Official Report Tuesday 25 September 2007
Private Members’ Business:
Action on Child Poverty
Private Members’ Business:
Establishment of an Independent Environmental Protection Agency
Private Notice Question:
Classroom Assistants’ Dispute
Private Members’ Business:
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Private Members’ Business
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind up. All other Members will have five minutes to speak.
One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to wind up.
Ms S Ramsey: I beg to move
That this Assembly regards as unacceptable the current level of child poverty; and calls on the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to confirm its commitment to the eradication of child poverty by 2020; and to provide an action plan with clear targets and measurable outcomes to ensure that all children are lifted out of poverty.
Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the opportunity to debate child poverty, as it is one of the most serious and pressing issues that our community and society face. I intend to ask the Deputy First Minister a range of questions, and I hope that he will answer them in the time available. If not, he will have a copy of the Hansard report and he or his officials can contact me either in person or by letter.
From the outset, I should say that I have no problem in accepting the SDLP amendment, and I hope that it and the motion will have clear support across the House.
At present, 124,000 children in the North live in poverty, and that figure is 3% higher than in 2006. Those children live in our communities and our neighbourhoods in families that are living on only 60% of the average family’s income. They will go without many of the things that their friends take for granted, and they will experience the loss of dignity and choice that poverty too often brings. Moreover, those 124,000 children will do less well in school.
From their early years and through primary school, children who live in poverty are disadvantaged and do less well. Children who live in areas of high deprivation score less well on verbal skills and early number concepts. Moreover, at primary school, there are clear differentials in test scores between children who live in poverty and those from more affluent backgrounds. By the age of 11, almost 40% of pupils in deprived areas will have failed to reach level 4 at Key Stage 2, compared with 23% of pupils overall. Among children on free school meals, 30% get few or no GCSEs, compared with an average of 14% among all 16-year-olds. Even more concerning is the fact that, although that trend has continued for the past 10 years, little progress has been made on narrowing the gap.
Failure to help those children who live in poverty to do well in school has huge repercussions for their ability to find a route out of poverty. Those with few or no qualifications are twice as likely to be unemployed, and 50% of those who find work are in low-paid employment.
Living in poverty also affects children’s health. Statistics produced by the Chief Medical Officer in June 2007 show that the infant mortality rate in the most deprived areas is 33% higher than the average in the North and that children born into poverty are four times more likely to die before the age of 20 than those born into more affluent families.
The rate of teenage pregnancy is much higher in areas of greatest social and economic deprivation. In the most deprived areas, seven out of every 1,000 girls aged 13 to 16 will give birth: in other areas, the figure will be two out of every 1,000. Teenage mothers and their babies face a much higher risk of infant mortality, low birth weight and post-natal depression.
The effects of poverty on individuals, families and communities make it essential for the Minister, on behalf of the Executive, to give a clear commitment to achieving the target of halving child poverty by 2010, on the way to eradicating it fully by 2020. Will the Minister provide that clear commitment?
Will he also confirm that children and poverty will be a priority in setting the public service agreements and funding allocations? In particular, can he assure us that the Executive will give the highest priority in their funding allocations to spending on various services for children and families? The amount that is spent on those services is directly related to poverty. That our child-poverty levels remain high is not unrelated to the fact that we spend a third less on children’s services here than is spent in England and Wales.
Furthermore, will the Minister commit to reviewing the targets that are outlined in Lifetime Opportunities to address the needs of those children and families most in poverty and to putting in place the targets and funding that are required to make that commitment a reality? The current range of targets is too general and unfocused to address the needs of those children.
The Assembly must be seen to take effective action on addressing poverty. For that to happen, we need a clear strategy and plan. Will the Minister confirm when that plan will become available?
We know that particular groups of children and families are much more likely to be living in poverty. Children from families in which no adults work are at most risk of severe poverty. A family of two children and two adults currently receives £204 a week in benefits, and a lone parent with two children receives £170 a week. Those benefit levels fall below the Government’s poverty line. About 44,000 children live in severe poverty in the North, and they require urgent help to address their needs.
The Government should commit to putting in place a funding programme that will provide additional support and resources for children who live in the most severe poverty and in the most deprived areas to help improve their life chances. That could be done through the creation of children’s zones, which, by co-ordinating a funding programme that addresses education, parenting, health and employment needs, would focus on improving children’s life chances in specific areas. Such a programme would make those children in the most severe need the centre of help in their communities. Will the Minister commit to a programme of policy and funding that is aimed at creating children’s zones to address the needs of children who live in severe poverty?
Other groups of children that are most at risk of poverty are those from families in which either a parent or an adult has a disability. Will the Minister confirm that new targets for the Lifetime Opportunities strategy will address the needs of families with disabilities? Specifically, will a programme of action consider and address the additional cost of disability, and review the opportunities for disabled parents and disabled young people to access training and employment as one mechanism to reduce the level of poverty?
Will the Minister confirm that, as well as the life-cycle approach undertaken in the Lifetime Opportunities strategy, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will co-ordinate a range of actions across all Departments to address, in a holistic way, the needs of those most likely to be in poverty?
In conclusion, I thank the Minister for his response to a number of questions during yesterday’s Question Time, in which he set out the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister’s commitment to addressing this issue. This is a timely debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. Go raibh maith agat.
Mrs D Kelly: I beg to move the following amendment: Insert after “outcomes”
“, supported by a dedicated budget,”
I thank the proposer of the motion for accepting the amendment. I, too, welcome this important debate, which, in the light of recent tragic suicides, provides a timely reminder of the need for comprehensive action to protect our children and young people.
The welfare of children is a particularly significant issue for the Assembly. All the parties represented in the Chamber stood for election on the promise that they could do better for our young people than the direct rule Administration. Therefore, we cannot simply ignore this issue; we must ensure that it is in the mainstream throughout all the decisions that we take. We must be informed consistently as to the success of the actions that we take, and we must adapt and improve policies gradually if we are to have a chance of eradicating child poverty by 2020.
Yesterday, the Deputy First Minister acknowledged the statutory obligations of the Assembly, particularly those of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, with respect to the eradication of poverty and the provision of a more inclusive and equal society. I welcomed his comments; however, he failed to address the matter of a dedicated budget. Previously, the Lifetime Opportunities strategy had no dedicated budget and no clear evaluation process or action plan. That is another reason why the SDLP welcomes this debate and has tabled an amendment to tie down a dedicated budget.
If child poverty is not tackled on moral grounds, it should be tackled on economic grounds. Along with the shocking misery that child poverty entails, it creates a needless waste of resources, tying up health services with the treatment of preventable illnesses, resulting in underachievement in schools and greater reliance on state benefits. The SDLP has a proud record of prioritising the tackling of disadvantage, and that will remain its focus until all children can be assured of having their basic needs met and of the opportunity to develop their full potential.
The statistics are well rehearsed, and I want to address the significance of those statistics and the failure to begin the work necessary to remedy them. TSN and New TSN have not had dedicated resources, and nor has there been adequate accountability to ensure their effective implementation. Now, the Lifetime Opportunities strategy has no dedicated budget. The children’s fund, which was established during the last period of devolution, has been scrapped. Children make up more than a quarter of the population; however, only a fraction of overall funding is spent on children’s services.
We are not starting with a blank sheet: a substantial amount of work has already been done by the community and voluntary sector and, in particular, by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), on the type of action plans and policies that are required. For example, in a briefing paper for MLAs, NICCY states:
“NICCY recommends an audit of existing spending within the new Trusts to assess if the needs of children and young people in Northern Ireland are being met in all Trust areas.
Assessing expenditure on children’s health services proved extremely difficult as funding is often tied up with other spending across the community and hospital settings. In other research, NICCY has uncovered problems such as a post code lottery in the delivery of services such as speech and language; has identified areas of unmet need across Northern Ireland and has identified barriers in accessing services outside the Belfast area, in areas such as specialist mental health support and in the provision of sexual health services.”
NICCY recommends that further research should be commissioned into socio-economic inequalities in educational attainment, because it believes that the current policy is failing pupils from socially deprived backgrounds and that a change in policy is required.
An opportunity to further reduce the pupil:teacher ratio has been presented by the falling school rolls; and that is what should be recommended, rather than school closures. NICCY recommended that the Department of Education should develop and implement a policy of having smaller class sizes, as research has shown that that has a positive effect on achievement.
In 2005-06, £179 million was spent on provisions for children with special educational needs in Northern Ireland, and from 2005-06 to 2006-07, an additional £53 million was provided. Therefore, NICCY recommended that the Department of Education should measure and evaluate whether that funding has been spent effectively. As the sums involved are huge, there must be accountability, and it must be demonstrated that the special educational needs of children are being met.
Poverty is not just to do with lack of resources. However, our efforts will come to nothing without a dedicated budget to address that lack of resources. Equally important is the need to ensure that there is joined-up working on the issue in areas such as housing, health, childcare, social care, education and recreation. Tackling child poverty requires the focused attention of every Department in some way and merits teamwork on a scale that we never imagined through all our years of conflict and division. The whole point of having the Executive programme funds was to address the gaps and divisions between Departments and encourage interdepartmental working in a way that remains absolutely necessary.
Let the eradication of child poverty be at the top of our new political agenda, foremost among the aims of our Programme for Government and central to our efforts to work together for our community.
Mr Spratt: I support the motion. As elected representatives, it is our duty to act now to better the lives of children. On many occasions, the House has discussed this issue and questioned the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Members are discussing the matter once again — it is an issue that will not go away.
As other Members have said, the current level of child poverty in Northern Ireland is unacceptable. It is also unacceptable that that level exceeds the rate of child poverty elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Although we can all agree that that is the case, and we can stand in the House and quote statistics, and say time and again that we find the current situation unacceptable, we have to ask what real action we are taking to actually make a difference to children’s lives in Northern Ireland. The effect of poverty on a child’s life is so widespread that we must ensure that everything possible is done to enable us to aspire to the 2020 target.
The effect of poverty on children is heartbreaking. For many families, the inability to afford a new school uniform has caused difficulties in the past month. The poor diet that is attributed to families in poverty contributes to high levels of obesity in children in Northern Ireland. Poverty affects the formative years of a young life and has been shown to increase the likelihood of exclusion from school and low educational achievement. Poverty affects an individual’s entire life. With that in mind, we must ensure that every child is given the opportunity, regardless of social background, to reach his or her full potential.
More than 124,000 children are being brought up in poverty in Northern Ireland — that is 124,000 too many. It is quite clear that more must be done. First, we must reaffirm our aspiration to eradicate child poverty by 2020. To do that, we must get to grips with the root cause. In Northern Ireland, thousands of people have been lifted out of poverty in the past eight years. However, although that is welcome, a closer look at the statistics shows that those who benefited started just below the poverty line and those who were worst off have remained in the same position.
Child poverty is a manifestation of the more deep-rooted problem that is societal breakdown. Evidence shows that deprivation is often passed down through generations. If a family’s income is benefits based, it is likely that the children of that family will grow up to be long-term recipients of benefits. Educational achievement follows a similar trend: if a parent has been a low achiever, a child is also likely to be a low achiever.
The keys to eradicating child poverty are to break such a cycle, to remove the dependence on the state, and to reinvigorate the family as an entity. Those goals cannot be achieved by simply throwing money at either parents or children; the family unit must be repaired, the grip that crime and drugs have on communities must be broken, and education must be promoted. It is only when those measures, alongside measuring accurately the levels of poverty in specific areas and formulating particular policies to address them, are implemented that we will get to grips with the real root of the problem and have any chance of meeting the 2020 target.
I support the motion and the amendment.
Mr Elliott: Like other Members, I congratulate the mover of the motion for securing the debate on what is an important matter. I also congratulate the mover of the amendment. As we study the motion, it is important that we remember the definition of poverty as the Government accept it. That definition states that a child is deemed to be in poverty if the household income is below 60% of the UK median. I sometimes wonder whether that calculation will ever increase; if 60% is the accepted figure, obviously, a significant number of children will always be in poverty.
Using that definition, a recent Government report found that in Northern Ireland up to 120,000 children live in varying degrees of poverty, as has been mentioned already. If we add to that the number of children who are deemed to be living in deprivation, the figure increases to 160,000. Those figures are highly disturbing, given that in 1999, the Prime Minister pledged to end child poverty within a generation. A start has been made: in the UK as a whole, 600,000 children have been removed from states of poverty. However, more needs to be done, including here in Northern Ireland. If the targets of halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020 are to be met, action must be consistent and not dip in and out of dealing with the matter. Government policy must focus on such steady action.
It is important for us, as a regional Government, to choose a focal point from which to tackle child poverty. I mentioned the 120,000 children who live in poverty; however, that figure drops by more than 50% if the target group changes from including children living in general poverty to those who live in severe poverty. When we shift the focus, the number of children in Northern Ireland whose situations require what we would term immediate action decreases to approximately 44,000.
We must also ask what the difference is between immediate and longer-term action. Differentiating between levels of poverty does not take away from the overall problem. However, if we were to make such a differentiation, the Assembly and Executive could execute a more strategic plan to help those who are in the most immediate distress. To attempt to tackle an issue of this scale in a single move could lead to miscalculations of judgement and prove erroneous in the long run. Child poverty is too important for us to make mistakes; therefore, if we break the challenge into sizeable pieces, we can be more efficient in our actions and more successful with our long-term aims.
Up to 1·5 million people in the UK live in severe poverty. History dictates that children born to parents who are in long-term receipt of benefits are more likely to be long-term recipients of benefits themselves. That point was highlighted by the previous contributor to the debate, Mr Spratt.
We must adopt a bottom-to-top approach. Based on the definition that I mentioned earlier, some 600,000 UK children who have been freed from poverty since 1999 began life just below the poverty line. We cannot forget about the poorest people in our country, and, by starting with them, our task will be made easier and we will make greater progress towards completely eradicating child poverty.
There have been several failings in the Government’s attempts to deal with child poverty. Notably, the Government missed their own 2004-05 target of reducing child poverty by 25%. They have also failed to reduce the number of children who are in severe poverty, with one in five children in the UK still living in a persistently poor household. I wonder how many people in the wider community know what it is like for those children and households who live in poverty. Do those children sometimes have to go without the basic essentials of life such as the food and clothing that many in our community take for granted? Those children cannot have the essentials that the rest of us take for granted.
Mrs Long: I thank the Members who are responsible for tabling both the motion and the amendment. They have created the opportunity to debate this important matter. In common with many other Members, I became involved in politics not least because I wanted a fairer and more equal society, but I wanted governance whereby principles of social justice guide and underpin our decisions and priorities.
Any society is ultimately judged on how it treats its most vulnerable. Our response to child poverty is a tangible measure of our commitment to equality and social justice. The fact that levels of child poverty have risen in Northern Ireland in the past year provides a stark backdrop to the debate.
The UK Government introduced their strategy on child poverty — with a view to halving it by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020 — after the publication of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation study ‘What will it take to end child poverty? Firing on all cylinders’. That study indicated that poverty in the UK remains higher in relative terms than in all but three of the other 24 EU member states, with around 2·5 million to 3·5 million people living below the poverty line, depending on the precise measure that is applied.
The UK has one of the worst rates of child poverty in the industrialised world. In Northern Ireland, a range of contributing factors, including a higher-than-average cost of basic goods, such as fuel, food and clothing, the worst levels of low pay in the UK, higher levels of disability, and larger household size combine to make the problem particularly acute.
As the cost of accommodation in Northern Ireland, which was traditionally lower than the UK average, continues to rise rapidly, the financial burden on local families will be compounded further. Child poverty not only has massive implications for children who are raised in poverty, it has significant long-term implications for wider society. Educational low attainment not only stops a child from reaching his or her full potential — which is, in itself, a major failing — but restricts the ability of that child to maximise his or her earning abilities in adult life, thereby perpetuating the poverty gap through generations.
We cannot ignore the loss of revenue caused by missed taxes and the payment of benefits due to the reduced future employment and earnings prospects of those who grow up poor. Similarly, poor nutrition in childhood has a significant impact on life expectancy and the individual’s long-term health, with all the personal and financial consequences for the individual and wider society that that entails. Investment in the eradication of child poverty is, therefore, not only a moral imperative, but makes good economic and social sense.
Poverty is often a hidden problem in Northern Ireland, and, as the gulf between rich and poor continues to grow, many people are struggling to reach a decent basic standard of living. If both parents are on benefits, their household income will automatically place them below the poverty line. However, sources have estimated that the majority of poor children — 54% — live in a household in which at least one adult is in work. That statistic is clearly linked to the low-pay culture that affects many families locally. In light of those figures, any reduction of the national minimum wage outside of London would clearly serve to push more families deeper into poverty, rather than lift them out of it, and must, therefore, be resisted robustly by the Assembly.
The second report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Work and Pensions on child poverty, from 2003-04, recognised that if the Government are to cut child poverty levels, they need to increase efforts across all the Departments whose responsibilities touch on the issue. As Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, I recognise that, although it is that Office’s responsibility to formulate policy in those cross-cutting areas, the responsibility for delivery more often than not lies with a range of other Departments and under the control of other Ministers.
We must, therefore, ensure collectively that an effective mechanism for scrutiny exists, not only of the overarching strategy, but of the individual contributions that Departments make in delivering on those objectives. Given that such co-ordinated action from a number of Departments is required, child poverty will be effectively addressed only if it is clearly identified as a high-level Executive priority. For that to be meaningful, the Executive must, at the earliest opportunity, formally endorse the targets that are outlined in the motion and formulate a clear strategy for the delivery of measurable outcomes, so that child poverty can be formally prioritised in the current Programme for Government, comprehensive spending review and budgeting round. Without a dedicated budget, we will be offering people little more than tea and sympathy, as Dolores Kelly said. Time is, therefore, short. We need to move on the issue urgently if we are to avoid condemning another generation of children to a childhood in poverty and a future of limited opportunities. I, therefore, endorse the motion and the amendment.
Mr Shannon: I support the motion and thank the Members who tabled it. The issue is close to my heart and to that of many other Members.
I begin with an example. A seven-year-old child slogs his way through the busy street, remembering to hold tightly the hand of his little sister. He carries her schoolbag through the door. She looks at him and asks, “Is there anything to eat?” He knows that payday has not come yet and there will be nothing to be found, so he says, “We are being healthy today — just water.”
That sounds like an advert asking people to sponsor a child in Africa, but, in fact, that story is played out in the Province every day. That child is among the one in seven children who do not get three meals a day. It is as basic as that: children are going hungry and not getting the nutritional food that is vital to their health and development. They are given free school meals — in a surprising number of cases, that is the only decent food that they get each day.
What is poverty? According to Dictionary.com, it is:
“the state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support; condition of being poor”.
In Northern Ireland, that is the life of 29% of the children whom we represent — well over 100,000 people who are all too often hungry. That figure has risen by 3% since last year. Even more shocking, one in 10 children is growing up in “severe poverty”, which equates to 44,000 children in the Province. If statistics are needed, they are clearly there.
Northern Ireland is known for its generosity in giving to the needy. Therefore, how is it that some of our own are being neglected? That is a serious question that cannot be answered by citing any one factor. Basic items such as fuel, food and clothing are more expensive here than in other parts of the United Kingdom. The levels of pay are not as high here as they are on the UK mainland. Throw into the pot the fact that, by and large, families are larger here as well and the reduction in child support for each additional child leaves us with a meal that is not so palatable.
Few could argue with the statistics. If anyone is unsure that the situation is as bad as it is made out to be, they should talk to the teachers and dinner ladies, who see a lot. Talk to the youth workers in the Girls’ Brigade or the Boys’ Brigade: they will be able to point out a child or two who does not have it easy and for whom they bring in extra snacks and food. Some youth workers have told me that they have seen children who cannot afford the 50p weekly contribution and whose “I forgot” excuse is lost behind the embarrassment in their eyes.
Those kids should not be ashamed — they should be taken care of. A full stomach and clothes that fit are basic human rights that too many are not getting. It has been shown that families in which only one or neither parent works are at higher risk of living in poverty. Those are only some of the factors. As I have said before, if there is an illness or disability, whether mental or physical, the family is under more pressure and more strain to ensure that the affected person has what is needed, while the rest of the family scrape by.
It is said to be 25% more expensive to raise a child with disabilities, and yet the wages here are not high enough. Many parents have to leave work so that they can cope, and, therefore, the problems are compounded rather than eased. The rest of the children in the family lack attention and some necessities, as their parents struggle to give all their children some semblance of life.
Around 56% of households with one or more people with disabilities are living in poverty. That is also true when a family member has cancer. Cancer affects one in three people — and those statistics were mentioned in a recent debate. Many families do their best to keep their loved ones at home. They buy the necessary food, keep the heating on all day to ensure warmth, pay for hospital parking — sometimes for all day — take time of work and pay for prescriptions. That all adds to the emotional and financial problems of families already on the breadline.
Child poverty is a sad reality in the Province, and it must be addressed. We must implement a system to set goals to ensure the eradication of child poverty in this generation. That is not impossible — it can be done. We have a duty to help the 100,000 children who are living lives of worry and shame and with parents who are depressed about their lack of money. We are a nation known for its generosity when disaster strikes other regions. Let us see to our own nation with the same mentality and honesty and do all that we can for our children. I support the motion.
Miss McIlveen: Figures vary on how many children are defined as living in poverty in Northern Ireland. Current Government figures from the family resources survey state that 130,000 children live in poverty. The households below average income figures for 2005-06 show that around 124,000 children live in poverty. Other sources place that figure in and around 100,000. Whatever the figure, it is clear that a problem exists.
‘Severe Child Poverty in the UK’, a report by Save the Children, revealed that 44,000 children in Northern Ireland experience severe poverty. That means that families are getting by on less than £7,000 a year, which is £12,000 a year less than the national average income. Such families feel socially excluded. Children living in such circumstances are not eating healthy food and are not living in well-heated conditions. Last week, the Assembly discussed the impact that fuel poverty has on children, and this debate goes hand in hand with that.
Children need to be given the appropriate launch pad in life: warm homes, healthy food, a quality education and job opportunities. That is the only way to stop the cycle of poverty and benefit Northern Ireland as a whole.
Save the Children has called for the following measures: the introduction of seasonal grants to help those families on low incomes to cover expensive times of the year; investment of £4 billion from central Government; an action plan on severe child poverty to ensure that policies are targeted at those in severe poverty; significant resources to promote take-up and knowledge of benefit and tax credit entitlements; and reform of the social fund to ensure that it is an effective anti-poverty tool. Those are noble, but short-term, measures that will address the symptoms but not the cause.
Northern Ireland has more of its population not in paid work than any other region in the UK: 30% of our working-age population are not in paid work. Amazingly, according to statistics from the labour force survey, only 7% of those people want to work.
Action must be taken immediately to assist those in severe poverty, but we must also be mindful of creating a benefit-reliant society and of creating the perception that people would be better off not working. There is no simple solution to the problem that we face in Northern Ireland. We need a comprehensive plan for addressing poverty, which must include, not only additional support for those most in need, but the creation of an environment in which those who are able to work, but do not want to, are persuaded to work and acquire the appropriate skills and qualifications to contribute to society.
We also need to educate those children and young people about family planning so that they do not inadvertently fall into the poverty trap. The rate of teenage pregnancies for girls aged between 13 and 16 is three times the average. That is both a cause and a consequence of health inequalities and social exclusion. Childcare provision must also be reviewed to facilitate lone parents and those families whose non-working parent wishes to contribute a second income to the family. The barriers that prevent parents from obtaining and keeping employment must be removed.
I have not forgotten those people who cannot work. Some have been left scarred by our divided society, and others have long-term debilitating illnesses. Society has a duty to care for and provide as comfortable a life as possible for those people.
The Northern Ireland Executive are committed to halving child poverty by 2010 and to eradicating it by 2020. That is a huge task, and I look forward to hearing what plans the Deputy First Minister will offer to fulfil those obligations.
Mr Beggs: I support the motion and the amendment. I must also declare an interest as a member of the New Horizon Sure Start committee, which operates in Carrickfergus and Larne. I thank Barnardo’s, Save the Children and the Assembly’s Research Services for their guidance on this subject.
Recently, we failed to meet the UK target of reducing child poverty by 25% by 2006. There must be more than paper strategies to achieve that, and other, more ambitious, targets, by 2010 and 2020. Specific actions and monetary commitments are required to enable that to happen.
How can child poverty be eradicated? The Labour Government in Westminster laud the child tax credit as their main mechanism for eradicating child poverty. In 2004-05, they indicated that over £3,000 had been added to the incomes of qualifying families in Northern Ireland. Giving additional money is an easy way to lift children out of poverty. However, that is not within the gift of the Assembly, and, owing to budget gaps, unfortunately, it also seems to be difficult for HM Treasury to address.
Barnardo’s has stated that barriers to work exist. The best way that I can see of tackling child poverty is for the Assembly to assist individuals into education and, ultimately, work so that they can reach their full potential and benefit their families.
On the subject of employment, Barnardo’s has stated that there must be a review to examine the best way of supporting second earners into the labour market and that that support would be one more way of lifting more families out of poverty. It also said that the introduction of the full jobcentre plus programme and the New Deal for families would enable more parents, particularly lone parents, to return to work. It is within the gift of the Assembly to make funding available for such a scheme in Northern Ireland.
A devolved Assembly is capable of other actions. Previously, there was the Executive programme fund for children and young people, which ended with the demise of the first Assembly. In 2006, there was a ministerial announcement of a funding package of £100 million for children and young people. With only six months until the end of that funding, which has enabled a great deal of positive work, there is concern in the voluntary and community sector because there has been no news of what will replace it. That funding is important because, on many occasions, it was cross-departmental and allowed Departments to think differently and work more effectively, so I hope that the Minister will be able to tell Members what will happen with that.
I have worked with other Members on the all-party group on children and young people. A recent letter from the Minister of Finance and Personnel stated that:
“Central funding streams, by their very nature, are intended to provide support to specific projects for a finite period only.”
Funding would then be reassessed.
I wish to highlight the fact that it took a considerable time for a Sure Start group that I am involved with to make leasing arrangements with education and library boards and, after we had a building, to get staff. It takes time for such actions to bed in. Sufficient time must be given to determine whether the results are satisfactory. I hope that sufficient time will be given, so that the positive work of that scheme can be seen to bear fruit.
Education and parental support is the best way forward. Government must assist people to improve their children’s lot, to give them better educational attainment and qualifications and, ultimately, to contribute to the economy. In that way, they will rise from their situation of poverty. I hope that funding will continue to be available to enable some of the most deprived children in our communities to reach a better level of attainment.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (Mr Kennedy): I apologise to the House and to the proposers of the motion for my absence during the earlier part of the debate. I am afraid that I was caught out by the change in timings.
As Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, I welcome the opportunity to debate this most important issue. In this day and age, the level of child poverty in Northern Ireland is deplorable and unacceptable.
The statistics paint a very depressing picture. In recent questions for written answer, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister said that in 2002-03, approximately 26%, or 114,000 children, were living in relative income poverty. Although the figure was slightly reduced in 2004-05 to approximately 24%, or 101,000 children, the numbers are alarming.
A report published this year by Barnardo’s also showed the severity of the problem by stating that:
“There are currently 100,000 children living in officially defined levels of poverty in communities across Northern Ireland.
A further group are living in severe poverty; around 44,000 children and young people will be missing out on regular items that the rest of the community see as essential”.
The statistics are clear: the problem is huge, and action must be taken now.
Some people might say that action is being taken. Lifetime Opportunities, the Government’s anti-poverty and social inclusion strategy for Northern Ireland, which was launched in 2006 under the previous direct rule Administration — and is, according to the Deputy First Minister’s answer yesterday, being considered by the Executive — pledged to halve child poverty by 2010 and end it by 2020. Those are ambitious, and worthy, goals. However, questions are already being asked about the ability of the strategy to achieve them.
The Committee has raised the issue of child poverty with the Children’s Commissioner and several organisations, and has identified it as one of its key priorities. The Committee’s concern is such that child poverty will be the subject of its first inquiry, and terms of reference for that will be considered at its first meeting tomorrow.
Although I do not want to pre-empt the Committee’s considerations and decisions on the shape of the inquiry, I hope that it enables us to focus on the capability of the current strategy to achieve its ambitious goals and that it will provide us with an opportunity to identify further key actions in the remit of the devolved Administration that can be taken to tackle child poverty. I also hope that the inquiry will be short and sharp, enabling the Committee to report to the Assembly on this most important issue at the earliest opportunity.
I welcome the commitment given by the Deputy First Minister in June that the anti-poverty and social inclusion strategy is an absolute priority for him and for the First Minister. The Committee will scrutinise the draft Programme for Government and the draft Budget to ensure that tackling child poverty has been given the cross-cutting priority that it deserves and that the necessary resources are provided to ensure that the plans can be fully implemented. We will be looking for actions and resources that back up that commitment.
As an Ulster Unionist representative, my personal view is that, although the overall goals of the anti-poverty strategy are commendable, the lack of definitive short- and medium-term targets and actions and a detailed implementation plan means that the challenge that those goals present is unlikely to be met.
Specific areas of concern for me, with regard to the strategy, include the proposals for the development of only four children’s centres. That number is, in my view, totally inadequate, and I hope that as part of the Budget discussions, the issue will be given much more priority and the planned number will be greatly increased.
As a former Chairman of the Committee for Education, during a previous mandate of the Assembly, I was keenly aware of the poor levels of numeracy and literacy skills, and the associated problems of educational underachievement.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member’s time is up.
The Deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): Thank you, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank all the Members who contributed to the debate. I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the important subject of child poverty, and, in doing so, I hope that Members will be reassured that both the First Minister and I take the issue seriously. Poverty, and particularly child poverty, is an emotive subject — and rightly so. Many of today’s contributions were undoubtedly heartfelt.
Over 120,000 of our children are recognised as being in relative poverty. Of that number, almost half are from one-parent households. Furthermore, when the statistics are examined more closely, they show that, in addition to the 120,000, there are another 46,000 children deemed as being at risk of poverty.
Those figures equate to almost 28% of the total child population, which does not compare well to our European neighbours. The best figures in Europe are around 10%. Poland is worst off, coming in only marginally above our figures at 29%. Taken as a whole, the average in England, Scotland, Wales and the North is 22%. The average in the Republic of Ireland is around 23%. Those statistics are staggering, by any standards, and are an indictment of how we, as a society, have gone about tackling such issues in the past.
Statistics, though, do not tell the whole story. I want to take a moment to put those figures in context for Members, and to explain what being in poverty, or at risk of poverty, actually means to the individuals concerned. It means not having the money to provide for some of the basic necessities that the rest of us take for granted. It means not being in a position to take part in educational or leisure activities that are seen as developmental.
By way of an example, I will highlight a case study that recently came to my attention. A lone parent, who left her job because of childcare problems, recently said that she really has to watch her money. She cannot just walk into a supermarket and buy what she wants. She looks at what is on offer and what she can afford, not what is healthy. If the choice is a bag of apples or a packet of sausages and a loaf of bread, she chooses the sausages and tries to make a meal with them for a couple of nights. She struggles on her own with children, trying to get by. The children come first, and she copes by doing without.
At a time when everyone is looking to the Assembly to make a positive difference in their lives, it is vital that the Assembly does not lose sight of those in our society who are most in need and that we address that need as a priority. Child poverty cannot be considered in isolation. Poverty and all its manifestations are a blight on society and an issue that both the First Minister and I are absolutely committed to tackling.
When we speak of child poverty, we are talking about children in our society who live in families that have an income below, or close to, that considered as placing them at risk of poverty.
It is not too great a stretch of the imagination to recognise that lone-parent households feature prominently in that group. Some 45% of adults in lone-parent households are classed as economically inactive, a fact that practically guarantees that children from those families will be among the most disadvantaged in our society.
Consequently, we have examined factors which impact on lone parents and contribute to their social exclusion. That work has been greatly influenced by the policies and approaches taken in other jurisdictions that have shared their experiences through, for example, the British-Irish Council. That work is nearing conclusion, and I hope to report to the Executive on its findings and recommendations in the coming months.
Action to improve the opportunities and life chances of lone parents will undoubtedly have a significant impact on levels of child poverty here. Poverty is not just about income; as I have said, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are at greater risk of underperforming educationally and of suffering from poor diet and poor housing conditions. Together, these factors place the next generation at risk of not achieving its potential and, therefore, of not benefiting from economic growth and rising prosperity. Members must recognise that, in order to break the recurring cycle of inter-generational disadvantage, we need to tackle aspects of poverty and social exclusion that impact on society from childhood and throughout life. Tackling child poverty will ensure that we treat problems at source and, I hope, prevent poverty, as well as providing a route out of it.
The Executive do not control all the policy levers necessary to tackle child poverty. Tax and benefit policies are not matters for this Administration, and it is generally accepted that tax credits, in particular, have greatly helped in reducing child poverty in recent years. We do, however, control many other important policy levers. In that context, we need to look at ways to maximise job opportunities and enhance the skills and education of those who can participate in the labour market; ensure that people get the benefits to which they are entitled; improve public services for all; and provide support for parents during key transition phases in the lives of their children.
It is, ultimately, for the Executive to agree on the priorities in tackling poverty. The Executive have a statutory duty to do so, specified in section 16 of the St Andrews Agreement Act 2006, which requires the Executive to:
“adopt a strategy … to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need.”
Just prior to the restoration of the Assembly, Peter Hain launched Lifetime Opportunities, the Government’s strategy for tackling poverty and social exclusion. That strategy was the result of the previous devolved Administration’s commitment to review the New TSN policy work that had continued during suspension.
Prior to restoration, the shadow Committee on the Programme for Government looked closely at Lifetime Opportunities and took evidence from a wide range of stakeholders. The conclusions are important and the Executive must have regard to them when they decide the future direction of policy. In particular, the Committee felt that Lifetime Opportunities, which used a life-cycle approach, provided a good framework for addressing poverty and social exclusion. However, the Committee wanted to see it strengthened in a number of ways. It felt that the strategy and its main goals and priorities should be adopted by a restored Executive, but wanted to see greater emphasis on the specific needs of certain groups, such as disabled people and lone parents. The Committee agreed with the strong views of many from whom it took evidence that the strategy would be greatly improved with the adoption of specific short-and medium-term targets, action plans and indicators, so that progress in reducing poverty could be properly measured. The Committee also highlighted the importance of resources to implement the strategy properly and recommended that resources be skewed towards disadvantaged areas, including small pockets of deprivation and individual poverty.
In bringing specific recommendations to the Executive Committee, the First Minister and I will pay close attention to the conclusions of the shadow Programme for Government Committee and the representations that have been made to us by organisations.
We are anxious to use this unprecedented opportunity to tackle the problem of child poverty once and for all. Although the strategic approach that we decide on will be important, ultimately, it will be the actions taken across the full range of Government programmes that will make the difference to people’s lives. Those areas include education, health, employment, housing, transport and rural development.
Several issues were raised in the course of Members’ contributions. Sue Ramsey mentioned the review of the targets in the Lifetime Opportunities strategy. As I have stated, the First Minister and I are examining Lifetime Opportunities with a view to bringing proposals to the Executive to discharge our statutory duty under the St Andrew’s Agreement. Part of that process will be to examine the targets and indicators that we set to tackle poverty.
Dolores Kelly referred to a dedicated budget, which is the subject of the amendment. I want to ensure that resources and efforts are targeted to help those most in need. The Executive must agree on priorities for tackling poverty to secure the best results for all children. The process of agreeing the Programme for Government is well under way and will be subject to Executive approval. All Ministers, including Margaret Ritchie from the SDLP, will be involved in implementing the Programme for Government, and the amendment will be noted by all Members of the Executive as that work goes ahead.
I welcome the interest in child poverty from the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, of which Danny Kennedy is Chairperson. I look forward to the outcome of its inquiry, and I will be happy to consider its findings as part of our considerations for the Lifetime Opportunity strategy.
Along with a number of other Members, Dolores Kelly mentioned educational disadvantage and the work undertaken by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, Patricia Lewsley. The First Minister and I have met with the Commissioner, whose work is undoubtedly valuable, and whose relationship we believe to be important. Dolores Kelly also mentioned accountability as regards special educational needs, which ultimately comes back to the Assembly, and the electorate.
Jimmy Spratt spoke about low educational achievement, and how poverty affects children, particularly in relation to obesity. He also spoke about the root causes of child poverty and the need to break the cycle of poverty, with which I agree.
Naomi Long explained eloquently that her motivation in opting for a political career was to improve the living circumstances for citizens, particularly the most disadvantaged. I have no doubt that every Member of the Assembly is driven by the same motivation and that all Members are anxious, not just to debate the issue of eradicating child poverty, but to make real progress.
Jim Shannon spoke in a heartfelt way about how unemployment affects child poverty, and described the difficulties, and the cost, borne by cancer sufferers and those with mental and physical disabilities when attending hospital services. He spoke about the duty all of us must recognise to do everything that we can for all children, with which I agree absolutely.
Michelle McIlveen mentioned those who are unable to work due to illness and other circumstances. Members are conscious of how that can affect citizens. I agree with everything that Roy Beggs Jnr said when he spoke about the need to encourage more people to become economically active and the importance of Sure Start and education.
In conclusion, the First Minister and I want to see child poverty halved by 2010 and eradicated by 2020. I want to see child poverty prioritised in the public service agreements. The First Minister and I assure Members that in our recommendations to the Executive Committee, we will stress the need to set clear targets and measurable outcomes, and implement specific actions through departmental programmes.
With continued economic growth and political stability, there is possibly the best opportunity that there has been for decades to lead the fight against poverty and social exclusion. I assure the House that the First Minister and I intend to take the matter forward as a top priority.
Mrs M Bradley: I support the amendment. I want to acknowledge the contribution that Members have made to the debate. Different Members discussed different aspects of child poverty, but we all have the same view. The Assembly is at one on this important matter, and I welcome the Deputy First Minister’s attendance at the debate.
Poverty has wide-ranging consequences for families. It causes stress, depression and suicide, which can be attributed to a lack of self-esteem, self-respect, life achievements and goals. The economic situations of many must be improved. As politicians, we must not ignore people’s basic rights to live a content, happy life and to have enough to get through without hardship and long-term financial worries.
Shantallow is an area in the Foyle constituency, which I represent, where the level of deprivation is at 70%. It is neither good nor decent for people to have to live in those circumstances. When he was the Deputy First Minister of the last Assembly, my party leader created the children’s fund. Sadly, it was removed during direct rule. It must be reinstated.
I welcome the Deputy First Minister’s comments. However, I am somewhat disappointed that he told the House that budgets would be noted. That is not enough: there must be a guarantee from the Deputy First Minister.
Dolores Kelly said that the Assembly is not starting from scratch: the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People’s report has given it a good starting point.
Sue Ramsey seeks clearer targets, and she gave the House many statistics.
Jimmy Spratt said that every child deserves the same opportunities.
Tom Elliott wants child poverty to be eradicated.
Naomi Long discussed high levels of disability, poor nutrition and its effects on health. She also referred to the gulf between the rich and the less well off.
Michelle McIlveen mentioned the warm homes scheme and low incomes. She said that funding of £4 million from central Government is essential and that there must be a comprehensive plan.
Jim Shannon mentioned larger families and said that Members should talk to teachers and dinner ladies to get a feel for the poverty that exists: some children cannot afford to bring 50p to school and thereby miss out on certain activities.
Roy Beggs said that sufficient time must be given to allow plans to work, and he asked that funding be continued.
Danny Kennedy said that child poverty is one of the most important issues in society and that it is deplorable that it is at such a high level in Northern Ireland, where one in five children lives in poverty.
The Deputy First Minister told the House that he takes the matter seriously. I do not doubt that. It is terrible that some people do not have enough money to buy necessities that are taken for granted by others. The Minister said that he recognises that and that budgets will be noted. However, the Assembly wants guarantees. His attendance at the debate is welcome. I thank everyone who took part. It was a useful debate and shows that the Assembly is trying to work together for a common aim. When that happens, it is successful. Politics does not come into the situation when there are children going hungry. I am glad that there is consensus on this, and I hope that the Assembly’s aims will be achieved.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún.
Mary Bradley is correct: it has been a good debate, which has shown that there is a desire among Members to eradicate child poverty. I welcome the motion and the focus that it has brought to the issue in the Assembly. The Minister has given it particular attention. There is consensus that the issue must be dealt with and progress made.
I also remind Members of the failure to address properly the poverty that so many children and families in our communities experience. That failure means that those children are not ready to participate fully in schools; therefore, they feel that they have failed in education. It is for us, not them, to improve their lives. It also means that children leave school with few, or no, qualifications, and that they cannot — or will not — see a clear route to a better future through productive learning. Every Member who spoke in the debate touched on that point.
Jim Shannon talked about the humiliation experienced by children who have to make excuses for not having money to pay for school activities. None of us can ignore that. The failure to address poverty also means, as most Members said, that children will suffer ill health and will be at greater risk of having accidents. They will also be at risk of being part of the increasing rate of teenage pregnancies that is prevalent in the most deprived areas. Teenage pregnancies often result in a cycle of poverty and social exclusion. Parents who face generational poverty, to which Jimmy Spratt referred, have not found a route out of their poverty, and we must provide that route for them.
What does all that mean? It means that good policies can make a difference. The Assembly — and the Executive in particular — can begin to implement specific measures that will address the needs of people here who live in long-term poverty. It means that we should make clear commitments to achieve the targets of, first, taking 50,000 local children out of poverty by 2010, and, secondly, eradicating all child poverty by 2020.
We must create opportunities to make children who live in the most deprived areas ready for school and able to achieve when there. It means that it is essential that we implement and invest in the kinds of initiatives that will have an impact on all the problems that I have discussed. It also means that we need to fund initiatives that will allow children in the most deprived areas to achieve educationally and will permit social development. As Sue Ramsey mentioned, we must create specific children’s zones. That will involve commitments from many Ministers, including the Minister for Social Development; the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety; the Minister of Education; and the Minister of the Environment. However, we all have a responsibility in the matter.
Funding strategies need to be initiated to assist lone parents to get back to employment by providing them with the correct support, advice, and, importantly, access to affordable childcare and transport. Again, those strategies will involve the Executive. It means focusing on those families that are most at risk. In particular, we need to look at the kind of support that is needed to allow disabled parents to have access to work and to enable young disabled people to receive meaningful training and gain employment.
We need to focus on how we can help low-income families at those times of the year when they face financial difficulties. Many families who receive free school meals find that school holidays are a time of survival. Making once-a-year — or twice-a-year — payments to poor families at those difficult times could make a significant difference to their quality of life.
We are talking about the eradication of child poverty. Naomi Long is 100% correct when she says that we must use terms such as equality and social justice when talking about child poverty. We must consider the matter in a human-rights context. The cost of living is higher here, and we have higher levels of disability, and increasing accommodation costs. Many families, through lack of affordable or social housing, have to find private accommodation, often having to pay the rental shortfall themselves. That in turn puts additional pressure on them.
Geographically, we have more areas of deprivation and more areas that face higher and multiple levels of deprivation. For example, people who live in areas of multiple deprivation and interface areas also experience higher levels of violence, suicide, and self-harm. As Dolores Kelly, Mary Bradley and other Members have mentioned, those people may experience reduced self-esteem and self-confidence. We must examine the links between poverty and ill health, and between poverty and poor emotional health.
Michelle McIlveen spoke at length about the Save the Children research, and all that research is simply sitting there. We need to take action and remove the barriers. Danny Kennedy talked about that in his capacity as Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and as a party member. There are concerns about the lack of childcare centres across the North.
The Deputy First Minister, on behalf of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, spoke about people not having the means to provide the basic necessities, and that often means having to choose between heating or eating — particularly at this time of year. We talked about that in the Assembly last week. It also involves having to make other choices — for example, the choice between spending money on basic necessities or on healthy food, or on leisure activities that many of us take for granted, such as swimming. It is a constant struggle. We cannot look at child poverty in isolation — we must look at the benefits system and whether aspects of it may need to be reformed.
The St Andrews Agreement talked about child poverty, social exclusion and the need to deliver services based on objective need. Resources will have to be skewed to take account of that objective need.
I agree with other Members’ remarks that we must go beyond the sentiments of these debates, worthy though they are. We are here to take part in such debates, but action needs to be taken, too. I welcome the input of all the Members today. We must consider how we can eradicate child poverty, and the Assembly must monitor any action taken. We must ensure that we move forward to improve the lives of all our children, not just some, and ensure that they are protected and cherished. I support the motion, as amended.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly regards as unacceptable the current level of child poverty; and calls on the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to confirm its commitment to the eradication of child poverty by 2020; and to provide an action plan with clear targets and measurable outcomes, supported by a dedicated budget, to ensure that all children are lifted out of poverty.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Members will know that the Business Committee has arranged to meet at lunchtime. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 1.30 pm, when the Minister for Regional Development will make his statement.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I accept that it is up to the Business Committee, in conjunction with the Speaker’s Office and the Business Office, to structure the business for the day. However, could you perhaps advise the Business Committee that both the Minister of the Environment and I are available to make our statements. It is not through our activity, or inactivity, that the statements cannot be taken before the lunch break.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I thank the Member for his point of order, and the Business Committee will be notified of his remarks at 12.15 pm.
The sitting was suspended at 11.48 am.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —
Mr Speaker: I apologise to Members for the absence of the Deputy Speaker.
I have received notice from the Minister for Regional Development that he wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council meeting on transport.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make the following report on the third meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in the transport sector, held in the Manor House Hotel, Killadeas on 14 September 2007.
The Executive were represented by the Minister of the Environment, Arlene Foster MLA, and me. The Irish Government were represented by the Minister for Transport and the Marine, Noel Dempsey TD. The Council noted and welcomed the progress made since the previous meeting in April 2002 and the opportunity to meet to discuss opportunities for cross-border co-operation in strategic transport planning and road safety.
The Council discussed the steps necessary to make progress on the A5 and A8 major road projects. Members will be aware of the Irish Government’s intention to make £400 million available to help fund the provision of dual-carriageway standards on routes in the North serving the north-west gateway and, on the eastern seaboard, the completion of the dual-carriageway corridor from Belfast to Larne. I welcome that substantial investment, which will help fund an unprecedented package of major road improvement schemes in the North.
The dualling of the remaining sections of the A8 on the eastern seaboard corridor will provide an improved connection between the ports of Larne, Belfast, and indeed, Dublin. A dual carriageway from Derry to the border at Aughnacloy will provide an immense economic opportunity for the north-west. Journey times between the north-west and Dublin will be significantly improved, and road safety will be enhanced. Those projects, combined with the current dualling programme on the A6, will greatly improve transportation links between Ireland’s major cities.
The Council agreed the steps necessary to make progress on the A5 and A8 projects. It agreed the payment process, taking into account that progress on the A8 will be the responsibility of the Executive and their agencies. The Council also agreed to the formation by October 2007 of a management structure for the A5 project to evaluate and monitor progress as required, and the early appointment of consultants to enable a route corridor study of the A5 to commence.
The Council noted and welcomed the Irish Government’s intention to fund the replacement of cross-border bridges at Annaghroe and Knocknaginny on the Tyrone/Monaghan border. The replacement of those bridges will enhance cross-border linkages and the social and economic well-being of the immediate vicinities on both sides of the border. Construction work is expected to begin in 2008, and Roads Service will play its part in improving approach roads in the North and co-operate closely with Monaghan County Council officials to ensure that work is co-ordinated.
The Council noted the Irish Government’s proposal for the construction of a bridge at Narrow Water, linking County Louth and County Down. The Irish Government have granted funding to Louth County Council to undertake preliminary technical work on that proposal. They will keep the matter under review and will draw on the results of the technical work when they are available.
The rail link between Belfast and Dublin is a key service, joining two major population and commercial centres. The link is designated as part of the Trans-European Network of rail services across the European Union. The success of the current service is a credit to the close working relationship that exists between Northern Ireland Railways and Iarnród Éireann. That continuing co-operation will be invaluable in bringing about further improvements to the service.
The Council noted the discussions that were taking place between Iarnród Éireann and Translink on plans for the further development of the rail link, and it agreed to consider the outcome of those discussions at the next NSMC meeting in the transport sector. Any such development will include options for the short and medium term, including limited-stop services, hourly frequency, removal of speed restrictions, and introduction of new rolling stock. The timing of the implementation of those plans will also be considered, and they will be phased in to take account of the availability of resources and the operational issues that are involved.
The Council recognised the importance of transport services to cross-border communities, and it welcomed the fact that the Department of Transport and the Marine and the Department for Regional Development were jointly supporting research into that area. That study is intended to help us to understand the barriers that exist to the development of cross-border community transport and to identify the level of demand and need for those types of services. It should also point to actions that can be taken to encourage cross-border co-operation in the provision of services.
The Council noted that the report from the study is expected to be completed soon, and it agreed to consider the recommendations of that report at the forthcoming meeting of the NSMC in the transport sector. The Council agreed that the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council transport sector should take place in December 2007. Go raibh maith agat.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development (Mr Cobain): I thank the Minister for his statement. It raises a number of interesting issues that I am sure the Committee for Regional Development will want to discuss in more detail.
What contribution will the £400 million make to the overall cost of the A5 and the A8? How does the Minister plan to manage the construction and land-price inflation of those schemes, which are big issues for the Committee? Will he describe the remit, responsibilities, and membership of the management structure that he proposes for the A5 project?
Mr Murphy: Although the Irish Government will contribute to the construction of both roads, the management and payment structures mean that that Government will contribute to the building of the A5 on the understanding that the Northern Executive will contribute to that of the A8. Details on how much those will cost will emerge from the route-corridor study, which will show how land is owned in what will be the final corridors for both roads. Therefore, the final figure for the cost of the roads will not be known until that study has been completed.
The A5 project involves North/South interfaces in at least two parts of the road. The cross-border steering group, which has been in existence and has been dealing with cross-border projects since 1999, has the same type of management structure that was in place when the A1 Dundalk to Newry road was successfully delivered. That type of management structure involves the National Roads Authority, county councils and Roads Service. The proposition is to proceed with the A5 project on that same basis. The group will convene next month, and it will begin to work with consultants in developing the route options. That work will in turn identify more closely the cost of the project.
Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for his statement, particularly the reference to the Dublin to Belfast rail link, given that improvements are needed on that link. What plans are there to begin serious discussions on the future of the Belfast to Derry line as an obvious extension to the Trans-European Network?
Mr Murphy: There was a substantial discussion on the improvements that could be made to the Belfast to Dublin line, and both Administrations expressed a desire to move towards an hourly service.
The Belfast to Derry line was not on the agenda. However, the Member will be aware that the Department has submitted a bid to upgrade the line, which is an improvement on the previous position when, under direct rule, it was decided merely to maintain that line. The Department’s proposed upgrade will form part of the Budget discussions later in the autumn. I hope that the bid will be successful.
The Department’s intention is to invest in the railways, because it is clear that where such investment has been made, passenger numbers have increased, which also makes an environmental contribution. Although the subject was not on the meeting’s agenda, it is prominent on the Department’s agenda.
Mrs Long: After the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister made their statements, I asked them about the Derry line. There is particular interest in that line because of its implications for tourism in the north-west and its strategic link to Donegal. I am interested to know whether it is intended to extend the line, acting on a cross-border basis. Having such good transport links would mean that benefits should accrue from the Republic of Ireland’s side too.
Mr Murphy: Members keep asking me about a rail connection into Donegal, but I have yet to hear the Southern Government mention it. People in the north-west are, generally, keen on the idea. They told me that there was once more railway track in Donegal than in any other county in Ireland, and now there is none.
People in the north-west, on both sides of the border, strongly desire that the connection go through to Donegal. However, my Department’s priority is to try to invest in the line from Belfast to Derry. I am not being partitionist in my approach — far be it from me to be so. However, other than a general desire expressed by people in the area, the Department has not yet officially heard from the Irish Government whether they have any plans to invest in a railway line in Donegal. I know that they are rolling out a strategy over a considerable period that includes some ambitious plans. I am happy to discuss the subject with them. The Department wants to invest in the Belfast to Derry line and is keen that there should be investment in rail and other forms of transportation.
Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for his statement. He referred to the replacement of cross-border bridges on the frontier between County Tyrone and County Monaghan. Given the strength of local opposition to current Government plans for the bridges, particularly the one at Annaghroe, will the Minister undertake to meet local associations and groups and give due consideration to their concerns?
The Irish Government appear to be making all the running on the proposed Narrow Water bridge project. The Minister is aware of the concern in many quarters about the provision of a bridge at Narrow Water, not least of which is the concern of Warrenpoint Harbour Authority. Its stated preference is for the more sensible proposal, of which I know he is aware, for a Southern relief road to deal effectively with cross-border traffic and traffic going to, and leaving from, the busy port of Warrenpoint.
Will the Minister tell the House which of those two projects his Department supports? Will he move, albeit belatedly, to dampen the enthusiasm for the development of a bridge at Narrow Water that would clearly be incapable of solving the road problems that affect Newry, Warrenpoint and cross-border traffic?
Mr Murphy: I agree that it would be beneficial to hold a public consultation exercise on the bridges between Monaghan and Tyrone. However, the proposals must be sufficiently developed to allow that to happen.
Monaghan County Council is going through a tendering process to select an appropriate consultant to take forward the design of those projects. When preliminary proposals have been sufficiently developed, the Roads Service in the North will hold a public information day towards the end of the year to allow for public consultation on the projects.
In relation to the proposed bridge at Narrow Water, the Executive, in agreeing the Council’s papers, took note of the fact that the Dublin Government are paying for a technical study to be carried out through Louth County Council. We will take account of those findings when the study is completed. A study is also ongoing into the traffic situation around the southern end of Newry and, particularly, the traffic that is generated by Warrenpoint port and by commuting traffic on the Southern side of Newry. The Roads Service has undertaken that study, and it has been going on for some time. However, it will be completed in the spring.
Members mentioned that the officials who are conducting both studies should share their information, so that they are aware of each other’s studies. Those studies are not competing projects, as that would lead us into negative territory. There are desires on both sides of Carlingford Lough for a connection to be made so that people will not have to travel through Newry. Some of those desires relate to tourism potential, because a connection at Narrow Water would have an impact on tourism in the Cooley Peninsula, the Mournes, and the eastern seaboard generally. There would also be an economic impact for south Down, as strategic traffic could link directly to the A1/M1 road. We should examine the studies as they develop and see where that takes us, rather than getting into the situation of having competing projects.
The Irish Government have indicated their desire to build a bridge at Narrow Water, and they are engaged in a study, through Louth County Council, to bring forward thinking on that. We should consider that, and consider traffic surveys on the Northern side of the border to try to come up with a project. We should not close our minds to anything at this stage. We must consider a way forward that will deal with all the concerns, including tourist traffic, strategic traffic, port traffic and congestion issues in and around Newry.
Mr P J Bradley: The Minister has partially answered my question. I thank him for his statement and for the meeting that he facilitated last week with business people from South Down who support the bridge project. As the Minister rightly said, the project is threefold. There is a social dimension to it. My office is about half a mile across the water from Omeath, yet I do not know anyone in Omeath or in the Cooley Peninsula. From a social perspective, we simply do not know our neighbours.
Reference was made to the economic impact of the project. Last week, we met members of the business community who were large-scale investors in the area. One investor had vehicles going daily to Dublin; another proposes to build a 60-bedroom hotel with chalets; and another is building chalet accommodation to support his already existing hotel. So, from an economic point of view, there is a great need for a bridge.
I do not expect the Member for Newry and Armagh Danny Kennedy to know Warrenpoint, because he does not live near there, but I differ with him regarding the traffic in Newry —
Mr Kennedy: Is there a question?
Mr P J Bradley: There is no question yet, but there will be one.
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr P J Bradley: I am merely providing information for the Minister. A bridge at Narrow Water would divert traffic from the centre of Newry, as it would make its way to the south and west of Newry by crossing the bridge and travelling via Carlingford or past the Carrickdale Hotel. I do not wish to put the Minister on the spot, but will he go on record to state his commitment to the bridge, specifically at this time? I am conscious of the Minister’s earlier answer, but I presume that he is not against a bridge at Narrow Water.
Mr Murphy: The Member has rehearsed the arguments that he and others made to me at a meeting about the bridge, and I accept them. As I told him at that meeting, I have heard arguments from others who have different priorities in that area, such as access and transportation. It is incumbent on us to consider all the arguments and decide how best to develop them.
The present position — which was agreed by the Executive, and subsequently by myself, the Minister of the Environment, and the Minister for Transport and the Marine in the South — is that the North/South Ministerial Council has noted the Irish Government’s desire to bring the project forward, and its contribution to a study on the project by Louth County Council. We have undertaken to look at the issues that are reported in that study. That is the position that was agreed before and after the North/South Ministerial Council meeting, and that is where we stand.
Mr Beggs: I thank the Minister for his statement, but hope that he can provide some further detail.
In the early part of his statement, the Minister said that the necessary steps to progressing the A5 and A8 major-road projects were discussed and later agreed, along with the payment process. Will the Minister tell the House what those necessary steps are? What are the payment processes? More importantly — for commuters, road users and those who live along the route — what is the time frame for completion? Is it five years, 10 years or 20 years? Such basic facts should be in the public domain.
Regarding the Trans-European Network, the Minister said that there was discussion about the Belfast to Dublin rail link. Was there discussion about improving the Larne to Belfast section of the Trans-European Network, where there are speed restrictions and old rolling stocks?
Mr Murphy: The Member will appreciate that there was a formal agreement between the Executive and the Dublin Administration — that the A5 and A8 road projects would benefit from a £400 million injection from the South towards their construction — at the plenary meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in Armagh, and that that was the first opportunity for such an agreement. The two projects are linked together to go forward. That was the beginning of the process. In addition to establishing a study group to identify the right options on the A5 project, we agreed that because there is a joint-management arrangement for the A5 project, it makes more sense for the Southern Government funding to go directly into that project, on the understanding that the Executive in the North and its agencies will fund the A8 project. The two projects are linked in that regard, and that is the present situation.
Identifying the right options, the costs and the time frame of the A8 and A5 projects will now gather pace, and progress can be reported as we go along. The quick and simple answer is that we do not know how long the projects will take; it can take a project six years from design stage to completion through the statutory process. There was agreement in July that the two projects will go ahead. Regarding payment options, the agreement is that the Irish Government funding, for ease of dealing with it, will go directly into the A5 — that does not mean that money will not go into the A8 project.
The Department is investing in railways and stock, which has improved usage. I realise, and heard in a previous debate, that there are criticisms about the stock available on the line to Larne. Where we can secure investment, we will continue to invest in railways to improve the tracks, the frequency of service, and the comfort that people expect when they use the service. That is part of the Department’s bidding process when trying to get projects supported.
I assure the Member that the Department’s commitment to investing in railways is real, and I hope that he understands that over time we will be able to give more detail about the road projects as they are developed. That is the funding arrangement for the road projects.
Mr Speaker: That ends the statements to the Minister for Regional Development.
I remind Members that when they respond to a ministerial statement, they must ask a question. It has almost reached the point where some Members want to make a statement in the House as well, and that in that statement there may be a question. It is important that Members ask questions and do not make statements.
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that she wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meeting on road safety.
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I will make a brief report on road safety issues addressed through the third meeting of the NSMC in the transport sector, which was held in the Manor House Hotel, Killadeas on 14 September 2007.
As already stated, the Executive were represented by the Minister for Regional Development, who chaired the meeting, and myself. The Irish Government were represented by Noel Dempsey TD, Minister for Transport and the Marine.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
The Council noted and welcomed the progress that has been made since the previous meeting in April 2002 and the opportunity to meet to discuss the potential for further co-operation on strategic transport planning and road safety. The Council discussed the position on road safety strategies and noted that a review of the existing Northern Ireland road safety strategy had been initiated, and that a new strategy was likely to be submitted shortly to the Minister for Transport and the Marine for consideration in the Republic of Ireland. The Council noted that mutual recognition of driver disqualifications between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland was expected to be in place by mid-2008.
The Council noted that a study into co-operation between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland on the mutual recognition of penalty points was currently under way. It also agreed that efforts to promote road safety through joint advertising and publicity campaigns should continue and that the available evidence on the effectiveness of the existing approach should be reviewed.
The Council also agreed that work should continue through the Steering to Safety project to find practical ways of improving road safety in border areas. Furthermore, it agreed that, where possible, the results of relevant road safety research should be shared and that opportunities for improving and harmonising arrangements for collecting, collating and reporting road safety information should continue to be explored.
With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, I want to mention the latest tragedy on our roads, which occurred in Enniskillen this morning. I understand that one young man has died and a number of other people have been injured, and — as I always do — I offer my condolences to the family and friends of the victim. That tragedy reiterates to me the need to continue with our work on improving road safety — work to which my Department and I are committed. I also pay tribute to the emergency services, which, I understand, had a difficult job this morning, and I assure them that Members appreciate all that they do.
Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for her statement. Are there any plans to introduce mutual recognition of vehicle test certificates?
Mrs Foster: There are no plans for mutual recognition of vehicle test certificates. Vehicle testing arrangements here and in the Republic of Ireland differ in a variety of ways. The main difference is that vehicles in Northern Ireland are tested after four years, and every year thereafter, whereas those in the Republic of Ireland are tested after four years, and every two years thereafter. The longer interval between tests in the Republic would represent a significant barrier to mutual recognition, even if such a proposal were on the table. It would also be likely to encourage motorists here to go to the Republic of Ireland for vehicle testing, and that could have implications for test fees in Northern Ireland and, more significantly, for road safety. A recent report by the Department for Transport in Great Britain indicated that a two-year interval between tests would mean more unroadworthy vehicles, more road traffic collisions attributable to vehicle defects, and ultimately — and significantly, I would say — more deaths and injuries on our roads.
Mr P Ramsey: I welcome the Minister’s commitment, and that of both Governments, to harmonisation, collaboration and co-operation. However, will she consider setting up an all-island road safety body? I ask that as a Member who represents a cross-border area and as someone who has a personal interest in the issue, as my brother and his wife were killed by a drunk driver in Donegal. I also have a personal interest, because my neighbouring council in Donegal has one of the highest rates of road traffic-related deaths and serious injuries. An all-island body — especially one that included victims’ groups and which co-operated in the sharing of information — would be important in reducing the number of road deaths.
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question, and I understand his special and ongoing interest in this matter. The Member will be aware that the Assembly very recently set up an all-party working group on that subject, and I hope in the near future to discuss with its members all the issues that they raise.
In my statement I mentioned the Steering to Safety project, under the umbrella of Co-operation and Working Together (CAWT), which is carrying out a cross-border road traffic collision research project. That organisation is effective, in that it has already published five detailed research reports and one summary report. The project is now moving forward from developing the evidence base to considering practical steps to dealing with road safety in border areas. That is, perhaps, what the Member wanted to know.
I understand that CAWT is organising a conference on 9 October, in Dundalk, specifically to examine the issue of young drivers. The Member will know that in border areas, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the 17- to 24-year-old age group is an increasing problem that needs to be dealt with effectively.
Mrs Long: I welcome the Minister of the Environment’s statement, and particularly welcome the co-ordination between the two jurisdictions. That was discussed at the meeting of the all-party Assembly group, to which the Minister referred extensively at lunchtime.
Following the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications target of mid-2008, are there any plans to extend that to other European countries, given the amount of mobility that now exists in Europe?
With regard to the mutual recognition of penalty points between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, co-ordination between Northern Ireland and GB on the matter is currently poor. Residents of Northern Ireland who commit motoring offences in GB have to present themselves in court in GB because their driving licences cannot be processed there as they are issued in Coleraine, rather than in Swansea. A proper, joined-up arrangement needs to be given attention.
Mrs Foster: The work that the Department is doing on recognition of driver disqualification between the UK and the Republic of Ireland was actually initiated in Europe. Our two nations will be the first two areas to have that mutual recognition, so we are leading the way on recognition in Europe. I hope that we will be able to look at other areas, once that is in place; however, the Member will appreciate that these are the two most urgent areas.
The mutual recognition of penalty points is a more complex issue, and there are additional difficulties, one of which is the problem of licences that are issued by Coleraine and not by Swansea, as the Member mentioned. We hope soon to receive the results of the feasibility study carried out by the Department for Transport, and those must be considered.
Mr Shannon: I welcome the Minister’s commitment to road safety; however, it requires the co-operation of everyone in the Province.
Over the last few weeks there has been a large increase in the number of people killed on our roads; that is very worrying. Over the past year the number of motorcyclists that have been killed is of particular concern to me and others. Does the Minister intend to introduce any strategy or policy, in co-operation with other Ministers, to reduce that number?
Mrs Foster: The updated figures show that in 2005, there were 94 fatalities in Northern Ireland up to September. There were 89 in the same period in 2006, and, taking into account this morning’s fatality, the figure stands at 80 for 2007.
I know that Mr Shannon has a particular interest in motorcycles. The 2007 figures for the number of deaths attributable to motorcycles are quite startling, and have caused me much concern. The number of motorcycle deaths has increased to 24, plus one pillion passenger, in 2007, compared to just 13 at this stage of 2006.
Proposals for immediate road-safety benefits are to be taken forward prior to the outcome of the road safety review in which my Department is engaged. Furthermore, it is intended shortly to bring forward proposals for the introduction of compulsory basic training for all new motorcycle riders, and that matter will go before the Committee for the Environment in the near future. At present, the Department takes responsibility for assessing and training motorcycle instructors and for maintaining a voluntary register of instructors. My belief is that there would be real road-safety benefits if that register became compulsory.
Mr Attwood: I welcome the Minister’s statement, which confirms the substantive body of work that has been undertaken, in the North and in the South, in respect of road safety.
I have two points. First, driving disqualifications are mutually recognised, North and South, and I am aware of the feasibility study on the mutual recognition of penalty points. Is there any indicative time for that recognition? I know that it is subject to ongoing and complex issues, but it would be helpful to have that information.
Secondly, has the Minister considered introducing something similar to the practice in the South of putting the number of fatalities on billboards or advertising signs in each county? Those are explicit reminders to the road user of the threat on the roads.
My final point refers to what my colleague Pat Ramsey said. Does the substantive, ongoing, body of work concerning driving disqualifications, penalty points, border road safety, joint advertising and improved research, and so on, not beg for the establishment of an all-Ireland road safety body? Is that work, carried out by the Minister and her ministerial colleagues, and its importance to road safety, not an appropriate recommendation to the proposed efficiency commission for the establishment of such a body?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his two points, which turned into three. As I said earlier, I hope to have action next year with regard to driver disqualification. Unfortunately, I cannot give Mr Attwood a timescale in relation to penalty points. I am sure that he would be the first to bring me before the House if I did not keep to that timescale. However, he can rest assured that my officials and I will continue to push on the matter, because we want it settled as quickly as possible. We shall await the outcome of the feasibility study and take it from there.
I have heard conflicting arguments concerning the billboards. Some people see them as a distraction on the roads; others say that they are useful reminders that people should take care on particular stretches of road. The Department closes its eyes to nothing that comes before it, and the suggestion will be examined in the review.
Implicit in Mr Attwood’s question about an all-Ireland road safety body was the fact that good, effective work is ongoing. I want that work to continue, and I see no need to endanger it by politicising it and turning it into some sort of political football.
Lord Morrow: I thank the Minister for her statement. It is poignant that it should be made on a day that another fatality occurs in County Fermanagh, and my thoughts go out to the family concerned.
The period from 1969 to 2001 was euphemistically known as the Troubles, during which 3,316 people were killed. Is the Minister aware that, during that same period, 7,143 people were killed on the roads? That is almost twice as many.
I understand that there is an issue about policing, and the Minister is not in charge of that — would that she were.
Is it the Minister’s intention that those who break the law by speeding and who are caught across the border should be pursued and charged with the same offence on their return? I would recommend that such people be charged twice, and I would like to hear the Minister’s views on that.
Mrs Foster: As the Member knows, I was not around in 1969. [Laughter.]
If the figures for road deaths in the 1970s are compared with today’s statistics, then we are doing very well. Sometimes that fact is not acknowledged when we are faced with another tragedy — it should be. However, that is not to say that work to reduce the numbers killed should not continue.
The Member made a point about the cross-border work of the PSNI and the Garda Síochána. Noel Dempsey commented that the work to bring people to justice should be acknowledged and that the border should not be used as a way of evading justice by those who break the rules in either jurisdiction. The work should continue so that people will know that there is no hiding place when it comes to road-safety matters.
Mr Brady: Does the Minister see any merit in moving towards road signs displaying speed limits in kilometres per hour rather than in miles per hour? That would be in line with the rest of Europe and Ireland. As someone who represents a border constituency, I can see an obvious anomaly for drivers when moving from kilometres per hour to miles per hour.
Mrs Foster: There are absolutely no plans to change the speed limit signs in this jurisdiction.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mrs Foster: We will be keeping to miles per hour. We continue to work with the Road Safety Authority and the National Roads Authority in the South. However, there are more important issues to be dealt with, and I hope that we have covered them today.
Mr Dallat: I welcome the Minister’s statement and share the grief that another person has lost his life on the roads. I am sure that we all send our condolences to his family.
The Minister indicated that there is a current Northern Ireland road safety strategy and that one is shortly to be submitted to the Minister for Transport in the Republic. Will she assure the House that those strategies will be joined up and that they will focus on young people, many of whom are victims of the slaughter that takes place on our roads day and daily?
Mrs Foster: I assure the Member that we have been sharing information, and he will know that there has been a continuous sharing of information especially in relation to the advertising campaigns that have taken place. That will continue. The Minister for Transport has indicated that he will share the new road safety strategy with me — and we will be able to take on board those issues that may have implications for Northern Ireland, especially in border areas where many deaths occur on the roads almost daily.
Mr Deputy Speaker: That brings questions to the Minister to a conclusion.
Private Members’ Business
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose, and there will be 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. Two amendments have been received and have been published on the Marshalled List. Each proposer will have 10 minutes to propose, and there will be five minutes for each winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes to speak. I call Mr Brian Wilson. My apologies; I call Mr Ford.
Mr Ford: Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that the rest of our communication will be better than that.
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Executive to establish an independent Environmental Protection Agency for Northern Ireland.
This is an extremely important issue for the people of Northern Ireland. It is absolutely clear that our environment is in a mess and requires urgent attention. We are suffering from a legacy of failure, over many years, to take the necessary action to protect the environment and to recognise its role in the welfare of our people and in the development of our economy.
Compared to other regions of these islands, Northern Ireland’s wildlife-protection laws are extremely weak. We are seeing the disappearance of habitats that ought to be protected. Only this morning, I took a telephone call from someone who was extremely concerned that Prehen Wood, one of our few tracts of ancient woodland in the north-west, is under threat from a proposal to develop housing and build a road. The Planning Service seems to be minded to accept that proposal, and, at the moment, no agency with responsibility for protecting the environment seems to be able to influence the Planning Service on such matters, despite material considerations such as the protected status of the wood.
We are also seeing the loss of historic buildings in towns and villages right across the region. It is clear that important places for wildlife are not being looked after. We are simply not designating enough areas of special scientific interest; we are not doing it fast enough; and we are not protecting the ones that already exist. At the same time, we are seeing wildlife facing — at least localised — extinction. Although we may be grateful to see birds such as the chough return to Rathlin Island this year, it is also clear that birds such as the corncrake and the lapwing are under huge threat.
We all know the problems associated with the EU Water Framework Directive and the failure to deal with water wisely. We see illegal dumps blighting the countryside, despite the fact that the responsibility for policing such matters was centralised from district councils into the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) a short while ago.
It is clear that, for whatever reason, the Department of the Environment in general, and the EHS in its particular responsibilities, have not been carrying out their duties — perhaps owing to a lack of resources — on behalf of all my people. That may be a political rant, but those are not just my words; they reflect the decisions of bodies such as the Audit Commission; the Public Accounts Committees, both at the Assembly and at Westminster; and House of Commons Select Committees. It is clear that something needs to be done.
I freely confess that, as a party to some of the early decisions on structuring Departments back in 1999, I accepted that we should split the then Department of the Environment in two, creating a Department that would be responsible for infrastructure and a Department with responsibility for environmental protection. There were sound reasons for doing that. Of course, that was later somewhat amended by Mr Trimble and Mr Mallon, who decided on the final departmental duties and managed to place part of the regulatory role into the Department for Regional Development so that it was not simply the Department with responsibility for infrastructure.
However, that aside, there has been a failing in the Department of the Environment’s structures to deal with its responsibilities. It seems that those are failings of structures, rather than of individuals. A Department staffed by the Civil Service is not the right place to carry out regulation of environmental matters. Of course, that is no surprise, because elsewhere in these islands, we see the Environment Agency of England and Wales, which has an independent role; the Scottish Environment Protection Agency; and the Environmental Protection Agency in the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is the only region that is out of step. Either they are all wrong, or we are wrong. Look at the litany of issues that I cited at the beginning of my speech — it is not England and Wales or Scotland or Ireland that is out of step, it is Northern Ireland that is wrong.
In recent years, we have seen some movement towards the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency. That probably started with the Macrory Report of 2004. ‘Transparency and Trust’ was the title that Professor Richard Macrory used; it was about the need for environmental governance. That was then backed up by sound work by the Coalition for Environmental Protection, which led to the establishment of the review of environmental governance (REGNI) and the report that was published earlier this year, ‘Foundations for the Future’. There is no doubt that that has been backed by a huge groundswell of support from across the community, as can be attested to by those of us who have received large numbers of green “What future for her environment” postcards.
The review of environmental governance examined a wider issue, but it is absolutely clear that the authors of that report saw an independent environmental protection agency as the key driver for changing environmental governance in Northern Ireland and for ensuring that progress is made. However, that was not just the view of the usual range of environmental non-governmental organisations; groups such as the Confederation of British Industry, the Quarry Products Association, and the Consumer Council all backed that call. We have seen in recent weeks that that is not just a good idea; it is now an essential idea.
On 7 September 2007, in his High Court judgement on the judicial review taken against the strategic environmental assessments in the draft northern area plan and the draft Magherafelt area plan — a judgement that bears reading, even though it was rather overshadowed by another on the same day — Mr Justice Weatherup said:
“By the terms of the Directive it is apparent, as the Department accepts, that there be separation between the responsible authority and the consultation body. In the present cases I am satisfied that no such separation occurred and that it was not achieved by the Planning Service and the Environmental and Heritage Service being separate divisions of the same Department. For all practical purposes there was integration between the Planning Service and the Environmental and Heritage Service in the preparation of the documents. In any event had their been a formal separation of roles between the Planning Service and the Environmental and Heritage Service I would not have been satisfied that there was sufficient separation for the purposes of the Directive while the two services remain part of the same Department and legal entity.”
It could not be clearer than that. An environmental protection agency is no longer an optional extra; it is now essential in order to comply with the European directive that an independent environmental protection authority be established.
By way of an aside, I note that elements of the REGNI report would have cured issues that arose in the other judgement on 7 September on whether the Department for Regional Development or the Department of the Environment was the Department responsible for Planning Policy Statement 14. The REGNI report states that the Department of the Environment should have responsibility for:
“spatial planning, (including the elements which currently reside with DRD)”,
as well as several responsibilities that currently reside with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
We need to simplify the structures, and part of that simplification process — the essential part — is the establishment of an independent agency. That would be the next logical step in a process that began in 1962, when the Abercorn Report called for an independent nature conservancy council. If an independent environmental protection agency were to be set up, it would follow up on recommendations in the Balfour Report on the need to remove environmental protection from the departmental core. The Balfour Report was published in 1984.
I have no doubt that Mr Wells, with his great experience of the Prior Assembly and the one-man-band role that he played in it, will be able to tell us more about the Balfour Report, but it is clear that we are still playing catch-up 20-odd years later with what was an essential recommendation then.
An independent environmental protection agency would have the duties and the powers to tackle environmental problems that are causing difficulties for us, both here in the Assembly and in Northern Ireland generally. Those problems are making it less attractive for those of us who live and work here and lead to our taxpayers being threatened with fines for failure to comply with directives. We absolutely must have an environmental protection agency, and the case for so doing is quite clear.
I shall mention briefly the two proposed amendments to the motion. When we tabled the motion, our intention was to make a simple, clear statement, and nothing could be simpler or clearer than a call for the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency, with no ifs, buts or qualifications —
Mr Poots: Simplistic?
Mr Ford: I said “simple”, not “simplistic”, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the Member, in his capacity as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, will manage to work out the distinction when it comes to his Department.
Our intention was to set out that simple, clear call. I understand why Tommy Gallagher has tabled amendment No 2, which may be viewed in certain circles as beefing up our original proposal. His amendment causes me no great difficulty one way or the other, although I do believe that a simple, clear call for the establishment of an agency was beneficial.
Amendment No 1, however, which stands in the name of Peter Weir, appears to be a classic example of the obfuscation that we expect in this place. The case for an independent agency is clear, and the benefits are clear. If it was not clear enough from the REGNI report itself, Mr Justice Weatherup further highlighted the fact, yet amendment No 1 calls for further consideration and further delay. There is no choice — we know that we must do something. Instead of pretending that we can debate the issue a little bit more, we should be getting on with the establishment of an environmental protection agency.
I am not a lawyer, but I understand that Mr Weir is, and I have no doubt that he is as capable of understanding Mr Justice Weatherup’s judgement as anybody in this place. I hope that the House will be of the clear opinion today that best practice elsewhere be followed. Moreover, I trust that those Members on the Unionist Benches who understand the issues under discussion will add their votes and not just their voices to this call for action.
Mr Weir: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“notes the recent report ‘Foundations for the Future’, which recommends the creation of an independent Environmental Protection Agency; and further notes that more work needs to be undertaken to identify the costs and benefits of this recommendation, before decisions can be taken.”
Although I am not able to speak in the lofty tones of a former QC in this place, I hope that I can at least address some of the concerns that have been raised by the outcome of the judicial review.
I say in passing, with no disrespect to any of my learned colleagues at the Bar, or even in the courtroom, that, whenever we are deciding what is best for Northern Ireland as a whole, the Assembly represents the will of the people. Consequently, we will be taking sound decisions that are based on the best way forward.
We are not here simply to follow the diktats of Mr Justice Weatherup or any other member of the judiciary. We have a proper mandate to fulfil.
This simple — some might say simplistic — motion is somewhat premature, although I appreciate the opportunity to debate the issue. The motion is being debated before the matter has been discussed in the Committee for the Environment, and the Member who proposed the motion will be well aware of that. The DUP’s amendment should not be dismissed as some form of obfuscation, as it looks at the issue of costs and benefits. The Alliance Party is not in the Executive and, therefore, has no responsibility in this place. However, on this issue as with any other, we cannot have blank-cheque government. We need to be rooted in reality.
The DUP disagrees with Mr Ford’s motion, and it disagrees more strongly with Mr Gallagher’s amendment, which would be unworkable. An attempt to set something up immediately would create major problems for many Departments. It will be interesting to see whether the views of those who support Mr Gallagher’s amendment will be shared in the Executive by their ministerial colleagues, who may well have concerns for their own Departments. That will be brought out later.
All Members — certainly those on the DUP Benches — believe that there is a need for environmental protection and changes in environmental governance, and that should unite us all. Irrespective of our backgrounds or political views, we all view Northern Ireland as one of the most beautiful places that has been put on the earth, and it is important to protect that natural asset. However, when we look at environmental governance, it is also important to ensure that whatever route we take to try to copper-fasten and preserve the best in our society, we take the correct route. That may mean us taking a little bit longer to get there, rather than rushing, but it is important. We need efficient, effective and balanced solutions.
While it is important to fully protect the environment, we must also recognise the needs of the farming and business communities. The rural community — and particularly the farming community — have suffered greatly from various crises recently. We must have something in place that is responsible for, and looks after, the full remit of that.
I said that the debate is premature, and it is premature for several reasons. There must be recognition of the complexity of the establishment of an environmental protection agency (EPA), which was somewhat skated over by the proposer of the motion. Under the existing arrangements, the EHS has a much broader remit than the environmental agencies in any other part of the United Kingdom. For example, the work done in England by Natural England and English Heritage would be covered by the EHS here.
It is not simply a question of the role of the EHS. In addition to amalgamating with the EHS, an EPA would have a wide range of other functions, which would affect several Departments. For example, the responsibilities of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s Rivers Agency; environmental health officers in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety; the Loughs Agency, a North/South body; and a range of Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure functions on inland fisheries and inland waterways would be subsumed in any EPA.
An EPA may seem like the golden bullet that would cure all our problems — and that may be particularly relevant to Mr Gallagher’s amendment — but there are massive political, policy, practical, financial, legislative and administrative issues that would need to be tackled. That could not be done overnight.
For example, the wider governance model that was proposed in the report will also cover changes to the planning appeals commission, the water appeals commission, the audit office and the judicial system. All those factors must be taken into account when considering an EPA.
Members must also ensure that the scope of the proposed EPA remains focused and that the good work that is ongoing in the Environment and Heritage Service is not lost. Several groups have expressed concern that the built heritage may become a low priority for the proposed EPA. There has already been some success in that area. By 2005, 456 buildings were already on the register, and the number of listed buildings has exceeded each annual target.
Above all, before an independent environmental protection agency is set up the DUP wants an examination of the potential costs to ensure value for money. Although the review panel produced many good proposals, it fell outside its remit by failing to report on how much an environmental protection agency would cost to set up and run.
Given the commitments of the Department of the Environment (DOE), the wide range of other financial pressures and the fact that a large amount of money would be required to set up an EPA, some degree of analysis is required to see where that money is to come from. It is unacceptable to say that the Department of Finance and Personnel can simply write another cheque. If the EPA is to be set up — particularly if Mr Gallagher’s amendment is accepted and it happens immediately — people must know which budgets are to be cut. Does Mr Gallagher wish to forego the hospital in Enniskillen? I suspect that that is unlikely. Even the Minister of the Environment would be reluctant to do that. If there is to be a large financial commitment to an EPA, people must explain where the money is to come from, which is why there must be proper costings before the proposal can progress. There are widespread pressures in the DOE — concerns about planning issues and underinvestment in the Planning Service are highlighted weekly. Are we to cut the Planning Service budget to provide an EPA? If people make proposals without any costings, they must give some idea of where the money is to come from.
Given the experiences of environmental protection agencies in other parts of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, concerns have been raised that, in the long run, it would be necessary to levy charges on local businesses and farmers of up to 40% of the total funding. If Members wish to create a competitive economy, particularly in rural areas, can we burden people with such a levy? That question remains unanswered. Funding is the overriding issue.
There are also governance issues that must be tackled. It is important that the idea of independence does not become a panacea. An EPA would be a statutory body set up under the auspices of the Department. It is questionable how truly independent it could be.
Unfortunately, this motion is half-cocked and has been tabled prematurely. Rather than being a well-thought-through proposal, I suspect that it is an attempt by those who tabled it to associate themselves with a cause that they believe to be popular.
Clearly, there is a need for better environmental protection in Northern Ireland, but, instead of dwelling on administrative issues, Members should consider practical issues that must be dealt with first, such as waste discharges, which require urgent attention. Further consideration must be given to costs, and the proposal must be well thought through if it is to progress. I support amendment No 1.
Mr Gallagher: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“notes the recommendation to establish an independent Environmental Protection Agency in the ‘Foundations for the Future’ report; and calls on the Executive to establish an independent Environmental Protection Agency, which must be fully operational within the lifetime of this Assembly.”
I wish to commend Brian Wilson and David Ford for tabling this important motion. The environment is the most important issue to face the world this century. Proposals to address the problems with it can certainly not be dismissed as premature.
My amendment puts the creation of an independent environment watchdog into a specific time frame. Amendment No 1 does not do that; it says a lot about costs. None of us want to duck the issue of costs; it is important and cannot be avoided. However, chapter 5 of ‘Foundations for the Future’ is specific about the functions that should be transferred. Costings could be carried out in a matter of weeks, at most. That is not a huge task, given that we have the report to work from.
As many Members know, the cost of not setting up an independent agency will outweigh the inaction that lies behind amendment No 1. We have only to think about the EU fines that lie ahead of us.
There is no reason for delay. The DUP amendment is asking the Assembly to fiddle, and Members know the rest of that story. Are we to fiddle while being submerged by floods and with our marine life and biodiversity continuing to be ruined?
The quality of life and the health and well-being of people in Northern Ireland depend on the quality of air and water and the capacity of the countryside to support people as well as a rich diversity of wildlife. Environmental issues have been a low priority here for too long while our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, as we have just heard, have handed over responsibility for regulating the environment to independent agencies. We have not heard any complaints about their costs.
During the 1980s and 1990s, those countries had independent agencies to tackle abuses of the environment and to enforce environmental legislation. We have fallen behind, and we do not have the systems and structures in place that have the capacity to produce the outcomes necessary to protect the environment properly. Illegal dumping and the discharge of raw sewage into the sea continue, and many species are threatened due to the removal of their habitats. The scale of environmental protection is simply inadequate. The Environment and Heritage Service cannot act effectively as our environmental champion — the recent Giant’s Causeway controversy and Northern Ireland Audit Office reports on delays in the designation of areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs) are testament to that.
The EHS has also been heavily criticised by the Waste Management Advisory Board for Northern Ireland and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee. Granted, after so many reports, there have been attempts to address some of the issues. Work has been done on a cross-departmental basis, and we have had the development of a waste management strategy, but the Government cannot act as both poacher and gamekeeper.
The Department of the Environment is one of 11 Departments, and, as such, is often overruled. Moreover, there are barriers to environmental regulation by bodies within central Government.
Mr Craig: Will the Member give way?
Mr Gallagher: No, I am not giving way.
That has been recognised by many countries, and it is identified in ‘Foundations for the Future’, which states:
“First, the necessary confidentiality of departmental policy making processes and inter-departmental debate creates a serious lack of transparency around the making of regulatory decisions. Without transparency, regulatory decisions command neither the confidence of the public nor that of the regulated.
Second, the officials administering the regulations are exposed to both a real and perceived risk of conflict of interest.”
The report goes on to state that the effectiveness of regulation by bodies internal to Government is inhibited since:
“Modern environmental governance requires a strong and focussed regulator able to adopt modern risk-based regulatory practices without a loss of public confidence.”
Northern Ireland needs a strong independent voice to champion and safeguard the environment. It is no surprise that ‘Foundations for the Future’, launched in May 2007, recommends that environmental regulation should be transferred to a new EPA with statutory powers.
The report is detailed and thorough, and was compiled after wide-ranging consultations. It sets out the functions that should be retained by the Department of the Environment; for example, planning and environmental policy, and it spells out the necessary and important accountability mechanisms for a new environmental protection agency. Moreover, it recommends that the EPA’s purpose:
“should be to protect and enhance the environment and in doing so to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.”
A well resourced and independent EPA should be the first layer of environmental governance. However, there are other necessary elements — a shared vision on local and agreed standards for the protection of the environment needs to be developed between the Government and other stakeholders. Effective arrangements for the integrated management of important assets such as coasts, uplands and river basins are also required.
Owing to this being a small island, a problem such as air or water pollution can spread quickly. The reality is obvious — we cannot partition the environment, therefore, managing it needs a whole-island strategy. To maximise its effectiveness, any new EPA must have the capacity and the powers to pursue its own programme of practical co-operation with its counterpart in the Republic of Ireland.
A number of official reports on areas such as water pollution and nature conservation have highlighted problems in Northern Ireland of poor resourcing, inadequate management systems, and, as many Members are aware, poor enforcement. Northern Ireland has a reputation for the late transposition of EU directives, and is currently facing fines for failing to implement them.
Given the urgency of all environmental matters, not least the warnings from environmentalists about time running out for corrective action, procrastination is no longer an option. I propose the creation of an independent environmental protection agency within the lifetime of this Assembly. That would send out the message that the environment has, at last, been put at the top of the agenda in Northern Ireland.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the aims of the motion and amendment No 2. I thank Mr Ford and Mr Wilson for raising a key issue for many of those who are involved in the protection of the environment.
It is important to state that Sinn Féin is in favour of the eventual establishment of an all-Ireland environmental protection agency. This, we believe, is an important first step in that process. All-Ireland environmental governance makes sense in so many ways, and it is an issue that we will raise at the North/South Ministerial Council.
There is little doubt that there is a need for reform of the present system of environmental responsibilities. Support for that reform stems not only from a loss of public confidence in the quality of environmental regulation, but from a desire for greater transparency, leadership and public debate in decision-making.
The EHS has been criticised by several public bodies because of its activities in recent years, particularly in respect of its poor performance in certain areas. Examples include: poor management of funding for environmental protection; Government intervention to the detriment of the environment; poor performance in achieving environmental objectives; and a lack of co-ordination with Departments with responsibilities for the implementation of environmental legislation.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds released a report card on how the EHS was performing in regard to areas of special scientific interest (ASSI). On ensuring that all qualifying sites are declared ASSIs by 2010, the EHS achieved a grade F. That indicates that it is not on course to halt biodiversity loss here by 2010 — a key EU target. The EHS simply has not made the grade in protecting our environment.
The report of the review of environmental governance, which was published in June and which has already been mentioned, recommended that responsibility for environmental regulation be transferred to a new environmental protection agency. John Woods of Friends of the Earth said at that time:
“This report affords us the best opportunity in a generation to reform the system which protects our environment.”
I hope that the Minister of the Environment shows leadership on the issue and seizes the opportunity that has been presented by implementing the report’s recommendations.
Another of the report’s key recommendations is that appropriate measures be taken to restore and enhance an all-island approach to environmental governance at policy and operational levels. Given that we have distinct island biogeography that does not consider boundaries, such an approach would benefit biodiversity conservation. That approach would also ensure greater regulatory and enforcement mechanisms and would bring cost-saving benefits in staffing and resource requirements.
Sinn Féin commends the work that environmental non-governmental organisations have done to date to highlight the deficit in effective environmental protection and governance. The establishment of an independent environmental protection agency is essential in order to protect the beautiful environment that attracts so many tourists here every year, to avoid the colossal European fines to which Mr Ford alluded, and to halt biodiversity loss and illegal dumping.
To date, all parties, bar one, have publicly backed the immediate establishment of an independent environmental protection agency. We should not stall, nor should anyone sit on the fence on the matter. Given that the destruction of our environment and its wildlife is already happening without reproach on a daily basis, steps must be taken to establish an environmental protection agency as soon as possible.
I support the motion and amendment No 2. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Armstrong: I welcome the debate, and I am pleased to contribute to it. There is no doubt that environmental concerns, such as waste, waste management, planning, renewable energy and climate change, are increasingly important and are at the centre of political debate. We are now much more aware of the importance of taking care of our natural environment and of the need to promote sustainable development so that we can play our part in tackling global warming.
At the moment, Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that does not have an independent environmental protection agency. The Environment Agency is responsible for England and Wales, while Scotland has the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Both agencies were established in 1996. Many diverse voices have called for the establishment of an equivalent body in Northern Ireland. Those voices range from environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth, the National Trust, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, through to the Confederation of British Industry, the Quarry Products Association and the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland.
I am a great believer in saying, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The problem is that the existing system, in which the Department of the Environment, in the shape of the Environment and Heritage Service, is responsible for the protection and control of the environment, most certainly is broken and cannot be left alone.
I declare an interest as a farmer, even though I am not wearing any particular hat today. Many in the farming community view the prospect of an independent environmental protection agency with a suspicion that borders on hostility. That unfortunate position is the result of past experience. The perception in the farming community has been that farmers — and let us not forget that they are the custodians of the countryside — have been an easy target for the Environment and Heritage Service. At the same time, Government agencies, such as the Department for Regional Development’s Water Service, which is protected by Crown immunity, and big business have been given something of a bye-ball. That situation cannot continue, regardless of what happens in the future with an independent agency.
If an independent agency is established to protect the environment, it must work in close and genuine partnership with farmers, who, more than anyone, have a vested interest in protecting and preserving the environment as it provides for their livelihoods. On many occasions in the past, such a partnership has been sadly lacking.
An independent agency must not form an additional layer of bureaucracy or become another burden on a farming community already overburdened with red tape and apparently endless regulations. I stress that farmers must not be dictated to by a busybody organisation.
Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?
Mr Armstrong: Go ahead, but do not be too long. [Laughter.]
Mr Weir: I appreciate that. You do get an extra minute, but I will curtail my time to give you the maximum opportunity. I appreciate the point that you have made that farmers should not be overburdened by bureaucracy. I assume that you are aware that the main representative farmers’ body, the Ulster Farmers’ Union, is on record as being opposed to an independent environmental protection agency? That may be another reason for further thought and caution before a form of environmental governance is put in place, and that adds further weight to the DUP’s amendment.
Mr Armstrong: I welcome the Member’s comments, and I am sure that someone else will take them on board. [Laughter.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member is running out of time. Order.
Mr Armstrong: Before an independent environmental protection agency is established, I would recommend genuine and meaningful engagement with the farming and agricultural community so that both sides may learn from the past to ensure that mistakes are not repeated.
Mr I McCrea: I am not sure that I can follow Mr Armstrong’s contribution, but I will attempt to.
I welcome the opportunity to debate this important environmental issue. I agree with my colleague Mr Weir that the matter has been brought before the House prematurely. It should have been brought before the Committee for the Environment before the motion was tabled.
I assure the Member for North Antrim Mr McKay that any notion that he has of an all-Ireland environmental protection agency is only in his dreams.
A significant non-governmental organisation (NGO)environmental lobby has prompted today’s debate. Its concerns are not without substance; neither is its ambition without merit. As the House has heard, there are critical challenges, both current and emerging, facing Northern Ireland’s environment. All will have a huge impact on our communities’ quality of life.
Many of the challenges, such as tackling climate change, halting the loss of biodiversity, minimising waste, reducing landfill, safeguarding the marine environment and the protection of landscapes, habitats and species, will require long-term policy frameworks.
Enhanced regulation and a marked change in public attitude and behaviour as well as clear environmental leadership are necessary if we are to sustain the world in which we live. REGNI is an ambitious and complex undertaking that looked beyond regulation and enforcement and considered ways to stimulate action, not only by the decision-makers, but by urban and rural communities, business leaders and individuals.
In addition to encouraging positive behaviour, REGNI ensured that its recommendations are fit for purpose and will result in Northern Ireland having the most efficient and effective arrangements for environmental governance.
In preparing for a 10-year strategy, the EHS referred to an environment that is both highly valued and well protected. Unfortunately, experience has shown that that has not always been the case: there have been numerous high-profile incidents in which our natural and built environments have not been afforded the correct protection, with devastating consequences. Therefore, one can immediately appreciate why so many may feel that the penalties and sanctions for environmental crime have been largely ineffective.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has considered how offenders could be forced to carry the burden of repairing significant environmental damage. Polluters could potentially be faced with greater financial penalties and increased sanctions. They could also be forced to improve the environmental quality of the communities most detrimentally affected by their actions. I ask the Minister to consider that type of approach in Northern Ireland.
It is clear from the work undertaken by the review of environmental governance in Northern Ireland that there is no quick-fix solution to heal all environmental ills overnight. Any advancement must encompass a considered and measured approach to ensure that any changes to the current system are not only financially viable and beneficial, but, ultimately, sustainable.
While the Minister is considering the options, the opportunity exists to enhance and promote the role of the EHS as the champion of environmental priorities. Progress has already been made on waste minimisation and water quality. Indeed, those achievements were acknowledged in evidence sessions to the review of environmental governance. Partnership between the EHS and other Departments, such as the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, key environmental stakeholders and representatives from the farming and business sectors has also improved, which can help to deliver joint objectives. As the chief executive of the EHS stated at the Environment Northern Ireland conference in October 2005:
“there is a job to be done; an environment to be protected.”
I support the amendment standing in the name of my colleague Mr Peter Weir.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It has been outlined already that the North is unique among these islands because it does not have an independent environmental protection agency. That is an absolute disgrace, and it does great injustice and disservice to society’s children.
There must be greater transparency and accountability, and an independent environmental protection agency must have rigorous enforcement powers to enable it to hold polluters to account. That is essential to ensure public confidence. The effectiveness of the proposed agency is paramount. It must be a powerful advocate for the environment. Reports stretching back over the past decade, including those of the Waste Management Advisory Board, have been highly damning of the Department of the Environment’s record on environmental protection and waste management and have demanded real solutions and answers.
Sinn Féin’s view is that an independent environmental protection agency offers the most viable alternative to the Department’s many past failures in regulating persistent offenders properly. There is a clear need for radical solutions to problems that will simply not go away, and the emphasis must be on preventing damage to the environment rather than dealing with the aftermath of pollution — or not dealing with it, as is the case in my constituency, where sewage has been lying in Glenlough Park, a public park in Ballynahinch, for the past four weeks. This issue cuts across Departments, and that is why an independent environmental protection agency is needed.
The Department of the Environment should be stripped of its environmental protection powers because it has failed to do its job with the vigour that is needed. An independent environmental protection agency could take the lead in ensuring that all Departments meet environmental targets on, for example, use of renewable energy, recycling and pollution control.
We are facing a crisis in waste-treatment capacity, and it makes no sense to examine the problems of waste management and illegal dumping in a segregated way. We need an all-Ireland waste management strategy that is driven by an implementation body that has tough enforcement powers — “enforcement” being the key word — that will move from landfill and incineration.
EU environmental directives put the onus on the Assembly to act faster and invest more in meeting new tough guidelines, and failure to comply could, potentially, cost millions of pounds. That will hit local councils, which have not been given the support or resources needed. They have led the way in waste management, and that must be recognised.
I am pleased that the recent review of environmental governance recommended that an independent environmental protection agency should be created. However, Sinn Féin’s view is that the focus must be on establishing such an agency on an all-Ireland basis. Other Members have said that also, and it makes sense for a small island.
The recently published ‘Foundations for the Future’ contains wide-ranging, radical recommendations that the Assembly and the Executive must study carefully. The report calls for the establishment of an environmental protection agency and recommends the transfer of powers from several Departments, those powers to be placed in the Department of the Environment. In addition, the report highlights and signposts the need for an all-island approach to environmental issues. The protection of our environment is a core issue that transcends geographical and political boundaries. The value of cross-border implementation bodies to deliver sound environmental governance makes sense.
It is abundantly clear that the future development of environmental policy should formally go down the all-island route. Enforcement is the key; we must not allow large development companies to ride roughshod over ordinary citizens. The only way to safeguard our environment is through the creation of an independent EPA. I support the motion and amendment No 2, because of its inclusion of a time frame element. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Wells: There is absolutely no doubt that environmental issues are becoming more important, particularly among young people. There is a rapidly increasing concern about the environment, particularly on the issues of global warming and climate change.
I feel a sense of déjà vu. In 1962 — when I was around and the Minister was not — a report recommended the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency in Northern Ireland. Nothing happened, and our environment continued to be degraded. In 1984, when I was a Member of a former Assembly — of which I am, perhaps, the only survivor present in the Chamber this afternoon — there was a similar debate when the draft Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands Order (Northern Ireland) 1985 was published.
In answer to those points, the then Minister decided to set up a review under the auspices of Dr Jean Balfour. I met Dr Balfour four times during that review. She opted not to have an independent agency. She promised us a new, strong, independent, clear voice for conservation, called the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside (CNCC). Twenty-two years later, very few people even know of the existence of the CNCC. If 100 people on the streets of Northern Ireland were asked what the CNCC was, they would say that it was a paramilitary organisation. Few people realise that it exists. It has had absolutely no impact. It has not been the independent voice for conservation and environmental protection — it has been totally anonymous. Powers were transferred to the Environment and Heritage Service, and the environment continued to be degraded.
We have a third opportunity to try to correct that situation. There is no doubt that the environment in Northern Ireland desperately needs better protection. That is the one issue on which we all agree. We have seen many examples. The classic example occurred in the first Assembly when the then Minister of the Environment, Mr Dermot Nesbitt, was pressurised by developers to allow major developments to be linked up to sewerage systems that we all knew did not work. We had many seaside towns where the only attraction was a brown stream of fluids — untreated sewage — flowing into the water.
People say that there are costs attached to an EPA, and that is undoubtedly true. The fact must be accepted that infraction proceedings were taken by the European Union, and we face significant fines for our failure to implement proper sewage treatment systems. Eventually, those fines could far outweigh any expense associated with establishing an EPA.
We have seen the wholesale destruction of habitats. We have seen much of our countryside destroyed by inappropriate development, and we have seen a lower standard of environmental protection than in any other part of western Europe. I have to ask the obvious question: what is different about Northern Ireland when compared to every other democracy in the northern hemisphere? In every country in Europe, North America, Great Britain and the Irish Republic, there is an independent environmental protection agency. Somehow, Northern Ireland is totally different. Either the rest of the world is wrong, or we are wrong. It cannot be both. Is Northern Ireland’s situation so unique that it does not deserve the same strong environmental protection that is afforded the rest of the world?
There are major difficulties in having environmental protection within the ambit of a Government Department. There has already been the suggestion of the problem of Crown immunity. The facts must be put right on that. Since the establishment of Northern Ireland Water, Crown immunity no longer applies to the water service in Northern Ireland. Of course, it still applies to every other Government Department and agency. So, if they cause environmental damage, there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it because one part of Government cannot prosecute another. That alone is a good reason for considering the establishment of an EPA.
I support the creation of an EPA — and I assure Members that this is a personal view, not a party view — because I believe that we need a strong independent voice to stand by the environment in Northern Ireland — a voice that will state, when things go wrong, that that cannot be allowed to continue. The EHS cannot do that because it is within the Government structures; if it tried to do so, it would be sat on, either by its own Department or by the greater Executive, and told not to rock the boat.
I support amendment No 1 because it outlines important issues. There are difficulties that have to be overcome, and a consultation will have to be undertaken. I do not believe that a decision can be taken in September on a report that has been published in June. However, I hope that, after the consultations, Ulster, like every other part of the world, will have a strong EPA — and I point out to Mr Willie Clarke that it will be an EPA for Ulster alone.
Mr Kennedy: It is always a pleasure to follow the honourable Member, particularly when he is on his hobby horse. To be fair to him, he has a long-standing record on those issues.
I welcome the debate, which has been useful. I wish to make it plain from the outset that we are minded — [Laughter.]
We are minded to support the SDLP amendment, although there remain issues of timing and costing that require further clarification and detail.
I also wish to make it plain that we have considerable concerns about the wording of the DUP amendment. Not only does it send out a message of indecision, but it hints that the Minister may reject the proposal for an environmental protection agency. We need look no further than the wording of the amendment to see the way that the Minister’s mind might be working and to understand what she might be minded to do. At best, that would be to kick for touch, and the decision can perhaps join the long and growing list of decisions that the DUP Ministers have not made. At worst, a decision may once again put Northern Ireland out of step with the rest of the United Kingdom, which is a very odd position for a professedly unionist party to favour.
However, we should not be surprised by that, because the DUP manifesto was equally vague about what it would do in respect of an environmental protection agency. If I can borrow an expression used by a senior — or perhaps a junior — DUP Member, the DUP tree-hugging faction was openly at odds with that party’s environment policy over this issue during the last Assembly mandate. The UUP position is one of clear support for an environmental protection agency.
At the same time, however, my party does not want this issue to be used as a stick to beat the back of our already hard-pressed farming community. The UUP wants the creation of an environmental protection agency, but it wants its terms of reference to be stringently designed so that it gains widespread support among the rural community, particularly the farmers, who, after all, are recognised as the custodians of the countryside. Therefore, we will seek to work with bodies such as the Ulster Farmers’ Union to achieve a satisfactory outcome. It is for that reason that my party leader, Sir Reg Empey, the Minister for Employment and Learning, has indicated to the Minister of the Environment that a degree of caution is necessary when deciding how that can best be achieved.
The UUP is a genuine unionist party, and it wants to keep in step with the rest of the United Kingdom by creating such an agency. As people who are proud of Northern Ireland, UUP members are determined to have the best for Northern Ireland, and to end, once and for all, Northern Ireland’s sad reputation for having the worst environmental record of any part of the United Kingdom.
The review of environmental governance report of May 2007 advised the creation of an independent EPA. Our party’s submission to that review was delivered by my colleague Sam Gardiner. We supported the proposal at an evidence-gathering meeting of the environmental governance panel — a meeting from which the DUP and Sinn Féin were noticeably absent.
The development of such an agency is seen to be important to the people of Northern Ireland. Five thousand people took the time to write to the political parties, asking for an independent environmental protection agency to be established and for the environment to be made a higher political priority. Some 50,000 people belong to environmentally-friendly bodies in the Province. We support the motion and the SDLP amendment because people want it; and what the people want, the people should have.
Let us see progress on this, but, at the same time, design the agency in a way that commands widespread rural support. That is why my party is cautious about timings and costings but gives its broad support to the SDLP amendment.
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I welcome this debate, indeed, any Assembly debate on environmental issues, as Members know. I thank Brian Wilson, who will make the winding-up speech, David Ford, who moved the motion and Peter Weir and Tommy Gallagher for their amendments. Many contributors made important points.
We were given a history of attempts to create an independent environmental protection agency by the Member for South Down Mr Wells, who gave us the benefit of his experience. However, the most recent idea for such an agency was proposed by the environmental governance review in its recent report, which I received on 19 June 2007. Having read that report, I said that I was open-minded about an independent agency and, indeed, about all the review’s recommendations, including one that urged all political parties to appoint environmental advisers. I look forward to all parties taking action on that recommendation.
Environmental non-governmental organisations have been lobbying for an independent agency for a long time, and I have had opportunities to hear what the representatives of individual organisations have been saying on that. As has been mentioned, other stakeholders who are subject to regulations, particularly the producers, such as farmers and food processors, as well as quarry operators and other sectors of business and commerce, have a different view. Having listened to their representatives, I know that they have concerns about the cost of a new agency and its likely impact on fees.
I am pleased that we have had the opportunity to listen to the views of Members, and I shall briefly respond to some of them. Mr Ford mentioned the transposition of European directives. The need to achieve a high-quality environment is critical to the future well-being and prosperity of everyone in Northern Ireland, and for that reason I am determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past — at least while I am in office. Rather, I want to ensure that appropriate policies and legislation that will protect and enhance the environment are put in place so that all our obligations are met fully, including the timely transposition of European directives, which did not happen in the past.
In that context I am also pleased that we were able to bring into effect legislation on natural habitats under the Conservation (Natural Habitats etc) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2007 on 21 August to meet our commitments under the habitats directive. Legislation will further transpose the requirements of that directive and will provide consistency of approach throughout the United Kingdom.
Mention was made of waste offences, and it was said that my Department, through the Environment and Heritage Service, has not pursued people who have taken advantage of waste regulations. That is untrue. The rising number of convictions is a reflection of the extent of current and historic illegal waste activities in Northern Ireland, but the seriousness of those offences is also increasing owing to the involvement of illegal gangs. In that regard I welcome the intervention of the Assets Recovery Agency and the work that it does.
EHS has a dedicated environmental-crime section, which I had the chance to visit last week in the Klondyke Building. It is using enhanced legislation and interaction with other law enforcement agencies to try to tackle that serious issue.
Mr Ford and other Members mentioned water quality. Since 2000, there has been a 15·5 % increase in the length of rivers classified in the top two categories of chemical quality, and an 18% increase in compliance with discharge consent. Between 2000 and 2005, there was a 30% reduction in the number of substantiated pollution incidents.
Mr S Wilson: The Minister has gone through a catalogue of issues that the proposer of the motion talked about, such as the loss of habitat and the impurities in water. Will the Minister agree that, even where there are independent bodies in Scotland, England, Wales and the Irish Republic, the same complaints are still made? Taking the issue away as a core departmental function and giving it to an independent agency will not produce the panacea that the proposer has suggested.
Mrs Foster: There is an element of truth in the Member’s comments. Many of the points that have been raised in the Chamber concerned resources. That pertains whether environmental protection is externalised or kept in the Department. The issue is one of resources. Unfortunately, the motion and much of the discussion has not concentrated on that. That disappoints me because those of us who are trying to push for more resources for environmental protection put a lot of work into doing that.
Some Members made reference to built heritage. It is a concern that, if REGNI is implemented in the way in which it is envisaged in the report ‘Foundations for the Future’, built heritage work will have a low priority. As a Minister, I have a special interest in the built heritage, and I am well aware of the good work of EHS Built Heritage in identifying and listing buildings of special architectural or historical interest, in registering those buildings most at risk from deterioration or demolition, and in facilitating restoration and preservation work. Some Members may say that good work has been done but that more needs to be done. I accept that, but it is also a resource issue. Built-heritage groups are concerned that, if built heritage is part of an expanded agency of the type proposed by the review of environmental governance, the work that they do will have a low priority. I appreciate those concerns, and I take them on board.
Mr Ford said that there had been a downturn in the number of corncrakes. I can assure him that corncrakes are thriving in County Donegal and there is an expectation that they may return to Northern Ireland in the near future.
Mr S Wilson: The Braniel corncrakes.
A Member: The corncrakes are in the north. We want them back in Northern Ireland.
Mrs Foster: I am assured that they have a residential address in Londonderry.
Mr Ford mentioned that the CBI supported a review of environmental governance that should run in parallel with the review of public administration. In a letter to me, the CBI says that if a decision were taken to establish an independent environmental protection agency, it should be cost effective and focused on:
“enforcement of environmental regulation and the provision of information and advice on promoting best environmental practice”.
The CBI recognises that there must be a value-for-money element to the issue.
Mr Weir referred to a lot of issues, and I welcome his comments. He talked about the concerns about the built heritage and about value for money. He also pointed out that the report did not include costings.
Mr Ford: The Minister referred to Mr Weir’s comments about the lack of costings in the REGNI report; indeed, producing costs was not part of the review team’s functions. However, will the Minister assure Members that she and her officials will work on the costs and benefits and return to the House as soon as possible in order to advance the discussion?
Mrs Foster: I am happy to address that question. Unfortunately, the REGNI review team was supposed to consider the cost implications, but did not fulfil that part of its remit. As soon as I received the REGNI report, I assigned officials to examine the costings, and they are working on those now. I am happy to come back either to the House to discuss the matter, or, in the first instance, to the Committee for the Environment. The latter option may, indeed, be more appropriate.
Mr Ford: Will the Minister indicate when the “first instance” is likely to be?
Mrs Foster: If the officials are quick, initial costings will probably be available to the Committee for the Environment before Christmas. Santa will bring them in his bag of goodies.
It is important to recognise that the substantive motion calls on the Executive, not the Department of the Environment, to take action. It does so because the report affects almost all Departments. I wrote to my fellow Ministers, the Comptroller and Auditor General, and, because the reports include comments on environmental justice, to the Lord Chief Justice. Most have replied, and the majority have indicated that they welcome the report but wish to see costings. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety said that he had some initial concerns about the recommendation on the realignment of Government policy functions. He went on to talk about costings. His view is similar to those expressed throughout the Executive. Although some Members may want to use the debate as a DUP-bashing exercise — and that is a matter for them — they must reflect that the issue affects every Minister, not only the Minister who stands before the House today.
Much has been made of the independence of a new agency. There is no doubt that a non-departmental public body has freedoms that an executive agency does not. One such freedom is that chairpersons of boards sometimes feel impelled to criticise Government, and the REGNI report refers to that. It is important to point out, however, that non-departmental public bodies are required to operate within well established governance and accounting frameworks that limit their flexibility and freedom.
The legislation under which any agency is established is likely to set out its functions and powers, arrangements for ministerial appointments of the board, and mechanisms by which the DOE would sponsor or oversee the agency. The Department would set out the agency’s funding regime by determining what proportion of its income would be provided through grant aid and how much it must recover through fees or by other means.
In his contribution, Mr Armstrong said:
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
He went on to reflect on his discussions with the farming community and spoke of the concerns about an increase in red tape and regulations. If he is concerned, he must ensure that Members have a balanced debate with open minds on that matter in order that they can consider the effects on the whole community in Northern Ireland, not just some of it.
Mr McKay spoke about areas of special scientific interest and the need to designate more. That point has been raised in the House on several occasions. He knows my position on that: if the resources were available in my departmental budget, I would designate more, but, unfortunately they are not. He asked me to show leadership and to implement the REGNI report. Mr McKay knows that that is not solely up to me. The issues with which the report deals are cross-cutting and will affect, particularly where his own party is concerned, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Department for Regional Development, and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. He must reflect on the implications that the report will have for his party colleagues who are Ministers.
Willie Clarke said that it was a travesty that Northern Ireland did not have an environmental protection agency. He thought that such an agency would be a powerful advocate for the environment, and he spoke at length about waste and sewerage issues. If Mr Clarke has any specific issues concerning his constituency, I would be happy if he wrote to me about them. He also highlighted the fact that local councils lead the way in waste management, and I recognise that. Furthermore, I recognise the good work of councils in implementing the waste management strategy and the good work of the three waste management boards. They work closely with the Department, and that relationship will continue. Members should reflect on where we are today.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Minister, your time is up.
Mrs Foster: I took interventions.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I am advised that interventions in your case do not permit you to have extra time to speak. I apologise for that. I call Tommy Gallagher to make a winding-up speech on amendment No 2.
Mr Gallagher: It is clear that Members support the establishment of an environmental protection agency as the most appropriate arrangement for caring for our environment. I thank the Minister for her comments, some of which are encouraging. However, she mentioned costings, but I am sure that everyone here will agree that costings are not a problem. She referred to other Ministers in the Executive also raising that issue, and that is not surprising. In fact, we would be alarmed if Departments were in the hands of Ministers who did not carefully monitor the costings of all initiatives.
It is encouraging to hear that there have been some convictions for dumping illegal waste; however, in my view, there have not been enough. I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that convictions for dumping illegal waste are one thing, but cleaning up that waste is an entirely different matter, and the Environment and Heritage Service is not confronting that issue. In fact, it appears to offload the responsibility for cleaning up onto councils and, ultimately, onto ratepayers. That culture of caution and inaction in the protection of our environment is costly, and the price will be higher than that of simply establishing a new, independent environmental protection agency.
I refer again to concerns about the role of the Environment and Heritage Service in the Department of the Environment. I wish to point out —
Mr McGlone: During recent judicial reviews into the draft northern area plan and the draft Magherafelt area plan, the judge expressed a major concern in his determination and conclusions that Environment and Heritage Service, as part of the Department of the Environment, a Government Department, could not act as an independent consultative body advising that Department on matters relating to, in this instance, planning.
Mr Gallagher: The Member’s comments illustrate the public’s concerns about the role of the Environment and Heritage Service on environmental matters. Daithí McKay and Willie Clarke from Sinn Féin referred to an all-island approach, or, perhaps, an all-Ireland approach.
That makes common sense in relation to the environment. I notice that my colleague on the Committee Ian McCrea said that he did not support any of that. However, the environment is one issue in which the border is not recognised: we cannot stop rivers flowing or pluck the birds from the sky. There should be common sense and logic on this issue.
Billy Armstrong and Danny Kennedy mentioned the importance of working in co-operation with farmers, who are the custodians of the countryside. I agree entirely — we must work in co-operation with them and all rural stakeholders.
Jim Wells gave a passionate speech on the environment, as he usually does, and outlined the previous attempts that have been made to secure independence in monitoring the regulation of the environment. The point was well made, and I hope that as a result of today’s discussion we will have that body in place during the lifetime of the Assembly.
Mr Hamilton: It is a pleasure to speak so soon after the Minister of the Environment, and it was particularly interesting to hear her give a clear commitment to environmental protection — a sentiment that permeated throughout the Chamber.
It is obvious that all Members are committed to environmental protection, and there was much talk about the loss of historic buildings; the threat to certain species; the pollution of rivers, and so forth. Strong environmental protection is clearly supported throughout the Chamber. As that is our shared vision, the task is to find the best way of enforcing it in Northern Ireland.
I would not say that the motion was ill-conceived — far from it. It is obvious that the proposer and his colleagues are committed to environmental protection and are very supportive of an independent environmental protection agency. However, I concur with colleagues who said that the motion is a little premature, because the Committee for the Environment has not yet discussed the matter and the ink is barely dry on the review of environmental governance report.
Fundamental issues need to be addressed before any final decisions can be taken. There are four key areas: cost; bureaucracy; accountability; and overall necessity. Cost is of paramount importance.
The report of the review of environmental governance goes into excruciating detail at times on why an environmental protection agency should be created; its various powers; its management structure; its boards; its personnel; what reports it should produce; and even the need for an iconic headquarters building. The report discusses whether the agency should be in a historic building that has been renovated or in a state-of-the-art new one — it goes into detail about everything except costs. On page 17, which sets out the terms of reference, there is a specific reference to a “costed business case”. That costed business case is not in the report, and it is essential that work to cost the establishment of an environmental protection agency is carried out.
Mr Ford: The Member mentioned the Minister of the Environment’s commitment to the environment. This afternoon, the Minister gave the House a specific commitment to do some of the costing work by Christmas that the Member is referring to. I presume that the Member would not regard a report presented to the House by Christmas as being premature.
Mr Hamilton: The Minister outlined that some initial costings could be produced before Christmas, but I will leave the detail to her and will await the results with keen interest.
The matter is important, and although some may consider the report to be wonderful, the absence of costings is pretty woeful. There are essential questions about the costs of creating and running an environmental protection agency. If the designation of areas of special scientific interest, which the Member for North Antrim Daithí McKay spoke of, is to be carried out, and an environmental protection agency performs the functions that people want it to, how much will that cost?
Resources are vital, because if they are not available, people’s disappointment with the current system of environmental governance may be perpetuated by any future system. I am sure that no one who supports the need for an EPA wants to see that happen either.
I am mindful of a comment in the Macrory Report on environmental governance which, in considering options for the future, stated that fully incorporating the Environment and Heritage Service into the DOE would:
“recognize that in a country the size of Northern Ireland a more independent environment agency is too costly an exercise.”
That is worth considering, because given the tight budgetary framework within which we are living and with which we have to deal, cost is critical, and it must be addressed.
Allied to cost is bureaucracy. There is, rightly, much talk in the Chamber about the bureaucracy faced by businesses and farmers. During the mandate of the Transitional Assembly, Members supported a motion that backed the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) Cut it Out campaign against red tape and bureaucracy. As Peter Weir said, the UFU has made clear its concerns about increased bureaucracy through an independent EPA, and that must be addressed.
I was also struck by the comments of the Institute of Directors in its submission on the review of environmental governance. It stated that:
“a new agency will simply add another organisation, another layer of bureaucracy, another layer of costs,”
Mr Deputy Speaker: Your time is up.
Mr Hamilton: I thought that I had 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Members are permitted five minutes for a winding-up speech on an amendment. I call Mr Brian Wilson to make his winding-up speech on the motion. He has 10 minutes.
Mr B Wilson: I thank the Minister for her response. I welcome her commitment to the environment, and she made some positive points. However, I was disappointed that she could not go further and accept the case for an EPA. If she had even accepted that concept, I would have considered it progress. I also welcome her commitment to providing the Assembly with the associated costings before Christmas, and I look forward to seeing them. However, the costs are not a significant issue, because most of them relate to something that has already been carried out by other Departments, and it would merely be a case of changing Departments, rather than providing new resources.
The case for the EPA is a no-brainer, as the Minister of Finance and Personnel described another issue last week. It is disappointing that we could not get agreement today. The case made by all the NGOs has the support of the public. Moreover, we have to set up some form of EPA to comply with European directives.
I am happy enough to go along with Mr Gallagher’s amendment: he recognises the need for an EPA. However, Mr Weir’s amendment is merely an excuse for delay. Why did some Members argue for delay? Their arguments relating to costs — among other things — do not stand. I see no excuse for further delay: we have delayed long enough. As Mr Wells said, discussions on the establishment of an EPA have persisted since 1962, so it is about time that something was done. We have gone through many inquiries, and there is no need for any more investigations. The issues have been covered many times, and amendment No 1 is an excuse for further delay.
We must also consider European law and how it is interpreted by our judiciary. Mr Weir’s reference and reaction to the diktats of Judge Weatherup are wrong. Judge Weatherup was saying that the present system is inadequate and that it does not comply with European law, and that something must be done about that. We have to do something about it, even if Mr Weir does not agree.
At a recent seminar in Belfast the chairman of the UK Environmental Law Association commented that Northern Ireland was the dirty corner of the UK when it came to protecting the environment, and added that Northern Ireland had a uniquely serious problem of weak environmental regulation and enforcement.
Northern Ireland has ignored the environment for too long, and we seem to be doing it again today. We have not looked at the impact that development is having on our environment.
The other countries of the United Kingdom introduced legislation in the 1970s and 1980s, as did the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is now starting to catch up — but we are doing it very slowly, because we continue to pump raw sewage into the watercourses and the sea. I have been campaigning to end the dumping of raw sewage into Belfast Lough for more than a decade, because of the impact that it has on beaches. The Department of the Environment seems to have little concern about that, and the Environment and Heritage Service is totally ineffective.
The power station at Kilroot is the dirtiest in the UK; and although Lough Neagh is one of the most polluted lakes in Europe, it is the source of most of our drinking water. The European Court of Justice has found Northern Ireland guilty on many occasions of failing to meet minimum standards set out by European directives. Environmental pressure groups continually highlight the inadequate protection of existing wildlife, sewage pollution and poor planning as areas where the DOE has failed to protect the environment.
Mrs Foster: For the information of the Member and the House, papers have been sent to the Public Prosecution Service in the first case against Northern Ireland Water. The Member should take note of that in what he is saying.
Mr B Wilson: I thank the Minister for that information, but Northern Ireland is still doing very little to resolve long-standing problems. It appears that those problems are being further deferred today.
Mr Wells said that the problem dated back to 1962. Certainly, in 1990 the House of Commons Environment Committee called for the establishment of an environmental protection agency. The Environment and Heritage Service already deals with many of the issues that an EPA would, but it is not independent, which led to the situation in 2002, for example, in which the Environment and Heritage Service’s concerns over housing hotspots were ignored to let more house building take place, and so raw sewage went on being pumped into Belfast Lough.
That is a conflict between the Department of the Environment and an independent body. A piece in today’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’ reports that the Environment and Heritage Service recommended that the planning application for the Giant’s Causeway — an argument I have no intention of entering — be rejected, and yet the Minister is minded to approve it. That shows the potential for conflict in the Department. That is why we need an independent environmental protection agency.
Mr Wells: Would the Member be surprised to learn that every other European democracy has had exactly the same arguments that this Assembly is having today, only 20 years ago? Every one of them decided to go for an independent EPA, and not one of them wants to go back to having it in central Government. Is it not unusual that Northern Ireland is out of step with everyone else?
Mr B Wilson: I certainly agree. The Member has made that point much more clearly than I have. All the arguments are in favour of an independent EPA, but it is going to take longer than I would like.
Mr Weir mentioned cost in his amendment. I am not convinced that significant costs are involved. The Environment and Heritage Service is already performing regulatory and enforcement duties, and other bodies are complying with European Union directives. Those requirements have to be met, and they are being met, so there is no argument to be made that significant additional resources will be required.
A certain amount of nit-picking is going on. Mr Weir said that we would have to cut our budgets. Which budget would we cut? Would we close hospitals or whatever else was needed in order to find sufficient funds? That is not necessary. The resources are already there but are not being used efficiently or effectively. They do not have the correct legislative balance, so they appear ineffective.
We have a long list of problems to solve, but we should proceed with the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency. I would like the Minister to give that commitment. An environmental protection agency would help us to lose our image as the dirty corner of the UK and would allow us to present Northern Ireland as having a green and clean environment that can attract tourists and investment.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that if amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall. If that happens, I shall proceed to put the Question on the motion as amended.
Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 32; Noes 41.
Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McQuillan and Mr G Robinson.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Dallat, Dr Deeny, Mr Durkan, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mr Gardiner, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr A Maginness, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr B McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mr McFarland, Mr McGlone, Mr McHugh, Mr McKay, Mr McNarry, Mr Neeson, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Mr K Robinson, Mr B Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Attwood and Mr Dallat.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question put, That amendment 2 be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 36; Noes 37.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Dallat, Dr Deeny, Mr Durkan, Mr Gallagher, Mr Gardiner, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mr A Maginness, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr B McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mr McFarland, Mr McGlone, Mr McHugh, Mr McKay, Mr McNarry, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Mr K Robinson, Mr B Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Attwood and Mr Dallat.
Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Neeson, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr McQuillan and Mr G Robinson.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Executive to establish an independent Environmental Protection Agency for Northern Ireland.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Private Notice Question
Mr Speaker: I have received a private notice question, in accordance with Standing Order 20, for the Minister of Education.
Mr S Wilson asked the Minister of Education what action she has taken since promising the Assembly yesterday that she would intervene immediately in the classroom assistants’ dispute.
The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Before I explain what I have done since yesterday’s debate, Members should remember that the classroom assistants’ dispute has been ongoing for 12 years. I do not want to see it continue for another 12 years.
If it takes the next few days to bring about agreement and a resolution, that is what we should do. We must work constantly and carefully until we reach a resolution, and it is important that the correct resolution be achieved.
In the same way in which Sammy Wilson clarified the role of the Committee for Education in such industrial disputes, I will clarify my role as Minister of Education. There are established industrial relations procedures between employers and staff representatives, so it is not appropriate for me to become directly involved in that negotiating machinery.
Nevertheless, as Minister, I have a role to play in facilitating and encouraging both sides to reach a resolution on the outstanding issues. Yesterday, after I had informed Members of my intention to intervene, I immediately directed officials to ensure that management side be made aware of my call for the employment authorities to proceed as swiftly as possible to implement the new grading system so that those valuable staff receive the pay rates to which they are entitled.
Ba mhaith liom a rá go poiblí nach bhfuil cothrom na Féinne ann do chúntóirí ranga agus gur mhaith liom réiteach na faidhbe seo a fheiceáil trí chainteanna.
I believe that classroom assistants have been unfairly treated, and I want to see the dispute speedily resolved through dialogue. I directed officials to ensure that management side convened a meeting with representatives. That meeting took place yesterday evening.
I was kept closely informed throughout the evening, and, as soon as the meeting ended, I ensured that officials arranged further meetings for today, and I reminded them that we would be staying with the dispute for as long as it took.
Throughout the morning, I have held meetings with officials. I have cancelled several engagements that I had planned for today so that I can focus on the matter. Before the debate, I had arranged a meeting with employers that will take place later today. Of course, I am willing to meet unions as well if that would be helpful to them. This morning, in various media interviews, I repeated my desire to avert strike action and to encourage both sides to continue to seek a settlement.
Nílim ag iarraidh cinneadh a fhorchur. Ba mhaith liom conradh gan mhoill, agus déanfaidh mé mo sheacht ndícheall seo a chur i bhfeidhm.
I want an agreement to be reached, and I am doing everything in my power to ensure that that is the outcome. As I stated in yesterday’s debate, the issues are part of a bigger picture. The Assembly must give wider and more fundamental consideration to its approach to the planning and management of the education workforce in schools. I have, therefore, directed officials to commence work on drawing up draft terms of reference. To that end, I have passed on helpful correspondence that I have received from UNISON and from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Although outstanding issues remain at an advanced stage of negotiation, I am determined to encourage a lasting resolution to the dispute. It is vital that we all work to avoid any disruption to the education of children.
Some Members who were instrumental in yesterday’s debate did not perform too well and now seek to have another go. Such an approach does a disservice to children and to classroom assistants.
Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister has the Floor.
Ms Ruane: Níl na cúntóirí ranga ag iarraidh liathróid pholaitiúil — “political football”, for those who do not speak Irish — a dhéanamh as an díospóireacht seo, nó tá roinnt Comhaltaí Tionóil ag déanamh pointí polaitíochta as an ábhar.
Classroom assistants do not want the debate or negotiations to be turned into a political football, with some of the Members who sit opposite seeking to score political points off their backs. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr S Wilson: I am glad to see that the Minister is in the same bad mood today as she was in yesterday. However, one thing is certain: she is not in as bad a mood as the unions and the Members of the House.
Mr McElduff: Is the Member coming to his question?
Mr Speaker: I assume that the Member is coming to his question.
Mr S Wilson: I am coming to it immediately.
The Minister said that she has kept herself directly informed of the dispute. If that were so, perhaps she can explain to the House why she admitted that she was unaware of correspondence that was sent by her Department to the management of the education and library boards.
Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?
Mr S Wilson: I will give way if it is in order to do so.
Mr Speaker: It is not the convention to give way in this instance.
Mr S Wilson: Yesterday, the Minister told the House that she would intervene immediately. However, today, she tells us that she cannot become directly involved, talk about negotiations, or meet representatives from either side because she is supposed to remain above involvement in the dispute. What is her role? Will she make a commitment to the Assembly, as a matter of urgency, to meet the people who are involved in the dispute, put some fresh ideas on the table, and employ departmental resources in order to ensure that the people who she says are not getting a fair deal will get a fair deal?
Ms Ruane: The letter that the Member referred to was issued without my ministerial consent or authority — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister has the Floor.
Ms Ruane: I will repeat what I have just said in case any Members did not hear me over those who were heckling: the letter was issued without my ministerial consent or authority. The permanent secretary, in his capacity as departmental accounting officer, felt that it was necessary to issue the letter. Later yesterday morning, I was informed that it had been sent.
I am the Minister, not the employer. I cannot usurp the role of employers, nor would it be right to create a situation where there are parallel negotiations. I have undertaken to intervene, with three objectives in mind. Before I mention those objectives, I hope that the Member who raised the matter will listen next time. I did not say that I could not meet people in the dispute. I said that I am meeting the employers today, after I have answered this Private Notice Question.
First, I intend ensuring that the interests of the children, classroom assistants and parents are paramount. Secondly, I want the employers to pay those staff the money that they deserve, and for which they have already waited too long. Thirdly, I want to facilitate the discussions between the management and unions so that outstanding issues can be resolved. I have already suggested one way in which the concerns of classroom assistants could be addressed, and that is by undertaking a much wider, and more fundamental, review of the roles of those working in education.
Private Members’ Business
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The Member who is proposing the motion has 10 minutes to speak, and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment has 10 minutes in which to propose, and five minutes for the winding-up speech.
Mr McCausland: I beg to move
That this Assembly believes that Belfast City Centre should be a shared space; deplores the Sinn Féin sponsored parade to the City Hall on Sunday, 12th August 2007, which involved depictions of I.R.A. terrorists and participants carrying guns; and calls on the PSNI and the Parades Commission to ensure that this never happens again.
The demonstration in the centre of Belfast on Sunday, 12 August 2007 was one of the most disgraceful episodes that we have seen in the centre of our capital city in quite a long time. There were many paramilitary trappings about it, and it raises serious questions about the PSNI, the Parades Commission, and Sinn Féin. The national H-block committee submitted the application forms for three main parades and one small feeder parade — a north Belfast parade from Ardoyne, via the Cliftonville Road and the New Lodge Road; a west Belfast parade which came from Twinbrook; and an east Belfast parade from Short Strand, which travelled along East Bridge Street and May Street to the city centre.
The application forms which were submitted to the PSNI, by the organisers, listed the republican bands that were to take part in the parades — many of which were known for their paramilitary dress and symbolism. Some of the bands are named after IRA terrorists; for example, the Martin Hurson republican flute band, the Ed O’Brien republican flute band, and the Burns/Moley republican flute band. A whole series of bands is named after IRA terrorists. We do not have time today to list the crimes of which those terrorists are guilty.
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Mr McCausland: Anyone, in my view, who is a member of the Irish Republican Army is a terrorist.
Mr Storey: Given Gerry Adams’s continual problem with accepting the fact that he was a member of the IRA — something that he continually denies — and given the republican movement’s continual denial of its 40-year sectarian campaign, does the Member agree that if a so-called “march for truth” were to be organised, that republicans would be the last people asked to do so, and that Gerry Adams would be the last person invited to speak at that event?
Mr McCausland: I agree entirely with the Member. Again, I point out that we do not have time today to list the crimes of some of those people after whom the bands are named, for example, the volunteer Sean McIlvenna republican flute band. McIlvenna was one of a group of IRA men who planted a 1,000 lb bomb that seriously injured a number of UDR soldiers.
My key point is that when those parades were notified to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the application forms were marked “non-contentious” — even though the names of the bands were known. The police would not have known about everything that was going to happen on the day. They would not have known that people were going to walk around the centre of Belfast carrying guns. They would not have known that people were going to walk around in masks and uniform. However, they would have known enough to know that there would be something very contentious and serious about those parades. Yet the police in both north and west Belfast marked the application form for the parades “non-contentious”. That raises a serious question about the operation and activities of the police in that regard — there was a dereliction of duty and a failure on their part. We have already taken that matter up with the Assistant Chief Constable.
When it then came to passing the forms on to the Parades Commission, the only form that was passed on was the one for the east Belfast parade. The Parades Commission looked at the form and said: “There is nothing contentious about that parade. We will place no conditions and no restrictions on it.” The commission made that decision even though it knew the names of the bands that would, potentially, take part in the east Belfast parade.
Thus, the PSNI failed in its handling of the matter. Those parade applications should have been marked “contentious”. All the applications should have been sent to the Parades Commission, and there should have been a determination on each of them. In the case of the east Belfast parade, there was a failure on the part of the Parades Commission. When the Parades Commission was subsequently presented with some of the footage, films and photographs of the parade, it was quite appalled by what it saw — as, indeed, were the police. So there are issues for the PSNI and the Parades Commission, and I want to leave it there because the motion:
“calls on the PSNI and the Parades Commission to ensure that this never happens again.”
I want to concentrate on the fact that there is an issue here for Sinn Féin. The whole parade was organised by the national H-block committee, but, it was, in fact, a Sinn Féin parade. The chairperson was Jennifer McCann, a Sinn Féin MLA, and the main speaker was Gerry Adams. So the chairperson was a convicted terrorist, and the speaker was an unconvicted terrorist.
Of course, there was a high class of steward: Sean Kelly, the Shankill bomber, was one of the stewards on the day. It is interesting to note that one of the organisers was none other than Sean “Spike” Murray. He organises a parade such as this, but, at the same time, has no difficulty with sitting on the parades review body. Moreover, he has no difficulty with complaining about Orange Order parades in west Belfast, while being involved in the organisation of a parade, the character of which I will come to shortly. It is abundantly clear that this was a Sinn Féin event — it was organised and fronted by members of Sinn Féin and members also of the IRA.
That brings me to the parade itself and the sort of thing that could be seen on the day. From the Maiden City, Londonderry, there was the Spirit of Freedom republican flute band. They brought two bass drums — with one drum, gunmen can be painted on only two sides, but with two drums, there are four sides on which to paint. They managed to get “tiocfaidh ár lá”, a tricolour and a masked gunman on one drum and two IRA masked terrorists with heavy machine guns on the other. That is the sort of thing that was depicted on the drums.
It could be said: “Well, we did not know what was going to happen on the day”, even though the bands’ websites clearly show the sort of paraphernalia that they regularly use, but it was not just a matter of the bands — there were, of course, the Sinn Féin banners. The south Armagh band, which is named after a number of IRA terrorists, was carrying a Sinn Féin banner. What was depicted on it? Once again, it was IRA gunmen. So the bands were carrying drums with depictions of gunmen, and so on, Sinn Féin members were carrying banners with similar depictions, people such as Sean Kelly were stewarding the march, and a masked man was walking through the city centre carrying a gun. We do not know whether it was a real gun or a replica gun, because the police did not stop the man to ask him. That is why the word “gun” is used in the motion — because we simply do not know whether it was real or a replica.
Nonetheless, that was clearly one of the most appalling parades that has taken place in Belfast in a very long time. At a time when others were seeking to improve the quality of parading, Sinn Féin, including “Spike” Murray of the parades review body, was busy organising a parade such as that in the centre of our capital city.
I want to make just two more points, because I know that other Members want to address various aspects of that parade. There were folk in that parade who were carrying coffins and who were supposed to be the victims of collusion. That says something to me about the absolute hypocrisy of Sinn Féin. It had people there carrying coffins, but Sean Kelly put people in coffins. Other key figures who were there that day had been putting people in coffins for the past 30-odd years.
The parade was supposed to deal with collusion. Is there not something hypocritical about that, when it is quite clear, and becoming clearer every day, that there has been collusion between the security forces and the Irish Republican Army? People such as Denis Donaldson paid the price for that collusion. What about the others, however, who have yet to be uncovered?
Mr Storey: In this House.
Mr McCausland: Possibly. Who knows? But if it is the time for truth — a point which my colleague raised a few minutes ago — surely the onus is on those who organised and facilitated that parade to give us the truth. Maybe Gerry Adams, who oversaw the IRA in 1972, will tell us who was responsible for Bloody Friday. Maybe Martin McGuinness could tell us who was responsible for the crimes and the murders that were carried out by the IRA when he was in charge. There is a lot of truth that needs to be told, and instead of having a parade about it, Sinn Féin could do much, much more to uncover the truth by simply owning up and giving us the names of the terrorists in its ranks who perpetrated a campaign of murder for 30-odd years.
Mr A Maginness: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“believes that public spaces should be shared; deplores any parades that include depictions of terrorism; and calls on the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Parades Commission to ensure that parades are free from displays of paramilitarism, including banners, insignia and uniforms.”
This Back-Bench motion from the DUP is as hypocritical and as prejudiced as the march that it purports to criticise. It is an exercise in political therapy, the purpose of which is to comfort and reassure the DUP that the certainties of the old politics still exist. We have moved on, however, and Mr McCausland’s party leader shares the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin.
We now have a Sinn Féin/DUP Government, and it is important that the Back-Bench Members of the DUP realise that. They can produce political gimmicks and motions to make them feel happy and comfortable, give them a warm, orange glow in their tummies and make them believe that they are still in the trenches, but I am afraid that that day is gone. We now have an Administration in which the DUP is involved with other parties, but in which it primarily shares power with Sinn Féin. It is time for grown-up politics. It is time that people in this Chamber, and in particular the Back Benchers of the DUP, realised that there is a new dispensation.
Mr Campbell: The Member has used the term “Back-Bench motion” three times. He should understand that the motion has the unanimous support of all MLAs on the DUP Benches. Does he accept that what he has said about what exists now and reminding people of their vicious, sectarian, murderous past are not mutually exclusive?
Mr A Maginness: The Member says that the motion has the unanimous support of the DUP. That might well be the case, but there are no Ministers here, and I doubt that any Minister will contribute to the debate. There is a strong element of phoney warfare in the Chamber. This sort of adventure, primarily by the Back-Bench Members of the DUP, is permitted in order to keep the troops happy and to keep their support base happy back at home. As we are in a transition period, the leadership of the party does not want the boat rocked, so it allows this sort of thing to happen. The sooner that the DUP wakens up to the fact that it is in coalition government, the better.
The motion is selective: only two years ago guns were brought out by paramilitaries during the September riots in Belfast, and very little criticism was heard from the DUP. In Belfast City Council, where I was a member, there was very little —
Mr Newton: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. That is totally inaccurate. As Alban knows —
Mr Speaker: That is not a valid point of order, I ask the Member to take his seat.
Mr A Maginness: As a result of the police action, members of the DUP, and other unionist parties, removed themselves from the district policing partnership (DPP) in Belfast. They did not show support for the police in difficult circumstances, and any criticism of the riots was superficial and restrained. Members of the DUP rarely criticise paramilitary displays and Orange marches that have paramilitary displays or associations. Anyone is free to check that through newspapers and television transcripts.
Selectivity is at the heart of the motion, not only on the part of the DUP but also on the part of Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin called the August parade a “march for truth”. However, Sinn Féin’s truth is a selective one. It calls for truth about the Army and the RUC. What about the truth about the IRA itself, people such as Stakeknife, the murder of Jean McConville, the Abercorn bombing and the deaths of the IRA men at Loughgall? Sinn Féin and the IRA do not want to get involved in those issues, because their approach is selective. Let us march for truth and find out the truth of what happened during the Troubles. We have nothing to hide; we want to see the truth. Members should unite to have a total truth recovery mechanism. All parties, in particular Sinn Féin, should support that.
Both the DUP and Sinn Féin are selective about the truth and criticising paramilitary activity. If a UDA demonstration had taken place, Sinn Féin would certainly have criticised it. If it had been a UVF or a DUP demonstration, Sinn Féin would have criticised it. Any form of paramilitary display is to be condemned. Gerry Adams referred to it as a piece of street theatre, but those who witnessed it and saw it on television did not see it like that.
They found it frightening and intimidating, and did not regard it as theatre.
I have witnessed Orange marches passing the Ardoyne shops: is that supposed to be street theatre? Could someone describe such a march, with its terrible sectarian overtones, as street theatre? It certainly is not, and to describe the march for truth as street theatre is misrepresentative. It was triumphalist and intimidatory and, in effect, it perverted rather than discovered the truth. It was totally wrong.
Town centres, and indeed towns and villages, should be shared spaces. Society has no room for paramilitary displays or anything similar. People must genuinely share the open or common spaces, and no one should be selective in the condemnation of those who transgress. Everyone should be supportive of a shared society; part of that involves being tolerant of free expression. However, there are limits to the way in which people should express themselves. Those who go out of their way to intimidate or express any form of paramilitarism do not serve the whole community well.
I propose the amendment, because it does away with the selectivity of the DUP motion, draws attention to the need for genuine sharing in society and condemns all forms of paramilitarism.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat. I oppose the motion and support the amendment.
Belfast city centre should be a shared space for everyone, including republicans and nationalists. I remember being part of a group of women, from Belfast and beyond, who gathered on international women’s day, 8 March, in 1991. The RUC and the British Army prevented us from holding a rally at Belfast City Hall. We were not marching past the homes of loyalists or unionists who did not want us to be there. We were simply seeking the right to hold a rally at the City Hall to mark international women’s day, but a military barricade prevented us from doing so. However, we returned time and time again and, on 25 July 1991, we were able to hold the rally at Belfast City Hall.
On 12 August 2007, I was proud to take part in the march and rally for truth at Belfast City Hall and honoured to be asked to chair it. It was organised to draw attention to collusion and British state violence, a policy that resulted in many thousands of victims being killed, injured or bereaved, and to highlight the administrative and institutional cover-up by the British Government and their state agencies. Many relatives who lost loved ones carried photographs of their dead relations that day and, as has been mentioned, there were several pieces of street theatre.
The street theatre portrayed armed RUC men, UDR men and British Army personnel who were linked to armed loyalists. There were also images of the Force Research Unit and former members of the British Cabinet to illustrate the extent and the level of the institutional state violence and collusion.
Today, it would have been more productive to discuss and advance the serious issues of collusion and truth to help all the families whose loved ones died as a result of the conflict.
Collusion existed as long as the conflict itself. It was not the act of renegades or a few bad apples, as some people would have us believe: it was an integral element in the armoury of the British military, which was financed and sanctioned by successive British Governments. Collusion was at the very heart of British state policy in Ireland and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of Irish citizens. Their families have as much right to pursue the truth about the murder of their loved ones as anyone else. It has been argued by some today that there was republican collusion because there were British agents in the IRA. At the march, our party leader stated clearly that this dimension of British strategy should also be investigated.
I object, as do many relatives, to any notion that there is a hierarchy of victims and that some families are more entitled to the truth than others, or that some relatives are less deserving than others, simply because of the circumstances surrounding the deaths. No one should be treated as a second-class citizen. Over the years, there have been many examples of relatives and relatives’ organisations being insulted and demonised by those who speak on behalf of political parties, because they dare to seek the truth about how their loved ones died. The dignity with which those families have conducted their campaign to uncover the truth, and the determination that they have shown when political representatives have attempted to trivialise that campaign by engaging in the politics of denial, must be commended.
In my constituency of West Belfast, the Power family’s son Michael was gunned down in front of his young daughter as he travelled home from Sunday mass — a victim of collusion — and the Hanna family’s daughter Philomena was shot dead at work. Those families and hundreds more like them have every right to march for truth and to hold photographs of their loved ones at the City Hall. It is wrong to have a hierarchy of victims. Families of all victims of the conflict deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. We should not fear the truth. Those families are determined to pursue the truth, and Sinn Féin is determined to help them in that campaign, even though it may take a long time. If we are to build a society based on equality and respect for all, it is important to deal with the difficult issues —
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is almost up.
Ms J McCann: — and looking after the rights of all victims and their families in an inclusive way must be part of that. No one in the Chamber or outside should fear the truth.
Mr Kennedy: I thank the proposers of the motion for bringing this matter before the Assembly. The march for truth rally — as it was optimistically and euphemistically called — of Sunday 12 August had Sinn Fein’s mucky paws all over it, both in promoting it and in attending it. The march was something of a fancy-dress party, but with menace. Individuals posed as IRA men — presumably no acting required there then — and there were other types of dressing up, described by one leading Sinn Féin MLA as “street theatre and pageantry”. It was not so much a jamboree, as a ghoulish gathering. Some witnesses felt threatened by the actions of those involved in the parade, including a constituent of mine who is a leading campaigner on behalf of innocent victims. He was verbally abused by many so-called street artists.
It is interesting to compare the behaviour patterns of the organisers and protesters with a code of conduct handed down by that august body, the Parades Commission, in 2006. On behaviour, the code states that people should:
“behave with due regard for the rights, traditions and feelings of others in the vicinity;
refrain from using words or behaviour which could reasonably be perceived as being intentionally sectarian, provocative, threatening, abusive, insulting or lewd;”
On dress, the code states:
“No paramilitary-style clothing is to be worn at any time during a public procession.”
On flags, the code states:
“Flags and other displays often have a legitimate historical significance, but in no circumstances should such items relating to a proscribed organisation be displayed.”
Well done the Parades Commission. We can add to those flagrant abuses of the code of conduct, the charge that those present were simply engaged in the glorification of terrorism.
The march for truth is symptomatic of the hole that Sinn Féin has dug itself into over parades. Although the strategy of using political street protests against Loyal Order parades, which Sinn Féin developed in the late 1990s, was initially declared successful, it is now working disastrously against Sinn Féin. The genie is out of the lamp, and history confirms that it is hard — if not well nigh impossible — to get the genie back in.
In the era of a bright and shared future for all, we are left with the ugly and unattractive expressions of republican street theatre and with gridlock —
Mr McCausland: Will the Member give way?
Mr Kennedy: Yes, but briefly.
Mr McCausland: Will the Member agree that Sinn Féin has made no attempt to defend itself against the accusations of paramilitary symbolism?
Mr Speaker: A Member who gives way and who has spoken for less than five minutes has an extra minute added on.
Mr Kennedy: Thank you for your kindness, Mr Speaker; you are a very generous man.
We are left with the ugly and unattractive expressions of republican street theatre, in addition to gridlock and impasse at important locations such as the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, where it is abundantly clear that Sinn Féin has lost control locally of key individuals.
Sinn Féin needs urgently to rethink how its protests affect its public image and to try to find an urgent resolution to the issue of Drumcree, which — if left unresolved — will continue to fester and eat away at political stability in Northern Ireland. I support the motion.
Mrs Long: It is convention to thank Members for bringing matters to the Floor for debate. However, on this occasion I will refrain from doing so, as I suspect — judging by the contributions so far — that it is unlikely to be an edifying, uplifting, or enlightening episode. That judgement is based on my experience of similar debates in Belfast City Hall, which are the political equivalent of poking a dog with a stick — more designed for a reaction than delivering progress. Such baiting across the Chamber does the Assembly very little justice, and more importantly does no justice to the community outside.
Depictions or glorification of any illegal paramilitary or terrorist activity are deplorable, and I have no difficulty in stating that. Therefore I have no difficulty with the wording of the motion, except that it is an attempt to deal with a complex issue on a purely selective basis. Selectivity on parades or the past is neither helpful nor constructive; it is more likely to damage than advance the prospects for a peaceful future.
It is good practice during a debate to respond to comments from other Members, but again I will refrain from doing that as it would not be productive. I will try to focus on the wording of the motion and the amendment, which refer to the responsibility of the Parades Commission and the PSNI. The primary responsibility for the tone and conduct of any parade lies with the organisers, whether they are political groups, Loyal Orders or any other grouping. Organisers must show respect not just to those involved in a parade but to those who are not. The rights to assemble, march and demonstrate are not unqualified — they must be exercised responsibly and with respect.
Both the motion and the amendment refer to shared space. If we really want to create stability in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland, we need to share more than just space.
We must share a commitment to work together for a better future. That requires people to be measured in how — not whether — they raise issues in the Chamber or outside it. If Members in the Chamber — and people outside it — want to find ways of inflaming tension through provocative displays and parades or through provocative debates in the Chamber, we can do that. However, the question is not whether we can, but whether we should.
For the sake of the community, Members must focus on trying to move things forward, rather than back. If we are going to debate the difficult issues, let us do so in a productive and constructive manner, rather than the manner in which we are doing it today, and the manner in which it was done in August. I support the amendment.
Mr Newton: It will come as no surprise that I support the motion. I am surprised at the attitude of the SDLP in tabling the amendment, because a similar — almost exactly the same — motion was debated in Belfast City Council some months ago, when the SDLP did not take part in the debate or vote on it; its members abstained. That suggests — as one of my colleagues said — that the SDLP is selective in how it approaches issues.
In proposing the amendment, Alban Maginness said that there was a need for grown-up politics in the House, and I agree with him. However, he misled the House through his comments about the attitude of unionist members of district policing partnerships to the very serious rioting that happened two years ago in north Belfast, and which spread to the east of the city. At one stage, 700 young men and women were rioting on the Albertbridge Road. He referred to unionists vacating their seats on the DPPs, and commented that that was a negative reaction.
Had that not happened, I believe that the rioting would have been worse, because the withdrawals from the DPPs acted as a steam valve releasing pressure. After the unionists vacated their seats, intensive work was done with the police to resolve the situation, and the conditions were created in which the unionist community felt comfortable and elected representatives were prepared to, again, play a positive role in DPPs.
Senior Sinn Féin figures have mentioned street theatre, but that is similar to how Michael Stone described his actions when he attempted to enter this Building, and I do not think that anyone regarded his actions as street theatre.
Mrs Long spoke on behalf of the Alliance Party in the debate. It is not so long ago that an incident occurred at a bonfire site in the east of the city, when masked men appeared at an event that was supported by Belfast City Council. There was extensive debate in the Belfast City Council chamber as to whether that activity on the eleventh night — by men dressed in paramilitary uniform — should be condemned. Ultimately, the community was condemned because the Alliance Party was involved in removing funding for the Twelfth celebration bonfire for the subsequent year. One cannot have it both ways.
There never was a march for truth. If ever an event was misnamed, it was that march into the centre of Belfast. The march was riddled with duplicity and deceit. When Gerry Adams spoke about truth, there was only one truth he was concerned with. He failed to mention the hundreds of innocent Roman Catholic people who were murdered by the IRA; the thousands of innocent people who were injured by republican thugs, and the millions of pounds worth of damage that the republican campaign did to the economy of Northern Ireland. He did not make one mention of the businessmen who were contributing, and would have continued contributing through inward investment, but who were driven away from the doors of the job-creation agencies of Northern Ireland.
One would expect those with a unionist perspective to view the march as a shameful event, but even neutral observers — foreigners visiting Northern Ireland — were concerned at the presence of some of the people to whom my colleague Nelson McCausland referred. The real purpose of the rally was to assuage the concerns of Sinn Féin followers who are finding it difficult to live with the political realities of today
Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. First, the House should consider the issue in a cool and collected way. Although the motion may not be welcomed as one of the more beneficial aspects of debating in the Chamber, and while there are probably better things that we could do, it is useful in helping Members to focus on the difficult issues and how those can be managed in the future.
I agree with the idea that the Assembly believes that Belfast city centre should be a shared space. Having taken part in the civil rights marches 40 years ago, I share the idea that town centres should be shared spaces that are open to everyone. On many occasions, I was battered out of town centres, such as in Dungannon, by the RUC.
Mr Storey: Given the fact that the Member is admitting that he was in the civil rights movement and was engaged in other things, would he tell the House if he was ever a member of the IRA?
Mr Speaker: The Member may take an extra minute.
Mr Molloy: Thank you for the extra minute. The shared space that the civil rights movement tried to create in Dungannon but was battered out of, led to the situation in which we were trying to gain political control.
The imagery used in the motion is that of RUC men, UDR men, those involved in undercover operations in collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, and the Glenanne gang. All of those were very clearly identified. In some cases, they were in makeshift RUC and UDR land rovers. If that is the DUP’s impression of terrorists, then it is what we have seen for the past 30 years on the Falls Road. I am surprised that the DUP is so annoyed at seeing the imagery of the British Army back on the Falls Road. Surely, that should not annoy unionists.
Mr Kennedy: Will the Member give way?
Mr Molloy: No, I will not give way again.
The parade was about the truth. If Mr Storey and others are calling on the British Government to tell the truth about collusion, and the activities of the British Army and the RUC in undercover operations, I am quite willing to go along with the DUP and demand that same explanation. The march was about the victims of state violence and collusion, who have come through the past 30 to 40 years of conflict, coming on to the street to hear the truth exposed. They wanted the truth about what happened to their loved ones, and that applies to RUC victims, UDR victims and loyalist victims, because Gerry Adams addressed all the victims and said that he wanted truth for all victims. He was not selective.
The families wanted to know why their loved ones were victims; why they were shot; why they were murdered, and why they were murdered by the Glenanne gang. There was a person who wanted to know the role of the British Army, the British Government, the Irish Government and the gardaí in the collusion with the Glenanne gang over the Dublin/Monaghan bombings.
As so many people seem to have been observing the parade, it might have been worthwhile if they had actually listened to what was being said. Perhaps it reflects more on them that they did not.
Street theatre has an important role to play. We should lighten up a bit. The shared future in Belfast and other city and town centres should mean a shared future for everyone, in which everyone can present their case.
Pageantry contains violence. The Scarva sham fight involves violence, with men fighting with swords and pretending to kill one another. Is that not an example of violence? Is that not the same situation? The families of victims from the murder triangle on the march were looking to discover the truth about RUC men who were involved in collusion with loyalist paramilitaries in that area.
Yes, I want to see the truth come out, and for it to be dealt with. Mr Kennedy talked about fancy dress. Many nationalists and republicans perceive some of the activities in which he is involved, such as band parades, to be just a bit of fancy dress. Everyone’s perception of what others do is very much an issue of fancy dress, and perhaps Mr Kennedy knows more about fancy dress than I do.
Mr Kennedy: Will the Member give way?
Mr Molloy: Perhaps when he is talking to —
Mr Kennedy: Will the Member give way?
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member should not persist.
Mr Molloy: When he is talking to the South Down Defenders and beating the drum along with them — he can only beat one drum at a time, I know — he should take into account the imagery that he sends out to the nationalist community.
I welcome the comparison that Mr Maginness from the SDLP drew between the IRA and the British Army during the conflict between the Irish Republican Army and the British Government. Unionists must be careful in their attempts to demoralise by simply calling all the victims “those who were involved in terrorism”. That is their way of dealing with the situation. Unionists should look at how the image of calling the IRA volunteers “terrorists” comes across in other parts of the world.
I am open to the idea that prison wardens, the RUC, the British Army and others were let down and betrayed by the Government that they thought they were supporting, and that the Government ran away and abandoned them. I accept that unionists want to know the truth about all that, and I support them in that. However, instead of complaining about the fact that a march was taking place in Belfast on 12 August 2007 — three days after the anniversary of internment — people came out demanding to know the truth of what happened, and I welcome that. Go raibh maith agat.
Lord Browne: As a humble Back-Bencher, I support the motion that stands in my name and in the name of my three party colleagues. Rather than be perceived as a provocative attempt to stir up tension or ill feeling, I hope that the motion will be seen as a measured and appropriate reflection of the horror and disgust that rightfully emerged following the Sinn Féin-sponsored so-called march for truth.
Terrorism has no place in our society, nor has the petty glorification of the sordid deeds of our past, especially if that glorification is an attempt to shore up Sinn Féin support among an outdated, defeated bunch of despots and retired revolutionaries. The parade was a pathetic, unwarranted and unnecessarily hostile display — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Lord Browne: — of the worst elements in our society, and one that the Chamber should unite against today. Unfortunately, although some may have seen the dangers attached to such a parade, those in the Parades Commission and the PSNI seemed to be oblivious to the divisive effect that such a display could have. If one were to trawl through the Parades Commission website, one would see that almost every parade that is organised by the Loyal Orders that enters any shared space in Belfast, or potentially passes by a predominately nationalist area, is marked “contentious”. In contrast, the only parade marked “contentious” on 12 August was the national H-Block committee feeder parade from my constituency of East Belfast. That was despite the fact that each of the parades contained well known IRA-associated bands. As we have heard, those bands had images of terrorists, criminals and murderers on their drum skins.
The fact that the Parades Commission failed even to consider the potential contention that such elements could cause raises serious questions about its capability and impartiality on such matters. Thank goodness that we now have a strategic review of parades and, it is to be hoped, a more appropriate method of dealing with every public procession in Northern Ireland.
The Parades Commission cannot prohibit parades or circumvent human rights; however, it can use its powers to restrict a parade to the same effect — it does so in the unionist community all the time. For it to not even recognise the need to consider restrictions for every section of that parade, apart from the contingent from the Short Strand, is as inexcusable as it is inexplicable.
Consider the flip side for a moment. When any reference is made during Loyal Order parades to the historical UVF or the sacrifice of the 36th Division at the Somme, members of Sinn Féin wax lyrical about the sensitivities of the victims of the Troubles and the potential for adverse community relations.
Mr Spratt: Will the Member agree that difficulties within republicanism as a result of recent Sinn Féin U-turns have obviously panicked that party into portraying itself as hard line in order to quell discontent? Sinn Féin has entered the Assembly, gleefully administers British rule, accepts the British judicial system and has pledged its support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Lord Browne: I thank the Member for South Belfast for that contribution. This parade was simply an attempt to shore up Sinn Féin’s support.
When the highly professional Ulster Volunteer Flute Band from east Belfast took part in a private function in Belfast City Hall on 11 July, as part of the Orange Order’s Orangefest celebration, the Member for West Belfast Paul Maskey did everything in his power to ensure that the event did not proceed. He continues to raise the matter in the council, describing it as an unacceptable event in the shared space of the City Hall. However, when masked men in paramilitary uniforms took to the streets of Belfast city centre in some misplaced search for the truth, his brother the Member for South Belfast refused to see any problem.
As Members have heard, Sinn Féin regards the whole parade as street theatre — something that everyone could enjoy. To contrast such a gratuitous display with a thoughtful stage drama such as ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’ beggars belief.
If Belfast City Hall cannot accommodate a skilled flute band in a private function which commemorates the sacrifice of those who offered us the freedoms of association and speech that Sinn Féin so easily abuses, Belfast’s city streets certainly should not play host to masked gun-toting terrorists and the supporters of a wicked and intolerable past.
I commend the motion to the House, and I hope that Members send a clear, unamended message to those who have yet to move on that the glorification of terrorism is not — and will not be — acceptable in our society.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. This motion, whatever the intention, is a complete and utter waste of time. Members have no power over the Parades Commission. I thought that the DUP, and members of the Orange Order within the DUP, did not talk to the Parades Commission. I am delighted to hear that they are now engaging with it. The Parades Commission is not at the top of my Christmas card list either, but I am glad to see the engagement. If members of the DUP have issues relating to that parade, they must bring them to the Parades Commission. There is no point in bringing those issues to this Chamber.
Mr McCausland: Will the Member give way?
Mr O’Dowd: I will not.
We have no powers over the PSNI — because, apparently, the DUP is not ready. In any case, members of the DUP went to the PSNI and lodged a complaint. No one, to the best of my knowledge, has been questioned about any offence at that parade, and it is worth noting that no arrests were made on the day, even though thousands upon thousands of people were on the streets. The number of PSNI officers required to marshal the parade was minimal, and none of them was wearing body armour or riot gear — just short-sleeved shirts on a nice Sunday afternoon, watching the parade pass. The DUP has made its complaint to the PSNI — the PSNI can deal with it.
It is also worth noting that there has been no ministerial response. What is the point of tabling a motion in an Assembly that has no powers to deal with the issues raised? Alban Maginness has suggested reasons why the motion was tabled, and I agree with most of them.
Perhaps the media attention that followed the debate in Belfast City Council excited some of my colleagues on the opposite Benches. It took four Members from Belfast to sign the motion, some of whom represent the most deprived wards in Belfast. However, I will return to that issue.
The proposers of the motion felt so strongly that the most important thing that happened during the summer was a peaceful parade that they wanted to debate it twice. They could have debated the attempted murder of a police officer on 21 July — but no, loyalists were responsible for that. They could have debated rioting in Bangor, during which there was an attempt to murder PSNI officers — but no, they will not debate that. They could have debated the statement by a senior Ulster Defence Association member that loyalists would no longer marshal Orange Order parades — but no, they will not debate that either.
Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Are Members allowed to engage in what might be called Chamber theatre during a debate?
Mr Speaker: I am aware that some Members have been using visual aids in the Chamber. It is not right to use visual aids in the Chamber at any time.
Mr Kennedy: Apologise.
Mr O’Dowd: Nelson has a folder full of photographs.
Mr Speaker: Let me be clear; the rule applies to all Members.
Mr O’Dowd: I had better not crumple my last piece of paper in case I offend sensitive Members. The proposers of the motion could also debate loyalist bonfires. The names of young Catholic children who died of heart attacks and other ailments were attached to a bonfire. When the father of one of the children removed them, his house was attacked by a loyalist mob — but no, they will not discuss that issue either. Instead, they choose to debate a peaceful parade through the streets of Belfast for no other reason than to gain some headlines. However, I suspect that the media might be as bored with this matter as everyone else is.
Do the proposers from North and East Belfast have nothing better to do with their time? Do they honestly believe that their constituents sent them here to discuss this issue? North Belfast has some of the most deprived wards in Ireland. Such levels of unemployment and deprivation must be rectified, and the Assembly is charged with rectifying them. That is something that we can deal with.
In East Belfast, the heart of manufacturing industry —
Mr Storey: Youse bombed it.
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Mr O’Dowd: — the manufacturing industry has collapsed. Would Members not better spend their time doing something about that? I know that Sammy Wilson skips between east Belfast and Larne. Larne has its own problems. Is there nothing going on in Larne that would be a better subject for debate in the Assembly?
No decision can result from this debate; there will be no ministerial response. If Members are serious about wanting a result, it will not happen today.
The debate and the parade are really about collusion, and about the importation of guns to loyalist paramilitaries by the British state. Those guns are now pointing at the unionist community. Those same guns are being used in the loyalist feud and have killed more than 25 Protestants since the DUP came to power. What is the DUP doing about that? Can we debate that?
If we ever reach the truth, as my colleague Francie Molloy said, the truth about the origin of those weapons will come out; the truth about why they are still being held will come out, and they will no longer be pointed at the unionist community. Is that not an important issue?
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is almost up.
Mr O’Dowd: I support the amendment.
Mr Attwood: In taking part in the debate, I am mindful of Naomi Long’s health warning: what progress will come from it? I will try to answer that question.
Although I do not support the motion, I do not agree with John O’Dowd’s statement that it is an utter waste of time. Issues about victims and a shared society are the business of the Assembly, particularly the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, which is in the hands of the DUP and Sinn Féin. Mr O’Dowd was wrong to make that assertion, just as the DUP was wrong to make the assertions that are contained in the motion.
This debate should be about the issue of truth. Members should be discussing — and I hope that we will have the opportunity to do so soon — what Denis Bradley, Lord Eames and others are currently doing in respect of dealing with the past. They carry a very difficult and heavy burden.
The SDLP fears that, if Members do not get their heads round the issue of the truth of the past, it will come back in our faces. There are elements in unionism who do not want the truth about the RUC to come out. There are also elements in the British Establishment who do not want the truth about MI5 and the British Army to come out, and there are definitely elements in loyalism and republicanism who do not want the truth of what they did for 35 years to come out.
If those elements in the British system, unionism, republicanism and loyalism converge at the same time, for the same end — namely, that they do not want the truth of their past to come out — Lord Eames and Denis Bradley will be ill served, and the community will be ill served by the fact that the truth will be buried. That is a realistic and possible scenario. We know that, because the IRA and the British Government conspired and colluded to bring about that outcome two and a half years ago in their proposals regarding the on-the-runs and state killings. That was an attempt to bury the truth of the past.
Jennifer McCann said that no one should be treated as a second-class citizen. It was her party and the British Government who worked together to create a system of justice that was second class in respect of dealing with the on-the-runs and state killings. Therefore, if Jennifer McCann wants to talk about no one being treated as a second-class citizen, her party should not produce, for people in the North, a second-class system of justice regarding the on-the-runs and state killings.
In one way I welcome the debate, because it appears that elements in the DUP recognise that good authority in the North needs to be upheld. That is implicit in the statement calling on the PSNI and the Parades Commission to ensure that the type of parade that took place on 12 August 2007 never happens again. That statement, for what it is worth, attempts to ensure that good authority in the North is upheld. I hope that the DUP will follow through with that by recognising, and urging everybody to recognise, the authority of the current Parades Commission.
There is an ongoing review of the future of parades. That review is in real danger of trying to replace the architecture that exists around parades at the moment with another version of political fixes between the big political parties in the North. My sense is that the review will report to the Assembly, and to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, that if Members think that the Parades Commission is not good enough, the authority regarding parades should be addressed by the politicians working together. That is a recipe for conflict and chaos in the future.
I urge the DUP to view the Parades Commission in a new light and recognise that that body has good authority, regardless of the differences that there have been in the past. The DUP should embrace the Parades Commission now, rather than try to create some political fix, through the Ashdown review, regarding parades in the future.
I also urge the Ulster Unionists to accept the amendment. The reason why it should be accepted is that Alban Maginness has outlined the right principles, to do the right thing, at the right time for the Assembly as regards elements of that obnoxious parade organised by republicans last August in this city.
Mr S Wilson: The Alliance Party has accused the DUP of proposing the motion only because we wanted to poke the dog with a stick. I assure the Member for East Belfast Naomi Long that it is not a case of poking the dog with a stick — the motion was designed to bash the dog on the head.
Unfortunately, and for far too long, Sinn Féin has been allowed to get away with hypocrisy, double standards and lecturing —
Mr Molloy: Will the Member give way?
Mr S Wilson: I will not give way now but I might later.
For too long, Sinn Féin has been able to lecture everyone else about standards of parading, about what others should do, and about respecting other people. However, when Sinn Féin Members are put to the test, they totally ignore the sensitivities of people whose relatives were killed by terrorists in the past 30 years. As Mr Kennedy, a Member for Newry and Armagh, pointed out in his excellent speech, Sinn Féin totally ignores the strictures of the Parades Commission, which it elevates and to which it runs on occasion in order to have restrictions placed on unionist and loyalist parades across Northern Ireland. The motion is timely, not just because Back-Benchers want to let off a bit of steam, but because this is a real issue and because Sinn Féin’s hypocrisy must be addressed.
Members have heard lame excuses from Sinn Féin today. The party tells unionist Members that they should not worry about the parade; and asks why they are dancing about in agitation; and deems it only a piece of street theatre, or, as Mr Kennedy pointed out, a Sinn Féin fancy-dress party. Sinn Féin claims that it was only acting out what had happened in the past — Sinn Féin actors were dressed up as members of the RUC, the UDR, the British Army, and IRA terrorists. Next, we will hear that Sinn Féin is going to the Arts Council for a grant, or even demanding an Oscar for those who acted. Mr Kennedy said to me that he knew who was acting out the part of the IRA informer who was colluding: he was the boy who won the Brit award in the whole show. [Laughter.]
We are being sold the line that we should be pleased that Sinn Féin is bringing street theatre into Belfast city centre on a sunny Sunday afternoon. However, had an Orange parade been marching down the Newtownards Road or the Albertbridge Road with even so much as a flag depicting the symbol of a paramilitary organisation, Sinn Féin agitators from Short Strand would have been down to the Parades Commission and round at Mountpottinger police station whingeing for the next year to ensure that that parade is never allowed again.
It is right that the House should debate the motion —
Mrs Long: Will the Member give way?
Mr S Wilson: I am more than happy to give way now.
Mrs Long: Will the Member clarify that he does not defend the display of loyalist paramilitary symbols in Orange Order parades? One might be confused about that, given the terms in which he has spoken.
Mr S Wilson: I never gave the impression that I would defend such a thing. However, since the Member wants clarification, I would not defend it. I made that clear.
However, it seems that the standards that apply on the other side of the Chamber do not apply to this side. It appears that we should be prepared somehow to accept Sinn Féin behaving in such a way in Belfast city centre, regardless of the offence that it causes and regardless of the message that it sends out.
I am touched at Sinn Féin’s concern for the working-class people of east Belfast, north Belfast and Larne. Mind you, that does not stop some of its agitators in front-line areas of north Belfast. This morning, I drove down the Limestone Road to avoid the traffic jams and saw the large number of houses that have their windows blocked and roofs destroyed. They were good houses that might have been used to meet the housing shortage in north Belfast, but they were destroyed because republican agitators do not care too much about the living conditions of poor working-class Protestants who live in that area; rather, they torture them nightly.
We are told that Sinn Féin is concerned that we are wasting time in the debate and failing to debate issues that affect directly people in north, west or south Belfast or Larne.
The fact is that this issue affects those people — and Sinn Féin’s attitude to republican violence affects those people. In the Assembly, Members debate many issues over which they have no control but on which they want to give their views. Recently, Sinn Féin Members tabled a motion on tax-raising powers, which rest with Westminster. Nevertheless, the Assembly wanted to inform the Government at Westminster of its views. Equally, today’s debate gives Members an opportunity to inform the police and the Parades Commission of their thoughts and what they believe needs to be done about provocative parades. The debate is not a waste of time: it raises a legitimate issue and is acceptable to the Assembly.
The reason that Sinn Féin Members did not want the debate to take place was that the only excuse they could give was that the parade was a piece of theatre and not a coat-trailing exercise through the centre of Belfast. Sinn Féin Members cannot answer the charge that their attitude towards unionist parades is hypocritical, or that they claim to support non-violence but still hanker after those who committed violence for the past 30 years. This debate is an embarrassment to them, and all they can do is have the brass neck to stand up and make paltry excuses.
Mr O’Dowd: During my contribution, I said we would not resolve the issue in here today. There is one way to resolve the issue: those who are concerned about the parade could sit down with the organisers and thrash out the issues in order to work towards having a parade, with concerns addressed, for next year.
Mr S Wilson: I thank the Member for his intervention. However, I do not think that there is much to discuss in order to fix the situation. The issues have been examined already: bands with drum skins depicting gunmen, and gunmen marching down the street in full regalia. Those types of things could be addressed easily and without people on either side sitting down together. The point of having the Assembly debate is that republicans can hear unionist concerns first-hand.
The Parades Commission knows what it has to do, and the police know what they have to do. It is important that the issues have been raised during the debate so that we do not have a repeat of the situation.
In closing, the DUP does not believe that the SDLP amendment is necessary. Other Members and I have made it clear that what we say about the parade in question applies to other parades as well. The motion relates to a specific event that occurred over the summer period. The problem with the SDLP’s approach is that while they are prepared to condemn with words what they have seen Sinn Féin do in Belfast city centre on 12 August, they are not prepared to march through the lobbies to condemn it. Therefore, their motion is an attempt to run away.
In tabling the amendment, SDLP Members are running away from their responsibility to point the finger of blame at people who involved themselves in an obscene march on 12 August.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 31; Noes 41.
Mr Attwood, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Dallat, Mr Durkan, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr A Maginness, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McElduff, Mr McGlone, Mr McHugh, Mr Molloy, Mr Neeson, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr P J Bradley and Mr O’Loan.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Miss McIlveen and Mr Spratt.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly believes that Belfast City Centre should be a shared space; deplores the Sinn Fein sponsored parade to the City Hall on Sunday, 12th August 2007, which involved depictions of I.R.A terrorists and participants carrying guns; and calls on the PSNI and the Parades Commission to ensure that this never happens again.
Adjourned at 5.47 pm.