the transitional

Monday 11 December 2006

Private Members’ Business
The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006
Fire and Rescue Service Draft Integrated Risk Management Plan

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Private Members’ Business

The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006

Madam Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow two hours for each of today’s debates. The proposer of each motion will have 15 minutes to speak, and all other Members will have 10 minutes.

Mr Donaldson: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes that the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 have been laid in Westminster in advance of the equivalent regulations for the rest of the United Kingdom and calls upon the Government to withdraw these regulations and leave this issue to be determined by the Northern Ireland Assembly upon restoration.

Let me be clear from the outset that the motion is not about homophobia or gay bashing, as some have accused it of being. It is about something far more important — religious freedom in this country.

The motion is also about the role of the Assembly in considering important legislation that is meant to reflect the will of the people whom we represent. It is about the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland asserting their right to influence laws that will have such a significant impact on the lives of our constituents. That right has not been properly exercised in respect of these regulations.

There has been inadequate time for the public to respond to the initial consultation on the regulations. The Government’s consultation document, ‘Getting Equal: Proposals to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services in Northern Ireland’, was launched in Northern Ireland on 29 July 2006, and the consultation closed on 25 September. That eight-week period included the entire month of August, which is one of the main holiday periods in Northern Ireland.

The Government’s own guidelines state that public consultations should be held over a standard minimum period of 12 weeks. We had only eight weeks to consider the draft legislation. In the rest of the United Kingdom, the consultation lasted for the 12-week period. Why was Northern Ireland treated differently, and our consultation period reduced? The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) has given no reason thus far to justify the shortness of the consultation period.

The regulations were made on 8 November 2006, just six weeks and two days after the public consultation closed on 25 September 2006. Do the Government really expect us to believe that six weeks was long enough to consider the 373 responses and to address the complex issues raised in those responses?

In a letter to my right hon Friend Dr Paisley dated 22 November 2006, the Secretary of State said that there had been 3,000 responses to the consultation in Great Britain, and that consequently the decision had been made to delay their implementation to:

“ensure a full and proper account was taken of them”,

that is, of the responses. In fact, the Government have delayed the making of the regulations in England, Scotland and Wales until April 2007.

If we take the 373 responses in Northern Ireland as a proportion of the overall response in the United Kingdom, we find that they represent some 11% of the total responses. However, the population of Northern Ireland is only 2·8% of the total population of the United Kingdom. Therefore the response rate in Northern Ireland was much higher than that in Great Britain, yet there has been no delay in implementing the regulations here in order to ensure that a full and proper account is taken of those responses. Again I ask the question: why is Northern Ireland being treated differently?

In England, Scotland and Wales, the difficult issues raised by the consultation process were described as resulting in the need to:

“make sure that there is effective protection from discrimination while ensuring that people have the right to religious freedom”.

That view was expressed in an interview given on BBC Radio 5 on 26 October 2006. There is nothing to suggest that the complex issues raised on the mainland do not need to be addressed in Northern Ireland.

On Friday 8 December, ‘The Independent’ reported that there is a split in the Cabinet on this matter between the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his colleague the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Ruth Kelly. The report states that:

“Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has pushed through regulations in the province that will be tougher than the Government plans for England, Wales and Scotland.”

It continues by claiming that the Secretary of State:

“has defied a call by Ruth Kelly, the Cabinet minister responsible for equality, to hold fire until a common approach has been agreed.”

We have a situation in which the Secretary of State in Great Britain with responsibility for this legislation is saying to our Secretary of State, according to that newspaper report, that he should hold back until we get a common approach across the United Kingdom, and yet the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland seems determined to press ahead against that advice.

The Government’s analysis of the responses to the public consultation in Northern Ireland was published only on Monday 27 November 2006. That is almost three weeks after the Government finalised the regulations.

Therefore it seems unlikely that the Government analysed properly the responses to the consultation paper before making the regulations. Surely Ms Kelly is right in saying that more time is needed.

Additionally, the published regulation 3(3) is a new harassment law, but no formal question was put on harassment in the consultation paper ‘Getting Equal: Proposals to outlaw discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services in Northern Ireland’. In fact, paragraphs 4.13 to 4.15 of that paper set out reasons for not including harassment in the regulations. Paragraph 4.15 specifically states:

“On the basis of the complex arguments put forward we are minded to accept that it is not appropriate to legislate for harassment within these regulations.”

The regulations now contain provisions on harassment, but there has been no proper consultation on that important aspect of the regulations.

The regulations threaten to override the consciences and rights of free speech of Christians and others who object to homosexual practice. That contravenes articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Indeed, article 9 of the convention is given statutory force by the Human Rights Act 1998.

It is also worth noting that all six of the world’s major religions are opposed to homosexual practice, and Judaism, Islam and Christianity all teach that it is sinful. Not all hon Members will agree with that view, but Christians and people of other faiths sincerely hold it. Given that these are new restrictions, the regulations will interfere with one’s freedom to practise one’s religion. The restrictions will apply to all aspects of society, and it is proposed that they should apply to the religious teachings, observances and practices, and services that religious organisations offer to the community. The Government say that exemptions are built into the regulations. However, those do not provide adequate protection for religious groups, churches and organisations.

Regulation 16 does not apply to the harassment provisions. For example, if baptism, communion or church membership is denied to a homosexual and the minister of the church meets with that person to explain in orthodox theological terms the religious belief that justified that denial, that person could bring a claim for harassment, complaining that the minister’s approach had the effect of violating dignity or creating a “humiliating or offensive environment.”

Regulation 16(4)(a) says that:

“Nothing in these Regulations shall make it unlawful for a minister —

(a) to restrict participation in activities carried on in the performance of his functions”.

That exemption covers the minister’s refusal; how­­ever, it does not cover any subsequent explanations that are given by the church. Therefore a church could be sued for harassment for the way in which it refused a homosexual membership or for the way in which any other aspect of its religious observances were refused.

If I had time, I would give other examples as to how this legislation will have an impact on Christian bookshops, on Christian organisations that run old people’s homes and on Christian owners of bed-and-breakfast premises. The regulations will cause major concerns for Christians who are involved in life’s many normal activities and who believe that they have the right to exercise their religious conscience.

The harassment provisions also apply to state and independent schools and to universities. Therefore if a teacher teaches the orthodox Christian belief that homosexual practice is sinful, a pupil who self-identifies as gay could bring a claim for harassment, complaining that such teaching had the effect of violating their dignity or of creating an intimidating, “humiliating or offensive environment.” Is that the kind of situation in which we want to place our teachers? Have hon Members had the opportunity to consider that?

The freedom to teach religious belief also engages article 2 of the first protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides that:

“In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

10.45 am

How are we going to uphold that right in Northern Ireland when these regulations become law? How will parents have the right to send their children to school to have religious instruction based on biblical Christian teaching when it is possible that, under these regulations, teachers will be prevented from providing that instruction, or could be sued for harassment if they do? That is a matter for everyone in Northern Ireland who cares about religious freedom in this part of the United Kingdom.

There is no religious harassment law in Northern Ireland with respect to the provision of goods, facilities and services, yet harassment laws on sexual orientation have been inserted into these regulations. That is completely inconsistent with the declared aim of creating equality of protection for all categories of persons.

Part IV, article 31, paragraph 5(a) of the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 provides broad exceptions for schools. However, the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 set down blanket anti-discrimination and harassment laws for educational establishments. Clearly, there is a contradiction between those two laws.

These regulations are far reaching. They will impact on many areas of life, and, therefore, will affect people in all areas of society in Northern Ireland — in education, business, the public sector, and especially those in the religious life and in religious organisations.

The Churches have spoken out very clearly on the issues. For example, in an article in ‘The Catholic Herald’ on 1 December 2006, the Roman Catholic Church in Great Britain warned the Government that if the regulations are implemented on the mainland, the Church will close the nine adoption agencies it runs, rather than be forced to place children for adoption with homosexual couples.

The role of the Churches in adoption, in social life and in civil society will be seriously undermined by these regulations. People in Northern Ireland depend on the Churches. The Churches provide support at community level and they are involved in the social life of our community. Nonetheless, these regulations have the capacity to undermine that involvement. Who will take up that work in the future?

In the Anglican Church, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, warned the Government that the regulations would certainly affect a great deal of charitable work done by the Churches and others, and that it will be the poor and disadvantaged who will be the losers.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has described the regulations as a worrying intrusion of legislation into the affairs of faith.

The Methodist, Baptist, Free Presbyterian and Elim Churches, and many other denominations, have expressed similar concerns. The Evangelical Alliance has made representations to the Government to press for the withdrawal of the regulations, and the Christian Institute is preparing a legal challenge in the event that the Secretary of State decides to proceed with implementation from 1 January 2007.

In his letter to my right hon Friend Rev Dr Ian Paisley, the Secretary of State confirmed that:

“These Regulations have not arisen through European law, unlike those relating to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in employment;”

He went on to say that:

“if a re-established Assembly wished to revoke the Regulations, legally I believe they would be entitled to do so.”

Surely, Madam Speaker, that is a tacit acceptance that the Assembly has the right to consider and to determine this legislation, yet the Secretary of State seeks to deny Members that right.

The issue before hon Members this morning is that for the above reason, and all the others that I have outlined, the Secretary of State should withdraw these regulations and leave the issue to be determined by the Assembly upon restoration. I call on all parties in the Assembly to support the motion, and, in doing so, uphold its right to legislate on issues that quite properly are the concern of many people across the community in Northern Ireland.

Madam Speaker: I remind Members that the Business Committee agreed that this would be a two-hour debate. I already have more than enough Members to allow for a two-hour debate, and if every Member takes the full 10 minutes we will be over time. However, I do not want to restrict the speeches of any Members.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. At the third session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Norwegian Ambassador Wegger Strommen, speaking on behalf of 54 states including 18 members of the Human Rights Council, said:

“At its recent session, the Human Rights Council received extensive evidence of human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, including deprivation of the rights to life, freedom from violence and torture … We express deep concern at these ongoing human rights violations.”

Ireland and Britain were two of the states that signed that communiqué.

I welcome the fact that the House is having a debate on sexual orientation, but it is the wrong debate. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness as First Minister and Deputy First Minister designate, and Arlene and I as human rights and equality spokespersons, should be sitting together to work out a comprehensive programme for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. We should be talking about how to protect people who suffer as a result of homophobic attacks. There has been an increase of 175% in reported attacks — how many do not get reported? We should be talking about how to resource the organisations that work for the welfare of the gay, lesbian and bisexual community. We should be talking about how to link human rights and the equality sector to bring about change. Everybody should have the same rights and legal protections — there is no halfway house. You cannot have equality for some.

Ba chóir go mbeadh na cearta céanna agus an chosaint dhlíthiúil chéanna ag gach duine. Ba chóir comhionannas a bheith ann do chách — ní féidir idirdhealú a dhéanamh.

Despite what Jeffrey Donaldson said, the DUP is using homophobia for political gain. It is attempting to whip up homophobic sentiments that lead to discrimination and violence. It is setting the context for gay bashing and the human rights violations that the United Nations referred to in its communiqué.

This motion comes from a party that has a track record on gay and lesbian rights. In 2004, DUP councillor Arthur Templeton was found guilty of harassment and fined after making homophobic taunts against a council candidate. In November 2005, another DUP councillor, Maurice Mills, shared other pearls of wisdom when he described hurricane Katrina as having been sent by God to punish gay and lesbian people. Ian Óg, probably not wanting to be outdone, said in relation to the gay marriage of former UUP adviser Steven King:

“Most people in Northern Ireland find homosexual relationships offensive and indeed obnoxious and I say that from the position of research I have done.”

That is serious stuff. Although members of the DUP wring their hands and say: “Of course we are for law and order”, and “We abhor any crime against anyone” and “People should go to the police”, they fail to take responsibility for actions that may arise from their words. By failing to provide leadership, they are part of setting the context for an attack on a young man in a club or a park. Martin Luther King said:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Madam Speaker: Order. I remind Members of my earlier statement about criticising Members of other legislatures, or councillors, who are not in this House to defend themselves. I also ask Members to exercise caution so that they do not misrepresent other Members’ comments. I draw the attention of the House to the rulings recorded in the ‘Northern Ireland Assembly Companion — Rulings, Convention and Practice’, pages 81-82:

“no Member may make an interpretation of what another Member said … To quote a Member as having said something that he or she did not say is unparliamentary.”

That applies not just to Ms Ruane, but to whoever speaks in future. Members should be careful about how they interpret each other’s remarks.

Mr Paisley Jnr: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you confirm that some of the DUP members that the Member indicted have been expelled for actions of a criminal nature? Will you also confirm that comments, supposedly attributed —

Madam Speaker: That is not a point of order, Mr Paisley. You have made your point, which will be recorded in Hansard, but it is not a point of order. Mr Hussey is not in the Chamber otherwise he could help me. I remind Members that, when they raise a point of order, they must cite the relevant Standing Order. A point of order, or a point of information, that does not relate to a Standing Order will not be accepted.

I apologise, Ms Ruane. You will be compensated for the loss of time.

Mr Maskey: Could you perhaps get a bit of order, Madam Speaker?

Madam Speaker: Are you challenging my ruling, Mr Maskey? I try to give all Members an opportunity to speak. In every parliamentary institution, there will always be talk across the Benches. That constitutes good debate. I will stop anything that impedes good debate practice, as I have done up to now.

Ms Ruane: It is a smokescreen to say that it would be better for the regulations to be passed in this House rather than Westminster. The real issue is that there should be no delay in bringing forward legislation. The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community is protected in the South of Ireland, and these regulations will provide protection in the North of Ireland. That is to be welcomed, and there should be no delay.

What are the effects of gay bashing? What are the effects of delaying the implementation of rights?

Mr Donaldson: What about the rights of Christians?

Madam Speaker: You should address your remarks through the Chair, Mr Donaldson, but please let the Member speak.

Ms Ruane: The findings of all reputable research into the effects of homophobia show that the gay community is disproportionately affected by suicide and self-harm. Ireland — North and South — has one of the highest suicide rates in Europe. It is a poor excuse for politicians to say that they are defending the rights of Christians to discriminate. Many Christians support the legislation and do not believe in discrimination.

There is much hysteria and misinformation about this legislation. Opponents claim that primary schools will be forced to actively promote civil partnerships to the same extent that they teach about the importance of marriage. They also claim that a printing shop run by a Christian will be forced to print flyers promoting gay sex. They claim that it will force a family-run bed-and-breakfast establishment to let a double room to a transsexual couple, even if the family think it in the best interests of their children to refuse to allow that couple into their home.

Let us debunk some of those myths. Printers will not be forced to print flyers promoting gay sex — or any other form of sex. They will, however, not be allowed to hang up a sign saying: “No gays served here”. Regulation 9 simply prohibits educational establishments from refusing to accept students on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Regulation 7(2)(a) provides that anyone providing accommodation —

Madam Speaker: I must interrupt you once again, Ms Ruane. If Members wish to ask another Member to give way, please do so. However, this loud barracking must stop.

Mr P Robinson: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it possible for you to extend your previous ruling on the misrepresentation of what Members say to include the misrepresentation of the regulations?

Madam Speaker: Not at this stage, Mr Robinson.

Mr Maskey: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You correctly reminded Members about the context in which they should cite the previous remarks of other Members. Could you advise the House under which Standing Order you have ruled that Members may interrupt willy-nilly when they feel like it without challenge? You have challenged Members only twice so far.

Madam Speaker: The Speaker’s ruling in all matters is, as the Member has probably gathered, final.

Mr Maskey: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I accept that entirely. However, some Members are continually interrupting. You expressed a view to me privately that that is how Members from that party participate in debates. However, I do not accept that this is the proper way for a sitting to be chaired.

11.00 am

Madam Speaker: As I said before, Mr Maskey, when you commented about order in the Chamber, all parliamentary institutions have cross-Chamber comments. I will stop loud comments that interrupt the Member who has the Floor.

I do my best to keep order. The fact that this Chamber is smaller than those in comparable institutions has a bearing on that. However, I ask Members to allow whoever has the Floor to have his or her say. Members can ask the Member who is speaking to give way. I ask Members not to conduct loud conversations that prevent me from hearing what is being said by the Member who has the Floor.

Mr Maskey: I would like to receive a written ruling from Madam Speaker on the matter, showing the basis on which the ruling is being made. I am hearing an invitation for Members to have a free-for-all as long as they keep it below a certain level.

Madam Speaker: I thank the Member and I appreciate his concern. However, my ruling is final. If the Member wants to challenge my ruling, there are other ways to do that.

Ms Ruane: I will just have to get a louder voice and speak over the interruptions. [Interruption.]

Are you finished, George? I wish to pay tribute to the gay and lesbian community for its courage and bravery in standing up for its rights, and to the other groups that are supporting it. I call on all groups who are fighting for rights to stand alongside them because they should not stand alone.

The motion is part of yesterday’s agenda — part of the bad old days of the past. Members should move on and show leadership. The days of second-class citizenship and hiding our identities are gone. How does the motion fit in with our equality briefs?

The DUP talks a lot about law and order and respect for the law. I hope that it is going to uphold section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and these regulations when they come into effect in January 2007. Is the DUP’s support for law and order selective; does it only support its idea of law and order? Let us move from the dark ages to the light of the twenty-first century. There is no room for discrimination in this century, and where it happens Sinn Féin will challenge it. No one should stand alone and suffer discrimination — the people who should stand alone are the discriminators.

Members should read the results of the recent Mori poll, which asked 1,100 people if they believed it was right for businesses to discriminate against gay, lesbian and bisexual people. An overwhelming 88% said no, showing that attitudes among young people are the most progressive on gay and lesbian rights. Gay bashing is not even a vote winner. The DUP should stop digging a hole for itself and join the rest of us to support anti-discrimination legislation that protects everyone. One never knows when it might be needed. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Nesbitt: Madam Speaker, I shall endeavour to help you by keeping to the motion, which is primarily procedural. It asks where authority resides in the decision-making process with respect to Northern Ireland legislation. That authority should be in the Northern Ireland Assembly and not in a process that is taking legislation through Westminster for January 2007. The primary element in the motion is legislative; however, I recognise that the regulations will have an impact on communities in Northern Ireland.

Let me deal with those two points. I heard Ms Ruane from Sinn Féin talking on the radio this morning about the importance of respecting international law. I am conscious that Sinn Féin at almost every turn refers to the rights and equality of the people in, as it says, the “North of Ireland”. I am also conscious that the Government, at every turn, refers to rights and equality. Indeed, the Government, in their latest commentary on Northern Ireland, the St Andrews Agreement on 13 October 2006, made reference to rights on the first page of the document:

“ equality and human rights at the heart of the new dispensation in Northern Ireland”.

The Ulster Unionist party asks for rights and equality.

I am a citizen of the United Kingdom, and I expect the same rights that are afforded to its other citizens — I expect parity of esteem with them. The United Kingdom Government must remember that, through the Council of Europe, they have signed up to and ratified a convention that dictates that political discourse of this nature is to be applied equally throughout the United Kingdom.

The Government have also signed up to and ratified measures to the effect that we, as a region of the United Kingdom, should have effective participation in the decision-making process. However, not one of those standards that the Government have ratified, and which they are supposed to endorse, is being applied in their actions with regard to The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006. Mr Donaldson dealt with that matter fulsomely, so I need not go into that in any great detail.

The rest of the United Kingdom was given three months in which to respond to the consultation on the regulations, but Northern Ireland was allowed two months. Why was the rest of the United Kingdom given a longer time in which to consult on the regulations? That does not represent equality and parity of esteem in the political process that the Government have signed up to.

By their own volition, and by the decisions that they have made in introducing the legislation, the Government are denying all Members the same rights that others will have. The Government need not say, as they have, that they will change the Order-in-Council system to make it a legislative process. That will not give us true, effective participation.

Therefore the Government have failed on the process, which represents the substantive part of the motion. The Government have failed to live up to the standard that they announced; they have failed to uphold what they signed up to through the Council of Europe. Therefore, they have failed the citizens of Northern Ireland by the manner in which they have adopted The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006.

Madam Speaker, you said that Members should be brief in their contributions so that every Member who wished to speak would have time to do so. I will endeavour to do that.

The second element of substance is not inconse­quential. Sinn Féin has spoken of homophobia, and has said that the motion is gay bashing. Mr Donaldson has said that that is not so. I concur that it is not gay bashing, as does the Ulster Unionist Party. We respect the law, which permits gay and lesbian relationships, and civil partnerships.

Mr Campbell: Will the Member go further and agree that the House should condemn any attacks on anyone, and that that condemnation should be unequivocal? Does he agree that if every political party in Northern Ireland did that, we would be much better off?

Mr Nesbitt: It goes without saying that we condemn any attack from wherever it comes and regardless of its motive. People should operate, at all times, within the law and subscribe to it.

The issue of rights is central to the debate. The law states that the gay and lesbian community has rights, and we subscribe to those rights. Christian denominations also have rights. Certain questions must be addressed, and I am not fully satisfied that that has been done. Mr Donaldson went into those questions in detail, and I will remind the Chamber of a couple of them. If a Christian organisation wishes to found an adoption society, it can do so, and if it wishes that those for whom they will furnish a child are in a male-female relationship, it may say so. Should the gay and lesbian community be allowed to challenge that wish, and thus ensure that its rights are allowed to infringe the rights of the Christian community? There are two rights competing in that example, and they must be addressed.

Caitríona Ruane said that printers would not be forced to print flyers that advocate gay practices. If a Christian bookshop has books of a Christian ethos including Christian principles — Members know what they are, so I need not repeat them — and a gay or lesbian person comes into the shop, picks up a book and disagrees with what it says, does that person feel harassed, and will that bookshop, therefore, from 1 January 2007, be breaking the law? Those are funda­mental questions.

This afternoon, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Consortium is holding a seminar to celebrate Human Rights Day. The date of 10 December is a hallmark day for the International Society for Human Rights; it was the date in 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was agreed by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Sinn Féin mentioned the UN in its address this morning.

It is worth examining the fundamental freedoms that were agreed on 10 December 1948, which, along with two other covenants, formed the International Bill of Human Rights. Article 16 of that declaration is interesting. The words that it uses are important:

“Men and women … have the right to marry and to found a family … The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

I quote from the UN, not from Ulster Unionist Party policy.

I am not saying that a declaration that was written in 1948 is sacrosanct today, because there have been changes in the law since then. The law changes in order to reflect changes in society. Members often quote from Hansard; remember that Mr Hansard went to jail because he took information from Parliament. Imagine if today people were put in jail for taking documentation out of the Chamber. As society changes, the law changes.

Nonetheless, Madam Speaker, certain fundamental issues must be addressed. The process by which the Government are putting the regulations through not only denies the proper process of equality in the treatment of the law throughout the United Kingdom, it denies the rights of people who duly feel concerned and are mindful of what the UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights says about the importance of the family: the family must be protected.

Ms Lewsley: I oppose the motion. Let us be clear about what the regulations do: they protect people from discrimination. They ensure that gay, lesbian and transgender people have the same basic rights as the rest of us. Just as it is illegal to refuse to serve someone in a bar because of their religion, it will be illegal to refuse to serve someone because of their sexual orientation; just as it is illegal to deny people access to accommodation on the grounds of their race and nationality, it will be illegal to do so because of their sexual orientation. All that the regulations do is afford gay and lesbian people the same protection that is enjoyed by women, the disabled and ethnic minorities, for example.

The same protection has existed in the South for the past six years under the Equal Status Act 2000. If we would not accept, “No Dogs, No Irish”, why should we allow, “No Dogs, No Gays”? If we demand equality for some, should we not extend it to all? Let us be clear about the terrible extent of the poisonous effects of tolerating discrimination and harassment. One of the key areas covered by the regulations is education. A 2002 Department of Education survey of young people who identified themselves as gay, lesbian or transgender in Northern Ireland found that 44% were bullied at school because of their sexuality, 29% had attempted suicide, and 26% had self-harmed.

In those circumstances, can anyone seriously argue against a prohibition on discrimination and harassment at school? It is only by getting serious about tackling harassment that we can change those appalling figures.

11.15 am

Mr Donaldson: Surely the introduction of these regulations will create the possibility that teachers in schools, and others, can be harassed because of their religious beliefs? Surely two wrongs do not make a right. If it is right to introduce the regulations, why does the hon Lady think that the Minister in Great Britain is delaying their implementation?

Ms Lewsley: I take on board the Member’s points. The Member has said that the regulations will prevent teachers from teaching against homosexuality in school. That is untrue — all that the regulations will prevent is discrimination and harassment, not the teaching of religious doctrine. Harassment occurs only if there is unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

In opposing these regulations, the DUP is showing itself to be the “Discriminating as Usual Party”. The DUP wants to deny gay and lesbian people equal rights. That is just wrong, especially when we consider the profound effect of intolerance on young people.

There has been much misrepresentation on the part of the DUP in its attempt to justify its stance. The DUP claims that the regulations attack freedom of religious belief. That is just not true. Nothing in the regulations means that religious doctrine cannot be taught in schools, nor will the regulations cover properties such as church halls or retreat houses, the main purpose of which is not commercial. The proof is that the South has had similar laws for the last six years, which have not created any bother or surprises. Provided that clear and sensible guidance is issued, the SDLP does not see why there should be problems in the North. However, should any such problems arise, it would be a simple matter to review the regulations.

For those reasons, the SDLP opposes the DUP’s motion. Equality is a basic human right and the regulations vindicate that principle. The regulations have been laid before Parliament and should become law. I therefore oppose the motion.

Mr Ford: The Alliance Party supports the regulations, and it commented in favour of them during the consultation process. It is essential that there should be equality of opportunity, equality of access, equality of treatment and equality under the law for every citizen in this society, regardless of any groups to which they may or may not belong, or of their sexual orientation.

Mr Donaldson’s principal complaint this morning was that the regulations have been held back in Great Britain, but are proceeding in Northern Ireland. He also complained about the length of the consultation process. I note that even he admits that there were 673 responses during the consultation period. The consultation process was undoubtedly shorter than the ideal, but it covered all of the main religious groupings in Northern Ireland and all of the key groups that have an interest in the area of sexual orientation discrimination. I am not sure that the response would have been any different had there been another four weeks — or 14 weeks — of consultation. To simply suggest that the timescale was the major problem does not seem to be going very far.

If the regulations are ready to go forward in Northern Ireland, the Alliance Party believes that they should go forward — bureaucratic engagement in Great Britain is no excuse for doing otherwise here.

Mr Poots: Does the Member support the views of the judge in the case taken against the Secretary of State by the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland about the length of the consultation on water charges?

Mr Ford: I thought that the Member’s intervention would be more relevant than that, Madam Speaker. Discrimination, homophobic bullying and violence exist today, and they must be dealt with today. If the Member cannot see that that is rather more significant than the timescale for the water charging consultations, I am afraid that he is in the wrong debate.

If the implementation of the regulations were left to a Northern Ireland Assembly, the attitude of the DUP suggests that it would do all that it could to block these, or similar, regulations. In the wider community, those who oppose the regulations are the same people who opposed the decriminalisation of homosexual acts a few years ago; they are merely fighting another battle further down the line. That is why, whatever their motivation, or whatever they claim their feelings to be, they are seen as being merely homophobic. This Assembly should not support a stance that can be interpreted in such a way.

Existing laws cover elements of discrimination against people on grounds of sexual orientation, but currently they fall far short of the provisions that apply for other categories of discrimination where offering goods and services is concerned. There are many cases in which it is legal to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality but not, for example, on the grounds of race and religion. The legislation that is being discussed this morning is a way to deal with that. I find it sad that exaggerated fears are being whipped up to suggest that the regulations go much further than any rational reading of them would reveal.

Although many people, particularly those who are members of religious groupings and denominations, are concerned about their position and the rights that are necessary for them to maintain their formal stance, they have all said that they oppose discrimination. It is perverse to whip up those fears and to suggest that discrimination is being applied in a reverse way.

Mr Donaldson: Will the Member give way?

Mr Ford: No. I have given way already for a fairly inconsequential intervention.

Madam Speaker, clear examples have been given that have been disproved by the fact that exemptions for churches and religious practice in Northern Ireland are actually wider — not narrower, as has been suggested — than those that are being proposed for Great Britain. Indeed, it will still be possible to discriminate in some areas against gays in a way that will not be possible in other areas.

Mr Donaldson’s dismissal of concerns about harassment worried me. If he opposes the introduction of legislation against harassment, he could be interpreted as supporting harassment. That is a serious point, so I shall give him a few seconds to answer it.

Mr Donaldson: On that point, Madam Speaker, may I quote from the Secretary of State’s letter to my right hon Friend Dr Paisley? On the issue of harassment, specifically in relation to Christian bookshops, which was an issue that we raised, the Secretary of State said:

“Whether or not an environment is ‘hostile, degrading, humiliating, insulting or offensive’ is a matter for the court. In this untested area it is impossible to predict whether a hypothetical book or poster could be considered ‘hostile’ etc. by a ‘reasonable man’ in all the circumstances, which is the basic test.”

In other words, this has not yet been tested. The hon Member may find that, when it comes to the courts, I am right and he is wrong.

Mr Ford: Madam Speaker, it may have to come to the courts to test that.

However, the suggestion that displaying Christian books in a Christian bookshop amounts to harassment is far beyond any example from any other area. When Mr Donaldson uses phrases such as “homosexuality is a sin”, he is actually suggesting that discrimination against the sinners is justifiable. That is the danger in the civil society in which we live.

Madam Speaker: Mr Ford, I remind you of my comments regarding misrepresentation of other Members’ comments. Thank you.

Mr Ford: I am sorry, Madam Speaker; I thought that that was a direct quotation.

The sorts of examples that were given earlier that suggested that a minister explaining his church’s position in a charitable and counselling way could be interpreted as harassment stretches the interpretation of instances of harassment way beyond anything that is credible under normal understanding of the common law. Harassment requires abuse and malice. An honest explanation of a theological position, given in love, cannot conceivably be regarded as such. To whip up fears that suggest that that would be the case seems to be taking an entirely unreasonable attitude to the regulations. Similarly, a number of Members have referred to adoption regulations.

Mr Nesbitt: May I ask a quick question? Madam Speaker, with respect to sexual harassment, the perception of the offended, not the person who commits the harassment, will cause problems. Therefore it is not what the bookshop might or might not do; rather, it is whether a person perceives harassment to have occurred. The Member has not addressed that fundamental point.

Mr Ford: The Member said that he would be quick.

Mr Nesbitt: I have raised a fundamental aspect of this matter that Mr Ford has not addressed.

Mr Ford: No. Weight may be given to perception, but interpretation is not solely based on perception; there must be an interpretation that goes beyond a simple perception. That perception must also be honest and reasonable. Those matters may need to be decided in the courts, but to suggest that there should be a blanket allowance for anything to be done — lest a matter be tested in the courts and turn out not to be to the liking of unionist Members — is surely not where we want the law to be.

Reference has been made to adoption regulations as though, somehow, there are large numbers of children about to be shipped off to be adopted by gay partners. The reality, as anyone with my background in social work knows, is that very small numbers of children are adopted, and the principle in adoption is that the needs of the child come first. To suggest that adoption is being treated in the way that has been suggested in this Chamber this morning is an utterly unreasonable perception of what is happening.

Mr Donaldson said that this Assembly should have the right to decide. Of course, this Assembly has no rights to decide anything — this is the Transitional Assembly. However, it seems that, if there is to be devolution and if this Assembly will have to take decisions in areas such as this, the comments made so far by Mr Donaldson, and the sedentary comments of some of his friends, suggest that there are real reasons for concern. Given their opposition to the regulations, I really wonder what guarantee society as a whole would have that members of the DUP, given power, would live up to their obligations on equality and a shared future in respect of all of our citizens.

Mr Shannon: I support the motion standing in the name of my colleague Jeffrey Donaldson. On Friday 24 November — a epic day in more than one sense, as we all remember — not only was much happening in the halls of Parliament Buildings, but the halls of Westminster were not silent either. While the eyes of our elected representatives were focusing on securing a future for our Province, The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 were being forced through.

I am sure that all Members are fully aware of the implications for the people of Northern Ireland of that piece of legislation being pushed through behind closed doors. It is the clearest sign that those behind that underhanded manoeuvre were aware that the legislation was something that our constituents on, I believe, both sides of the divide, would not wish to be made law in this Province.

The matter should have been left until April 2007, when legislation is to be introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom, after the careful consideration period of nine months. At that time, the Members of this Assembly who are willing to follow through on their obligations will be deciding on the issues that directly impact upon Northern Ireland. Would it not have been better to do it then?

Northern Ireland has been cited as a test-bed region for laws that the Government feel are controversial for the mainland — the rates evaluation procedures are a perfect example. The push to implement the legislation here, with, subsequently, a lesser chance of adverse publicity, was a clear boon for those who have the agenda of promoting this form of positive discrimination, which is not wanted, or even needed, in the huge majority of cases in Northern Ireland.

Indeed, the consultation process in Northern Ireland showed overwhelmingly that these regulations were not wanted as they stand, never mind with the addition of the amendments concerning the illegality of so-called harassment that appeared in the final document. The document that was released for consultation expressly stated that there would be no law on harassment. However, a mere six weeks later, that had been added to the regulations and approved, dramatically expanding the ambit of the law.

The regulations make it illegal to harass someone on the basis of their sexual orientation. That seems to be fair enough on the surface, but one does not have to scratch too deeply to find that the reality is not so shiny as the surface implies. There is no clear-cut definition of what exactly constitutes harassment. Harassment is entirely based on the perception of the person who feels that they are the recipient of that harassment, which is defined as a violation of dignity, a hostile or insulting environment, and degrading or humiliating treatment. Surely, that is all in the eye of the beholder and, were that beholder to possess a prejudice against a member of the community with values opposed to their own, surely a hostile environ­ment or an insult to dignity could be found in many situations. Is that equality?

11.30 am

One of Ruth Kelly’s aides has said:

“Peter [Hain] is doing what is right for Northern Ireland, where there is a different history and system. We will do what is right for Great Britain.”

There is one thing that is undoubtedly true about that statement: we do have a different history and system in Northern Ireland. There is a decidedly stronger Christian influence in the Province; it is the Bible Belt of the UK. To try to enforce this legislation on us without consultation or the consent of elected representatives — without even an opportunity to debate or amend it, as is proper and right in a democracy — is a disgusting act of dictatorship. No thought or consideration has been given to the owners of businesses, who have always proclaimed their right to refuse admission.

We are assured that Churches will be protected and allowed to retain the freedom to preach their own morals. However, let me outline the consequences of this law should it be passed as it stands now. A man may hear in church the Bible clearly outlined, telling him to stand for what is right. At work the next morning, he may be asked by a group to illustrate the cover of a book of dubious nature, which goes against the beliefs he holds dear and the make-up of the person that he is. He will no longer be allowed to refuse politely, for fear that it may lead to a claim under the new legislation. Should he go against the person that he is, or follow the rigours of a law that clearly discriminates against his belief system? This new law protects a person’s beliefs on Sunday but discriminates against them on other days of the week. Should he have to face a choice between his job and his integrity? There is plenty of freedom in the market, so why should those who will lose revenue from their businesses be further persecuted by the spectre of a fine?

Christianity is not merely a one-day wonder; it is a way of life. This legislation goes against freedom of religion and the right to form one’s own beliefs that is secured in the Human Rights Act 1998, which Labour and Peter Hain have been so anxious to promote. Surely there is a right to protect the biblical foundations that established this nation. Queen Victoria, when asked the secret behind the greatness of England, lifted her Bible and replied that God was great and that she believed that he was the foundation of England. Were she to be asked that question today, she would need to be sure that it was a Sunday and that she was in church, on the off chance that someone might find that she was supporting biblical principles.

There is a factor missing from the calculation of this legislation: Christians do not want to discriminate against homosexuals. I would not refuse to sell to someone because of his or her sexuality, race, creed or colour, and I would not withhold constituency support from anyone for those reasons. However, that does not mean that I should actively encourage and promote homosexuality in my home or in my children’s school education, or by hiring out my church hall for a rally or by putting advertising in my window. To be forced to promote that impacts adversely on my freedom, and it is unacceptable. It is also unacceptable to the people who support the DUP.

There are 7·3 million evangelistic Christians in England. That does not take into account the five million Roman Catholics, as well as Jews, Muslims and mainstream church-goers, who are opposed to this regulation in its very definition. That number far outweighs the number of those in favour, including the 6% of the population who make up the gay community.

There has been some talk of surveys this morning. In an independent survey in England, 70% of the 10,000 adults questioned stated that they believed that any law requiring people to promote homosexual practice should be applied selectively, in order to ensure that people with strong religious beliefs are not forced to act against their conscience. Furthermore, 66% stated that the law should not discriminate against religious groups in order to promote gay rights. Clearly, a large proportion of the population is opposed to this legislation.

The majority of people interviewed agreed that the Government should do more to promote traditional family and marriage values and less to promote gay and lesbian lifestyles. This was not a survey of church-goers but of people on the street. If that was the finding in England, how much greater would be the response in Northern Ireland? Yet this view was never taken into consideration. The only view that was considered was that of the loud minority who are goaded on by Labour, whose agenda seems to be to devalue the family and to break the Church.

The vast majority of people in the Province have no desire to withhold a cup of coffee in a café from someone who is homosexual; they just do not want to be forced to actively promote homosexuality, whether in the workplace, in their own businesses or in the education of their children. As a parent, I want my boys to learn about and value the importance of individuals in society and to respect all people.

However, that individual respect is not to be confused with condoning something that is contrary to God’s law. My boys need to learn that; they do not need to be taught that anything and everything goes, when it does not.

I am no man’s judge; I can be responsible only for my own actions and for my own conscience. My conscience does not allow me to remain silent and permit the implementation of these unfair and discriminatory regulations to proceed unchallenged.

Dr McCrea: Is it not already clear from the debate that the Secretary of State is forcing the regulations through because parties in this Assembly have made representations to stop any future Assembly from making that decision? That is the reason that the Government are forcing them through now.

Mr Shannon: I thank the Member for his intervention, and I endorse his point.

Those who seek to implement the regulations in Northern Ireland have done so in a distinctly underhand way while at the same time proclaiming that they are being introduced in the hope of finding equality. Where is the real equality? A chief executive of the gay lobby group Stonewall has been appointed as a commissioner to the new Commission of Equality and Human Rights (CEHR). A gay printer can refuse to print Christian literature, but a Christian printer can no longer refuse the tender of a gay magazine. Where is the equality in that?

Peter Hain talks about equality, and Colin Hart from the Christian Institute said that he should:

“read his own regulations, which elevate gay rights above all other rights for religious people … It is a preferential status which will drive a coach and horses through religious liberty.”

I support the motion, which calls for the withdrawal of the regulations, thus leaving the issue to be determined by a Northern Ireland Assembly. The voices of the hundreds of people who have already registered their condemnation of the rushed way in which the legislation has proceeded, and its subsequent repercussions, warrant proper consideration. We need to ensure that the Secretary of State listens and does not continue to ride roughshod over the firmly held beliefs of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. Every business owner should retain the right to politely refuse business for whatever reason, and it is none of anybody else’s concern why they do so, as long as there is a free and open market that will provide goods and services.

I do not intend to discriminate against any faction of society; I wish only to ensure that there is no positive discrimination, which is just as unsavoury, unnecessary and every bit as unacceptable.

Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I oppose the motion. I take up Dermot Nesbitt’s point about the position that the UN adopted in 1948. I remind him that, as of 1 December 2006, which was less than two weeks ago, a statement on behalf of 54 countries called for the UN to integrate modern thinking on discrimination. That thinking prevents discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. I remind the Member that Ireland and Britain were signatories to that statement.

The motion argues that the introduction of the legislation be deferred on the grounds that the process behind it has been flawed. Those who support the motion have argued that the regulations are being introduced in advance of the introduction of their equivalent in Britain. They also argue that they support rights for all in our society, including those of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities. They talk about the rights of those whose religious beliefs the regulations would offend.

Several Members who have already spoken have indicated their personal opposition to the substance of the regulations. I accept that, under party discipline, and in recent times, disciplinary action has been taken against some DUP members. However, it is fair to say that, for many of us, the history of the DUP — and perhaps, even more so, that of the Free Presbyterian Church — will lead many of us to believe that a strong homophobic strain runs through that strand of our society. Many of us believe that, and our belief is based on the experience of seeing many years of strong campaigns that were headed by the leader of the DUP, who is sitting on the Benches opposite. It is his public right and privilege to be able to do that.

We could defer the legislation on the basis of a flawed process, given that people say that they oppose the process behind the legislation. However, they actually oppose the substance of the regulations. Deferring the legislation to an Assembly would worry people such as ourselves because we know in our hearts — and this is the key thing for many of us — that many of those who want this matter to be deferred want it to be so in order that they can oppose the substance of the regulations in the future.

I can understand that people believe that the introduction of these regulations may invite harassment claims or lawsuits against people in certain professions. However, I do not believe that that will be the case. As has already been spelt out, the regulations provide a number of exemptions — people are entitled to preach and to promote their own arguments, religious or otherwise. People are not allowed, however, to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation against people who wish to access goods or services. That important point must be made.

It is also very wrong to say that, because the introduction of the regulations could hypothetically lead to a harassment claim being made against a person, no change should be made to the law. In fact, my party and I believe that the burden of ensuring that people who have no rights must outweigh the burden of protecting people who may be subject to future harassment cases. Ultimately, those in whose name the motion stands have put forward hypotheses as arguments.

We are dealing with people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, who are suffering from physical attacks, verbal harassment, actual discrimination and other forms of abuse day and daily. Many of those people in our community are living in fear of their lives every day —

Madam Speaker: Order. I ask that there be less conversation while the Member is speaking.

Mr Maskey: They certainly live in fear of being discriminated against on a practical basis every day of the week. Their health —

Madam Speaker: Order. Just a moment, Mr Maskey. Did Members not hear what I said? Obviously not everyone did, because certain Members were still talking among themselves. Members, please desist from carrying on conversations when a Member is on his or her feet.

Mr Maskey: Thank you, Madam Speaker. On my party’s behalf, I oppose the motion. To defer the introduction of the regulations because the process is considered to have been flawed is a false perspective. In fact, many of those Members who are opposed to the introduction of this legislation are opposed to its substance. We would have no confidence in putting the rights and entitlements of people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community into the hands of people who are avowedly opposed to that community having those rights.

I want to underline what is the very important issue: the hypothesis that an individual, group, Church or teacher, or whoever or whatever else, may face harassment charges in future is far outweighed by the need to protect under the law people right across our society, today, tomorrow and from here on in. At present, those people are being discriminated against and are the ones who have been suffering violent attacks. There is no hypothesis to be made there — those people are suffering directly daily. We want to support legislation that comes into operation sooner rather than later, in order to ensure that those people have the same rights and entitlements as everybody in this Chamber wants for themselves, their friends, their families, and those whom they represent.

Dr Birnie: Whatever one thinks of the outcome of this piece of legislation, it is pretty clear that there have been substantial defects in the process that resulted in the regulations. I submit that those defects should be sufficient for Members from a range of parties, regardless of their views on the substance of the sexual orientation regulations, to vote for the motion. The defects in the process have already been quite adequately rehearsed, but, in brief, they are threefold.

First, the consultation period was much shorter than normal Cabinet Office guidelines would recommend. Secondly, there were only about two months between the closing of that consultation and the drafting of the regulations. That strongly suggests that the Westminster Government had begun to write this piece of legislation before they had done the Northern Ireland public the courtesy of reading and analysing their thoughts on the questions in the consultation. Thirdly, I make the obvious point that similar regulations have been delayed until at least April 2007 in England and Wales, whereas they are to come into operation on 1 January here.

In short, therefore, the Government are rushing ahead with legislation in Northern Ireland but holding back in England and Wales. That prompts the question: why? Why are we being treated differently? Is Northern Ireland becoming a test bed? Have the Government cynically determined that, if they can pass this type of legislation in Northern Ireland, they will subsequently try the same trick in England and Wales?

11.45 am

There is also the question of why — and the report in ‘The Independent’ last week has been mentioned — the Secretary of State, Mr Hain, has come into conflict with the Cabinet’s equality Minister, Ruth Kelly, and has simply decided to overrule her. We can only speculate on whether that all plays into the contest for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party.

Our unhappiness at the manner in which this piece of legislation has been processed increases as one considers the complexity of the matters that the regulations concern. In general, and my colleagues accept this, the question is one of rights. I submit that the issue in the regulations is that the rights of one group — those who practise or advocate a homosexual lifestyle — are being privileged over another group — those who object to such a lifestyle choice on moral grounds.

That brings in the question of the religious exemption — it is there, but it is certainly narrow. In practice, religious exemption is being qualified in two crucial ways. It will not apply to any church or religious body that is in a contractual relationship with the state, hence the example of adoption agencies, which were mentioned earlier. There is also the qualification that any such body could fall foul of the harassment provision.

My fellow Members and I are not advocating harassment, but the regulations have been drafted very broadly as far as a so-called offensive environment is concerned — and here I quarrel with the hon Member for Lagan Valley Ms Lewsley. As my colleague Mr Nesbitt said, the definition is subjective. Regulation 52 states that the burden of proof rests with the accused, and that is a dangerous precedent.

Madam Speaker: Before I call the next Member to speak, I think that we have all been treated equally today — we are all cold. I have checked and I hope that the Chamber will be heated soon — in addition to the hot air. I call Mr Pat Ramsey. I hope that you will be all right, Mr Ramsey.

Mr P Ramsey: I hope so too.

This debate is hugely important. The SDLP under­stands the sensitivities around some of the principled points made by those from the Church sectors. However, the SDLP is committed to the promotion of human rights and equality, which is why we fought to make equality a key part of the Good Friday Agreement. We need to ensure that the agreement’s promise on equality and human rights is there for all. That is why the SDLP is opposing the motion.

Good debates were held last week on the review of public administration and how certain sections of the community — whether Protestant or Catholic — feel about marginalisation, alienation and ensuring that people are not discriminated against. We are aiming, as best we can, to ensure that everyone in our society is part of the shared future that is so important to the Government.

Some of the objections to the regulations, such as those made by Jim Shannon, mentioned the forcing of churches to open up parish halls to gay groups. That is misleading. Regulation 16 clearly exempts organisations based on religion or belief from a charge of discrimination provided that they are solely religious, and not commercial, organisations. Therefore, the objection has already been covered.

Discrimination of any type should be outlawed. These regulations go some way towards ensuring that people are not discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation in respect of the allocation of goods, services, accommodation, education, and availability and access to public authorities.

Why should any person be treated less favourably because he or she has, or is perceived to have, a particular sexual orientation? That is unfair and unjust, and it should not be allowed to continue. Passing this legislation will ensure that — just as it is illegal to refuse to serve someone on the grounds of religion or gender — it will be illegal to refuse to serve someone on the grounds of sexual orientation. This is about equality for all.

The current situation that permits injustice on the grounds of sexual orientation is unacceptable and damaging not only to lesbian, gay and bisexual people, but to the whole of society.

To quote Dr Martin Luther King when he was in Birmingham jail in 1963:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I have heard people criticise the legislation, stating that it will violate freedoms. That is not true. Contrary to what has been claimed, regulation 16, which is comprehensive and detailed, provides certain specific exemptions on the grounds of religious beliefs.

The legislation will enshrine in law the principle of equality for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation. It will provide safeguards for everyone, including everyone in this Chamber, against that type of discrimination, and it will provide a legal remedy for anyone who has been treated less favourably on the grounds of sexual orientation. The regulations cannot make people respect homosexuals or cherish them as part of our society, but they can prohibit discrimination against them.

Equality either exists or it does not — there is no halfway house. A situation in which discrimination against a fellow human being continues to be lawful does not make it right. Nor does it make for a fair and equitable society.

Why should we hold up this important piece of legislation any further just because it is being introduced in advance of equivalent legislation in Great Britain? The matter needs no further delay. The current situation that permits injustice on the grounds of sexual orientation is unacceptable and damaging not only to homo­sexuals, but to society as a whole.

The legislation should be allowed to come into force to guarantee that everyone is subject to equal treatment, regardless of sexual orientation.

Mr N Dodds: Is there not a fundamental issue at stake for parties such as the SDLP and others that advocate devolution? We are told that we should have devolution so that local parties and local politicians can make the decisions. However, in this one area, because they do not like the particular outcome that may arise, they demand that the Government go ahead and ram this legislation through the House of Commons. There is a fundamental dichotomy in all of this that is surely embarrassing for the hon Gentleman. Does he feel no embarrassment about that at all?

Mr P Ramsey: I do not, and I am sure that the hon Member will have every opportunity to make his own speech and address some of the matters that have been raised, such as the objections to the owners of bed-and-breakfast accommodation being able to refuse entry to gays. No one in a commercial operation should refuse entry to anyone. We used to see signs saying: “No Irish need apply” or “No British need apply”. We do not want a situation in which gays are totally discriminated against.

A point was made about a prohibition on teaching against homosexuality in schools. That is untrue. The regulations are to prevent discrimination and harassment — not the teachings of religious doctrines.

I spoke to the Rainbow Group, an organisation that promotes and advocates the rights of gays across Northern Ireland. Homophobia is a serious problem across Northern Ireland and in my constituency. The PSNI, along with most parties in the city, brought forward protocols aimed at addressing and reducing the level of homophobia. Those measures were successful, and all political parties contributed to that. A recent study among lesbians and gays revealed that harassment and violence are serious problems.

In total, 82% of respondents have experienced harassment, and 55% have been subject to homophobic violence. It is expected of us as civic leaders to try to ensure that we are creating a society in which everyone is equal; no one is marginalized; no one is alienated; and all people can participate in the shared future that we all agreed upon.

Mr Ervine: Madam Speaker, I rise to oppose the motion. Equality is equality is equality. If we refuse any human being the entitlement to equality, we deny ourselves proper equality. It is either for everyone or for no one. The Democratic Unionist Party has made great play of the fact that the Secretary of State is determining that the Assembly should have this legislation stuffed down its throat. He may well be doing us a favour.

In fact, he may also have done us favours in the past, and I have not heard too many raucous comments from Members of that party about them. For instance, he just declared that there would be an election, having previously said that one would not take place until 2008. I did not hear any raucous complaint about that.

Mr Donaldson: We asked for it.

Mr Ervine: I know that you did — so you do not mind an Order in Council when it suits you — [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Members will please address their comments through the Chair.

Mr Donaldson: Will the hon Member give way?

Mr Ervine: No, I will not.

We have the option to live in a modern, decent society, and if we choose to have equality, it must be for everyone. This is a nice country with a great opportunity, but it is a bit like the beautiful girl who goes to a beauty salon and comes out with warts on her nose.

There are jobs at hand. It is not just about Catholics and Protestants; our ethnic minorities are having nightmarish experiences, and we must have some sense of leadership that creates a condition in which the circumstances that happen on the ground are perceived to be absolutely intolerable. I certainly perceive that young people do silly things because it is on behalf of the DUP. That is the mindset that is out there. We must have leadership that guarantees the circumstances in which everyone is equal and equally protected under the law.

I was not fast enough to my feet earlier to respond to a couple of DUP Members. They said that it would be better if every human being were free from violence and harassment. However, no one told Daphne Trimble that. No one told Ken Maginness that when he was being kicked. In other words, the DUP can have a sweet and wholesome view on harassment, but in effect, when its members are in a massed gang in a car park in Portadown, they do not behave in quite the same way — [Interruption.]

Mr Donaldson: What about John Allen in Ballyclare? And the Quinn children? And Raymond McCord?

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr Ervine: It seems that any defence mechanism is to be used to cover up one thing. Not only is the DUP not split on this issue; it is not split from the Catholic Church on it either — [Interruption.]

A Member: That is correct.

Mr Ervine: I know. The DUP makes interesting bedfellows when it suits.


Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr Ervine: There are a number of factors at play, which we might address instead of playing the DUP’s game. What is so harrowing is that the DUP operates a process of clairvoyance — and it is never good news. As the saying goes, every Prod knows the future but it is never good news. There is legislation coming and it cannot be bad enough. It will be terrible. The DUP is over-egging the pudding.

In reality, there are human beings who struggle to come through life with the realisation that they are different. It is a horrific condition for a young man or woman to realise that they are out of step with the rest of society. It brings immense pressure.

Let me give you some examples of things we could be talking about. Northern Ireland has the highest teenage suicide rate; one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates; the highest rate of heart defect; and the lowest levels of educational achievement in Europe.

Yet here we are, talking about ensuring that we guarantee that those ogres in the gay and lesbian community do not get equality.

Mrs Foster: That is rubbish.

12.00 noon

Mr Ervine: That is effectively what you are doing.

Let us be realistic: in terms of how a person sleeps, eats, does a day’s work or functions as a human being, treating a gay or lesbian person as an equal will do them absolutely no harm and will not, in any way, diminish them as a human being.

I worry about the concept of homophobia. I know that we are pressed for time, Madam Speaker, and I appreciate being called to speak. I will not take up that much of your time. However, it is worth highlighting research that was done in the United States. Overtly homophobic people were wired up to electrodes and shown heterosexual images and then homosexual images. This is a true story, Madam Speaker. Lo and behold, you will never guess what inspired them most. I do not mean that personally against any human being here.

People who are confirmed in their own sexual orientation are probably less frightened than those who are not. It seems that some people display an over-the-top reaction to those who are different. Many young working-class men will express it through a sense of superiority, whether it is over an ethnic community or those whom they perceive as abnormal.

The sentiments and attitudes of people such as those in the DUP — and the DUP is surely not alone — is that it is OK to treat those people as inferior. They are not inferior; they are equal, and they should be equal in all aspects of life as far as it is earthly possible for us to deliver. Northern Ireland has the opportunity to deliver that equality. The Secretary of State is doing us a favour by passing these regulations because, if such a circumstance were to come before this Assembly, we would end up with a horrible gridlock. The Secretary of State has done things before. I do not mean to be too unreasonable, but some people say that staying out of a devolved Assembly for long enough would allow the Secretary of State to get all the nightmare stuff in place so that we do not have to do it.

For those Members who are absolutely serious about the upset that these regulations will cause in the odd bookshop — never mind that porn can be bought from any newsagent’s top shelf — the reality is that, had they taken the responsibility that was offered to them, they could have made all kinds of changes. They could have had the opportunity in the Assembly to pass these regulations.

When this motion is defeated, or goes nowhere, perhaps those Members’ constituents, for whom they fight great battles, will realise that, had those Members taken the opportunity in the first place, they could well have had a voice in what society would be like. The jury is out on how they would reform equality, certainly for those people who have suffered indignity, hurt and horror for many years.

Mrs Foster: I sometimes wonder whether Members take the time to read the motion on the Order Paper before entering the Chamber. The Member who has just spoken did not do so; otherwise he would not be talking about equality for homosexual people. Nobody is saying anything about that in respect of this motion.

The motion concerns two things: the role of law in addressing issues in society and the manner in which the regulations are being introduced. Do not let the truth get in the way of a good story, David Ervine.

Fundamentally, I am not opposed to equality, but these regulations are. When did anyone expect Sinn Féin to call for a matter to be decided at the Westminster Parliament — out of the control of the Irish people, as that party would see it? The headlines from this issue can be summarised thus: “Hain does not trust local politicians to take decisions”, and: “Republicans support British rule”. That is a slightly bizarre situation, I think you will agree, Madam Speaker.

Colleagues have spoken about democratic deficits, and my friend George Dawson will touch on that when he winds up the debate. I want to consider the proper role of the law in dealing with such matters as social change. Parliament should be very careful when legislating in such an area. Rather than producing the kind of liberal, tolerant society that we all want, the regulations are in danger of stoking up grievances and making life more difficult for those whom they seek to help.

I am concerned that lawyers will be the only people who will benefit from these regulations — and I say that, given that I have a vested interest. The problem of using the law to change society is that it is necessarily a blunt instrument that will create many unintended and undesirable consequences. Given the timescale, there is not even an adequate opportunity to consider such matters in detail.

There is a saying in the law that ignorance of the law is no defence. I hope that my friends will read the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997; if they do, they will have no defence for what they have said today. The 1997 Order says that:

“a person shall not pursue a course of conduct –

(a)   which amounts to harassment of another; and

(b)   which he knows or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other.”

Harassment legislation already exists, ladies and gentlemen. Article 3 of the new regulations defines a new offence of harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation, which, as Mr Nesbitt pointed out, is tested subjectively, not objectively. That provides an extra protection for the gay and lesbian community above that which is given to the rest of us. People do not realise that legislation for protection from harassment already exists. It protects us all; if we want equality, that is the way that it should be.

Much has been said about homophobic attacks, especially by Sinn Féin’s human rights spokesman — if there is such a thing. If she supported the PSNI and the Policing Board, she would do much more to deal with all hate crimes, be they homophobic, sectarian or racist. Of course, her party chooses not to join the PSNI or to support the rule of law. Sinn Féin should not lecture us about the rule of law when it cannot itself support the rule of law. I wonder whether Sinn Féin will expel any of its members who are found guilty of criminal offences, as my party has done in the past in relation to homophobic attacks.

Mrs Long: I believe that freedom of speech — [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mrs Long: Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are important and fundamental freedoms, and I am sure that all Members want to see them protected. The right to express my faith and beliefs openly and honestly in a temperate fashion is one that I value immensely and want to see defended for all people. However, those are not the only freedoms and protections that are important in society. Those of us who enjoy those particular rights, protections and safeguards should be those who most wish to see them extended to all people.

We should surely want to see the freedom to live free of harassment and intimidation and to receive equal treatment under the law in matters of the extension of goods and services to all people. Equality and human rights are not fixed quantities. Extending them to others does not diminish one’s own; in fact, creating a more equal, open, honest and fair society actually strengthens all our positions and rights.

The motion raises a number of issues, most notably, the differential between our situation and that in England and Wales, the reasons for any deferral and the effectiveness of the consultation. It is my understanding, having researched the issue and spoken to those who were involved in the decision to defer the legislation in England and Wales, that it was simply impossible for the 3,000-odd consultation responses that they received to be processed in advance of the November deadline. I also understand that there is a long-standing agreement between Government and business that legislation that affects businesses will be advanced only at two times of the year — November and April. On those grounds, these regulations could not have been brought forward in advance of the April deadline. No one to whom I have spoken has the sense that the Government have gone cold on the legislation in England and Wales.

Furthermore, in relation to the effectiveness of the consultation, I accept Jeffrey Donaldson’s point that the consultation period was short and perhaps not as well timed as it ought to have been.

However, it is clear from the number of detailed responses received that all the substantive issues have been raised with the Department. Furthermore, the fact that exemptions granted to religious bodies have been strengthened during the process means that the consultation has affected the legislation. Therefore consultation has been effective in taking account of representations made during the process; many consultations in Northern Ireland do not result in changes to legislation. That must be recognised.

The legislation contains grey areas, which will be tested in court, as happens with all legislation. On the basis of common sense, a judge will decide whether those grey areas can be sorted out properly. It is not possible to legislate for each individual situation; that is a fact with all legislation.

The Member for Strangford Mr Jim Shannon — and I hope that I am not misrepresenting him — argued that a businessman should retain the right to refuse business politely from a gay person. If the hon Member for Strangford had suggested that it would be acceptable for a businessman to refuse business, politely or otherwise, from someone with a disability, a Muslim, a Jew, a Chinese person, a black person, a woman or a Christian, it would have been a complete affront to the House. We must be very careful about saying that people should have the right to refuse business simply on the basis of people’s beliefs, lifestyles, or who they are. That is not acceptable, and it does little to convince people that the motion is not driven by prejudice.

Some Members have suggested that the legislation would impose a duty to promote homosexuality: nowhere in the legislation is there a demand to promote a homosexual lifestyle. That claim has been made in the House this morning; Members can read it in Hansard. The legislation contains no duty to promote or defend a homosexual lifestyle: the duty is to treat people with respect.

Mr Donaldson: Will the Member give way?

Mrs Long: No, I will not give way at this point.

I have discussed these issues with people who have lobbied strongly to find protections for those with Christian principles. It is my understanding that there is not an issue with regard to bed-and-breakfast accommodation, homes for the elderly, and so forth. The legislation does not preclude Christian owners of guest houses or old people’s homes from applying their Christian principles against all people who are in sexual relationships outside marriage and saying that they will accept only people who are single or married. The legislation simply states that a person cannot accept an unmarried heterosexual couple but refuse an unmarried homosexual couple. That is quite right. If this concern stems from genuine Christian principle rather than prejudice, the law provides protection for people to take those decisions.

It has been suggested that simply stating one’s belief that homosexuality is a sin could lead to a charge of harassment, but there is no evidence that that is the case. Repeated and intemperate remarks targeted maliciously at an individual would constitute harassment. I question whether any Christian would wish to target his or her views repeatedly at an individual in an intemperate manner, because I would question whether that person is a good witness.

12.15 pm

On a personal note, it grieves me, as a Christian, that those of us who profess a personal Christian faith are so often seen to be in the heel-dragging section of the population when it comes to issues of human rights and equality. We ought to be at the forefront of the movement to extend to everyone the same rights that we enjoy. We should extend protections and safeguards under the law to all people, thereby reflecting the inherent dignity, worth and value of every human being, as it is my belief that we are all created in the image of God.


Madam Speaker: Order, order.

Mr Dawson: I have no hesitation in saying that I approach these and other regulations and laws from the standpoint of Christian morality. That is my world view. It is my right to have, defend and express that world view. It is my right to allow that world view to influence my decisions, my life and my actions. I share that view with many hundreds of thousands of people across Northern Ireland.

The DUP’s approach to the regulations is not simply based on the fact that it does not like them — although it does not. The regulations are a direct attack on the right to hold, express and manifest a religious belief. They are an attack on freedom: on freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Mr Poots: Has such an attack not already taken place in the Chamber this morning? Mr Maskey attacked both the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church. Perhaps Members are aware of Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement that homosexuality is:

“a more or less strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder”.

Madam Speaker: Mr Poots, I draw your attention to what I said at the start of the debate. You must be careful not to misrepresent the remarks of other Members.

Mr Poots: I do not think that I have misrepresented anyone thus far.

Madam Speaker: Are you taking part in the debate, Mr Poots?

Mr Dawson: I had given way to Mr Poots.

Madam Speaker: You have given way for quite some time, Mr Dawson, which eats into the time that you have to speak.

Mr Dawson: The interventions from Sinn Féin Members today have convinced the DUP, yet again, that they have no commitment to the principles of democracy.

I too am aware of the current Pope’s comments on homosexuality, as quoted by Mr Poots. I am sure that the Members from both the SDLP and Sinn Féin will brand the current Pope as homophobic for making those remarks.

The regulations fly in the face of opposition from both Protestants and Roman Catholics and are being implemented for the benefit of a tiny, vociferous minority. They are a charter for the persecution of anyone with a moral conscience. Anyone who reads the national newspapers will have seen page after page of comment and criticism from the Churches. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, has accused the Government of an:

“aggressive reshaping of our moral framework”.

The Catholic Church in England and Wales has warned of a rebellion in schools and charities. Those people are not foot-draggers — they have a clear moral conscience. The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, warned the Government that the regulations:

“will certainly affect a great deal of charitable work done by the churches and others. It is the poor and disadvantaged who will be the losers.”

It is hard to see how the equality agenda will be advanced when the poor and the disadvantaged are the ones that suffer. In recent meetings with my party leader, both the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh have raised these issues. That demonstrates the concern about the regulations felt by the religious community in Northern Ireland. The Presbyterian Church has described the regulations as a:

“worrying intrusion of legislation into the affairs of faith.”

I have spoken to the clerk of the general assembly about the matter and am aware of his concerns about the regulations.

This is bad law. It will result in the harassment of Christian people.

However, to summarise the main points; first, there has been inadequate consultation on the regulations. The facts are as follows: eight weeks’ consultation time was given, with four weeks of that time being in the holiday season, in contrast to the Government’s own recommendation of 12 weeks. Six weeks of consideration was given to the local responses, while in the rest of the United Kingdom the responses are still being considered. Are we to believe that the issues raised here are of less importance than those raised in the United Kingdom, or are we to believe that the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office are of a higher intelligence, so that they can deal with the issues in a better way than the rest of their GB colleagues?

The Government published the consultation responses after the proposals were laid in Parliament. Perhaps it was because consideration of the proposals had not been completed until the additional three weeks had elapsed. Going further than that, however, the consultation misled the public. In paragraph 4.15 of the consultation document, it specifically states that:

“On the basis of the complex arguments put forward we are minded to accept that it is not appropriate to legislate for harassment within these regulations.”

Yet there is a harassment provision in the regulations. The Government, while stating that they were not going to include such a provision, have gone back on what they said, and there has not been adequate consultation on the harassment provisions.

Mrs Foster: Is the Member aware that the juris-prudence on the term “harassment”, under the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, is given the widest possible meaning when it comes before the courts, because that is what happens?

Mr Dawson: I thank the Member for her intervention. There has been quite a number of barrack-room lawyers in the House today, but none of them has been accurate in what they have said. However, I appreciate the comments from a lawyer.

Mrs Foster: Legal aided. [Laughter.]

Mr Dawson: Not only has there been inadequate consultation on the matter, the regulations create inequality rather than equality. The European Convention on Human Rights states that the right to hold religious belief is absolute. Consequently, the Government cannot penalise those who for religious reasons hold that homosexuality is wrong or sinful. The Government, and Members opposite, may not like that view, but we have the right to hold it and not to be persecuted for holding it.

As my hon Friend, Mr Donaldson, has said, the six major world religions are opposed to homosexual practice. Judaism, Islam and Christianity all teach that homosexual practice is sinful. Bible teaching affirms that the only legitimate context for sexual relations is within a monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Further-more, the exemptions in the regulations do not provide adequate protection for religious people, and that is particularly true of the harassment section that my hon Friend has already referred to.

Regulations 9 to 11, for example, lay down blanket anti-discrimination and harassment laws for education. There are no exemptions in relation to education. It will, therefore, be argued by some people that the regulations should apply in the content of the curriculum. A gay rights activist, for example, could say that a school that uses novels in relation to heterosexual love must also use novels with a theme of homosexual love. A similar argument could be used to justify equal treatment of homosexual and heterosexual sex in sex education lessons.

That is not, as some have said, scaremongering. The gay and lesbian lobby has already targeted schools in Canada, forcing books onto the curriculum against the views of teachers and parents in that jurisdiction. In 2002, the Chamberlain case in the Canadian Supreme Court struck down the decision of a British Columbian school board to refuse approval for three kindergarten schools to promote homosexual views in the classroom. That is not scaremongering; that is what is happening, and what happens across the Atlantic today will happen in Northern Ireland tomorrow.

These regulations violate the consciences of Christian children and their parents, and those of people in other religions as well. The regulations go further than any protection that there is for religion in Northern Ireland. The Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 provided broad exemptions for schools, but these regulations do not.

One can therefore sue in order to put homosexuality onto the curriculum in Northern Ireland, but one cannot sue to remove it from the curriculum or to protect children against the teaching of homosexuality. That is what these regulations will do. The ‘Getting Equal’ consultation stated that that would not be the case. On page 2, it states that the regulations’ express aim is:

“to bring protection from sexual orientation discrimination into line with existing legislation that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of … religious belief”.

However, the regulations on sexual orientation go much further than those that protect religious belief in Northern Ireland.

Madam Speaker, I am coming to the end of my speech. In the history of this island there were laws that were known as the penal laws.

Madam Speaker: You have gone over your time, Mr Dawson.

Mr Dawson: I require just two seconds Madam Speaker; grant me some latitude for the winding-up speech.

Madam Speaker: That is fine.

Mr Dawson: The penal laws excluded non-Anglicans from positions of authority in business and politics. The sexual orientation regulations have the potential to exclude from business life and other aspects of society those who hold Christian moral views. That new secular ascendancy will penalise and exclude all those —

Madam Speaker: Thank you, Mr Dawson.

Question put.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 39; Noes 39.


Billy Armstrong, Norah Beare, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Thomas Buchanan, Gregory Campbell, Wilson Clyde, Robert Coulter, Leslie Cree, George Dawson, Diane Dodds, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson, Reg Empey, George Ennis, Arlene Foster, Samuel Gardiner, Paul Girvan, William Hay, David Hilditch, Danny Kennedy, Nelson McCausland, William McCrea, David McNarry, Stephen Moutray, Dermot Nesbitt, Robin Newton, Ian Paisley Jnr, Ian R K Paisley, Edwin Poots, George Robinson, Peter Robinson, Jim Shannon, David Simpson, Mervyn Storey, Peter Weir, Jim Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Jeffrey Donaldson and  Edwin Poots.


Gerry Adams, Alex Attwood, Dominic Bradley, Mary Bradley, Francis Brolly, Willie Clarke, John Dallat, Pat Doherty, David Ervine, Seán Farren, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Carmel Hanna, Davy Hyland, Dolores Kelly, Gerry Kelly, Patricia Lewsley, Naomi Long, Alban Maginness, Alex Maskey, Fra McCann, Kieran McCarthy, Raymond McCartney, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Philip McGuigan, Mitchel McLaughlin, Eugene McMenamin, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, John O’Dowd, Pat O’Rawe, Tom O’Reilly, Pat Ramsey, Sue Ramsey, Margaret Ritchie, Caitríona Ruane, Kathy Stanton.

Vote on vacancy in Membership [Michael Ferguson (deceased)]: Gerry Adams.

Tellers for the Noes: Eugene McMenamin and Sue Ramsey.

Question accordingly negatived.

Madam Speaker: Order. I remind Members that, under Standing Order 18(f), if the votes in a Division are equal, the amendment or motion shall not be carried. Therefore the motion is not carried.

The sitting was suspended at 12.43 pm.

On resuming (Madam Speaker in the Chair) —

2.00 pm

Fire and Rescue Service Draft Integrated Risk Management Plan

Madam Speaker: The Business Committee has allowed two hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 15 minutes to speak, and all other Members will have 10 minutes.

Mr McGuigan: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the ‘Draft Integrated Risk Management Plan consultation document 2007/08’ prepared by the Fire and Rescue Service and calls for any conclusions and recommendations to ensure that present standards are maintained and that the safety of our citizens is paramount over any other consideration.

A Cheann Comhairle, I have an engagement sim-ultaneous to this debate. I will have to make my contribution and then leave, for which I apologise. However, I will be back before the debate is finished.

I acknowledge and welcome the amendment proposed by Mervyn Storey and Peter Weir of the DUP. The sentiments expressed in the amendment are implicit in the motion, so I have no difficulty in supporting the amendment. This is an important debate, and it should not be constrained by party lines. It involves social and safety issues.

The Fire and Rescue Service published its draft integrated risk management plan (IRMP) for 2007-08 on 1 November 2006. The consultation period will end on 31 January 2007. I urge all Members to ensure that they participate fully in the consultation process.

The Fire and Rescue Service integrated risk management plan for 2006-07 states that:

“A fast response to incidents can make the difference between life and death. The Fire Service Emergency Cover (FSEC) process therefore concentrates on the effect of attendance times as the primary driver for reducing risk to life by operational means.

It is also important that the correct number of firefighters attend each incident to enable firefighting operations to be conducted in a safe and effective manner. Collectively this response is known as the ‘speed and weight of attack’.”

I do not think that any Member will find any difficulty in supporting that assertion. However, we now face the difficulty that, contained in the new draft integrated risk management plan, there are proposals that counter that statement. There is a proposal to cut the number of fire engines from two to one in 12 towns across the North, including two towns — Ballymoney and Ballycastle — in my constituency.

Integrated risk management planning is the technology used by the Fire and Rescue Service in the strategic deployment of resources within a brigade area. There have been three previous integrated risk management plans in the North; the subject of today’s debate is the fourth. The consultation document contains a lot of technical jargon. However, for the ordinary layman or laywoman, it would be a straightforward assumption that response times for fire engines reaching the scene of a fire are crucial in saving lives.

The new figures for response times introduced by the Fire and Rescue Service to high-, medium- and low-risk call outs reflect that fact. For example, in a medium-risk call out, the first appliance should arrive within 12 minutes of the call being made. In all call outs, the second appliance should arrive within three minutes of the first appliance’s arrival. It should be remembered that, in many house fires, a second appliance is critical to ensure safety. Indeed, in the case of a call out where a person is reported trapped in a house, the Fire and Rescue Service currently sends three fire engines.

Those attendance times are the core of the argument that the Fire and Rescue Service is wrong to even consider the removal of 12 engines from the 12 towns in the North. The three-minute time lag is crucial to the safety of firefighters and the public. Statistics show that, of all fire incidents, house fires still claim the lives of most people or cause the most injuries.

I quoted earlier from last year’s integrated risk management plan:

“A fast response to incidents can make the difference between life and death.”

Is that quote not as true today as it was last year?

The quote goes on:

“It is also important that the correct number of firefighters attend each incident to enable firefighting operations to be conducted in a safe and effective manner.”

A Cheann Comhairle, these points were accurate on 1 April 2006; they remain accurate now, and they will be accurate in the future. If any fire engines are removed from those 12 towns and their surrounds, the Fire and Rescue Service will not make its own response times, and lives will be put at risk. In Ballycastle in my constituency for example, if the second engine were removed, a second fire engine would not be in attendance within the required 15-minute timescale; and the three-minute time lag between the first and second engines arriving, so crucial in circumstances of serious house fires, could be massively exceeded. Typically, distance times will be 20 to 25 minutes and greater.

The bottom line, a Cheann Comhairle, is that no matter where people live, they have the right to equal access to essential services. Current standards must be maintained, and the safety of citizens and firefighters must be paramount. The proposals contained in the draft IRMP consultation document jeopardise those standards and must be removed.

Go raibh maith agat.

Madam Speaker: I have received one amendment to the motion, which is published on the Marshalled List of Amendments.

Mr Storey: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out “notes” and insert “condemns the proposals contained in”, and leave out all after “Service” and insert

“to remove the second fire appliances from twelve towns in Northern Ireland, thus endangering the safety of both firefighters and the public.”

The process of consultation has already come in for some criticism in this House — and rightly so. The IRMP consultation over the past three years could not be described as widespread or well informed. If the imperative is to have a public consultation process, an equal imperative is that that process be transparent and accountable. The Fire Brigades Union describes the process to date as a sham, used to endorse strategic decisions that have been taken in advance of consultation by senior Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) managers. If that is the case, it is to be regretted, and it is something that this House should not endorse.

As a former member of the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland, I can say that we should be proud of the local Fire and Rescue Service. Too often it is the Cinderella of the emergency services and fails to get the recognition and resources that it deserves.

This issue should not be used as a political football. It is an issue that should unite all the parties in this House, because the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has, throughout the difficulties that the Province has faced, been at the forefront of ensuring the safety of residents. I wish to place on record our appreciation of the work of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service through 35 years of terrorism wreaked upon the Province and supported by some Members in the House. We welcome the fact that, belatedly, those Members are coming to support it.

The proposals in the draft IRMP will lead to fire cover by postcode. The costs are, as yet, unquantified and the proposals are unwarranted and unsafe, not only for firefighters, but for the public of Northern Ireland.

The Member for North Antrim referred to the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland’s acceptance of the emergency response standards. Those standards set out the requirement for the attendance of fire appliances and, in particular, for the attendance of a second fire appliance.

I remind Members of the fire stations at risk: Ballycastle, Ballyclare, Ballymoney, Castlederg, Clogher, Holywood, Kilkeel, Lisnaskea, Maghera, Newtownhamilton, Portstewart and Rathfriland. Members should also remember that not only are the stations listed in the draft IRMP for 2007-08 at risk; it is also proposed to review cover for the city of Belfast. Members cannot suppose that stations in their constituencies are not under threat, simply because they are not mentioned.

I trust that the proposal is not a cynical attempt by the board of the Fire and Rescue Service to change the provision of service delivery. If so, it should declare that openly and transparently. It should put the precise proposals about those stations on the table.

Computer software — the Fire Service emergency cover system — is used to analyse historical incidents, and census data is used to identify risks in the Fire and Rescue Service area in order to determine the appro-priate response standard. That methodology indicates that in Northern Ireland — as in the rest of the United Kingdom — most fires, fatalities and injuries arise from fires in homes. When standards are met, fire crews are able to function within safety systems and in the knowledge that they can ensure people’s safety. In all risk categories, there is a maximum of a three-minute time-lapse between the arrival of the first and the second appliance. That is to ensure that the response time and the weight of attack are adequate for the risk in all circumstances. That three-minute time-lapse is at the core of the contention.

The IRMP proposals are flawed and dangerous. If the proposals to remove the second appliance from the 12 designated locations are realised, it will not be possible to have a second appliance in attendance within the stipulated time in those areas that have been targeted for cuts. Ballycastle has been mentioned; to that I add Ballymoney, in my own constituency. If those towns have to depend on a second appliance coming from Coleraine, it will take more than the time stipulated in the approved emergency response standards.

In Northern Ireland, all stations reach that response time on 75% of occasions. Those stations that currently lag behind and that fail to meet response times on 25% of occasions will now have those 12 stations added to their number. Instead of an enhanced service providing improved delivery, these proposals will have a detrimental effect on the Fire Service. The IRMP proposals undermine the dwelling-fire-risk assessment that underpins the response standards published and approved by the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland in April 2006. It is not true to say that there are fewer call outs. In certain circumstances, there are fewer mobilisations of fire appliances because of the authority’s decision to reduce attendance to automatic fire alarms. However, it is disingenuous to assert that there are fewer fires. In the light of the ongoing threat from dissident organisations — if there is such a thing as dissident republicans — we must ensure that fire cover and response times are adequate.

The proposals are not costed, and no figure has been put on any saving. All Members are in favour of efficiency, but that should not be achieved at the expense of the safety of firefighters or citizens.

2.15 pm

Any savings will be minimal. The focus of the IRMP should be to enhance the safety of our community. We all, at some time, have had to depend on the Fire Service; I doubt whether there is one Member who has not had to call out the Fire Service. It would be a terrible tragedy if any of us in the Assembly or any of the citizens of Northern Ireland had need of the Fire Service and found it inadequate or incapable of delivering. I commend the amendment to the House and ask each party to support it and the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service.

Mr Cree: Colleagues get many consultation doc-uments; some relate to change in operation and others to improvement in services, whereas some are not interested in improving services but are more concerned with reducing costs and the number of employees. Studying the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service’s draft integrated risk management plan, I find that it does not address any of the foregoing points. Rather, it attacks the service’s capacity to meet its own standards for response times. At first glance, the document appears innocuous; however, on closer examination, its proposals appear fundamentally flawed.

Throughout my comments, I wish to refer to the fire station in Holywood, but they apply equally to the other 11 stations. There are two front-line appliances based in north Down, in the station in Holywood. Under this plan, one of them would be removed and the station downgraded. No savings are contemplated. The recent investment there of £40, 000 in the training of 10 new firefighters would have been totally wasted. That is ironic, as Holywood is one of three centres of excellence in Northern Ireland, and it provides NVQ learning standards to new recruits. Holywood station covers a wide area, from the Knocknagoney Road to the Devil’s Elbow, including a development at Kinegar Exchange that will include the new IKEA store. It is also part of the emergency response plan for the George Best Belfast City Airport. Moreover, it services huge depots in the harbour estate, Palace Barracks and significant fuel storage at Kinegar.

The consultation document is based on a review of the usage of second appliances and does not appear to consider actual demand. For example, at the time of this review, Holywood’s manning levels were 50% of its in-tended establishment, due to staff shortages. This seriously compromised Holywood’s ability to mobilise its two appliances in 2005, and therefore the figures in the document do not represent reality. In the document tables, Members will see that in the years before 2005, Holy-wood’s response was exactly three times the ideal figure.

The proposals from the service’s consultation doc-ument envisage replacing the second front-line appliance with a small fire safety unit, whatever that may be. That would seriously compromise the service’s ability to provide adequate cover. It is difficult to see how the Fire Service could guarantee us predetermined response times. The second Holywood appliance has been in use for many years and has probably been fully depreciated. All the staff work part-time, and the volunteers represent no standby cost at all. Why dispense with such an economic and valuable service?

In summary, Madam Speaker, the loss of a second appliance would be a waste of staff resources in the light of the recent recruitment in Holywood, and it may compromise response times as laid down in the ‘Northern Ireland Emergency Response Standards and Integrated Risk Management Action Plan 2006/07’, which was published in April 2006. That loss will also cause considerable concern and criticism in the public arena, as has already been evident.

Mr Kennedy: Will the Member confirm that his concerns are for all the stations mentioned — including Holywood — but, particularly, for Newtownhamilton in Newry and Armagh?

Mr Cree: I thank the Member for his intervention. I am concerned about Newtownhamilton, and all of the others on the list.

The small fires unit would represent an additional cost — not a saving — to the Fire Service, and it would restrict current operational resilience. The current manpower level at the Holywood fire station offers a flexible pay-as-you-go resilience for its surrounding areas in times of seasonal and political demands, and its strategic location and manning levels offer a cost-effective opportunity for extra resources in the greater Belfast area. I support the amendment.

Mrs Hanna: Public safety is paramount, and it is essential that fire and rescue services are maintained to excellent standards. The SDLP will be making a comprehensive response to the draft consultation on the integrated risk management plan. We are aware of the vital role that the Fire Service has played over many years and through the Troubles, when there were often added risks beyond those associated with rescuing people and extinguishing fires — and I in no way wish to oversimplify the role of the fire officer. The ongoing attacks on the emergency services and on Health Service personnel must also be proactively addressed and removed.

The draft consultation document is part of a regular exercise, and it is useful in anticipating long-term development. However, I fully understand local concerns about each fire station in the ongoing con-sideration. Public safety must be uppermost in our minds, and integrated planning for all of the emergency services to come together effectively and efficiently is crucial in all situations from the smallest kitchen fire to a major incident. Many of those services come under the umbrella of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

Some of the arguments are, naturally, local, and my SDLP colleagues will provide an all-over view, from the local to the big picture. Some arguments are concerned with the question of what is local and what is regional, and with what measures are required to get the most efficient and effective system and the best value for money. Those requirements must be looked at in conjunction with what is best for the wider community, as would be done in a regional Assembly.

I would have preferred the draft consultation document to have contained a lot more information. It would have been helpful to have seen the annual report of the chief inspector of the Fire Service referenced to proposals in the draft, and I also would have liked to have seen more details on training and the planning of the geographic workload. The document should also have recommended that the Fire and Rescue Service have the ability to exercise more local control and a greater flexibility of staff and resources. Additional details on costing, risk assessments and analysis would also be of benefit; they are very important. If the Fire and Rescue Service is considering the removal of pumping, a risk analysis must be carried out, and the public must have more information on the risks to them if that happens.

There also needs to be a greater explanation for the reduced number of call outs. Is that due to better education on how to reduce the risks of fires — be it through carelessness with a cigarette or a chip pan? Or, might it be related to the end of the Troubles — as we know it — and reflective of a more tranquil society? We need more information before we can make an adequate response.

Mr McCarthy: I want to take this opportunity to praise the courage, dedication and hard work of all the staff of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service in ensuring the safety of people throughout Northern Ireland. For years, Fire Service personnel have put their lives on the line daily to save others. That must be recognised.

I am pleased that the Fire and Rescue Service’s draft integrated risk management plan includes a proposal to conduct risk assessments of buildings that were not included in the 2005‑06 plan. I welcome that initiative and hope that it will help to raise safety standards and save lives. With regard to proposal 3 — the location of fire stations and resources in Belfast — I understand the need for a review of facilities in the light of changes in demographics. However, the review must enhance the service and ensure better protection for the people of Belfast. I hope that, given the increase in population in the city, the Fire Service will consider providing additional appliances in order to save life and property.

Mr Storey: We must be under no illusion that this is about the provision of additional locations for fire stations. Page 12 of the draft proposals clearly identifies current resources and names the stations in the city of Belfast. There is no provision for that to be expanded. Members must be sure that they understand clearly what is being proposed.

Mr McCarthy: I thank my colleague for his intervention. I understand exactly what is being proposed.

Proposal 4 of the draft document looks at the viability of second appliances in many towns in Northern Ireland. Removing second appliances could place the safety of local people at risk. We must do all in our power to prevent their removal. There must be no cost- or corner-cutting measures where people’s lives are involved.

I want to raise a massive problem that faces local firefighters. In recent years, there have been many attacks on Fire Service staff trying to go about their work. It beggars belief that misguided young people — usually children — should launch attacks on firefighters, who are often trying to save the lives and property of people in their own areas. I appeal to parents and guardians to ensure that their children are not engaged in that shameful and reckless activity. I welcome the recent advertising campaign aimed at stopping such behaviour. Those who are caught attacking local firefighters must be dealt with severely by the police and the courts, as they endanger the safety not only of firefighters but, indeed, of the wider community. The issue must be tackled head on. Fire Service staff should not have to run the gauntlet of hatred when they are trying to save lives and property.

I strongly condemn the proposed removal of second appliances from 12 towns across Northern Ireland, including Holywood and Newtownhamilton, which were of concern to another Member. I suggest that, rather than decreasing the number of appliances, we must maintain whatever is required in order to provide the best Fire and Rescue Service for everyone in Northern Ireland. I am happy to support the motion and the amendment.

Mr Hay: I am glad that, as a public representative, I have the opportunity to speak about such an important issue on behalf of the wider community. I always worry when I see consultation documents, from wherever they may come. They are always concerned with reducing resources in Northern Ireland. I believe that the risk management document goes a long way towards doing that.

My town of Londonderry was not one of the towns that were named in the document. However, the important point is that at some time in the future, it could be. My hon Friend from North Antrim Mervyn Storey has already described a situation that could occur in Belfast. Therefore we all should be careful, because these recommendations could have a snowball effect across Northern Ireland.

2.30 pm

As many Members have already mentioned, it is important that we recognise the service that all our emergency services have provided, especially through the difficult years here. Many members of those services have made the supreme sacrifice — none more so than those from the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service. It would be wrong if the House did not recognise the great sacrifices that have been made.

It is tragic that all our emergency services, especially the Fire Service, have experienced difficult times. We can all recall that, a few years ago, members of the Fire Service had to stand on picket lines to try to get a reasonable salary for the difficult job that they do. Everyone in the House at the time supported their actions and what they were trying to do. That action was about getting recognition for what they provide for all citizens in Northern Ireland from the Government and from the Fire Service.

The bottom line is that any reduction in resources to the Fire Service must be condemned. I am glad that the Member who proposed the motion has accepted the amendment, which makes the motion a lot stronger. It goes a long way towards sending a clear message to the Government and to the Fire Service that they must keep their hands off the Fire Service and make absolutely sure that there is no reduction in the resources that it needs to do its job. That clear message must be sent today.

Mr Storey: Does the Member agree that there is an urgent need for the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service to establish the training facility that has been on the long finger since I was a member of the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland? I understand that an imminent announcement may be made about the location of that facility. However, a number of fire stations across the country still require new premises. In particular, there has been an attempt over the past three or four years to find a suitable location for the fire station in my constituency of Ballymena.

Does the Member also agree that it is contradictory that the draft plan contains a proposal for a reduction in the number of second appliances when, in January, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service will look for additional recruits, even in those locations from which it proposes to remove a second appliance?

Mr Hay: I certainly agree with those comments. As I said, my greatest fear is that this is the start of a process that could lead to total and absolute disaster for the Fire Service in Northern Ireland.

I also agree with the hon Member that quite a number of the Province’s fire stations do not meet the standards that they should. Many fire stations also need to be relocated, and that has created difficulties.

This House must send a loud and clear message to those who want to tamper with any of our emergency services: it cannot and should not happen.

We should be building on our emergency services, especially our fire services and resources, which are very much needed. I support the amendment.

Madam Speaker: Before I call the next speaker, I wish to bring to the attention of Members that this will be the first occasion that the Assembly will hear from Mr Willie Clarke, when he will be making what can be described as his maiden speech. As Members know, the convention is that such a speech is made without interruption.

Mr Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In supporting the amendment I wish to stress the vital importance of ensuring that there is adequate emergency fire cover, particularly in isolated rural areas. It is clear from the response that Sinn Féin has been receiving across the Six Counties that there is widespread opposition to the proposals contained in the annual integrated risk management plan.

The board of the Fire and Rescue Service has recently reiterated the message that the safety of the general public and firefighters across the North remains its number one priority. Those are worthy sentiments, which, sadly, have little or no basis in fact. There is growing concern about how the review will impact on towns and villages across the North.

In my constituency of South Down, the recommend-ations outlined in the review will result in the removal of one fire appliance from each of the fire stations in Kilkeel and Rathfriland. That will mean that there will be insufficient cover to provide the minimum level of protection that all communities should be entitled to when an emergency occurs.

The review mentions that specialised fire units will replace existing fire units, without specifying in any detail what exactly those units are, or how they are going to provide cover for local communities or indeed the wider population. There will also be specialised appliances housed in Rathfriland but kept on standby to be sent to calls all over the North, meaning the pool of the available staff in Rathfriland will be significantly reduced and less able to deal with local emergency call outs, such as house fires.

The existing large firefighting units can attend both small and large fires and will therefore provide the necessary flexibility that allows them to deal with a wide range of incidents. The smaller units are designed primarily to deal with small fires, but there is no mention of their capacity to deal with large fires or any other type of emergency call such as car accidents. Therefore, the proposals represent a reduction in the levels of equipment available to deal with all but the most minor of incidents.

The Fire and Rescue Service is in the process of creating full-time crews and fire stations in places such as Portadown and Newtownards. Contrast that with what has happened in rural areas such as Kilkeel, Rathfriland and Newtownhamilton and, just as importantly, the surrounding hinterland — the logical conclusion is that those rural areas are being down-graded significantly in order to pay for the upgrade in larger towns.

Given the areas in which the improved cover is being proposed, one might be forgiven for thinking that the people making the decisions are being highly selective about where they are improving facilities. I strongly believe that certain geographical areas are going to lose out as a result of the review. The view in my own constituency is that rural areas across South Down are being penalised and placed at risk in order to ensure a first-class service elsewhere.

How do the changes tally with the board’s claims that it would not compromise the safety of the public and firefighters, nor the ability of firefighters to deal with emergencies? In reality, the Fire and Rescue Service is peddling empty rhetoric in an attempt to put a positive spin on what are unacceptable cuts to our emergency services. Having a second fire appliance is of vital importance and is needed in order to meet the standard required to deal with house fires. Will a householder, whose home is engulfed by fire, be expected to wait in the hope that a tender will make it in time as it travels from a major town many miles away, presuming, of course, it is available at the time of the emergency?

My constituency has one of the worst road infra-structures in the North. In Down district there is not one millimetre of dual carriageway. The Fire and Rescue Service is distorting and minimising the level of risk in places such as Kilkeel and Rathfriland in order to justify cuts to the fire stations in both towns.

Allowing for an arrival time of 21 minutes, instead of the existing 12-minute call out time, would place people at unacceptable risk. Local firefighters, who provide a wonderful service, and constantly put their lives at risk serving the community, may be placed in the position where they are forced to act against legal guidance, if, for example, they attack a house fire without waiting until a second appliance arrives.

Will those firefighters be placed in the impossible position of having to ignore the pleas of families, friends and neighbours to tackle the fire because they need a back-up crew to protect them in case the fire spreads and they risk their lives unnecessarily? Will the senior persons responsible for reducing the numbers of machines simply blame the local crews and say that they should have known the risk or should have waited?

The local provision of machines and people should provide a reasonable safety net for the local community. This reduction in large firefighting machines will significantly undermine the safety of communities. If the number of calls is to be the only yardstick used when making these decisions, the safety of the community will be compromised. People will be penalised and left with less protection. On the occasions when something unforeseen happens, the Fire and Rescue Service argues that the number of calls attended to is not the only factor on which its policy is based. However, it has yet to mention any other criteria, such as risk.

This is not just a question of pounds and pence; the bottom line is that the Fire and Rescue Service must be able to provide an effective response to all local emergencies. In rural areas there is a very real concern that communities will be left exposed to unacceptable risk. No matter where people live, they have an absolute entitlement to equal access to services. We have given assurances that Sinn Féin will not back any proposals that will result in the withdrawal of fire appliances and endanger people’s lives. Firefighters on the ground — and I have spoken to those in my constituency of South Down — are clearly opposed to any withdrawal of appliances. I urge the Assembly to support the amendment. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Elliott: Madam Speaker, I have been told that the sound is extremely bad in this corner of the Chamber. I suggest that there is some sort of organised situation to prevent the Ulster Unionist Party from being heard. I just want to clarify that that is not the case. [Interruption.]

Perhaps some Members are interested but do not want to hear what I have to say. That is fine.

Emergency services — the Fire and Rescue Service, the Ambulance Service and even the Police Service — are coming under increasing attack from the public. That is not acceptable in this community, and I want to make that absolutely clear from the outset.

All of this appears to be rural apartheid. Most of the towns that have been targeted serve isolated rural areas. That is the case in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I am concerned about the continued centralisation of services, which is a worry to my constituents, who feel increasingly isolated. We have seen in recent weeks that fire, whether deliberate or accidental, has the potential to kill and seriously injure and to damage property. It can happen within seconds and minutes. Those seconds and minutes are vital; services need to be at the scene quickly.

In particular, I want to cite Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh. If the first appliance is already attending an incident and a call comes in about an emergency in Rosslea, for example, the nearest appliance will be 26 miles away in Enniskillen. That is, at minimum, a 45-minute journey. In that time a property could be devastated, and it could mean life or death for people in or near that property. If there were a serious accident, people could die before the Fire and Rescue Service reached them. That is one of the biggest concerns for me and for my constituents.

In a house fire, noxious fumes and smoke can overcome the occupants before they have time to raise the alarm. An arson attack on retail premises can cause millions of pounds’ worth of damage in a very short time — almost instantly. That is why it is vital that these services remain close at hand.

Mrs I Robinson: Does the Member agree that this Government have told us ad nauseam that less is better? We have seen the absolutely disastrous effect of that: less policing has meant more crime; fewer beds have meant longer waiting lists; and now fewer fire and rescue services will mean greater potential for loss of life and increased waiting times for fire appliances to arrive at the scene of road accidents, at which their equipment is needed to cut victims from vehicles.

2.45 pm

Costs cannot be the driving force for our emergency services. We must all support the amendment if we are to send a clear message to Government that less is bad.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Member for her intervention. I certainly cannot disagree with her comments, sentiments and interpretation of what the Government believe. That is the point that I have been trying to make.

I am aware that the Government are also having an internal review of ambulance services, which are equally critical to this community. In recent discussions on the location of health services, various stakeholders widely used the notion of the “golden hour” to attempt to justify where accident and emergency services should be sited. When the Fire and Rescue Service attends fires or other emergencies, seconds and minutes are important.

Therefore cost-cutting for the sake of cost-cutting is not desirable in this community or in any other community, whether here or on the mainland. It is a false economy on the Government’s part.

Like the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), I am concerned by the proposal to remove the second fire appliance from the 12 designated locations. I fear that to do so will negatively impact on the entire community and on the safety of many, not only in isolated rural areas, which obviously I am more prone to support, but in areas such as Ballymoney and Holywood, which are in key locations. Their removal will compromise firefighters, who have a significant job to do in this community. They will be hampered in doing their job successfully if the draft IRMP is implemented.

I do not want the public, or firefighters themselves, to be put at risk for the sake of money. Financial costing is required in every organisation, but there is a tipping point at which safety becomes the overriding issue. That may have to be achieved, even though I do not accept that it should be achieved for financial reasons.

The arrival of a fire appliance in the first few minutes of a fire, road traffic accident or other emergency is vital to minimising the damage to life or property. I note with interest that the FBU, in its briefing paper, has reservations about the way in which the previous three IRMP consultations were carried out. The FBU has raised an issue that other Members and I regularly raise: even when we respond to consultations, and experts respond to consultations, our responses are often not listened to. The Government think that they know better than the experts, but the Government are often wrong.

Ms Lewsley: I also wish to add my words of thanks to our firefighters in Northern Ireland for the courage and bravery that they have shown, and I extend that thanks to the rest of the emergency services. It is important to point out that the Assembly gave the first special Assembly award to our firefighters. That is a true reflection of our recognition of all their hard work.

It is important that we note that this is the fourth integrated risk management plan consultation that the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service has conducted. Each consultation is followed by an action plan, which, in theory, is informed by the responses that have been received. The three previous consultations were not widely responded to; for example, only six written responses were received to last year’s consultation.

Mr Weir: There have been concerns at times at the way in which the responses have been counted. There has been a slightly dubious quality to the way in which that has been done. I know of at least one occasion when perhaps hundreds of responses from serving firefighters that were received were counted as one response because they contained a similar point of view and used similar language.

I would take some of the figures that appeared in the responses to the consultation with a small pinch of salt.

Ms Lewsley: I thank the Member for that intervention.

It is often said that we in Northern Ireland are subject to consultation overload, which has already been mentioned. However, this is one consultation that we must not ignore, because there is a real danger that untested, untried and un-costed cuts in fire cover will be the result.

To understand the problem with the Fire and Rescue Service board’s draft IRMP, we must understand the present standards stated in the motion. Evidence confirms what many firefighters already know: most fire-related fatalities occur in the home. Only last April, the NIFRS announced its emergency response standards; in other words, the number of fire engines and firefighters to be mobilised to any type of incident. The Fire and Rescue Service has set itself the target of meeting those response standards on 75% of occasions.

That methodology is accepted as the appropriate means of determining standards across the UK. In fact, the process has identified that, because of growing traffic congestion, the Fire and Rescue Service has difficulties in meeting attendance-time targets, part-icularly in Poleglass and Lagmore in my constituency. However, measures are being considered by the Fire and Rescue Service to address this failure. In the short term, the Fire and Rescue Service will have a fire engine on standby in Dunmurry. In the longer term, there will be a new fire station with the sole purpose of ensuring that attendance times can be met. There can be no doubt that the appropriate attendance in respect of “weight of response” and “speed of attack” must be seriously considered if lives are to be saved in dwelling fires.

The 12 fire stations highlighted for review during the consultation have been designated as being in medium-risk areas. The Fire and Rescue Service’s standards state that, for a house fire, the first engine must attend within 12 minutes and the second within 15 minutes. Many Members have highlighted those times during the debate.

The nub of the issue is that, if the Fire and Rescue Service board’s review of usage of second engines in those locations results in any decision to remove or replace them with another type of fire appliance, it will no longer be possible for fire crews to meet the attendance times for dwelling fires, simply because the second engine will have to be mobilised from a neighbouring town and will be unable to attend the incident within the stipulated 15 minutes.

For well-founded safety reasons, firefighters operate within rigid standard operating procedures. Firefighting must be organised and disciplined, otherwise people get hurt. The Fire and Rescue Service’s standard operating procedures require that the range of incidents that it deals with be approached in a methodical manner.

Imagine a house on fire with a family trapped on an upper floor. The first fire engine arrives, and the fire-fighters have a number of questions to answer instantly. Do people need immediate rescue? How many water jets will be required to extinguish the fire and stop it from spreading to adjacent premises? Is a water supply available? Will firefighters need to enter the burning building wearing breathing apparatus? Will it be necessary to put a ladder up to the upper floor? Do any casualties require immediate first aid? Those are just some of the immediate decisions that firefighters are faced with in a life-threatening situation.

There will be five firefighters on that first fire engine. They, and the unfortunate people who are trapped by the fire and smoke, depend on the second fire engine arriving within the next three minutes. Any delay will have a significant impact on a fire and rescue officer’s decision-making process in the critical initial stage of an incident and on whether there will be a successful outcome. If the draft IRMP goes through unchallenged, that second fire engine will be more than three minutes away, and the consequence will be that lives that could have been saved will be lost.

There are three key points that Members must grasp. The first is that the Fire and Rescue Service is proposing to consider whether an alternative specialist appliance would be more appropriate at the 12 locations.

Members must not be duped into believing that any specialist appliance will be an adequate replacement for a traditional fire engine.

The term “specialist appliance” refers to aerial platforms, command and control vehicles, and rescue tenders for dealing with road traffic collisions. They are designed, and intended, for specific purposes, and do not carry either the crew or the equipment to deal with house fires. Therefore, whether the Fire and Rescue Service decides that it might be appropriate to locate a turntable ladder in Kilkeel or a rescue tender in Ballymoney, the need still remains for a traditional fire engine and crew to deal with dwelling fires in those areas within the emergency response standards attendance time.

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

The second point is that the Fire and Rescue Service has set a target of meeting its emergency response standards on 75% of occasions; that target is arbitrary. Other fire and rescue services in the UK have set targets higher than 75%. That constitutes fire cover by postcode lottery, and our community deserves better.

The third point is that the proposal to replace the designated fire engines has not been costed. The Fire and Rescue Service does not intend to reduce attendance at dwelling fires. The problem is that the attendance of the second fire engine will be slower and less effective. The same costs will still be involved: the fire engines have already been paid for, and the firefighters are already employed. The proposal will result only in later attendance times, and that will be past the point when they could have had any positive impact in a life-threatening situation.

The question must be asked: what does the proposal achieve? A cynic might deduce that the proposal is someone’s bid for the post of Chief Fire Officer, by impressing figures in the sponsoring Department. The proposal is certainly not in the interests of the Fire and Rescue Service’s effectiveness and efficiency, and it is most certainly not in the interests of safety.

Mr Deputy Speaker, it is the duty of elected repre-sentatives to oppose any cuts in the Fire and Rescue Service that will increase the risk to our community. The Fire Brigades Union is encouraging all parties to respond in writing to the consultation, highlighting the dangers. As Carmel Hanna has already said, the SDLP will be doing that, and I encourage other Members to do the same. I support the amendment.

Mr Shannon: I am glad to see that we are all on the same wavelength on this issue.

We are told that the proposal for up to 12 fire stations to lose their second appliance is an attempt to streamline the Fire and Rescue Service. A table of usage has been published, which I presume is meant to illustrate how usage of those appliances has decreased in those 12 locations. However, there are some problems with the table; one is immediately apparent to me, as I am sure it is to other Members.

I want to use the example of Holywood, which my colleague the Member for North Down Mr Cree has already mentioned, because it is close to my constituency. Holywood may lose its second appliance because of a decrease in its usage. However, the second appliance in Holywood is used more often than the first appliance in Castlederg; I know that my colleague Mr Buchanan will have something to say about Castlederg. There is a similar situation in places such as Newtownhamilton and Rathfriland, where usage is slightly down. If Holywood is taken as an indicator of intent, Castlederg may not only be in danger of losing its second appliance but also its first appliance. That is the logic of that table.

How does that achieve the aim of the integrated risk management action plan? The aim is stated as:

“working towards … community safety … to reduce injuries and deaths across a wide range of life threatening emergencies”.

The proposed action plan does not make sense in fulfilling that objective. In 2005, Holywood’s second appliance was used in 57 life-threatening situations. In 2004, the figure was almost treble that, at 147 life-threatening situations. We cannot look at one year’s reduction, one year’s victory, and place the lives of the people under the remit of that brigade in danger by jumping the gun and taking away a vital service provision. We cannot cut corners. Anyone who has had the misfortune to be a victim of a fire, or even to have witnessed a fire, and experienced the speedy response and life-saving actions of crews working in tandem knows that the removal of that option lessens the chance of survival. Not only is there a danger to the general public but there is a danger to the brave men and women of our Fire and Rescue Service, who rely on one another for their very lives and the lives of others.

They move as a very well-oiled team. To take away a section of the team is to disrupt the system, piling too much pressure on one team, and leading to a higher chance of a tragic outcome. This is not scaremongering: fewer firefighters equals greater risk. I fully comprehend the need for streamlining and increased efficiency, but this attempt to cut back in these circumstances is incomprehensible. If the Fire and Rescue Service is to gain control of fires and to save lives and properties, it must do so at full strength.

3.00 pm

I do not wish to be facetious. However, if it were suggested that the oxygen tanks carried on firefighters’ backs should only be half-filled in an attempt to save money, on the premise that, on average, a full tank of air is not used each time, people would be up in arms. They would be exasperated at the idiocy of the suggestion, yet they are faced with a lifesaving resource being shunted to save money. That is unacceptable.

I am not advocating that two teams should always be in the fire station on the off chance that there might be a fire. However, it was invaluable to have the engine and back-up available to respond to the 57 situations that required assistance in Holywood. I could understand a cutback if the vehicle had never been used, but as it has been used once every two and a half days in recent years, and once a week last year, the proposal seems nonsensical. I cannot fathom the rationale behind these plans. Try telling the 57 victims of the fires attended by the back-up team working alongside the first engine that that back-up was unnecessary, despite it having saved their livelihoods — even their lives. If the Fire and Rescue Service is to provide the required response, it must do so with every conceivable aid at its disposal. To attempt to cut down on that cannot be sensible and should not be supported.

Northern Ireland has many fire stations with a large number of staff at the full-time stations and a large number of full-time and retained staff at the other stations. There is also a voluntary station. Those teams are responsible for 660,000 homes. Statistically, 2·5 people live in each home, and it is the job of firefighters to ensure that their lives will be saved should the unthinkable occur.

We must also consider the possibility of a factory fire similar to the one that an English fireworks company suffered recently, in which two fire officers lost their lives. If several brigades were to respond at once to such a fire, they might leave the constituents of the Fire and Rescue Service’s home remit unprotected in the event of a fire or a road traffic accident. That is where the added security of a second appliance is priceless. Although Holywood would suffer the initial loss of a back-up team, Ards, Bangor, Castlereagh and neighbouring towns, which have relied upon that back-up and have been secure in the knowledge that it was there, could also feel the effect of its loss.

Decisions such as this affect not only one station or brigade; they can have a ripple effect. Like a stone thrown into a pond, the ripples can be far-reaching depending on the weight of the stones thrown. This document suggests that the stone is a weighty one indeed.

Therefore I support the amendment to the motion. I urge that the recommendation to remove these 12 appliances be taken no further and that the consultation process and our full support be pledged to the sustenance of these much-used and essential pieces of equipment and team members. To do other than that is to endanger the lives of the men, women and children of the Province and to heap potentially even more danger and destruction on the men and women of the Fire and Rescue Service, who sacrificially serve us.

The bottom line is that if funding is needed to support this, it must be found. Funding can always be found for abstract, less worthy and less essential causes, and it must be found in this case. Money is the driving force behind these absurd regulations. I can think of no other reason to attempt to cut back the number of appliances.

It is not up to the Fire and Rescue Service to choose between saving lives and saving money. In fact, that should never register as a choice. Fire and rescue services should not be diminished or decreased; on the contrary, they should be enhanced and expanded. To make that happen, all Members must support the amendment.

Mr Berry: I support the motion and the amendment. The amendment, in Mr Storey’s name, strengthens and enhances the motion. I do not say that from a political perspective, but because an important, clear and concise message must be sent to the Minister, the Chief Fire Officer and the chairman of the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland.

I served on the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee during the period of devolved government — I know that other Members in the Chamber today also served on that Committee — and we continually sent a clear message to the Department, the Minister, the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland and the Chief Fire Officer that services needed to be maintained and strengthened, not reduced. Time after time, they came up with all of the concoctions of the day to reduce services, and the current IRMP document is another part of that agenda.

Some of those people are a law unto themselves. Everyone involved must receive a clear message from the Chamber today. Much that has been said in the debate has been helpful to the firefighters across Northern Ireland, and I place on record my gratitude to them for their tremendous work and dedication over the past 35 years or more.

It is a shame that we, as Assembly Members, have to plead with the Department and the Minister for present standards to be maintained. Shame on the Minister, the Department and all of their officials that Members have to make such a call today. As the motion states, and many Members have affirmed:

“the safety of our citizens is paramount”.

I, like other Members, condemn the proposed changes and the removal of second appliances from 12 towns across Northern Ireland. One of those towns, Newtownhamilton, which is in my constituency of Newry and Armagh, sits right on the border. It is a shame and a disgrace that the Department and the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland are even considering removing appliances from rural areas. The Chief Fire Officer must sit up and listen to what is being said.

Although Members mentioned individual fire stations, the bottom line is that regardless of whether one fire appliance is removed from one station, or each of the 12 stations loses a fire appliance, the loss of one is one too many. It is disgraceful that they are considering the removal of one fire appliance, never mind 12.

The proposed reduction in services is nothing more than a cost-cutting exercise. I commend the Fire Brigades Union, which has continually lobbied strongly, not for its own agenda, but for the firefighters and all citizens across the community. Members must ensure that they send a strong, clear message that any reduction in service is uncalled for and totally opposed and that any reduction to the current service is unacceptable. Time after time, in my experience, the Fire Service’s senior officials have come up with plans on how to reduce services. The bottom line is that no party will accept the reduction of services in the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service.

Again, I put on record my support for the motion and the amendment. The Minister, the Chief Fire Officer and the chairman of the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland must receive a clear and concise message today.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Buchanan: I too support a worthy motion that has been well debated in the Chamber today. The loss of 10% of Northern Ireland’s firefighting appliances, as proposed in the draft IRMP document, will undoubtedly have serious and detrimental consequences for communities across Northern Ireland. They expect and deserve a service that is fit for purpose and that can be called upon whenever an emergency arises. When a member of the community calls the Fire Service, it is because of a life-threatening emergency or the danger of property being destroyed.

There are two key factors in making safe and effective responses. The first is attendance time — the time it takes for a fire engine and crew to arrive at an emergency incident. The second factor is the number of fire appliances and firefighters needed to deal with the emergency in hand. However, the proposals in the draft IRMP document will undermine those key factors and will undoubtedly result in lives being lost.

In April 2006, new Northern Ireland emergency response times for the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service were clearly highlighted in the IRMP document. However, those times cannot be met if there is to be any cut in appliances at the 12 threatened fire stations in Northern Ireland.

I want to refer specifically to Castlederg fire station, where there is a proposal to cut back from two engines to one. There is no doubt that that will pose a major threat to safety in that rural community. Castlederg is 20 miles from Omagh and 15 miles from Strabane. It would take up to 25 minutes for a second engine and fire crew to come from Omagh or Strabane to Castlederg. To go from Castlederg into the rural community, wherever in that community the emergency might be, could take up to another 10 minutes. That is far beyond the stipulated requirement laid down in the emergency response standards. A fire emergency or road traffic accident will result in certain death or destruction.

The threat posed to the already dwindling emergency services cover in rural west Tyrone, one of the largest rural areas in Northern Ireland and an area of high deprivation and poor roads infrastructure, is outrageous and creates a life-threatening situation. Such penny-pinching and money-saving proposals run contrary to the provision of sensible and effective fire cover. They are ill-judged, ill-timed and downright dangerous. Not only will the lives of the public be placed in greater danger, but so will the lives of the fire crews who so courageously deal with emergency incidents.

Rather than improving this invaluable emergency service, the proposals in the draft IRMP document, if carried through, will result in its destruction. I condemn any cuts in the Fire and Rescue Service throughout Northern Ireland. I support the amendment.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá mé iontach buíoch díot as an deis seo a thabhairt domh labhairt ar an leasú don rún. Sa chéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom mo mheas ar na seirbhísí éigeandála a chur in iúl: an tseirbhís póilíneachta, an tseirbhís otharchairr, agus an tseirbhís dóiteáin.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, and I add my voice to those in favour of the amendment. First, I wish to place on record my admiration for the work of all the emergency services — the Police Service of Northern Ireland; the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service; and the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service. Quite often they operate under very difficult circumstances and show incredible courage and bravery in the face of frequent life-threatening situations.

3.15 pm

I am sure that every Member of the House will join me in condemning those who attack members of the emergency services as they go about their important business of life-saving and protecting public safety.

Just as we expect the emergency services to come to our aid when the safety of the public is under threat, we have a duty to go to their aid and to support them when their safety and their ability to uphold public safety is threatened, as it is by these draft proposals. Some of the proposals in the draft IRMP document will threaten the safety of firefighters and the general public.

The document opens up the possibility of replacing the second fire engine in 12 towns throughout the North of Ireland, one of those being Newtownhamilton in my constituency.

Newtownhamilton is an isolated community that occupies a pivotal position in relation to Newry, Armagh, Keady and Crossmaglen. It is hilly country where the road system does not allow easy or speedy access. This is an area where there are frequent gorse fires during the summer and where a second fire engine is absolutely necessary. The Fire and Rescue Service tells us that in some cases second fire engines may be replaced by specialist vehicles.

However, specialist vehicles are by definition of limited use and in no way serve as an adequate replace-ment for a second fire engine. By its nature, fire requires a speedy response if life and property are to be protected. The removal of a second fire engine from those 12 stations will mean that response times in those areas could become longer, with the effect that the health and safety of the public will be placed at risk.

If the proposals are adopted, an outbreak of fire will require a second fire engine, and there will be an increased response time, which will put the public and the firefighters at risk. For this reason, it is clear that any proposal to remove second fire engines from the 12 stations will place the public and firefighters at risk. I call on all parties and members of the public to oppose the proposals. I commend the motion to you.

Mr Hussey: I apologise for my absence when the motion and the amendment were being moved during the earlier part of the debate. I understand that the amendment has been accepted, which I welcome. My constituency colleague, Mr Buchanan, has referred to one of the areas that is a particular concern of mine in my home town of Castlederg.

However, Members should remember that it is not that long since the Fire Service was renamed the Fire and Rescue Service. The rescue ability depends on what is described as the “speed and weight of attack” of the particular emergency that the service has to deal with.

Furthermore, there are other emergencies apart from fires. Fire appliances turn out frequently to road traffic accidents. It is totally irresponsible of the relevant authorities, whose prime responsibility should be safety, to put forward a proposal that will diminish the effectiveness of a public service.

The new proposal will put lives at risk. I am particularly concerned that it will endanger lives in my constituency. I am sure that other Members have highlighted their particular concerns.

We are talking about an integrated emergency service. The appliances were not located randomly; they were placed in those areas to serve the needs of the surrounding communities. To remove any of that cover now or in the future is totally irresponsible, and I welcome the motion and the amendment.

Standards of emergency response are based on the current distribution and logistical arrangements that the Fire Service operates under. The three-minute time lag, which is how long it takes for the second appliance to arrive after the arrival of the first, is based on the current layout of where our appliances actually are.

I referred earlier to the “speed and weight of attack” towards any incident that the Fire Service deals with.

That weight is based on the number of firefighters, as well appliances, who attend an incident. The safety of those who arrive on site with the first appliance would be compromised if they did not have the appropriate weight of attack — or weight of support — when they arrive at a situation, and the safety of crews must be considered.

When crews arrive on site, they are concerned about the safety of the public, and saving and maintaining the integrity of property and other assets. That cannot be compromised. I wholeheartedly support the motion and the amendment, as accepted. I hope that those responsible will remember what it is that we are talking about — a Fire and Rescue Service. Let us not compromise that.

Mr P J Bradley: I apologise for my non-attendance at the earlier part of the debate. I was at a meeting about a meeting about a meeting. [Laughter.]

I am confident that the Members who spoke before me were critical of any attempt to reduce the level of service provided by the local fire stations in the 12 towns referred to in the draft integrated risk management plan.

Coming from South Down, it is only natural that I am concerned about the proposed 50% reduction in services in Rathfriland and Kilkeel. I recently met with, and listened to the concerns of, representatives from the Rathfriland station. I wish to go on record in support of their opposition to the proposed reductions.

Kilkeel and Rathfriland fire stations cover an extensive rural area, a very large tract of which is mountain area with gorse, farmland and hill land. Indeed, when gorse fires break out, I have often witnessed through my window the apparatus coming out immediately from Rathfriland, sometimes backed up by those from Newry. That second appliance can be key to fighting a mountain or gorse fire, and any attempt to do away with that would defeat the whole purpose of firefighting.

I referred to my meeting with representatives from the Rathfriland station. Rathfriland is a two-pump station, with a firefighting team of 20 members: three teams of six and two reserves. I imagine that that is the picture at most of the other 11 stations designated for cutbacks. We must listen to and take our brief from the people that man the fire stations. They are the pro-fessionals, and any attempt to think differently from them would be wrong. Members need only look at the threats to services. Since the Assembly first met, threats to services have often been discussed in the Chamber: threats to the Health Service, education, the Planning Service, the Water Service and the Ambulance Service. It is now proposed that the Fire and Rescue Service — Mr Hussey reminded Members of its dual role — be added to that list.

The Assembly must go forward. I do not often say such words, but those listening to this debate must ensure that this service is not be allowed to come under threat — especially in rural areas. We must listen to the Fire and Rescue Service and to those on the ground who fight the fires, rather than Ministers who do not know the countryside in this part of the world.

Ms Ritchie: I apologise to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to Members of the House, for not being in the Chamber at the beginning of the debate. I was a party delegate at the Programme for Government Committee.

One of the fundamental requirements for any rural or urban community is a well-equipped, well-staffed and adequate integrated Fire and Rescue Service. The proposals in the draft plan will not provide that, and they will leave rural communities in danger and peril. A cursory examination of the published consultation document — the subject for discussion today — reveals that the real intention of the Fire and Rescue Service is to reduce the service to the community through the proposed withdrawal of the second fire tender from 12 fire stations, many of which are located in extremely rural parts of Northern Ireland.

Questions immediately arise as to the rationale and purpose of such restrictive proposals. What is the real purpose of the consultation document?

Why does the Fire and Rescue Service propose to remove the second fire tender from those 12 stations, including two in South Down — one in Kilkeel and the other in Rathfriland? Why put the knife into rural communities? Why does it want to undermine services to rural communities and put the people there at risk and in grave jeopardy?

Is it not the case that the Fire and Rescue Service faces difficulties recruiting part-time firefighters in some areas? A campaign is to be launched in the new year for certain parts of the rural community. Would it not be better to adopt a more positive approach to the Fire and Rescue Service, rather than that of the knife and the proposed implementation of cuts? Where in this document does the Fire and Rescue Service express concern for isolated rural communities?

I encourage young people to join this worthy profession and continue the good work undertaken by their forefathers, who protected this community through some difficult and trying times and put their own lives in danger to afford safety to others. Their work should be applauded, and the best way to do that is for young people to be encouraged to join up and fight to protect rural communities. The recruitment of young part-time firefighters must be on a fair and equal basis. No restrictions must be placed on where full-time, part-time or senior officers reside — reports in previous years have indicated that that practice was promoted by the Fire Authority for Northern Ireland.

Mr Hussey: Surely, with regard to part-time retained officers in particular, where they actually live is important?

Ms Ritchie: I agree with the hon Member, but it has been the case that full-time senior fire officers have been dictated to as to where they reside. That is wrong, because their expertise could be required immediately in emergency situations, and my comments probably bear out what the Member previously said.

The Fire and Rescue Service must withdraw its plan to remove the second tender from the 12 fire stations. Looking at my own constituency, Kilkeel and Rathfriland are isolated rural communities, as Mr P J Bradley has already pointed out. Members probably know that themselves. The fire station in Kilkeel services a distinct mountainous rural community where speedy responses are vital in emergency situations. The needs of local communities, and the seasonal demands of the tourist and fishing industries, must be taken into account to ensure that, in those cases, the second tender is retained.

3.30 pm

Accessibility, adequacy, availability and community requirements are the central criteria to measure any fire and rescue service. If the service does not match those requirements, then the Fire and Rescue Service must ensure that they are met through the retention of the second fire tender and the improvement of the service throughout Northern Ireland. We have fought long and hard for essential services for rural communities, and one of those essential services is a sound and equitable fire service. If necessary, this matter should be referred to the Programme for Government Committee for full and detailed discussions to ensure an adequate Fire and Rescue Service.

Mr Dallat: I am the seventeenth contributor to this debate, so most issues have been covered — or have they? Perhaps not. Each Member has spoken with great affection about his or her own area and the loss of the second pump, and I agree with that. However, it is only when one looks at this daft idea with a more holistic approach that one begins to realise how serious it is.

Mr Storey drew attention to the potential losses in his constituency of North Antrim. There are losses in east Derry as well and in Mid Ulster. In the tourist area of Ballycastle and Portstewart, where the population quadruples in the summer time, the loss is serious. Twenty miles inland, Maghera fire station services a large rural area where there is a lot of forestation. Parts of that area are also subject to flooding. Members referred earlier to road accidents; God knows there are enough of those. When one considers all these factors, the picture becomes even more serious. That area is also on the north Atlantic air route. No one wishes to predict another Lockerbie or Pan Am disaster, but emergency planning must take all factors into account. Had it not been for the work of the Scottish Fire Service after the Lockerbie disaster, many more would have lost their lives. That too is a consideration.

All this is about cost effectiveness. From my experience on the Public Accounts Committee, I can assure the House that financial problems relating to the Fire and Rescue Service’s board and the Fire and Rescue Service have nothing to do with the brave men and women on the ground who fight fires. I have no wish to embarrass Mr Storey, but the problems are with the Fire and Rescue Service’s board itself, its predecessor, and how it spent money. Mr Storey made reference to the Boucher Road training centre. What sensible fire agency would have bought land and spent millions of pounds on it, only to discover that fires could not be lit there? That is madness. Other matters, such as credit cards and so on, we can pass over.

After the debate, what will happen? There are some people listening in the Public Gallery, but I doubt whether any of them are members of the Fire and Rescue Service’s board. If Members are sincere and genuinely concerned about the 12 fire stations threatened with the loss of a second fire appliance, they should redouble efforts to ensure that the Assembly continues. It must take responsibility for emergency services, ensuring that communities are not threatened by the bureaucrats and well-paid consultants who take millions of pounds out of the public purse every year but come up only with daft ideas over which the public have no influence. Thousands of people have already signed the petition against the proposals in this consultation document. Members can lend support to local communities by working together to ensure that the Assembly continues in order to stop the madness that has gone on, not only in the Fire and Rescue Service, but in every other aspect of life.

Mr Weir: I wind up in support of the amendment. I am glad that for once the Assembly speaks with one voice. The Member who moved the motion accepts the amendment, and all parties support the motion as amended.

Only a limited number of points need to be dealt with, but I wish to deal with them briefly before I move on to the substance of the amendment. Carmel Hanna pointed out a lack of clarity in the consultation document. I believe that to have been a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the need for adverse comment, to try to — forgive the pun — pour cold water over the report and try to ensure that the level of public concern is reduced. I agree with Kieran McCarthy and others who called for stiffer penalties for those who attack the emergency services.

I join with all of those Members who paid tribute to the emergency services, particularly the Fire and Rescue Service.

I take issue to some extent with the remarks of Willie Clarke and Tom Elliott — both of whom obviously have concerns about their own communities — who saw the report as a question of rural interests against centralising urban interests. It is a question of services being withdrawn across Northern Ireland. One has only to look at proposal 3, which implies a direct threat to the future cover of Belfast. That should be something that unites us: it is not just a threat to rural interests but to rural, urban and suburban interests. At risk are small towns across Northern Ireland, rural areas and inner- city areas. We must all speak with one voice.

Patricia Lewsley graphically indicated the practical ramifications of the recommendations. Like her, I question the motivation behind the report. Jim Shannon mentioned the “ripple effect”; that issue needs a strong focus. JohnDallat highlighted the impact that seasons have on a number of fire stations, but that point has not been considered. However, I disagree with him slightly about consultants. Unfortunately, and to its great shame, the report comes from within the Fire and Rescue Service itself, rather than, for once, being produced by outside consultants. That makes it more worthy of condemnation.

There are a great deal of weasel words and ambiguities in the report, and the purpose of the amendment is to deal with those. At no stage are reductions, job cuts, or increased threats to safety mentioned. The report uses euphemisms and talks about review of services, and on one occasion weasel words such as “review resource usage” are used. If that is not code for cutbacks, I do not know what is.

Therefore it is important that Members, by way of the amended motion, send out a clear signal to the Fire and Rescue Service that parties are united in their opposition to the proposals.

Mr Storey: Does the Member agree that there is a serious issue regarding the timing of the proposals? The report clearly states that after 31January the Fire and Rescue Service:

“will review our proposals in light of all the comments received”.

Those decisions will be made at a meeting of the board of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service in February 2007. The report does not refer to any further consultation on the final proposals that will emerge from this document.

Mr Weir: That highlights all our concerns as to how real the consultation should be. It is only by sending a clear signal from this Assembly that Members can put a spoke in the wheel of the process.

The previously mentioned principal proposals are based on the consultation document’s fourth proposal, which deals with and names 12towns throughout Northern Ireland. According to the document, the intention is to review, replace or reduce the number of fire appliances from two to one in each location and to replace them with small fire units.

The Fire and Rescue Service needs to be asked a range of pertinent questions about those small fire units. For example, will they be able to offer the same level of cover as the existing appliances? If they are replacements for current front-line appliances, will the Fire and Rescue Service guarantee appropriate cover from other areas within the agreed response times? If two major fires are reported at the same time in the same area, what will be the potential for those units to attend? Will they lead to a reduction in manpower? Will they offer the same opportunity for strategic cover as the existing appliances?

Leslie Cree highlighted a range of issues. The proposals run contrary to many of the actions that the Fire and Rescue Service has already taken. Forty-thousand pounds were invested in recruitment in the past 18months in Holywood fire station; however, that investment runs contrary to what actually happened in that station. That is not a unique case, however.

The response times of the second fire appliance will be the key issue. As indicated, where there is a house fire that does not threaten anyone’s life, or no life is reported as being at risk, a minimum of two fire appliances are required to attend. PatriciaLewsley perhaps understated the situation in her example of people being trapped upstairs; when that type of information is known, three fire appliances should be present. With the best will in the world, and even if a fire appliance were being driven at breakneck speed, there is no way that any fire engine could be in Holywood within three minutes.

There is a particular problem with Holywood’s reduced cover, as has already been stated. In these days when we are living under the threat of international terrorism — and when airports in particular tend to be targeted — it is a disgrace that the George Best Belfast City Airport is being left with inadequate cover.

Jim Shannon mentioned the ripple effect of such changes, and that has not been brought out sufficiently in the debate. Any action taken in the 12 stations will impact on their surrounding areas in two ways. I will take Holywood as an example, but it would apply equally to any of the other 11. If a fire in Holywood required a second appliance, one would immediately have to be brought in from Knock or Bangor. What would happen if there were a fire in Castlereagh or Bangor shortly after one of their appliances was brought in to provide extra cover in Holywood? Their local fire stations would be unable to respond effectively, because they had automatically lost one of their appliances to assist in Holywood. The people of Castlereagh and Bangor would be in danger. The effects will be felt not just in Holywood and Newtownards.

In the past, when there have been one or two fires in Bangor, for instance, Holywood fire station has provided cover, as Knock fire station has done for its surrounding areas. Firefighters might be unable to deal with a fire in Bangor because they cannot get support from Holywood. What is true of Holywood is also true of the other 11 stations at which cutbacks are being made. There is a clear knock-on effect.

The draft consultation document’s recommendations will leave firefighters in one of two situations: they will be unable to cope with the fire and have to wait longer than what is acceptable for a second fire appliance — which will inevitably place lives at risk — or the response of the local fire station will be such that firefighters will disobey their health and safety regulations and go in to try their best to save lives when they are understaffed due to the reduced cover. Firefighters will put their lives at risk. If the proposals are allowed to go through, people’s lives will be put at risk.

In the Chamber, Members often talk about life-and-death decisions. Today, we are faced with a clear-cut example of such a decision: people will die if the recommendations are implemented. That is why Members must send a clear message that the proposals are unacceptable, and I want to hear a united voice in the Assembly saying no to the proposals. I commend the amendment to the House.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo thacaíocht don leasú a chur in iúl chomh maith. Is maith an rud go bhfuil gach duine sa Seomra ag caint d’aon ghuth ar son an leasaithe.

I support the amendment, and I commend my colleague Philip McGuigan, a Member for North Antrim, for tabling the motion. I am also happy to acknowledge that the amendment put forward by Mr Storey and Mr Weir added value to it. The key points have been addressed across the parties, and the motion has attracted widespread consensus and unanimity. There is, therefore, no need to engage in unnecessary repetition.

I want to be personally associated with the comments of my West Tyrone colleagues Derek Hussey, who spoke about his home town of Castlederg, and Tom Buchanan who supported him. I wish to be associated with their comments on this matter, although not perhaps on every matter.

Mr Weir: I think that the feeling is mutual.

Mr McElduff: Yes, I think so. Are you keeping well yourself, Peter? [Laughter.] All Members acknowledge that the proposals are driven by a cost-cutting agenda.

3.45 pm

The safety of our citizens is not being treated as the paramount consideration. As my colleague Peter Weir mentioned, the Assembly is speaking with one voice on the issue. When the Assembly speaks with one voice, as democratically elected representatives, its Members expect to be heard and responded to. Is anybody listening? They must listen. If the people’s elected representatives speak with one voice, in a corporate sense, there is an onus on the Departments that are responsible for those issues to sit up and take notice.

I shall conclude by drawing attention to depart-mental guidelines on rural proofing. As other Members have pointed out, the proposals will have a dispro-portionate and negative impact on rural communities throughout the North. That begs the question of whether the rural proofing of departmental policies means anything. At lunchtime, I had a meeting with senior civil servants about the concept of rural proofing. What is it? Does it apply? Does the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety have any interest in rural proofing? I understand that rural proofing is the process by which Government policies are examined carefully and objectively in order to ensure that they treat rural dwellers fairly and, in particular, to make sure that public services are accessible to people, on a fair basis, regardless of where they live in the North.

I ask the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Fire and Rescue Service to pull back from the proposals. I also ask the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to do its work and ensure that its sister Departments do not take decisions that will have an unduly negative impact on rural communities. Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

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

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly condemns the proposals contained in the ‘Draft Integrated Risk Management Plan consultation document 2007/08’ prepared by the Fire and Rescue Service to remove the second fire appliances from twelve towns in Northern Ireland, thus endangering the safety of both firefighters and the public.

Adjourned at 3.47 pm.

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