there are other ways of enhancing the safety of children outside schools.
Mr Savage: I thank the Minister for his answers to questions on road safety and buses. Will he introduce a traffic regulation that forbids vehicles from overtaking school buses that are temporarily stationary at bus stops?
The Minister for Regional Development: We will consider any measures that will improve road safety, particularly those that concern buses. Bus safety is a sensitive issue, particularly as Members will recall the fatal accident that happened on the A4 several months ago, in which a young girl was killed. Some measures stray into areas that are the responsibility of the Department of the Environment. We wish to improve safety progressively, not only on buses and outside schools but also when children are being transported to and from school.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 8 has been withdrawn.
9. Mr Gallagher asked the Minister for Regional Development what sectors and groups have been liable for water charges since April 2008. (AQO 4303/08)
The Minister for Regional Development: I have been advised by Northern Ireland Water that, from 1 April 2008, all non-domestic customers have been subject to water and sewerage charges and to trade-effluent charges, where applicable. Non-domestic customers include farms; small, medium and large businesses; industrial users; voluntary organisations; charities; public bodies; places of worship; and any property that is not intended for permanent household use.
Mr Gallagher: Does the Minister accept that although churches and church properties are exempt from rates, there is much concern that they have to pay water charges? Does he agree that there is a much better system in Scotland, where such properties do not pay water charges? As the Minister knows, water charges will be passed on to parishioners by parish and church committees. Will he look again at water charges with a view to introducing exemptions for church properties?
The Minister for Regional Development: The Executive accepted the independent water review panel’s recommendation that billing for water and sewerage services should be extended to all non-domestic properties from 1 April 2008, and they decided that that should be phased in over two years, with customers paying 50% of the full amount in 2008-09 and 100% of it from 2009-10. Accordingly, all non-domestic premises have been billed for water and sewerage services since April 2008.
Places of worship are classed as non-domestic, and many have been paying metered water charges for many years. Before the extension of non-domestic payments, Northern Ireland Water was already billing some 1,200 church properties. It remains company policy to extend metering for billing purposes throughout the non-domestic sector.
To answer the Member’s question, the Executive considered the independent water review panel’s recommendations. I note that when the panel’s report was published, his party colleague said that it represented the central plank of SDLP policy on the issue. Therefore, I am surprised that members of that party have difficulty with it. Nonetheless, the Executive considered —
Mr Dallat: That is absolutely wrong.
The Minister for Regional Development: The comment was made that it was the central plank of SDLP policy. I am afraid that it is a matter of public record. Either the party did not read — or did not understand — the independent panel’s report, or else, as seems to be the case, it is trying to distance itself from decisions that it has already signed up to.
The independent panel’s report was carefully scrutinised by the Committee for Regional Development, and the church issue was not raised at the time, nor was it raised at the Executive when the matter was voted on and agreed last October.
I say again that the Executive decided the policy; it has been through all the processes. I saw a press release that was issued by the Member’s colleague Mr Dallat in which he complained that the issue was not debated. I made a statement to the Assembly on the implications of the panel’s report, and we had a full debate on the matter; again, the church issue was not raised.
As I said, either people have not read or understood the report, or perhaps it is more likely that they are being disingenuous and trying to distance themselves from decisions to which they signed up earlier.
Mr Moutray: The word of God tells us that we should:
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s”.
If the Minister continues down the path that he is on, it is most likely that he will become known as the Minister who put a tax on baptism, whether by sprinkling or total immersion.
Given that many small rural congregations work within very tight budgets and that their facilities are used for community activities such as mother-and-toddler groups, does the Minister agree that the negative impact of the imposition of water charges on such communities will be greater than any direct positive benefit that might be accrued by the additional revenue?
The Minister for Regional Development: I appreciate the Member’s concerns. I would not dare try to specify how much water should be used in baptism — that is not my field at all.
When the Executive unanimously signed up to the introduction of billing to all non-domestic properties, we were aware that the decision would create hardship for some sectors. Nonetheless — as I said to Mr Gallagher — 1,200 church properties were already being billed and had been for many years. If, as Mr Gallagher argued should happen, one particular sector is exempted from the charge, the rest of the non-domestic sector will carry the cost. The panel recommended, and the Executive concluded, that the fairest way forward was to charge all non-domestic customers.
Mr Cree: What is the Department’s position on charging country churches for mains drainage even when they do not have any sewerage facilities?
The Minister for Regional Development: If a property is not connected to the mains sewerage system, it should not be billed for sewerage services. I do not doubt that mistakes will be made in the first run of this process. People will, perhaps, receive bills that they have no requirement to pay. We have provided a hotline that MLAs can use if people have been in contact to say that they have got a bill that does not reflect the services that they receive. If people receive incorrect bills — and I am aware of one or two such cases — they can challenge them, and the water company will move to correct the problem.
European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages
10. Mr Brolly asked the Minister for Regional Development what action his Department, non-departmental public bodies and agencies are taking under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. (AQO 4316/08)
The Minister for Regional Development: I have recently reviewed compliance by my Department and its agency, Roads Service, with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. I have implemented the following changes to promote the use of the Irish language: the translation into Irish of all ministerial forewords to plans, reports and consultation documents; a translation of all new or revised information leaflets into Irish; the development of a multilingual website for the Department; the publication of significant announcements in an appropriate Irish-language newspaper; the use of bilingual headings in the advertising of all public notices; the identification of Irish speakers in DRD to help handle telephone calls in Irish; and a revised code of courtesy on Irish and Ulster Scots for all staff.
In addition, my Department has prepared a draft policy for the introduction of a range of bilingual road signs in response to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. NITHCo, Translink, the Port of Belfast, Derry Port and Harbour Commissioners, Warrenpoint Harbour Authority and Northern Ireland Water all fulfil their requirements under the charter. Those organisations allow users of regional or minority languages to submit requests in those languages and provide translation or interpretation as may be required. They also allow the use or adoption of family names in the regional or minority languages at the request of those concerned. Translink is reviewing what information may be most usefully provided in Irish, including educational material for schoolchildren.
Mr Brolly: What Irish-language groups has the Minister met, and what was the nature of that engagement? What is his assessment of Armagh’s chances in its future encounter with Fermanagh?
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Minister may answer any of those questions.
The Minister for Regional Development: I will deal with the questions that I know something about. I have met representatives from Irish-language groups Pobal, Conradh na Gaeilge and Comhaltas Uladh in February and June to discuss issues relating to the charter. Their views helped to inform the review. As the Member will know, we have an obligation under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages to make provision for those languages and to ascertain where such provision can be made within the Department. In my discussions with those groups, it was useful to see where we provide good support and where we can do better. I am more than willing to improve our service wherever we can.
Regarding the latter part of the Member’s question, all that we can do is hope.
Social Housing: Community Heating Projects
1. Mr Gardiner asked the Minister for Social Development whether she will review the provision of community heating projects in all new social housing schemes, particularly those based on willow burning technology. (AQO 4205/08)
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): Recent increases in fuel costs, together with our desire to promote more environmentally friendly and sustainable forms of energy, mean that it is imperative that we keep the issue of renewable energy under constant review. Although no community heating scheme using willow burning is planned, I am aware of the work that is ongoing on that technology in the private sector, and I will monitor developments closely to identify the potential for the social-housing rented sector.
Mr Gardiner: I thank the Minister for her reply. Given the recent rise in oil and gas prices, which are likely to escalate further, has the Minister assessed the potential for developing such community heating schemes on existing housing estates?
The Minister for Social Development: As recently as last Saturday, I visited an established housing estate in Ballynahinch — in my constituency of South Down — in which wood-pellet boilers were installed recently. I talked to some local residents and to the person who installed the boilers on behalf of the Housing Executive. Those people were content with the heating system; they said that the boilers were cost-effective, and they found the heat that flowed from them to be beneficial.
Mr Gardiner raised another important issue — fuel poverty — and I welcome the opportunity to address it, although several Departments have cross-cutting responsibility for the matter. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has responsibility for energy policy and prices; the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has responsibility for poverty; and my Department has responsibility for energy efficiency in the home. I was so concerned about the effect of fuel costs on vulnerable households that I took the lead and established a task force on fuel poverty to find short-term measures to keep people warm this winter. That work falls into four main areas, and I want the four groups that are dealing with each area to report to me soon. That will enable me to present a paper to the Executive, and it is hoped that they will support me in my request for further financial resources.
Mr Bresland: What action is the Minister taking to encourage the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to introduce renewable energy — particularly wood-burning technology — in its properties?
The Minister for Social Development: I assure the Member that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive has been encouraged and supported by myself and the Department to implement renewable technologies. As I explained, I saw a good example on Saturday of its implementation through the installation of wood-pellet boilers.
Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for her comments; I am sure that her constituents in Ballynahinch feel that they have done well — despite the fuel poverty that others are suffering. She mentioned the task force that has been established to find measures that will assist the vulnerable in the short term. Are the Executive doing anything to look at the longer term? The Minister listed the Departments that have short-term responsibilities, but to what extent is the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development involved in the growing of biomass, which could be developed for the good of areas beyond Ballynahinch?
The Minister for Social Development: Several Departments have responsibilities. The fuel poverty task force has representatives from various Departments — including DETI and DARD — the industry regulator, and representatives from the Consumer Council and the industry. I want them to propose short-term measures that will deal with the problems that will confront everyone this winter, but especially those in the low- to medium-income groups and the elderly and disabled. That is our most immediate challenge.
I hope that the task force’s findings will benefit people across Northern Ireland, and I want to ensure that it has the full support of everybody. However, I think that it does have the support of all, because the Executive and Members recognise how important it is to have schemes that will enable people to keep warm in the short term. Long-term measures will be considered in the next three years.
It is worth noting that I have invested £35 million over the next three years in the warm homes scheme to deal specifically with that. Taking on board the Audit Office report, I have already refocused the warm homes scheme to look at the issue of need and to target resources at it.
Social and Affordable Housing: West Tyrone
2. Mr McElduff asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the additional social and affordable housing projects she has planned for the West Tyrone constituency, given the acute need for social and affordable housing in both the Omagh and Strabane districts. (AQO 4312/08)
The Minister for Social Development: Having visited Omagh last year after the flooding that affected the area, I am aware of the housing need in the Member’s constituency. I also visited Lisanelly and St Lucia, and, after the summer break, I plan to launch our next shared-future housing development in Sion Mills. West Tyrone’s housing problems are well known to me.
We will build 160 new homes in West Tyrone in response to that need, and those homes are planned over the next five years. Those homes will complement the re-letting of the area’s existing homes, which last year alone resulted in 305 families being allocated houses.
I could have told Mr McElduff about that when I met him at the epic Down v Tyrone game on 14 June at Páirc Esler. As the Member will recall, that game resulted in a magnificent victory for Down. Given yesterday’s events in Clones, however, I do not wish to labour that point.
Mr McElduff: Will the Minister withdraw that remark, please? [Laughter.]
My question will not be derailed.
Mr McLaughlin: You have no railway either.
Mr McElduff: That is a very good point from Mitchel McLaughlin.
Will the Minister detail how much additional money for social- and affordable-housing projects the Executive Budget has allocated her Department? Is it the case that all that money has been, or is being, used to provide additional social and affordable housing? I appreciate the Minister’s visits to West Tyrone, but, nonetheless, that figure of 160 houses is a mere drop in the ocean.
The Minister for Social Development: As Mr McElduff will be aware, when the draft Budget was originally presented, the Department for Social Development received a very light budget from the then Minister of Finance and Personnel. In spite of barbed comments from across the House that I should accept the budget that I had been allocated, I was unwilling to do so. After research, analysis and a considerable weight of negotiations, very strong representations were made, and the Department received an additional £203 million.
I am determined to deliver the new housing agenda and see its impact across the North, irrespective of geographical or constituency location.
Mr Buchanan: I thank the Minister for her answer to the previous question. Building 160 houses in West Tyrone over five years is around 32 houses a year, which is not an exorbitant number of houses for those in need. What plans does the Minister have to bring the vacant housing stock in West Tyrone into circulation? If she did that, the acute social- and affordable-housing need in the Omagh and Strabane council areas would be quickly addressed.
The Minister for Social Development: As the Member will be aware, on assuming my ministerial post in May 2007, I established an empty-homes unit. At that stage, the survey that the Housing Executive undertook on my behalf, and that of my Department, identified around 39,000 vacant homes. Further in-depth drilling-down and analysis identified that around 5,000 of those houses could be allocated.
We have worked with Land and Property Services over a considerable period to identify the ownership of those particular houses, some of which are in West Tyrone. I will continue to pursue that issue, and I will ensure that those available houses in West Tyrone and in other constituencies can be used for the purpose that the Member suggests.
Mr Cobain: Everyone in the House appreciates how hard the Minister has worked to secure social housing. I am sure that she is as disappointed as the rest of us to see that housing receipts are down almost 95%.
Will the Minister provide an update on the progress of the rehabilitation of empty homes in the Province, and how many of them she expects to bring into service during this financial year?
The Minister for Social Development: I refer the Member to my previous answer. Originally, 39,000 empty homes were identified by the survey that was undertaken by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Further analysis has identified that 5,000 of those are capable of being restored. Land and Property Services has been working with the Housing Executive to identify the ownership of those properties. The first pilot exercise on that matter was undertaken in Banbridge, and further pilot exercises are under way. That has taken a little longer than expected.
I hope that we will be able to utilise some of those houses, particularly at interface areas in north Belfast. Last year, I had an opportunity to visit houses at interface areas, and saw some that were around 10 years old. I saw some houses that could be restored when visiting Tiger’s Bay with Mr Cobain several weeks ago. This matter should be finalised shortly.
Programme for Government Commitments: Update
3. Ms Lo asked the Minister for Social Development to provide an update on her Department’s commitments under the Programme for Government. (AQO 4290/08)
The Minister for Social Development: I am committed to ensuring that my Department meets its obligations as set out in the Programme for Government. Procedures are in place to monitor quarterly how we are progressing against the targets that have been published in our corporate plan. The Programme for Government reporting period started only in April, so monitoring information has not yet been collated. That information will not be available until the end of August. I assure the Member that I will be happy to provide her with a more detailed update at that time.
Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for her reply. Under public service agreement 12, objective 2, the Department for Social Development holds lead responsibility for delivering the neighbourhood renewal strategy, in co-operation with other Departments. The Minister recently announced that she intends to transfer that responsibility to local councils. How will the Minister ensure that councils have overall responsibility across departmental bodies to enable the delivery of all of the actions in the neighbourhood renewal plans?
The Minister for Social Development: Neighbourhood renewal is the Executive’s flagship strategy for addressing deprivation in local communities. If that strategy is supported across Departments, there is a chance of success. If it is not adequately supported by other Departments, it has a poor chance of delivering on its objectives.
As for transferring neighbourhood renewal to local government, community development and local economic regeneration are being transferred to local government under the review of public administration. That makes perfect sense — decisions about targeting responses at local level should be taken locally, not centrally. The equivalent scheme in the South of Ireland is firmly entrusted to local government, through Revitalising Areas by Planning, Investment and Development (RAPID).
There is no suggestion that the aim is to pass a problem to local government. The policy lead will still remain with the Department for Social Development, but the money — along with some staff resources and local decision-making — will pass to the councils. I am aware that there are some Members who are opposed to transferring neighbourhood renewal to local government. Frankly, that is a nonsensical position.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Poots: Will the Minister clarify that there is nothing in the Programme for Government that precludes spending on urban regeneration outside the cities of Belfast and Londonderry, and that there is nothing in the Programme for Government that states that every other town and city will receive only crumbs?
The Minister for Social Development: The Member is referring specifically to Lisburn, which is in his constituency.
As the Member will recall, I visited Lisburn in August or early September 2007, and I saw the need and opportunities for vital regeneration there. Regeneration proposals are already being implemented not only in Belfast and Derry but in other urban towns throughout Northern Ireland. If the Member wants me to revisit Lisburn to consider specific examples of where environmental improvement and public realm schemes could act as a lever for investment, I would be happy to do so.
Mr Beggs: The warm homes scheme has been a useful method of alleviating fuel poverty, which is one of the targets in the Programme for Government. However, the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) recently criticised the scheme and highlighted room for improvement. Will the Minister update the House on her plans for, and the timescale involved in, a possible review of the scheme to ensure that additional assistance can be provided to vulnerable families and individuals?
The Minister for Social Development: Some months ago, I recognised how successful the warm homes scheme had been in tackling fuel poverty throughout Northern Ireland by insulating properties, and I decided, therefore, to refocus the scheme on the fuel poor who are in most need. I also took the opportunity to establish the fuel poverty task force. It comprises not only cross-departmental officials, but representatives from the industry regulator, the General Consumer Council and the fuel industry.
It is tasked with four specific areas of work: dealing with the Government in London to increase and refocus winter fuel payments; to ensure that my Department and others make the best use of money; to secure a greater contribution from the energy sector, and to ensure that the households that need help the most are identified and targeted. The task force will report to me shortly, after which I will take a paper to the Executive to ensure the buy-in of other Departments that have a direct responsibility for energy tariffs.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 4 has been withdrawn.
Social and Affordable Housing: North Belfast
5. Ms Ní Chuilín asked the Minister for Social Development what action she was taking to ensure equality of approach when addressing difficulties in the provision of social and affordable housing in North Belfast. (AQO 4309/08)
The Minister for Social Development: In considering the provision of housing, not only in north Belfast but throughout the North of Ireland, the level of need is my highest priority. The Housing Executive is responsible for implementing the social housing development programme and ensuring that investment is targeted at areas of greatest need. I assure the Member that, in recent years, there has been more investment in housing in North Belfast than in any other constituency. However, I am conscious that there is more to be done.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Minister for her response. I know that she is aware of the housing stress in North Belfast. However, having met several housing associations and residents’ groups, I am concerned that the only response to the housing problem in North Belfast seems to be the construction of high-rise flats or apartments. Surely the Minister accepts the need for mixed-tenure housing. I am concerned that more housing inequality may be created in North Belfast. Will the Minister respond to my concern?
The Minister for Social Development: I am aware of the many housing issues in North Belfast because I have met various groups in the area. I met the “seven towers” group, which has specific concerns about high-rise housing and maintenance problems, and I met groups from St Patrick’s and St Joseph’s, the “long streets”, Fortwilliam and Parkmount. I am conscious of the need to address housing inequalities, and I want to ensure that everyone in the House also rises to that challenge.
The Girdwood site on the Crumlin Road has the potential to have a major, positive impact on North Belfast, and my Department’s objective is to maximise the benefits for the people of that constituency.
I hope that all community, business, political and religious leaders in the area will work together to help achieve that objective. I will not allow those who oppose much-needed new housing on the Girdwood site for sectarian or territorial reasons to stand in the way.
Mr G Robinson: Will the Minister update the House on the situation regarding former Ministry of Defence accommodation and its transfer to her Department?
The Minister for Social Development: That question would be better directed to the Member’s party colleague, the First Minister. The Member may not be aware that following my visit to the St Lucia and Lisanelly sites last year, I made strong representations to the then First Minister and deputy First Minister and to the Minister of Finance and Personnel and met with them to discuss the gift-aiding of military sites to the Executive. Various representations were made by those individuals to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I presume that those representations formed a part of the discussions held by the Member’s own party, and by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, with the UK Government prior to the vote at Westminster on detention of terrorist suspects for 42 days.
Mrs Hanna: The Minister has spoken of her approach to equality considerations. In the context of the regeneration of the Crumlin Road Gaol and Girdwood sites in North Belfast, does she believe that all the political interests are working together to that end?
The Minister for Social Development: I thank Mrs Hanna for her question. I am conscious of the need to address all the equality issues to which the proposals for the regeneration of the site give rise. I recently re-opened the Crumlin Road Gaol to visitors on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 13 June to 12 September and I urge all Members to avail of the opportunity to visit the site.
In relation to the Girdwood Barracks site, an equality impact assessment is being carried out. My Department has written to 530 organisations and has embarked on a series of meetings with a range of groups across North Belfast and further afield. On foot of Mrs Hanna’s question, I take the opportunity to encourage the elected representatives of North Belfast — the MP, the MLAs and city councillors — to work with us to achieve an outcome that benefits all the people of the constituency. Again, I stress that I will not allow those who oppose much-needed housing on the Girdwood site for sectarian or territorial reasons to stand in the way. The issue is crucial to the people of North Belfast, and it must be speedily resolved.
Community and Voluntary Sector Code of Governance: Funding
6. Mr Burnside asked the Minister for Social Development if funding allocated by her Department will be linked to adherence by voluntary and community organizations to her Department’s code of governance for the voluntary and community sector. (AQO 4210/08)
The Minister for Social Development: The funding procedures applied by my Department incorporate the principles and practice of good governance, espoused in my Department’s manual, ‘Setting Standards, Improving Performance; Best Practice in Finance and Governance in the Voluntary and Community Sector’. My Department seeks evidence of good governance from organisations throughout the funding process. All funding proposals are subject to economic appraisal and evaluation of their effectiveness and impact.
Mr Burnside: The Minister will agree that the vast majority of voluntary and community groups are doing a good job in difficult circumstances. She will also agree that many groups have been, and still are, fronts for former republican and loyalist terrorist organisations that are still heavily involved in criminality.
Does she believe that her Department’s code of governance and standards on the funding of local community groups is strong enough, strict enough and can be sufficiently policed to prevent criminal organisations from extracting money through such groups?
The Minister for Social Development: I assure Mr Burnside that all voluntary and community groups that receive funding from the Department for Social Development must sign up to the terms and conditions of the grant. Naturally, however, I share Mr Burnside’s concerns about the matter. If he wishes to provide me with specific details about a particular voluntary or community group in his constituency or further afield, I would be very happy to consider them.
Mr Shannon: As always, I thank the Minister for her response. Will she confirm that the community and voluntary sectors are essential ingredients in social development? Will she also confirm that a community charter and its aims need not necessarily be those of DSD? Rather, the sector should be entitled to do what is best for the community that it represents, and DSD should subsequently evaluate each case individually to ascertain the merit of any plans and the depth of the Department’s involvement in that community aim, as opposed to each community group simply being an extension of DSD, which is not their function.
I apologise to the Minister for asking a long-winded question.
The Minister for Social Development: There are 4,500 groups in the community and voluntary sector in Northern Ireland. Some of those groups receive funding via neighbourhood renewal, which probably requires buy-in from other Departments, or through the local community fund, which comes directly from the Department for Social Development. However, some groups also receive funding from local councils, and in Mr Shannon’s case, that is Ards Borough Council.
The community and voluntary sector is a large industry in Northern Ireland, and I emphasise that it is very important that we focus resources where there is most need.
Mr Durkan: Will the Minister address the wider question of the overall financial outlook for the community and voluntary sector for the next three years? We are in the midst of an economic downturn, groups are experiencing decreases in European funding, and efficiency savings mean that other Departments are not stepping up to the plate when it comes to neighbourhood renewal and making commitments to the community and voluntary sector.
Therefore, what can the Minister do to ensure that DSD funding has maximum impact on the ground? Additionally, what can be done to gain more commitment and support from other Departments for the community and voluntary sectors?
The Minister for Social Development: My Department has the lead responsibility for the voluntary and community sector. However, as the Member rightly points out, funding to that sector is an issue for all Departments, which must work within the terms of the Budget that the Executive set in the recent Programme for Government.
Mr Durkan is also correct to say that, after many years of growth, we are entering a period of change and uncertainty for both sectors. Sources of short-term funding, such as EU funding, on which the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland have come to rely, are decreasing. It is difficult for all Ministers to strike the correct balance between finding the funds that can be made available, to meet the requirements of the 4,500 voluntary and community groups in Northern Ireland, and to ascertain the services that should be retained and developed. However, I assure my colleague Mr Durkan that whatever refocusing may occur in neighbourhood renewal in Derry, overall levels of DSD funding there will be maintained or increased.
I know that some groups have lost out as a result of other Departments’ choosing not to mainstream their projects. However, I can say only that DSD will make every effort to support good work where it meets the criteria for DSD-funded programmes. I will ensure — and I assure all Members of this — that I will refocus the limited DSD funds that are available so that our interventions and support have the maximum impact on the ground. Alongside refocusing funding, I also hope to promote the spirit of volunteering and build a stronger sense of self-reliance and social responsibility.
Rising Energy Costs
Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly notes with concern that rising energy costs are hitting families in Northern Ireland harder than in the rest of the UK; and calls on the Executive to:
(i) give further priority to measures to promote energy efficiency and combat fuel poverty;
(ii) drive a coordinated energy policy to diversify our energy supplies, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, increase competition in our energy market and harness the full potential of renewable energy;
(iii) cooperate with other Governments, including through the British Irish Council, to develop a longer-term strategy for these islands, and;
(iv) urge the UK Government to re-direct the windfall VAT revenue from higher energy bills to be used to mitigate the escalation of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland. — [The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Durkan).]
Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the motion and commend the Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment for tabling it. The motion provides Members with an opportunity to reiterate their concerns about rising energy costs and other issues, such as renewable energy and fossil fuels.
Earlier in the debate, Simon Hamilton said that Members must examine long-term and short-term solutions. I will focus on short-term measures that the Executive and the Assembly must introduce.
The motion raises a number of points. First, it states that, compared with elsewhere, in the North:
“rising energy costs are hitting families … harder”.
That is the starting point.
The motion calls on the Executive to do certain things, one of which, in point iv, urges:
“the UK Government to re-direct the windfall VAT revenue from higher energy bills to be used to mitigate the escalation of fuel poverty”
in the North of Ireland. The media have reported that rising energy costs have led to the collection of an additional £10 million in VAT. I want to make a connection between that extra £10 million in VAT revenue and the fact that, for all sorts of reasons, low-income families here are hit harder, and are worse off, than those elsewhere.
I want rising energy prices and the issues raised in point iv of the motion to be put on the agenda for the Executive’s next meeting — and every meeting thereafter — until a result is achieved. The Executive must inform the Assembly about the nature of their discussions on the motion. I hope that they yield something positive.
I also want to raise the situation regarding oil companies, which, I assume, the Executive will discuss. What is the situation with the oil companies? Are they suffering now, or will they suffer in the future? We have no control over what is happening globally, but we must question whether oil companies’ profits will continue to soar while low-income families continue to suffer. Will the disadvantaged become more disadvantaged?
I thank the Assembly Research and Library Service, and the Committee, for providing Members with briefing papers, which state that the trade union UNISON:
“condemned the blatant profiteering within the energy industry”.
That issue must be explored, even if we have no control over the global situation.
Finally, we must also consider the regulator’s role. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr G Robinson: My contribution to the debate is hopefully more of a housekeeping issue because of the severe rising costs of energy. Recently, we debated child poverty, and I observed then that rising bills have meant that every family now has less disposable income. I also highlighted the fact that energy costs in Northern Ireland are greater than those in the rest of the United Kingdom.
I was struck by two important points when reading the motion. The first is the need to promote energy efficiency. I am sure that, in our daily constituency work, many Members pass houses that have lights on in every room. I often ponder whether all those rooms are occupied. A simple message to pass on to our constituents is to switch off the lights when they leave a room. Given the present circumstances, that message — and other similar ideas — must be conveyed to every household in Northern Ireland.
It is time for a co-ordinated campaign urging households to be energy sensible and to help themselves to reduce their bills. Such an approach would not only be a cost-effective means by which the Assembly could promote and advise on careful energy use, but would have a real impact on those people who are in fuel poverty or are at risk of it, by showing them how to reduce their fuel bills. On 13 May, in the Assembly, my colleague from Strangford Mr Shannon said:
“Those who most need that information are not getting it, and it must be made available to help people to save money and to eradicate fuel poverty, which is the aim of the Assembly.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 30, p303, col 1].
I am sure that Mr Shannon will be pleased to know that I agree with those sentiments wholeheartedly.
I was also struck by the need to develop alternative and renewable sources of energy. The Executive are in no doubt of the challenges that they face, and are rising to those challenges:
“Securing our future energy supply is high on the Government’s agenda as we seek to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 30, p309, col 2].
Those were the words of another colleague, the then Minister of the Environment — it is ironic that, on that occasion, she was filling in for the then Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, Mr Dodds. I believe that the Executive are working positively towards achieving the target of having 15% of energy production from renewable sources, and Minister Foster’s comments are proof of that.
I will save my energy and say nothing more than that I support the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I now call Dr Alasdair McDonnell.
Dr McDonnell: Thank you very much indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker — it is always a pleasure to be invited to speak by your good self. I want to use the time allocated to me to make a few points and to welcome the Minister to what I believe is the first debate of this nature in the Chamber — I wish her well as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and hope that we Back-Benchers can be helpful and supportive to her in her new role.
I welcome this debate, because rising energy costs are, literally — if Members will excuse the pun — a burning issue for every household in Northern Ireland and beyond. It is an issue for people across the island of Ireland and across the UK. We are facing an energy crisis, which is being felt by every single business, household, school, church and organisation in our society, because they all consume energy.
As well as that, we are in the grip of a credit crunch, so households are being hit in every direction. The cost of gas has risen by 28% and the average bill is now close to £600, which means an extra £130 or £140 being squeezed out of people’s already tight budgets. The cost of electricity has risen by 14% and we are told that, before the winter, it will increase again by a further 15%. Diesel and petrol are at record high prices at the pumps, and the price of home heating oil is scary — it is now 65% to 70% more expensive than it was a year ago. On top of all that, people are facing a credit crisis, rising rate bills, and the potential for water charges.
It is against that backdrop that I warmly welcome the motion. The Executive must take every possible action to address the energy crisis, because all people are dealing with the same problems. I meet people in my constituency every day — in my constituency office and on the streets — who can no longer afford to fill their oil tanks. Some people, particularly the elderly, are concerned, because usually they have a cushion — for example, a half a tank of oil left over — but that will not happen next year. Instead, many people let their tanks go empty in May and will try to leave them empty for as long as possible so that they do not have to fork out £600 or £700 to fill them. If we have a bad winter, the consequences will be horrific: people will die because they will not be able to afford to heat their homes. Fuel poverty, which is a nice cliché, will rise, and we will be faced with misery on all fronts.
Although the current problems are happening when oil is $140 and $150 a barrel, we must be prepared for the price of oil to hit $250 a barrel. It is unacceptable that major oil companies are making massive profits at a time when people are being forced into misery and have to make a choice between buying food and heating their homes. The oil market must be regulated.
In evidence from Phoenix Natural Gas, the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment heard that gas in the British market — which we feed off — is traded six times before it is consumed. Therefore, four people get a slice of profit before the gas reaches the consumer — there are four people between the producer and the consumer. On the Continent, gas is traded 0·6 times, because the process has been reduced to the point where there is no trading in between the producer and the consumer. Regulation is essential — there must be state control over, if not full state ownership of, the gas market.
Although there is some control over the gas market, a barrel of oil is traded 12 times before it is used, which means that there are 10 speculators. In the past few months, oil has become the favourite commodity for traders, because the price keeps increasing — many people know that, if they trade in oil, the price will continue to rise. My party leader, Mark Durkan, and I, among others, have tabled an early-day motion at Westminster to highlight that problem and to call for action at the G8 summit.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Dr McDonnell: There are many other points that I want to make. The Assembly and the Executive must do all that they can to develop the use of renewables and other alternative sources of energy.
Mr Bresland: I support the motion. My constituency, like those of other Members of the House, has suffered because of the increase in fuel costs. That has been brought home to me by several constituents, many of whom cannot afford to buy oil for their central heating. I am extremely concerned about the impact that rising fuel costs will have on elderly people this winter. All fuel prices — including those for oil, electricity and gas — are increasing, which is imposing considerable strain on families, particularly those on lower incomes.
As a member of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, I am aware of the impact that the increase in fuel costs is having on the farming community. Higher oil prices have resulted in fertiliser prices increasing by over 100%, and fuel costs have increased by over 50% in the same period. Such rises in the cost of inputs explains why food prices are rising and putting further pressure on people with low incomes. Increases in food prices are having a serious impact on the household budget, especially for families on low incomes and pensioners — the same people who face fuel poverty.
At a later date, the Assembly will debate renewable energy, alternative land use and the impact that renewable energy will have on our energy policy.
I believe firmly that oil prices will remain high, and, regrettably, they will almost certainly increase further. It is vital that we explore a way of developing an effective energy policy. That will require a change in attitude across Departments, including in the Planning Service.
In order to establish renewable energy projects, planning policy must be changed significantly. Many farmers who have sought to develop renewable energy projects have found the system to be fraught with difficulties. Change in planning policy is required, but that need not have a negative impact on the countryside.
The motion calls for an effective energy policy, and it is vital that we explore every opportunity to assist families during what are challenging times. The Northern Ireland energy market is almost totally dependent on imported energy, and it is vital that a clear strategy is developed — especially in the promotion of renewable energies — to enable us to address our dependence on oil.
We must also continue our pursuit of energy efficiency, which could commence with the introduction of energy-efficiency certificates. Although I am opposed to further red tape, I hope that the introduction of such certificates would have a positive impact. I support the motion.
Mr Poots: Given the increase in the price of oil and the impact that that is having across the community, the motion is certainly topical. In conjunction with the credit crunch and falling house prices, that increase is having a dramatic effect on the economy, and it is being felt particularly badly in rural areas. There is real decline in rural businesses, which are suffering, and, as a consequence, people have been laid off. Given current levels of business, there will be more layoffs in the near future because those employers cannot sustain keeping all their employees.
Energy prices have an impact across the economy and on all commodities. Unfortunately, that is demonstrated adequately by food prices in supermarkets. As a consequence of high energy costs, more crops are being diverted into energy crops as opposed to food crops, which then drives up the price of food. Increases in the price of haulage also drive up the price of food, given the number of vehicles that haul up and down the length and breadth of the United Kingdom to move food from a to b. As a consequence, consumers pay more for groceries, energy costs, keeping a warm home and travelling to work, school, and so on. In all those areas, increasing fuel costs have negative consequences on the average person on the street.
What can the Government and the Assembly do about that? A policy can be set here and another at Westminster, but other issues are outside the control of any Government. Dr McDonnell referred to market-makers, and much of the increases in energy prices are to do with market-making, as opposed to the regular bases of supply and demand.
We do not know when energy prices will stop rising. The housing market has been in a similar situation: prices rose phenomenally over the past three years, but they are now coming back down. I believe that the same will happen with energy, but no one knows when the turning point will be. In the meantime, the average punter on the street suffers.
What can Government do to ease the situation? Reference has been made to the VAT issue. For every 10p increase in energy prices, the Government receive 1·75p, which gives them approximately 6p more for each litre of fuel than was the case just over one year ago. Clearly, without taking any hit whatever, the Government could take 6p a litre off the price of fuel, which would reduce the cost of haulage and travel, and, in a small way, would help to alleviate some of the problems that consumers face. I lay that on the line: we should press the Westminster Government to act immediately on the matter.
In the longer term, we must look at how we produce energy, and there have been some innovative ideas. We must look at how the agriculture industry uses willow biomass, not only for the production of electricity but for heat and power exchange plants, the benefits of which — the supply of hot water to hospitals, schools and leisure facilities or a newbuild town or village — are clear. Recently, the first eco-village was opened in the Brokerstown area of Lisburn. Houses in that development are bucking the trend by selling well, which demonstrates that people recognise that energy issues will continue to be a problem.
As a Government, we must act to encourage the production of more sustainable forms of energy. The island of Ireland could produce enough coastal wind power to serve all the United Kingdom. We must address that. We should seek to ensure that the United Kingdom has a more reliable source of energy — one that does not rely on areas where there can be political turmoil or other problems — that will benefit our children.
Mr McFarland: The causes of fuel poverty and rising energy costs are complex, multilayered and interrelated. A downturn in the economy, which threatens to turn into recession; the growing insecurity associated with the reliance on oil and fossil fuels and their long-term sustainability; and environmental goals for reducing climate change and changing greenhouse gas initiatives, are aspects that must considered in the debate.
Thousands of people in Northern Ireland are suffering from the effects of rising energy costs. In the last year alone, oil customers have paid £532 more on average; Phoenix Natural Gas customers have paid £132 more; and NIE customers have paid £69 more. One in three households is now suffering fuel poverty, which means that families and individuals are either unable to heat their homes or are forced to divert money for necessary items, such as food and clothing, to pay for heating. The elderly and low-income families are affected most. In a modern, democratic society, that is not acceptable.
The Governor of the Bank of England recently warned that those price hikes are not temporary and that customers should brace themselves for the most difficult economic conditions in two decades. Although this is a complex issue, I welcome today’s debate and hope that it produces the needed momentum to stimulate action to address those issues.
The Department for Social Development is developing strategies and taking steps to alleviate fuel poverty. Through the warm homes scheme, the measures to increase heat retention and energy efficiency in homes are extremely welcome. We should encourage people across society to implement energy saving methods, including changing their behaviour. Society needs to learn the necessity of conserving and retaining energy, and many people need support to achieve that. We must ensure that the Executive give all the assistance and information possible to those who wish to improve the efficiency of their homes and businesses. It is crucial that as energy prices rise, we enable and encourage people to use less energy for the same benefit. That will have economic and environmental benefits.
I want to develop some of the issues that Dr McDonnell raised to try to understand what has caused the present situation. There is a world demand for fuels; India and China are rapidly expanding and, therefore, demand more of the fuels that used to come to us. However, speculation is an issue that we must understand. Dr McDonnell talked about gas being traded six times and oil 12 times, from the time that it leaves the gas or oil field until it gets to our homes. The present situation is not being caused by the speculators who normally operate in that market; from evidence to the Committee, we understand that 50% to 60 % of the speculation is being done by banks after they were hammered by the American sub-prime mortgage market.
That has an effect in Europe and in the UK. As far as I understand it, the banks are trying to make their money back through speculation. All of that is in serious danger of wrecking our economy. In Great Britain, 83% of homes have access to natural gas. In Northern Ireland, the figure is 25% in the greater Belfast area, and — lo and behold — 1% outside greater Belfast. The rest of Northern Ireland is reliant on oil that is 12-times-traded by the time it gets here.
We are further confused by the fact that the energy industry in the UK is privatised. The rest of Europe and America have had much more sense and have kept their energy industries in Government control in order to have some control over them.
We have a major problem because fuel prices are rising, which causes the costs of transport and food to rise. The biofuel issue has further exacerbated the rise in the cost of food. In America, great swathes of the maize crop have gone towards biofuel, which has caused a shortage for raising animals. That also causes the price of food to rise.
There is also the issue of climate change. We are encouraging people to make their homes more efficient. Wind power is an option, but — as I have said previously in the House — our tourist trade will falter if we cover Northern Ireland with windmills. My guess is that wave power is a good option. As Mr Newton mentioned earlier, we must consider the nuclear option. We cannot close our eyes and ears to something that everyone else is doing.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is almost up.
Mr McFarland: I commend the motion.
Mrs I Robinson: Although the Assembly has limited scope to address such issues, rising fuel costs are causing a considerable degree of anxiety for families and businesses across the United Kingdom, the repercussions of which are being felt in all aspects of our lives. There is tangible panic in the public domain, as well as real despair, because, everywhere we turn, prices are rising faster than one can say “Jack Robinson”.
The price of oil recently hit a new record of more than $142 a barrel, after stock markets across the globe fell as a result of fears regarding food and fuel costs. London Brent crude has now reached a record high of $142·13 a barrel, while US light crude for August delivery has reached $142·26 a barrel.
As a result, petrol prices have surged in the past year. Diesel is 35% more expensive than one year ago, at 131·94p a litre — nearly £6 a gallon. Unleaded petrol has increased by 22%, at an average of 118·57p a litre. Each day at the pump, motorists are spending a colossal £14·3 million more than they were one year ago. I am sure that everyone will agree that that is a staggering increase.
Transport is an integral part of the delivery of goods and services, so costs have inevitably filtered down to the high street, where each and every family now feels the pinch. Farming food production is a major contributor to the Northern Ireland economy, more so than in any other region of the United Kingdom. Where agriculture contributes 0·5% towards the total GVA across the UK, the figure is 1·3% for Northern Ireland. It, therefore, follows that pressures in agriculture are felt twice as much in Northern Ireland as they are across the United Kingdom as a whole.
Northern Ireland farmers also experience twice the degree of hardship when it comes to the costs of feeds and grain. Across the United Kingdom, 28% of gross output is down to the cattle, sheep, pig and poultry industries, while the same figure for Northern Ireland is 43%. As a result, Northern Ireland farmers have to purchase over twice the amount of feedstuff as their mainland counterparts and must, therefore, bear the costs of grain prices, which have exploded in recent months.
The prospects for Northern Ireland’s fishing industry are also very bleak. Successive Administrations have failed, on a colossal level, to provide that industry with effective representation. It has now declined to the point of collapse. Those are not empty words of woe but a starkly honest picture of where the fishing industry currently stands.
As Northern Ireland fishermen observe their industry’s decline, they must also witness the stark contrast with which the Governments of France, Spain and the Republic of Ireland treat their fishing industries. The cost of fuel and other overheads for some boats is as much as £2,700 a week, and that is before any wages are paid — in fact, I am aware of owners who have to subsidise their vessels. Although that issue is not specifically related to this debate; if the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development continues to fail to devote sufficient time to the matter, there will not be a fishing industry to speak of come the next election.
Over the past year, Northern Ireland has seen price increases of 19% for electricity, 28% for natural gas and coal and 75% for oil and, combined with other increases to household bills, that gives rise to greater urgency to tackle fuel poverty. Ultimately, as long as the UK continues to depend on fossil fuels, we will be at the mercy of Russia and the Middle East. Northern Ireland imports 96% of its energy needs — the highest in the European Union — and yet the EU has said that no other country has more potential to produce alternative energy on its farms.
Although the Government may not have any control over the level of oil production by OPEC, they do have control over the amount of taxation levied on fuel. The United Kingdom has the greatest tax burden on fuel of any of the EU countries. The tax on of a litre of petrol in Britain is around 57p, compared to 31p in Spain, 45p in Italy, 48p in France and 52p in Germany. The Exchequer has the power to reduce the cost of fuel. I support the motion.
Mr Shannon: I support the motion. Despite the attempted spin of the Labour Government, no-one is in any doubt that times are hard and that the average person is finding it difficult to make ends meet. First-time buyers and families with young children are finding it particularly difficult to cope with housing issues, and single-parent families are finding it hard to make ends meet. The elderly are trying out retirement careers as contortionists — twisting and stretching themselves to meet the ever-rising cost of living with small, and seemingly shrinking, state pensions.
Every day, headlines scream of rising bills and price hikes. People have to tighten their belts that little bit more; and it is becoming clear that there are no more notches on the belts of many people in the Province. Bread has risen from 69p to £1·29, and diesel is at an all-time high of 131·99p a litre, which comes on top of bigger taxes on all incoming and outgoing money. The hikes would be understandable if wages and incomes were increasing at the same rate, but that is not the case. Older people are faced with the choice of eating or heating — as has been said already — and that will include more people who will put on extra blankets and jumpers to enable them to spend money on meat.
Northern Ireland has the highest rate of fuel poverty in the United Kingdom. The most up-to-date figures show that in 2006, 34% of the population here was living in fuel poverty. How much higher is that figure today? The mind boggles. The definition of fuel poverty is not being able to keep a home adequately warm at reasonable cost and that as a result more than 10% of household income is being spent on fuel.
Alleviating fuel poverty has been identified by Government as an important issue in tackling disadvantage in communities, and it is a priority for the Assembly. ‘Ending Fuel Poverty: A Strategy for Northern Ireland’ published by the Department for Social Development in 2004, stated that the Government intends:
“to eliminate fuel poverty in vulnerable households by 2010, and in non-vulnerable households by 2016.”
Is that possible today?
As Members have said already, in the past year Northern Ireland has seen price increases of 19% for electricity, 28% for natural gas and coal, and 75% for oil. Moreover, we have been told that electricity and gas will increase by another 15% before the end of the year. God forbid that Alasdair McDonnell is right and that oil prices will rise to $250 a barrel — that would be horrendous.
There should be a greater urgency to tackle fuel poverty, because of other increases in household bills. Margaret Ritchie has set up a task force to examine fuel poverty and report to her by the end of the summer. However, a strategy should be put in place as soon as is humanly possible. It is admirable that our Ministers are playing their parts, but it is clear that something must happen at the next level as a matter of urgency.
We have reached the stage at which only action by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and the Labour Party can bring about a great enough change to make a difference to the every-day lives of the people of the Province, and the United Kingdom as a whole.
I shall focus on the last point of the motion, which reflects my own contribution to a possible way forward, namely that the best option is to charge the oil companies with windfall taxes. Those companies increase the price of fuel every day, and yet, during the first three months of this year, their profits rose by record amounts. To cite examples, in the first three months of this year, Shell posted a profit of £3·9 billion; and British Petroleum profits rose by 48% to £3·31 billion during the same period.
A 40% increase in profits for vital service provision is nothing less than extortion, and price-gouging tactics should not be used against the United Kingdom, which is what is happening at the moment. The large oil companies need to be penalised, and Gordon Brown could do more by hitting those companies with a windfall tax, which could then be used to reduce the price of fuel by 12p or 15p a litre.
I am all for free enterprise, but it is wrong that companies are affecting the health and well-being of entire nations. It would not be the first time that Gordon Brown has introduced a windfall tax. When the Labour Party came to power in 1997, it imposed a one-off windfall tax on utilities, and raised £5 billion to fund the New Deal programme to get the unemployed into work.
Surely, 11 years later, the large oil companies, which are boasting unbelievable profit margins, can be taxed in the same way. That could make a difference to the constituents whom I represent, and to the constituents of all Members. It is absurd that families with two incomes can no longer get by comfortably, and I urge Gordon Brown to make it clear that the interests and health of the people of the United Kingdom are of the utmost importance. That step is the first of many that must be taken. I support the motion.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mrs Foster): I thank the Committee for bringing its first sponsored motion before the House. The motion deals with a critical matter for the entire community. Members’ contributions to the debate demonstrate just how wide-ranging this issue is. We have heard about transport costs, the effects on fishermen, rural enterprises and the agricultural industry, and, obviously, those suffering from fuel poverty. A number of statistics have been provided that illustrate how rising fuel prices have a disproportionate effect on those with lower incomes.
The increase in wholesale fuel costs are driving up the costs of power generation and, therefore, the retail price of electricity to consumers is also rising. Generation costs amount to over 50% of the final cost of electricity, and around 60% of the final price of gas to consumers. Rising energy costs are obviously of particular concern for the less well off, whether they are pensioners, those on benefits or people on low incomes.
The interdepartmental group on fuel poverty, which has been mentioned during the debate — chaired by my Executive colleague Margaret Ritchie — is charged with ensuring effective co-ordination of policies and action to address fuel poverty. My Department is represented on that group, which has been meeting representatives from other key Departments, and which examines ways in which Departments can make a priority of addressing poverty, income and health. I understand that the Minister for Social Development is expecting to report to the Executive in the autumn with an action plan to address fuel poverty.
As the House will know, my Department has no direct role in setting energy prices, but attempts, in co-operation with the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the energy industry, to create market conditions that will exert a downward pressure on prices. It is important to recognise that we have our own regulator, and I am sure that the House will acknowledge that that is important. We are fortunate to have such a regulator.
Mrs McGill made a comment about regulation of the oil industry, but I am sure that she will agree with me that, to have any effect, regulation would have to be worldwide, and that is certainly not within the power of a devolved region such as our own. However, that does not detract from the work that the Department is doing.
Throughout the years, the Department has supported several initiatives. There has been much discussion during the debate about the establishment of the single electricity market. That is a positive step forward, upon which progress can be built. As Members are aware, the single electricity market was introduced in November 2007. Although it will be some time before people see the benefits of that in their bills, those benefits will come eventually.
The Department has been involved in the mutualisation of key energy assets, and lobbied for Northern Ireland’s exemption from the climate change levy until 2011. The Department was also able to offer a grant to help to defray the cost to the industry of the energy efficiency levy.
The Department continues to support Invest NI’s delivery of energy-efficiency programmes to industry. Those programmes provide valuable support to industry and the wider business community. They are targeted at the reduction of energy usage and, therefore, energy costs for business. Although the Assembly is right to discuss the fuel poor in the House, it must also, as several Members have reflected, support indigenous industries. That must be kept in mind.
Invest NI has also funded the Carbon Trust programme, which promotes more efficient energy use and uptake of renewable technologies. Since 2002, potential energy savings of some £84 million have been identified, and annually recurring savings of £23·9 million have been achieved in Northern Ireland. Those are not insignificant sums.
Northern Ireland also contributes to the UK’s member state energy-saving targets under the EU directive on energy end-use efficiency and energy services, which is a natty little directive. DETI currently works with energy suppliers to develop agreements to promote energy efficiency, as required under that directive. That work continues.
There has been much discussion about the Reconnect scheme. Certainly, many people have lobbied their Members because they were not able to avail of the scheme. Ultimately, not enough money was available to deal with the applications that were before the Department. The scheme is currently being evaluated. The Committee Chairperson said that he hoped that the evaluation would happen quickly. I hope so too. A targeted programme to encourage the use of renewable sources of energy must be examined. I hope that that will happen in the near future.
A co-ordinated energy policy that includes diversification of energy supplies is important, not only to provide fuel choice, but for security of supply. In recent years, power generation in Northern Ireland has been provided by two gas-fired power stations and a coal-fired generator. Since November 2007, the single electricity market has enhanced the security of the electricity power supply for Northern Ireland consumers. The natural gas network has been extended to 10 main urban areas outside greater Belfast. I accept Members’ comments that the network is not wide enough throughout Northern Ireland. Coming from County Fermanagh, I certainly agree. However, both business and domestic consumers in Northern Ireland, albeit not enough of them, are being provided with a choice of energy supply.
Significant work is ongoing to establish how renewable energy can contribute further to power generation in order to improve diversity and security of supply and to help to shelter Northern Ireland from global oil price fluctuations.
Northern Ireland can become a leader in the use of renewable energies. I believe that Mr Poots commented on wind power. Mr McFarland discussed tidal energy. Tremendous, world-class engineering work has been undertaken on the marine-current turbine in Strangford Lough. Much can be learned from that work. I hope that other offshore areas can also become involved.
Mr Cree mentioned that the UK consultation should be used to place Northern Ireland at the heart of renewable energy. I strongly welcome his comments. My Department is actively involved with its UK counterpart on the renewable-energy consultation because it believes that it can play a significant role, particularly on renewable-energy schemes, such as the marine-current turbine project in Strangford Lough, which are at the cutting edge of technology.
The electricity grid was mentioned, and, as Members will be aware, a study was carried out towards the end of last year on how much the grid could absorb because of higher levels of renewable electricity generation and a movement away from the dependence on fossil fuels. There is some capacity for doing that, but Members will also acknowledge the need to strengthen the grid, which will have cost and environmental implications. Members commented on the Planning Service’s role, and work is under way on permitted developments. Mr McLaughlin talked about micro-renewables. Under planning policy statement 18, the policy context is being developed for renewable energy.
The increasing competition in energy supply markets elsewhere has generally resulted in lower prices and higher levels of customer service; however, Northern Ireland is a small energy market, with only 790,000 electricity consumers. It is important to recognise that, because links are needed, and the third part of the motion refers to that. North/South and east-west links are needed; however, I would also like to see regional linkages — perhaps as far as France. That may be far in the future, but there are already links between the British Isles and France, and that could bring about the competition that does not yet exist.
Little can be done about the global pressures that affect energy costs worldwide. However, I hear the call for a co-ordinated policy, and I take into account the work that has been done in the Department since 2004. This year, my Department will bring forward for consultation a revised framework, which will reflect on the changing European Union, United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland policy context. It is important to reflect on the changes — not least the global changes — from the point of view of the British Isles and to produce a new policy in that context.
I am not sure how much time I have left, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr Deputy Speaker: You have 20 minutes in total.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: In that case I should slow down. I should be finished before my time is up.
I will continue to speak about co-operation with other Governments. My Department continues to co-operate on energy matters with the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform in London, the other UK regional Assemblies and Parliaments, particularly the Scottish Parliament and the Irish Government. Evidence of that can be seen in the single electricity market, which provides a single market for wholesale electricity. It combines markets North and South into a much larger market, providing for economies of scale. The benefits of that will be seen in future, but, as Mr Newton pointed out, people want to see benefits now. It will take some time before the benefits of the single electricity market are felt, but I will talk more about immediate plans later.
I am also considering common arrangements for natural gas between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The aim of such a project would be to harmonise gas transmission arrangements, particularly between North and South to minimise transaction charges and reduce final gas prices for consumers. The costs and benefits of any future arrangement are being considered by regulators in both jurisdictions. A decision on whether to progress the work further will be taken by the Department when the details of the full economic assessment become available in the autumn of this year.
The Department is also in discussions with Scottish Executive officials on the development of an offshore electricity grid, which could absorb renewable energy such as wind and marine energy, which were mentioned earlier.
I am committed to working to advance regional co-operation on energy matters with the British-Irish Council, which is keen to develop an energy work stream. A strategic review is under way in the British-Irish Council, and it will bring forward a proposed work programme in September 2008. I hope that, for our benefit, energy is one of those work streams because Northern Ireland has good news to tell, and I hope that we can be leaders in the field of renewable energy. Energy infrastructure links, particularly through Scotland’s under-sea gas and electricity connectors, are strategically vital to us.
Since 2006, we have also had gas interconnection with the Republic of Ireland, and we are co-operating on plans to build a second cross-border electricity interconnector.
Northern Ireland may be small; however, it has great connections with the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the British Isles, and there is potential to consider connections with other regions, such as France.
Many Members spoke about redirecting windfall VAT revenue in order to mitigate fuel poverty. That is a reserved matter, to be determined by the Chancellor of the Exchequer; however, I note that, on the 25 June, at the Joint Ministerial Committee meeting, my colleagues the First Minister and the deputy First Minister raised the matter of escalating fuel costs with the Prime Minister. My colleague the First Minister said:
“The deputy First Minister and I recently raised the issue of rising fuel prices and the impact they are having here directly with the Prime Minister.”
Therefore, that matter has been raised at the highest level.
In addition, the Minister for Social Development confirmed that she and the fuel poverty task force will lobby the Chancellor of the Exchequer to increase the winter fuel payment. A comment was made that it is not rising at the desired rate. Furthermore, the Minister for Social Development will make representations about VAT.
Nevertheless, Mr Cree and Mr Hamilton pointed out that, although the Treasury will benefit from higher-than-planned receipts from fuel-related VAT, it will face shortfalls in other VAT and indirect tax receipts as consumers rein in their spending. The level of stamp-duty receipts will also deteriorate as the housing market contracts.
Northern Ireland has little scope to be sheltered from the significant rise in global energy costs. We recently moved to a new energy-cost platform, with impacts on domestic and business consumers throughout Northern Ireland, and, although we will do what we can within our limits to alleviate that, the House is fully aware of the impact of such increases and will wish to ensure that there is no negative impact on industry.
I fully support my Department’s input to the interdepartmental group on fuel poverty, which is considering how best to alleviate the burden of rising energy costs on the most vulnerable in society, and I am keen to identify the best energy solutions for Northern Ireland to enhance security of supply, reduce our dependence on imported fossil fuels, help reduce our carbon footprint and, importantly, minimise consumer costs.
As I said when I spoke about industry versus households, that is not an easy balancing act, and concerted efforts with key stakeholders — especially the Utility Regulator — will be necessary, particularly to minimise the effects of rising energy prices on the most vulnerable. That will require the engagement of all Northern Ireland Departments and their Ministers.
Members commented about social tariffs, and, we must discuss such matters with the Utility Regulator to gauge their impact on Northern Ireland industry and society. Frankly, there is not much point in giving a social tariff to people with low incomes if we then put those people out of jobs by penalising industry in Northern Ireland. Those are the sort of matters that we must discuss with the regulator, and we stand ready to do so. Furthermore, I can assure the House about my Department’s willingness to play its part in attempts to alleviate the burden faced by the fuel poor.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The debate was informative, and many Members contributed. Therefore, if I fail to mention anything, it will be because I have not been able to write everything down. The fact that so many Members wished to speak — and that all Members who did spoke in favour of the motion — is good.
Having proposed the motion, the Chairman of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Mark Durkan, highlighted the real problems facing an ever-increasing number of businesses and people in our communities. He emphasised the timeliness of the debate, given the recent news that energy-industry insiders are predicting even further price rises this year of up to 40%, which could plunge an extra 1·6 million people into fuel poverty.
Robin Newton warned that oil prices have not yet peaked. Like other Members, he highlighted the fact that consumers are facing higher energy bills but that wages are not increasing to reflect those higher costs— rather they are staying the same.
Alan McFarland said that we must understand energy-market speculation, particularly the role of banks; we heard that oil, for instance, is being traded 12 times before it reaches the consumer. People should not try to make money from those who face financial difficulties. Speculators are in danger of wrecking the whole economy.
Some members of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment recently visited credit unions in the Waterside in Derry. The staff there said that oil has become so expensive that some people are applying for loans to fill up their tank at home, which is worrying. Some people say that households need to switch on their heating in summer; whether or not people switch on their heating now, come autumn the crisis will worsen. Members agree that we must take action now. Longer-term measures must be put in place, but something must be done in the short term as well.
As several Members said, there is substantial evidence of the effects of rising energy prices. Jim Shannon defined fuel poverty as being when people have to spend more than 10% of their household income on fuel; many people have already reached that point. Simon Hamilton described the evidence as sobering; he pointed out that even in Strangford, which many might describe as an affluent area, some 7,000 households are living in fuel poverty. We are most concerned about elderly, disabled and disadvantaged people, but many families are finding it difficult to make ends meet, even when two family members are working. Thus the rise in fuel costs affects everybody.
Leslie Cree said that stark choices will have to be made by hardworking consumers and businesses in the months ahead. The prediction was that at the end of 2008, household bills will have increased by 61%. We again heard the slogan, “Eat or heat”, and that will be the choice for many people in the months to come.
Alasdair McDonnell warned that people will die if there is a hard winter. That is a great concern, particularly for the elderly. All the members of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment welcomed the warm homes schemes, and Sean Neeson noted that it had made a major contribution to greater energy efficiency. Many Members mentioned the need to make homes more energy-efficient. Those efforts cannot be made in isolation; a package of measures is needed. We must encourage people to think about how they can use energy more efficiently. George Robinson said that leaving lights on in rooms when they are not being used can add to fuel bills.
Mitchel McLaughlin quoted some interesting figures from Environment Link, which claims that 80% of the energy consumption in buildings is for heating, generally oil heating. He highlighted the important role that building regulations and planning policy play in encouraging energy efficiency. Leslie Cree said that the typical household uses five times more energy than it should and that greater energy efficiency could reduce household bills by almost a fifth.
The Committee Chairperson and others highlighted the complexity of energy issues. Sean Neeson noted that those issues have rightly dominated the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee’s proceedings. Several Members called for a co-ordinated energy strategy. As Sean Neeson said, much of the evidence to the Committee has focused on the need to introduce a co-ordinated policy.
The Minister said that several matters, including action plans, would be presented to the Executive for their consideration in an effort to adopt a more joined-up approach to energy issues.
She mentioned the single electricity market and acknowledged that although we encounter problems with regulation, the fact that we have a regulator is positive. However, we must consider a more strategic approach to the development of energy programmes.
Several Members supported the use of renewable sources, such as wind and waves, to generate electricity. Claire McGill mentioned oil companies’ profiteering, while disadvantaged people remain disadvantaged.
The Minister outlined her concerns about the social tariff, which have been mentioned in the House previously. However, we must work with energy companies to develop that social-tariff system for the benefit of industry and local consumers.
Many contributors discussed renewable energy. Alan McFarland and Robin Newton mentioned nuclear energy, and, although that debate is in its infancy, it is a matter that is worth discussing. Some Members — perhaps most — have difficulties with that issue.
I have tried to cover most of the points that were raised during the debate, and I apologise if I have missed anything. The motion outlines four proposals with a view to establishing a co-ordinated energy policy. Short- and long-term measures are available. The Minister mentioned the North/South and east-west connections and stated her desire to establish links further afield in countries such as France. That is positive, and we must consider extending those linkages. All Members called for a co-ordinated energy policy. As the Minister said, we must construct a revised energy framework and work together to reap the benefits.
It is important to remember that this debate concerns real people. As MLAs, we all bear responsibility. However, energy companies must ensure that people can heat their homes and put food on their tables. No one should be forced to choose between heating their home and buying food.
In low-income families who live in disadvantaged areas, young children will, perhaps, go to school hungry in September, wake up in the morning in a cold home or do their homework in the cold. They will not have the same opportunities as children who do their homework in warm homes and, therefore, this is a social issue. All Members outlined their concerns about that matter. Go raibh maith agat.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes with concern, that rising energy costs are hitting families in Northern Ireland harder than in the rest of the UK; and calls on the Executive to:
(i) give further priority to measures to promote energy efficiency and combat fuel poverty;
(ii) drive a coordinated energy policy to diversify our energy supplies, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, increase competition in our energy market and harness the full potential of renewable energy;
(iii) cooperate with other Governments, including through the British Irish Council, to develop a longer-term strategy for these islands, and;
(iv) urge the UK Government to re-direct the windfall VAT revenue from higher energy bills to be used to mitigate the escalation of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. Bearing in mind the subject matter of the motion, I expect every Member who speaks during the debate to declare an interest.
Mr Neeson: I beg to move
That this Assembly resolves that, in accordance with section 48 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Assembly Commission may make provision for the payment of pensions, gratuities or allowances to, or in respect of, any person who (a) has ceased to be a Member of the Assembly, or (b) has ceased to hold such an office as is mentioned in section 47(3)(a) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 but continues to be a Member of the Assembly.
I rise on behalf of the Assembly Commission to support the motion, and I declare an interest as a member of the Assembly Members’ pension scheme. Section 48 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 granted the Assembly the power to make provision for the payment of pensions in respect of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Due to the suspension of the Assembly in 1999, the draft Assembly Members’ Pensions Bill did not progress further than Second Stage. Following a request by the then Speaker, Lord Alderdice, the Assembly Members’ pension scheme was introduced by determination of the Secretary of State on 13 November 2000, by virtue of powers granted to him under the Northern Ireland Act 2000.
The Finance Act 2004 and the Pensions Act 2004, effective from 6 April 2006, have since transformed the tax and legal environment in which pension schemes operate in the UK, necessitating changes to the scheme rules. Those changes, which were deemed compulsory, have been applied to the scheme by determination of the Secretary of State on 3 April 2006 and 2 March 2007.
In addition to the compulsory changes, the 2004 Acts have simplified the tax regime, allowing schemes to introduce more flexibility for their members. The trustees of the Assembly Members’ Pension Scheme (NI) 2000, appointed by resolution of the Assembly under article B2 of the pension scheme rules are responsible for administering the scheme and the fund. The trustees, in consultation with their actuary, that is, the Government Actuary’s Department, considered the optional changes possible under the new tax regime and recommended that the following amendments should be applied to the scheme in relation to the following areas: earnings cap; retained benefits; scope for commutation; trivial commutation; added years; voluntary early retirement; and additional voluntary contributions.
The Assembly Commission copied details of the proposed amended scheme to all Members on 18 June 2008, together with a question and answer brief, which provided further details on the proposed changes.
By adopting the motion today, Members will provide the Assembly Commission with the necessary authority to amend the existing scheme, taking on board the changes that I outlined earlier. That will also allow for further changes in future years. I would expect that the Assembly Commission would not make any further changes without consultation with Members in advance.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Mr Neeson to make his winding-up speech.
Mr Neeson: The amendments will streamline the Assembly Members’ pension scheme and bring it into line with other devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Given that the motion for debate is the authority to amend the Assembly Members’ Pension Scheme (NI) 2000, one would have expected the Chamber to be full, but it is not. Therefore, no one can accuse this Assembly of being self-interested.
Notice taken that 10 Members were not present.
House counted, and there being fewer than 10 Members present, the Speaker ordered the Division Bells to be rung.
Upon 10 Members being present —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Now that we have a quorum, I will put the question.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly resolves that, in accordance with section 48 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Assembly Commission may make provision for the payment of pensions, gratuities or allowances to, or in respect of, any person who (a) has ceased to be a Member of the Assembly, or (b) has ceased to hold such an office as is mentioned in section 47(3)(a) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 but continues to be a Member of the Assembly.
Adjourned at 5.12 pm.