Monday 29 January 2007

Assembly Business
Additional Debating Time (Muckamore Abbey Hospital) and Extra Sitting (Police Ombudsman’s Report)
Security Review
New Assembly Member: Ms Dawn Purvis

Committee Business
Report on Comprehensive Spending Review and Programme for Government;
Rates Charges and Water Reform

Private Members’ Business
North/South Co-Operation
Muckamore Abbey Hospital
Liquor Licences
Tie-up Aid

Assembly Business
Tributes to Madam Speaker; Bound Volumes of Hansard; and Standing Orders

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

Additional Debating Time (Muckamore Abbey Hospital) and
Extra Sitting (Police Ombudsman’s Report)

Mr O’Dowd: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Can you confirm that, last Monday in this Chamber, Dr Paisley placed a request with you for a debate on Muckamore Abbey Hospital and that Barry McElduff placed a request for a debate on collusion? Can you further confirm that a debate on collusion was blocked by both unionist parties at the Business Committee meeting?

Madam Speaker: Thank you, Mr O’Dowd. You are quite right; both debates were requested last Monday morning, and I subsequently took the two motions to the Business Committee. The Committee debated the motions, and the agreement at the end of the meeting was that the motion on Muckamore Abbey Hospital would be debated but that the motion on the Police Ombudsman’s report would not. That was the decision of the Business Committee.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Are you willing to confirm that Sinn Féin was unable to convince the Business Committee of the merits of having a debate on its proposed motion, and that the motion that was chosen for debate today was chosen because people were able to convince the Business Committee of its merits?

Madam Speaker: It is not for me to say what the parties debated in the Business Committee or what their decisions were. All I can say is that I believe that at the end of a thorough debate, it was clear that the two unionist parties did not want the motion to go forward and that the rest of the parties did.

Mr O’Dowd: Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Does the fact that Sinn Féin was unable to convince the unionist parties to debate collusion not say much more about the DUP than it does about Sinn Féin?

Madam Speaker: As I said to Mr Paisley, that is not a matter for me or for the House; it is a matter for the Business Committee. I hope that we will get through the business today as agreed. Thank you.

Security Review

Rev Dr Ian Paisley: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. On several occasions, I have raised with you the matter of Members’ security in this Chamber. This is the last meeting of this particular Assembly, but will Members be notified of what investigations have been made and will they be given exact information so that they can know where we now stand with regard to security in this Assembly?

Madam Speaker: Thank you, Dr Paisley, for your continued interest in the matter of House security. The review of security is now at an advanced stage. The Commission looked at the draft report last week. As I have said before, I intend to make a statement on the review when it has been completed. In addition, the Commission has agreed that parties will be fully briefed on its outcome at that time. Unfortunately, the report was not ready for today, but you will agree with me, I am sure, that the procedure is correct in that we need to be absolutely sure that the review is comprehensive and efficient.

With regard to current procedures, they are as we have agreed. I explained to the House on 27 November 2006 that we have a party of PSNI officers here to help the Doorkeepers with security. As far as I am aware, it has been adequately dealt with up to now.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Given that today is the last day of the Assembly, is it in order that we congratulate the members of the PSNI who have provided the service as a stopgap? The PSNI — and, indeed, the House — faced an incredibly awful threat, and we are delighted that the police have been able to step in. We should congratulate the PSNI unanimously.

Madam Speaker: Thank you very much for that point of order, Mr Paisley. It is not for me to do that without discussion at the Business Committee, but I am sure that individual parties and Members will be able to do it in a personal way.

Mr O’Dowd: Further to Dr Paisley’s original point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it not somewhat ironic that the DUP wishes to speak about the security of Members in the House but is not prepared to have a debate about the security and well-being of the general public?

Madam Speaker: Thank you, Mr O’Dowd, for that point of order. As I have said, Dr Paisley has been asking me about the review of security for several weeks, and quite rightly I have answered him. The decision that was taken at the Business Committee was obviously not the one that you would have wanted, but nevertheless that was the decision and that is democracy at this stage.

New Assembly Member: Ms Dawn Purvis

Madam Speaker: I should like to announce to the Assembly that I have been informed by the Chief Electoral Officer that Ms Dawn Purvis has been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the East Belfast constituency to fill the vacancy resulting from the death of Mr David Ervine. I now invite Ms Purvis to take her seat by signing the Roll of Membership.

The following Member signed the Roll of Membership: Purvis, Dawn          Unionist

Madam Speaker: I am satisfied that the Member has signed the Roll and has confirmed her designation. Ms Dawn Purvis has now taken her seat.

Committee Business

Report on Comprehensive Spending Review and Programme for Government;  Rates Charges and Water Reform

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, and all other Members who wish to speak having a maximum of 10 minutes.

The Chairperson of the Committee on the Programme for Government (Mr Molloy): I beg to move

That this Assembly takes note of the Report from the Committee on the Programme for Government on the Comprehensive Spending Review and Programme for Government; Rates Charges and Water Reform, and calls on the Secretary of State and / or the incoming Executive to take action to implement the recommendations in the Report.

I propose this motion not as a member of the Committee but as one of the two Chairpersons appointed to the Committee to enable it to conduct its business. On 24 November 2006, following a direction from the Secretary of State, the Assembly’s Business Committee established the Committee on the Programme for Government to consider priorities for the new Executive and make preparations for restoration.

The report under consideration is the work of the Subgroup on the Comprehensive Spending Review and Programme for Government; Rates Charges; and Water Reform — three separate and substantive issues. The high level of consensus and common cause evident from this report and those of the economic issues subgroup is testimony to the high level of agreement between all the parties. It is not a lowest-common-denominator report; it reflects the collective and determined wishes of all the parties to see a new economic vision realised for Northern Ireland. The Committee on the Programme for Government, which shares this consensus, ordered that the report should be printed and debated in the Assembly.

I acknowledge the efforts of the members of the four main parties who served on the subgroup, and I hope that as many of them as possible will participate in today’s debate. I thank all the staff who worked long hours over the holiday period and beyond to produce the report on time. As with the other subgroups, this report was undertaken according to a tight timescale. The subgroup invited written submissions from several organisations and took oral evidence from key organisations in relation to each topic.

I will highlight some of the main findings on each of the three subjects. The 2007 comprehensive spending review is an in-depth examination of Government spending priorities to establish long-term aims and objectives for each Department and to set firm and fixed spending plans for a three-year period starting in April 2008. Northern Ireland’s share of the public expenditure allocations arising from the comprehensive spending review will be determined under the Barnett formula. The outcome of the comprehensive spending review is, therefore, particularly important for Northern Ireland and will determine, to a large extent, the resources available to a restored Executive to spend on devolved responsibilities.

The allocation from the comprehensive spending review makes up 90% of the total Northern Ireland budget. The other two main sources of funding for Northern Ireland are the regional rates collected from businesses and households, which contribute about 6% of the total, and the borrowing for capital investment under the reinvestment and reform initiative, which makes up 2%.

The comprehensive spending review process began in July 2005, and the outcome will not be known until the Barnett consequentials for Northern Ireland are announced in July of this year. All the indications are that the comprehensive spending review period will be challenging for Northern Ireland and that the slower economic growth rate in the UK will place increased pressure on budgets here.

The Department of Finance and Personnel told the subgroup that any additional funding from the comprehensive spending review, together with additions from the Chancellor’s package, will be required simply to meet pay and price inflation.

The financial outlook suggests that the prospect of the Executive meeting economic challenges, closing the permanent wealth and productivity gaps and catching up with the growing Irish economy, which increasingly leaves us behind, is limited.

10.45 am

The report recognises the economic constraints that the new Executive will face as a result of the comprehensive spending review and concludes that to make resources available for additional spending on priority areas identified by the restored Executive will depend on factors such as more efficient provision of existing services; better use of resources through the disposal of surplus assets; the reduction of annual underspend; increased local revenue efforts; and renegotiation of the Chancellor’s package.

Some organisations have been critical of the amount of publicly available information for the comprehensive spending review process and of the limited extent of local engagement with the community and the voluntary sector.

The report concludes that a major priority for the restored Executive must be to prepare for the outcome of the comprehensive spending review, due in summer 2007, and to develop draft Priorities and Budget proposals through a transparent process of consultation.

The scope for additional spending on priority areas depends to an unacceptable degree on the release of resources through efficiencies. The report notes the efficiency targets set by the Secretary of State and supports the ongoing work by Departments on value-for-money reviews and developing efficiency plans. Efficiency savings of approximately £770 million must be achieved by 2010, and the restored Executive should continue to drive for greater efficiency. However, the report warns that such efficiencies must not be achieved at the expense of cuts in vital front-line services.

On the better use of existing resources, I wish to make a couple of points that others will elaborate on. First, on the disposal of surplus assets, the Department of Finance and Personnel has a target of £1 billion for asset sales over three years and is working with the other Departments to identify those assets. The report cautions that that must be achieved in a joined-up manner, with proper regard for the impact on services and the resource implications of new investment decisions. In its evidence, the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) complained that, too often in the past, departmental spending cuts happened without proper resource allocation to voluntary sector organisations to make the delivery of services more efficient.

My second point is about the problem of underspend, particularly in relation to capital investment. The report highlights that in 2005-06 there was a massive underspend in the capital budget of just over £227 million — more than 18% of the total. At the same time, the Northern Ireland Audit Office’s report identified that the Department of Finance and Personnel had borrowed £411 million under the reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI). That wasteful use of public resources must be tackled by Members. Needless loans taken under the RRI incur interest that must be paid for through increased rate bills.

The report identifies several issues that should feature as priorities in a draft Programme for Government. These include investment for economic growth, investment in skills and training, improvement on internal and external transport links and further improvements in the planning process that deals with the financial implications of the review of public administration. The report also identifies the need to take account of equality provisions and the anti-poverty strategy when a draft Programme for Government is developed. The subgroup concurred with many of the recommendations made by the Subgroup on the Economic Challenges facing Northern Ireland on future investment priorities and supports the investment areas highlighted by that subgroup in its report on an alternative economic package.

The subgroup was conscious of the importance of rates to the Northern Ireland budget and of the revenue from industrial and domestic rates. The burden of rates must be shared in a fair and open manner.

The ability of householders to pay should be considered, and adequate relief must be provided for those over pension age or on low incomes.

The report recognises the importance of a strong manufacturing base in Northern Ireland and the impact that the removal of industrial derating could have on that sector. The report, therefore, calls on the Secretary of State to freeze industrial rates at 25% for a further year, until a planned major review has been carried out.

The report looks at the range of assistance that is available to help domestic householders with their rates bills. It welcomes the further £4 million committed to enhanced relief for pensioners following the discussions by the political parties at St Andrews. The report calls for more study of such issues as transitional relief and discounts for disabled people and single-person households, and it supports the policy of providing assistance for student householders. However, it is concerned that the proposed system will benefit landlords rather than students, and it calls for urgent work to be done to find a better way to deliver that assistance.

The subgroup was asked to consider the capping of domestic rates. The organisations that gave evidence were divided on the issue, as were the parties represented on the subgroup. Nevertheless, there was agreement that something had to be done to help those house­holders on low incomes who live in high-value homes and who are faced with extremely high rates bills — the so-called asset rich and cash poor. The report recommends a detailed study of the cost and impact of introducing a cap at various levels, including consideration of other ways of helping the asset rich and cash poor.

The report also highlights the serious matter of the uptake of relief schemes for vulnerable and low-income households, which applies to rates and water charges. It matters little how generous the relief schemes are if people do not claim them. The report found that up to 24,000 people who may be entitled to housing benefit — a passport benefit for help towards rates payments — are not claiming it. The report makes clear that the low uptake of passport benefits must be tackled as a priority.

The third substantive issue that the subgroup was asked to address was the introduction of water charges. Members will recall that water charges were debated in the Chamber on 18 December 2006 and that the motion was passed unanimously. The report reaffirms the strong opposition of all parties to water reform and supports the principle that the provision of water services should remain permanently in the public sector. That view was reflected in the written and oral evidence to the subgroup. The report calls for the deferment of the scheme until the restored Assembly is able to consider it. Despite almost universal opposition to the scheme, the Secretary of State has steadfastly set his face against any deferment of water charges, which are to be imposed from April. The subgroup would want me to reaffirm the need for the Assembly to send a clear message to the Government that it rejects their approach.

The report’s main conclusion on water reform is that if water charges are to be imposed — as now seems inevitable — the restored Executive must use the planned phasing-in period of three years to undertake a fundamental review of the whole water reform process and examine all available models and options with a view to making any necessary legislative, structural, or other changes from April 2010.

The subgroup also considered the detail of the proposals and had serious concerns about many aspects of the proposals, not least openness and transparency, particularly with regard to the elderly and those who are unable to pay.

Madam Speaker, I know that I am running out of time. A major concern highlighted in the executive summary of the report is the worrying and alarming — and very public — breakdown in relations and trust between the Consumer Council and the Government, in the guise of the Department for Regional Development and the Water Service. The Consumer Council is a statutory body that was set up to promote and safeguard the interests of consumers, and the extent of the frustration and obstruction felt by the council was clearly evident in its oral and written evidence to the subgroup.

I am sure that Members will all agree that this is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue and must be reformed.

I commend the report.

Mr Shannon: I thank all the staff for their help. They certainly give us a lot of guidance and support and answered a lot of questions that we had on the issues.

As a member of the Subgroup on the Comprehensive Spending Review and Programme for Government; Rates Charges and Water Reform, I listened to and read carefully the evidence presented, and considered the policy that I believe to be in the best interests of my constituents and Northern Ireland as a whole.

The report and its recommendations have been well researched, and there are many worthy recommendations that must be implemented as a matter of urgency. Of the 33 recommendations made, I will highlight a select few that have been brought to my attention, especially by my constituents, which I feel must be urgently addressed.

One of these is the rates review, which is the most important one, and the issue that was raised with me by the most people. It is linked to manufacturing and small business in the Province. The Federation of Small Businesses has over 6,000 members in Northern Ireland. These Members do not enjoy the rates relief that their counterparts on the mainland enjoy, never mind the further burdens that will be imposed by the new rates review.

As has been stated in the review, manufacturing provides over 90,000 jobs in the Province, with a further 45,000 jobs supplementing the industry. The fact of the matter is that with no relief, and with business being judged on the size of the building as opposed to the profit size of the company — for example, a warehouse for plastic boxes will take up more space than somewhere that makes computer chips — the ability to pay huge charges is not the same. This is the reason relief for manufacturing and small businesses must be a priority.

As found in the reports for the Preparation for Government Committee on economic development for Northern Ireland, businesses must be encouraged if the Province is to flourish and achieve its potential. The recommendation to freeze industrial rates at 25% is a step on the road of encouraging business growth instead of being a factor which makes companies decide to relocate to overseas destinations that do not tax the life out of businesses that set up there — they recognise that to encourage businesses is to encourage growth and development. It is a sad fact that we must learn from so-called Third World countries that small relief can bring a great deal of change.

I have had many elderly constituents in my advice centre over the past few months who have genuinely been shocked and frightened at the proposed cost of the new rates bills, never mind the added burden of water rates on top of this. I have had widowed pensioners coming in to me who bought their homes 50 years ago in Newtownards for as little as £7,000, according to them and according to a study carried out by the University of Ulster. One pensioner in particular paid off the mortgage when she retired and now lives alone in the house since her husband passed away. She is managing on her state pension of around £80 per week. One morning she got a letter from the Valuation and Lands Agency saying that her property has now been valued at £200,000 and that she will have to pay a rates bill of over £2,500 per year. The maths do not work out.

This is why charities such as Age Concern have campaigned and lobbied for a rates relief enhancement, not only for pensioners as a right, but also a further enhancement for those living alone, recognising that they are under more financial pressure than those living together. To expect them to pay based on the size and area of their home is not a possibility, and the subsequent recommendation that resources be made available is essential.

Our elderly are already living in a poverty trap in the Province, and to thrust them further down this trail cannot be accepted. The Assembly must ensure that something is done sooner rather than later.

The same must be highlighted for other vulnerable people in our society — the disabled, those in low-income homes and students. Although there is a duty to ensure that the best possible service is provided, this cannot be done at the expense of someone choosing between heating and paying a rates bill for services that they alone could not possibly be generating. This is also the reason that the recommendation for a single-person’s discount is valid, as such people do not generate the same amount of service provision, or water and sewerage use, as the six-person household next door.

11.00 am

Much publicity has been given to the fact that there will be relief for low-income families in receipt of housing benefit and other benefits. However, it is estimated that over 200,000 households in the Province are entitled to housing benefit but do not claim it. It follows that those households will be unaware that relief is available for rates and water bills. The Government have found that too many people who should not have to pay the full amount are in fact paying the full amount, to the detriment of their families.

An addendum was added to the report concerning the valuation of homes with agricultural clauses attached. Rates are charged in accordance the with valuation of houses; yet the position is not that simple. Consider the case of a house in the countryside, worth £300,000 but saddled with an agricultural clause. Due to the planning condition that accompanies that clause, while the valuation is calculated at £300,000, the market value of that house is half that. My party tried to highlight such cases in Committee.

I have looked into that matter and taken advice on it. I consulted three estate agents in my constituency, and they confirm that a house with an agricultural clause and a planning condition attached has a market price only 50% of its valuation. Only two organisations in Northern Ireland — one a building society, the other a bank — are prepared to lend on the strength of such houses. That must be promptly addressed.

The Government maintain that the 20% discount due to all farmers’ dwellings in the countryside is sufficient. However, houses with agricultural clauses should be in a class of their own. I do not wish to be trite. Those homes should be considered on their own merits. Application of a 20% discount means that a £300,000 house will be valued at £240,000, yet, as I pointed out earlier, the real value of such a house is £150,000.

Dwellings with agricultural clauses and planning permission restrictions have lost value as a result of legislation; yet for the purposes of rating they are valued at a much higher figure. Why should salt be rubbed in the wound by charging at the higher value for rating? It is neither right nor fair. That must be addressed, as the Committee recommends.

In the Province house prices rise by £1,000 per month, yet incomes do not rise at the same rate. A house worth £200,000 five years ago is now worth vastly more. Northern Ireland is second only to London in terms of rising property prices, and that makes the case for rates to be capped — as they are in Scotland, England and Wales. A great many house buyers in the Province, especially first-time buyers, are aware of the problems of trying to buy at such very high values. I read in the newspaper yesterday that the Halifax Building Society has predicted that, this year, more people than ever before will take a chance with their mortgage payments, as a result of the rises in domestic and water rates. They will either be only just able to meet their mortgage payments, or they will find themselves in financial difficulties. It is atrocious that in Northern Ireland the cap on rates is set at £500,000, while wages are 20% lower than on the mainland.

I could highlight other issues, but I will leave them to other Members. The report’s recommendations provide sufficient reasons for action either by the Secretary of State or by the Assembly. I make one other point in support of the worried and groaning middle classes. To buy their houses, they have gone out on a limb; they are now contemplating rising water, domestic and mortgage rates. Members must take a stand on their behalf. People used to be faced with terrorism by the gun; now they face terrorism by taxation. Members must ensure that the necessary reform comes at an affordable price and that there is greater focus on efficiency than on throwing people’s hard-earned money like bread on the water. I support the Committee’s recommendations.

Mr Cree: I support the report and congratulate the staff who carried out such extensive work in such a short time.

The report falls into three parts; I would like to highlight a few points on water reform. Water charging is something that concerns everyone and, from the outset, the water reform unit and the Water Service have been generally unhelpful in providing the necessary information about what was planned with respect to water charges. This weekend Members will have read further revelations about what is happening with Northern Ireland Water, the new company set up to drive the whole issue forward.

The subgroup was firmly of the opinion that the whole process of water reform should be referred back to the devolved Assembly for consideration — that is the most important thing. This is the only issue that has united all the political parties; they are all totally opposed to the introduction of water charges. When the industry was privatised across the water, it received a green dowry to update the water and sewerage services. That has yet to happen here. After the comprehensive spending review there was a figure of £50 million dedicated to Northern Ireland, but that money was put into the general pot and not ring-fenced for water charges. Now we face the consequences of 30 years of Government under­investment in these services and we have been asked to pay to bring them up to standard. We believe that there are better ways to modernise water and sewerage services and other models that would be more acceptable than one based on the rateable value of property. That makes no sense whatsoever.

There are many concerns about the details. The subgroup was concerned about the powers of the regulator. That is an issue that needs to be underscored:

“the Regulator must be given full authority and enforcement powers from 1 April 2007, on all matters including issues relating to the setting of charges and the disposal of land or assets.”

Mr Molloy has already referred to the assets and the 130-odd properties that are surplus to requirements. That would be a good dowry for any private company, and it needs to be controlled.

There is also the issue of the operation of the company. Members know that the capital value of the company has been written down from the Water Service’s £5·4 billion to £1 billion — there is no particular reason for that. We know that the rate of return has been agreed at 5·8%, which is above what is obtained on the market generally. There is no reason for the £1 billion figure; simple arithmetic suggests that if we reduce it to £500 million there would be half that amount in savings to those who use the water. We also believe that the 5·8% figure should be reduced to something more realistic — 3·5% has been suggested.

The bad-debt provision in this new company is another major concern for anyone involved in business. We know that the figure has been set at 5% and that the figures across the water are many times greater than that. Companies have been operating across the water for some time, and one in four cases coming before the courts are for the non-payment of water charges. There is a red alert on the debt provision for companies. At the end of the day, those who are going to pay the charges are going to pay for the inefficiencies in the company.

The most important factor in deciding the value of the company was how it would do its business. The subgroup pushed for a long time to have sight of a business plan. The strategic business plan is now at a fairly advanced stage, but the Department and the Minister have refused to make it available. We are told that it is commercially sensitive. I do not see how a Department and a Government-owned company can be commercially sensitive. That is the main building block of Northern Ireland Water. We are heading towards the implementation of water charges from 1 April, and we do not know whether that company will be successful. Remember that the safety net for inefficiencies and additional costs is the poor consumer.

The Consumer Council did not get full co-operation from the water reform unit — the first time that that has happened — and that was a major concern for many members of the subgroup. Northern Ireland Water should have a duty to consult the Consumer Council on all matters that may impact on consumers, including the assessment of policies, which should be subjected to an equality impact assessment.

Mr Molloy referred to the vulnerable in society. We have the assurance of a limited affordability tariff for those claiming benefits. However, we have no guarantee that that will continue after 2010. We need an assurance that that will happen and that it will be funded by HM Treasury.

Unfortunately, it looks increasingly likely that we will not be able to do anything by 1 April. The three-year phasing-in period anticipated by the Government is inadequate. The subgroup and the Committee on the Programme for Government have agreed that the phasing-in period should be extended from three years to five. I would like to see the first year water charges capped until a new Assembly can take the matter forward logically and soundly.

Ms Ritchie: I thank the Chairmen of the Committee for their assistance, kindness and courtesy over the five- to six-week period, and also the staff for their endurance, assistance, support and guidance.

The report should be commended to the Assembly for the work and in-depth research that have gone into three substantial subjects. The comprehensive spending review, the Programme for Government, rates charges and water reform are fundamental priority issues that will provide strategic directions for a future Executive to build and work on. The SDLP believes that for such work to continue and be built on there is a compelling political imperative to restore the political institutions so that the areas and priorities identified in the report can become the bedrock on which a future Executive builds policies and develops, grows and nurtures them for the betterment of everybody who lives here.

The SDLP wants to take Northern Ireland, as an integral part of the island, in a slightly different direction from that steered by the current direct-rule Administration.

Mr Kennedy: No, thank you.

Ms Ritchie: The SDLP wants to ensure the equitable delivery of services that conform to good equality standards, and to make those services accessible to all, whether one lives in an urban or a rural community. I am sure — despite the catcalls from across the Chamber — that everybody believes in setting those standards and wants the best for their constituents. The SDLP wants to ensure that the fruits of a future restored Executive are enjoyed by all, irrespective of where one lives. We must strive to eradicate regional disparities and uphold the principle of equality for all at every opportunity.

11.15 am

We must ensure that a more robust package from the Chancellor, together with North/South funds, will create the necessary mechanisms to fund the major infrastructure improvements that we have so earnestly sought and that all investment opportunities are investigated and developed. We must rebuild the economy and ensure that young people are equipped with the educational qualifications, skills and training that will enable them to remain here, avoid the brain drain and make their contribution to the development of this place.

Those are the principles on which we must build our future. Urgent political progress is required, which will hopefully be achieved by the end of March. To appreciate fully the real extent of the work of the Committee for the Programme for Government and the nature of the submissions and evidence taken, we must consider the recommendations of its report, some of which are highly technically complicated.

First, in relation to the comprehensive spending review, my party supports the recommendations of the subgroup on economic issues. The Committee on the Programme for Government must present the Chancellor with a robust set of counter-proposals. I regret that we have not been given the opportunity to do so prior to tonight’s deadline. I hope that that opportunity will arise following the elections on 7 March.

One of the first priorities of a restored Executive must be to engage in the preparation of the comprehensive spending review by the summer of this year and the urgent development of the draft priorities and Budget documents for consultation. Various issues have been identified as spending priorities, including the need to expand the private-sector economy by attracting more foreign investment and supporting local businesses. Skills and training should be a priority for future investment, as should internal and external transport links and investment in public transport. The comprehensive spending review should be part of a strategic approach to tackling poverty on a holistic basis.

Direct parallels can be drawn with the previous reports published by the Subgroup on Economic Challenges; however, our economy’s problems have been defined in this document. Urgent solutions must be applied, requiring political impetus and support from a restored Executive to ensure that they are carried through and that all investment opportunities are developed.

The report of the Committee on the Programme for Government also dealt with the two contentious issues of rate charges and water reform. The SDLP believe that rates should be based on the ability to pay. We agree with the Committee that the proposed water reform agenda must be deferred. In the debate in this Assembly on 18 December, all parties declared their opposition to the imposition of water charges. However, the Secretary of State stubbornly refused to listen to the wishes of the Assembly. So much for the British direct-rule Administration that refused to listen to the people of Northern Ireland. They have sent the clear message that only the restoration of our own political destiny will allow us to take control.

The SDLP supports the report’s recommendations, which press the Government to defer the water reforms until they can be considered by a devolved Administration. We must remember that rating reform and water reform are being used by the direct-rule Administration as mechanisms for the collection of money from the local population in order to invest in the upgrading of a weak infrastructure, which was allowed to crumble over many years. In a very punitive way, working families and people on low incomes are being forced to pay for the deficits of previous direct-rule Administrations that failed to live up to the requirements of the people.

That is a serious matter, because it impacts on many people throughout Northern Ireland. If water charges are introduced without the Assembly being restored, the role of the regulator must be visibly strengthened, the capital valuation of the Government-owned company (Go-co) must be reduced from £1 billion to £500 million and the required rate of return must be lowered from 5·8% to 3·5%.

The subgroup did a considerable amount of work and took a great deal of oral and written evidence — in fact, it heard an entire day of evidence on water reform alone. The subgroup was extremely concerned about the breakdown of the relationship between the Consumer Council and the Government. However, that was the Government’s fault, because they obdurately refused to provide the Consumer Council with detailed information for fear of strengthening its wish to protect the consumer. The Government have no interest in the consumer, and parties must challenge that.

To ensure that the report’s recommendations are implemented and that the views of political parties are heard, each party must subscribe fully to the principles of power sharing and policing. That requires the full implementation of power sharing and support for policing, and the restoration of the Executive by 26 March 2007. Restoration would create a pathway that would enable the Assembly later this year to develop further our economy, our infrastructure, and our education, skills and training programme. It would also ensure that investment opportunities, not only on the island of Ireland and in Great Britain but further afield in the global economy, were fully explored for the benefit of all. To do so would create a better life for all the people who live here and for future generations, and it is within the parties’ grasp today. Let us seize that opportunity to lead the people to a better future.

Mr Neeson: I received the 582-page report at 9.45 am — that is unacceptable. By the same token, Peter Hain decided to exclude the Alliance Party from the subgroup. If he believes that the political drivelling between the DUP and Sinn Féin is the way forward, I must tell him that a sectarian, political carve-up is not the way forward. Despite receiving the report so late, I intend to make a few comments on its contents.

Several MLAs went to Downing Street to receive the Chancellor’s response on the so-called peace dividend. The main peace dividend is based on the £1 billion sale of public-sector assets. To base any economy on the sale of public-sector assets is not the way in which to progress. Recommendation 5 in the report states:

“The sub-group notes the progress in relation to Efficiency Development Plans and the need to achieve efficiency savings of around £770m by 2010/11 for investment in frontline services and recommends that a restored Executive engages in early consultation on the full range and implications of these plans.”

I accept that. I also agree with recommendation 6, which states:

“The sub-group recommends that continuing the drive for greater efficiency must be a priority for a restored Executive but that such efficiencies must not be achieved at the cost of cuts to vital frontline services.”

If restoration happens, one of the first decisions for an Executive to take will be to reduce the artificially created 10 Departments to a more acceptable and efficient number.

I suggest, as the Secretary of State has suggested, that we return to the six-Department set-up. We have had a radical review of public administration and local government; the same must now happen to central Government.

I agree with Francie Molloy that, when it comes to rates charges, the interests of vulnerable groups, particularly the elderly and the less well off, must be looked after. That should be a priority.

I spoke in the debate on water reform. I repeat that what is happening at the moment is privatisation of the Water Service through the back door. What is being proposed is not a utility tax but a property tax. That must be a priority.

It has been interesting to listen to various Members this morning. Six months ago they were all saying that there was no way that we were going to have water charges. Everyone that I have listened to this morning seems to have done a U-turn and accepted the whole prospect of water charges being forced upon the people of Northern Ireland this year. That is a convenient way for them to avoid having to make the decision that should have been made by a devolved Government. We all know that certain parties did not want to take on the responsibility of deciding on water charges. It seems that most of the political parties represented here this morning have accepted the principle.

In relation to the priorities that have been identified, there is no doubt that health must be given the necessary resources. This afternoon’s debate on Muckamore Abbey Hospital will show the serious shortcomings of the Health Service.

I commend the work of the Committee in relation to the Bain Report and recognise that if education is to move forward, there must be some form of compromise. That was identified in last week’s debate.

The economic subgroup met during the summer of last year. One of the big issues that came up time after time was the shortage of skills in the workforce. It must be a priority of a restored Executive to develop the skills that are necessary in a twenty-first century economy. One of the things that the subgroup recognised was that the emergence of the Celtic tiger was based on the development of skills. I welcome that.

Infrastructure is a vital issue in relation not only to the economy, but to the development of society in Northern Ireland as a whole. One thing that can be said about the period of devolution is that it was the Assembly that took the decision to develop the rail infrastructure and purchase new rolling stock. That would not have happened if we had not had devolution. It is desperately important that we see the restoration of devolution.

As for the other priorities, the reduction in EU funding is going to have a major impact on public spending.

When we had Objective 1 status, we wasted the opportunity. The Republic of Ireland also had Objective 1 status and used that to develop its infrastructure. In many ways we are now playing catch-up in the develop­ment of infrastructure, and that is why I welcome last week’s decision by the Irish Government to provide funds for improving North/South infrastructure.

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

11.30 am

The final priority is to recognise the pressures on social housing. The Housing Executive no longer builds new houses; that is left to housing associations. This must become a priority to be urgently addressed, given the growing population in Northern Ireland.

I am sorry that I have had so little time to go through the report and do it the justice that it deserves. Like other Members, I pay tribute to the staff who worked along with Committee members to produce this substantial report in a very short time.

Mr Weir: I join with others in thanking the staff and the many witnesses who gave oral and written evidence.

As other Members have said, the report does not stand in isolation. It should be read in conjunction with the economic issues report. Some Members, including Mr Neeson, did not have very long to read the report, but I should like to correct one point that he made: he accused parties — and I am speaking particularly for my party — of not being opposed to water charges. We have been consistently opposed to water charges, and I suspect that a number of the other parties also take that view. Had Mr Neeson taken time to read the terms of reference of the report, he would have seen that, because we were dealing with three issues in such a short time, our scope was very limited, particularly with regard to water reform.

We were to consider the arrangements for water reform as set out in the draft Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, the strategic business plan, the governance of the Go-co, the issue of licence, and the billing and collection of water charges. Whether or not the Committee supported water charges was not within its terms of reference, and it is unfortunate that Mr Neeson did not realise that. The recommendations that we made on that topic were restricted to those areas.

Mr P Robinson: Would it be worth pointing out to the Member from the Alliance Party that the Democratic Unionist Party — not alone on the Committee — believed that the Alliance Party should have had membership? Miracles can happen. It could get enough Members elected to enable it to be represented in a future Executive. It should have had membership, and the Committee asked the Secretary of State to reconsider that.

Mr Weir: Obviously the Secretary of State hardened his heart against that. Unfortunately, he did not share our level of optimism about the Alliance Party.

A wide range of issues was put to the Committee, and there were three themes: the comprehensive spending review, the rates issue, and water charges. I will deal briefly with each in turn. The comprehensive spending review, as was indicated by a number of people who gave evidence, showed the voodoo economics of the Chancellor’s statement. The so-called massive bonus that was supposed to be coming to Northern Ireland — the £50 billion that was trailed when the parties met — when analysed, amounted to almost nothing. The Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland (ERINI) said that when economic pressures such as inflation and others are taken into account, the money announced by the Chancellor will, at best, only enable us to stand still. Our party has a grave worry that unless the Government put a proper economic package in place, any new institutions will be strangled at birth.

The DUP has said consistently that not only is a proper economic package a requirement — among other requirements, including full support for policing and justice — but that the issue must be properly resolved if we are to have a firm foundation for a way forward for Northern Ireland.

The welcome that we have given to value-for-money studies has been mentioned. The reviews that are to be put in place to identify and deliver efficiency savings are to be welcomed. However, as another Member indicated, a question mark must be put over those efficiency savings. Some £770 million of efficiency savings will supposedly be achieved, but efficiency savings must not become a code word for the removal of front-line services.

During a meeting of the subgroup, it arose that discussions on proposals to reduce the number of pension credit advisers throughout Northern Ireland are taking place. That will be presented as an efficiency saving, but it will impact on front-line services by reducing the level of advice available to pensioners. That, in turn, will lead to fewer pensioners taking up benefits. We must send out a strong warning that the introduction of the most efficient system to Northern Ireland should not come about at the expense of front-line services.

Moreover, unless the Government provide proper investment to restructure the economy in the way in which we all want, movement must be made towards more reliance on the private sector. That will require a certain level of initial investment. An innovation fund was identified, and the subgroup accepted that it was important that we focus on skills and training. However, if the Government are not prepared to put their money where their mouth is initially, we will not be able to rely more on the private sector.

As Members have stated, we must get away from the ridiculous situation of massive departmental underspend. Reference was made to the amount that Departments have for resources and, in particular, to the failure to spend on capital investment. In the past year, we have borrowed £411 million under the reinvestment and reform initiative, yet there has been a capital underspend of £227 million. To pay interest on a borrowed amount as high as £411 million while not spending £227 million is absolute nonsense. There must be a major examination of the impact of that underspend.

A freeze must be put on the end to industrial derating — the manufacturing base cannot be attacked further. There must be joined-up thinking on the subject. We are constantly lectured on the need for the Northern Ireland economy to be restructured, and we accept that, but the private sector needs to grow substantially. That cannot happen, however, if manufacturing jobs here are attacked. Clear evidence exists that if industrial derating is phased out, rather than developed, the 90,000 manufacturing jobs in Northern Ireland, as well as the 45,000 jobs that depend on manufacturing, will be under threat. Capital is much more fluid than it used to be, and therefore it is relatively easy for businesses simply to leave Northern Ireland and go elsewhere. As such, it is vital that the manufacturing base be protected.

The subgroup was also struck by the manufacturing sector’s acceptance of the need to invest in skills and training. The manufacturing sector proposed that there be a 5% compulsory surcharge on industrial rates, provided it is part of an overall freeze. That money would be ring-fenced to promote skills and training. The subgroup welcomed that very helpful suggestion.

The issue of a rates cap divided the subgroup, but my party and one other party indicated that it would be utterly inappropriate if people in Northern Ireland were to end up paying more rates than the richest person with the largest property in any other part of the United Kingdom. The appropriate level of rates cap must be examined to ensure that it properly protects people. Furthermore, at whatever level that cap is set, we must take a greater degree of cognisance of those people who fall below it. We must ensure that the proposed rates hikes are not simply imposed at the level that has been suggested.

I welcome the subgroup’s support for a longer phasing-in period for such people. The announcement of rate relief for pensioners is also welcome, although that should go much further.

Members have highlighted the lack of clarity on the issue of water reform. The Consumer Council indicated that there are between 20% and 50% of gross inefficiencies in the system. Surely the Government should tackle those before considering any water reform. We might find that, were those inefficiencies properly tackled, a large amount of the necessary capital for investment would be raised.

The subgroup expressed concern in the report at the circumscribed powers of the regulator, and that matter must be tackled.

Finally, the report indicated the level of bad debt that is expected, even in the absence of an organised campaign to urge people not to pay water charges. There is concern that the additional whammy of the burden of others’ bad debt will be placed on those who do their best to pay their rates bills.

The report covers a range of issues, and I commend it to the House.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. All the political parties on the subgroup have gone over the report. I attended the last three meetings of the subgroup, and I found its work on several factors productive and interesting. The co-operative manner in which it worked has resulted in the report that we now discuss.

I shall be brief, a LeasCheann Comhairle, because the subgroup covered the issues in detail, and most of those issues have also been dealt with today. However, I have a few points to make.

On the economic package that has been discussed with the British Exchequer, it has been agreed that the British Government have failed to produce any new moneys for a peace dividend or for a new start for a Government in this part of Ireland. That continues to be a priority for all political parties. The subgroup’s example of a united voice could — and should — be of benefit.

Sinn Féin is concerned that “efficiency savings” is a code for cuts, and cuts made for no other reason than to save money. Every Department must be run efficiently — no one can argue with that. Whether civil servant or politician, there is a duty to ensure that public money is spent efficiently. However, there are deep concerns that the efficiencies mentioned in the CSR are in order to make financial savings rather than to ensure an efficient public service.

Recommendation 10 states that the CSR should be:

“part of a strategic approach to tackle poverty on the basis of objective need as envisaged in the new Anti-Poverty Strategy.”

That is important to Sinn Féin. A real opportunity for joined-up thinking and government exists. The CSR can be integral to tackling poverty through the anti-poverty strategy, and it would be a loss if that did not happen.

Sinn Féin supports the report’s recommendations on industrial derating. An incoming Executive must review the matter, and measures must be introduced to ensure that manufacturing operates on a level playing field.

Sinn Féin cannot support domestic capping, and that is outlined in the report. It is not fair and transparent that those who live in the more expensive properties should pay less in rates and be subsidised by those on lower incomes.

11.45 am

Some people who own and live in their properties need assistance. That situation has been referred to as being property rich and income poor. However, Sinn Féin cannot agree with a blanket cap.

Despite the comments of some Members from the Alliance Party, the political parties agreed that the Government’s plans to introduce water charging are not the way forward. Although members of the subgroup had a tight remit within which to work, and although there were varying views on how to move forward on water charging, local political parties do not favour the process that direct-rule Ministers outlined. As a result, several possible ways forward are suggested in the report, and any incoming Executive will need to examine them.

However, the report is valuable only if its recommendations are implemented. All the political parties that were involved in producing the report did good work. They managed to reach agreement on the majority of the issues that are discussed in the report. Of course, there was some disagreement: we all come to politics with different views, but difference is not always a bad thing. However, we need an Executive if the report’s recommendations are to be implemented. I am sure that all the political parties that are in the Chamber agree that the last thing that we want is for the report to lie on a desk somewhere gathering dust for another two, five or 10 years or for a political lifetime. If that happens, the opportunity that we have been given will have been wasted. Therefore I hope that, in the coming months, we have an Executive and an Assembly that can implement the recommendations that the four main political parties set out. The Committee showed one thing: we can work together and reach agreement on socio-economic issues for the betterment of all. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The next Member to speak is Ms Dawn Purvis. As she is making her maiden speech, this will be the first occasion on which the Assembly will have heard from her. I am sure that Members are by now aware that the convention is that such speeches are heard without interruption.

Ms Purvis: It is an honour and a privilege to serve as a Member for East Belfast. However, it would be remiss of me to not refer to the previous holder of that seat, David Ervine. As you know, he was an Assembly Member from 1998 until his death. He spoke in many debates, and I am sure that a lot of banter went on between him and his colleagues.

Many of the motions to which he spoke concerned those in our community who are underprivileged, vulnerable and disadvantaged. The tributes that poured in after his death came from many of those socially excluded groups. However, David was about much more than that. He was a man who took great risks for peace; I remember that on several occasions he was called a traitor, a Lundy and a sell-out merchant. However, that did not deter him from pursuing his vision of creating a better society for all our citizens.

One particular occasion springs to mind: 14 September 1997 in Block B in Castle Buildings. The usual calls of Lundy and traitor were heard, but on that day, political parties both encouraged and showed courage to break the ground, walk the walk and fight, argue and debate for their corners. Many of us would not be sitting in the Chamber today had those courageous steps not been taken.

Many tributes have been paid to David Ervine over the past couple of weeks, particularly from his colleagues and from East Belfast Members. I feel that I should quote one such tribute, which said that David Ervine was:

“an able, energetic and committed representative eager to improve the lives of his constituents”.

That is a fitting tribute to a dedicated east Belfast man who broke the ground on which others walk.

However, East Belfast is a changing constituency. While there is plenty, there is poverty among that plenty. There is an inner city, which is becoming marginalised and apathetic, with demographic changes and declining industries. It is a time of massive change. In such times, as we have seen over the past 10 years, people feel insecure and vulnerable, and it is up to community leaders and politicians, in particular, to manage that change. Managing change is about empowering people and encouraging communities to embrace all that is positive in that change. There are new investments, new developments and new jobs, but there is an increasingly marginalised community that does not have access to them. We need increasing investment in education and skills to empower people to gain that access.

As an Assembly Member for East Belfast, I am duty bound to improve the quality of people’s lives. I will continue to provide a service, as David did, to the constituents in East Belfast, especially as regards housing. We have a depleted social housing stock, and people cannot access the adequate housing that they need; year after year we have increasing numbers of people presenting themselves as homeless; and we have those who cannot afford to buy their own homes, and those who are living in the private rental sector. All of those issues need to be considered.

There is also the matter of welfare benefits. Some Members referred to passport benefits with respect to water rates and domestic rates. As long as there are thousands of people who cannot access those benefits, there is a need for help and advice to be given.

As long as there is poverty, and as long as there is inequality in education, health and gender, it will be my duty to articulate the needs of the working and workless classes in East Belfast. I am delighted that we have a Programme for Government — it is through that programme that people in impoverished areas and those in the voluntary and community sectors can see the policies that the Government intend to implement. However, although words are good, we need action plans. Anti-poverty strategies are fantastic, but we need action plans. We need to be able to measure them to ensure that they reach those who are most in need.

I appeal to all our political leaders, who have it in their gift to give us accountable democracy, to do just that. It is something that we all crave. There have been debates on the Programme for Government and on implementation, but I appeal to those people because we are tantalisingly close to giving our society what it needs — peace and stability. I appeal to everyone to hold their nerve and to leave us a legacy, and to remember those who have gone before.

The Chairperson of the Subgroup on the Comprehensive Spending Review and Programme for Government; Rates Charges and Water Reform (Dr Birnie): I am very pleased to be winding up the debate. It has all moved a little bit faster than had been anticipated.

There were three parts to the remit of the subgroup, and they are reflected in the report: the comprehensive spending review, rates reform, and the water supply and sewerage industry. As Mr Neeson pointed out, the report is lengthy, running to around 580 pages. It is worth reminding ourselves of the terms of reference. The subgroup was to look at a number of things: major pressures on spending, efficiency possibilities, and investment needs during the comprehensive spending review period.

Additionally, we were to consider any financial or economic package coming from the Treasury. We were assisted on that point by the work of one of the other subgroups, which concentrated largely on the subject. You will see cross-references between our report and the report coming from that subgroup. Ms Purvis referred to some of the social priorities that might be included in such a financial package, as did other Members during this morning’s debate.

The subgroup rapidly ran into the limitations of the timetable within which the CSR is being developed for Northern Ireland. It was too early to identify departmental priorities in detail. In addition, one of the witnesses, Mr Victor Hewitt, Director of ERINI pointed out the “paucity of paper” on the process in Northern Ireland. This created further difficulties for the work of the subgroup.

Sean Neeson has already referred to the importance of efficiency savings. The subgroup was very impressed by evidence from witnesses of the dangers of these and of the past reality that efficiency savings gained in practice were simply cuts in front-line spending.

In a sense, considering CSR is like gazing into a crystal ball. We were looking at various public-spending scenarios for the next three to four years. Subgroup members were struck and concerned by one such scenario. Even if — and this may be optimistic — the final settlement through the Barnett formula and the CSR is that spending over the next three years in Northern Ireland grows at 3·5% nominally every year, all of that and more could be swallowed up and more by cost pressures. That would put even more pressure on gaining efficiency savings and making as much as possible through the sale of assets.

Certainly, the bottom line emerging from the subgroup’s consideration was that whereas the previous CSR period, 2004 to the present, saw growth in public spending of the order of 3% in Northern Ireland in real terms — that is, over and above the RPI (retail price index) inflation rate — that will not happen this time. Northern Ireland will be doing well to get 1% above RPI every year. That creates great stringency on what can be done in terms of identifying departmental spending priorities. Mr Weir referred to that point.

Therefore, if the terms of reference implied that the subgroup had to draft the Budget for Northern Ireland and the priorities to go into the Programme for Government, which will appear in December 2007, it did not carry them out. Of course, that was an almost impossible task to complete in a handful of meetings. It is left to a future Assembly to identify some means of judging the merits of the levels of spending within and between the 10 Northern Ireland Departments.

It is worth pointing out that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) takes up roughly 45% of the £8 billion or so of block grant for public expenditure. Theoretically, if the level of health spending continued to grow at the rate at which it grew in some recent years — namely 7% to 10% nominal growth per annum — Northern Ireland would eventually get to the ludicrous and absurd position at which almost 100% of the Northern Ireland block grant was being spent on health and nothing was being spent on schools, roads, industrial development or the environ­ment. That is not to deny the great need for health spending that will be the subject of debate later today.

That illustrates some of the fundamental dilemmas with which, it is to be hoped, a future Executive and Assembly will get to struggle.

12.00 noon

The second area of the subgroup’s remit was the reform of domestic and industrial rates. The subgroup’s terms of reference refer to its considering possible caps on domestic and industrial rates and how best to increase relief for low-income groups, especially pensioners.

The issue of a possible cap is twofold: whether to impose a cap and, if so, at what level. Following the so-called St Andrews Agreement, the official line from Government seems to be that they might favour a cap on the rateable value of each house set at £500,000. The highest rate currently being paid in Great Britain — £2,950 — is for a band H house in the Sedgefield area, interestingly enough. That is, I believe, the Prime Minister’s constituency. However, some members of the subgroup were impressed by witness arguments that Northern Ireland is not the same as England, Scotland and Wales. Some witnesses maintained that, compared to many GB regions, Northern Ireland’s citizens have lower levels of disposable income and, in many cases, experience higher costs of living.

The subgroup considered a possible extension of the proposed relief for people with disabilities. Members looked favourably on the possibility of using some proportion, perhaps the highest category, of disability living allowance (DLA) recipients. We were obviously aware that the number of DLA recipients in Northern Ireland — 171,000 — is considerable, but one quarter are in the highest band.

After the St Andrews Agreement proposals, the subgroup considered also the findings of the Government’s pensioner rates relief working group, which reported just before Christmas. The subgroup was struck by the fact that, to some degree, that group had worked backwards from a somewhat arbitrary sum of money — £4 million — to determine the maximum possible increase in the allowance figure that could be made to provide pensioners with domestic rates relief.

With respect to the industrial rates, the subgroup noted that if the rating level on manufacturing were to increase from 25% to 35% in the financial year 2007-08, the increase in revenue received by Government would be £7·9 million. Of course, we now see that, as the rate has been frozen at 30%, that will not happen. That example gives Members some feel for the possible cost implications of various proposals in that area.

The subgroup was struck by the argument that whereas, in the past, the Government may have claimed that revenue of up to £80 million could be raised by introducing rating in the manufacturing sector, that would not happen, because companies would adjust either by moving their production entirely out of Northern Ireland if they had the capability, scale and multinational ability to do so, or if they were stuck, as it were, in a Northern Ireland location, by downsizing the physical scale of their factories and plant facilities. By implication, they would not, therefore, have to pay the full £80 million. The Government have been over-optimistic in that projection. Indeed, it was striking also that the Department had made little allowance for the fact that manufacturing employment and scale of production could be reduced because of the impact of industrial rating on its cost competitiveness.

As Jim Shannon said earlier, the subgroup was struck by the argument that the use of rateable value — by implication, floor space — may not have been a particularly fair way to assess the rating liability of various manufacturing enterprises.

The third matter that the subgroup considered was water reform. Peter Weir referred to the subgroup’s terms of reference. The subgroup had to examine The Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 and consider matters such as the strategic business plan, the governance and licensing of the Go-co, billing and the collection of water charges.

As has already been mentioned during the debate, there is, to some degree, a hierarchy of responses in the subgroup’s report. We all implicitly agreed that, ideally, water charging should be stopped — full stop. If, however, that does not happen, the second line of response, the default position, is to defer any action until a new Executive is in place and can give careful consideration to the matter. If that is not possible, our report considers how the system currently proposed — if, regrettably, there is charging — could be improved.

As other Members have said, we were greatly hindered by the lack of available information. We did not see any draft business plan for Northern Ireland Water Ltd. We were told that such a draft might be available in April, but we shall wait and see. Leslie Cree referred to that lack of information during his speech. I am tempted to say that we were annoyed by the drip feed of such information — this subject has plenty of scope for appalling puns.

Mr Neeson referred to the possibility that the current policy simply represents privatisation through the back door. I am sure that many Members regard that as more than a possibility. We were concerned by the rate-of-return figure of 5.8% compared to 5.1% for England. That figure seems to be higher here, but some evidence from the Department for Regional Development suggests that, when one takes into account tax differences in some way that is pretty much incomprehensible to most of us, there is actually equality in the real rate of return. That is another matter that bears careful investigation.

It is not clear, as Leslie Cree mentioned, why the figure of £1 billion was selected as the asset value of Northern Ireland Water Ltd. The subgroup endorsed the Consumer Council’s assertion that it is more important to get water reform right than to get it done. We are concerned that, if things go ahead as planned, by 2009-10 — which will represent the end of the tying of charges to England and Wales levels — water consumers and bill payers will be very much tied to whether adequate improvements in efficiency have been made and what has happened to the bad-debt problem, as Peter Weir said.

In conclusion, I again thank the subgroup staff for their massive and admirable efforts at a difficult time of year. I thank my colleague Mr McNarry, who took the Chair on two occasions. There was an impressive level of consensus in the subgroup, as John O’Dowd said. Four parties were represented, but I appreciate the argument of Sean Neeson that it could have been five. There were some differences among the parties, but I stress that the report’s proposals are carefully thought out and can inform any future Executive. I support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly takes note of the Report from the Committee on the Programme for Government on the Comprehensive Spending Review and Programme for Government; Rates Charges and Water Reform, and calls on the Secretary of State and / or the incoming Executive to take action to implement the recommendations in the Report.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Owing to the debate ending somewhat earlier than expected, I shall allow a few moments for those Members who wish to leave to do so and for arriving Members to take their seats.

Private Members’ Business

North/South Co-Operation

Mr Deputy Speaker: Two amendments to the motion have been selected and published on the Marshalled List; the amendments will be proposed in the order in which they appear on that list. When the debate has concluded, I shall put the Question on amendment No 1; if amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall. If amendment No 1 is not made, I shall put the Question on amendment No 2. I hope that that is clear.

Dr Farren: I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the increasing significance of North-South co-operation in a range of sectors such as health, agriculture, education, research and development, and on a range of infrastructure projects such as roads and public transport, energy and tourism; and calls for an intensification of such co-operation to maximise the mutual benefit to the people of the whole island.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to move the motion on all-Ireland co-operation, especially since today is the last chance that I shall have to contribute to debates in the Chamber. As a Southerner — or at least a Southerner for the first 30 years of my life; I am not terribly sure how to classify myself now — who received a warm, perhaps sometimes too warm, welcome wherever I went in Northern Ireland, I have always been anxious for relationships throughout our island to develop in a mutually harmonious and beneficial way. In recent years, particularly since the Good Friday Agreement, the pace of the intensification of North/South co-operation has pleased me. We now speak of an all-island economy in a mutually beneficial, not threatening, way, and there is evidence of that in certain investments and initiatives.

Mr Campbell: It may have been a slip of the tongue, but the Member said:

“We now speak of an all-island economy”.

Whom does he mean by “we”?

Dr Farren: Members can define “we” for themselves. However, many Members on Mr Campbell’s side of the Chamber — perhaps not all Members — are willing to react positively to certain proposals and initiatives. Those Members could be included in the “we” to whom I have referred.

As I was saying, there is evidence of the intensification of North/South co-operation in certain investments and initiatives: the upgrading of the Belfast to Dublin road is almost complete; a single energy market for the entire island will be in place before the end of the year; an integrated North/South gas supply has been created; there is an increasing number of cross-border hospital service contracts; joint research and development projects are being conducted by the island’s universities; the South has invested in City of Derry Airport; and there have been many smaller, but nonetheless significant, North/South initiatives by voluntary and community groups in both parts of the country.

All those initiatives highlight what can be described as the “normalisation” of practical co-operation with mutually beneficial outcomes.

12.15 pm

Indeed, such is the success of the North/South co-operation in recent years that there is no longer a question over its capacity to deliver economic and social benefits to both sides of the border. Rather, we are now recognising the current scale of North/South co-operation to be only a fraction of its full potential.

Achieving the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement in that respect has been hindered by suspension, and I trust that the days of suspension are rapidly drawing to a close. That is why the SDLP has been determined to ensure that all-Ireland initiatives should not be a hostage to political stalemate. Further­more, it is why, in the years since suspension, my party developed its ‘North South Makes Sense’ campaign, which is aimed at putting a clear focus on the opportunities that lie in joint initiatives across the entire island.

As we approach devolution, we want North/South co-operation to rise to an even greater level of development, and we want it to be achieved under the auspices of restored political institutions. That is why we particularly, and very warmly, welcome the proposals for enhanced North/South co-operation contained in the Irish Government’s new national development plan, which was published last week.

The plan invites the Assembly and its Executive to engage with their Southern counterparts in realising the potential in those proposals. However, the national development plan is not a set of proposals offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis; instead, it is a set of proposals to be negotiated and jointly developed. The plan contains proposals for significant Irish Government investment in North/South projects and initiatives for mutual benefit, which must be agreed with a restored Northern Ireland Executive and which will cover the period from 2007 to 2013.

The proposed package includes two quite innovative elements: first, joint investment in new strategic projects to benefit North and South; secondly, to open access to existing development funding on an all-island basis. A further element is the introduction of new agreed joint-funding measures with the Northern Ireland Executive following restoration.

The strategic projects and services highlighted in the Irish Government’s national development plan encompass such familiar matters as roads; rail; energy; tourism; health; education; telecommunications and so on. However, it is the scale and comprehensiveness of the proposed investments, and the opportunity for an agreed approach to developing and implementing the projects, that are most significant. In other words, it is an approach that should mark the end of back-to-back planning.

The second proposal to open up all-island funding opportunities is one that the SDLP has long urged. That proposal is modelled on the European Union example of funding that transcends political boundaries. The purposes envisaged for the proposed all-island funds could be in the following areas: education; skills; science and innovation; regional development; tourism development; poverty; social inclusion and community infrastructure.

Those funds would address the long-term challenges that the Irish and British Governments, as well as most Members in this House, agree must be faced in the modern global economy. Such funds would be awarded on a competitive basis, thereby rewarding innovation and collaboration and ensuring that funds are allocated to the best projects.

This is the very first time that all-island economic and social dimensions have been so prominently represented in an Irish Government national development plan. The proposals represent a massive opportunity to boost the economy and develop services, taking account of the needs and resources of the whole island. I trust that our restored Executive and Assembly will lose no time in entering negotiations in order to ensure that those proposals are realised.

There can only be a resounding yes to, for example, an integrated road network North and South, as well as east and west, that links Dublin, Belfast, Derry, Letterkenny, Sligo, Armagh and back to Newry; a resounding yes to the further development of all-island business opportunities under the auspices of InterTradeIreland, a North/South body that has already provided support for over 4,000 enterprises North and South; a resounding yes to enhanced developments of hospital, health and emergency services for communities along the border as well as on an all-island basis; a resounding yes to greater North/South investment in research and development in our universities and other centres of research in order to assist economic develop­ment in both parts of the country; and a resounding yes to additional funds being made available through the North/South Ministerial Council for projects intended to assist innovation, to help border communities and to promote all-island reconciliation initiatives.

We can do more together, in order to get more together. Our economies, North and South, face common challenges, so it makes sense to find common solutions. That is what the North/South agenda is, and must be, all about. Beyond the political and practical case for broad-based North/South co-operation there is growing acknowledgement of its importance in building trust and good relations between our communities in the North and across the island. The head of Co-operation Ireland — one of the organisations with the most experience in the area of North/South co-operation — has said that the promotion of effective North/South co-operation is an integral part of building peace on the island of Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement not only created a framework for political co-operation and partnership in Northern Ireland, but widened and extended the basis for co-operation and partnership to the whole island of Ireland and included a new framework for policy development with partners in a new British-Irish relationship.

I am conscious of the concerns and apprehensions that underlie the two amendments. Those concerns and apprehensions are unwarranted and do not need to be highlighted. There is an opportunity for debate on east-west issues; it was open to the Members opposite to table a motion on that subject. If they had done so, they might have found a positive response to some of their proposals from this side of the Chamber. However, this motion is about the significance of, and the potential for, North/South development.

As we develop the potential of the island as a whole, we must do so in the full knowledge that we are part of a global village in which we must play our proper role. We must be forward-looking in that respect. For far too long our tendencies, particularly here in the North, have been to look inward and to ignore the wider world and its opportunities and challenges, except, I suppose, whenever funds were dangled before us.

Tá seans iontach againn anois comhoibriú agus comhinfheistíocht ar son cómhaitheas ár ndaoine uilig a chur chun cinn. Sin an ghuí a fhágaim agaibh.

We have a wonderful opportunity to promote co-operation through a programme of joint investments and initiatives to the mutual benefit of all our people.

Ní neart go cur le chéile.

Our strength will grow the more we co-operate. The SDLP believes that in taking the opportunities, and in facing the challenges posed by co-operation on an all-island basis, we shall be even better able to face those in the wider world.

I beg to move the motion.

Lord Morrow: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “recognises” and insert

“the potential of North-South co-operation in a range of sectors; and calls upon Government to ensure that such co-operation is based upon practical, economic considerations, not politics; and, that in entering into any co-operative arrangements, the interests of the people of Northern Ireland are the primary consideration; and further notes that the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 ensures that all North-South structures will be fully accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly.”

I want to say at the outset that it is quite understandable that, down the years, unionists have eyed cross-border co-operation with suspicion. So far today, we have not heard anything that makes us any less suspicious. In fact, the remarks in the opening speech make us even more suspicious, and our suspicions are well founded.

However, our suspicions may be down to the legacy of living with terror and the ever-present threat that bombers and gunmen are trying to force us out of our homes and our heritage. They try to take away the places where people were born and live. That might have something to do with it.

Those suspicions may also be down to the fact that, over the past 35 years — indeed, from the inception of the state of Northern Ireland — the Irish Republic has allowed its territory to be a safe haven for wanted terrorists. That might have something to do with it.

Those suspicions may also be because unionists view the Irish Republic as being hostile to their existence. As a unionist, I believe that that has a lot to do with it. Through the years, when this country was under the cosh of a Sinn Féin/IRA onslaught, we did not get much support or sympathy from the Irish Republic. Any co-operation that existed between the security forces involved the lowest common denominator rather than the highest. All those reasons account for the apprehension, fear and terror that existed in unionism, in particular among those living along the border who were driven from their homes.

Of course, Northern Ireland has much to gain from good relations with the Irish Republic, if they are on a pragmatic and appropriate basis. We are happy to work with, and alongside, our colleagues in the Irish Republic where it is to our mutual benefit and interest.

The work carried out by the elected representatives on behalf of the constituents on both sides of the border is often similar. I suspect that the bread-and-butter issues are similar North and South: roads, housing, hospitals and good schooling.

There is potential, with the future of Northern Ireland secure and all parties working in the interests of Northern Ireland, for a more relaxed, wholehearted co-operation. Such co-operation is possible in a stable environment in which unionists would not be looking over their shoulders, as they have had to do for the past 40 years. However, for that to occur, there must be a responsibility on nationalists not to politicise, or seek to politicise, for narrow party advantage, any sensible low-level co-operation that may go on.

Undoubtedly, on account of our small population, there are matters for which it is not possible for us in Northern Ireland to have all the answers — likewise, for the relatively small population in the Irish Republic.

I note with interest what the Northern Ireland Office Minister of State, Mr Hanson, said in the House of Commons on 21 November, during the debate on the St Andrews legislation. He said:

“The hon. Gentleman also asked the Secretary of State to confirm that, by virtue of the arrangements put in place by the Bill, details relating to the North/South Ministerial Council or any matter involving relationships with the Republic of Ireland will require Executive approval. I can confirm that such matters will be referred to under the ministerial code that applied until suspension, and will require Executive agreement. Under the arrangements provided for in the Bill, decisions taken without Executive agreement would not be legitimate and would be open to legal challenge.”

Nothing could be clearer than that, and I note that the SDLP leader, in remarks made later that evening, criticised the Government for allowing the DUP to hollow out the provisions of the 1998 Belfast Agreement to such an extent.

12.30 pm

I want to comment on Tourism Ireland Ltd, one of the cross-border bodies that was established under the Belfast Agreement. If there were no argument against cross-border bodies, Tourism Ireland would certainly provide one. It spends £40 million a year, one third of which comes from Northern Ireland, yet it has a history of failing to promote routes to Northern Ireland and failing to promote the distinctiveness of Northern Ireland’s tourism product.

Reading the Tourism Ireland brochures and website and watching its advertisements in the years since its establishment, one could be forgiven for concluding that the only access point to this island is Dublin. As far as Tourism Ireland is concerned, Dublin is the only access point to Ireland. Tourism Ireland may need a little tourism experience itself. That view is borne out by the figures: the number of tourists coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland was down in 2006, but, in the same period, the figures for the Republic of Ireland were up by 10%.

Mr Shannon: Does the Member accept there is east-west tourism potential? Some 250,000 people travel to Larne and Belfast from Scotland every year.

Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for making that salient and sound point.

Market research that Tourism Ireland conducted also reveals that almost 50% of people in Great Britain view its marketing campaigns as relating only to the Republic of Ireland. Surveys also indicate that Northern Ireland is seen as having less to offer than the Republic of Ireland.

Initially, the brief that was given to Tourism Ireland was to “bridge the gap” in tourism between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That was subsequently changed to:

“helping Northern Ireland achieve its tourism potential”,

whatever that means. Tourism in Northern Ireland contributes approximately 2% of its GDP. In the Republic of Ireland the figure is 9%, and in Wales the equivalent figure is 11%. Northern Ireland lags far behind. In such circumstances, it might be expected that the priority would be given to spending on, promoting and developing the underperforming and underdeveloped region. Is that the case? Alas, it is not.

(Madam Speaker in the Chair)

An analysis of the promotional photographs on the Tourism Ireland website reveals that, although it provides 33% of Tourism Ireland’s funding, Northern Ireland has only 23% of the promotional photographs on the website. Indeed, some of those photographs are stretching the point. How does Tourism Ireland promote Fermanagh, for example? The website simply shows a photograph of a swan. Superb stuff. Furthermore, there is a photo­graph of the Lammas Fair, but it could be a photograph of any fair in Ireland, or, indeed, the world. That is Tourism Ireland’s way of promoting Northern Ireland.

One may wonder why Tourism Ireland has the responsibility for leading promotion in the rest of the United Kingdom. The originators of Tourism Ireland allow Great Britain to be regarded as an overseas market — brilliant. At one sweep, Tourism Ireland was allowed to remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. Tourism Ireland was effectively given charge of what, up until then, was Northern Ireland’s best market, yet, in 2006, it managed to reduce the number of tourists coming here from Great Britain.

If we look at the specifics of the tourism promotion of Northern Ireland, there are some surprising results. For example, in the 2007 holiday planner from Tourism Ireland — its key promotional document for the year — the events and festivals section does not list the North West 200, which is one of the biggest events in the whole of the United Kingdom. It is not mentioned.

Only 11 of the 40 events listed are in Northern Ireland, and guess what one of them is — the West Belfast Festival. It is listed, yet it hardly needs to be said that the Twelfth of July and Maiden City festivals are never mentioned.

It is as if they do not exist — that is the impartiality of Tourism Ireland in operation.

Northern Ireland needs to be sure that its tourism product is locally resourced and being promoted in a manner that will ensure that the current economic inequalities are addressed. All this highlights further the importance of North/South structures having been made wholly accountable to this Assembly. In such circumstances, none of us from any background should have anything to fear from straightforward relations — that are not politically driven — with those in the Irish Republic.

Mr McClarty: First of all, I pay tribute to the SDLP Member for North Antrim, Dr Farren. I understand that he may have made his final contribution to the House, and I wish him all the very best on his retirement from public life.

I beg to move amendment No 2: Insert after the first “of”

“East-West and”; and

leave out all after “benefit” and insert

“to the peoples of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.”

We have no problem with North/South co-operation on matters that are of mutual benefit to the citizens of both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and there are obvious fields in which that co-operation can take place. However, the political history of the island of Ireland means that unionists will inevitably, and understandably, be wary that measures, which are sold as being of mutual benefit, are in fact part of a wider political agenda designed to threaten the sovereignty of Northern Ireland and its place in the United Kingdom.

We do not deny that co-operation has brought, or could bring, benefits, but these are likely to have been, or will be, small — not about even 1% of the GDP and probably much less. People may talk of promoting more cross-border trade. There is already more cross-border trade per head of population than there is between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The extent of all-island trading is not unusual when compared with trade levels, for example, between Norway, Sweden and Denmark. There is already an extensive Northern Ireland-Republic market in company takeovers. Many Northern Ireland business names have been bought by Southern concerns. By and large, we accept this as the working of the corporate market, although we would like to see more Northern Ireland companies make acquisitions south of the border.

Rhetoric favouring all-island solutions is often based on misconceptions about Northern Ireland’s economy. It is not an economic basket case; it has the UK’s highest rates of GDP, manufacturing output and employment growth since 1990. It has a big subvention from the Treasury, but so do many UK regions, for example, much of Wales — perhaps the Secretary of State should take note of that. Transfers occur normally within a national single monetary and economic union, so it is less than clear what the Secretary of State means when he says that we should become less dependent.

Sometimes the issues involved are not really all-island issues but are more appropriately relevant to the British Isles as a whole or to Europe — for example, mobile-phone roaming charges, as raised by the Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson in the European Parliament, or a single European electricity market, as recently proposed by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

We must be realistic that often the Republic of Ireland is not our ally but our competitor. For example, it has tax advantages, such as more favourable corporation tax, vehicle fuel excise duty and the lower rate of value added tax (VAT) on tourism.

Some commentators point to the European Union (EU) as a model that Northern Ireland and the Republic should copy. The comparison is not relevant; in reality other European countries, for example, France, Germany and Italy, have managed their border regions without the institutional apparatus, such as the implementation bodies, which exists in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

What about the European single currency, the euro? It looks less and less likely that the UK will join this arrangement, which in so many of the continental economies has proved more of a straitjacket than a boost to trade. Even the Republic has problems with the imposition of policy directives from the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. It seems likely, as Milton Friedman argued in 2001, that the Republic of Ireland’s membership of the single European currency club was always more about politics than sound economics.

Since 1993, trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic has grown by leaps and bounds — as much as 10% annually, in many years. The existence of two currencies on the island has hardly been an insuperable problem. Members should note that the success of the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Canada has not required the two North American economies to adopt a single currency or, indeed, cross-border bodies.

Secretary of State Peter Hain may have taken up the all-island economic agenda in recent speeches, but is that not about politics rather than a sound business case? The Government’s economic policy documents are instructive: in February 2005 the ‘Economic Vision for Northern Ireland’, a sort of economic strategy document, devoted only a few sentences to the subject of cross-border co-operation. Similarly, the Republic’s recent enterprise strategy, ‘Ahead of the Curve, Ireland’s Place in the Global Economy’, hardly mentions Northern Ireland. When it comes to hard, competitive business reality, cross-border froth does not figure much.

Dr Farren: Will the Member give way?

Mr McClarty: No, I am sorry. I have limited time, and I have already thanked you for making your last speech. [Laughter.]

It is to be hoped that a more mature and responsible relationship will emerge from the political advances that have been made over the past decade, with the end of the terror campaign that sought to push this Province and its people out of the Union and into a united Ireland against their will. The defeat of the IRA’s campaign provides us with an opportunity to ensure that everyone in Northern Ireland has a stake in this Province and its future. That future will clearly be within the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom is the fifth largest economy on the planet. It is a multicultural society, the destination of choice for many thousands of immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families. At a time when so many people appear desperate to enter the United Kingdom, by fair means or foul, we would have to be crazy to voluntarily cut our ties with the British mainland. Britain is where Northern Ireland does much of its trade. Many citizens work for companies that are based on the UK mainland, and many of our young people attend universities in Great Britain and go on to play a crucial role in the life of the nation.

The development of the Republic of Ireland’s economy is a recent phenomenon. For most of the twentieth century, the Republic’s economy limped along in a depressed state, and it was only saved from horrendous levels of unemployment by the fact that hundreds of thousands of its citizens were able to travel to Great Britain to seek a better life. The presence of large and thriving expatriate communities in cities such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow is testament to how well those emigrants did. The Republic of Ireland has had great cause to be grateful for its east-west links throughout the twentieth century. Northern Ireland is no different.

We wish the Irish Republic well. It is our neighbour. It is to be hoped that as this century progresses, links in areas such as trade and tourism will be developed that will benefit the people of Northern Ireland. However, care must also be taken to ensure that relations continue to be maintained and developed with fellow British citizens in the United Kingdom. The people of Northern Ireland endured a 30-year campaign of terror that sought to break that link, and they suffered grievously, as did many fellow citizens on the mainland. That link could not be broken in times of strife. It will, undoubtedly, be strengthened in times of peace.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I wish to echo the sentiments directed towards Seán Farren.

Go n-éirí an t-ádh leat, a Sheáin, agus le do theaghlach go léir.

Rachaidh athaontú na hÉireann go mór chun leasa gach duine ar an oileán seo. Ar fud phróiseas na síochána, thug Sinn Féin tacaíocht i dtólamh do chur chuige uile-oileáin do réimsí tabhachtacha polasaí, lena n-áirítear an eacnamaíocht, an tsláinte, an t-oideachas, an fhostaíocht, an talmhaíocht agus turasóireacht.

Gabh mo leithscéal.

Irish unification would greatly benefit all the people on the island of Ireland. Throughout the peace process, Sinn Féin has consistently urged an island-wide approach in key policy areas such as the economy, health, education, employment, agriculture and tourism.

Sinn Féin has given practical expression to that through the work of its Ministers in the Executive, the all-Ireland Ministerial Council and the Assembly, and its representation in Leinster House and the European Parliament. Sinn Féin representatives have continuously pressed the need to sustain and develop the all-Ireland approach enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.

12.45 pm

Since partition, social and economic development has been characterised by a back-to-back approach, which has resulted in poor service delivery and economic underdevelopment, particularly in places in the border counties and west of the Bann where the artificial border has impacted on normal socio-economic development. A common development plan is required for Ireland and, considering that the new National Development Plan is set to run until 2013, it is vital that the plan approaches expansion and growth on an all-island basis.

In order to achieve an all-Ireland economy, we must work towards tax harmonisation. A single VAT system and the abolishment of excise would greatly simplify businesses trading on the island and bring about taxes that are fairer to workers. We should be encouraging small-business and worker development. Relatively simple measures, such as standardising bank holidays, would address an anomaly that has a negative impact on those who live, work, or go to school on both sides of the border. Without a single currency and tax regime and with the lack of joined-up infrastructure, we are left with the same old uncompetitive banking and retail sectors. The banking sector, North and South, is under investigation for its lack of genuine competition.

There is also the need for the establishment of an all-Ireland Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and an all-island electricity network, which must be nuclear free and committed to renewable energy, as was agreed by the all-party Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment in the previous Assembly.

Sinn Féin has been to the fore in lobbying the Irish and British Governments to ensure that people in the border region have access to health services at the nearest geographical location, regardless of which side of the border they live. That is why substantial funding is required for an upgrade of, among others, Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry city, and the issue of the out-of-hours services on both sides of the border must be resolved. Sinn Féin welcomes the two pilot projects; however, they must be extended.

One of Sinn Féin’s key goals is to build a strong, stable, all-Ireland economy in which everyone will have a dignified and productive working life, a fair income and a good quality of life — an economy characterised by the positive redistribution of its resources to eradicate poverty and social exclusion. A small island with a population of just over five million people cannot develop successful economic strategies on the basis of economic division.

The devastating economic consequences of partition are most obvious in border counties, but the impact is broader because the North has been excluded from the economic advances of the Twenty-six Counties. The only way to truly transform the economy in the North of Ireland is to set it in the context of an island-wide strategy for development and regeneration. To succeed, any economic development strategy must, at a minimum, remove the barriers to North/South business develop­ment and trade and to cross-border working mobility. Equality and human rights must be at the heart of that.

Sinn Féin is committed to the elimination of poverty and deprivation on the island of Ireland, and we feel that a meaningful approach to eliminating poverty will have to adopt a human rights approach and draw all sectors of Irish society closer together. Had the whole island been able to benefit from the extremely high growth rates experienced in the Twenty-six Counties during the period of the Celtic tiger economy, all-Ireland economic growth and development would have far exceeded current levels of gross national product (GNP) in the Six Counties and the Twenty-six Counties.

Sinn Féin has been arguing for some time that our best interests would be served in putting forward a united, all-Ireland voice in Europe, particularly on fishing and agriculture. I have spoken to fishing industry personnel in places such as Kilkeel and Ardglass, and I know that those industries in the North of Ireland have been damaged because they have been tied to British fishing and agriculture.

The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) and the Irish Farmers’ Union (IFU) have recognised the potential of working together to challenge the way in which the EU nitrates directive is being implemented, and Sinn Féin has consistently argued that getting the best out of the common agricultural policy (CAP) reform is dependent on developing a coherent single approach on the island of Ireland. If we are to ensure better and more effective representation for our fishing and agriculture industries, all of the political parties — including the DUP — should challenge their own politically motivated short-sightedness and begin to examine the potential of creating a single united agenda for our fishing and agriculture communities.

I welcome last week’s historic announcement of a National Development Plan by the Irish Government, which is expected to provide €1 billion for strategic projects in the North as well as cross-border links. This is the first time that the national plan has included the Six Counties, and the spending of €1 billion is part of the peace dividend. We hope that it is only a small part.

Of course, it is equally important that we have in place a new power-sharing Executive to administer this funding, which is badly needed to improve road infrastructure throughout the North of Ireland and, indeed, in my own constituency of South Down.

Part of the package is to be spent on improving links between south Down and north Louth. Sinn Féin has been to the fore in lobbying for a link bridge to be built at Narrow Water, near Warrenpoint.

When the project was dead in the water, parties like the SDLP were divided on whether to support it or not and John Fee came out against it, Sinn Féin was united behind the need for a bridge. Sinn Féin kept its eye on the prize. Arthur Morgan TD raised it in Leinster House, Sinn Féin co-ordinated meetings between Louth County Council and Newry and Mourne District Council, Sinn Féin organised meetings with INTERREG, the European Union’s Programme —

Dr Farren: Will the Member give way?

Ms Ruane: No, I will not. I will continue, because I have very little time.

Sinn Féin worked with the Roads Services on both sides of the border. This type of flagship development is essential if we are to develop a co-operative approach to both trade and tourism.

Mr Kennedy: Will the Member give way?

Ms Ruane: No. I said that I would not.

A bridge would open up tourism from Newgrange to the Mournes. We need to capitalise on the visitors who are visiting Newgrange and ensure that their visit to Ireland includes a visit to Counties Down and Armagh as well. If this were any other country in the world, there would be a bridge there now. There is a need to continue to fight for this project.

Investment in Warrenpoint harbour has the potential to create jobs and ensure that the town’s docks are one of the main gateways for trade in and out of the northern half of the country. Its expansion should be a key consideration and part of any development plan.

Funding is also needed to develop agriculture and fishery in the Carlingford Lough area, as it is vital that opportunities are in place so that the hard-pressed fishing industry has an opportunity to diversify.

A ring road is needed around Newry city. The good roads should not stop at the border as they do at the moment. I welcome the proposed development of the Belfast to Dublin line and argue that an integrated rail network that is able to serve the other areas of the northern half of the country must accompany this.

Daisy Hill Hospital is ideally placed to serve the cross-border community, and its services, if expanded and enhanced, would ensure greater access to services for a significant population in Down, Armagh and Louth.

The National Development Plan has the potential to act as a catalyst for economic regeneration and is yet another good reason why it is important that we have a fully functioning, power-sharing Executive in place after the 7 March elections.

Enhanced North/South co-operation must be seen as a prerequisite for all-Ireland strategic development plans in health and social services, education and training, public transport, the environment, agriculture and fisheries, road safety, the arts and culture, tourism and the Irish language.

Maurice Morrow needs to learn that suspicions do not build economies. Hard work and strategic thinking do. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Mr McCarthy: There is no question that recent economic progress in the Republic and political progress in Northern Ireland have allowed more meaningful cross-border co-operation than ever before. Long may that continue.

The Alliance Party has a proud record on cross-border issues. We have frequently been the only non-nationalist party to participate in forums, consultations and boards that promote co-operation for mutual benefit — from promotion of an all-island energy market to participation in the proposals to reform the Seanad Éireann.

There is also little question that cross-border initiatives can, and should, go beyond the issues dealt with by cross-border bodies. Energy, tourism and aspects of transport bring with them a natural cross-border dimension. We must find better ways to co-operate in those areas.

However, Members should be cautious on two counts. The system by which the Northern Ireland Assembly dealt with cross-border matters was cumbersome, to say the least. It stalled moves towards beneficial co-operation. Like so much else, political cross-border co-operation was limited by the institutionalised sectarianism under which the Assembly operated.

Northern Ireland was represented in the North/South Ministerial Council by two Ministers who spent much of the time arguing with each other, rather than in providing a united front to secure the best outcome for Northern Ireland and for the island as a whole.

Dr Farren: Will the Member give way?

Mr McCarthy: Seán, you are having difficulty with others. I will give way. Let us hear what you have to say.

Dr Farren: I will reply to what Mr McCarthy has just said, since I was the Minister responsible, and I attended almost 60 meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council, some in the company of the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Sir Reg Empey. I cannot recall a single meeting that we spent arguing with each other. If we argued at all, we argued together against our Southern counterparts.

Mr McCarthy: That is not the information that I have received. I can only accept what the Member says as a former Minister.

Mrs Hanna: Will the Member give way again?

Mr McCarthy: I will, Carmel. Do you want to take over?

Mrs Hanna: In my short time as a Minister, I too attended some of those meetings, and I cannot recall any contention at them.

Lord Morrow: Will the Member give way again?

Mr McCarthy: All right, Maurice.

Lord Morrow: I can also say, as a former Minister, that I never had any arguments at all, because I was never there.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr McCarthy: You did not attend the North/South Ministerial Council. May I be allowed to continue?

Rarely has Northern Ireland had Ministers who are able to think and feel for the whole community, and able to do what is best for the whole of Northern Ireland without reference to which camp they belong. Only when that is overcome will efficient cross-border co-operation become a reality.

My second note of concern is that cross-border issues are pursued at the expense of projects more beneficial to Northern Ireland. For example, expenditure on a road bridge across Carlingford Lough could hardly be considered good value for money, given that many other areas in Northern Ireland — and no doubt in the Republic too — could derive greater benefit from such expenditure. I would like to see a vast programme of road improvement carried out in my constituency of Strangford, for instance in the Ards Peninsula, which would bring comparatively greater benefit to residents.

Ms Ritchie: Does the Member agree that provision of a bridge at Narrow Water would enhance tourism facilities in the Strangford constituency? Would it not be to the benefit of his constituents?

Mr McCarthy: That might well be so, but I suggest that it is not good value for money. However, I welcome anything that promotes the Strangford constituency.

There is also a need for caution with respect to an Act of Parliament on the Irish language, desired by some parties, which would be specific to Northern Ireland and would divide language policy, rather than link it with policy in the Republic. Such issues are best dealt with on an all-island basis. The Assembly should not pursue objectives that seem to serve — but that will divide — people on either side of the border or on different sides of the community in Northern Ireland.

Recent progress has led to more cross-border co-operation, and more such co-operation is possible. That which exists could be made still more mutually beneficial. Not for the first time, however, maximum benefit will come about only when we have overcome our sectarian divisions and have abolished a political system that serves only to reinforce them.

1.00 pm

I shall comment on one further aspect of cross-border co-operation. Free travel will, I hope, come into effect in April 2007 and will benefit senior citizens, aged over 65, throughout the island. People from Fair Head in Antrim to Mizen Head in Cork will be able to avail of that service. My only regret is that the measure contains age discrimination against women. Although they are senior citizens from the age of 60, they must wait until they are 65 to benefit from free travel.

We have made progress in cross-border co-operation. There is further progress to be made, and I hope it continues.

Mr Hay: I support the amendments in the names of Lord Morrow and David McClarty. When Members talk about North/South co-operation, it can mean different things to different people. Some believe that it is bringing them closer to an all-Ireland economy or a united Ireland. Others raise the issue only for political reasons.

Listening to Seán Farren this morning, one would have to ask if he was raising the issue for good economic or for political reasons? It is difficult to find out what the SDLP and Sinn Féin really mean when they talk about North/South co-operation. On many occasions, when nationalist representatives raise the issue of the all-Ireland economy or North/South co-operation they get to a point where they have to get the tricolour so wrapped around some of the issues that is difficult for unionists to agree to them, especially when it comes to economic development and inward investment in the South of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

I have often said that good cross-border co-operation should not threaten anyone in the House provided it is done only for good economic and business reasons. I know many businesspeople in my own city of London­derry who co-operate across the border on a daily basis. On the naming of Londonderry, I was glad to welcome the decision of the High Court, which I hope will put the issue of the city’s name to rest once and for all.

Returning to the main theme of the discussion, most business leaders and people in the business community co-operate with the South of Ireland for good economic and business reasons. Many of them do not bring politics into the equation at all, and that is the way it should be. I disagree with Southern Ministers trotting across the border, standing up and announcing economic packages that other public representatives, including myself, have not been consulted about.

Dr Farren: If the Member had listened carefully to what I said and to what the Ministers who came to make announcements about the National Development Plan 2007-2013 said, the word “agreement” and the phrase “to mutual benefit” were repeated throughout their remarks on any of the proposed projects. Does the Member accept that it will be up to the restored institutions to enter into negotiations and to agree the projects before anything can happen? That is given. We should honestly acknowledge and accept the integrity of those who put forward plans on that basis.

Mr Hay: I have no problem with Ministers from the South of Ireland coming across the border and doing what they have to do. However, there must be protocol. There was an announcement of £800 million for several projects in Northern Ireland, including roads infrastructure, education, health and many others, affecting the lives of those who live in the border regions. I know of no unionist representative who was either consulted or told about that package; however, I know of other public representatives who had a heads-up on it, and that is where the system is wrong. If we are to have good co-operation on both sides of the border there must be proper protocol, and that does not exist at the minute.

I welcome the £14 million investment in the City of Derry Airport. That investment is even more important as the whole east Donegal region gets £11 million a year into its economy as a result. It is only right and proper that the Southern Government should invest in the airport. I represent the Foyle constituency, and I welcome the proposal to extend the airport.

It is important for unionists to say that there must be total control over cross-border co-operation. However, there cannot be total control on only one side of the border; there must be mutual control in equal measure on both sides. Lord Morrow’s amendment makes it absolutely clear that all future cross-border bodies and institutions should be accountable to the Assembly and a future Executive. That must be our starting point. However — and I keep saying it — unionists cannot accept that, for many years, Ministers from the South have trotted in and out of Northern Ireland, almost giving the impression that they were also Ministers in the North. That must be brought to a halt.

Good co-operation is vitally important for the business community, the vast majority of which operates purely for economic reasons, whether inward investment, job creation or whatever. David McClarty said that on many issues the businessmen in the South are our competitors. That is good for healthy debate on co-operation between Northern Ireland and the South. I hope that nationalist representatives and parties will learn that when they raise the issue of co-operation they drive fear into the unionist community and fear into the business community.

There is sometimes mistrust when nationalist repre­sentatives raise the issue of North/South co-operation.

Mr D Bradley: Will the Member give way?

Mr Hay: I will not give way; I am almost finished. We can have good co-operation between North and South, but it can only work on a sound economic and business basis.

Mr McGuigan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I wish to speak in favour of the motion. There is no doubt that much good work exists on several issues on an island-wide basis, nor that increased harmonisation and North/South co-operation is the way to ensure increased practical benefits in the future for all who live on this island.

Strand two of the Good Friday Agreement details the structures and functions of the North/South Ministerial Council, and describes the implementation bodies and areas of co-operation for the delivery of North/South co-operation. I welcome the motion and support its call for an intensification of that co-operation.

As other Members have already said, the Irish Govern­ment passed a historic milestone in the commitments that they made in their national development plan. Chapter 5 of the plan shows that it is beginning to take on a truly national character, setting out as it does to strengthen all-island projects across the delivery of public services and a wide range of policy areas. Who here could argue, for example, that the inclusion in the plan of the Dublin to Derry and Letterkenny route as a key strategic border route to be developed is not going to be of huge benefit to the citizens of the west and north-west of Ireland?

That project has been the subject of considerable lobbying by many of my young colleagues for some time. The project is very welcome; nevertheless, its funding should be ring-fenced and a time frame set for its development so that it can be lifted from the pages of the development plan and made a reality. I wish to make the same call for the development of other key strategic cross-border routes mentioned in the plan.

Sinn Féin has always maintained, with substantial justification, that the border in Ireland is an artificial construction, which has acted, and continues to act, as a major impediment to social and economic development on the island. That is particularly true of the border corridor, where life is defined by a low-wage culture, high unemployment, relatively low educational attainment, poor roads, an inadequate transport system and an insufficient energy supply. The duplication of services is an added problem; that is an unnecessary waste, and is totally uneconomic and inefficient.

The motion asks the Assembly to recognise the increasing significance of island-wide co-operation. I support that, and call for a significant increase in North/South co-operation on all the issues of importance to citizens, especially those included in the motion such as agriculture, research and development, tourism, public transport, energy and the environment. My party colleague Caitríona Ruane has already dealt with many of those topics. I shall use the examples of health and education to explain my rationale.

The need for the seamless provision of health services, with disregard for the border, should be obvious to all. Both healthcare systems on this small island are in crisis. Spatial planning of the location of acute hospitals has not taken place on a single-island basis. That is essential if we are to make use of a limited budget. My party supports the cross-border GP out-of-hours scheme, and the Co-operation and Working Together (CAWT) feasibility study, which has led to the setting-up of two pilot schemes, each covering a population of approximately 13,000 along the border. One pilot scheme will allow patients in the North to have access to centres in the Twenty-six Counties; the other will provide patients in the Twenty-six Counties with access to facilities in the Six Counties.

Those schemes are intended to benefit the border areas where 65,000 people live closer to a GP out-of-hours centre in the other state. In particular, patients from Inishowen will be able to obtain a service launched a few weeks ago in Derry. Patients from Keady will soon be able to avail of a service in Castleblayney. Although some professional issues are still to be resolved, my party approves of those pilot schemes and believes that they should be endorsed and supported.

1.15 pm

Andy Pollak, in his discussion paper, ‘Educational Co-operation on the Island of Ireland: A Thousand Flowers and a Hundred Heartaches’, writes:

“Education has been a ‘core value’ for Irish people — North and South, Protestant and Catholic, unionist and nationalist”

for at least two centuries.

The 9,000 hedge schools in the 1820s and the 7,000 state-supported national schools that succeeded them were part of a genuine all-island system and involved a great deal of teacher mobility.

Pollak continues:

“And then came partition, and education in Ireland, coming from a common root, sprang apart like a child’s catapult and stayed apart, with an almost 100% ‘back to back’ separation. The distinguished Irish educationalist, John Coolahan, has said that he trained twice a teacher in the Republic of Ireland in the 1960s, and ‘as far as education’”

in the North

“‘was concerned it could have been Timbucktu. There was no reference to it, no mention of it — it was just out of one’s consciousness.’”

Education should become a policy area for establishing an implementation body, not merely an area of co-operation under the Good Friday Agreement. Social disadvantage and low educational attainment recognise no borders. A 2001 report by the Centre for Cross Border Studies showed that about 1·1 million “education poor” adults in Ireland had significant literacy problems.

Having said that, some good work has been done in the field of education. In particular, universities on this island have come together to form the National University of Ireland (NUI). Sinn Féin welcomes other positive North/South educational projects and calls for the acceleration of such co-operation. For example, much work must be done to counter the delay in progress on the planned centre of excellence for autism in County Armagh.

Recently, Sinn Féin held a meeting with the all-Ireland unit co-ordinators at Iveagh House in Dublin. The Irish Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs has a dedicated North/South unit of civil servants. That is a useful advantage in ensuring progress on all-Ireland projects. I call today for the appointment of similar co-ordinators to Departments in the North, and for each Department to follow the good example set in the Twenty-six Counties.

The North/South Ministerial Council has com­missioned a study into obstacles to cross-border mobility, and its report is awaited. More importantly, Sinn Féin awaits progress on removing such obstacles to allow people living and working in the border region to get on with their work productively and conclusively. Intrinsic to that is the problem of having on this island two currencies and tax systems, to which my colleague referred.

Finally, progress on the North/South agenda must be accelerated. To have two systems on one small island, with a population of just over five million, is folly. It is detrimental to progress on both sides of the border. Unionists complain that nationalists and republicans raise the issue of all-Ireland integration for political purposes, only for them then to make purely political points in their own speeches. Nationalists and republicans raise such issues out of a genuine desire to make progress.

I also heard unionists make a point about the defeat of the IRA. They should take cognisance of what the Ulster Unionist leader James Molyneaux said on the day on which the IRA called the cessation in 1994. He said that it could be the “most destabilising” act for the Union and the unionist population.

That has more to do with the politics that have come from the other side of the Chamber today and on other occasions. I accept that this has nothing to do with the motion but, like Dr Farren, this is my last speech in the House, so I will allow myself a little leeway —

Madam Speaker: I just point out that it is not up to you to allow yourself more leeway, Mr McGuigan. However, if you are brief and return to the motion, I will allow you that leeway.

Mr McGuigan: I was simply making a point about the politics coming from the other side of the Chamber. On North/South co-operation and other subjects, the inability of unionist politicians —

Lord Morrow: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. If a Member declares that what he or she is about to say has nothing to do with the motion, is it in order for that person to continue?

Madam Speaker: Lord Morrow, I often hear Members saying things that have nothing to do with the motion, but they continue. At least Mr McGuigan declared that he was doing so. I have pointed out to him that I have discretion over what is permitted, but I hope that he will now speak to the motion and conclude his speech.

Mr McGuigan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Mr Brolly: The Member referred to the political attitude of the Members opposite. I would suggest that, as one of the Irish words for ‘island’ is ‘inis’, a nice new slogan for them would be “Not an inis”.

Mr McGuigan: Go raibh maith agat, Francie. My argument relates to the motion, a Cheann Comhairle. Unionists are unable to deal with the politics of the changing situation in Ireland, which will include continuing North/South co-operation. I am not trying to upset Maurice and his colleagues, but I make no apology in the Chamber that my political activities concern bringing about the day when all of us on this island have full control of our destinies, without interference from any outside party or Government —

Madam Speaker: Please conclude, Mr McGuigan. Thank you.

Mr McGuigan: In conclusion, Madam Speaker, I fully support all of the sentiments in the motion.

Madam Speaker: I have said in the past that people should remember to speak to the motion. Perhaps we have been over-lenient in letting the Member pass remarks that did not. I do not want Members to think that they can do the same.

Some Members: That is unfair.

Madam Speaker: It is not unfair.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Éirím le tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún.

I support the motion. The comprehensive study on an all-island economy, launched by the Secretary of State and Minister Aherne in October 2006 sets out clearly the rationale for North/South co-operation on a wide range of areas including infrastructure, science, technology, trade, tourism, labour market, skills, enterprise and business, fiscal measures and the north-west. The study sets out the vision for an all-island economy — characterised by a strong, competitive and socially inclusive island economy, with strong island-wide economic clusters, the development of which is not impaired by the existence of a political border.

The aim of the policy should be a world-class, all-island economy, which manifests itself in comparable levels of economic dynamism and performance in both parts of the island. Those principles are reflected in chapter 5 of the recently published National Develop­ment Plan 2007-2013 entitled ‘All-Island Co-Operation’. I welcome those proposals, as well as the Irish Government’s commitment of resources to the plan.

I particularly welcome the commitment to a bridge linking County Louth and County Down, for which my esteemed colleague, P J Bradley, fought long and hard. I hope that such a bridge will facilitate a southern relief road, to benefit Newry city, which suffers from severe traffic congestion.

One idea, which would benefit foreign direct investment (FDI) in border regions, would be to establish enterprise zones along the border. Those would offer tax incentives aimed at attracting more FDI. The border regions have always been under­developed economically, and the concept of enterprise zones is already regarded favourably by the Irish Govern­ment. It deserves the support of both Governments.

One recent major success for the Irish economy was the development of the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) in Dublin. The finance industry is underdeveloped in Northern Ireland, and one way of developing financial services here would be to establish a satellite of the IFSC in Northern Ireland, which has the graduates to staff it.

That would bring huge benefits to our economy. Therefore I propose that the two Governments commission research to explore the possibility of developing a Northern financial services centre, which would be a satellite of the one in Dublin.

I welcome the National Development Plan’s continuing commitment to all-island co-operation. That commitment covers many issues, including: infra­structure; spatial planning; science; trade; tourism; human capital; enterprise; the provision of public services; education; and health. Unlike Lord Morrow, I think that many unionists understand that North/South co-operation threatens no one and benefits everyone.

I support the motion. Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Madam Speaker: I remind Members, especially the Whips, that the two Members who are listed to speak have not been in the Chamber at all during this debate; indeed, they are still not here. Therefore we will proceed to the winding-up speeches.

Mr Dawson: I am in the Chamber, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: I am sorry, Mr Dawson; I see that you are in the Chamber.

Despite Mr Dawson’s presence, I point out that two Members are listed to speak, but neither has been in the Chamber for any of today’s proceedings.

Mr Dawson: Madam Speaker, I thank you for giving me the opportunity to take part in the debate; I did not think that I was that easy to miss.

I join other Members in wishing Dr Farren well as he seeks to rediscover life beyond politics after today. I am sure that he will find that there is a vibrant life beyond this House. However, he will not find any other words of comfort in the remainder of my contribution.

I am glad of the opportunity to challenge the motion’s misty-eyed Darby O’Gill-approach to cross-border co-operation. Listening to the contributions of some of the Members on the opposite Benches, one would think that the political establishment in the Republic of Ireland takes part in a massive philanthropic exercise that exists to ensure that its decisions benefit the people of Northern Ireland. It is about time that the SDLP — and others — woke up and smelled the coffee. Let me be clear: making decisions on the basis of mutual benefit is nonsense. It does not motivate politicians south of the border, nor should it motivate politicians on this side of the border. Even when the Government in the Republic of Ireland announced their development plan, it was clear that their criteria was that any project must benefit their people, and, more particularly, it must benefit the election prospects of the Fianna Fáil Government. Only then would its being of further benefit to the people of Northern Ireland mean that it was worthy of further consideration. However, the primary responsibility of that Government is to their own jurisdiction.

I have no difficulty with that; indeed, that is the correct approach for a Government to take. We should have enough common sense to realise that on matters for which co-operation is sought, there needs to be strong negotiating for one’s own interests before general interests are considered.

Therefore the SDLP’s motion is irresponsible. If its recommendations were implemented, that would amount to a dereliction of duty by public representatives here on the handling of cross-border matters. The Democratic Unionist Party has made clear on many occasions its approach to cross-border co-operation. Indeed, that position is reiterated in our amendment. Cross-border co-operation should be based on practical economic — not political — considerations. It should be entered into only when it can be demonstrated that it will bring clear benefit to Northern Ireland and its people, first and foremost.

Dr Farren: Will the Member give way?

Mr Dawson: I am not sure that I will; the Member has had a hard —

Dr Farren: I am not sure that we are having a —

Mr Dawson: I will not give way.

Dr Farren: The Member has already given way.

1.30 pm

Mr Dawson: I have not given way. If an issue that is of benefit to the people of Northern Ireland is also of benefit to our neighbours, that added benefit would be welcome.

However, we do not want or need enforced co-operation that is motivated politically rather than by practicalities. Enforced and unnecessary co-operation is of no use to anyone and will be rightly seen for what it is by Members on this side of the Chamber. Indeed, it would be damaging to the economic interests of Northern Ireland and its people.

I will cite two examples of how the nonsense of prior­itising mutual benefit is damaging to Northern Ireland’s interests. The first example relates to the single energy market and the document that is out for consultation. It states that to deliver a single electricity market both jurisdictions on the island must have in place:

“a more competitive environment than currently exists”.

Northern Ireland already has competition in electricity, achieved by splitting generation from distribution and by introducing new suppliers into the market place. It is true that Northern Ireland got some of the details of the contracts wrong; nevertheless, our electricity is still cheaper than that generated South of the border.

The reason for that should be clear for all in the House to see. In the Republic of Ireland a state-owned inefficient monopoly controls both generation and distribution — and 79% of the market. In fact, the European Court has issued proceedings against the Republic of Ireland because it has failed to deliver competition in the marketplace. The European Commission said that Ireland’s infringement of the directives on setting up a fair internal market for energy relates to the fact that the right to supply at a regulated price is granted on a discriminatory basis — namely to the Electricity Supply Board (ESB).

Companies that have tried to get involved in the energy market in the Republic of Ireland have been forced to pull out because competition does not exist. E.ON, better known as Powergen, stated in its response to the Republic of Ireland Government:

“A market based approach which provides investors with a long-term framework which … minimises the risk of political intervention, will enable these investments to be made efficiently, supporting the competitiveness of the Irish economy and providing value for consumers.”

However, as we speak, because of the type of thinking outlined in the SDLP motion, Northern Ireland is sent sleepwalking into a single electricity market, which does not, and will not, have the required competition.

Minister Dempsey flannels by promising further structural change without spelling out exactly what he will do. What needs to be done is clear. The ESB needs to be split up and its generating capacity limited to below 40% in its own jurisdiction. Why will the Minister not say that? Is it because he has a prior agreement with the ESB and the unions on the matter, which was signed in 2000? Is it because he is protecting those interests regardless of the mutuality of benefit on the island of Ireland? Delivery of the single electricity market in the form and time frame set out will simply let the Republic of Ireland off the hook in Europe, and we will be left with the same legacy of inefficient state-dominated generation with little or no economic return for the people of Northern Ireland.

It does not end there. Somewhere in the machinations of trying to maximise mutual benefit, it has been agreed that the regulated payment for electricity on the island will reflect the lower corporation-tax rate in the Republic of Ireland. Thus generators in Northern Ireland will be paid the same rate as the Republic of Ireland, a rate set on a lower base but taxed at a higher level. The end result will be that, on the basis of the regulated payment, our generators will be uncompetitive in the single electricity market, and any new investment in power-generation plant will inevitably be located South of the border. So much for intensified co-operation and blind acceptance that our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland will protect our interests as we protect theirs.

Let me also turn to Tourism Ireland, set up in the wake of the Belfast Agreement with the same blind acceptance and unquestioning approach that the SDLP motion displays today. My colleague Lord Morrow has already put the case well. I will not reiterate all the points he made, but refer to one statistic: market research carried out by Tourism Ireland reveals that 50% of people in Great Britain view its marketing campaigns as relating only to the Republic of Ireland. That is a disgrace on the name of Tourism Ireland.

Of course, Northern Ireland started at a much lower base, but Tourism Ireland was supposed to bridge the gap. The Members opposite have a long history of telling us that when there is a disparity, an inequality or an under-representation, the way out is to prioritise the under-represented group. Not so in cross-border co-operation and tourism. Oh, no; here the mutual-interest concept kicks in, and rather than being prioritised in tourism promotion, Northern Ireland is actually hidden in the rest of Ireland. Again, unfocused, woolly thinking, such as that promoted by the motion, has been damaging to Northern Ireland.

The amendment is clear; co-operation is possible in a host of areas, but in facilitating co-operation we should not seek to promote artificial all-island cohesion where none exists. We should never forget that our primary responsibility is to our electors, this community and this jurisdiction. Benefits may flow from that to others, but the benefits to other jurisdictions should not colour our thinking.

Mr McNarry: All-Ireland co-operation is distinct from all-island co-operation, yet to hear some Members, you would think that we were debating the former. The emphasis that they put on all-Ireland, as opposed to all-island, co-operation makes unionists quite suspicious of exactly where they stand.

Where this jurisdiction can benefit from or assist its neighbours, the common good should prevail. No one is arguing with that. However, co-operation cannot be presented in the terms in which unionists perceive it to be presented: as a nationalist Government interfering or being selective in its choice of co-operation in an all-island capacity. Political expediency, which I sense is behind much of the import of the debate, is dangerous in this context. Unionists will rightly point out that the National Development Plan has an element of impertinence in announcing within its scope projects for this part of the United Kingdom. Unionists will also point out that the Irish are being selective in that their plan is to help fund predominantly republican and nationalist constituencies.

I do not like to talk about my own constituency, but the beautiful constituency of Strangford —

Mr McCarthy: Hear, hear.

Mr McNarry: Thank you, Kieran.

The beautiful constituency of Strangford has not even been looked at, be it a “national” development plan or not. Strangford is typical of a pro-Union, pro-unionist constituency that the Irish do not consider, even in an all-island plan.

I must say to William Hay that he really needs to check with his party colleagues, because discussions took place at the highest level between the DUP and the Irish Government over this plan before it came to fruition and was printed.

I see nothing wrong with that. I understand that discussions took place with Sinn Féin and the SDLP and with my party, and, as I said, I see nothing wrong with that. I just want to inform the Member that that type of conversation has taken place.

An important point further to that is that the Assembly’s economic issues subgroup, which was given authority by the Committee on the Programme for Government, received — on a strictly confidential basis — evidence from Irish officials. That evidence has been documented and will be included in a report, which I have seen, that shows that the Assembly, through that subgroup, was apprised of the National Development Plan and the Irish Government’s intentions.

Not all of the Irish Government’s intentions were outlined to the subgroup, but enough were, and the unionists on the subgroup used that opportunity to inform the Irish Government of the issues that I have been referring to regarding the unionist position and unionist views. In fact, I understand that the Committee on the Programme for Government is to clear the subgroup’s report today. It will make interesting reading.

The Irish Government indicated to the parties — well, I assume that they indicated the same thing to all parties, but I have no evidence for saying that — that, in the main, their intentions were to address Irish weaknesses and to address areas that, so far, have not benefited from the success of the Celtic tiger economy. That is fair enough, and it is reasonable for them to take that approach. However, we should not be too fooled by their dressing it up in the way that they have, suggesting that their encroachment into another jurisdiction is simply because, so to speak, they want to help both sides. Not only do we have an election coming up, but they have an election in the near future, and the Irish Government want to address certain situations that they have neglected.

Through the offer of a large sum of money, the Irish Government have introduced a reference to Northern Ireland. Members must bear in mind that it is only an offer: there is no money on the table. Following the publication of the economic issues subgroup’s report, it will be for the incoming Minister of Finance and Personnel in the newly restored Executive to consider more carefully.

However, the Irish officials also said that one of the intentions behind the offer was to give a subtle nudge to Her Majesty’s Treasury, with the explanation that this offer was their contribution to the peace process. They intend to tell the Treasury that their offer was their contribution to the peace process, and that from where they were sitting, it seemed as though the Chancellor was dragging his feet, which was an indication for them to throw this large sum of money on the table and seek matching funding from elsewhere. Members know that, in many cases, a nudge is as good as a wink. From where I am standing, the Chancellor needs a shove to initiate the delivery of a better economic package than he has outlined so far.

For Northern Ireland parties to go into an election without having closure on a financial package that has been greatly discussed appears to be the repetition of a past mistake. We must have closure on a financial package for this part of the United Kingdom. Of course, the financial package might, in turn, benefit other parts of the island, and, if so, that is to the good.

Those who have experience of doing business on the island will know that to confine it to an all-Ireland basis is not sustainable for our economy.

That is why the amendment that was moved so ably by my colleague Mr McClarty is worthy of the support of the House.

1.45 pm

Mr Campbell: A series of Members have contributed to this wide-ranging debate. I join with other Members who have indicated their congratulations — and, some might say, commiserations — to the Member for North Antrim Dr Seán Farren on his retirement.

Mr McNarry: Will the Member give way?

Mr Campbell: After about five seconds? Yes, OK. [Laughter.]

Mr McNarry: I thank the Member for reminding me that I did not do that. I appreciate the use of five seconds of Mr Campbell’s time to pass on my best wishes to Dr Farren.

Mr Campbell: As long as it is not contagious, I am happy to allow that. Seán Farren will go into retirement in the knowledge that he has a hardworking Member of Parliament to go to if he needs any problems solved.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Campbell: I, of course, will always be at the ready for him, as I am for others. Dr Farren referred to what he called “all-Ireland reconciliation initiatives”. I regret that that type of language, in various forms, has permeated the debate on the nationalist side. That highlights the different perspectives of cross-border co-operation that Mr Hay mentioned — one person’s all-Ireland reconciliation is another’s political interference.

Lord Morrow referred to the understandable reticence that many unionists have about cross-border co-operation on security grounds. He spoke at some length and with considerable validity about the example of Tourism Ireland, and he outlined that organisation’s less than perfect performance to date. That matter was also raised by my hon Friend the Member for East Antrim Mr Dawson. I hope that both of the matters that were raised by my colleagues will be taken up with Tourism Ireland and that we will see an improvement in its performance after this debate.

Madam Speaker, you mentioned that several Members were not present in the Chamber when it was their turn to speak. I am happy to confirm that they were not DUP Members.

Over several years, we have resented and complained bitterly about interference by the Republic of Ireland in our affairs. We will continue to do that in the future. By the same token, we would not dream of interfering in the affairs of the Republic of Ireland.

There is one matter that has not been mentioned thus far that the Republic of Ireland could address, and that concerns the President of the Republic of Ireland. She visits Northern Ireland quite frequently, and there are those of us who will ensure that she abides by the proper protocols of a visiting dignitary or head of state. The one matter that ensures that she cannot be regarded as such, in a perfect sense, is her title. That is nothing to do with her, but it is the responsibility of the Govern­ment of the Irish Republic, because she is not the President of Ireland, even though she is styled as such. She is the President of the Republic of Ireland.

It is a matter for the Republic of Ireland to decide what it wishes to call her, but I and my community deeply resent any title that implies that she is our President. Neither she nor any President who follows her will ever be the President of the people of Northern Ireland.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Campbell: That is a matter that could be addressed on a cross-border basis, and I hope that that will happen. If we can arrive at an accommodation on that matter, so much the better.

David McClarty referred to North/South business takeovers and said that many of them were corporate decisions. He is correct in that analysis. He also mentioned the pound versus the euro. Given the increasing appreciation of the pound against the dollar, one can see why the euro would be a distinctly second-best choice, if anyone were pushed into making such a choice.

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

Unfortunately, the Sinn Féin contributions concentrated on overtly political issues. I am not one to lecture, because I am lectured quite often, but I keep hearing references to the “North of Ireland”. If people study a map, they will see that Malin Head is the most northerly part of Ireland. A couple of weeks ago, we heard contributions from some Members about the thousands of empty homes in the “North of Ireland”. I did not know that there were 36,000 empty dwellings in Malin Head — I had no idea that it was that big. I hope that that issue will be addressed. The north of Ireland equals Malin Head. This is Northern Ireland; the Republic of Ireland is the Republic of Ireland; and never the twain shall meet.

Kieran McCarthy made a worthwhile contribution on what I regard as effective co-operation between both countries on this island, which the DUP supports and will continue to support.

I will take Dominic Bradley’s helpful reference to the financial services sector at face value. The Republic of Ireland, and Dublin in particular, has blossomed in that sector. However, I fear that when he refers to Belfast being a financial centre, he means that it would be a satellite of Dublin. Why should Belfast be a satellite of Dublin? We should promote the greater Belfast area in its own right as a financial services centre, and not as a satellite of anywhere.

George Dawson referred to the unfortunate Darby O’Gill attitude to economics in both countries that pervaded much of the debate. He made a telling and relevant point about electricity markets and the un­competitive nature of that market in the Irish Republic.

Cultural and educational issues were not raised during the debate. In that regard, the Republic of Ireland could teach Northern Ireland a lesson, because the orange culture is well treated and well respected there. On the Saturday before the Twelfth of July, there is open advocacy in Rossnowlagh in County Donegal. I wish that that attitude could be reciprocated in Northern Ireland and that people could be welcomed into one another’s villages. Unionists in Kilkeel welcome the Ancient Order of Hibernians into their village, and I would like the people of Dunloy to welcome orange brethren into their village. There is no reciprocity; it is a one-way street.

This has been a healthy debate, but the same issues remain. If, in a few months’ or a few years’ time, we get an Executive up and running, after there has been unequivocal support for the police — seen in practice and tested over a credible period — we will begin to see real, positive co-operation that unionist Ministers can advocate openly and that benefits Northern Ireland as well as the Republic of Ireland.

Ms Ritchie: The debate has been interesting and healthy. There has been a return to the old principle of moving forward, both from unionism and from the SDLP.

I thank the Members who paid tribute to my colleague Dr Farren, who proposed the motion and who is retiring today. He said that relations between North and South have developed in a mutually harmonious way for the benefit of all the people of this island, whether unionist, nationalist or of no particular affiliation. Indeed, evidence, as highlighted by Dr Farren, shows that work done thus far represents the normalisation of practical co-operation.

As Dr Farren said, there is no longer a question mark over the capacity of North/South co-operation to deliver. Indeed, all-Ireland initiatives should not be a hostage to political difficulties, as Dr Farren and Dominic Bradley pointed out. I make this plea to unionists, whether from the DUP or the Ulster Unionist Party: please embrace North/South co-operation for the mutual benefit that it can bring all of us on this island.

As Dr Farren said, the best way to encapsulate North/South co-operation for mutual benefit is through the National Development Plan, which was published last week. The national development plan builds on the proposals that the SDLP presented in its ‘North South Makes Sense’ document. We should no longer work on a back-to-back approach, as few benefits come from it. We need only note the marginalisation, deprivation and poverty that occurred as a result of partition. It is much better if we can work together. To quote Dr Farren:

“We can do more together in order to get more together”.

There is a lesson for all of us in those words. We need to find common solutions, and our strength will grow the more that we co-operate.

Lord Morrow referred to the bogeyman of North/South co-operation. He said that Tourism Ireland has not worked for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. That is wrong. In my experience, North/South co-operation, as demonstrated by Tourism Ireland, has worked. Indeed, I need only look to my constituency of South Down, where Tourism Ireland has particularly promoted the Mournes and St Patrick’s country.

I welcome David McClarty’s comments that the Ulster Unionists have no problem with North/South co-operation. However, that party has worries when such co-operation is used for party-political purposes. In order to develop North/South co-operation, the political driver of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) is required as part of the restored institutions.

Last year, Dr Farren and I were pleased to attend the all-island infrastructure investment conference in Dundalk. This year’s conference will be held in Newcastle. At the conference in Dundalk, we talked to many businesspeople and investors from Great Britain. Many delegates from the unionist community in Northern Ireland also attended the conference to hear at first-hand not only what was being done in the Republic of Ireland but how they can co-operate for mutual benefit. The delegates believed that there was a need for a political driver. That political driver should be the North/South Ministerial Council, and we should all move together for the benefit of the entire island in order to improve the prospects for future generations.

Ms Ruane gave a partial constituency critique of South Down. I note that she is not in her place. From her contribution, I note that Sinn Féin is seeking a tax-harmonisation system. I thought that that party strongly opposed lowering corporation tax on the island of Ireland.

2.00 pm

Assertions were made about the Narrow Water bridge. I wish to relate some of the history of that, as I was born and reared in south Down. The SDLP has been involved in the Narrow Water bridge project since the mid-1970s. It participated in, and contributed to, debates in Newry and Mourne District Council, and above all it participated in the Warrenpoint-Cooley group, which was headed up in the 1970s, and is still headed up, by a local member of the SDLP, Dr Donal O’Tierney. Let no one tell me that the SDLP was divided on the issue or was not involved.

The Member of Parliament for South Down, Eddie McGrady, has made significant representations over many years, along with my constituency colleague P J Bradley. Further to that, I am sure that many in the House will agree that terrorism hindered the development of the bridge at Narrow Water. In fact, I well remember a bomb there that killed many soldiers on the August bank holiday in 1979. That put back the cause of North/South co-operation, and of economic co-operation and the political drivers, for many years. I hope that those days will never return to this island. Our children deserve better.

Mrs M Bradley: Will the Member include in her remarks the fact that we received a multimillion pound cross-border investment in City of Derry Airport, and that it was welcomed by all parties in the council?

Ms Ritchie: I thank the Member for her comments. I am well aware that all parties on Derry City Council welcomed the financial commitment from the Irish Government. Assertions have been made in the Chamber, but we in the community have contrary information. It is important that that point be made.

Kieran McCarthy referred to the very welcome all-Ireland free travel scheme, which will be implemented in April 2007 and will be of mutual benefit to all senior citizens on this island. Perhaps we will see Members from the Benches opposite travelling on the Enterprise train. On that subject, there must be increased frequency of departure times, better rolling stock and increased investment in the rail infrastructure.

Mr McCarthy: Will the Member give way?

Ms Ritchie: I have only a few minutes left, so, if the Member does not mind, I will not give way.

I note that unionists, particularly the DUP, are annoyed by peripatetic Ministers, even though those Ministers come with money. William Hay was quite happy to take the money. Philip McGuigan mentioned the need for spatial planning for health and hospital services. George Dawson made considerable reference to the all-island energy market. However, I am sure that he will agree with Members on this side of the House that it has brought benefit to producers in the North. He also made a critique of Tourism Ireland. It would be better if the DUP were to join with the rest of us in participating in those institutions in order to bring benefit to all the people.

Gregory Campbell referred to all-Ireland reconciliation initiatives without political interference. I have no problem with such initiatives. Then he mentioned the President of Ireland visiting Northern Ireland. I recall that unionists were not shy about going to Áras an Uachtaráin or having their photographs taken with the President or participating in the Council of State. Perhaps he needs to consult some of his colleagues.

This has been a very interesting debate, which has clarified some issues. However, in order to maximise the benefits of North/South co-operation, there must be a move towards much more integrated planning and delivery of projects. The SDLP believes that the National Development Plan provides the opportunity for that to happen. Discussions between the Treasury in London and the Department of Finance in Dublin can facilitate progress, which will require the third element to make it work: the restoration of all the political institutions on the island.

Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 21; Noes 32.


Paul Berry, Thomas Buchanan, Gregory Campbell, Wilson Clyde, George Dawson, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson, Alex Easton, Arlene Foster, Paul Girvan, William Hay, Lord Morrow, Stephen Moutray, Ian R K Paisley, Edwin Poots, George Robinson, Peter Robinson, Jim Shannon, David Simpson, Mervyn Storey, Peter Weir.

Tellers for the Ayes: Arlene Foster and Paul Girvan.


Gerry Adams, Alex Attwood, Dominic Bradley, Mary Bradley, Francis Brolly, Thomas Burns, Willie Clarke, John Dallat, Mark Durkan, Seán Farren, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Carmel Hanna, Dolores Kelly, Gerry Kelly, Alban Maginness, Fra McCann, Kieran McCarthy, Raymond McCartney, Patsy McGlone, Philip McGuigan, Martin McGuinness, Mitchel McLaughlin, Eugene McMenamin, Sean Neeson, John O’Dowd, Tom O’Reilly, Sue Ramsey, Margaret Ritchie, Caitríona Ruane, Kathy Stanton.

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

Tellers for the Noes: Thomas Burns and John Dallat.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question put, That amendment No 2 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 17; Noes 33.


Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Esmond Birnie, Michael Copeland, Robert Coulter, Reg Empey, Samuel Gardiner, Norman Hillis, Derek Hussey, Danny Kennedy, David McClarty, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, David McNarry, Ken Robinson, Jim Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Billy Armstrong and Norman Hillis.


Gerry Adams, Alex Attwood, Dominic Bradley, Mary Bradley, Francis Brolly, Thomas Burns, Willie Clarke, John Dallat, Mark Durkan, Seán Farren, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Carmel Hanna, Dolores Kelly, Gerry Kelly, Alban Maginness, Fra McCann, Kieran McCarthy, Raymond McCartney, Alasdair McDonnell, Patsy McGlone, Philip McGuigan, Martin McGuinness, Mitchel McLaughlin, Eugene McMenamin, Sean Neeson, John O’Dowd, Tom O’Reilly, Sue Ramsey, Margaret Ritchie, Caitríona Ruane, Kathy Stanton.

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

Tellers for the Noes: Thomas Burns and John Dallat.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 33; Noes 39.


Gerry Adams, Alex Attwood, Dominic Bradley, Mary Bradley, Francis Brolly, Thomas Burns, Willie Clarke, John Dallat, Mark Durkan, Seán Farren, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Carmel Hanna, Dolores Kelly, Gerry Kelly, Alban Maginness, Fra McCann, Kieran McCarthy, Raymond McCartney, Alasdair McDonnell, Patsy McGlone, Philip McGuigan, Martin McGuinness, Mitchel McLaughlin, Eugene McMenamin, Sean Neeson, John O’Dowd, Tom O’Reilly, Sue Ramsey, Margaret Ritchie, Caitríona Ruane, Kathy Stanton.

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

Tellers for the Ayes: Thomas Burns and Margaret Ritchie.


Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Thomas Buchanan, Gregory Campbell, Wilson Clyde, Michael Copeland, Robert Coulter, George Dawson, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson, Alex Easton, Reg Empey, Arlene Foster, Samuel Gardiner, Paul Girvan, William Hay, Norman Hillis, Derek Hussey, Danny Kennedy, David McClarty, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, David McNarry, Lord Morrow, Stephen Moutray, Ian R K Paisley, Edwin Poots, George Robinson, Iris Robinson, Ken Robinson, Peter Robinson, Jim Shannon, David Simpson, Mervyn Storey, Peter Weir, Jim Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Billy Armstrong and Arlene Foster.

Main Question accordingly negatived.

Muckamore Abbey Hospital

Rev Dr Ian Paisley: I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses concern that more than 100 adults and young people with learning disabilities have been forced to remain in Muckamore Abbey Hospital, Antrim — some for periods extending to several years — because appropriate care within the community is not available; demands a full inquiry into the situation to ensure it cannot occur again; recognises the frequently undervalued contribution of staff, families and carers; and calls upon Government to implement urgently the recommendations of the Equal Lives Learning Disability Report of the Bamford Mental Health Review.

As Members of the DUP, Mrs Robinson MP and I tabled the motion, which should appeal to all in the House.

Many people across the Province were touched to learn of the plight of those with learning disabilities — including children and young people — and who were prevented from leaving hospital on account of insufficient funding for community services. It seems strange that the places in which they were supposed to receive benefits developed into places in which they were imprisoned.

Those people were well enough to go home and should not have been kept in hospital. For too long, the needs of people who have learning disabilities have been ignored and have been left languishing at the bottom of the resources queue. In highlighting their needs, their voices have not been as strong as others.

2.45 pm

In order to improve the care of those with learning disabilities it is essential that the Government move quickly to implement the recommendations of the ‘Equal Lives: Review of Policy and Services for People with a Learning Disability in Northern Ireland’ report published by the Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability (Northern Ireland). A massive amount of time and effort has been invested in producing the report, encompassing views from a comprehensive range of backgrounds, and it cannot be allowed to gather dust. It must be dusted down and its proposals studied and applied.

The report provides a road map for change that includes assisting those with learning disabilities to live in their own homes, feel part of the community and have a greater degree of independence. Those with learning disabilities should have exactly the same opportunities as everyone else. There is an onus on all sectors to achieve that. Carers believe that the ‘Equal Lives’ report is the best piece of work that has been produced in Northern Ireland on this issue, and, if implemented, could have the potential to transform the experience of those with learning disabilities and their families.

The needs of those families and carers must be addressed. More emotional and practical support for families is essential. Many parents are forced to give up employment in order to care for a young person, and that has an obvious impact on the household income. There is a real level of informal care provided across Northern Ireland, and the good nature of parents and families is hugely undervalued at Government level.

Equally worthy of praise is the dedicated work of staff — often in difficult and stressful circumstances — both at Muckamore Abbey Hospital and in the com­munity. Muckamore Abbey has been a hospital for people with learning disabilities since 1960. It is managed by North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust and is currently in the middle of a major reform and modernisation programme. Since the mid-1980s, the number of patients in the hospital has reduced from over 800 to 296. That reflects Government policy that people with learning disabilities should not have to live in hospital. In 1995, the Department of Health published a paper entitled ‘The Health of the Nation: A Strategy for People with Learning Disabilities’, which stated:

“Each Board and Trust should develop a comprehensive range of supportive services for people with a learning disability and their carers. The overall objective is that, by 2002, long-term institutional care should no longer be provided in traditional specialist hospital environments.”

Clearly, that target date has not been, and will not be, achieved.

However, a plan to resettle people who did not require hospital care had been agreed and implemented from the late 1990s. The ‘Equal Lives’ report recognises that some people will require a period of assessment and treatment in a hospital, but states:

“Everyone should have a home address to which they will be discharged.”

The report also describes the range of services required to maintain and support those people to live as independently as possible in the community. A review of regional bed numbers undertaken by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in 2005 defined the future requirement for Muckamore Abbey Hospital as 87 beds.

In 2004-05, however, funding to continue the resettlement programme ceased. At that time, it was also becoming clear that almost half of the people admitted to the hospital had their discharges delayed because funding was not available to develop the appropriate support required in community services.

In 2002, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety approved a business case to provide the capital to build new accommodation at Muckamore Abbey Hospital. A new 35-bed assessment and treatment centre and a 23-bed forensic service were developed. Those buildings provide excellent accommodation and appropriate environments for people with learning disabilities who require a period of admission to hospital.

In order to move patients into those buildings in October 2006, however, the North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust had reached an agreement with the Eastern and Northern Health and Social Services Boards that two wards would close. Since fewer people than expected moved to com­munity services due to the ending of resettlement funding, some wards had to be brought together to fulfil that commitment to the boards.

More patients than anticipated, therefore, remain on the wards. It was recognised that some patients would be unhappy about the moves, and that their needs would be reviewed following a three-month settling-in period. That process is now under way. Muckamore Abbey Hospital has to employ several different strategies to manage risks and keep patients and staff safe. That includes the locking of doors in some wards.

Returning to the crux of the problem, huge difficulties remain in discharging patients from the hospital to an appropriate community setting. Many of the patients whose discharge has been delayed are younger people with complex mental-health support needs and challenging behaviours. The provision of appropriate accommodation and support services can cost between £80,000 and £200,000 per person per year. A continuous and recurring funding stream is required from the Government to develop those services and enable people to leave the hospital.

Muckamore Abbey Hospital also operates one 16-bed children’s ward. The North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust is currently at the advanced stages of completing a business case to relocate that assessment and treatment service for children to a site in Belfast. The business case identifies a need for eight beds for that service, and also emphasises the importance of making appropriate provision for children with complex and challenging behaviours.

Families have expressed the urgent requirement for respite services and residential accommodation. There is also a need for eight additional places in the com­munity, requiring an additional £8 million. The assessment and treatment centre and the provision of other services to support children and families are in keeping with the priorities outlined in the ‘Equal Lives’ document.

In closing, I appeal for sufficient funding to allow those vulnerable members of Northern Ireland society to leave hospital and lead as normal a life as possible in the area from which they come, close to family and friends. Furthermore, I press the Government not to ignore the ‘Equal Lives’ report and to proceed with the speedy implementation of its recommendations. I am sure that my remarks will have the support of the entire House.

I regret that Dr Farren is not in the Chamber at the moment, but I trust that his colleagues will convey my best wishes to him.

I have never experienced retirement and cannot, therefore, recommend to him what to do with his time. However, perhaps Dr Farren would like to give me some recommendations a year from now.

Mr B Bell: I add my voice to the concern expressed in the wording of this timely motion. It is important that parties mark the last sitting day of the Assembly by speaking up for some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our community. I am grateful to Dr Paisley for proposing the motion.

It is right and fitting that Members make clear to the policy-makers in Government that they have scored a massive own goal in the case of Muckamore Abbey Hospital. In many ways, the situation there provides a far more fitting indictment of the failure of direct-rule Ministers than any number of words spoken by their critics in the Chamber or elsewhere.

Future policy-making must be copper-fastened against the kind of institutionalised neglect that Muckamore Abbey represents. Make no mistake, the failure is at the highest level of Government. It is not a failure of the dedicated men and women who work in the Health Service and the caring professions. I have nothing but praise and admiration for all the staff at Muckamore Abbey.

The failure is largely due to the lack of account­ability in the political system. Had local, accountable Ministers been in charge, there is no way that the Muckamore issue would not have been aired in the Assembly before now. It is a failure of the twin evils of cost-cutting and remoteness that have so bedevilled the direct-rule fiasco that we are enduring.

The BBC discovered that the discharge from hospital of well over 100 adults with learning disabilities has been delayed for an average of three and a half years. One man remains in the unit 10 years after his treatment ended. Yet, for over 10 years, there has been a policy that no one should live in hospital long term. How can that have happened? It is a mystery — or is it? Do the Civil Service and the Health Department have no way to test whether they adhere to their own policy guidelines? If not, what was the point of putting those guidelines in place?

I agree with my colleague Dr Coulter’s comments, reported in the local newspaper at the weekend. He said that the entire reform of public administration (RPA) process is deeply flawed in its consideration of health issues. The RPA will perpetuate the under­funding situation in the very areas of the Health Service that helped to precipitate the Muckamore Abbey crisis in the first place.

The failure to differentiate between primary and acute budgets in the RPA proposals means that many current Aunt Sally community-based services will still be hard up. Following the funding-generated Muckamore crisis, there must a new way of looking at public service reform. Thus far, it has been far too bureaucratic and driven by empire-building pen-pushers.

It is time for the Assembly to revisit the RPA process, and that should happen as soon as possible after the election. Democratic accountability and patient care must be at the forefront of the Assembly’s actions.

3.00 pm

That should inform what we put in place.

Many feel that it is time that the Health Service had a much lighter administration and that more money was spent on front-line healthcare professionals, including those who work in the community. That is the only way in which to prevent another Muckamore-like fiasco occurring. There is nothing more sterile than seeing an army of pen-pushers, as I call them, chasing targets when patients lie festering and undischarged from hospital because the system could not get its act together to establish a procedure that would allow those people to be released properly.

I take great pleasure in supporting the motion.

(Madam Speaker in the Chair)

Ms S Ramsey: I also support the motion. It is important for the Assembly to debate issues that are important not only to MLAs, but to the constituencies that they represent and to the community as a whole. However, I put on record my concern that other parties did not support the Sinn Féin motion on collusion, which is also an important issue.

I also put on record my disgust that in this day and age we allow our most vulnerable people to be treated as though they are second-class citizens. The motion reminds me of the debate that we had several weeks ago on the Bamford Review, when we talked about the conditions in which people are treated. We hoped that once the review had been completed, its recom­mendations would be put in place. Therefore it is sad that we are in the Chamber this afternoon debating a similar issue. However, society will be judged on the fact that it treats its most vulnerable as though they are second-class citizens. I am appalled at that behaviour, as, I am sure, is every other Member.

Politicians do not often commend the media, but the BBC and the investigative report that its journalists carried out into the matter need to be recognised. Journalists do not often carry out investigative reports, but the BBC brought the matter to our attention, and that should be recognised.

We have learned that many young adults are being looked after inappropriately in Muckamore. That is an infringement of their human rights. It is also an indication that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has failed to provide the kind of support and care that would allow those young adults to live as independent people with lives that are as full as possible. However, we also have a responsibility to ensure that young people, particularly those who have disabilities, can be supported fully and included in society.

It is also important to remind Members that the chief executive of the North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust and the permanent secretary of the Department admitted in their interviews that they got it wrong. That is probably the first time that I have heard such an admission, and I was shocked and amazed that they admitted it so soon. However, now that they have admitted that what happened was wrong, they have a duty to tell us how they will right that wrong. Going back as far as July 2000, I am reminded of the ‘Children Matter’ report. That considered a way forward for residential care and highlighted the particular needs of disabled children and young people. It seems that little has happened to improve their position since we debated that report. If something has been done, it has failed those young people.

Sinn Féin does not believe that disabled children and young people should spend their lives being looked after in hospitals: they are not appropriate places in which to give long-term care to children who require it. However, we must acknowledge that there will always be children who have challenging and complex needs and behaviour. We need to remind ourselves that it is too much to ask the parents of such children to provide care 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Parents often reflect the exhausting and sometimes demoralising experiences of both providing care and accessing services for their children. They describe it as a daily uphill battle to try and secure individual elements of care from different agencies, and a battle on all fronts to get the smallest amount of support. It is important that we recognise the difficulties faced by parents and how they sometimes have to face the difficult choice between an inappropriate service and no service. They may, on occasions, have to balance the needs of different children in the family and sometimes access the only respite care available to ensure that the other children are protected.

We need to acknowledge that alternative provision is certainly insufficient and that the most dangerous step would be to take a knee-jerk reaction that could put children into more inappropriate placements. In the interim, provision at Muckamore Abbey Hospital should be subject to the same standards that are applied in other environments where children are looked after.

Planning for children’s disability services should be resource-led and should be in children’s services rather than being driven from a disability perspective. That would ensure that disabled children do not spend long periods of time in respite care and do not become children in care by default. Many of the children in Muckamore Abbey Hospital have complex needs and, more than any other group of children, they require the co-ordination of services and prioritisation of their needs by a number of professionals. For example, they may require nursing staff, medical staff, social workers, pharmacists or behavioural nurses. No one should underestimate the level of resources or co-ordination required to support a child with challenging needs in an appropriate setting, or the work needed to create such settings where they are not available.

We may be using residential respite inappropriately for children who could be better supported in community placements — and people should take that on board. If that is the case, as recent stories suggest to me, then places are being taken up that could be better targeted at those who need them most.

It is essential that services are reviewed for the children on an individual basis and that a response appropriate to their needs is put in place. For example, where a child has challenging and complex needs there should be a service in place from the child’s birth, and throughout its life, which includes the child and supports the family.

The board and trust have recognised their respons­ibilities in this case. I want a review of the needs of all of the children and families involved and clear service plans to meet the needs and rights of those children and young people. The plans must include their inclusion, as fully as possible, in the community, and as independent a life as possible for them.

To conclude, I support the motion and the call for the urgent implementation of the Bamford Review. It is in order, Madam Speaker, to ask for a report, through your office, from the Department on the current position of the review because the Assembly passed a motion recently on the issue. Go raibh maith agat.

Mrs Hanna: I support the motion. People with learning disabilities are likely to need additional support to enjoy as ordinary a life as possible — they must be valued for who they are as human beings and not measured by their disability. They must have the same rights and opportunities as other citizens. Despite consensus between the NHS and the various statutory and voluntary agencies about the need to develop consistent and continuous assessment service, that has not been achieved.

People with learning disabilities continue to be marginalised and excluded from mainstream services. As we have seen through the recent example at Muckamore Abbey Hospital, sometimes people are institutionalised for many years. Some of the patients in Muckamore Abbey hospital would be much better being in a community setting. They have very complex needs and require considerable resources and appropriately trained staff. However, they must be equally valued.

Young people and their families need to be better consulted and informed regarding diagnosis and treatment and their views need to be better taken into account.

We need personalised and comprehensive assessment and treatment plans and a clear and flexible action plan for treatment, with ongoing dialogue between patients, family, carers and medical staff on patient progress and potential discharge. The whole process is, for many, so uncertain that it becomes a most worrying experience. Many young people do not know what will happen to them next, what to expect on admission or when they might be discharged home or elsewhere.

Children and young people with severe disabilities may have specific medical needs in childhood, but the basic care needs of disabled children are really no different from those of other children. They are children first. In this context, it is important to recognise the effects of placing a child in a setting such as Muckamore Abbey rather than in a community setting where they have the support of family. Many young people in distress are being admitted to adult wards for treatment because no community-based care is available. Muckamore may be the right place for assessment, for a longer stay, or give the most appropriate care for some people — but not for the people we are discussing today.

Being in distress is a frightening experience in itself, but to be placed in a hospital for years on end, perhaps as a child next to an adult with severe mental illness, can be devastating. Many young people are admitted for treatment and placed in adult facilities because of the lack of child and adolescent beds and facilities. These young people are experiencing problems such as an acute sense of isolation; difficulties with keeping in touch with friends and family; and a lack of activities and education.

I believe that their treatment falls short of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is unacceptable, and we must ensure that it does not happen again.

Evidence shows that where appropriate community services are available, fewer people need inpatient care. With rapid-response community-based services, people are able to remain more independent, to stay in their homes where possible, and are better placed to achieve their potential. Community care provides treatment in the least restrictive and stigmatising setting, as well as family-orientated care and support, and it is more appropriate to an individual’s age and other specific needs.

Early intervention is important in many aspects of health provision, but it is particularly relevant with mental health and learning disabilities. Early inter­vention aims to reduce the length of time that people remain undiagnosed and untreated. The earlier an inter­vention is made, the greater the chance of recovery in an early phase, and the greater the opportunity to create and promote independence and confidence.

The training and development of the workforce is extremely important; that is well attended to in the Bamford recommendations, which stress elements such as a positive attitude and sensitivity. I agree and empathise with the difficult and sometimes challenging task of caring for patients. It is very important to have good working conditions and appropriate, regularly updated training. I acknowledge that sometimes, this work can be very challenging, but it is very rewarding. My sister worked as a nurse in Muckamore Abbey many years ago. She really appreciated and enjoyed her time there.

Finally, I also call for the full implementation of the recommendations of the Bamford Review and of the ‘Equal Lives’ report on learning disability. As Sue Ramsey has said, we discussed this in an earlier motion, and we really need feedback from the Department on the current situation. We have to ensure that all our children have the opportunity to develop to their full potential, physically, intellectually and emotionally.

3.15 pm

Mr Ford: In supporting the motion, I declare an interest, not only as a member of the constituency that houses Muckamore Abbey Hospital — technically, that may not be an interest — but as a former social worker with the Northern Health and Social Services Board (NHSSB), who, at times, was involved with the rehabilitation of those leaving Muckamore Abbey Hospital to rejoin the community in the NHSSB area.

I well remember an occasion in the late 1980s when a colleague of mine was given a senior social worker post, advancing that rehabilitation process. It is appropriate that each of us taking part in the debate acknowledges the contribution of dedicated staff in meeting the needs of those with learning disabilities. Whether they are the staff who provide nursing and other forms of care in Muckamore Abbey Hospital and the other two hospitals, or whether they assist people’s moves to the community and provide day care or support in the home, they are all vital to ensuring a quality of life for those who need the services of the learning-disability teams.

Some of the problems in Muckamore Abbey Hospital are due to the success of the increased shift to com­munity care. Over the past 20 years, between 500 and 600 people have been moved out of long-term care in learning-disability hospitals and have been given better lives in the community. However, some of them have not always had the good lives in the community that they should have had, because the resources, which were already inadequate, have not been increased. The simple fact is that it costs more to keep people in a quality environment in the community than it does to keep them in large institutions, and, as a society, we have not always accommodated that fact.

We must also pay tribute, not only to the staff from Muckamore Abbey Hospital, but to the individuals — in many cases, family members — and the voluntary organisations that have provided community care, enabled the moves to the community and made matters better for those people who receive that care.

It is, perhaps, an interesting coincidence that there are representatives of the Buddy Bear Trust Con­ductive Education Independent School in the Building today. The trust is particularly concerned about young people with cerebral palsy. It promotes the good work that is being done in the community, but is being hindered by the fact that the work is very expensive and is not properly resourced.

It is no surprise that when Mencap published a report in 2003, it called it ‘Breaking Point — families still need a break’. It seems that much of the pious talk about community care actually results in giving the minimum support possible to families, which does, at times, leave parents at breaking point. For example, on simple issues such as respite care, it is now much harder to get placements, particularly for people in their 20s and 30s, than it was a few years ago when they were children or teenagers. There is a real need to ensure that the services are rebalanced, and that has not been done. It is not just about Muckamore Abbey Hospital and the other two hospitals; it is about the package of services that is provided to those people with learning disabilities.

I remember questioning the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety about that issue in the Chamber. I received acknowledgements from her that, for example, the year-on-year percentage increase in funding across different services was always biased towards acute hospitals and against community care. Provision for people with learning disabilities and mental-health needs consistently came at the bottom of the pile. They really were the Cinderella services. However, if the Northern Ireland Assembly debated acute hospitals, particularly the location of maternity services between two hospitals that are one mile apart in Belfast, Members filled the Chamber, and everybody cared. Contrary to that, we are now facing the position that, because the Assembly did not ask serious questions of the Department and the Minister when it had the power to do so some years ago, Muckamore Abbey Hospital has inadequate resources, and there are people in real need and who are really suffering.

Therefore, before the Assembly starts to point the finger too much at other people, there are Members in the Chamber who should ask whether, when we had the power, they did all that was necessary. I am not entirely convinced that we did. There was much more that the Assembly could, and should, have done.

There are three sets of actions that need to be taken to address the needs of patients in Muckamore Abbey Hospital. First, there should be a general enquiry as to exactly what is happening. I was pleased to hear the Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) intervening when the story broke, and, subsequently, I have had a con­versation with her. I am glad to hear that the commission is doing ongoing work.

I am not sure whether that work will extend to a full-scale inquiry, but such an inquiry must be convened. It should not be simply an internal DHSSPS matter, with civil servants saying how hard everyone has tried, but that the money was not there.

There must be genuine recognition that the human rights of citizens have been interfered with. Even if those citizens do not have voices of their own that can be heard in the media, they ought to have the voices of public representatives and of agencies, such as the Human Rights Commission, to ensure that their rights are looked after.

I welcome the comments of another former Assembly colleague, the Commissioner for Children and Young People, on this matter. However, we should recognise that many of the patients concerned are adults, not children. It is slightly denigrating to the position of such patients to concentrate on them as though they were all children. Clearly, there are children with considerable needs, but there are also adults with such needs. We should not focus only on the children.

The second matter that I wish to address — whatever the current financial restrictions — concerns the actions that the North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust should take. The trust has recently acknowledged that it knew that there would be problems with some of the current arrangements, that there would be difficulties with some people settling in, and that a review process would be carried out. That is fine, but I wonder how much of that review would have come to light had BBC journalist Dot Kirby not highlighted it.

Any strategy of locking doors on patients who should be in community care needs a fundamental review. Whatever need there may be, at times, for a small minority of patients to be placed behind locked doors, there is absolutely no way that locked doors should be a substitute for proper nursing care and remedial services, which are, by and large, what those patients require.

The Eastern Health and Social Services Board and the North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust must both examine their actions and why they had failed to take action until the media got on their backs. Their staff have done much good work, but there have been failures that have led to the current situation. However dedicated those staff have been in trying to make the best of a bad job, they should not have had to make the best of a bad job.

The third area that I wish to address is the need for a commitment from the DHSSPS to the full imple­mentation of the Bamford Report, as other Members have said. The deafening silence from the Minister and from senior civil servants on the various aspects of the Bamford Report, as they have been published, is quite horrifying.

We in the Chamber have acknowledged what needs to be done. We know how much ought to be done, and we have seen the difficulties of funding in the past. However, we still have a Minister who is not prepared to give the necessary commitments to provide basic services and basic necessary care for some of our most needy citizens.

It is simply unacceptable that bodies such as the Buddy Bear Trust and Mencap should be running services on a shoestring budget and on a charitable basis because they are not being funded properly by the agencies of the state that have relevant responsibility. In that sense, however, Northern Ireland is not unique. Generally, as a society, we have been fairly poor at providing long-term care for those who need it. We have been fairly good at providing intensive nursing and medical services for those who have acute problems, but those with a long-term or lifetime care requirement have, by and large, not been treated well, whether it be in Northern Ireland, the Republic, England, Wales or Scotland.

There have been problems in every region of these islands, but the Bamford Report has highlighted what needs to be done, what could be done, and what must be done as soon as possible in this, the smallest of those regions.

It is very easy for the Assembly to agree a more or less motherhood-and-apple-pie motion. There is nothing wrong with saying that we are in favour of motherhood and apple pie, but the real test will come at some point after 26 March when we will see whether Members who make the right speeches today are prepared to put their votes into ensuring that the necessary resources are supplied to implement the recommendations of the Bamford Report.

Mr Girvan: I am glad to address the House in support of the motion on Muckamore Abbey Hospital and the provision of care for the children and young people there.

I apologise for the absence of the Member of Parliament for South Antrim. He is attending the funeral of a very close friend and is unable to attend. He has lobbied strongly on the issue and would have liked to participate in the debate.

A meeting has taken place with the senior manage­ment of Muckamore Abbey Hospital, which highlighted not only the plight of the young people in the hospital but the fact that the hands of management are tied about what they can and cannot do. The staff are suffering greatly, and they too share the stress experienced by the families of the young people concerned. We have also had a meeting with the chief executive of the North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust, Mr Black, at which he indicated a desire to address and progress these issues.

Many of the comments that have been made in the Chamber this afternoon are 100% accurate, and I am glad to see that we have cross-party support and unity on this topical issue that BBC coverage alerted us to.

Mr Goggins, the Minister with responsibility for health, social services and public safety, has promised to respond today to the Member of Parliament on these issues. At the moment, we are tinkering with a short-term fix, but we want long-term solutions, which means finding the resources for care in the community. Work has already been done on that issue. We need something more than lip-service.

Ms S Ramsey: The Member quite rightly outlined the work done by the MP for South Antrim in ensuring that, in the words of the chief executive of the North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust: “this does not happen again”. Does the Member agree that it would be appropriate for an all-party delegation to visit Muckamore Abbey Hospital? All Members have referred to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s failure to implement the Bamford Review. Does the Member also agree that, if we met officials from the Department, we could put pressure on them to implement the Bamford Review?

Mr Girvan: The Bamford Review has already been debated in the Chamber, and my understanding is that the motion received cross-party support.

There is merit in all Members continuing to lobby on the issue. However, what would be the point in a cross-party delegation meeting the Minister to be told precisely what we already know? Locking up young people in Muckamore Abbey Hospital resembles Third World conditions. It is in our gift to provide a twenty-first-century Health Service. If the Assembly gets back up and running, this issue should be a priority and should have support across the Chamber about the resources needed. The issue must be dealt with.

Members have referred to the provision of respite care. That area is drastically underfunded, and the families of people who suffer from learning difficulties and disabilities are not getting the support that they require. We must address not only the issue of Muckamore Abbey Hospital but the wider difficulties experienced throughout the Province.

I do not want to blame any individual for what has happened. However, solutions must be found.

I am not happy to proceed if something could take the spotlight off the issue and remove it from the media’s interest. I want to deal with the issue now. I want measures for the long term to ensure that such a situation never happens again. All Members who have spoken in the debate have already mentioned that. We do not want to be discussing the same matter in this Chamber in several years’ time.

3.30 pm

Children have been mentioned. However, a number of people currently in Muckamore Abbey Hospital were admitted as children but are now young adults. Those young adults have lost much of their childhoods through being institutionalised. However, society is also suffering. We are to blame for what is happening. We sometimes adopt a head-in-the-sand mentality whereby if something is not happening in our backyard, we do not see it. We must wake up and realise that the problem exists and that we need to provide joined-up government to deal with it. One division of the Department appears to have enough funding to lay carpets and redecorate, yet other areas are struggling to provide necessary nursing care.

I hope and pray that the recommendations of the Bamford Report will be implemented and that sufficient resources will be made available. Mr Billy Bell mentioned the waste at management level in the Health Service. There is a need for an urgent review to secure efficiencies that will deliver savings and help the Department to deal with the issues.

I support the motion. I hope that we can find some resolution to this issue, not only for those people in Muckamore Abbey Hospital but for many others. Children and young adults need adequate provision. Twenty-four-hour lock-up is no way to help those people. It is unfortunate that, because of the situation in Muckamore Abbey Hospital, there is no alternative to that. The hospital has no other resources, and young people are being placed in totally unsuitable accommodation. We must move forward. It is only human to try to deal with the issue. I implore the House to support the motion.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I am pleased to fully support the motion in the name of my fellow Member for North Antrim Dr Paisley. The motion is extremely serious, because it concerns some of the most vulnerable and exposed members of our community — people who, most of the time, do not have a voice. Let the Members in this Chamber give those people a voice as we give them our support.

Mr Justice Gillen, one of our most senior judges, has highlighted a shortage of skilled professional practitioners in the caring profession. Some 17 young people have spent an additional six years at Muckamore Abbey Hospital in Antrim, when they could have been released to the care of community-based workers. The learned judge has identified that more money is needed to create an early-warning system to ensure that children with learning disabilities or mental health problems are properly treated in the future.

Indignation is not enough; recriminations are not enough. Practical action is required to address a raft of problems. The problems can be identified as follows: first, the current system is clearly underfunded, with the consequence that there are simply not enough trained and qualified care practitioners in the community; secondly, an early-warning system must be put in place to identify potential problems early so that what can only be termed the massive system failure of Muckamore is not repeated.

Owing to cuts, there is no pool of qualified staff in the community to fill any posts that might be created right away. It will take time — perhaps several years — to put that right. Therefore, although the Government’s promise of an additional £1 million over the next two years to address the problem is welcome, it is not in itself enough. An immediate rescue plan must be put into operation.

I am not impressed by the failure of system in our Health Service generally. It brings to mind the rubric that I have been trying to impress on the official mind for many years now — the patient must come first.

The Health Service is full of excellent staff who have a deep commitment to what they do. They are all excellent people whose hearts are in the job and who display a deep sense of care towards their patients. I could not lavish enough praise on the healthcare practitioners at this level in our Health Service. The problem is higher up.

I am concerned by the thinking at policy level at the top, which drives our trusts’ managements to think about nothing but paper targets and financial savings. That thinking has pervaded the review of public administration (RPA) and has resulted in a proposed new system of health governance that addresses none of the patient-focused problems of, for instance, the elderly.

Failing to separate the primary and acute care budgets will starve primary care of money and deal a serious blow to preventative medicine and care in the community. Mental health and learning disability are always the Cinderella services. Acute hospitals consistently receive higher increases in spending, year on year.

I am concerned by the inability of the direct-rule regime and its apparatus of top-heavy officialdom to address this issue in the review of public administration. The entire RPA process will have to be revisited by the Assembly when it assumes the direction of the Province once again. I wrote as much in the ‘News Letter’ as recently as last Saturday, as my colleague Billy Bell mentioned.

In Muckamore Abbey Hospital and related cases the BBC found that more than 100 adults with learning disabilities have had their discharge from hospital delayed for an average of three and a half years. One person remains in the unit 10 years after his treatment ended, yet for more than 10 years the policy has been that no one should live long term in a hospital of any kind.

In the bad old days, before we had democratic accountability and due process, prisoners would be placed in a cell, known as an oubliette in French. They would then be forgotten and never heard of again. The Muckamore Abbey Hospital case has echoes of that. The only difference is that the care given by staff in Muckamore Abbey Hospital, often in difficult and fraught circumstances, is exemplary. Any time that I visited the hospital, I have had nothing but the highest praise for the staff, who work in difficult situations.

However, in another sense, those patients who should have been discharged are the forgotten. Their forgotten cell may have been more comfortable than the forgotten cell of the past, but hospital was not the place for them; it is not where they should be.

The lesson in all this is that we must not forget. The Assembly must revisit the issue when it reconvenes after the forthcoming election. After that, it must feature regularly on the agenda of the Assembly’s Health Committee until it, and all the other issues highlighted by the Bamford Mental Health Review — which we have already debated — are addressed to the satisfaction of the people’s representatives.

It gives me pleasure to support the motion.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Today’s debate has resulted from an intervention on Muckamore Abbey Hospital that Mr Paisley made last Tuesday. Sinn Féin had hoped to debate both Muckamore Abbey Hospital and collusion today, and it is shameful that, because the unionist parties blocked the motion, we are not debating the assassination of a young unionist.

However, Sinn Féin also tabled a motion on Muckamore Abbey Hospital, but withdrew it for one reason only: Dr Paisley raised the issue in the House and asked it to debate it. Sinn Féin Members thought that withdrawing the motion was the proper thing to do because we did not want to play political football with the issue; we wanted to move forward on it with a combined voice. Therefore Sinn Féin will support the DUP motion.

Muckamore Abbey Hospital and similar hospitals were designed in Victorian times to lock people up. However, in this day and age, Muckamore should be used as a centre in which people can be assessed before they are released back into the community. Once they have been released, proper community services will be provided to them so that they can lead as full a life as possible. However, for many reasons, that has not been allowed to happen.

What can we, as Assembly Members, do about that situation? We can debate it — and I have no doubt that the motion will receive unanimous support — but that is all that we will do. David Ford asked whether the Assembly has let down the patients of Muckamore. The answer is yes — we all have. While we have been in this debating shop, young adults and children have been locked up in Muckamore. We should be the people who hold the reins of power and who have the ability to investigate the matter.

I will use my crystal ball to look into the future to see how different the picture could be. Imagine that Iris Robinson were the health Minister. I have no doubt that she would have the chief executive of the trust in her office, tearing strips off him, wanting to know why the situation had been allowed to happen. Any health Committee would investigate the matter and would demand to know why it happened. The Assembly would demand that the Department of Health take action through our local Minister. Unfortunately, we are not doing those things; therefore, we have to take collective blame for what has happened to the young people of Muckamore.

During the recent Assembly debate on the Bamford Review, I mentioned an establishment that I had visited. I said that it was the most depressing place that I had ever been in. That place was Muckamore Abbey Hospital. Another Sinn Féin member and I visited that facility about 18 months ago. That hospital has excellent facilities. At the time of our visit, it was going through a new-build programme, and we were urged to take a look at it. The people who run Muckamore insisted that we look around the whole facility. We did so, and it was depressing. The guy who was with me was an ex-blanket man who spent five years on the blanket. As we walked through the facility, he said that it reminded him of the H-blocks. Although I forget its correct title now, we went to a room that was used to hold people if they were going through an emotionally disturbed state. He said that that room was worse than the punishment blocks in the H-blocks. However, young people were being kept in those facilities.

Since that visit, we have lobbied the trust and the Health Department to continue refurbishing Muckamore, but, more importantly, to ensure that the community facilities are available to allow young people and adults to live as full a life as possible once they have been released. It is clear, however, that those facilities have not been made available.

During the autumn, I also visited Knockbracken Hospital. It has gone through a massive refurbishment programme, and it now has state-of-the-art facilities for people who have learning disabilities and mental-health issues. It is an example to everyone. However, it also has Victorian facilities, and those need to be replaced.

A massive injection of funding needs to be put into mental-health care and helping those who have learning disabilities. During the debate on the Bamford Review, Sinn Féin tabled an amendment that called for the Programme for Government Committee to ensure, in its deliberations with the Exchequer, that the £300 million that is needed to ensure that Bamford becomes a reality is made available. If Bamford does not become a reality, we will continue to let down the young people of Muckamore Abbey Hospital and those people who still live in the Victorian buildings that are in Knockbracken Hospital.

3.45 pm

Bairbre de Brún introduced the 11-part Bamford Review to examine the way forward for mental health in the twenty-first century. It was an excellent review; it has done good work on investigating international best practice. However, be assured that — despite the best intentions of whatever direct-rule Minister is in place — it will not be implemented in full, because it is not a priority. It is not part of the priority planning of the Department of Health. We need to have Iris Robinson, or A N Other, as Minister of Health; we need a Health Committee and an Assembly that will ensure that the human rights abuses that have taken place in Muckamore Abbey Hospital stop immediately.

Like David Ford, I welcome the intervention of the Human Rights Commission on this matter. Those young people’s human rights are being abused — they have been let down by the Assembly and by the Department of Health. We must ensure that we, as politicians, change the conditions in which they live. Of all the debates that we have had in this Transitional Assembly, this one highlights better than any other the need for local politicians to work together.

Dr Paisley said that he had never experienced retirement, and he wished Seán Farren well. I never thought that these words would come out of my mouth, but I hope that Ian Paisley becomes First Minister before he retires, because he and my colleague Martin McGuinness and whoever is sitting around the Executive table will not let down the young people in Muckamore. They will not let down those people in Knockbracken who have not moved into the new state-of-the-art facilities, and they will do a better job than any direct-rule Minister who is sent here.

It took a BBC reporter to expose this scandal; that alone says that we all let those people down. It should have been exposed by our Health Committee, or by a probing question to our local Health Minister. I con­gratulate Dot Kirby on her work; she has shone a spotlight not only on Muckamore, but also on this Chamber.

Mr Dallat: When I first heard of this scandal, my heart sank. I asked myself whether it could be the same Muckamore Abbey Hospital that I knew so well many years ago when my family and I regularly visited my brother, Gerard Majella, who was a patient there for five years. I remember the care and love he received from the dedicated staff, who were committed to helping so many children with special needs, sometimes mental, sometimes mental and physical. He died there on 9 August 1968; every day since then he has been remembered, and so too have the staff of that hospital who gave him so much love and care and attention.

Clearly, Muckamore Abbey Hospital has moved on since those days; it has a different role, helping people to re-enter the community, or so I thought until I heard that some people had been there for 10 years longer than they should have been. The question that occupies my mind is how this situation can exist. Is it really about money and lack of resources? I do not think so. I am convinced that it has more to do with a mindset that dictates that, where choices must be made, the weak and vulnerable will be put at the back of the queue, and every time they come to the front of the queue they will be sent back again. Some people might describe it as prejudice. That is the way in which people with mental health problems are treated.

From the day and hour a baby is born with special needs, his or her parents have a struggle to get the child assessed, and their battle is only beginning.

Report after report is compiled from the most extensive consultation, only to be hit on the head when choices about spending are to be made. Perhaps it is unfair, but when this story broke I thought of the Romanian orphans. I asked myself why, in a modern society that talks so much about healthcare, young children spend 10 years or more in an institution when they should have been rehabilitated into the community. The scandal at Muckamore must be sorted out.

Is Muckamore the tip of the iceberg, as has been suggested? How many more people with special needs are neglected or in a queue with no end? How many are waiting for an assessment that never seems to happen? Is the provision for those individuals adequate or are they being neglected in the same way as those in Muckamore Abbey Hospital?

In the previous Assembly, there was a great deal of consultation and loads of reports on health issues, but no substance. In the meantime, money was spent on an Assembly that did not meet. Yet, the people whom we talk about today continued to languish in an institution that was intended only for short stays. What a pity; what a shame.

As Members leave the Chamber, we can give a commitment to end this inequality in society, the injustice, the prejudice against the weak and vulnerable and the preferential treatment for projects that jump the queue. I hope that the scandal at Muckamore begins a process that delves into every corner of society to find who else is at the end of the queue waiting for help and crying out for the services that they need to develop their lives to the best of their abilities. If Members do that, they will do no more than honour the Good Friday Agreement, which was not designed to simply distribute justice or injustice equally, but to acknowledge and accept that everyone is equal. That includes those who have had to stay in Muckamore much longer than necessary because there was no room for them at the inn.

It is a long time since I first visited Muckamore Abbey Hospital, and I regret that I did not keep up those visits, but it was difficult. I am sorry that it has taken so long to discover that people who should have been back in the community and accepted as equals are still there. During the intervening years, something happened that had nothing to do with the staff, but has a lot to do with direct-rule Ministers and civil servants who have demonstrated their prejudice against the vulnerable in a dreadful way that brings shame and a cry for change.

It is a lesson that Members can learn. Those Members who are returned to a new Assembly must come back with a different attitude — one that profoundly favours those in society who are weak. After all, is that not what government is about? Members can support projects that are exciting, but only when the people whom we are charged to care for have been looked after.

I congratulate Dr Paisley for tabling the motion, and I am deeply touched by other Members who have made positive contributions — by and large, in a non-party-political way — and who have raised their voices in support of those who cannot do so for themselves.

Mrs I Robinson: This has been an interesting and important debate, and I thank the leader of my party, Dr Paisley, for his assistance in pursuing this timely debate.

A failure to plan for adequate services may have contributed to the practice of denying individuals who were detained at Muckamore the right to liberty and the right to a family life. I visited Muckamore Abbey Hospital some time ago, and I was impressed by the commitment of the staff. At that stage, concerns about inadequate funding for the resettlement of patients were already real.

The situation at Muckamore has been prominent in the press, but there are other hospitals in Northern Ireland where the same problems might well exist. There are three specialist learning disability hospitals in Northern Ireland — Muckamore Abbey Hospital, Longstone Hospital and Lakeview Hospital — and they currently provide assessment and treatment services. There are few community-based services available, and that increases the reliance of people with a learning disability on those three specialist hospitals.

‘Equal Lives’, the learning disability report from the Bamford Mental Health Review, defines a learning disability as one that includes the presence of a significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information or to learn new skills, with a reduced ability to cope independently, which started before adulthood with a lasting effect on development.

Children, as well as adults at Muckamore, require individual packages of care suited to their capabilities. Those care packages may include intensive personal care for an individual, including feeding, cleaning, dressing and medication. Care packages also represent extensive support for the family to help them cope with their added responsibilities. As a society, we rely on families to provide 24-hour service. It is the failure to provide services in the community that has caused the delay in discharges at Muckamore.

One big problem that has arisen at Muckamore is the difficulty faced by agencies when the services required are life-long, rather than single treatable health problems. The fact that learning disability services are, in the main, provided by the family rather than by social services means that services for people with a learning disability have been a low priority for the Government and their agencies. As a result, the small number of individuals in hospitals and their families have put up with conditions that would not be tolerated anywhere else. The ‘Equal Lives’ report outlines the problems that people with a learning disability and their families endure.

Some parts of the report relate specifically to the situation at Muckamore. The report states that:

“Questions do need to be asked however with regard to the inequalities that may exist in Northern Ireland detailed in Table 2. For example are statutory services in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act and Human Rights Act if they:

•  fail to provide adequate community support for a person with challenging behaviours?

•  maintain a person in hospital because they do not have a facility in the community for a client to resettle to?”

Recommendation 27 states:

“Resettlement of long-stay patients from hospitals within the context of supported living principles must be progressed as rapidly as possible. By June 2011, all people living in a learning disability hospital should be relocated to the community. Funds need to be provided to ensure that on average 80 people will be resettled per annum over the 5-year period from 2006 to 2011.”

Members have made some important points, and I will go through them in the order that they were made. Dr Paisley rightly said that the recommendations to re-integrate people with special needs into the community have to be acted upon and reinforced. He also said that care packages must be in place so that all people are allowed the dignity of a home address, and he emphasised the core need for additional beds for children who have very complex needs.

Mr Bell of the Ulster Unionist Party emphasised that this motion is dealing with the most vulnerable people in society, so it is important that Members are doubly sure of the provision that is being put in place.

Sue Ramsey of Sinn Féin highlighted the fact that the media, particularly the BBC, should be congratulated for how it alerted the public to how bad the service for children and adults with special needs is at Muckamore. I join her in commending that media reporting. I also agree that it is time to address that failure and put it right. A review should be carried out immediately and its recommendations implemented without delay.

4.00 pm

Carmel Hanna of the SDLP reiterated how important it is that young people know the exact nature of their treatment, the footprint of their stay in hospital, and the back-up care that is available when they return to the community. She also emphasised the need for early intervention. My DUP colleague Paul Girvan said that lip service is of no use; delivery is what matters. When the Assembly gets up and running, as it will when all the boxes are ticked, that will be a priority. Rev Bob Coulter, for whom I have a high regard with respect to health issues, re-emphasised how voiceless vulnerable children and adults are. He said that we need more funding and better planning to provide for specialist staff.

Mr O’Dowd said that we all bear responsibility for the lack of improvement at Muckamore. I remind him that we had a Sinn Féin Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in the previous Assembly. Mental health problems existed then as they do now. I have no doubt that whoever holds the health portfolio will treat mental health and the Bamford Report with the urgency needed to successfully address the needs of those very vulnerable people.

When we get our Assembly back, it will be because all of the boxes are ticked, and it will be an Assembly where all Members are democrats. No member of the future Assembly will try to employ both the Armalite and the ballot box.

Mr Dallat praised the work of staff who gave his late brother Gerard the care and attention he needed. He also queried what had happened to bring Muckamore to its current state. Many explanations have been given, and I hope that, after the elections, local people will have local representatives in charge of the Assembly to take decisions that affect them. I appreciate all the comments that have been made by Members. This is a very important issue. Mental health has been treated, as another Member said, as the Cinderella service. In many cases, when funding was short in the budgets of each trust, money was pilfered from mental health — in the nicest possible way — for other areas of healthcare.

It is important that local politicians address the needs of the more vulnerable in society. I welcome the fact that there has been support for the motion from all of the political persuasions that are represented in the Assembly. A united voice makes a difference and reaches the ear of the Government. In future, the Government must ensure that those with learning disabilities are not at the bottom of the pile when it comes to allocating resources. Sufficient funding must be provided for community services to allow those who require hospital stays to reintegrate into the outside world. We need to target specialist nursing staff and clinicians — and all involved in healthcare who can ease the burden of those with mental illness — and give them access to all of the services that they need.

The extensive work that went into compiling the ‘Equal Lives’ report must be utilised, and its recom­mendations acted on by the Government as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly expresses concern that more than 100 adults and young people with learning disabilities have been forced to remain in Muckamore Abbey Hospital, Antrim — some for periods extending to several years — because appropriate care within the community is not available; demands a full inquiry into the situation to ensure it cannot occur again; recognises the frequently undervalued contribution of staff, families and carers; and calls upon Government to implement urgently the recommendations of the Equal Lives Learning Disability Report of the Bamford Mental Health Review.

Liquor Licences

Mr O’Dowd: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I regret to inform the House that my party will not be staying for the two remaining debates this afternoon. Both issues being debated are very important, but they have been used to block a debate on collusion, which has far-reaching consequences for the wider community. As that is the case, Sinn Féin regrets that it will be withdrawing from the Chamber.

Madam Speaker: I thank the Member for letting us know his party’s view. It will be reported in Hansard tomorrow.

Dr Birnie: I beg to move

That this Assembly calls upon the Minister with responsibility for the Department for Social Development to ensure that no action will be taken with regard to furthering the proposed abolition of the “surrender principle” for liquor licences, as proposed by the Northern Ireland Liquor Licensing review; and further calls for this issue to be dealt with by a restored Northern Ireland Assembly.

In view of the overwhelming attendance here, I am tempted to say that we must be approaching closing time. However, Members have a few hours — at least on paper — to go yet. I am pleased to propose the motion, and it is regrettable that one party has chosen — for whatever reason — to absent itself. The issue is important and affects the lives and welfare of many people in the Province.

Earlier today I was talking about water, and now I am on the subject of drink — there is something poetic in that. The subject is very important. The Department for Social Development (DSD) consultation document, ‘Liquor Licensing – The Way Forward’, produced in October 2005 stated:

“There is a clear link between alcohol and problems relating to crime, public nuisance, health and children and young people. Licensing legislation can contribute to solving or aggravating those problems.”

The final sentence about “solving or aggravating those problems” should be noted. The UUP’s contention in moving the motion is that we fear that the DSD proposals — as recently outlined — will hinder the achievement of the good social objectives outlined in the quotation. I am talking specifically about the so-called “surrender principle”, which has ensured, hitherto, that gaining a new licence for certain types of drink outlets can happen only through the purchase of an old licence.

Therefore, from the end of 2005, the total number of Northern Ireland licences in certain categories was capped at just below 2,000. However, there is a range of categories, some of which are not included in that provision.

It is not clear whether Northern Ireland has differed from the very pronounced and, many would say, worrying UK-wide trend towards higher and higher levels of alcohol consumption per capita. However, the surrender principle has at least ensured that we have not been swamped by a dramatic increase in the number of outlets. It may be significant that in Scotland, which does not have this arrangement, there are four times the number of outlets per capita that there are in Northern Ireland.

Ending the surrender principle would mean that an asset worth a considerable sum of money would be rendered pretty much useless at a stroke. The existing drinks trade obviously has a self-interested — although legitimate, in a way — concern about that happening. However, some small traders, particularly grocers, feel that there is a problem with restraint of trade at present, relative to the number of UK multiple supermarket chains.

The wider public is concerned that the end of the surrender principle could mean more outlets, greater competition, more cut-price offers, and so on. That would mean more consumption of alcohol, and that leads me back to concerns about the social outcome of abolishing the surrender principle. There are many ironies in the Government’s current position. We are approaching the critical date of 30 April 2007, which has been rigorously set with a view to reducing the number of people smoking and its impact on com­munity health, yet the Government are pushing alcohol-related policies in a radically different and contradictory direction.

Moreover, as we well know, the Blair Government have put the punishment, control and reduction of antisocial behaviour towards the top of their policy agenda. However, what they are doing with licensing-law reform will very likely promote antisocial behaviour. One non-governmental organisation (NGO) working in the sector estimates that between 60% and 70% of cases of domestic violence against women are drink-related, as are about half the instances of child abuse. Those are frightening statistics. Alcohol is responsible for between 22,000 and 40,000 deaths annually in the UK, depending on how many indirect health effects are included in that estimate. The annual financial impact is estimated at £18 billion. According to the British Crime Survey (BSC), one in six of all violent crimes in Great Britain is committed in or around licensed premises; therefore we should think very carefully about multiplying the number of such outlets.

It is striking that, a couple of years ago, many of the English chief constables and judges criticised the Blair Administration proposals for the liberalisation of licensing laws. Those changes occurred in England at the end of 2005, which means that Northern Ireland has had a year and a half in which to learn and, arguably, profit from the English experience. Given all of that, why have our Government not learnt from that experience and the associated problems?

The end of the surrender principle is only part of the Department for Social Development’s proposals for the reform of licensing.

I hope that it may be possible for a future Assembly to examine the other important elements, such as the new licensing regime, which will throw much greater responsibility onto local government. In this area, we could profitably consider the English experience, some of which has been mixed, and suggests that, in practice, local government might find it difficult to adequately and correctly regulate the numbers and types of licences. The change in opening hours, pushing them back from 1.00 am to 2.00 am, is of particular interest.

4.15 pm

Many Members have noted the apparent lack of rigour in the DSD consultation document to reduce the scourge of under-age drinking. What is to be done about the problem of those who are under 18 years of age who abuse alcohol and face all the social and health problems that result from that?

It has been pointed out to me also that, under the current system, it is almost impossible for the owner of a licence to permanently lose it. If that is the case, it makes the enforcement of the law very difficult in practice.

I am pleased to propose the motion.

Mrs Foster: I support the motion. Fermanagh District Council discussed this subject during the consultation period on the proposed changes to the legislation. The Minister with responsibility for the matter responded on that occasion, but more of that anon.

I wish to concentrate, however, on the surrender principle, which is the current requirement to purchase an existing liquor licence for the purpose of selling alcohol. The abolition of the surrender principle will, in effect, allow easier access to alcohol at a time when many voices have been raised against the impact that binge drinking can have on one’s health. The estimated costs attributable to excess alcohol consumption in Northern Ireland are over 730 deaths a year; the equivalent of over 12,000 expected years of life lost, and approximately 400,000 working days lost each year. The approximate cost to the economy is over £800 million. Members will agree that those are staggering figures.

A Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety report entitled ‘Strategy for reducing alcohol related harm’ estimated that, as a result of alcohol-related harm, some £34·3 million a year is incurred in costs that have a direct impact on Government spending in Northern Ireland. These include hospital costs, general practice costs and the prison costs associated with alcohol-related crime. In addition, it is estimated that £743·2 million a year is incurred in costs that have an indirect impact on Government spending, such as premature deaths, road traffic accidents and the cost to industry due to sickness absences.

A report published in November 2005, which analysed the drinking behaviour of young people between the ages of 11 and 16 in Northern Ireland, revealed some very worrying trends. It showed that, in Northern Ireland, young people start drinking as early as 11 years of age, and that many young people here are drinking to very dangerous levels. I was disturbed to discover that there is a strongly significant relationship between drinking behaviour and other risk behaviours, such as experimenting with smoking, drugs and solvents, and sexual experimentation. Given those findings, we should, as responsible representatives in this House, be concerned about any legislation that would allow easier access to alcohol. That is exactly what would happen if the surrender principle were to be abolished.

At present, Northern Ireland does not have the same level of alcohol-related harm and social disorder that we see in the rest of the United Kingdom. That is due in part to the over-provision of pubs and off-sales outlets that exist on the mainland and the current regulated system here. Northern Ireland has a population of about 1·7 million, and there are currently 1,938 public houses and off-licences. That does not take into account the number of private clubs, licensed restaurants, hotels and wine bars.

I see no need for an increase in the number of outlets that sell alcohol. In Scotland, there are four times more alcohol licences per head of population than in Northern Ireland. Is that what Members want to happen in this country? The answer must be no.

On the positive side, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has estimated that the alcohol industry provides some 32,000 jobs in Northern Ireland — about 5% of the employed workforce — at a combined estimated annual salary of £298·3 million. It also contributes £2 million to the arts, sports and charities. The debate should reflect that too.

As a representative for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, I often consider matters from a tourism perspective, from which the individuality of Northern Ireland’s licensed trade forms part of the attraction for tourists. That is as true for Fermanagh as anywhere else, but it must be considered in the context of the debate. Government proposals would result in the influx of large pub chains, to the detriment of tourism in Fermanagh and Northern Ireland as a whole.

Social disorder is often linked to alcohol abuse. One need only glance at the court reports in the local press to see the link between excessive alcohol consumption and criminal activity. Although it would be naive to say that all society’s ills stem from an overindulgence in alcohol, a large proportion of crime is committed under the influence of alcohol and, increasingly, drugs. That happens across the criminal spectrum, from street disorder to domestic violence. No responsible person would want to expose society to deregulation as envisaged by the Government.

When the subject of deregulation came before Fermanagh District Council, the Minister, David Hanson, responded to me in writing. He confirmed that the surrender provision had been effective in its aim of influencing entry to the market, thereby restricting the overall number of pubs and off-licences in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister has taken that into consideration and will bear it in mind when he intro­duces legislation. I am happy to support the motion.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leat as seans a thabhairt domh labhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo.

I am grateful to be afforded the opportunity to speak on this important topic. It incorporates a wide range of economic, social and public-safety concerns, some of which Members have touched on.

In May 2004, the liquor licensing review team at DSD took forward its review with the help of an inter­departmental steering group. On 1 November 2005, DSD produced the consultation paper ‘Liquor Licensing — The Way Forward’, which contains Government proposals to reform licensing law in Northern Ireland. Although there was support for many of the proposals outlined in the consultation paper, the Minister for Social Development, David Hanson, announced in a ministerial statement on 20 July 2006 that:

“Concerns have been expressed by politicians and parts of the licensed trade regarding two of the proposed changes. These are the transfer of responsibility for liquor licensing from courts to district councils and the abolition of the ‘surrender’ principle.”

The second and more important of the two is the subject of today’s debate — the abolition of the surrender principle. Some of those who see the extent of the ravages of alcohol abuse also have concerns about extended opening hours — although that is not entirely within the remit of the motion.

The surrender principle, whereby the granting of a licence for a new public house or off-sales is conditional on the surrender to the court of an existing licence, has capped, to 2009, the overall number of such premises in Northern Ireland. The Minister agreed to commission an assessment of the business impact of the abolition of the surrender principle before making any decision on the way forward. The six objectives as outlined by Government are:

“promotion of public health; promotion of public safety; prevention of crime and disorder; prevention of public nuisance; protection of children from harm; and fair treatment of all stakeholders.”

I suggest that in the light of those, the Minister must go much further than assessing the mere business impact of abolishing the surrender principle.

Indeed, established evidence, if not common sense, shows that controlling people’s access to alcohol and the number of outlets that sell it is one way to reduce alcohol-related harm and social disorder. As Mrs Foster said, drink-related illness, death and crime already cost the Northern Ireland economy almost £800 million a year, and that is before we face the human cost and misery that they bring to so many families. The Minister should fully realise that harsh reality before making access to alcohol easier.

The surrender principle has economic consequences. Those of us who represent rural areas are well acquainted with many of our smaller licensed premises. Their owners use the licence as an asset, often to release finance to reinvest in their premises. Why should those people not do that? Every business works on that basis.

It has been rightly stated that alcohol is no ordinary commodity. Churches and many other organisations have expressed concerns that the abolition of the surrender principle may increase access to alcohol, thus contributing further to a host of health, antisocial behaviour and policing problems on our streets. In the light of those concerns, I propose that the matter be left to those of us who are most aware of the —

Mr Weir: I agree with the Member about the financial consequences of the potential transfer of responsibility for licensing to councils and the abolition of the surrender principle, which are linked in many ways. In England, the surrender principle has not been applied, and, in the past few years, responsibility for liquor licensing has been transferred to councils. Westminster City Council is one of the major licensing bodies, since its jurisdiction covers the west end of London. It has robust licensing policies and has tried to restrict the number of licences that are issued. However, the impact of the legislation has meant that appeals from various groups and commercial bodies against the refusal of licence applications have been waiting for two or three years to be brought to court. Even though the council has won every appeal that has been lodged, the process has cost it a fortune. Although I agree with the Member about the wider financial costs, there is also a major cost to ratepayers.

Mr McGlone: I thank the Member for his inter­vention. It is clear that the cost of defending court cases will be a major problem for ratepayers in many areas. That will cause problems to those who pay rates and to those of us who may be elected to the new councils.

I was making the point that the matter would be better left to those of us who are most aware of the alcohol-related difficulties on our streets and in our communities. A restored Northern Ireland Assembly should be left to deal with the matter.

Molaim an rún atá os comhair an Tionóil.

Mr McCarthy: I support the motion, and I also support the Northern Ireland liquor licensing review group’s opposition to the abolition of the surrender principle.

A review has recently been carried out of how liquor licensing in Northern Ireland should be altered. I understand that that review has been through consultation and that changes have been made. Some people will say that those changes were necessary in order to bring Northern Ireland in line with other places. However, others will feel that the changes will not improve the lives of those people who live adjacent to public houses that have extended their opening hours.

The proposals to abolish the surrender principle were vigorously opposed by all existing establish­ments, and, as far as I am aware, by public repre­sentatives. The owners of these establishments have paid a substantial amount of money to secure their licences. They have invested in opening and managing reputable establishments. If the principle were abolished, we could end up with a public house on every street corner, and we all know what that would lead to.

4.30 pm

Our system has proved its worth — and if it is not broken why fix it? We have an orderly way in which people can obtain a liquor licence and establishments can be run in an orderly fashion for the good of everyone.

I support the retention of the surrender principle, and I hope that a restored Northern Ireland Assembly will make a reasoned decision on the surrender licence principle. I support the motion.

Mr Beggs: I support the motion. I declare an interest as a councillor, a ratepayer and as a member of a district policing partnership (DPP). The proposals will have major implications for councillors, councils, ratepayers and policing.

It is interesting to note in the responses to the consultation that almost 93% of people opposed the proposals, with about 6% in favour. The Government have decided to go ahead, while ignoring the views of local people.

Why do the proposals cause such concern? The document gives the impression that devolving decisions on licensing to local councils would create more local accountability. However, experience in England shows that that has not always been the case. Local councils have provided instances of regular abuse when they decided to remove licences. Councils often have to fight huge drinks companies with deep pockets that can force councils to court, thus incurring huge legal expenses. In fact, some councils have exceeded their annual legal expenses budget and find that they cannot afford to take any other proposal to court to defend themselves, and they start to cave in. In effect, big business can drive down quality to the detriment of communities.

Extending the licensing laws is a separate issue from removing licences completely. There is evidence that alcohol abuse is related to hospital admissions, particularly at weekends, antisocial activity, police activity and demands on ambulance services. We must be very careful about the additional work that extended drinking time would generate.

Through my membership of a DPP, I became knowledgeable about Fermanagh DPP, and Fermanagh community safety partnership, which carried out a review of the evening economy — I see that Mrs Foster has left the Chamber. They discovered that many of the difficulties occurred not on or outside premises but at fast-food outlets. Licensed premises may have closed at midnight or 1.00 am, but people were congregating around the town for hours afterwards at fast-food outlets, which had to be policed.

The solution that came from the local community safety partnership and from local people was a voluntary agreement whereby the fast-food outlets agreed to shut an hour earlier. After the pubs closed, people were given one hour to get something to eat and go home. That reduced crime and meant that the police could concentrate resources on a specific period so that they did not, unlike in England, have to maintain vigilance throughout the night because of 24-hour licensing. I am pleased that that is not on offer. However, there is licensing until 2.00 am, and that will dilute police cover because there is only the same cover and resources over weekends. That will be an outworking of the proposals.

As regards the proliferation of licences, I do not know how many constituents have complained to Members that they cannot find an off-licence in which to buy alcohol. A wide variety of off-sales is available, from supermarkets to pubs and other venues.

There are locations in virtually every community where people can buy alcohol. It is not necessarily a good thing that it is getting cheaper; that raises the likelihood of abuse. I generally favour a competitive economy, but in this area falling prices give me cause for concern.

Will we follow the example of Scotland, where pubs have proliferated and almost every corner shop sells alcohol? How then would it be managed? If corner shops begin to sell alcohol, with one person on duty on the premises and no supervision or assistance, there is a danger that pressure will be brought to bear. They may begin to sell for income or be pressurised by groups of underage people to sell to them. Additional problems would flow to local communities from such a development. We all know that there is a relationship between alcohol and drug abuse and antisocial activity.

I mentioned Glasgow. Market forces have forced prices down so that beer is almost as cheap as Coca- Cola; there is more and more abuse, and people damage not only their communities but their health.

In a recent survey, one in ten respondents who drank alcohol was found to be highly likely to have a problem with it. Another survey predicts that alcohol sales in the UK will increase by £500 million a year. This will not be good for the workforce, the economy, public health, the ambulance service or policing. I do not see where the winners are, other than the big drinks companies. Are the Government doing this at their behest? Perhaps they are.

Clearly, many difficulties arise from this. Last year, the Government introduced an alcohol and drugs strategy. I suspect that with increased proliferation in licensing hours that strategy will be out the window. How can they achieve their objectives when the product is going to be so much more accessible? Alcohol can already be bought in various outlets, supermarkets and off-sales. We do not need any more.

I support the motion.

Mr Hussey: I declare an interest as a member of the Federation of the Retail Licensed Trade and as a publican.

Mr Copeland: A what? [Laughter.]

Mr Hussey: I stress, publican.

Mr Copeland: Oh, sorry. [Laughter.]

Mr Hussey: Madam Speaker, I would also ask you to note that if the issue goes to a vote, I will not take part in it because I have a pecuniary interest. [Laughter.]

The whole issue of surrender —

Mr Copeland: No surrender!

Mr Hussey: There is no surrender.

The whole issue of surrender is not just an issue for the trade. It affects a great deal in society. Arlene Foster told us that there are 1,938 current licences. If someone wants to open a new pub or off-sales, he must first purchase an existing licence and apply to the court for a new licence by surrendering the existing licence.

The court can then decide whether to grant a new licence for the new premises. However, let us not forget that the liquor licence is being granted to a person who must prove his or her suitability to hold such a licence.

The Department for Social Development’s (DSD) consultation document ‘Liquor Licensing — The Way Forward’ proposes removing the requirement to purchase an existing licence. It is obvious, as Members have stressed today, that controlling access to alcohol and the number of outlets that sell alcohol is one of the ways to reduce alcohol-related harm and social disorder.

Mr McGlone referred to the six licensing objectives. How do they address the issue of protecting, for example, children from harm and protecting public health? The proposals are not fit even to meet the Government’s objectives.

What will removing the requirement to surrender existing licences mean? Mr McCarthy talked about the problem of there being a public house on every corner. That is not the issue, because the people who run public houses must be suitable and will, normally, be extremely responsible. There are training courses galore for those people who are involved in the licensed trade. They are professionals.

The problem with alcohol comes from the fact that every corner shop, convenience store and amusement arcade will be able to apply for licences, thus ensuring easier access to alcohol for under-age drinkers, which in turn leads to, as my Friend Mr Beggs said, increased pressure on policing and health services.

A particular issue with the young is not that they can go into a pub or club to buy alcohol; rather it is that someone goes down to the local off-sales and buys it for them. The young people do not necessarily buy the alcohol themselves. A lot of young people start drinking in their own homes. Those issues must be addressed.

The economic impact of introducing the proposed legislation can be summarised. There is quite a list of potential impacts, and I suppose that my focusing on them is due to self-interest. The first impact would be reduced investment in existing licensed premises, as a result of the abolition of surrender and the subsequent loss of value of liquor licences. In those circumstances, if publicans were to approach their banks for a wheen of extra pounds to do up their premises, they would find that they had lost the capital value of their assets.

Another impact would be increased investment by the large national pub chains in Northern Ireland. Although this would result in increased consumer choice, it has the potential to displace our smaller local pubs. In many cases, there is one, or perhaps a couple, of pubs in a village. They are the centre of the social lives of many villages. Mr McGlone referred to the rural situation and local pubs.

In Northern Ireland, licensees invest heavily in their premises. The current going rate for a liquor licence is approximately £140,000. The licence is, therefore, a substantial investment and is used generally as security for bank loans. If surrender were abolished, the licences would become worthless. The banking community is opposed to the proposals and believes that they would undermine future investment.

As stated by a Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, another potential impact of the legislation would be fewer pubs with local character, which could have a negative impact on the tourism industry.

The legislation would result in the increased availability of alcohol at low prices in a larger number of premises, which would cause an increase in the economic costs to society. These would include costs associated with increased policing, the need to maintain public order in areas where there is a high concentration of licensed premises, and the additional costs to the Health Service of dealing with the consequences of alcohol abuse.

In England, a square mile in Nottingham city centre is home to 365 alcohol-selling outlets. Would Members like that in Belfast? Would they like that in London­derry? I cannot see the logic behind allowing such a situation to arise.

4.45 pm

Members have referred to the administrative element of the introduction of the legislation. The main concern here is the move away from the judicial process. The district-council-administered liquor-licensing scheme proposed in the DSD consultation document would be less effective, accessible and accountable than the current system.

Courts have applied the current legislation equally and fairly, and in a transparent and consistent manner. Councils will be forced to grant new licences because they may not be able to afford to refuse them or to fund appeals in court. Mr Weir referred to that issue, and he was perfectly correct. In Brighton, a council had to pull out of the appeals system because it was up against one of the big outlets. As Mr Weir rightly said, such companies have the cash and will fight the bit out.

The experiences of England and Scotland have demonstrated that councils can be ineffective in blocking applications for licences and for additional hours. Those Members who sit on councils know how difficult it can be to refuse a licence for an amusement arcade if such a business is to be sited near a school or a bus station where kids gather. One can object and hold up the process for a while, but that is all. The situation with liquor licences will be exactly the same.

Although the number and type of liquor licences could, no doubt, be streamlined, the removal of the various categories of licence and their replacement with one type of premises licence will mean that different responsibilities and rights will no longer attach to different types of licence. That will lead to a proliferation of pubs, and the potential for off-sales to sell alcohol until 2.00 am. People seem to think that everyone in the trade wants to stay open until 2.00 am. At the moment, one can sell alcohol, if one is granted extended hours, until 1.00 am, with clearing out of patrons by 1.30 am. Publicans do not want to do that seven nights a week, and if they are doing it, they must provide either food or entertainment. In other words, they have to give their patrons a reason other than booze for going to the pub — they are going for entertainment, for a meal or whatever. That is not a requirement of the new legislation.

My time is coming to a close, so I shall look finally and specifically at health. The core argument is that easier access to alcohol will lead to increased levels of social disorder, alcohol-related harm and health problems. All are agreed. The Western Drugs and Alcohol Co-ordination Team has stated:

“Research tells us that limiting availability is one positive strategy.”

The Western Investing for Health Partnership (WIFH) has stated:

“WIFH are concerned that by abolishing the surrender principle it will open a floodgate for new licence premises and thereby increase the availability of alcohol and increase the number of premises that would require policing.”

The argument has been well made to the Government. I appeal to Members to deliver to the Government the message that we wish to deal with this matter when the Assembly is back in place. This is a local matter that we as local people wish to address.

Mr Donaldson: I pay tribute to those Members who participated in the debate. I thank Dr Birnie for moving the cross-party motion. I believe that there is consensus in the House on this issue.

The debate has been brief but good. We have gone to the heart of the matter, and good points have been raised. Some Members have rightly identified concerns about the increasing problems of alcohol abuse and the harm that that can create in society. I had the misfortune just a few days ago to attend the funeral of an acquaint­ance who, sadly, had an alcohol addiction. He left behind four beautiful young girls, the eldest of whom is just 11 years old. I remember the anguish, pain and agony of that family as they watched a father and a husband laid to rest. Alcohol can do a lot of harm — of that there is no doubt.

Every day of every week, I deal, as many Members do, with antisocial behaviour caused by young people who abuse alcohol. As elected representatives, we must ensure that we take reasonable steps to protect the community and encourage a responsible approach to alcohol. That is why for once, Madam Speaker, the DUP is prepared to abandon its traditional principle of “no surrender”. I am only sorry that the hon Members — or the not so hon Members — opposite are not here to hear me say that. It might have cheered them up a bit.

Mr Weir: People sometimes say that there has been no progress in this country, but today the DUP is joining others in defending the pub trade. I think that that would count as progress in many people’s eyes. [Laughter.]

Mr Donaldson: I will not report Peter Weir to Dr Paisley on that one. [Laughter.]

The licensed trade in Northern Ireland takes a responsible approach to these issues. I have worked closely with the Federation of the Retail Licensed Trade in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to the federation for its excellent work, responsible approach, professional attitude and common sense, which is sadly lacking in the Department. I am sure that other Members will join me in paying tribute to the federation. It has ably represented its members in this discussion, and it has succeeded in bringing about cross-party consensus.

The DUP is opposed to ending the surrender principle for the distribution of licences in Northern Ireland. The party believes that if the principle were to be dispensed with, it would harm the trade and the public. I can divine no benefit that that would bring to society. I have discussed the matter at length with the Minister with responsibility for social development, and none of the arguments put forward by the Department or the Minister has convinced me that it is prudent and sensible to remove the surrender principle.

The Evangelical Alliance, which represents many Christian Churches in Northern Ireland, responded to the proposals on liquor licence reform. It pointed up the need to protect our children and young people from the harm caused by excessive intake of alcohol. Like many other organisations, it opposes the abolition of the surrender principle.

Other social partners have also taken a responsible approach. No body of opinion in Northern Ireland supports the Department on this matter. No substantive voice in the debate stands alongside the Department and backs its view that the sensible way forward is to have what amounts to a free-for-all. The Member for West Tyrone Mr Hussey, with his personal knowledge of the trade, has rightly identified some of the problems that would ensue should the surrender requirement be removed.

Self-regulation of the trade has, undoubtedly, been valuable and responsible. In other areas of life, self-regulation has not worked. However, the clear facts are there: in Northern Ireland, self-regulation, in the form of the surrender principle, works. There is an old principle that says that if it is not broken, do not fix it, which applies to this situation.

We have heard how the removal of the surrender principle will affect existing licensees, many of whom have invested heavily in their businesses and used their licence as security for bank loans; indeed, their licence is their pension. At the stroke of a pen, the Minister could remove that and place those licensees in very vulnerable positions.

The experience in the rest of the United Kingdom draws me to the conclusion that this is not the way to go. I sometimes wish that our direct-rule Ministers would reflect on the benefits of what is in place in Northern Ireland and not try to impose policies that they have experimented with in other parts of the United Kingdom and that have, quite frankly, failed. In supermarkets in Scotland, for example, beer is cheaper than water.

Mr Kennedy: How do you know? [Laughter.]

Mr Donaldson: I am reliably informed. [Laughter.]

I do not have the power to turn the water into beer, however.

The difficulty is that young people walk into supermarkets and take alcohol from the shelves, or get someone to do it for them. Alcohol is inexpensive, which results in more young people developing alcohol addictions. That creates problems for our society. We see those problems every day. Antisocial behaviour has an impact on communities. However, the greatest impacts of all are the broken lives and the young lives that are being damaged, in some cases irreparably.

The retail licensed trade in Northern Ireland takes a responsible attitude. We have heard that from the representatives of the federation that we have met. They do not want proliferation; they do not want young people to find themselves in a difficult situation. By and large, people in the trade act responsibly. However, if the market is opened up, resulting in a proliferation of off-licences, supermarkets selling alcohol and more pubs and clubs on our streets, opportunities for young people to access and abuse alcohol will significantly increase. It will lead to consequences for the licensed trade in Northern Ireland and for society as a whole.

I commend the motion to the House. At its core is the view that it should be for this body to determine the way forward in respect of liquor licences and the surrender principle. Last July, the Minister for Social Development wrote to me to say that the final decision on this matter would be taken by a devolved Assembly, should restoration be successful. The Minister has accepted the principle that it is for this Assembly to take the decision, and there is consensus in the House that we want to be able to take that decision. Therefore, through this motion, we urge the Government not to proceed with the proposed abolition of the surrender principle for liquor licences and to leave the matter to be dealt with by a restored Northern Ireland Assembly.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls upon the Minister with responsibility for the Department for Social Development to ensure that no action will be taken with regard to furthering the proposed abolition of the “surrender principle” for liquor licences, as proposed by the Northern Ireland Liquor Licensing review; and further calls for this issue to be dealt with by a restored Northern Ireland Assembly.

Tie-up Aid

5.00 pm

Mr Shannon: I beg to move

That this Assembly calls upon the Minister with responsibility for Agriculture and Rural Development to implement a Tie-Up Aid package for fishermen in Northern Ireland affected by the spring closure of the Irish Sea.

I look forward to debating this issue. It is the last debate of the day, but it is nonetheless a very important one.

I am sure that we have all been reading about the 17 fishermen and boat owners from the Province who recently appeared in Liverpool Crown Court for misdeclarations of landings of fish. Members will also have read about the alleged £1·5 million that was netted by those men.

I would like to paint a very different picture. These men have watched their livelihoods being slowly torn from their grasp. They did not wish to defraud their Government but wrongly felt that they were doing no real harm. They under-declared their earnings to the taxmen by some £400,000, but, due to the incongruous rulings laid down by the EU directives, had misrepresented this on their EU forms.

I am not citing that to attempt in any way to absolve those men of anything, but I am citing the dire straits that our fishermen find themselves in — and it is important to do that.

Tha bare facts er, that because o’ tha houl bak oan white fishin, an in tryin tae bring bak tha cod stocks, an tha cloasur an no bein alood tae fish in tha Irish Sea, tha fishermen haeny much chance o’ feedin ther femilies wi’-oot help. Its no that ther lazy, er dinae want tae adapt. But its becaus tha EU er issuin seeminly impaosible tae meet directives. Directives whuch meen that fer 10 weeks tha boats er banned fae fishin, this is 10 weeks that tha femilies o’oor trawlers hae tae pit up wi’oot a wage. Hoo caun this be richt.

Whun thes restrictions wur pit oan tha Scots: ther DARD gien theim tie-up packages tae enable theim tae survive. Sumthin whuch DARD did iver heer fer a wheen o’ yeers, an then they stapt daein it, fer they saed it wus rang an agin tha law, an it wusnae coast effective.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Shannon: Thank you.

Due to the restrictions on white fishing and the closure of the Irish Sea in an attempt to renew cod stocks, fishermen have a very small chance of feeding their families without help. It is not that they are lazy or refuse to adapt; it is that the EU is issuing seemingly futile directives that mean that the boats are banned from fishing for 10 weeks — that is 10 weeks during which the families of our trawlermen are expected to do without a wage. How can that be right?

When the restrictions were applied to the Scots, their equivalent Department issued them with tie-up packages to enable them to survive. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) did that here for a few years and then stopped — first, it said that it was illegal and then that it was not cost-effective. Doing what is right is rarely the cheap option, and that is the case here also, but that does not negate the fact that these men are being stopped from doing their jobs. They are not choosing this, and they should not be penalised for it.

It has been said that the increase in the quota for other fish stocks, such as nephrops, should enable the fishermen to transfer to fishing those stocks. However, some vehicles do not easily lend themselves to that transfer. It must also be noted that were the entire white-fish fleet to be transferred, it is probable that in a short space of time the situation would be the same again.

In 1999, over 40 trawlers fished for white fish full time; in 2006, that figure had dwindled to eight. How much lower can that figure sink, with no action being taken to address the problem? The refusal of the Government to give grant aid to the fishermen of the Northern Ireland fish fleet is clearly down to Govern­ment Ministers. The fishermen have referred this matter to the European Ombudsman, and I hope that they are successful in their claim.

It is the duty of this Assembly to ensure that these men are not left high and dry again. Fishing has been a mainstay of our Province for centuries, and it would be wrong for it to die out now due to the decisions made by people in Brussels who do not understand — or even care to understand — our fishermen and the problems that they encounter in their livelihoods.

Fishin seems tae be a deein traed in tha proavince – while expandin an increesin in Iceland an Nordic watters as oor restrictshun er ther bonuses. Tha drift awa fae fishin o’tha youn is perticularly worrin, an tae fue tha gap Lithuanian an Polish workers er takin ther place. They aw what fue tiem worrk, then they move untae new pastures whun it canny be fun. Whor wull the nixt generation o’ fishermen cum fae unless we caun prove it is a viable career fer oor youn. No jist a joab fae tha guid ool daes.

Fishing seems to be a dying career in the Province, yet it flourishes in Iceland and in Nordic waters, as our restrictions are their fishermen’s bonuses. That young people are drifting away from fishing is particularly worrying. To fill that gap, Lithuanian and Polish workers are taking their place. They all want full-time work, but move on to new pastures when it cannot be found. Where will the next generation of fishermen come from unless we can prove that it is a viable career for our young people and not merely a job from the good old days?

It must be understood that the EU has not only decreased the amount of fish that can be caught — thereby reducing fishermen’s income — but has almost eradicated the confidence that those hard-working men have in the Government. The measures that have been implemented have been for the benefit of no one bar the scientists whose grants are continually funded without question.

The morale of the fishing industry is at its lowest point for years. Although the Department has paid attention to the information supplied by scientists, who flag up statistics that they find, it is vital that the practical, hands-on knowledge of fishermen be given equal credence. When fish stocks appear on scanners, it cannot be ignored. No matter the results that scientists have come up with, the fact remains that fishermen are seeing huge shoals of fish that they cannot touch as they have been told that they do not exist.

Fishermen have been doing their jobs for a lot longer than the EU has been dictating to them. Their reports should carry the same weight as those of the scientists, if not more. It should also be noted that in Canada, which is seven years ahead of Northern Ireland in the cod-recovery programme, scientists are increasingly moving away from the notion that over-fishing has led to the problems. Indeed, scientists are now beginning to accept that the blame perhaps needs to be apportioned more to environmental changes and the fact that seals, for example, do not feel the need to adhere to regulations set by scientists and are fishing more than their fair share.

I wonder whether the EU will be as willing to take on board the views of those scientists as much as they accept every other report as gospel. We want some fish to remain in the sea, but some fishermen who work every day that they are allowed know their limits and that of the sea. The livelihood of the fishing community depends not only on the skill and ability of those fishermen but on their knowledge of the sea.

Fishermen’s views must be expressed and be considered vital in any decisions on fishing quotas and the days on which they are entitled to fish. However, that is not the case. Fishermen have been pushed out of the trade, and we seem helpless to stop it happening. However, we cannot stand idly by and watch fishermen’s businesses being destroyed without doing all that we can to help them.

Those facts show the problem that our fishermen are facing. It is not a self-inflicted problem, but one inflicted by faceless men. The men whom I see in the harbours are not faceless, but are the men with mortgages to pay, homes to heat and children to feed. They are the men whom Jim Allister represents in his attempts to make the legislators in Brussels see reason and realise what their futile directives do to people who depend on the Irish Sea for their living.

Fishermen are owed tie-up aid as much as farmers who are adversely affected by other EU directives are entitled to help, and as much as men who are made redundant from factories are owed redundancy packages by those who make them redundant.

The EU has promised to carry out a major review of its cod-recovery programme. If that review is open and honest, it should mean an end to such stringent EU controls. If so, tie-up aid will not be necessary for much longer. However, fishermen will not hold their breath in anticipation. Therefore, we must ensure that they are given the support and aid that they so richly deserve. It is in the power of the Assembly to demand that that support be granted without further petty excuse or vain procrastination.

It must be done now. I urge the Assembly to support the white fish fleet and the aid scheme.

Mr McNarry: It is interesting to note that those normally associated with fishy business are, given their absence, clearly not interested in the fishing business.

Rightly, we argue for local farmers, and we have indulged in some good debates recently, but the Assembly seldom has the opportunity to put the case for local fishermen. This debate is necessary, and I congratulate those who brought it forward.

The need for a tie-up aid package for white-fish fishermen arises because, under EU rules, the Northern Ireland white-fish fleet is banned from fishing cod from mid-February each year for around 10 weeks during the cod-spawning season. Under EU rules, the Government are permitted to pay compensatory aid to meet the boats’ ongoing overheads and crewing costs. However, last year DARD, under Lord Rooker, claimed — among other things — that aid, having been paid in 2004 and 2005, was not permitted for a third year under EU legislation.

Notwithstanding this, six years on from the introduction of the cod-recovery scheme and closure of the Irish Sea cod stocks for a number of months during the year, there still is no indication as to whether it has been a success. Scientists are unable to tell us whether it has worked and whether the cod stocks are recovering. There is an absence of knowledge on the situation, yet decisions are being taken. The facts and figures constitute the case to be heard by the Government.

The Northern Ireland fishing fleet is a shadow of its former self. Hundreds of jobs have been lost; factories and business have disappeared; and this hit hard the communities that depended on the industry for their livelihood and for the value of that business to be spread among them.

In 1993, 213 commercial fishing fleets were registered in Northern Ireland. This has fallen to a staggering 130. In Portavogie, where there were once 100 boats, there are now only 40 — and they are struggling. Between 1999 and 2003 the average profit before depreciation of a Northern Ireland-based white-fish trawler fell by 76% to earnings of only £10,400. Since 2003 our fishermen have had to deal with other factors, such as acute rises in the cost of fuel and the cost of the leasing quota, with an income that is falling daily.

Why is this happening? The cod-recovery scheme was implemented six years ago on the basis that it would last for three years. The measures have been repeated each year since, and they were extended when the Scottish Executive — acting for the Scottish people — imposed a closure in the North Channel that targeted Northern Ireland trawlers.

The EU Commission has stated that additional recovery measures are needed only where there is biological urgency. Our fishermen may ask where the biological urgency is in the Irish Sea, where the science shows that stocks are nowhere near as low as was assumed. That is an ongoing argument.

DARD scientists — without a grain of evidence to justify the closure of the cod fishery — now say that they hold out little hope of the scheme ever being lifted.

5.15 pm.

If you were — as Jim Shannon would say — a young fella, a fisherman’s son, in a situation that is similar to that of a young farmer who has been brought up on a farm, would you take on those risks and hardships for £10,400 a year, when there is no evidence that anyone is thinking about you or doing anything for you? That is the situation.

An associated issue is the barring of prawn boats from fishing in the area that has been closed as part of the cod fishery closure — because cod represents a substantial by-catch of prawns. When will DARD address that issue? Is it not reasonable that DARD should apologise for its interpretation of the legislation on the tie-up aid scheme? Can it not be argued that DARD’s interpretation was wide of the mark?

Members have been informed that the decision to refuse aid was based on the fact that the scheme does not provide value for money. If that was the case, why was it being operated in 2004 and 2005? If it provided value for money in those two years, what has changed in 2006, and why can Members not have an answer to that question?

Is it not worth arguing that the fishing industry in Northern Ireland requires a team effort between DARD and those in the industry? Everywhere, voluntary coalitions are being encouraged — in the Assembly with respect to the Bain Report, and in the councils — but when it comes to getting people together, it seems that Departments under direct-rule control do not want to do anything on a voluntary basis. Why can there not be a team effort between the industry and DARD officials? Given the precarious state of the industry, it is crucial that fishermen, sellers, processors and the fisheries division of DARD work hand in hand to create a sustainable and viable fishing industry? Is that not what Members are asking for?

More effective science, information processing and results interpretation are required. However, to continue on the present course will lead to the destruction of the local fishing fleet. That will have a colossal impact on the lives of the people in the villages and communities that I mentioned earlier, which are bound together by the industry. Without the fishing industry, what would we have, other than blighted communities? The import­ance of retaining local communities and their environ­ments was discussed in the debate on rural schools.

The bottom line is that Members should not be arguing about the creation of a tie-up scheme that is open only to a fraction of vessels, and we should not be scrambling around in an attempt to secure transitional aid. We must have a local Minister under devolution to deal with fisheries; a Minister who is committed to fight the corner of the local industry and represent, for the first time in years, the issues that fishermen need defended strongly in Europe, and who will bring those issues to the Government and Europe in a cohesive and coherent manner.

It should be done to facilitate the recovery of the local industry, not aid in its destruction. My premise is based on recovery, not destruction. This is not about aid for the sake of it; it is about the recovery of an important and valuable industry to Northern Ireland.

Members require answers to the serious points raised concerning the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

Notice of this debate and its outcome will be brought to the attention of the Secretary of State.

Ms Ritchie: I commend those Members who have tabled this timely motion on the fishing industry and, specifically, the need for tie-up or transitional aid for the white-fish fleet. Tie-up aid would ensure the provision of income for fishermen during the closure period this year from the end of February to April when some of the fishermen from the County Down ports of Ardglass, Kilkeel and Portavogie are prevented — due to EU regulations — from going to sea to fish, which is their job.

The fishing industry supports a substantial employ­ment base and makes a substantial contribution to the local economy in Ardglass and Kilkeel, and that must be secured and sustained. Fishermen are the harvesters of the sea. They eke out their existence from the fruits of the sea in what are sometimes harsh conditions. The industry is located on and adjacent to the harbours. In South Down, the constituency that I represent, there is a fish processing plant in Ardglass and a larger base in Kilkeel.

Over the last number of years, County Down fishermen have encountered many problems and difficulties, and they have faced adversity well. The issues that they faced included quota restrictions for certain fish species, based on what might have been contrary scientific evidence; the closure of the Irish Sea for two months each year since 2000; the income arrangements for share fishermen; fuel increases; competition from other countries; and the difficulties of an angry and intolerant sea, which has taken the lives of several fishermen from the Ardglass and Kilkeel communities since 2000.

Running in parallel with those factors has been the task force for the County Down fishermen that was established by Downing Street in December 2002. That task force has provided funding for regeneration and revitalisation projects in Ardglass, Kilkeel and Annalong, which are now under way. However, there is a need to provide other forms of support and sustenance to those involved in the fishing industry. Substantial financial assistance in the order of £30 million must be provided for the further development of Kilkeel harbour in order to secure safety for its fishermen. Efforts must continue to secure the fishing industry in the ports of Ardglass and Kilkeel and to provide comprehensive training schemes for all fishermen through the development of a local college. Those provisions would give certainty to young people that fishing was a worthwhile, commendable occupation and a profession for life.

Six years ago, the Assembly debated the provision of tie-up or transitional aid to part of the Northern Ireland fishing industry, and today we return to that matter. In December 1999, the European Union’s Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Commissioner decided to impose the first European cod-recovery scheme. The Irish Sea was the first European waters to have such a scheme applied. In the opinion of fisheries scientists, overfishing had reduced the stock of cod in the Irish Sea and measures were required to reverse that process.

During January 2000, a series of meetings was held to discuss the practical measures that would be included in the Irish Sea cod-recovery programme. The main tool applied was the temporary sea area closure in the Irish Sea, and that was targeted at Northern Ireland’s white-fish fleet, which was charged with inflicting damage on the cod stock. This year will see the eighth such temporary closure applied in the Irish Sea and the seventh accompanying closure applied by the Scottish Executive in the River Clyde, and that is also targeted at Northern Irish vessels from the County Down ports.

It is worth noting, and it has been mentioned by other Members, that tie-up aid was provided by the Scottish Executive to Scotland’s white-fish fleet during 2003, and that decision was a significant factor in influencing the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to implement such a scheme here in 2004 and 2005.

In 2005, 16 local trawlers benefited from the temporary tie-up scheme. However, in 2006 the Department refused to pay the tie-up money on the basis that European Union rules dictated that it could not be paid for more than two years. That was proven to be incorrect, but DARD then varied its excuse for non-payment, claiming that the aid scheme did not represent value for money.

The Irish Sea is the only European sea where such a closure has a direct impact on a fishing fleet. In the Irish Sea, the closure has been accompanied since 2005 by restrictions on the number of days that fishing vessels may spend at sea. Quotas for the major white-fish stocks have been slashed, and additional technical conservation measures have been applied to all sectors of the fleet.

What has been the result for the fishing industry? The introduction of closure means a restriction on the number of days for fishing. That began with the famous The Sea Fish Licensing (Time at Sea) (Principles) Order 1993. Since 2000, a large part of the Irish Sea has been closed to directed white-fish fisheries, usually from 14 February to 30 April — almost 12 weeks. Here is a stark statistic: in 1999, there were 40 local trawlers that spent the majority of the year targeting white fish; in 2006, that has been reduced to eight. White-fish trawlers have been decommissioned, sold or, in some cases, modified to fish for other stocks, such as nephrops.

This is a landmark year. The European Union is committed to a major review of its cod-recovery programmes. If that review is genuine, the closure will be removed. Fishery scientists have said that closure is not working. Increasingly, factors such as climate change and predation on fish stocks have been seen as more important than overfishing. Only this morning, Eddie McGrady, the Member of Parliament for South Down, told me that he had received a letter from the current Minister, which reads:

“My Department is currently working on an appraisal of options for ‘tie-up aid’ for the 2007 spring cod closure. I will want to consider a range of factors including value for money and sustainability and competing resource pressures before arriving at my decision. I intend to make an announcement before the closure begins.”

I hope that the Minister makes a positive announce­ment that provides tie-up aid. Equally, I hope that the European Union will end the closure permanently. It does not work, and it impacts on the fishing industry in County Down and on many, many families — not just those involved in fishing. It has wide repercussions throughout County Down.

Other points are also worth noting and provide balance in the debate. While the quota for nephrops has been increased, and scientists describe that fishery as sustainable, nephrop fishing vessels too have had their days at sea reduced. Restrictions have been imposed on the fishing gear that they can use, and they are restricted, to some extent, by closure. That situation needs to be acknowledged, but no one should forget that the closure has been imposed on the white-fish fleet. What can those fishermen do, when going to sea is not a financial option?

I urge the Minister with responsibility for fisheries to continue his work on behalf of the fishing industry, to complete his review of the options as quickly as possible, and to ensure that tie-up aid is made available to fishermen in the County Down ports this year. Other forms of sustenance and protection must be found for those engaged in the industry.

The Assembly must commit itself to the fishing industry, to the fishermen, to the fish producers’ organ­isations, and to those involved in fish processing. On the restoration of the political institutions, we must ensure that the fishing industry is given a high priority; that the local Minister is directly involved in annual quota negotiations in London and Brussels; that he or she has a place at the negotiating table, rather than sitting behind the British Minister; and that an all-party sea fisheries group is established in the Assembly after 7 March.

5.30 pm

Madam Speaker, in conclusion I wish to thank you and your officials for the courtesy and kindness shown to the SDLP and myself.

Madam Speaker: I wish to thank the Member for her remarks.

Mr McCarthy: As mentioned earlier, this is the last round-up of the Assembly. I wish to take the opportunity to thank my colleagues on the Business Committee who, at the last meeting, agreed with me to bring this important motion to the Assembly. I say that for two reasons; of course the issue is important because it affects my constituency and that of Margaret Ritchie, Jim Shannon and Jim Wells. I beg David McNarry’s pardon and include him too.

Mr Kennedy: Why is the motion not in the Member’s name then?

Mr McCarthy: The fact that the motion is in the names of Jim Shannon and Jim Wells does not mean we are not supporting it; we are.

The second reason is that a certain Gentleman in the House has the record for being the last Member to speak in previous Assemblies. I knew when bringing the motion forward that that man would be delighted to keep that record up, and he will have the opportunity to do that.

Mr Shannon: What about talking about the fishing?

Mr McCarthy: I know that, and I am coming to the topic of the debate now. This is the last debate after all.

Mr McNarry: Jeffrey Donaldson has a better record.

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr McCarthy: Returning to the important issue of the fishing industry in Northern Ireland, it is an important area of economic activity and has been for many years. The areas of Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel in particular have been the hubs of the fishing fleet, providing work and first-class products not only for Northern Ireland but throughout the world over many years.

I wish to point out to Members, who already know this, how dangerous and dirty the work is. A number of local fishermen have been lost in our water recently, and that is the case too in the South of Ireland. At least seven people are unaccounted for in Waterford, and Members must offer sympathy and hope to the families of those people. That is a tragedy in any circumstance.

In recent years, our fishing industry has unfortunately been in decline. That is not the fault of the fishermen or women engaged in the work but because of the restrictions imposed by Europe and our own Department. Those restrictions have been ongoing for years, and I have to say that they have not been for the better. Almost every year, a tighter and more restrictive directive has been handed down. That is having a devastating effect on the industry — both at sea and in the processing factories in our fishing villages. I would like to pay tribute to those fishermen who have stuck the pace and provided an industry against all the odds. I also pay tribute to the representations made on behalf of that industry — for its determination to campaign at all levels and at every opportunity to improve the livelihood of our fishermen.

The motion is calling for a tie-up aid package to cover the enforced spring closure — bearing in mind that that is a forced closure. Men want to do their work; they want to provide for their families; and they want to provide employment; however, they are being denied all that by officialdom. Surely that same authority owes it to the fishermen to provide finance for the time when they are denied a chance to earn a living. It would appear that fishermen from other areas of Europe are better provided for than our Northern Irish fishermen. The sooner we have a profitable, thriving and healthy industry returned to Northern Ireland the better.

I wish to finish by reiterating what my colleague David McNarry said — that the sooner we have a local, accountable Minister to deal with fisheries, who is committed to fight the industry’s corner, the better.

I appeal to those parties that have it in their hands to get the Assembly up and running in March on behalf of everybody in Northern Ireland to do just that. I support the motion.

Madam Speaker: I think that I should adjourn the sitting now. However, I call Mr Wells to make the winding-up speech. [Laughter.]

Mr Wells: Madam Speaker, it is a strange fate — if one believes in fate — that I find myself the last Member to speak in the last debate in this Assembly. As Members know, in 1976, I was the last person to leave the Public Gallery when the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention collapsed, after which there was nothing for six years. In 1986, I was the last Member to speak in the Prior Assembly, after which there was no Assembly for 12 years.

Mr McNarry: Sit down, Jim. [Laughter.]

Mr Wells: In 1995, I was the last person in the Building before it burned down. It was closed for three years after that.

Mr Kennedy: Is there any truth in the rumour that Nuala O’Loan is investigating that case? [Laughter.]

Mr Wells: I was not interviewed.

I was also the last Member to speak in October 2002 before the Assembly collapsed for almost four years. I could be charitable and give way to a Member a few seconds before the end of my fifteenth minute and save the Assembly, or I could go on and cast it into doom and gloom for another four or five years. Members will just have to wait to see what I will do.

Some serious issues have been debated. We are debating a serious subject: the livelihood of people who put their lives at risk to go out to sea in difficult times, some of whom have paid the ultimate sacrifice. One of my sad duties has been to attend the funerals of those who have given their lives to provide us with our food, and other Members for South Down and Strangford have had to do the same. Having gone through all those difficulties, it is very sad that we are once again pleading for our Government to provide some form of compensation for denying those people their livelihood.

Most Members’ contributions had a common theme. I was glad to hear Jim Shannon speaking Ulster Scots. It is always refreshing to hear him — one of our few experts on that language — reviving a language that is an important part of our culture. Mr Shannon spoke of the 10 weeks of hardship that those who work in the white-fish trawler industry in Northern Ireland faced. He also painted a very different picture to the one that came out of the court case in Liverpool. He painted a picture of men — it is mostly men who are involved in the trawler industry — being driven to despair, unable make ends meet.

I looked at the economics of the recovery plan. When I looked at fishing quotas, the days spent at sea and the escalating cost of running a trawler, it became clear that the figures in the recovery plan would never add up. It was impossible to make a profit because of the constraints that the Government and the EU Fisheries Council had set. Therefore why was it a big surprise to Government officials to discover that, in order to make a livelihood, men were driven to extreme measures? The picture that Mr Shannon painted was very useful.

Mr Shannon also mentioned the fact that the Scottish Executive have been targeting Northern Ireland fishermen with their cod-recovery plan, which prevents Northern Ireland’s fishermen from fishing in the Firth of Clyde. He also questioned, as did other Members, the reliability of scientific research. I received an email recently from Mr Allister, one of our MEPs, who said that that issue was to be addressed in a forthcoming conference organised by the EU. It wants to find out whether overfishing or global warming is to blame for the reduction in fish supplies. Is it the case that we now have different currents as a result of changes in sea temperatures and that our cod stocks have not decreased but have moved to different parts of the ocean, where they cannot be caught? It would be a terrible indictment of the scientists if we were to discover that, over the past seven years, the reduction in fish stocks was not the fishermen’s fault at all but was down to issues over which we have very little control.

Mr Shannon made a valid point about the difference in support from one section of DARD compared with another. For example, single farm payments in 2006 came to £210 million. That is a huge amount of money that was given to our farmers, and Members would support their receiving those payments. However, if a tiny fraction of that money were given to our sea-fish industry, it would mean a huge boat boost for that part of our economy.

Indeed, when tie-up aid was paid in 2005, it amounted to only £860,000. As a result of the decline in the white-fish industry, that figure is probably £400,000 to £500,000. We are talking about a tiny amount of money in comparison to DARD’s overall budget.

Mr McNarry made a very useful contribution to the debate. He made the valid point that the fishing fleet was a shadow of its former self. I was first elected to take a seat in this Building in 1982, and on the Twelfth of July that year, when all the boats were in the harbour in Kilkeel, it was possible to walk from one side of the harbour to the other on the top of the boats that were moored there. I was in the harbour on the Twelfth of July last year, and I would have drowned very quickly had I attempted that feat. There were only a tiny number of trawlers there compared to those that I remember. I visited Portavogie 20 years ago and witnessed a similar situation. Those are graphic examples of the decline of our seafish industry.

Mr McNarry quoted some useful statistics. He said that in 1993 there were 200 trawlers, and that now there are only 130. There has been an even more dramatic fall of over 60% in the Portavogie fleet. Those statistics reveal the difficulties that our fishing industry is facing. Mr McNarry raised the issue of the Scottish Executive’s cod-recovery plan and the problems that that is causing for our trawlermen.

Mr McNarry also mentioned the mistake that Lord Rooker, the then Minister with responsibility for agriculture and rural development, made in his reading of the regulations on the payment of tie-up aid. Members will know that aid was provided in 2004 and 2005, but not in 2006. Mr McNarry failed to mention that it was the diligent DUP MEP for Northern Ireland, Jim Allister, who used his capable legal brain to examine that legislation.

As a result of his correspondence with the Minister and the European Fisheries Commissioner, Mr Allister was able to expose the fact that the Government made a mistake. Indeed, I have a letter from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development admitting that the Government got it wrong. In 2006, our fishermen were denied their rightful claim to tie-up aid. I congratulate Jim Allister on his work, not just because he is a DUP MEP, but because he has done a great service to our fishing community. I have taken a case to the Assembly Ombudsman and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, Mr Tom Frawley, on behalf of the Kilkeel fishermen, urging him to rule that there was maladministration and that those fishermen should receive compensation. We all wait with great interest for Mr Frawley’s decision.

Mr McNarry also raised the issue of more effective science and the need for a fisheries Minister. I shall be slightly controversial for a moment. We had our own Minister in Northern Ireland who looked after fisheries: Brid Rodgers. I have to be fair and state that I found her to be extremely responsive and extremely good. I remember the terrible drownings of the three members of the Greene family in a tragic accident in the Irish Sea. The news broke on a Sunday afternoon of a massive search-and-rescue effort, and Ms Rodgers came straight down to the harbour in Kilkeel to meet those involved in the attempted rescue. I was very impressed by that.

Having scored political points on behalf of the DUP, we should be fair and say that a locally accountable Minister is good for the fisheries industry in Northern Ireland. The difficulty is how to get to the situation in which we can have our own devolved Minister. However, when we did have one, it was good for the Department and for the industry, and we had a voice in Strasbourg and Brussels at the December EU Fisheries Councils.

It would be entirely inappropriate not to mention the disgraceful situation last year, when Lord Rooker did not even have time to negotiate on behalf of Northern Ireland’s fishermen. He was too busy; but Mr Allister checked Lord Rooker’s diary on the House of Lords website and found that he had not been as busy as he had first suggested, and could have hopped on the plane to Brussels to represent our fishermen. I am glad to say that David Cairns, the current Minister with responsibility for agriculture and rural development, went to last December’s EU Fisheries Council and did his best in a difficult situation. That was recognised by those involved in the fishing industry.

Margaret Ritchie spoke about the income of fishermen in Ardglass, Kilkeel and Portavogie. I missed some of Margaret’s contribution, but I am sure that I will be able to read it word-for-word in next week’s ‘Down Recorder’ as I always do. It is guaranteed that Margaret is not shy about feeding her statements and speeches to that august journal.

Mr Kennedy: What about yourself?

Mr Wells: I have been known to do it, occasionally. [Laughter.]

Ms Ritchie also made a valid point when she mentioned the combination of the cod-recovery plan and all the other factors that the white-fish industry has had to endure, which have had a detrimental effect. Those factors, together with the number of days spent at sea and the problem of quotas, have conspired to reduce the potential of the industry.

5.45 pm

Ms Ritchie quoted from a letter that the Minister sent to Mr McGrady, a copy of which I also received. I welcome the fact that the Minister is considering the payment of tie-up aid, which is good news for all concerned. However, I hope that if he decides to do so, he will not repeat what he did in 2004, when aid was announced after the tie-up period had commenced. The tie-up period usually runs from 14 February, St Valentine’s Day — a date that tends to stick in most people’s minds — to the end of April. Clarity is needed now; if the Minister is going to make a decision, let him do so before St Valentine’s Day, because a quick decision is important. As far as the European Union is concerned, there is no good legal reason why that aid cannot be paid.

No one has mentioned it this afternoon, but it has always amazed me that 75% of tie-up aid is directly funded by the EU. Moreover, the tie-up aid is taxable and reduces the amount of required surveillance by the Fisheries Division in the Irish Sea. Therefore, it does not cost the taxpayer a single penny. Given that the money — it is only £500,000 or £600,000 — is available, why on earth can the fishermen not be paid?

Mr Allister has demonstrated that, technically, the money can be paid. Therefore, pressure should be put on the Minister to pay up immediately. I still want him to address what happened in 2006. His officials gave bad advice that led to the non-payment of tie-up aid that should have been paid. I like to think that there may even be the possibility of pressure being put on the Minister so that the aid can be given retrospectively.

I was interested in, and intrigued by, Ms Ritchie’s suggestion of an all-party committee on the sea-fish industry at Stormont. I wish that I had thought of that, and if I could get to a local paper, I would try to sell that as my original idea. [Laughter.]

After 7 March 2007, when I hope that most of us will be back at Stormont, the representatives of the industry and the MLAs for Strangford and South Down should get together to work on that idea. I am grateful for her suggestion.

It is always a delight to hear from Mr McCarthy. It is because of him that I am the last Member to speak, but, as Members know, there was no collusion. I am grateful to him for suggesting the motion. It is sad that such an important issue for the coastal communities of large parts of Northern Ireland has not exactly attracted a large number of MLAs, although even as I speak a party leader has arrived, which is a good sign. It is a pity that the debate has been so poorly attended. However, it does not beat my record. In the Northern Ireland Assembly, I hold the record for the smallest attendance in the Chamber. Four Members attended the debate on my motion on the Ballynahinch bypass: the Minister, the Speaker, one other MLA and me. In my local newspaper, I was able to say that I was speaking to a hushed Assembly. I hope that I will not have to say that again; the number of Members attending is somewhat better today.

I am grateful to Alderman McCarthy for paying tribute to those in the fishing industry who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, particularly from the Strangford area. We must keep reminding ourselves that sea fishing is a deadly serious profession, and people have lost their lives in terribly difficult situations.

If something is not done soon, Northern Ireland faces the demise of its white-fish industry. I hope that if it is not possible to offer tie-up aid in 2007 —I hope that it will be —a diversification grant at least can be offered to enable those trawlers that can move on to fishing for other prey species, such as prawns, to do so. However, not every trawler can do that. Therefore, if Members decide to go down that road, an additional decommissioning scheme must be introduced, because many trawlermen are up to their necks in debt.

Mr Kennedy: Does the Member accept that a decommissioning scheme brought forward by a new Assembly would be best? Does he share the hope of those of us who remain in the Chamber that we can achieve devolution so that we may appoint a Minister who will supervise such a decommissioning system for the benefit of the fishermen of County Down and all the people in Northern Ireland who fish? [Laughter.]

Madam Speaker: That was very good.

I would not like to annoy my Deputy Speaker. He could just say that he supports the motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls upon the Minister with responsibility for Agriculture and Rural Development to implement a Tie-Up Aid package for fishermen in Northern Ireland affected by the spring closure of the Irish Sea.


Tributes to Madam Speaker; Bound Volumes of Hansard; and Standing Orders

Sir Reg Empey: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it in order, on behalf of my party and, I hope, many others, to thank you for the contribution that you have made in difficult circumstances since May of last year? It is our hope that you remain in position until we can re-examine the issue. I wish to put on record our thanks to you and to the Assembly staff for your contribution to maintaining this institution in recent months.

Mr A Maginness: Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I should like to follow the contribution from the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in paying tribute, on behalf of the SDLP group in the Assembly, to your work as Speaker. It has been a short time, but not without significance. That is important to remember. Furthermore, your contribution as a Member of the Assembly over many years has been outstanding. You have worked conscientiously and brought many issues to our attention, particularly social issues. That reflects your personal commitment to politics and to ordinary people. On behalf of the SDLP group I thank you for your good humour, firmness and courtesy as Speaker. We wish you well in the near future and in your retirement.

Mr Weir: Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. In a desperate attempt to ensure that Jim Wells does not get the last word, I want to associate myself with those expressions of gratitude. As we represent the same constituency, I am aware not just of your contribution in the Chamber over the years but also of your hard work in North Down; you will be greatly missed in that capacity.

Many of us will depart the Chamber without leaving any great personal legacy, but that cannot be said of you. Even the fact that we now have a permanent Christmas tree is something to be proud of. Given the difficult circumstances of recent months, we all want to commend your work and to wish you and your family all the best in your departure from this place — perhaps “retirement” is the wrong word. On behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party I thank you for your courtesy.

Mr McCarthy: Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Will I be the last to speak? Sorry about that, Jim. On behalf of my party I offer my sincere thanks for your work not only in this Assembly but throughout the years that I have known you. You, Derek and your family have added a great deal to politics in Northern Ireland. I have to say that only the best comes from the Alliance Party.

Mr Wells: As Deputy Speaker, it has been a pleasure and a privilege to serve under you. You have guided the Assembly through extremely difficult times. I understand, mind you, that this is not your swansong: you will be back on the first day of the next Assembly. However, it has been a privilege — and I am sure that I can speak for the other Deputy Speaker — to serve under you.

Mr Hussey: Madam Speaker — [Laughter.]

Madam Speaker: Do you have a point of order, Mr Hussey? [Laughter.]

Mr Hussey: Yes. On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wish to refer to Standing Order 2(a). [Laughter.]

Of course, I wish to be associated with the remarks that have been made, but I do have a couple of items of business to leave with you as we depart this place, some hoping to return, and others moving on to do other things.

Can you confirm whether Members will receive Bound Volumes of the Hansard reports of proceedings, as happened in the old Assembly? Secondly, and you will appreciate my asking this, when an Assembly is reconvened, will it operate under the original Standing Orders?

Madam Speaker: Thank you for those points of order. The answer to your first question is a short and sweet yes. The answer to the second is that the Standing Orders that we are operating under now are Standing Orders for the Transitional Assembly, and they will apply until restoration occurs. At that point, the restored Assembly will be subject to the new Standing Orders on which the Standing Orders Committee has been working.

Before I adjourn formally, may I say thank you, Members, for your totally unexpected remarks. I am touched by them. I would not have been here, and I could not have been the Speaker that you say I have been, without the wonderful help and support of the staff here. On my first day as Speaker, I remember well coming in here terrified — and you all know why I was terrified — at the thought of facing the 107 of you for the first time. I was only able to come in with confidence because of the help that I received from the staff. I hope that that help will continue to be offered.

As my Deputy Speaker said, this is not my last sitting. I will be here when Members come to sign the Roll of Membership, and I hope to be able to hand over to a new Speaker when, hopefully, devolution is restored at the end of March.

I thank you all. It has been a pleasure working with you, and I feel extremely privileged to have done so. I am aware of the hard work that you all do, in spite of what the media says. Strictly speaking, I should not say this, but I will anyway: I wish all the very best to anyone who is going to stand for election. To those Members who want to go out and fight to be returned, I hope that that is what they get.

Adjourned at 5.58 pm.

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