The transitional

Tuesday 9 January 2007

The Late Mr David Ervine MLA
Assembly Business

Private Members’ Business
Road Safety

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

The Late Mr David Ervine mla

Madam Speaker: It is my sad duty to inform the House of the death of Mr David Ervine, a Member for the East Belfast constituency. In accordance with convention, as a mark of respect for Mr Ervine, the sitting will now be suspended until 11.00 am.

The sitting was suspended at 10.33 am.

On resuming (Madam Speaker in the Chair) —

11.00 am

Assembly Business

Madam Speaker: Given this morning’s suspension, the House may wish to note that today’s planned meeting of the Business Committee will now take place at 1.00 pm. The sitting will continue until that time.

Before proceeding to the next item on the Order Paper, I wish to draw the attention of the House to the point of order made yesterday by Lord Morrow about Members not being in their places when the Speaker is standing. I said yesterday that I would raise the matter with the Business Committee, and I will do so later today. For now, I simply draw the attention of the House to the importance of Chamber etiquette in ensuring that business proceeds smoothly and in a dignified manner.

Private Members’ Business

Road Safety

Madam Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow two hours for each of today’s debates, the Member proposing each motion having 15 minutes to propose, with 15 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have a maximum of 10 minutes.

Mr Raymond McCartney: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the ongoing tragedy of deaths and serious accidents on our roads and calls on an incoming Executive to introduce a new rigorous Driver Testing framework and a Road Safety and Education programme, with the emphasis on groups most likely to be involved in road traffic accidents, reflecting international best practice, and including co-operation between all Road Safety agencies, North and South, in carrying out a safety audit of the road network and the development of a National Road Safety Campaign.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Éirím le labhairt ar son an rúin, agus tá mé ag lorg tacaíochta dó ó achan pháirtí agus ó achan Chomhalta sa Teach seo.

I propose the motion on behalf of Sinn Féin, and in doing so I seek the support of all Members and all parties. Road deaths have no boundary of geography, class or creed, and it is unnecessary to offer any explanation to anyone here of the impact on a family of losing a loved one to a road traffic accident. Neither do I wish to reduce the motion to a list of statistics, however revealing they may be, because every Member here is familiar with them to one degree or another.

In October 2006, in the Long Gallery, Ursula Quinn provided a personal and poignant testimony to the enduring effect that a road death has on a family. That event had all-party support, and resulted in a pledge to support the efforts of the “Driving Kills” group. From personal experience, we can all acknowledge that the tragedy and grief of many families is compounded by the realisation that the accident and resultant death could have been prevented. Other families and groups who have had experience of those tragedies join us today in the Public Gallery.

The rationale behind the motion is to put a stop to the complacent attitude that road deaths are an unavoidable consequence of road use. They are not; road deaths can be avoided, and it is our responsibility to do all that we can to end that complacency in the first instance, and to seek co-ordinated, properly resourced programmes to prevent unnecessary fatalities. It is worth noting that the World Health Organization has enshrined the concept that road deaths and injuries are not inevitable consequences of increased road use.

The motion is not intended to offer or prescribe a definitive programme by which road deaths can be reduced. There are many different factors, views and initiatives, all of which can play a vital role in tackling the problem, and all important and worthy of support. The motion is designed to make the issue of reducing road deaths and injuries a programme priority for the incoming Executive, and to ensure that that Executive provide the direction, emphasis, policy and resources to achieve that aim.

The motion offers a number of key areas that Sinn Féin believes can impact on the frequency of road accidents, so that a reduction in deaths and injuries can be made. These include a more rigorous testing framework, with greater emphasis on road safety education programmes that continue after the driving test. This must be aimed at the groups that are more likely to be involved in road accidents.

A safety audit of the roads network should be carried out on an island-wide basis. That can be assisted by the development of a properly resourced national safety campaign that has the potential to become the body to hold the relevant Departments, North and South, to account.

Great work is already in place in Ireland, and further afield, highlighting the correlation between speed, alcohol and the incidence of accidents. We have to look to the international experience and their programmes and initiatives, which are beneficial in reducing death and injury, and bring them into operation here. I have no doubt that other Members will bring to the debate other programmes and experiences — and I welcome that and look forward to hearing them.

Members have to work in a co-ordinated and collective manner to ensure that all of this becomes a priority programme of work for the incoming Executive. This motion, supported by the Assembly, will provide the necessary dynamic to ensure that the incoming Executive properly address the reduction of deaths and injuries on the roads.

I ask for Members’ support on the issue. I apologise that I will have to leave the debate to attend the Subgroup on Policing and Justice.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Mr Poots: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “introduce” and insert:

“a wide ranging strategy involving all relevant agencies, including measures reflecting international best practice, to tackle the problem; with particular attention paid to those most likely to be involved in road traffic accidents.”

The Democratic Unionist Party has always given priority to road safety. In the Environment Committee, the former Chairman, Dr McCrea, and I pursued a strong line on road safety. It was the work of that Committee that led to the Department of the Environ-ment (DOE) introducing more road safety officers to schools.

The Committee also highlighted the issue of driving while on drugs, which was not being taken seriously by anybody at the time. The facts presented to the Committee were that over 20% of people involved in fatal road incidents had drugs in their bloodstream. Some 4% of that 20% had taken legally prescribed drugs and around 20% had taken illegal drugs — of which over 12% was cannabis. It is nonsense to say that cannabis does not have many side effects. People are dying on the roads on a weekly basis because of the use of cannabis and because they have taken a car out after taking cannabis.

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

The Committee also did a rigorous report on school transport. I regret that we did not have an Assembly to follow through on the issues raised in that report. Following the report, Members have had all the excuses and prevarication that one might expect from direct rule Ministers. They have said that there is no money to reduce the number of children per school bus seat from three to two, for example; that there is no money available to put seat belts into buses or to resolve the issue of standing in buses. That may be an argument on finance. However, there is enough money in the Department to have the high hazard signs fitted on buses, to put on flashing lights and to take many of the other steps proposed in that report. I do not think that it is too badly off to do that or to take many of the steps proposed in the report that do not carry such a huge financial burden as others.

In the South of Ireland, five young schoolgirls were killed on a bus, and a more recent incident took place in London. We cannot take it for granted that incidents like those will not happen in Northern Ireland. Everybody will be wringing their hands and asking why it has happened, and the excuse will be that we did not have the money to do it.

I have particular concerns about speed limits in Northern Ireland. They need to be revised, on the advice of those who have relevant experience. I understand, from people involved with road traffic accidents and who have a fair degree of expertise in making assessments about them, that current speed limits are not fit for purpose. They are not relevant. For example, there are places where the speed limit is too high and others where it is too low. One finds a 30-miles-per-hour speed limit outside many schools, where there is great danger, with young children going about and a lot of parked cars, yet people can legitimately drive there at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. Again, motorways were designed in the 1960s. Cars at that time were the Ford Anglia, the Hillman Imp and, for the well-to-do, the Ford Corsair. They certainly did not have the anti-lock braking system, side-impact bars and all the equipment that modern cars have. In many instances, the 70-miles-per-hour speed limit is too slow for the motorway. It does nothing for road safety to have such a speed limit. In other places, the speed limit is too high, and that should also be addressed. My party therefore has many major concerns about road safety.

I support the road safety advertising campaigns. I have met with those behind them. We discussed whether such advertising campaigns should be run on a national basis, and whether GB advertising campaigns should be used in Northern Ireland. They are very expensive to make, and the cost runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds. However, it was demonstrated that Northern Ireland has particular issues with regard to road safety. It has its own problems and intricacies. In conjunction with marketing experts, the Department was able to identify them, and the decision was taken to choose a more expensive, Northern Ireland based, advertising campaign. That was a correct decision; and that is the reason that the amendment is worded as it is.

Road safety is a Northern Ireland issue, with problems particular to here, and it should be dealt with on a Northern Ireland basis. What happens in other jurisdictions is for others to deal with. There is potential for a degree of co-operation on some aspects, but advertising campaigns and other road safety measures should be on a Northern Ireland basis. It would be impossible to organise these on the all-Ireland basis suggested by Sinn Féin because a completely different system operates in the Republic, with different speed limits. The Republic’s road safety problem is greater than that of Northern Ireland, and I wish the Government of the Irish Republic well in reducing the number of deaths that take place there. I welcome the European aspect that is being delivered, whereby those who break the law in one jurisdiction cannot drive in another. That, however, is a European, as opposed to an all-Ireland, aspect. Northern Ireland has its own particular road safety issues. The Northern Ireland Assembly has a responsibility to address the issues that prevail here and to concentrate on its own affairs.

Mrs I Robinson: Does the Member agree that it would be helpful if car manufacturers worked alongside other agencies to look at ways of addressing the problem of speeding? That would be particularly helpful in those areas where young people live to speed and then die as a result of speeding. Manufacturers should be involved in trying to reduce speeding.

11.15 am

Mr Poots: Yes, absolutely. Training young people to drive, in particular, is very important, and the current driving test is a nonsense. If anyone carried out a three-point turn in normal road circumstances, as is the case in the current driving test, he or she is likely to cause an accident because of the length of time that the manoeuvre would take; the same could be said for reversing around corners.

In order to test their real ability, people taking the driving test need to be allowed to drive on dual carriageways, motorways and main roads where it is possible to drive up to 60 miles per hour. The current driving test is not an accurate test of people’s ability to drive in normal road circumstances. They merely go through the motions and afterwards drive nothing like they did in the driving test. The test needs to be more practical; the Department must deliver a test that is more akin to real driving conditions. Those are not just my words — they are also the words of the examiners, who say that the driving test is no longer fit for purpose.

Mr Gardiner: On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I support the amendment. We are very concerned about road safety in Northern Ireland, and we lend all the support that is humanly possible to improve road safety. Educating our young people on road safety is vital. So often it is the child who can say to the driver of the car: “Dad, you are driving too fast, slow down”.

We appreciate the work that the Fire and Rescue Service does in relation to accidents on our roads, highways and byways. We also thank the medical staff of our hospitals, who have to try and repair those broken bodies, and also the PSNI, which is always at our beck and call when an accident occurs on our roads.

We could do more to improve road safety. While we in the Assembly seem to be powerless at the moment, we call on the Department for Regional Development (DRD) and the DOE to be proactive in that role. When driving along many of our roads, many of the signs are barely visible because of bad weather conditions. They are either filthy, obliterated or you just cannot see them.

While in other areas you see signs on poles by the roadside, in parts of my county, Armagh, instructions are marked on the road in very loud and bold markings in gold and red paint. I find that very attractive and more impressive than the many poles on roadsides, because you drive past many of them, not noticing them because they are so numerous.

We must move further and ask DRD to look seriously at engaging in modern technology. We have experience of some of the valuable work that has been done in our universities — for example, Queen’s University has an excellent department for investigating and carrying out research — and with satellite navigation, and I hope that the Department will take on board the need to engage in modern technology.

Furthermore, car manufacturers should be ordered to amend car specifications to enable a signal to be sent to alert the driver to the fact that they are driving too fast or that there is danger ahead. Such a signal could be triggered from a pole at the roadside as a car passes and sent to a mechanism fitted in the car to alert the driver that there is an accident ahead or that they are over the speed limit. We must be proactive and advance with the modern day and age.

No doubt, there will be other Members who will speak today and give statistics on the figures relating to deaths, casualties and injuries. I and my party convey sympathy to all those who have suffered bereavement, especially over the last year and in the period just after Christmas, when the home is not the same due to an unfortunate road accident or an accident caused by a drunk driver.

Therefore bitterness and resentment are felt in many homes in Northern Ireland because of what can happen as a result of bad driving and poor road safety standards. The UUP wants to improve those standards, and Northern Ireland can lead the way by using modern technology to alert drivers and by introducing better road safety education to all schools.

The requirement to sit a written examination before taking the driving test was introduced about 15 years ago, but it now seems out of date. People still speed and do not take care on the roads. The Department for Regional Development also has a responsibility to straighten those bad corners at which many accidents happen. One accident or one death is one too many, and the Department should take emergency action to address such problem areas on the roads, because people must be protected. The UUP supports the amendment.

Mr Dallat: As a former teacher of road safety and moderator of examinations in that subject, this is one of the most serious topics that the Assembly could debate. In my role as teacher — and since — I have mourned the deaths of pupils and past pupils, and I understand something of the grief of parents and families. Perhaps that is why I am disappointed that an amendment has been tabled and that all parties will not vote collectively on the motion. I understood that, following the St Andrews Agreement, all parties supported North/South bodies, increased co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána, the harmonising of penalty points and joint advertising on television. Deaths on the road know no political boundary. Members who are in the House and who are from the North have lost loved ones on roads in the South, and others who are from the South may have lost loved ones in the North. Those people will not understand the need for division.

Road deaths and serious injury in road accidents have haunted us since the Locomotives Act 1865 — known as the “red flag” Act — was passed. That restricted the speed of horseless carriages to 4 mph in the countryside and, believe it or not, to 2 mph in towns. The Act also required someone to walk in front of the carriage carrying a red flag, as the Act’s nickname implies. The Act was not repealed until 1896 following serious lobbying by the Royal Automobile Club (RAC), which subsequently organised the London to Brighton run in celebration at being allowed to speed.

Seven years after the “red flag” Act was passed, another road traffic Act made it an offence to be drunk in charge of a horse and cart or a horseless carriage. Today, unfortunately, speeding and drinking and driving are still two of the main reasons why so many people continue to lose their lives.

In modern times, road fatalities peaked in the mid-1970s, when 375 people in the North lost their lives. In 2006, the figure dropped from 150 to 125, which is good news. However, it provides no cause for celebration, especially for those families who are grieving for the loss of their loved ones. The Republic also reported its lowest number of road deaths for 40 years, but that figure fell far short of targets. A total of 500 people lost their lives on this island — that is not a cause for division.

In Britain, the number of fatalities last year was over 3,100, and, despite a proliferation of speed cameras and fixed cameras that affect over one million drivers each year, that figure has not fallen significantly. The Northern Ireland Assembly doubled the number of road traffic education officers from nine to 18. Presumably, they have had an impact in the schools and have contributed to road safety education. However, little has been heard of them in the public arena.

Looking beyond these islands, it is useful to note that France has had considerable success in reducing its road fatalities.

It is claimed that much of that success can be attributed to the French President, Jacques Chirac, who made road safety an election issue. The result is that road fatalities in France have been halved in three years. Scandinavian countries are also better than we are at dealing with road safety, and there is much to be learnt from them.

It is often pointed out that during the Troubles more people lost their lives on the roads than through violence. As Members know, enormous efforts were made by people from all over the world to solve our political problems and to identify the causes of those deaths. Enormous sums of money have been spent on security — perhaps billions of pounds. By contrast, much less has been done to bring an end to the slaughter on the roads, and precious little has been done to create an overarching body to deal with road safety issues.

I acknowledge the work of the Road Safety Council of Northern Ireland, which is unique to these parts. Believe it or not, the total resources of that body are a full-time chief executive, currently acting up, and one part-time member of staff. The new organisation in the Republic, the Road Safety Authority, has 309 full-time staff and the power to bring together all Government Departments with responsibility for road safety. No one can tell me that there is not a lot that we can learn from that. Is it not time that we had a similar body, with powers to knock heads together to make road safety the issue that it is in those countries where the death toll is considerably lower?

Over the Christmas period, there was a high-profile campaign about drinking and driving, yet a huge number of motorists were caught over the legal limit — some of them by a considerable margin. Unfort-unately, most of the publicity went to the police officers who, I regret to say, figured in the overall list. Little has been said about the others who were on the roads with excess alcohol in their systems. How many were caught the morning after, when they thought they were safe to drive? Can drinking and driving be viewed purely in isolation, when Members know that there is a serious problem relating to alcohol generally? That issue must be examined.

Reference has been made to the driving test, which, apart from the introduction of the theory section, has changed little over the years. New motorists have no experience of the horror of road accidents, and these are not simulated in any training programme. On the contrary, the test is no more than a meander through the suburbs, on routes that most candidates know like the backs of their hands. No part of the test is conducted on the motorways — or after nightfall, when the greatest number of young people lose their lives. After the test is passed, there is no follow-up to measure the new driver’s skills, attitude and progressive experience. There is the advanced driving test, but few take it. That does not apply to any other skills programme, where there is much less risk of causing death or of being killed. That must change. There must be a progressive programme to ensure that young people are nurtured through those difficult years and that they remain alive.

Let us hope that this debate lays a foundation stone upon which we can build a new approach to an issue that affects so many families and worries so many parents sick as they lie awake at night until their sons and daughters return safely. Many here understand what that is about. When I was young, I certainly did not understand it, but as a parent I do.

Together, North and South, we can create a new partnership and harness our experience, knowledge, and grief to follow the example of others and have this island talked about not for the number of people who are killed day and daily, but for our success in addressing a scourge that is largely ignored by the motor manufacturers. Some of the advertisements for leading manufacturers on television are a disgrace. They encourage decent young people to become boy racers. Someone must take control of that.

The insurance companies have a role to play as well. Young people might be more encouraged if they were charged a reasonable premium when they began an insurance policy so that they had something to protect, rather than being charged exorbitant premiums which would have no effect in the case of an accident.

11.30 am

Breweries also have a role to play. If there were fewer happy hours and promotions, fewer young people might be goaded into doing the wrong thing. Many people — and I have named some of them — are making vast fortunes out of motoring and motor sport, but they contribute little to protecting those who end up in the morgues awaiting identification by distraught relatives.

The fatalities for 2007 have already begun, and, in fact, one of them was from my constituency. Let us hope that a new Assembly — which I expect at the end of March — will give top priority to making improved road safety essential. We can do it, and I hope that it can be achieved collectively with the co-operation of all parties.

Mr McCarthy: This is a timely debate, because, unfortunately, fatalities on the roads are reaching unacceptable levels. Road safety should and must be the number one priority for everyone — young and old. The Alliance Party will support every effort to prevent road accidents. I support the motion and the amendment.

One life lost or one person injured on our roads is one too many. My heart and deepest sympathies go out to those people who have lost their lives, who have been left with terrible injuries as a result of a road traffic accident and who have been left behind to grieve the loss of a dear one. As public representatives, Members are all too aware of tragedies that have hit our constituencies, and of the untold misery and pain that comes with fatal accidents.

This Assembly should have the legislative power to introduce measures to combat the risks on our roads, and I say hurry on the day when we can help to prevent or at least reduce the senseless carnage on the roads.

I offer my sincere gratitude to the emergency services. They deserve the highest credit and thanks for their work. It is they who are first summoned when an accident takes place and who have to attend to the carnage. Regardless of training, one cannot be prepared for some of the horrific scenes that the emergency services face. Everyone has loved ones and family; it must be heartbreaking to have to go to a mangled vehicle and attend to the victims.

There is an ever-increasing volume of traffic on the roads; therefore road users who are in charge of what might be classed a lethal weapon must have their wits about them. There is no room for risk or distractions. The aim is to reach one’s destination safely and with respect for other road users, even if that means being slightly late for an appointment.

Many reasons have been given for the carnage on roads; we are told that the biggest culprit is alcohol. Once again, it seems that the UK legislation relating to this issue is 30 years out of date. The alcohol limit is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood — approximately double the limit in most other European countries. There is, therefore, much room for improvement.

Speeding, particularly by younger drivers, is also a major factor in road crashes. The Alliance Party welcomes the imminent introduction of the draft Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, which will assist the Northern Ireland road safety strategy (NIRSS).

Last week, I met with representatives of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland (BMA (NI)). They are concerned about road traffic fatalities and are calling on Government to take steps to cut down the number of road accidents.

As Edwin Poots mentioned, the Committee for the Environment recommended some simple changes to ensure safety on our school buses. These included the provision of a seat belt for each pupil, the suggestion that only one pupil be allowed in each seat and a range of other safety measures. That report is probably gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, and yet the carnage goes on. Yesterday evening, I read about a fatal bus crash across the water. If its passengers had been wearing seat belts, those deaths and injuries could have been prevented. We must think about that issue.

During the last Assembly mandate, I requested funding to improve the surfaces of a couple of the major roads on the Ards Peninsula in my constituency: the A20 from Newtownards to Portaferry and the A2 coast road from Newtownards to Portavogie. I also requested funding for other roads on the peninsula. However, rather than increased funding, the overall roads maintenance budget was reduced.

I would like Peter Robinson to resume his post — or another Member to be nominated — as Minister for Regional Development to take charge of local roads as quickly as possible. At least Mr Robinson introduced the second phase of the Comber bypass, for which we had campaigned for 30 years. The sooner a local Minister is in place, the sooner all our roads will be improved.

I understand that the current Minister with responsibility for road safety has cut the funding that the Road Safety Council of Northern Ireland allocates to local government road safety committees. My colleague Naomi Long wrote to the Minister to ask him to meet with the Belfast area road safety committee. Unfortunately, he refused because his diary was full.

The road safety committees run on a very low budget. They address the education of young people and young drivers, and promote advanced driver training to increase awareness. However, they are struggling to fund such simple things as paper for their school poster competitions. That is shameful: the Minister should be ashamed of himself.

The Republic of Ireland is considering using our road safety committees as a model to address its situation. However, for the want of a few hundred pounds, we are jeopardising them in Northern Ireland. Again, the Minister responsible must assess that situation.

Road safety means that proper investment should go into all our roads, not just the motorways. The A20 and the A2 to Portaferry and Portavogie, to which I referred, have had their fair share of fatal accidents. The most recent involved a young Glastry College student who lost his life just before Christmas. Like so many others, these roads were designed for donkeys and carts some years ago. They are certainly not up to what is required of them now.

Life is precious. All road users are at risk. The next Assembly must take the lead in implementing measures to stop road carnage.

Mr Donaldson: I welcome this morning’s debate and commend those who tabled the motion. Road safety is an important issue. Indeed, it is a priority issue that a new Assembly must tackle in Northern Ireland.

Not a week goes by without headlines on the news — whether radio or television — bringing distressing scenes of families who have had the tragedy of losing a loved one visited upon them. We have seen that all too often in Northern Ireland, especially amongst our younger people.

This issue affects us all; it cuts right across the entire community, and we, as political representatives, must give it a higher priority. This debate is a welcome step in the right direction.

Last year, there were some 125 fatalities on the roads in Northern Ireland. While that marks a reduction in the number for the previous year, it is, nevertheless, still far too high. In particular, deaths among young people are a real cause for concern. A couple of years ago, four young men were killed in a road traffic accident in my constituency. They attended Lisburn Institute of Further and Higher Education, and I attended a special service that the institute held to commemorate those four young lives. I remember the impact that those deaths had on the young students in that college. They were absolutely devastated at the loss of their young friends — four lives cut short and needlessly lost. We must provide political leadership in this area and must urge those with statutory responsibility to introduce additional measures to tackle the problem.

Lisburn, in my constituency, does not have a particularly proud record when it comes to road traffic accidents. In 2005-06, we topped the league table in Northern Ireland for fatalities and serious injuries. In Lisburn, there were 94 road traffic accidents involving fatalities or serious injuries; closely following that was Fermanagh with 74; Ballymena with 63; Foyle with 59; and Dungannon and South Tyrone with 57.

Those statistics are frightening, and they also highlight the fact that many road traffic accidents occur in rural areas. Indeed, the statistics for Northern Ireland show that more deaths occur in rural areas than in urban areas, which is due in no small part to drivers travelling at excessive speed on country roads that were never built or designed for such speed.

Between 1994-98, males aged between 16 and 25 made up only 8% of Northern Ireland’s population, yet accounted for 21% of road traffic accidents involving death or serious injury. Some 19% of those accidents were attributed to excessive or inappropriate speed, and 12% to cases that involved drugs and alcohol. A staggering 50% of road traffic accidents involving fatalities or serous injuries are down to careless driving. Road safety advertisements and publicity campaigns often emphasise the dangers of alcohol, and that approach is welcome and commendable; we must discourage people from drink-driving. However, half of all road traffic accidents involving death or serious injury are down to careless driving, and we need to examine that issue carefully. It is partly a matter of education.

Earlier, Mr McCarthy welcomed the introduction of the draft Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, which is due to come into force shortly. The Order will bring Northern Ireland into line with other parts of the United Kingdom as regards enforcement on our roads. Some of the measures that are envisaged in that Order are to be welcomed. For example, I understand that, in future, courts will be able to offer retraining for drink-driving offenders in exchange for reduced punishment, and that the courses will be held at the attendant’s expense. That is not just a matter of ensuring that the punishment fits the crime, but of ensuring that those who have a history of drink-driving are given the help that they need to deal with any alcohol problem and to address their driving habits.

11.45 am

Mrs I Robinson: Will the Member agree that if a person continually offends and is caught speeding, after having taken drink or drugs, the penalty should be much stiffer in order to send out the message that, although help is available through the courts and various agencies, continual bad behaviour on the roads will result in stiff penalties for abusers of the system?

Mr Donaldson: I thank my hon Friend for her intervention. I agree entirely. Although on the one hand investment must be made in education and training for young people in particular, at the same time penalties must be stiffer for continual offending. I am sure that all colleagues have encountered cases of serial offenders in their own areas — people who regularly appear in court for traffic offences. I am sure that we have all met families who have lost loved ones on the roads, particularly through joyriding, or “death driving” as it is more aptly known. The penalties for joyriding are not severe enough. When a driver regularly reoffends, the courts ought to consider removing that person’s driving licence for life when it is clear that he or she will not be able to kick the habit of careless driving or drink-driving.

The Order will also introduce variable fixed penalties for speeding to match the severity of the offence and graduated fixed penalties for vehicle-roadworthiness offences. It will introduce new penalty points for failure to wear a seatbelt, using a mobile phone while driving, not being in proper control of the vehicle and contravention of temporary speed limits — all of which are known to contribute to careless driving. The police will also be given the power to arrest any individual who does not stop for a police officer and the power to undertake drug-impairment tests.

Steps are also being taken to bring our licensing system into line with that of the rest of Europe. Through my work in the Transport Select Committee in the House of Commons, I am aware that moves are also being made to regularise Northern Ireland’s vehicle and driver licensing system to make it compatible with the system in Great Britain, so that there will no longer be the nonsense that drivers with Northern Ireland driving licences — which are not recognised by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea — and who have incurred a penalty in Great Britain, cannot simply pay a fine, but must appear in court.

I started by saying that we, as politicians, have a responsibility to do something about the problem. The Northern Ireland road safety strategy is welcome. The Association of British Insurers recently published proposals to reduce the number of deaths on the roads, especially among young drivers. There are good recommendations in that document, which I commend to the Assembly.

Finally, I want to draw Members’ attention to a presentation that will be given by the Road Safety Council in the Long Gallery on 29 January 2007. I hope that it will be a platform for the formation of an all-party group on road safety that will bring all parties together for a common cause, to tackle the issues and to demonstrate to the general public that their political leaders are serious about dealing with the problem in Northern Ireland. I hope that all parties will support the formation of such an all-party group in the Assembly.

Mr Armstrong: I support the amendment. Northern Ireland lost 125 people on its roads last year, each representing a tragic loss to families, friends and communities across the Province. Each death is one too many. Northern Ireland’s aim in 2007 is to continue to work together with, and take advice from, its counterparts in other areas of the United Kingdom in order to find additional ways to reduce the number of tragedies on its roads.

The annual cost of road accidents and consequent injuries to the Northern Ireland economy is £400 million — a huge cost to the taxpayer that must be reduced. The Northern Ireland road safety strategy, launched in 2002, has already had a significant impact in reducing the number of deaths and injuries on the roads. Any plans than can improve the awareness and concentration levels of road users are welcome in the effort to promote safety.

Government Departments and the Police Service of Northern Ireland are working well together to promote an integrated approach to road safety. With support from the community, they continue to endeavour to reduce the number of deaths on the roads. That is yet another area where any normal, democratically elected person or party should have no hesitation in supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland in their efforts to promote road safety.

As a region of the UK, we are part of the national challenge to reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured in road accidents. An enhanced education programme is a necessary part of any strategy to reduce the number of road accidents. The Driving Standards Agency has designed and implemented an additional voluntary training service for new drivers, Pass Plus, with the help of insurers and the driving instruction industry, to give new drivers advanced training in safe driving. That programme covers potential dangers such as driving in town, in all weathers, at night, on rural roads, dual carriageways and motorways. No such scheme has been implemented by the Driver and Vehicle Testing Agency in Northern Ireland. A devolved Assembly or, in its absence, direct-rule Ministers, should consider such a scheme. We must grasp the nettle and show young people that we politicians feel very strongly about this matter and are going to do something about it.

Great Britain is introducing a new rigorous driving test framework, and moving towards a more demanding driving test. It is important to ensure that Northern Ireland is part of that debate and keeps pace with what is happening in the rest of the United Kingdom. Education is the basis of any advanced driving programme, and that must include children at primary school. The driving test should be based on education provided at that early age. As Sam Gardiner said earlier, young people are the eyes and ears of the future, and they will alert drivers and parents if they feel that their lives are in danger. It becomes natural for them to think of safety in their lives, the more so when they become drivers.

I agree with Edwin Poots, who said that in some cases the speed limit is too high, and in other cases too low. That must be amended. Only through the successful operation of the Assembly and its Committees will we be able to change that. All of this hot air is useless until Sinn Féin becomes a democratic party and we can move forward without our hands being tied.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Murphy: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion, but I would like first to address the amendment. When I read the amendment this morning, I thought that it might be something to do with DUP or unionist sensitivity about language because the motion refers directly to North/South measures. However, having listened to Edwin Poots, I now believe that it is much more than that. Sadly, that reflects a rather blinkered view of this problem on the island of Ireland. There are many DUP and Ulster Unionist representatives from border constituencies, such as Maurice Morrow, one of the proposers of the amendment. He surely knows that the tragic phenomenon of road deaths is not confined to one side of the border, and a different approach — [Interruption.]

If the Member wants me to give way, I am happy to do so. He obviously does not; he has nothing to say.

It is not confined to one side of the border, with a different set of problems and a different approach needed on the other side. Anyone who lives in or represents a border area knows that many main roads run across the border and back again within two- and three-mile stretches and, therefore, what is needed is an approach recognising that fact.

It is no surprise that Co-operation and Working Together (CAWT), the agency that monitors such things, has produced statistics showing that there is a proportionately higher chance of road fatalities occurring in border areas North and South than on the rest of the island. There are a number of factors involved, but surely we cannot ignore the fact that the problem stretches across the island. We cannot ignore the fact that we have a land border and different jurisdictions. There needs to be a common approach between those jurisdictions to tackle the problem.

Another problem that I have with the amendment is that both Edwin Poots and Billy Armstrong derided the current driving test and argued that there were deficiencies in it. However, the amendment removes the call for a rigorous new driving test examination.

Before Christmas, I had an experience similar to that of to Jeffrey Donaldson: I was invited to speak at an event following the deaths of two men on the Dublin Road on the outskirts of Newry. It struck me that, like many other road traffic deaths, the accident involved two separate individuals — both of whom I knew; one was a taxi driver and the other was a young man from my constituency whose family I know — who were both killed in an accident involving a car that was being driven by young people. It would be inappropriate to go into the details of the accident, because some matters are still sub judice. However, the broad picture given by the report of that accident fits the general pattern of so many others — speed, road structure, unfit vehicles, and vehicles being driven without due diligence.

Other people have talked about speed and the abuse of drink and drugs while driving, and I will speak about those briefly. Education is a key factor. It has been well proven — and statistics show very clearly — that the people most likely to be involved in that type of activity are young men. That is not to demonise all young people; the majority of them, including young men, drive responsibly and with caution. Sadly, however, all the statistics show that young men are the most likely to be involved in car accidents, serious injuries and road fatalities while under the influence of drink or drugs, and that is where education must be targeted. While education programmes are being targeted at pupils in secondary and grammar schools, it is time to consider introducing such programmes in primary schools also.

Again, the matter is not confined to the Six Counties; it applies across the island. John Dallat referred to the new Road Safety Authority in the South; it seems to have had some success, and lessons can be learned. We are not living in a bubble, and those of us who represent border constituencies know that road fatalities are not confined to one side of the border or the other and are not due to different sets of reasons on one side of the border or the other. That must be taken into account in our approach.

Detection and appropriate punishment are also involved, and those are matters for agencies on both sides of the border. There are issues that need to be addressed. Jeffrey Donaldson referred to the licensing anomalies between here and Britain, but there are also anomalies in detection and punishment between here and the South.

Road structure is another factor playing a key part in road traffic accidents and fatalities, particularly in the border areas. It has been said that the majority of accidents and fatalities happen in rural areas, and it is no surprise that there is a link between that fact and the substandard structure of roads in rural areas — and the decreasing budgets for road structure in those areas, and in border areas particularly.

There are questions to be asked about our main roads too. When the Newry bypass was opened a number of years ago, people from all political parties, and those who lived along the bypass or used it, complained about the substandard lighting and the dangerous carriageway layout. It became the most dangerous stretch of road in the North of Ireland, if not on the whole island.

It took many years of lobbying before a simple set of street lights was erected at each junction of that bypass. I am thankful that since their recent installation, there have been no further fatalities. The roads agencies should not wait until 16 or 17 people have died on a stretch of road before reacting with such simple measures.

12.00 noon

The new stretch of the A1 from Loughbrickland to Beech Hill has recently been completed at a cost of more than £20 million. Already, questions are being asked about safety measures on that stretch of road. Speed limits were introduced on the A1 at Dromore, and, eventually, an underpass was built. However, that brand new stretch of road has similar junctions and cross-cutting traffic to those that were on the Newry bypass. Must we wait until there have been 15 or 16 deaths on that stretch of road before the Roads Service starts to spend the money that is required to provide the necessary standard of roads on this part of the island?

Reasons for and remedies to the tragedies that we experience day and daily were proposed during the debate. All those proposals have merit. However, one matter that is certainly a factor in many of road deaths has not been addressed, namely, the driving of unfit vehicles and driving without insurance. Unscrupulous car dealers have, by and large, escaped responsibility for some of the fatalities on the roads. Those dealers sell so-called runaround cars for relatively small amounts to people whom they know not to have proper licences or insurance. Those vehicles are sold without a care or a thought in the world to the outcome. In the recent case to which I referred earlier, the car in which those young people were travelling had been bought only the previous day for a relatively small sum. Therefore those dealers cannot evade responsibility.

The solutions do not lie only in detection, rigorous driving tests, better roads and better standards of driving; we must also address social responsibility. People must take responsibility for their actions and businesses and for how those contribute to road tragedies. Those who knowingly sell vehicles to people who are not responsible enough to drive them bear a huge responsibility, and they should carefully examine their actions.

The motion is sufficiently comprehensive to address what the debate should cover. I hope that when this Assembly gets down to business at the end of March it will seriously tackle this issue. I commend the motion, and I regret that the amendment has brought narrow party politics and blinkered thinking into the debate. Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Ms Ritchie: Many Members have addressed the same point — the need for road safety to be addressed in a co-ordinated fashion if the tragedy and trauma that many families have experienced due to road deaths are to be reduced.

One of the most compelling requirements of an incoming Executive and Assembly is to establish a strategy, policies, and an implementation plan for a wide range of public safety measures that incorporate and encompass co-operation between Departments and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Such a strategy and policies would address safety on our roads and ensure that our neighbourhoods are places in which people can live, work and enjoy their recreational pursuits free from the onslaught of violence, assaults and criminality. Road safety is one component of that strategy that must be given a much higher priority. The motion, which my party supports, addresses the need for robust measures on road safety on the island of Ireland. It also addresses the need for promotional schemes to make road safety a number-one priority. Those measures are urgently required, and they must be implemented on a co-ordinated basis through the development of a road safety authority in the North that is comparable in size, resources and remit to its equivalent in the South of Ireland.

In April 2006, my colleague Mr Dallat and I met the chairman and chief executive of the Road Safety Authority in the Republic of Ireland. We were amazed by the authority’s work remit and by its range of resources. We were told that it is important to examine the causes of road accidents. Did the accidents happen because of the configuration of the road or the road surface? It is equally important to examine the state of mind of the driver of the car that may have caused an accident. What provoked the driver to behave in the way that they did? Those important issues must also be examined in Northern Ireland.

Road safety should affect every aspect of our lives. At the weekend, I found an appropriate quotation that, I feel, encapsulates the issue of road safety:

“Safety is not a gadget but a state of mind.”

When we are on the roads, we should provide a safe environment for everyone by putting safety first.

The Road Safety Authority in the South of Ireland, which has its headquarters in Ballina, County Mayo, is charged with improving Ireland’s poor road safety record. It is responsible for several road safety programmes, including education, testing and licensing for drivers, vehicle testing and standards, road safety research, and the establishment and administration of a driving instructor register. It will also be responsible for managing Ireland’s driver test centre network. We need such a body in Northern Ireland, which must be co-ordinated with the law enforcement agencies on the island and with the Road Safety Authority. We should also have joint advertisements and promotion schemes that urge safety on our roads.

At present, road safety in the North is managed by two Departments, which work with the Police Service. There is also the Road Safety Council, which has inadequate resources to run a road safety programme. In fact, road safety education officers employed by the Department of the Environment cannot now attend district road safety committee meetings to talk about the important issue of road safety. How can the Department of the Environment garner information about road safety in district council areas, or assist with programmes to reduce the number of road traffic accidents, if it does not hear the views of the local community? Perhaps the views of local community representatives do not mean anything to the Department or the Minister.

In a recent letter to me, the current Minister with responsibility for the environment disregarded the need for road safety co-ordination and cohesion because, according to him, the Department of the Environment co-ordinates everything; it does not. The Department does not have the necessary authority, will or expertise to do its job of improving safety on our roads. We must ask the basic question: what priority has been given to road safety by the current direct-rule Administration? Their ad hoc, disjointed and reactive approach must be refuted and challenged. Current policies must be changed urgently, but that will only happen if an incoming Executive and Assembly have the will to ensure that road safety is of paramount importance and a number one priority.

Other Members have already referred to an overall lack of resources and only reduced resources being available for structural road maintenance. Over the past few years, the Department for Regional Develop­ment has not had the commitment to adequately fund structural road improvement.

During the first period of devolution, the Minister of the Environment ensured that the number of road safety education officers was increased. Unfortunately, the return of direct rule put a brake on road safety initiatives. That attitude in the DOE and the NIO must change.

Over the Christmas period, there were radio and TV reports of fatalities on the roads. Many reasons can be given for those fatalities, but we need to go back to basics and ask why each accident happened. One fact remains: families have been bereaved and have suffered a great sense of loss at a time when they should have been celebrating the birth of hope and expectation, and looking forward to a new year.

On Boxing Day, I visited the mother of one of the young people who sadly was killed over the Christmas period. Her sense of loss was palpable, and she told me that she could not bear to let her son go. Sadly, she had to. I hope that her words will lead us to ensure that something is done about road safety.

Although the number of deaths on our roads has declined over the past number of years, we must give hope to those who have been bereaved. We must urge the incoming Executive and Assembly to guarantee the establishment of a road safety authority, with a wide range of powers and resources, which can co-ordinate with the similar body in the South of Ireland and with the law enforcement agencies on this island. We must give the local population confidence, so that children, young people, adults and the elderly feel safe in their local environment and on the roads. Prioritising such road safety policies and strategies, accompanied with the appropriate resources, will go some way towards that.

If priority were given to road safety, it would provide a cheap and effective insurance policy. If we are serious about establishing a new Executive on 26 March, there is no reason why we cannot make road safety a priority.

Mr McGimpsey: I support the amendment. Little has been said this morning for which I do not have sympathy. Many of the factors that contribute to the carnage on our roads have been mentioned. Speed is a definite factor. Although vehicles are safer now, they are faster. They can brake and accelerate faster, meaning that the margins for error are much less than they were some time ago. Another factor is the huge rise in the number of vehicles on our roads — increased traffic density. As Jeffrey Donaldson said, statistically, the key factor in road accidents is inattention.

Other elements are just as important, and, as Margaret Ritchie said, each death is a personal tragedy for the victim’s immediate family and the wider family circle. That, clearly, is of enormous importance to our society.

I agree with something else that has been said repeatedly: devolution is the best arena in which to deal with these matters. Direct rule is remote; devolution and local Ministers offer the best opportunity for further reductions in the number of road tragedies.

I support the amendment, not least because the motion refers to a “National Road Safety Campaign”. Such a campaign exists. It is a UK-wide national road safety campaign called ‘Tomorrow’s roads: safer for everyone’. I am not saying that that campaign is exclusive, but it has been adopted and is operating throughout the UK, including in Northern Ireland. There are mixed views about the campaign’s success, but it has been implemented in regions of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A key part of the strategy is to set targets. Over a 10-year period the targets are a 40% reduction in the number of accidents where there are deaths and serious injuries, and a 50% reduction in deaths and serious injuries among children. Those have been adopted universally — apart, I have to say, from in Northern Ireland, where, unfortunately, we are talking about a 33·3% reduction in accidents that cause deaths and serious injuries and a 50% reduction in the number of children who are killed or seriously injured. Throughout the UK about 3,500 people are killed annually, and around 40,000 are seriously injured. If we get reductions of about 40%, we are talking about a substantial reduction in the number of deaths and serious injuries.

(Madam Speaker in the Chair)

12.15 pm

Also, as far as the budget is concerned, this carnage costs about £3 billion nationwide, and in Northern Ireland, as we have heard, large numbers of people are killed. About 125 people died last year, and 1,750 were seriously injured, many of whom were children. Those are the sorts of figures that give us a strong motive to reinforce the current Northern Ireland road safety strategy.

There are a couple of factors that direct rule Ministers are being slow to respond to. For example, Road Safety Scotland has introduced a children’s traffic club, which provides free road safety training for three- and four-year olds. It also provides money for full- and part-time 20 mph zones in urban areas to try to reduce the speeds of vehicles. Those are the sorts of measures that an Executive here could look at. There is also, as Billy Armstrong mentioned, a voluntary advanced training course in safe driving called Pass Plus, and that is being taken up universally as well.

While none of us has the answer to this problem or can say that we can get massive reductions, we need an ongoing campaign, not least for an increase in public awareness. There have been steady reductions year by year in the number of people who have been killed or seriously injured on the roads, but public awareness is such that there is no room for complacency. Some measures currently under consideration have merit.

For example, the age group most likely to pass the driving test is young men aged between 18 and 25. However, those same people are 20 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured on the roads than middle-aged men. That indicates a clear need for a fundamental change in the way in which we test people’s driving. We appear to be training them to pass a test rather than to drive safely, so tougher extended driving tests, including rigorous training programmes, is one measure that might bear fruit.

Safer driving could be included in the school curriculum. It is another of the measures being considered that also has merit. The Swedes have a system whereby students can begin training on the public roads at the age of 16. They have to do 120 hours of training before they are ready to take the test. Those are the sorts of training and education measures that we need. Cars are very sophisticated pieces of machinery and, while they are safer than ever before, because of their speed, ability to brake quickly and acceleration, the margins for error are smaller, which means that serious training is needed.

As Jeffrey Donaldson said, there is also the new Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 2007. That adds penalty points where we formerly levied fines. There can be penalty points for using a mobile phone or for not wearing seat belts, and the police can seize vehicles that are being driven without insurance.

There are a number of measures being brought in or under consideration. It is important when discussing such a serious subject to understand where we are and the measures that are in place.

There are measures in place. I am not here to argue on behalf of the Department of the Environment’s road safety directorate. However, it has had successes in recent years, and, while we are not complacent, it is important that we look carefully at where it has been successful and at the measures that it plans to put into place. That is the way to improve the figures and to ensure that there is a reduction in the carnage on the roads.

It is also important, owing to the nature of the motion, to reflect on the North/South co-operation that is already in place. The Executive instituted that in the days of devolution. It features an annual joint road-safety campaign; joint research on road accidents in border areas; and mutual recognition of endorsements of road traffic offences. It is important to recognise and to acknowledge that, rather than to ignore it or to pretend that there is no strategy in place. No one is saying that road safety stops at the border — far from it. We are part of a wider strategy, and delivery of that strategy by a local Administration with cross-border co-operation is the way forward.

I support the amendment. This is a subject on which we can all work together while looking to reinforce the Northern Ireland road safety strategy that is currently in place and to find other measures to further reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries on the roads.

Mr Molloy: I support the motion. This is a timely debate, coming as it does after the Christmas recess, during which there has been continuing carnage on the roads. Thankfully, however, there has been a reduction across the island of Ireland with 39 fewer deaths last year than in 2005. While we should not become complacent, it is nevertheless important to recognise the work that is being done by various civil agencies. Unfortunately, the World Health Organization estimates that the number of people killed and injured on the roads will increase by 60% between 2000 and 2020. We are halfway there already.

Road deaths and injuries are preventable. My concern is that people think that road deaths are inevitable and a daily occurrence. People often dismiss danger by saying that it would be more dangerous to cross the road. Unfortunately, they are correct, but there does not seem to be a system to rectify that, to reduce the number of deaths and to make the roads safer.

That could be achieved in several different ways — for instance, by making additions to roads and changing road design. Cycle paths are important because cyclists are among the most vulnerable road users, particularly in towns. We want to encourage people to cycle more, so we must provide pathways and encourage cyclists to use them, not only in the urban situation but in rural areas. Safer pathways for pedestrians are also necessary.

Slow lanes for tractors are also required; one of the main frustrations on country roads is the slow pace at which those vehicles move. Some areas have introduced slow carriageways in certain parts and for short distances. Unfortunately, that can create its own problems as traffic moves and pulls back out onto the main road; however, tractors are being used more and more for the transportation of vehicles, diggers and equipment, so we must find a fast-track approach to the issue. We must design roads differently to take account of the changing nature of road users.

My colleague Conor Murphy raised the issue of dual carriageways in reference to the Dromore bypass and the new A1. The same situation arises in other areas — for example, a vehicle crossing a dual carriageway has its tail sticking out onto the fastest lane of the carriageway, or a slow-moving tractor tries to cross both lanes.

More dangers are being created for tractor users, those in slow-moving vehicles and those in oncoming vehicles. The safety of those drivers and their passengers is being compromised. We must find ways in which to deal with all those problems in order to improve road users’ health and safety.

The good work done by the Committee on the Environment led to the decision to introduce seat belts and smaller seats for children on school buses. It is important to note, however, that, despite the Committee’s efforts, the situation has not improved. School buses in my area still travel with 60 or 70 children on board, perhaps 20 of whom are standing. It is difficult enough when schoolchildren must sit three to a seat, which has long been the situation. However, schoolchildren’s safety is increasingly endangered as a result of having to stand on buses, perhaps for a journey of two or three miles. They risk sliding about as they move up and down the bus, carrying large school bags. The Committee’s recommendations must be implemented. The issues that I have raised highlight the change that is required.

Road design is also a concern, especially in the many rural areas that are being urbanised. The first requests that people who build mansions in the countryside make is for a kerbed footpath to be built in front of it and for street lighting to be installed. The result is that there is lighting for about 10 or 20 yds, followed by complete darkness. People who wish to keep vehicles off the wee bit of grass outside their home are protecting it by putting large stones or big concrete blocks on it. In doing so, however, they endanger drivers who have to pull onto that grass, and who may not see the stones. In my area, people have been severely injured in accidents that have occurred because of that.

DRD has a responsibility to remove those stones — in fact, it has a legal requirement to do so, but that is not happening. Those stones are obstacles on the road. At least a vehicle will bounce off a kerb, back onto the road; however, the same vehicle will burst a tyre on the stones, go onto the grass verge and over a hedge or into a wall. The urbanisation of rural areas must be addressed, as must road design.

Road traffic accidents result in the deaths of 350 people a day across the World Health Organization region. That figure is very large. If that happened in any other walk of life, there would be a major outcry. The number of deaths each year equates to the number of people who might die in a major catastrophe. The figure is the equivalent of the population of a medium-sized city being killed each year.

At least 2·4 million people are also injured or disabled as a result of road accidents each year. Those figures come up time and time again, but, unfortunately, the injured and the disabled are often forgotten about. Deaths raise road safety’s profile; however, the injured, and what they endure in the aftermath of accidents, are often overlooked. Therefore we need a common signage system throughout the island of Ireland.

Many Members, including Mr Poots when speaking to the amendment, have raised the issue of the rigorous driver-testing framework. We need a new driving test, because ours is outdated, and many Members who spoke have accepted that. I am surprised that there is nit-picking over the motion, because the introduction of a new framework is important. If the amendment is made, the resolution will not include our call for its introduction. For that reason, I ask Members to consider supporting the motion as it stands.

The motion calls for the development of a national road safety campaign. We can nit-pick over the issue of the definition of “national”, but the reality is that people who travel back and forward across the border daily are encountering different signage, road speeds and markings. We must adopt a common approach. It does not matter that we might have a British national safety campaign and an Irish national safety campaign — the two can combine. The priority is to reduce the number of injuries and deaths on the road and the number of accidents. Therefore it is important that the House unite on the issue of road safety. We should adopt a common approach to road deaths and their impact rather than allow ourselves to get sidetracked by politics.

We are supposed to be two European regions working side by side. We were told that all those differences would be done away with whenever we joined the European Economic Community (EEC). All those things that we were told would unify us — common signage and road speeds — we do not have, unfortunately. I ask Members to examine and deal with that very important element.

12.30 pm

My colleague Francie Brolly pointed out that in the South, insurance and MOT certificates must be displayed along with the tax disc. It is important to know, before drivers go on the road, that the quality of vehicles has been tested and that people are insured. Too often, people are victims of someone who is not insured and find that they have no comeback. The most dangerous person on the road is frequently the one who has no insurance. We should not split hairs on this matter, but should work together to ensure that the number of deaths and accidents on the roads is reduced. There should also be, across the island of Ireland, a common policy and a properly financed and resourced road safety agency.

I ask Members to support the motion.

Lord Morrow: I think that it was Mr McGimpsey who said that the best way of tackling these issues would be to have in place a local Assembly — I could not agree more. Alas, that is not possible at the moment because we cannot reach the stage where Sinn Féin can bring itself to support the agencies of law and order. That is surprising — or perhaps it is not. After all, that party could not bring itself to ask the people of west Belfast to co-operate with the police when a young woman was savagely raped. Even on an issue such as road safety, I have not heard one Sinn Féin Member say that it is a matter for the police. It is, although many other agencies also need to be involved.

That is why my colleague and I tabled the amendment. We want to lift the matter out of the political domain and out of politics altogether. It has nothing to do with politics. The message that has to go out loud and clear from this Assembly today is that we are united in our concern about road safety and the carnage that is happening on our roads. If the signs are anything to go by, that is not going to be the case. That is regrettable. I am sure that those who will vote against the amendment, when they go away and think it over, will conclude that they could have done better. However, I hope that they will stop and consider their ways.

I wish to bring some figures to the attention of the Assembly. While I do not want go through a long list of statistics, some are important to note. Of course, these are PSNI figures, and the fact that I mention the PSNI may run a cold sweat up some people’s backs. What a terrible thing to do in a democratic society. However, I will take that risk. The figures produced by the PSNI cover the period from 1 April 2005 to 31 March 2006. During that time, nearly 5,100 people were injured in road traffic collisions — a quite staggering figure, by any standards. That resulted in more than 8,377 casualties, of which 11% — 895 — were children under 16 years of age. It is important that the Assembly take cognisance of the significance of that statistic.

That brings me to the number of collisions. The figures show that they have dropped from 5,240 in 2004-05 to 5,098 in 2005-06. That represents a small but nevertheless welcome decrease of 2·7%.

We have a responsibility — though not exclusive — to consider young drivers, although that may not run with every Member. The issue of young drivers must be tackled in a way that will make a real impact on the carnage on our roads. It is not true to say that young drivers cause all accidents. However, figures show that a high percentage of young drivers are involved in road accidents. Do people of 17 or 18 years of age have adequate experience to drive a vehicle at 60 or 70 miles an hour? I strongly contend that they do not.

Furthermore, a driver with R plates should not be permitted to carry four passengers. A young person who passes a driving test and displays R plates on a car does not become an experienced driver the next day — only years of driving can only do that. The issue of R-plated drivers carrying four passengers in their cars must be considered. The Government — especially the DOE — have a responsibility to take a long, hard look at the driving test to see if it is adequate. Is it true that a young driver who passes his or her driving test and displays R plates for a year is an experienced driver? I do not believe that it is true. A year is not a long enough time to gain experience in any walk of life.

The volume of traffic on our roads has risen to such a level that our road infrastructure is now under threat and cannot cope adequately with the volume of vehicles, especially heavy goods vehicles. Freight transportation is important in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and the volume of heavy goods vehicles travelling from the west of the Province to the docks and elsewhere is increasing. Our economy is therefore heavily dependent on heavy goods vehicles, and that creates more tension and problems on the roads.

I heard that a Member narrowly avoided a serious accident while travelling to the Assembly this morning. A heavy goods vehicle pulled out into the centre of the carriageway and the tail of the vehicle was hanging over one of the lanes. The Member had to swerve round the heavy goods vehicle to prevent an accident. Such situations continually happen on our roads.

I appeal sincerely to Members who feel the need to score silly political points to desist from doing so. This is not an issue for scoring political points. There will be plenty of opportunities in the future for Members to score political points against their opponents, but they should not use this issue to do that. If the Assembly does not present a united voice on this issue, we will send the wrong message to the public. Our constituents — no matter who they are or where they are from — will not thank us for it.

In Margaret Ritchie’s contribution, she mentioned a visit that she had made to a mother who has lost someone near and dear to her. There are too many such homes across the Province. I do not think that that parent or anyone else in that home — no matter their political background — would thank the Assembly for doing a good job of merely highlighting the issue, not uniting on it.

I appeal for unity here today, in order to send a clear message to the Government, the Department of the Environment (DOE) and all those involved in road safety that we care.

I want to bring the attention of the Assembly to the Cool FM road safety roadshow, and to commend it for the work that it is doing. This powerful show brings together all the rescue agencies — the Ambulance Service, the Fire and Rescue Service, the medical service and the police — and travels to various schools and focal points. I commend it to the Assembly and to the general public of Northern Ireland. The show graphically illustrates the real issues of road safety and how important it is that everyone should treat the matter seriously.

My time is up; I commend the amendment to the House and ask for united support.

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I commend the motion. It is unfortunate that although all parties agreed to have a debate on this subject, an amendment has been introduced which, despite Maurice Morrow’s words about political point-scoring, leads to division in the House. Yesterday was a good day; everyone agreed on the two motions, and I thought that we would have three in a row today, but unfortunately that is not to be the case.

In proposing the motion, my comrade Raymond McCartney told us that road deaths have no boundary of geography, class or creed, and how, in this Building last year, Ursula Quinn had provided a personal and poignant testimony to the enduring effect of a road death on a family. That event gained all-party support and a pledge to support the work of the “Driving Kills” group. Raymond also warned against complacency about road deaths and how it compounded the suffering of the bereaved.

By and large, Members were united in their comments. Edwin Poots talked about the different road traffic system in the South, and how the current driving test was a nonsense. He said that it needed to test real ability, to bring into consideration dual carriageways and differing road conditions, and to be more practical. That was covered in the motion, so I am not sure why that matter was raised.

Sam Gardiner called on the DOE and the Depart­ment for Regional Development to be more proactive; he said that road signs are often obliterated, and that road markings could be improved. He believed that a better use of modern technology could help to warn drivers of excessive speed or difficult road conditions.

Mr P Ramsey: I had intended to speak in the debate, but I just want to say to the Member that a drunk driver killed my brother and his wife in Donegal 10 years ago. He served only weeks in prison for his offence. We later discovered that he had a previous conviction in the North for drunk driving. If we had harmonisation and common policies, as Francie Molloy called for, would that have led to a longer term of imprisonment for a person who, literally, got away with murder? Would there be a higher penalty for someone who killed two people and left two children in intensive care for a long period? Thankfully, they have recovered.

That is the reason for my intervention. I hope that the Member takes my point. I was upset, because of those personal circumstances, at not being able to participate in the debate. I support Raymond McCartney’s motion, but as a Member for a border constituency I ask Ms Gildernew to agree that common and collective cross-border policies would help reduce the loss of lives.

Ms Gildernew: I thank the Member for his intervention. We support the harmonisation of road traffic systems and legislation so that offenders with previous convictions have those offences taken into consideration and can be dealt with appropriately.

12.45 pm

Many Members have lost people on the roads, including constituents, and we all have visited the sad houses of those killed on the roads. That is no different in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where there are heartbreaking circumstances around some of the deaths. The fact that one is more likely to be killed around the border is an indictment that needs to be addressed. John Dallat said that he thought there would be more joint initiatives and more harmonisation of penalty points post-St Andrews. He talked about the “red-flag” Act and how speed and drink-driving contributed to road deaths. He spoke of the need for road traffic education using France and Scandinavia as examples.

Education was a common theme throughout the debate. John Dallat pointed to examples from the Twenty-six Counties, where the Road Safety Authority has 309 full-time staff and many more powers to reduce road deaths. He said that extending those powers throughout the island would help reduce deaths on the roads. He also talked about the driving test and how people can be caught drink-driving the following morning when they think it is safe to drive. He mentioned the need for a new approach to the issue and the need to harness experience across the island and work together. That was a positive contribution. John also talked about the adverts on television and the fact that they encourage young people to drive fast, and that road safety has to be a priority for the new Assembly and Executive.

Kieran McCarthy said that road safety needs to be the number one priority; that there was an increased volume of traffic on the roads; that people need to have respect for cars and other road users and that cars should be treated as lethal weapons. He pointed out that the legislation was out of date and used the drink-driving limit as an example. He also mentioned the reduction in the roads budget and how that had adversely affected the introduction of seat belts on buses.

Jeffrey Donaldson said that although there was a reduction in road deaths, the figure was still too high and that, unfortunately, Lagan Valley topped the league table for fatalities. He said that the statistics are frightening and that more deaths occur in rural areas. He talked about the percentage of young men in the road accident figures and said that 50% of accidents are down to careless driving. He also talked about education, the retraining of driving offenders, the draft Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, and the all-party group on road safety that hopefully will not lead to the same divisiveness that we saw from some Members this morning.

Billy Armstrong spoke about education and the changes to legislation. Conor Murphy talked about the difficulties with border roads. He mentioned the work of CAWT, and that people are much more likely to be involved in an accident in border areas. He talked about speed, road structure and due diligence. He said that education is vital and that young men are more likely to be involved in accidents. He suggested that the education process should be extended to primary schools.

One point Conor made was about detection and appropriate punishment, and how that should concern all agencies on the island. That would impact on what Mr Ramsey just said. Conor talked about road structure in rural areas and highlighted the difficulties and the amount of lobbying that had to be done to get street lighting on the Newry bypass. He talked about people who drive unfit vehicles and how those who sell such vehicles cannot evade their responsibilities.

Margaret Ritchie talked about the strategy, policies and the implementation plan for road safety; that we need robust measures, and that it should be the number one priority as it is in the Twenty-six Counties. She said we should examine the causes of accidents, the equal importance of the driver’s state of mind and what had provoked accidents. Margaret highlighted the inadequate resources for road safety and the lack of authority, will and expertise, and pointed out the direct-rule Administration’s lack of concern and will to do anything about it. She also highlighted that the sense of loss in accidents occurring during the Christmas period had been palpable.

A lot of the same themes came up. Michael McGimpsey talked about margin of error and the 18 to 25 age group — particularly in Scotland and Sweden.

Francie Molloy referred to World Health Organization statistics and the global number of road deaths. He spoke about changes to roads and stressed that consideration must be given to the fact that road needs are different now to what they were. Francie talked also about the urbanisation of roads in rural areas and the need for common road signage.

Maurice Morrow gave us two or three minutes of vitriol. He deliberately misconstrued Conor Murphy’s contribution. I phased out his voice and quit listening after a while. It was a typical political point-scoring exercise from the DUP.

Road safety is a hugely important issue. It would have been good if all parties had united to ensure that we go forward with a commitment to make road safety a priority in the next Assembly. Everyone must work together. We need devolution, a new Executive and a new Minister to ensure that fewer people are killed on the roads.

I support the motion. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 36; Noes 26.


Billy Armstrong, Norah Beare, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Thomas Buchanan, Gregory Campbell, Wilson Clyde, Michael Copeland, Robert Coulter, Leslie Cree, George Dawson, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson, Reg Empey, David Ford, Arlene Foster, Samuel Gardiner, Paul Girvan, William Hay, David Hilditch, Danny Kennedy, Kieran McCarthy, William McCrea, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Lord Morrow, Stephen Moutray, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, George Robinson, Iris Robinson, Peter Robinson, Mervyn Storey, Peter Weir.

Tellers for the Ayes: Billy Armstrong and David Hilditch.


Alex Attwood, Dominic Bradley, Mary Bradley, Francis Brolly, Thomas Burns, Willie Clarke, John Dallat, Tommy Gallagher, Michelle Gildernew, Carmel Hanna, Gerry Kelly, Alban Maginness, Fra McCann, Raymond McCartney, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Philip McGuigan, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, John O’Dowd, Tom O’Reilly, Pat Ramsey, Sue Ramsey, Margaret Ritchie, Caitríona Ruane, Kathy Stanton.

Tellers for the Noes: Sue Ramsey and Margaret Ritchie.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly notes the ongoing tragedy of deaths and serious accidents on our roads and calls on an incoming Executive to introduce a wide ranging strategy involving all relevant agencies, including measures reflecting international best practice, to tackle the problem; with particular attention paid to those most likely to be involved in road traffic accidents.

The sitting was suspended at 1.06 pm.

On resuming (Madam Speaker in the Chair) —

2.00 pm


Madam Speaker: The Business Committee has allowed two hours for the debate. The Member proposing the motion will have 15 minutes to speak, with 15 minutes allowed for the winding-up speech. All other Members will have a maximum of 10 minutes to speak.

Mr D Bradley: I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the need for, and supports the introduction of, legislation which would guarantee the future security and rights of those on the autistic spectrum and would combat the tragic social injustice being perpetuated through lack of planning and funding, at a time when the number of individuals with autism is increasing dramatically.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá an-áthas orm an rún seo a mholadh inniu.

I am pleased to propose the motion and am happy to accept the amendment that has been tabled.

Over the past number of years, there has been an awakening in Northern Ireland to the prevalence and challenges of autism, not only in the minds of the health professionals, teachers and parents who deal with autism daily, but in the mind of the wider public. The increase in awareness of autism is largely due to autism advocacy groups and the excellent work that they do in, and for, the community.

My former colleagues John Fee and Joe Byrne sponsored the first debates on autism in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which were held shortly after the Department of Education published the task group’s report on autism. Mr Fee’s motion called on the then Minister of Education and the then Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to instigate a comprehensive review of services provided to adults and children with Asperger’s syndrome, and the training of professionals specialising in their treatment.

Mr Byrne’s motion called on the then Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to introduce a training programme for health visitors, school nurses, Key Stage 1 teachers and nursery school teachers to facilitate the early detection of autism and to make adequate provision, in collaboration with the Depart­ment of Education, to meet the needs of children with autism.

Reviewing previous motions is an interesting exercise because progress has been made in some areas. For example, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) commissioned a review of services for children with Asperger’s syndrome, the provision of training has progressed and education services have developed their autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) support services.

However, more must be done. It is now four years since those motions were debated. According to a report published in ‘The Lancet’, the number of individuals with a form of ASD in Northern Ireland tripled between 2001 to 2004 — and rates are still rising.

Experts assert that early diagnosis and early intervention are the keys to starting to help children and parents to cope with autism. However, as many Members know, diagnosis can take up to three years and more, which means that the window of opportunity that early intervention affords is lost. Those with ASD, their parents and carers and society in general will personally bear the cost of such missed opportunities in years to come.

Early diagnosis and intervention would greatly increase the chances of individuals being able to continue their education, enter employment and live independently in the future.

We are advised that to carry out these diagnoses it is essential to have trained educational psychologists who are experienced in dealing with ASD, yet there are far too few professionals trained or available to carry out these assessments. Often, when one professional retires, that post remains unfilled for an indefinite period.

We understand also that special support in class­room work, through the use of classroom assistants, can be vital to help a child with an ASD adjust to school life and to learn in a progressive manner. However, education budget cuts have ripped the heart out of special needs units and stunted the recruitment of special needs assistants.

Even when assistants are appointed, the level of training often falls short of what is required. According to a survey, 74% of front-line workers in health and education feel that they are poorly trained and do not fully understand ASD. In addition, there is no require­ment for trainee or practising teachers to undertake any training, and 70% of schools are not satisfied with the level of training in ASD that their teachers have. Many of the 25% of children with autism who have been excluded from school are excluded due to a lack of understanding and awareness on the part of the school.

There are more appeals to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal about schooling for children with autism than for children with any other type of special educational need. Of the parents who have appealed to the tribunal, 79% won their case. That shows that provision is far from adequate.

The situation post-school is no better. Only 5% of individuals with ASD are in employment or higher education, and only 3% of adults at the higher end of the autistic spectrum live independently.

Even though some progress has been made, there is no cohesive strategy for ASD in Northern Ireland. Families who move between health and social services boards encounter significant disparities in services. That is ridiculous when one considers the small population and geographical area that those boards operate in. The Western Health and Social Services Board has a cradle-to-grave strategy; the Southern Board has a strategy for those under the age of 18; the Northern Board is working on an initial framework; and the Eastern Board has no strategy. There is little cross-board strategic cohesion.

The recent initiative to create an ASD service framework and service standards is a positive move forward. However, it is not rooted in any strategy. To develop a framework without a strategy could be described as putting the cart before the horse. The negative experience of the Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability (Northern Ireland) has underlined to the ASD community in Northern Ireland the fact that any changes must be rooted in a cohesive, future-orientated strategy that guides ASD services, rather than services guiding strategy.

The all-Wales autism strategy is to be launched in January or February 2007, and there is a similar aim in Scotland. Autism Northern Ireland has formed a strategic Celtic Nations Autism Partnership with Scotland and Wales. The partnership involves the sharing of good practice and training in ASD, and also seeks to exert political pressure to make legislative changes for ASD in the respective member nations. The official launch of the partnership will take place in Cardiff on 30 January 2007, and I hope that Members of this House will attend.

Worldwide, the United States, Sweden, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have implemented, or are in the process of implementing, legislation relating to ASD. Those countries recognise the complex nature of ASD, and we have a chance to be the first region in the United Kingdom to seize the initiative and make positive changes for people living with ASD.

Despite many initiatives and high-profile awareness-raising activities, the desperate plight of people with ASD remains unresolved. There is a huge demand for consolidated efforts to provide appropriate services for the large number of individuals with an ASD. In the interim, the impact on the economy and on health cannot be estimated, but it is of sufficient magnitude to warrant Government direction and leadership.

The bottom-up strategy has influenced practice, but not policy. The policy shift must come from the top down, and that is why legislation is required that will ensure that, in line with Autism Northern Ireland’s blueprint for change, the rights of people with autism and their families are catered for in the areas of health, education, training and criminal justice.

Government ownership of the ASD issue is the unavoidable way forward. We have the capacity to easily create an authoritative strategy for autism, and the four key charities in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England have considerable expertise and knowledge that could be effectively utilised by the Government to achieve such a strategy. Close co-operation with organisations in the Republic of Ireland would also be to the benefit of all.

The identity in legislation of ASD — as separate from other disorders and disabilities — will be a major step forward. There is also an opportunity to follow the example set by Sweden, where a significant impact on services, health and the economy has been made by the inclusion of ASD in the Swedish 1993 code of statutes, resulting in the practical initiation and implementation of appropriate support.

In the meantime, it would be helpful to have a cross-party group in Stormont that would ensure that today’s motion impacts on Government policy. That group could develop links with colleagues in Scotland and Wales through the Celtic Nations Autism Partnership that could be used as a resource and a linkage to the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament on matters regarding ASD. The group could also liaise with groups in the Republic of Ireland.

I welcome the fact that Autism Northern Ireland is to make a presentation this month to the Dáil Éireann Education and Science Committee. Such co-operation benefits all, North and South.

I agree that we have been waiting too long for the development of the cross-border centre of excellence for autism at Middletown, County Armagh, as stated in the amendment. When up and running, that centre will provide a range of services, including learning support, educational assessment and training, and a training and advisory service for parents, teachers and other professionals, including support staff. Those are necessary and valuable services, and I hope that the Assembly will join me in urging the two Governments to expedite the development of the centre without further delay.

Finally, I pay tribute to the late Michael Ferguson MLA, who was a fellow autism ambassador and a strong advocate of the rights of people with autism. He is missed by those for whom he worked with the utmost diligence and dedication, and we remember his work today.

I commend the motion, as amended, to the House, and I ask Members to give it their full support. Go raibh míle maith agat.

2.15 pm

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá áthas orm an leasú seo a mholadh don rún, agus ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le Dominic as ucht tacaíocht a thabhairt don leasú.

I beg to move the following amendment: at end insert:

“; and further calls for the immediate funding and implementation of the long overdue centre of excellence for autism at Middletown, Co. Armagh.”

I commend the proposer of the motion, and I hope that the amendment in the name of John O’Dowd and myself simply adds value to it.

The amendment highlights the delay in establishing the long awaited and overdue centre of excellence for autism at Middletown, County Armagh. Quite rightly, Dominic Bradley invoked the name of Michael Ferguson, who was a great champion of this project. I welcome reference to him in the debate.

It is worth noting that the decision to establish a national centre of excellence was taken early in the lifetime of the last functioning Assembly. It was a decision that was jointly taken by the two Ministers with responsibility for education on the island at the time: Martin McGuinness in the North and Michael Woods, the Minister for Education and Science in the rest of Ireland. Unfortunately, the project appears to have been bedevilled for some years by legal arguments over land and property acquisition. That resulted in an unacceptable delay for several years. Site refurbishment was necessary as well. Neither the money nor the budget was the issue, as the money was ring-fenced when the decision was taken. The project gave strong expression to education as an area of co-operation, North and South, under the Good Friday Agreement.

Just this morning, I spoke to senior officials in the Department of Education to receive a further update on the all-Ireland centre of excellence for autism at Middletown. I was told that a limited company had been set up to oversee the development of the centre, that the process is under way to appoint a chief executive officer, and that I should expect an early announcement. Let us move speedily towards the development of this project and the setting up of a management board.

We are told that some operations will commence in mid-2007, and the amendment sends an urgent message to both sponsoring Departments to fully implement this centre, which has been talked about for many years now. People want to see it fully operational and offering the necessary support to children, parents, carers and teachers. That must happen without delay.

The motion calls for legislation to guarantee the future security and rights of those on the autistic spectrum. That complements Autism NI’s campaign for a specific autism Act and a programme of care in the North for ASD as well as a local autism strategy. Sinn Féin fully supports that.

The motion also pinpoints the lack of planning and funding, or perhaps the absence of a cohesive strategy. Dominic Bradley, the proposer of the motion, highlighted the different approaches among health boards and education and library boards in the North. That does not inspire confidence. Often, parents say that the education and health boards are not working with the necessary collaboration or cohesion.

Of course, there is mention of the increasing prevalence of ASD. I think it was ‘The Lancet’ report that said that, previously, one child in every 1,000 was affected by autism; now it is one in every 100 — although I have also seen the figure of 166. Whether 100 or 166, there is what can be described as a tidal wave. It requires greater political will, greater investment, joined-up approaches and co-ordination between Departments.

It is also appropriate to highlight the pressure on parents and carers of a child who is on the autistic spectrum. A few years ago, I organised a seminar in the town of Fintona, County Tyrone, in the Ecclesville Centre, called “A forum for carers”.

I was struck by a young mother’s comment that she used to be mild-mannered but that she was now aggressive, because every day of every week she has to fight agencies and Departments for services. That was her experience of trying to get the necessary support for her son.

Last week, ‘The Irish Times’ ran a compelling series of articles on autism by Adrienne Murphy. She asked:

“Can there be anything more frustrating than having to stand by while your child disintegrates before your very eyes?”

That is especially frustrating when that child is being denied access to early intervention and diagnosis, and to therapies that could make a difference.

Many parents believe that Governments are deliberately disputing therapies such as applied behavioural analysis (ABA) because of resource implications. In other words, they dispute the validity of those scientifically proven therapies because it costs a great deal of money to provide those therapies. Parents talk about how their children blossom when they undertake intensive one-to-one programmes, such as ABA, but such programmes are often not recognised or resourced, and parents sometimes have to borrow thousands of pounds to pay for the tuition themselves.

About two years ago, I spoke to an educationalist about the development of an ABA unit in a primary school in County Tyrone, and he simply said: “What unit?” until I used the appropriate term, which was, I think: “additionally resourced unit”. He did not like the idea of an autism unit or an ABA unit inside a school, and I had to use correct terminology to even get a response from him.

Furthermore, if an argument is made for resources to be directed towards an individual child, the education providers will have people in court as soon as they open their mouths. The providers say that it may lead to a tribunal and that anything that is said will be taken down in evidence and used against them. Unfortunately, if someone is advocating for resources for a parent or a child, the relationship becomes adversarial almost straight away.

To return to the ‘The Irish Times’ articles, Adrienne Murphy’s son Caoimh attends Achieve ABA, which is based in St Colmcille’s School in Donaghmede in Dublin. He had late-onset autism and, as far as she is concerned, he is now is in an appropriate place, and she is immensely relieved about that. She sees a tremendous difference in her son’s behaviour before ABA and after ABA.

I am the first to acknowledge that I am not competent to determine which therapies are appropriate, but an open and honest debate on all the available therapies is needed. If resource implications are the blockage, education providers must be honest and admit that. Adrienne Murphy talked about her memories of her son Caoimh in the time before he:

“pulled the shutters down on the world and retreated deeply and almost unreachably into his own mind.”

There is tremendous pressure on parents and carers, and education and health providers must listen closely to parents. The parental instinct is usually right, and it deserves greater weight when decisions are made on what support should be offered.

I take this opportunity to commend all those groups that are raising awareness, supporting parents, lobbying and campaigning — groups such as Irish Autism Action, the Irish Autism Alliance, Autism NI (PAPA), the Irish Society for Autism, and NAS (The National Autistic Society). I commend the NAS ‘Make School Make Sense’ campaign, which emphasises the need for the right school, the right approach and the right training, and which aims to provide proper education for children — the education that they deserve. It is a matter of ensuring that children with autism have the appropriate opportunities to manage their lives and to lead, if at all possible, independent lives.

Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Mrs I Robinson: I rise to support the motion, and I congratulate the proposer for affording us the opportunity to debate this important subject. My party does not support the amendment, as Middletown in County Armagh could not, because of its location, cater for the majority of the population of Northern Ireland who may need to take advantage of a centre of excellence. My party would support a centre at that location without difficulty: however, a regional centre should be located where it advantages the greatest number of autism sufferers. The issue should not be a political football.

As has already been indicated, autistic spectrum disorder is a persistent condition that appears in childhood and affects crucial areas of a person’s development, including communication, social interaction and creativity. Recent studies have estimated that autism affects 3·4 out of every 1,000 children who are aged between three and 10 years. Although autism varies widely in its symptoms and severity, early diagnosis and treatment can help autistic people to live independent and productive lives.

The motion focuses on legislation. Clearly, the Assembly must be mindful of the funding implications of matters to which it would commit itself through any new legislation. It is important to have an accurate idea of the likely resources involved. I will refer to examples of international autism legislation. In the United States, President Bush signed the landmark Combating Autism Act of 2006 just before Christmas. I want to deal with the Swedish situation first, however.

Since 1995, autistic people in Sweden have been protected by the Act concerning Support and Service for Persons with Certain Functional Impairments, known as the LSS law. As well as those who have autistic spectrum disorder, the act also applies to people who are mentally incapacitated, have permanent brain damage sustained through external force or physical illness, and those who have some other lasting impairment that is not due to the normal ageing process.

The law ensures good living conditions for those concerned, assistance in their daily living, and influence over the support and services that they receive. An individual makes a request for support and services, and their needs are then evaluated. Individuals must meet specified criteria. Those who are deemed eligible are entitled to various forms of support, such as advice and personal support from experts such as social workers, psychologists, physiotherapists, pre-school advisers, speech therapists, occupational therapists and dieticians. Advice and support should be complementary to, and not a replacement for, rehabilitation and social services.

Individuals who have serious physical impairments and have not reached the age of 65 may be entitled to help from one or more personal assistants. That includes help with meals, personal hygiene, dressing and undressing, and communicating with others. Those who do not receive personal assistance may be entitled to companion service — a service that is personalised and tailored to meet the individual’s needs, so that he or she can have an active social life.

In order to reduce social isolation, assist participation in leisure activities, and provide advice in daily situations, individuals in Sweden can get help from a “contact person” who can make it easier for them to live independently. Sometimes, a “support family” can provide back-up. Respite is provided in the home, both as a regular service and in unexpected situations. Short stays away from home permit individuals to have the opportunity for recreation and a change of environment while providing relief for relatives. A stay can be arranged in a short-term home with another family or in a camp, for example.

Children who are over the age of 12 years are entitled to supervision before and after school, and during holidays. Children and young people who cannot live with their parents may be entitled to live with another family or in a residence that provides special services. That should be a complement to the parental home, both for children who live with their parents part of the time and for those who cannot live at home at all.

Specialised residential accommodation varies, but includes group housing and service housing. An individual may also be entitled to a specially adapted home. Individuals of working age who are not gainfully employed or studying are entitled to assistance with participation in daily activities.

2.30 pm

In the US, the ink is barely dry on the Combating Autism Act of 2006, which had the support of all major US autism advocacy groups and authorised more than £1 billion of funding over the next five years to combat autism through research, screening, early detection and early intervention. Spending on autism will increase by at least 50% and will include provisions relating to the diagnosis and treatment of persons with ASD and will intensify biomedical research on autism, including possible environmental causes.

Little is understood about the causes and mechanisms of autism. Many studies have been carried out into researching possible genetic and environmental causes of autism, and scientists are learning more about the disorder and how its effects can be lessened or eliminated. More work must be done to pinpoint the true causes of autism and come up with a cure.

The US legislation also includes provisions designed to improve and co-ordinate the US Government’s response to autism. That legislation instructs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to expand and update efforts to monitor incidence and prevalence of autism around the country, and to educate parents and healthcare providers about the early warning signs of autism and the need for early and regular screenings.

The US legislation demands extra autism-related research, including investigating possible environmental causes of autism. There remains much that we do not know about the biological pathways and origins of the disorder, and further investigation into all possible causes of autism is needed.

We should leave no stone unturned in our efforts to understand autism, whether that means exploring possible environmental factors; paternal age; genetic factors, or any others that may hold answers. Perhaps further enquiry will show that it is not a single factor but a combination of factors that are responsible. For example, a child may have a genetic predisposition, which is triggered by an external, environmental factor that causes autism.

The Combating Autism Act of 2006 strengthens the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC), comprising relevant Government officials; experts; parents and families of those suffering from autism. The committee’s far-reaching mandate will be to compose and annually report on a strategic plan for autism provision and how improvements can be made. Public participation, particularly among the parents and families of those affected by autism, was deemed necessary to emphasise the human side of autism research and to ensure that resources are used wisely.

The growing number of people in Northern Ireland who are diagnosed with ASD deserve the same level of provision as others around the world. I am sure that everyone in the Chamber would agree with that. It is important that we learn from the experience of others and are not dragging behind in delivering a first-class service in Northern Ireland.

Every child is precious, but children with special needs require extra attention and services to help with their quality of life. We have much to do in comparison to the US and Sweden, but let us hope that when we get our Executive up and running, we can tackle this matter head on and treat it with the seriousness that it deserves.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I begin by declaring an interest as a board member of Dunfane Special School in Ballymena and chairman of the interim board for the amalgamation of the three special schools in Ballymena. I am also the grandfather of an autistic child, of whom I am immensely proud.

Mr Storey: Would the Member join me in commending Dunfane Special School in Ballymena? There are many other examples of good provision, but, having experienced the excellent provision that Dunfane Special School has provided in our constituency, would he join me in wishing it well, especially in light of the difficulties that it faces in dealing with autism?

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I thank the Member for the intervention and I fully support his sentiments.

Dunfane Special School has done a marvellous job under very difficult circumstances. The school needs all the support that we can give it.

From the point of view of those who are, tragically, affected by autism, I am pleased that today’s motion has been tabled. However, I am disappointed that an amendment to it has been accepted so easily, because I think that it takes away from the original motion. It deflects our sentiments away from the people to whom they should be directed; it takes away the humanity of the original motion and leaves us with a political football that should be dealt with at another time.

The issue of autism should be discussed in the context of real people with real names, individualities and identities. It is not simply a matter of statistics or politics, although statistics are important in helping us to focus on the scale of the problem. For instance, more people in Northern Ireland suffer from ASD than the combined total of people who have Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and Down’s syndrome.

In Northern Ireland, clarity about autism is required. We need definitive research into the causes and treatment of autism; we need to recognise the need for family respite care; and we need to initiate a policy for the treatment and support of people suffering from autism after they pass the age of 19. I hope that this simple outline will supply the headings of an action plan to deal with what is increasingly being recognised as a widespread problem. In 2006, the medical journal ‘The Lancet’ estimated that autism affected one in 100 children.

There is no Province-wide approach to the problems posed by autism. Members have already mentioned the difficulties that people face when they move from one board area to another. Families with children suffering from autism who move between education and library board areas encounter significant differences between the services available. That is a ludicrous and unacceptable situation in a Province of some 1·7 million people. We need to move on from this situation to become a leader and an example of best practice in the UK. Members have already mentioned that countries such as the United States of America, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Australia are proposing legislation on ASD that recognises the complex nature of the causes and treatment of autism.

The all-Wales autism strategy is due to be published this month or next month. Autism Northern Ireland has already formed a strategic Celtic Nations Autism Partnership with Scotland and Wales, and we compliment it on its initiative. I have the honour of being my party’s autism ambassador, and, in March 2006, I joined 50 other people from the Province at the Great Britain launch of a campaign for a Northern Ireland-specific autism Act. This network of party ambassadors was established in 2002 and has initiated strategic partnerships within Northern Ireland and with Wales, Scotland and Sweden. We took our petition for an autism Act directly to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and for Wales, Peter Hain, at the Welsh Office. Mr Hain was left in no doubt that there was massive cross-party support for this measure.

That meeting was, indeed, a notable first, because representatives of all five main political parties in Northern Ireland met and agreed a strategy. We focused our lobbying on the early diagnosis and treatment of autism. We revealed that, according to figures that my party had obtained from Lord Rooker in 2005, around 700 children in Northern Ireland were waiting for this vital primary assessment.

In the Northern Board area 117 children were waiting; 188 were waiting in the Western Board area; 128 in the Southern Board area; and 253 in the Eastern Board area. The model for legislation for a Northern Ireland PAPA Act — as it has become known — already exists. That model is in the Autism Northern Ireland (PAPA) document ‘The Blueprint for Change’.

The Government need to recognise ASD as a complex, lifelong developmental disability in its own right. It is neither a learning problem nor a mental-health disorder. A Northern Ireland policy on the issue, which would be the precursor of an Act, should raise public awareness of autism, create a dedicated programme of care for autism sufferers and create a funding mechanism to underpin a distinct and separate programme of care for them.

It is critical that all staff who work with young children are aware of the features of autism. It is also important that a quick response mechanism is put in place that ensures not only early detection but early treatment. Referral routes need to be established for children and adults, and each diagnosis should result in the appointment of a health professional to supervise and support those cases. Multi-agency and multidisciplinary teams that comprise ASD healthcare specialists who have received specific training are essential. That should result in a needs-led care plan that is based on best practice.

I should reinforce the need for proper clinical and scientific research into ASD. Genetic research is particularly important. I was delighted at last year’s announcement that a Bristol-based team is to research the genetic causes of autism and other chronic childhood conditions. It intends to build a biobank — or DNA database — that contains the genetic profile of some 14,000 children. Given that Autism Northern Ireland has estimated that one adult in 86 in Northern Ireland suffers from ASD, Northern Ireland scientists should either establish their own database or aim to participate in the Bristol study.

Finally, I ask that carers be remembered. It is difficult being the parent of an autistic child. Respite care for families of autism sufferers, as well as families of those who have other chronic disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, is a critical part of the overall care package. It is amazing what a difference a week — or even a weekend — away from the responsibility of looking after a child with ASD can make. That can be a relief for siblings, who can find it difficult to communicate with their autistic brothers or sisters.

We should never lose sight of the fact that when a chronic disease affects people it affects more than the patients themselves. It affects their carers and their families. We need a whole-family approach to the problem if we are to create the climate in which to optimise treatment.

I support the motion.

Mr McCarthy: It gives me great pleasure to voice my support for the motion and, indeed, for the future of those in Northern Ireland who live with autism.

You, Madam Speaker, were the Alliance Party’s ambassador for autism for a number of years. You supported the efforts of so many people, including parents, to secure better deals for individuals who suffer as a result of autism spectrum disorder. When your talents were required to carry out the duties of Speaker of the Assembly, you very kindly handed over your role of ambassador for autism to me, and I am privileged to carry on the work that you started.

I, like everyone else here today, pledge my support for a better future for all people who have autism. I acknowledge the work that Autism Northern Ireland has done under the dynamic leadership of Arlene Cassidy and her staff. Indeed, other groups are advancing the needs of those who deal with ASD in Northern Ireland.

2.45 pm

The need for advancement for people with ASD has never been greater; we are told that the number of sufferers is increasing at an alarming rate. In Northern Ireland, up to 200 babies born each year are later diagnosed with autism. This is a staggering figure. While this is the case, every help and assistance must be provided to those individuals and their carers.

At present, the Departments relevant to the needs of ASD sufferers are grossly underfunded. It is a shame that families are having to wait for up to three years for their child to be assessed. It is also disgusting that, at the end of 2006, there is no Northern Ireland strategy for autism; there is no ring-fenced funding; and there is no legislative protection for the condition to guard against vested interests.

On 30 June 2006 ‘The Blueprint for Change’ report was launched in the Long Gallery. All Members who attended gave their full support. The report stated that:

“the Blueprint does not seek to replicate existing legislation; but rather addresses the unique issues facing individuals with ASD and their carers that existing legislation did not reach”.

Autism NI has found that there is a huge differential between health boards in Northern Ireland for people with ASD. There ought to be the same facilities and provisions for everyone, regardless of the board area in which one lives.

Working with other parts of the UK has led to real progress. The all-Wales autism strategy is shortly to be launched, and Scotland is also working in that direction. Indeed, other parts of the world are in the process of implementing legislation for ASD. We have a chance to be the first in these islands to make positive changes for ASD sufferers.

In conclusion, today while the Transitional Assembly has no power, let us commit our parties to do in the near future what is required to ensure that all ASD sufferers get a better deal. Dominic Bradley has invited me, and I would be delighted to accept, to be part of an all-party group of the Assembly to deal specifically with ASD. Similar groups have dealt with other areas of complaint and we have had some success, so that is an important development on the way forward. I hope that other parties will join in to advance the needs of autism sufferers.

Dr McCrea: For too long, people with ASD have been forgotten citizens. Their unique condition is referred to as a hidden disability. In its mission statement, Autism NI focuses on the need for:

“people within the autistic spectrum and their carers [to] have access to appropriate services, enabling people with autism to be valued members of their community”.

Yet it is apparent that despite the many initiatives and the high-profile awareness-raising activities, the desperate plight of a person with ASD remains largely unresolved. Autism NI joined with its Welsh neighbour, Autism Cymru, to produce the report ‘Government and Autism: Opportunities and Solutions’, which concluded that:

“Ownership by Government of the ASD ‘issue’ is the unavoidable way forward”.

Therein lies the importance of today’s motion. We need to move towards a solution where people with autism feel both respected and supported. The report of the education Task Group on Autism published in 2002 recognised that autism was underreported and an underdeveloped aspect of special needs.

Even then the task group found that much progress still had to be made before it would be possible to say that all children and young people with ASD were being identified and their needs being fully met. The report recognised that a demand exists for more prompt access to diagnostic services at an early age and that those services should be followed immediately by effective home- and school-based intervention.

The report also highlighted the fact that there was:

“an ‘autistic spectrum wave’ rising through the school system”.

That has led to a large increase in the number of pupils and trainees being diagnosed with ASD, resulting in a large increase in demand for appropriate services and educational provision.

Help and support for people with ASD is a right. It is a way in which to level the playing field and to enable those with autism to make the same choices and lead the same lives as all other citizens. However, in order to ensure that the rights of those on the autistic spectrum are fully recognised, there must be planned development in all service areas. New resources must underpin that development in order to drive up the level of service that every family receives.

Children with autism require services that are provided by members of many different professions, working in a variety of agencies. Autistic children’s need for such services continues into their adult life, because autism is not a condition that disappears with maturity.

Although the strategies for catering for the needs of individuals with ASD are primarily educational, there are implications for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL). Our health and social services boards and trusts are at different stages in current provision. The Southern Health and Social Services Board (SHSSB) is well advanced, having released its children’s autism strategy 2005-10. I welcome the fact that work on the development of a service framework for ASD by the Northern Health and Social Services Board (NHSSB) continues apace.

There has been significant progress in some areas, and that must be recognised, but a great deal still needs to be done so that people with autism, and their families and carers, can access services to which they should be entitled.

Short-break and respite services are an essential part of family support, representing a major area of unmet need for families that autism affects, yet parents’ greatest concern is the lack of reliable respite care. In truth, that service is often not delivered until families are at breaking point. Many have described to me how much more difficult life becomes when, as happens too often, their respite is delayed, curtailed or cancelled because of staff shortages or transport problems. The impact of the Government’s failure to improve services is real and present, and the failure to deliver appropriate services consistently and at the right time causes families huge distress and anguish.

Let us be truthful: current funding levels for services for children with autism and their families are set too low. The allocation of resources has not kept pace with the growing numbers of children with autism. Prevalence rates for autism in Northern Ireland have tripled over the past three years, with almost 4,000 school-age children now with ASD. Waiting lists for diagnosis top 35 months. So much for the Government talking about how quickly problems can be diagnosed.

About 20% to 25% of children with ASD have also been diagnosed with epilepsy, and a significant proportion of children diagnosed with ASD also have an associated learning disability. As such, autism must be treated as a common disability with clear implications for health, education and social services. For too long, however, children and their families have struggled to access good-quality, co-ordinated services.

Autism, as a spectrum condition, is different from all other disabilities and does not fit neatly into the existing structures of mental health or learning disability — a point that Autism NI was keen to stress to the Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability, which concluded that the needs of all those with ASD, and their carers, should be the subject of a separate and overarching autism paper. However, unless new funding is prioritised, the Bamford Review’s recommendations in the six key areas for service development may never be fully recognised. There are funding implications for those recommendations for the Assembly today.

As Members know, autism is a complex and stressful condition, not only for those affected, but also for their families and carers. A family left alone to face the stressful challenge of raising a child with autism is, from the very beginning, the victim of despair and exhaustion because of the misconceptions surrounding autism, which include the lack of specialised services available in the local area, but mainly because of the impossibility of planning for the child’s future.

Sadly, there is no known cure for autism. However, children with ASD have huge potential. Appropriate services and early years education can greatly improve later functioning and help those affected to live their lives with as much dignity and independence as possible. That is what we should aim for. Each child has the right to a specifically tailored programme of help, and each parent should have the right to sleep at night knowing that the proper provision will be in place quickly for his child.

Much of the awareness in highlighting this condition has been generated by Autism NI. I pay tribute to its members, and, in particular, to the members that I know in the mid Ulster and Ballyclare groups. Their commitment and enthusiasm has been unstinting and acts as a source of active encouragement and support to others.

There are other models of excellence. For example, my colleague from Strangford mentioned Sweden, where ASD has been clearly identified as a condition and afforded appropriate primary and secondary legislation since 1993. In the United States, a five-year programme to support people living with autism has been announced recently, and that should encourage us in Northern Ireland to provide something better for those who need it most.

The significant increase in the number of children identified with ASD will require an improvement in our provision to meet that need. We may even require a spectrum of provision to meet a spectrum of need. While there is no cure, there is always potential for positive progress.

I support the motion.

Mr B Bell: I support the motion. I am aware that the prestigious medical journal ‘The Lancet’ estimated in 2006 that one in every 100 people suffers from Autism Spectrum Disorder. I am also aware that Autism NI has estimated that the problem in Northern Ireland is significantly worse than that figure of one in 100. It is estimated that 4,000 school-age children suffer from ASD, and the Assembly must address the issue.

Once a disorder is as well defined and documented as ASD, it is unthinkable that in any civilised society legislative provision is not put in place with under­pinning public funding available to deal with the problem.

It is also unthinkable that in a Province of 1·7 million people, different regimes for dealing with autism exist across the education and library boards. That situation cannot pertain following the review of public admin­istration, when massive reductions in bureaucracy are envisaged. The situation will be the same regardless of which type of review we agree to.

3.00 pm

I was pleased to hear that there has already been a significant amount of self-help. Dr Coulter demon­strated the ways in which autism ambassadors have been developed in the political parties here, and how a blueprint for change already provides the structure for any future Northern Ireland autism Act. I was moved by the way in which Dr Coulter reminded us that autism is a whole-family disorder, and of the need for respite care for families and carers. I was also moved by the sincerity with which he spoke of his pride in his grandson, whom I know, and who suffers from ASD.

The legislative path that this Assembly needs to follow is already laid out in some detail. I do not propose to revisit the particular aspects of any possible Act, but simply to say that the sooner we can legislate on this matter the better. We should never forget how many measures like this are sitting in the pipeline, waiting for action by this Assembly. It must give a greater sense of urgency to our efforts to find a way forward to a political settlement as soon as possible. Every day without a settlement is another day without an autism Act and another day that ASD sufferers and their families have to do without adequate levels of support.

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

Regarding the lack of planning and funding for services for those on the autistic spectrum, I want to point out that, according to Dr Larry Martel of Down and Lisburn Trust, a specialist in the field of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), some experts have said that 20% of children with Asperger’s syndrome, recognised as part of the autistic spectrum, also show aspects of ADHD. In Dr Martel’s opinion, around 10% of his patients display Asperger’s traits.

There are approximately 1,000 children diagnosed with ADHD in the Down and Lisburn Trust area alone. It is my certain knowledge through personal experience that families of children diagnosed with ADHD are in an identical position with a lack of funding and services for support post-diagnosis. That being the case, I request that any autism legislation should also include planning and funding for the promotion of awareness of ADHD, and support services and research into the social implications and problems surrounding the condition.

In reply to a question for written answer from Lord Maginnis in 2005, Lord Rooker revealed that over 700 children in Northern Ireland were waiting for vital primary assessment of ASD. Those are sobering figures; they are a reproach to this Assembly, and they imply that action should have already been taken.

Autism often involves considerable financial sacrifice for the families affected. That is a primary reason why the disorder requires specific legislation. It is not simply a matter of the disruption of family life; it is also a matter of cost.

Autism costs can include medical treatments and equipment and home adaptation. At present, family carers are subsidising the care budget. Legislation will ensure greater equity in the allocation of resources. There are hidden costs of autism — divorce and family splits can occur because of the enormous pressures that autism can impose on a family. That has cost implications for the state, as carers can be prevented from normal employment, which has an indirect impact through the loss of earnings and tax revenue.

One other cost aspect that needs to be considered is that although early autism intervention — both medical and educational — is expensive, there may be a recruitment factor later because intervention enables those on the autism disorder spectrum to lead a more normal life. Crisis intervention is by its nature more expensive than well-structured, well-planned early intervention that is amenable to unit cost savings. Correct diagnosis of autism at an early age can lead to savings by avoiding misdiagnosis such as schizophrenia and the resulting incorrect treatment that often occurs.

There should be special emphasis on the more able children with autism. The link to autism has given us great individuals in history. Some people reckon that Mozart, Beethoven, and Bartók suffered from autism. Thomas Jefferson, the founding father of the United States and Isaac Newton, who discovered gravity, Al Gore, the former vice-President of the United States, and Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, along with George Bernard Shaw and the painter Van Gogh are among the famous people who are said to have suffered in some degree from autism. History is littered with great men who may have suffered; and great talent could be lost to our society by a failure to identify intelligent sufferers of autism at an early age.

We owe it to the future of humanity to identify intelligent sufferers of autism as early as possible, since society could be immeasurably enriched by their contribution. The fact that so many great men and women have been sufferers should remove all stigma from the disorder. It is important that we treat this subject with the care and attention that it deserves and that the Assembly puts an autism Act on the statute book at the earliest possible opportunity. That is why I strongly support the original motion.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht seo, nó is díospóireacht an-tábhachtach í. Is bunéileamh iad an t-oideachas agus an comhionnanas deise, rochtana agus soláthair. Is ceart bunúsach é an cumas a bheith ag foghlaimeoirí a lánacmhainneacht a bheith acu trí rochtain a bheith acu ar leibhéal an churaclaim, ar na hinstitiúidí agus ar na cineálacha teagaisc agus foghlama is oiriúnaí chun a leithéid a thabhairt i gcrann. Ba chóir do dhaoine aonair a bheith ábalta a leithéid a dhéanamh ag aois ar bith agus ag staid ar bith ina saol. Iarrann a leithéid de sholáthar infheistíocht chuí inbhuanaithe san acmhainn is saibhre againn — ár muintir féin.

Equality of opportunity, access and provision are basic entitlements. Learners have a fundamental right to achieve their full potential by having access to the curriculum levels, institutions, forms of teaching, learning and healthcare best suited to deliver success. Individuals should be able to do so at any age or stage of their lives. Such provision calls for adequately sustained investment in our richest resource — our people.

Over the past few weeks, Barry McElduff and I, along with colleagues from other parties in the Subgroup on Schools Admission Policy, have been discussing the post-primary arrangements to replace the 11-plus. The subgroup invited representatives from various bodies with an interest in education and children to present evidence. They all spoke with such conviction and passion about education and the support that our children need. The majority of witnesses said that the current system is failing a significant number of children. In particular, our education system is failing children with autism and those awaiting diagnosis.

Any educationalist or health expert will say that early intervention is the key to dealing with autism. The diagnostic process in the North of Ireland takes far too long. There are not enough educational psychologists, which severely disadvantages children with special needs and those with ASD.

That is particularly frustrating for parents who know instinctively, long before anyone else, that their child needs specialist help, and that the earlier the intervention, the better. They also live daily with the effects of late intervention: a child crying before going to bed; not wanting to go to school; and, in some cases, being bullied and their self-esteem severely affected. Many Members are also parents and know how heartbreaking it is when our children’s self-esteem is affected. We dread them saying that they do not want to go to school.

ASD is a lifelong, complex developmental disability. Adequate funding is needed to ensure a personalised, tailor-made package, so that parents, carers and people with autism can avail themselves of much-needed services. A personalised package would allow people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome greater control over their lives and offer them better alternatives. Crucially, it will give children hope and access to support and appropriate intervention.

Like Barry McElduff, I pay tribute to groups that are working to highlight needs and change the services that are currently available throughout the island of Ireland. Sinn Féin believes that there needs to be a joined-up approach, North and South. The all-Ireland centre of excellence for autism, which was mentioned earlier, should have been up and running long before now, offering support and training to people living and working with autism across the island.

Autism recognises no borders. The centre of excellence, which has been hailed as a dynamic concept, will provide exemplars of education intervention; a lead for the training of parents and professionals; a research facility; and an outreach support service comple­menting current and developing service provision.

Consider the professionals who would potentially be involved in the centre: a learning support and assessment division; an assessment centre with educational psychologists; speech and language therapists; occupational and behavioural therapists; teachers; classroom assistants; and visiting professionals. There would be a learning support centre, with teachers; classroom assistants; educational psychologists; speech and language therapists and music therapists. There would be a training, advisory and research division, with ASD advisers and trainers, and a research and information service. There would also be care staff and administration and other support staff.

When this initiative was advanced by Martin McGuinness and his counterpart in the South, Michael Woods, it was hailed as a ground-breaking initiative, and everyone living and working with autism could see the enormous potential of the facility. Unfortunately, under British direct rule, the project has been caught up in bureaucratic wrangling.

My late colleague, Michael Ferguson, refused to let successive direct-rule Ministers off the hook, and we are now seeing signals that the wait is over. I have no doubt that, in true Tyrone style, my party’s education spokesperson, Barry McElduff, will take the ball and run with it. I, as equality spokesperson, will assist him.

3.15 pm

There is much work to be done. In 2005, campaigners and autism support groups from across Ireland travelled to the European Parliament in Brussels at the invitation of Mary Lou McDonald. A total of 24 delegates representing 10 autism non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from all over the island made the trip, and they told stories of state neglect on both sides of the border; lack of support; and woefully inadequate provision of essential services. The Irish Government and the British Government are failing the families who are caring for children and adults with autism. The situation here is not acceptable and needs to be changed.

The British Government has a fundamental responsibility to ensure support and provision of services, yet in this state there is no adequate and specific facility for autism. There is no cohesive strategy. We may sit here, talk and have a wonderful debate, but we all know what needs to be done: sit down, form a power-sharing Government, establish a North/South Ministerial Council and stop making excuses. Let us move forward and get the arrangements up and running, so that we can help those who need help.

This involves us as political parties in the North of Ireland. There should be Ministers from the DUP, my party and all the parties here running health and education, equality, OFMDFM and our justice system — and those are the Departments that must work with families who need support on the whole issue of autism. It is not acceptable that we continue to let the British Government dictate the pace.

Furthermore, we have human rights and equality legislation, and we need to use it. I know from my experience as a human rights worker prior to being a politician that the only way to realise change is by fighting from a rights-based perspective. I commend Disability Action’s new centre for human rights and I look forward to the centre taking test cases that will change people’s lives for ever.

Finally, I commend the people who deserve our respect the most: those who have had to fight for their children — who should not have had to fight, but whose circumstances dictated that they must. They are men and women, family members, brothers and sisters, but invariably they are mothers. I work with many families whose children have special needs, and nine out of 10 of the people who come to my constituency office are the mothers.

Billy Bell talked about the historic men; I want to talk about the brave and powerful women who have done so much and who have taken on the system and come up against a terrible brick wall that they had to break down. I commend them — and fair play to them. Sinn Féin will join with them in their fight, but the best way that we can do that is to get the institutions up and running, work together and stop this nonsense. Go raibh maith agat.

Mrs Hanna: I welcome the motion from my party colleague, and I support the amendment.

As elected representatives we are becoming more aware of the autistic spectrum disorder, a develop­mental disability. However, there is still a general lack of understanding on the part of the public. That is by the very fact that it can be a hidden condition and is such a varied condition. However, that is improving through the well-organised campaign mounted by Autism Northern Ireland, which is a charity made up of parents, professionals, other support groups, and friends and acquaintances, as well as constituents.

The dire need for the implementation of a well- co-ordinated strategy has been brought home to me. Furthermore, awareness needs to be raised with regard to the dilemmas and issues facing parents and carers of people with autism. We are learning more about this complex and challenging disorder from other places, particularly regarding legislation and the need for a clear strategic direction; we must continue to learn.

Today is our opportunity to move the issue forward, and so I make a plea, particularly to the DUP and Sinn Féin, to make a move; get on with it and let the rest of us get back to work.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mrs Hanna: Although the number of people with autism has tripled and is still rising, there is no cohesive strategy. Some services are in place, but they are patchy and must be better co-ordinated. The length of the waiting lists for diagnosis is unacceptable. More paediatricians, educational psychologists and many other professionals are needed. A mechanism must then be put in place to enable health and education professionals to respond quickly in order to create a clear referral route for children and adults and to provide straightforward support, direction and service for parents and carers. Together, those measures will form a proper, comprehensive care plan.

It is essential that the diagnostic team receive specialist training in the assessment and diagnosis of autism. Appropriate accredited training must be available to other healthcare providers, particularly so that they can recognise other possible healthcare needs related to autism. Training must be also be provided for parents and carers to empower them to do the best for their children.

The education system must provide a service that supports people with ASD to realise their potential and that provides them with the appropriate social skills and life-skills training.

Parents of children with autism experience undeniable stress. All parents want the best for their children, and rightly so. I have met many parents who are at their wits’ end as to how to help their children. All parents have experienced a feeling of helplessness when their children have been ill, but most know that a specific treatment will remedy the illness.

However, some parents worry that they may have an autistic child, because, for one reason or another, the child does not respond to affection or appears to be in a world of his or her own — it is hard to imagine how helpless those parents feel. Parents know that there should be help for their child but that professional support is needed to unlock that child’s potential. Those parents are all too aware that the days, weeks, months and, sadly, years, waiting for help may represent lost opportunities.

That situation must not be allowed to continue. Let us get the Assembly back, so that we can roll out a strategy — with any necessary legislation — to protect people with autism and to ensure that the structured support is in place through to adulthood. Every person has a right to a comprehensive service.

Mr McGlone: It should be noted, a LeasCheann Comhairle, that 80% to 90% of individuals diagnosed with ASD will develop mental-health problems. Only 5% of people with ASD are in employment or higher education. As a former Minister for Employment and Learning, Carmel has experience in that field and knows that, set in the context of Government initiatives intended to encourage people into the workplace, that is an extremely low figure.

Moreover, as Carmel mentioned earlier, 74% of front-line workers in health and education consider themselves to be poorly trained and not to understand ASD fully. Thank you, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Mrs Hanna: I thank the Member for his intervention, which highlights that a co-ordinated strategy for autism is essential. Training for health professionals, carers and parents is required so that other conditions related to autism can be recognised. A comprehensive service is not only required but is the right of every person with autism, the parents, carers and extended family.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Berry: I support today’s important motion and welcome the debate. However, it is unfortunate that the amendment takes the focus away from the motion and from the message that Members are trying to send out.

We must have a Northern Ireland centre of excellence, rather than one that is cross-border and politically motivated. Such a centre of excellence was hailed by Sinn Féin and others. It was promised but never delivered. Therefore the amendment is politically motivated and for that reason should not have been tabled.

Although autism was first identified in 1943, it is still a relatively unknown disability. Autistic spectrum disorder is estimated to touch the lives of over 500,000 families throughout the beloved United Kingdom. People with autism are not physically disabled as a person with cerebral palsy might be. They do not require wheelchairs, and they look just like those without the disability. Due to the invisible nature of autism, it can be harder to create awareness and understanding of the condition. The motion will help to do that, even at the level of Government.

A carer commented that, because autistic children look normal, others assume that they are naughty or that parents are not controlling them as they should. Strangers refer to that perceived failing frequently, and it causes concern, anxiety and stress for parents when they socialise, and many of us should take that on board.

I support the call for legislation that will ensure that the rights of people with autism, and their families, are upheld, and that services are provided continually to meet their needs. We must combat the disgraceful social injustice that exists due to the lack of funding and planning of services across Northern Ireland.

Local provision for children with autism is often limited. Teacher training in autism is inadequate, and children and their families struggle to access the entitlements that are their right. It is vital that the good practice that exists in some areas in the United Kingdom is extended to schools in all areas so that all children with autism get the education that they deserve. Postcodes must not determine provision.

I, like others, commend Autism NI. They have carried out tremendous work and continue to lobby hard throughout Northern Ireland for their members and for people in general who suffer as a result of autism. Dr McCrea quoted the mission statement for Autism NI. That should be the mission statement for the Assembly. This House must ensure that there is access to the appropriate services for people with autism and carers. Members must help to achieve an autistic spectrum disorder programme of care, an autistic spectrum disorder strategy for Northern Ireland and, as has been mentioned earlier, a Northern Ireland autism Act.

In the United States, the needs of autism sufferers and their carers have been debated on Capitol Hill. Due to the efforts of Cure Autism Now, and other groups, Congress passed legislation six years ago to boost research funding for autism. Last summer, the Senate passed follow-up legislation called the Combating Autism Act of 2006, which not only calls for a doubling of funds for autism research, but also for autism screening, surveillance and early intervention programmes in all 50 States. It is important to state that they still have a long way to go, and some groups are concerned that funding has not yet been provided. However, that is, at least, the first step in the process, and we, in Northern Ireland, must take note of it.

Funding is required to provide support for schools, and it would involve working directly with teachers and classroom assistants. For many years, there have been concerns in this area. Although classroom assistants have been trained in autism, parents feel that teachers, on occasions, brush off children with autism and leave them for the classroom assistants to deal with. That matter must be dealt with.

It is vitally important that teachers work in partner­ship with classroom assistants in the preparation of materials to support children with autism.

3.30 pm

Individual support for each child is required, and it is imperative that parents, teaching staff and other services are trained in how to support children with autism. One hears so much about joined-up government, but when one looks at the provision of such support services, it seems that joined-up govern­ment is far from the agenda. The Southern Education and Library Board provides an autism advisory and intervention service, and I welcome such a partnership approach that helps everyone involved to support and help young people who have autistic spectrum disorder.

It has been said that the earlier an autism diagnosis is made, the better the person’s chances are of receiving appropriate help and support. However, we have heard many statistics in the course of the debate that show that there is a long way to go before the needs of the people who are affected by autism are met.

The Government must hear the clear message that more funding and better planning are required to deliver the necessary resources for people who have autistic spectrum disorder and their carers. An urgent joined-up-government approach is needed to tackle the issue. I support the motion.

Mr Dawson: In common with many Members, I have had occasion to meet parents, grandparents and other family members who have gone into great detail in outlining the personal and often heartbreaking reality that an Assembly motion could never express. There are children in all sections of the community who are on the autism spectrum. Therefore, I am disappointed, but not surprised, that some Members have sought to politicise the motion and score political points on the back of children in real need.

All parents, regardless of the community from which they come, want to know that the needs of their children are being adequately met, and that their children will be allowed to perform to the best of their ability. They want to know that their children will not be disadvantaged compared with other children because they are on the autism spectrum.

I will concentrate on autism in the classroom, because it is there that the shortcomings of the system, as summarised in the motion, are graphically demon­strated. I have consulted professionals in the education sector, and some key themes have emerged. First, there is a need for flexibility of approach. As Members know, autism is different from other difficulties that may affect children. It is defined as a spectrum because it differs from child to child, and because it is global and pervasive in relation to the child’s experience.

All aspects of the life of the individual are affected, and children with autism are found in every type of school in Northern Ireland. Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for the education sector. In order to meet the children’s needs, boards and schools must be adaptive and flexible in their approach to the situation. The concept of 10 hours of classroom assistance in blocks of time is nonsensical to a child on the autism spectrum. The child requires a minimum of 10 hours of assistance spread across 20 hours of teaching time. Therefore, the classroom assistants should be available throughout the teaching day and teaching week. That flexibility does not exist in any of the boards in Northern Ireland.

Secondly, thorough and specific assessments are essential if we are to allow for the correct planning and package to be made available for the child and the family. Early assessment has already been mentioned, and it will reassure the parents and allow for the specific needs of the child to be met. It is essential that assessment occurs as early as possible so that action can be taken as early as possible. However, that runs counter to established educational practice, which results in up to 18 months lapsing before a statement can be issued for a child.

That 18 months is lost time — it is time during which the child is not receiving appropriate help, could be developing further problems, and could be falling behind in achievement.

The third key theme is the training required for parents and teachers, and support staff in the education board structures. Training delivery needs to be tiered so that it is appropriate in individual cases. Once again, flexibility of approach is important. Without necessary training, relationship issues will inevitably develop within the school.

Like others, I have had to deal with difficult situations in the classroom. One situation involved a young person on the autistic spectrum who was being disciplined by a school for going down a corridor the wrong way to get to the classroom for a lesson at the scheduled time. The child was being disciplined because a teacher felt that it was being disobedient and disrupting school life. However, the child was not being disruptive or disobedient. It was simply that the lesson time created an absolute for the child that the one-way system in the school did not. Training of staff in the school would prevent such an incident. Indeed, perhaps such a child would need a classroom assistant to accompany him or her from class to class to ensure that the difficulty did not arise. That takes us back to the need for flexibility of approach.

The fourth key theme is multidisciplinary working. Children on the spectrum require a wide range of professionals, some of who have been mentioned.

Mr Shannon: Is the Member aware that 50% of carers are in ill health and are being driven to the brink of despair? One supreme example is the case of Alison and Ryan Davies across the water. Alison, who was the mother of Ryan, an autistic child, was driven to take the ultimate step and committed suicide.

Mr Dawson: I thank the Member for that intervention. I am aware of examples of where people have been driven to despair, not only in that case, but in other cases too. Multidisciplinary working can assist families, because this is a complex issue, and a seamless approach and support to the child is needed.

Let me ask the House a very simple and straightforward question. Who in the government system is responsible for the delivery of that seamless provision to the child? The stock answer is that they are all responsible, or, that the organisation itself is responsible — which means that no one is responsible, and the inevitable result is that the child will suffer.

It should not be up to parents to have to pick their way through the maze of bureaucracy, the quagmire of no funding, or the constant argument about the needs of the child. The child’s needs should be met as a matter of right.

That takes us to the further key theme of regularity of contact. Professionals are under so much pressure that running for the needs of the child must be done by the school, the parent, or both. That is never in the best interests of the child. There are gaps in service delivery, and that leads to children not receiving a quality education. It can also mean that parents are forced to seek private intervention, which can lead to confusion in delivery, and may not be best practice. However, who could fault parents who see a gap in the delivery to their children and seek a way to plug that gap. Sadly, too often the gaps in service lead to court cases, which develop as parents rightly demand the delivery of existing legal obligations for their children. Perhaps Members will feel that the service I have described this afternoon is a long way from best practice. Sadly, it is.

I have sought to elaborate on the motion using my knowledge of what is going on in education. However, that is but one area of Government. The motion covers a much wider canvas, which, I am sorry to say, is no less shambolic than education.

It is for these reasons that I support the motion.

Mr P Ramsey: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate. I realise that there are time pressures as so many Members wish to speak.

I welcome Dominic Bradley’s suggestion to set up an all-party working group to deal with autism. Given the number of parents who have expressed interest in today’s debate, we should, at the very least, activate such a group to give some reassurance and comfort to those parents. The working group should focus on the three key priorities that have been identified: to develop a Northern Ireland strategy for autism; to ring-fence funding for autism; and to initiate Northern Ireland legislation on autism.

I commend all Members on their contributions. Like this morning’s debate, this afternoon’s debate has been good. All Members honourably shared their concerns from their constituency perspectives, describing the work that they regularly do on this issue, particularly with parents of statemented children.

At a recent public meeting in Derry, I listened to testimonials from parents of young adults with autism. As other Members have done, I have supported parents in tribunals and meetings with health boards and trusts. Listening to so many different people describe their experiences of the same underfunded, fragmented service was not nice. I could share with Members the frustrations of all those who have been forced to put up with an inadequate service. Experiences ranged from problems with speech and language therapy to difficulties with education boards. There has been practically no co-operation between health boards and education boards.

After that meeting, I found it hard to look parents in the eye, knowing that they would have to fight for services for their children — services to which their children are entitled. No parent should have to waste time fighting and campaigning for a service that should already be in place. No parent should have to give up their time to meet health and social service council subgroups to ensure that the needs of their child are being met, as is the case in the Sperrin Lakeland Trust.

Destined is a self-advocacy group for young adults with autism in the Foyle area, and it does sterling work for people with autism. Members including Raymond McCartney, Mary Bradley and Willie Hay will be aware of Destined’s advocacy work, and I am sure that they have been canvassed by or have met the group.

It is vital that all people with autism, and their families, receive quality services appropriate to their needs. Caring for a child with autism spectrum disorder can be strenuous, and we know that many parents experience great worry and stress. They cannot get peace to sleep because they are so worried, as Dr McCrea mentioned. The quality of the current service for autistic children, from diagnosis to treatment, is below par. As a result, parents are suffering unduly.

With increasing numbers of children being diagnosed with autism, it is important that action be taken to tackle and properly fund the needs of those with autism. Although there has been a great increase in awareness of autism, the Government have failed to implement any meaningful changes to the provision of services and therapies for those with autism.

Direct rule and, in particular, direct-rule Ministers, have failed people with autism and their families. For years, services have been underfunded, badly managed and poorly planned. A devolved Government can provide the opportunity to change that — an opportunity that must not be wasted.

A new Programme for Government could introduce legislation to protect and guarantee a future for those with autism and to give their parents the peace of mind that they want. We can ensure that the needs of every­one with autism are met and that they can access a service that is well resourced, well funded and flexible enough to respond to the needs of each individual.

Parents of children with autism have three demands: first, that every child with autism should have local access to a diverse range of mainstream and specialist educational provision; secondly, that all teachers should expect to teach a child with autism and must receive appropriate training to best support such children’s needs; thirdly, that all schools should be autism-friendly and promote and provide a positive environment now and in the future. Those should be target areas for an all-party working group to challenge permanent secretaries of Government Departments to deliver for the parents of autistic children.

3.45 pm

Mrs Foster: Like other Members, I am pleased to take part in the debate, and to wholly endorse and congratulate Autism NI and others who work in the field of autism for the way in which they have promoted and worked on a comprehensive autism strategy for Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to the autism ambassadors in the different political parties, not least in my own party.

When I talk about a comprehensive autism strategy for Northern Ireland, I mean just that: a strategy that takes in all aspects of the condition, is holistic in dealing with all of the service providers, and most importantly for me, coming from the west, is that it covers Northern Ireland in its entirety.

Yesterday’s debates highlighted the difficulties faced by rural dwellers. Unfortunately, I must continue with that theme today. Often, where someone lives determines the level of service that he or she receives. I want to stress to the House that that is fundamentally unfair and must be dealt with. Why should someone’s address determine the quality of service that he or she receives? Following on from the previous Member’s remarks about the Sperrin Lakeland Trust, I must point out that there are major problems in the west of the country with regard to occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, and paediatrics. Those are the basic building blocks of any service and must be improved.

The option has often been presented to access professionals from outside the trust area. However, that is not a solution. It serves only to demoralise the existing staff, who are trying to do whatever they can for people.

Mrs D Kelly: I am sure that the Member, along with many others, has been lobbied by graduates from the physiotherapy service. It is an absolute scandal that young graduates must seek employment not only across the water in England, but as far away as Australia, and that after being educated in our own fine establishments, and despite there being huge waiting lists at child development clinics, there are no jobs for them. Where does the money go that comes from the Department to the boards and trusts?

Mrs Foster: I sincerely thank the Member for her point of information. That is an issue that must be examined soon because money is being put into the trusts and boards. I hope that the autism strategy will be able to identify the gaps in the current service.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of people who are on the autistic spectrum. Nowhere is that more evident than in my own constituency. When I was growing up and still at school — which, I must say, Mr Deputy Speaker, was not that terribly long ago — autism was a relatively rare phenomenon. It is not so now, however. Indeed, between 2001 and 2004, the number of individuals who were diagnosed as having ASD tripled. The number is now higher than the combined totals of sufferers of multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and, indeed, Down’s syndrome, yet there is still no cohesive autism strategy in Northern Ireland.

Early intervention for ASD sufferers is crucial to giving them the best start in life. Members have heard much about that today. It also helps to identify and address the needs of those who are carers of ASD sufferers. It is no surprise to those of us who have been involved with families of autistic children that the level of stress for those people is highest among all the major disabilities. It must be pointed out that the way that autism has been addressed by Government — or rather not addressed by Government — has been one of the major sources of worry and concern for those carers. Families have told me that the wait for diagnosis, intervention and support is frustrating and soul-destroying.

Parents ask me questions such as, “When will my child be assessed?”, “When will my child get meaningful speech and language therapy?”, “Will there be a teacher at my chosen primary school who will be able to effectively teach my child?, “Will there be a classroom assistant who is trained to deal with autism?”, and, “If I choose a home programme for my child, will I be able to get funding to support me?”. Indeed, there are many other questions that families who are living with autism must face every day.

Autism for those families is a way of life. It cannot be designated as either a health or education issue and put into a tidy box, as has heretofore been attempted. That is not the way that people with autism live their lives and is, therefore, not the way that they can be catered for — in some sort of artificial dichotomy.

I am happy to endorse calls for a cross-departmental autism strategy but, as Members know, that is not where it will end; behind every good strategy is the finance to see it implemented, therefore funding must follow the functions.

There are huge gaps in staffing and resourcing for autism services, and we know that different Depart­ments deliver different services. As my colleague George Dawson pointed out, funding gets lost in the muddle.

In June 2006, I tabled a motion to Fermanagh District Council on the autism strategy. The Education Minister, Maria Eagle, wrote to the council about the proposals for a Northern Ireland autism Act, and stated that provision for individuals with autism was covered by the relevant education and health legislation that is already in place. Clearly, that is not so. I implore the Government to listen to organisations such as Autism NI and NAS, who are specialists in that field; to listen to the carers of those with autism, who, by necessity, have become very effective advocates for their children; and to listen to the voice — that I hope will be united — of the political parties today to focus on an autism strategy and to move to a cross-departmental comprehensive strategy for the whole of Northern Ireland. That strategy should bring about effective services in sensible timescales with fully trained staff, so that the growth in the number of people with ASD, or families living with it, is matched with the necessary quality and availability of services. I support the motion.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Sinn Féin welcomes the motion, from which the amendment takes nothing away. I welcome the fact that the proposer of the motion has accepted the amendment, which is simple and non-political — despite the narrow, blinkered views that we have heard from across the Chamber. The amendment simply states that this Assembly:

“further calls for the immediate funding and implementation of the long overdue centre of excellence for autism at Middletown, Co. Armagh.”

We cannot be taken seriously by families affected by autism, those with autism, and the lobby groups, if we politicians cannot implement a decision that was taken four years ago. How can they take us seriously when the Assembly, which has no powers, discusses a motion that seeks more funding and a strategy, given that the decision taken four years ago by an Assembly and by a Minister who had power has not been implemented?

I will outline what the centre at Middletown is all about. The Department of Education’s brief states:

“The centre will strive to achieve excellence in its provision. It will provide a model of best practice in assessing the educational needs of children and young people with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder and in establishing working partnerships with those involved in providing and operating services at a local level.”

Those working partnerships will apply to the support groups, the families, Autism NI and other autism charities.

“The centre will provide:-

a lead for, and offer exemplars of educational intervention;

a lead for the training of parents and professionals;

a research facility; and

an outreach support service complementing current and developing service provision.”

If calling for such a centre is being political, then Sinn Féin is being political. However, that centre is needed. Middletown is only the start. No one is saying that if Middletown were established, we would walk away from the autism debate and the need for an autism strategy. Middletown is a centre of excellence, but I would like to see satellites or other centres of excellence across Ireland, from Ballymena to Bandon.

If anyone can object to an outreach support service that complements current provision, or to the development of service provisions, or to a research facility, they have not explained that objection. This is not a political question. Sinn Féin is saying that we must be serious. If the North/South Ministerial Council meeting of April 2002 announced the Middletown centre, and it has not been built, why should we be taken seriously when we debate funding and a strategy for autism in an Assembly that has no powers?

I support the call for an all-party working group that was made by the proposer of the motion. That is an excellent idea. I am sure that he would support the call for the most important all-party working group to be set up in the Assembly, namely the Executive.

If we had an Executive with functioning Ministers for health and education, the demands that we are making could be brought to fruition with greater ease.

Mrs Foster: Same speech, different day.

Mr O’Dowd: Yes, it is a case of “same speech, different day”, unfortunately. It will not be a different day tomorrow for people who have family members with autism — it will be the same day. It is time that we as politicians grasped the nettle and moved forward. Sanctimonious, pompous speeches in this Chamber will not make one iota of difference to people’s lives.

The need for an Executive is clear. We can no longer proceed with such demanding debates without putting measures into action. Our party has supported the ongoing campaign for the rights and needs of people with autism. I welcome the kind comments that have been made about my deceased party colleague Mickey Ferguson, who would have revelled in today’s debate. He would have enjoyed participating and pushing the matter forward.

As has already been said, we have taken the issue of autism to Europe and facilitated links between autism groups in the North with groups in the Twenty-six counties and in the rest of Europe. That action has allowed autism groups here and in the South to co-ordinate and to seek funding on an all-Ireland basis. The debate has concentrated on education, but we must also refer to health matters. The need for better services and support is not solely the education system’s responsibility. Children with ASD need access to the kind of health and community services that can impact positively on their standard of living and allow them as much independence as possible.

Primary healthcare providers must be aware of the impact of ASD and understand the complex communication and social issues that accompany the condition. We must ensure that primary healthcare providers have the right training in, and understanding of, ASD to allow them to provide the full range of necessary care.

Mention was made of a postcode lottery to determine the delivery of autism care in the four health boards. A centre of excellence, as is to be provided at Middletown, will serve as an exemplar of educational intervention and provide a lead for the training of parents and professionals. It will ensure that the future make-up of the health boards, while providing an education, will provide a single, world-class service to people with autism and their families. That is where the thought processes and the new ideas must be crunched down, where the training must be given and where those new ideas must be brought out into the community. A building in Middletown is fair enough, but unless it can provide a service to the whole community it will have failed in its objective. However, the centre at Middletown meets the criteria, and I am sure that its objectives will be achieved.

Reference was made earlier to how autism affects people throughout their lives. For example, training is required for those in the criminal-justice system who are likely to come into contact with those with ASD. Appropriate detention, custody and interview accommodation should be provided, and appropriate intervention strategies must be put in place. I was shocked when I saw the figures for those with ASD who end up in jail as a result of not being properly cared for in their formative years. Intervention should have taken place when they were in primary school but did not. Those people have gone through life and, through no fault of their own, have ended up in conflict with the criminal-justice system. Who has committed the real crime? Did the individual let down society, or did society let down the individual?

We need to change our approach to autism and autism care. We need to implement a strategy and move forward. As I have said, our amendment is not about narrow politics. The criteria for the centre of excellence speak for themselves. Middletown must only be the start — we must have satellite centres or independent centres from Ballymena to Bandon. However, we need to tackle the problem urgently. Go raibh maith agat, a Leas Cheann Comhairle.

4.00 pm

Mr Dallat: Parents, children and carers who are affected by autism have had a slow and tortuous struggle for equality. That struggle has been compounded by disappointment after disappointment. Those disappointments have gone well beyond the tolerance of the most patient people who are affected by the condition.

The gravest disappointments in the delivery of Government services are in the education and health sectors. For children who live with autism, that is a double whammy and is therefore doubly unacceptable in a modern society that claims — indeed, guarantees — equality for all its citizens. Many of the groups that welcomed the Good Friday Agreement were affected by inequality. One of those groups was people affected by autism. One can imagine how disappointed they are that the advances that should have been made have not been made.

In moving the motion, my colleague Dominic Bradley referred to a report in ‘The Lancet’. That report stated that the problem has tripled in the past three years. He called for early diagnosis of children who are affected, and he complained, rightly, that diagnosis takes up to three years. He criticised cuts in expenditure, which compound the problem. He also pointed out that only 5% of autistic people are employed once they leave school and only 3% live independently. That is a shame and is therefore a good reason to seek unanimity in the Assembly today. Unfortunately, that is not to be. Sadly, this is the second time today that Members have been divided on serious issues. That does not go down well.

The SDLP accepted the amendment without hesitation, because the all-Ireland centre of excellence for autism in Middletown was always a part of the strategy: simply because it was not included in the motion does not mean that the party excludes it. Earlier, I wondered whether some Members thought that Midleton in County Cork, where the splendid whiskey is made, was being referred to. However, I assure them that the centre is in Middletown in County Armagh, unless, of course, the border has been shifted. [Laughter.]

My colleague also paid tribute to Michael Ferguson, and Barry McElduff acknowledged that. Iris Robinson made a well-informed speech that was particularly enlightening on international develop­ments. She emphasised the progress that has been made in Sweden and in the United States. I wonder why Middletown, which is so much closer to home, is a problem.

I was much impressed by Robert Coulter’s speech. Having declared an interest in different organisations, he spoke with great pride about his grandson. Anyone who heard him could not help but be moved and encouraged to do everything humanly possible to help.

Several Members made the same points. Kieran McCarthy made a valuable contribution, emphasising the need to ring-fence funding. However, he underlined the fact that Members have no power, which is all the more reason why a new Assembly should be up and running. Rev McCrea made an excellent contribution; he is obviously well-informed about the problems that are involved. He pointed out that autism does not disappear; it is a lifelong condition. He also stated the need for families to have respite. I know from my own experience that that is a major issue. Families that are affected by autism really do need a break; however, that is not to say that they do not love their autistic children.

Billy Bell, in his usual manner, gave an interesting address in which he emphasised the need for legislation. He pointed out that autism affects the entire family and stressed the need for a greater sense of urgency. He highlighted the fact that there are 700 people on the waiting list for assessment, and, as Dominic Bradley mentioned, that it takes up to three years to get a diagnosis. That is a disgrace. He also referred to other costs associated with autism that are not thought about —family break-ups, divorce, and so forth, brought about by pressures on families.

Caitríona Ruane emphasised the need for equality of opportunity in early intervention. Carmel Hanna rightly pointed out the lack of public understanding of autism and said that any new strategy must have a clear direction. She appealed to the DUP and Sinn Féin — as do I — to ensure that the Assembly delivers on what has been debated today. Mrs Hanna also spoke about the response to clear referral routes, which do not yet exist, and the importance of properly trained diagnostic teams to identify not only autism but other related problems.

Patsy McGlone made a timely and important intervention on the difficulties that must be faced. Unsurprisingly, Paul Berry told Members that he was not happy with the amendment, but he made a positive contribution and emphasised the need for access, a programme of care, the development of a clear strategy, and so forth.

George Dawson spoke about the classroom environment. He emphasised the fact that no size fits all, and he highlighted the lack of flexibility. He also spoke about the need for early assessment.

Pat Ramsey reminded Members of the need to set up an all-party group on autism, which everybody will support. Arlene Foster emphasised the need for a comprehensive strategy. She highlighted an important point, which is the remoteness of rural areas. She emphasised that not so long ago she was at school. However, Members had no need to hear that — it was quite superfluous.

Mr A Maginness: John is an old flatterer.


Mrs Hanna: John might not like so much of the “old”.


Mr Dallat: Flattery may get the amendment pushed through.

Mr A Maginness: He has no chance.

Mr Dallat: My learned colleague Alban Maginness says that I have no chance.

Arlene Foster raised important issues about assessment, teaching, classroom assistants and home programmes.

The debate was excellent. I am sorry that the amendment that the SDLP accepted caused problems — it was not intended to do so. John O’Dowd’s summing up for the amendment was largely political, if I may say so. I hope that any new Assembly will not follow that kind of policy and that Members will embrace the needs of people who are less well off than we are, represent them and leave the political baggage behind.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly recognises the need for, and supports the introduction of, legislation which would guarantee the future security and rights of those on the autistic spectrum and would combat the tragic social injustice being perpetuated through lack of planning and funding, at a time when the number of individuals with autism is increasing dramatically.

Adjourned at 4.09 pm.

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