Transport Sectoral Format

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 30th June 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP 10:30 am, 30th June 2009

I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that he wishes to make a statement about the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meeting in transport sectoral format.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I will make a report on road safety issues that were discussed at the sixth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in the transport sectoral format, which was held in the Curran Court Hotel, Larne on Friday 3 April 2009.

The meeting was attended by Conor Murphy MP MLA, Minister for Regional Development, and Mr Noel Dempsey TD, Minister for Transport in the Republic of Ireland. Minister Murphy reported to the Assembly on 28 April on the strategic transport issues that were discussed at the meeting.

The Council noted the progress that was achieved in reducing road deaths in 2008 on both sides of the border. In both cases, the number of road deaths was the lowest on record. It was also noted, however, that Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic still lagged someway behind the countries in Europe with the least fatalities per head of population, and we agreed that efforts to maintain progress must continue.

We noted the progress towards achieving mutual recognition of driving disqualifications and agreed that a project plan should be developed to achieve mutual recognition of penalty points within an agreed time frame. We also noted that co-operation on advertising and publicity was continuing, with the sharing of knowledge, experience and, where possible, costs. The Council also agreed that we should seek to co-ordinate our efforts to utilise new technology for advertising and publicity purposes. We agreed that progress on developing and delivering a strategic approach to improving road safety on both sides of the border should continue and that it would be monitored at ministerial level. Furthermore, it was agreed that the results of current research projects, a number of which are under way in both jurisdictions, should be shared.

The question of introducing lower blood:alcohol limits for drivers is under consideration here and in the Republic, and we agreed to consider whether there should be scope to develop a co-ordinated approach.

I am happy to take any questions on the statement. It was a worthwhile meeting, and progress has been made on both sides.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. The Minister mentioned the blood:alcohol limits. The introduction of random breath tests to combat drink-driving is one measure that has been fairly successful in the Irish Republic. Is the introduction of random breath tests in Northern Ireland being considered?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

We discussed the effectiveness of random breath-testing. The Irish Republic has adopted it as a method of trying to reduce drink-driving levels, and it is one area in which we can learn from them. As I made clear in an earlier statement to the House in which I talked about reducing alcohol levels, we will consider whether random breath-testing should be introduced as part of legislation.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome the reduction in the number of road deaths across the island, but even one road death a year is too many.

How long will it take to achieve mutual recognition of driving disqualifications? I was interested in the Minister’s comments about using new technology. What technology will be utilised? Will it be the Internet or social networking websites?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

On the issue of mutual recognition of driving disqualifications, outside of the NMSC, one of the first meetings that I had here in Stormont was with Westminster’s Minister for Transport and the Republic’s Minister for Transport. That meeting was held in June or early July of last year.

Two steps must be taken in order to achieve mutual recognition of driving disqualifications. First, mutual recognition of driving disqualifications is needed for Northern Ireland and GB. That work is almost completed. Secondly, that same work must be undertaken between the UK and the Irish Republic. Ministers have also been working on that issue, and after meeting with Noel Dempsey in Larne in April, I held a further meeting with the UK Transport Minister at Westminster some four weeks ago. I can report that good progress has been made in that area.

It was hoped that an announcement would be made on that issue before the end of June, but given that today is the last day of June, there may be some delay in its release. However, there is recognition on both sides that people who are disqualified in Northern Ireland cannot be allowed to drive in the Republic of Ireland, and vice versa. Some legal difficulties arise in the Republic with respect to that, but we are working towards resolving them.

As far as the use of technology is concerned, several initiatives have been undertaken. I am a bit of a technophobe myself, so I hope that I name the technology correctly. The Department has used Bluetooth technology to send text messages to people in pubs to remind them that if they are drinking alcohol that they should not drive. Another initiative that the Department has introduced is the insertion of road safety messages in racing games for games consoles, because often those who will drive fast will play those games. Therefore, the Department has sought to use new technology in different ways, and anything that the Department has employed here will be examined by the authorities in the Republic, and vice versa.

Photo of Danny Kinahan Danny Kinahan UUP 10:45 am, 30th June 2009

I also welcome the Minister’s statement, and all efforts to limit road traffic accidents.

I note that the Minister’s statement refers to a meeting that took place on 3 April 2009. Does the Minister accept that he should report back to the Assembly as soon as possible, and that it is almost impossible for the House to provide any scrutiny on a meeting that occurred three months ago? Will he explain the reason for that delay to the House?

Furthermore, will he provide more detail on ongoing research projects, which he highlighted towards the end of his statement?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The Member is absolutely correct. After all the meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council in which I have been involved, I have tried to report back to the House within two weeks. That has always been done, except in this instance.

Some confusion arose as to whether the Minister for Regional Development was going to report on behalf of us both, but that joint statement did not take place and the timetable subsequently slipped. I accept the Member’s point, and it is important that, when North/South meetings are held, a response be made as quickly as possible to enable the House to provide scrutiny. Therefore, I apologise that my response was not combined with the Minister for Regional Development’s statement on the roads issue.

The Member also asked about research that has been undertaken. In 2009, research has been carried out in the following areas: use of mobile phones while driving; helmet wearing by cyclists and motorcyclists; the use of high-visibility clothing; pedestrian behaviour at traffic lights; wearing of seat belts; speeding rates; and the attitudinal behaviour of Irish road users. All that information is shared between the two jurisdictions, and often the Republic’s findings will be no different to those here, and that prevents a duplication of research.

The Member will know my view on North/South arrangements, but where there is a mutual benefit, it is important for us to work together. By doing so, we can create significant savings to the public purse and make significant progress in dealing with a problem that does not stop at the border. Indeed, as Members from rural areas along the border will know, accidents and death rates tend to be highest in those areas.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I must say that I am unimpressed by the statement and by the three-month delay in issuing it. The Minister might perhaps elaborate on the reasons for that three-month delay and the disagreement between Mr Murphy and himself. Can the Minister outline what efforts are being made and, in particular, what actions are being taken to reduce the number of road fatalities on the island of Ireland? We all recognise that traffic accidents are the main cause of death among the under 25s.

I want to refer specifically to the agreement that a project plan should be developed to achieve mutual recognition of penalty points within an agreed time frame. Can the Minister elaborate on what the time frame will be? The statement is largely inspirational, and although we are all very much aware of the Minister’s comments on the North/South Ministerial Council, it is nonetheless one of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, and he has no choice but to implement its decisions.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order. I call the Minister.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I am glad that the Member finds me inspirational; I think that she might have meant to say aspirational.

If the Member had listened a bit more closely, she would have heard me giving the explanations that she has asked for. I made it clear that a statement should have been made before today. I explained why that did not happen, and I think that I even apologised that it was not made sooner. I do not know what more the Member wants.

The Member asked what is being done to try to reduce road deaths. Perhaps, if she had listened to the rest of my statement, she would have found out. Let me list again the issues that we talked about: joint advertising campaigns; research that will be carried out and shared across the two sides of the border; and the action on mutual recognition of driver disqualification. I will deal with penalty points separately, because that is a longer-term issue.

I also mentioned the ongoing work. Indeed, the Minister for Regional Development, Mr Murphy, pointed out the amount of money that the Irish Republic is prepared to invest in road improvements in Northern Ireland, especially along some of the major routes. One example is the A8 in Larne, which, because it has not been dualled, has experienced difficulties and has been the scene of accidents caused by people overtaking at bad spots. I know that the Members for East Antrim will be reassured that, despite the economic difficulties in the Irish Republic, Mr Dempsey has given an assurance that the money that was promised for those road improvements will be made available. We are also looking at the reduction of drink-drive limits. Had the Member been listening, she would have realised that all that information was in the statement and perhaps she would have heard the answers to her questions.

As far as the mutual recognition of penalty points is concerned, that is a longer-term project. I cannot give a completion date for a number of reasons. There are different methods of allocating penalty points in the two jurisdictions, and, if we are to have mutual recognition of penalty points, they must be applied equally. For example, if one jurisdiction has a harsher regime than another, people should not be disadvantaged by receiving penalty points in one place that they would not receive elsewhere. That requires legislative change; the Northern Ireland Government and the Government in the Republic both accept that work needs to be done on that matter. Indeed, given that there are some differences between the systems in other parts of the United Kingdom, more work probably needs to be done there, too.

We must first identify some of the issues more precisely, and then we will have to make the necessary changes to the legislation and create the necessary legal powers. Again, that is more of a difficulty for the Irish Republic than for us; they have difficulty in sharing some data because of constitutional reasons. Those issues must be addressed as well.

Although I have discussed the matter on three occasions with the Minister for Transport in the Republic and the UK Transport Minister, I cannot see a quick resolution of the situation. However, I recognise the Member’s point, and we should work towards that.

Photo of Brian Wilson Brian Wilson Green

Unfortunately, as Members pointed out, the Minister’s statement is a bit vague and woolly and does not contain much substance. Nevertheless, the Minister has clarified a number of points. I want to talk about the number of deaths on the roads. There is some complacency —

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order, order. The Minister is taking questions. May we have a question, Mr Wilson?

Photo of Brian Wilson Brian Wilson Green

I am sorry; I am coming to the question. There is some complacency about road deaths. The death rate has gone up in border areas and in rural areas, and I am concerned that that trend may continue. What progress has been made to introduce lower blood:alcohol limits? Has there been any success in that area?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Nobody does vague and woolly better than the Member who has just spoken.

We discussed the issue of road deaths in border areas because that is recognised as a problem, especially people driving too fast on roads that are unsuitable for speed. The mutual recognition of driving disqualifications would help. That would mean that people who are disqualified in the Republic could not come into Northern Ireland and drive recklessly, and vice versa. That situation will tighten up.

We also talked about identifying those problematic points along the border to which the police and the guards need to give more constant attention. The issue of the reduction in blood:alcohol limits is out for public consultation. When I launched the proposals, the public reaction was, by and large, very positive. I do not think that there will be any difficulty in getting public approval for the proposals. The legislation will be drafted in the autumn and worked on in Northern Ireland, and I hope that that will work apace with what happens in the Republic.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

Contrary to other Members’ contributions, I welcome the Minister’s statement, which includes many important issues. The Minister referred to road traffic accidents. What is being done to reduce the spate of recent tragic deaths, particularly those involving motorbikes? Minister Conor Murphy was also present at the meeting. What consideration has been given to co-ordination between the Department of the Environment and the Department for Regional Development regarding road safety, given that road conditions are partly responsible for those accidents? Has the Minister any indication of the content of the joint advertising campaign or when it will take place?

The Minister’s statement referred to alcohol, but there is no mention of drugs. Has any consideration been given to that issue?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

We are not anticipating a joint advertising campaign: it is under way. About five weeks ago, a surgeon from Donegal and I launched the “Crashed Lives” advertising campaign in the Long Gallery. The surgeon spoke about his experiences of badly injured patients being admitted to hospital in Donegal. He spoke very movingly about having to break the news to relatives. Some Members attended the launch, and it was a very powerful advertisement. The message must come across that when people drive recklessly on the roads, they not only wreck the lives of those who have been injured but the lives of the families of those who have been injured or killed.

We have undertaken a number of joint advertising campaigns. Of course, the good thing is that the fixed cost of making the advertisement is shared between the authorities in the Republic and those here. That helps to reduce our advertising budget, and it gives us more leverage for the money that we have spent.

When the North West 200 was going on, I launched an advertising campaign that was aimed at making car drivers more aware of motorcyclists. Motorists often almost blame motorcyclists when they hit them. For example, they say that they did not see them coming and that they appeared out of nowhere. It is almost as though it were the motorcyclist’s fault. Recently, my Department also launched an advertising campaign on drug driving. However, all the issues that the Member raised have been addressed through the advertising strategy.

The Minister for Regional Development can answer for himself. Indeed, he has done so; I have heard him speak in the Assembly about the need to improve the state of some minor roads in Northern Ireland. Research has shown that the state of the road fabric itself is one factor that leads to accidents. Many minor roads need a great deal of repair, and the Minister has addressed that on a number of occasions already.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin 11:00 am, 30th June 2009

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis agus as ucht na tuarascála ar an chruinniú ina thoghcheantar féin.

I thank the Minister for his statement on the report of the meeting that took place in his constituency.

A Member:

Are you sure? Did you get that right?

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

Aye.

Does the Minister agree that one contributory factor to confusion and road danger in the border corridor area is the fact that, in the North, speed limits are denoted in miles per hour, whereas in the South, they are denoted in kilometres per hour? Does he agree that there is a case for exploring the merits of having a single, co-ordinated approach and that, perhaps, it is high time for the North to go metric with speed limits?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I know that the Member may like to go metric and that he may be a bit of a Europhile: I do not know, perhaps his party has changed its stance on that. Following his logic, if speed limits in Northern Ireland are in miles per hour, and in the Republic, they are in kilometres per hour, one would expect that people would go slower in the Republic, because, of course, the miles per hour limit is much lower than the kilometres per hour limit. If the Member wishes to know how they can be converted, he should multiply the number of miles per hour by 1·6. I am not sure that the difference is a contributory factor, but I admire the Member’s attempt to try to make us go metric. However, I assure him that I will become a metric martyr before going down that route.

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. I support lowering the drink-driving limit for Northern Ireland, but there is an issue about how a different limit on each side of the border would have an impact on the border towns and counties. Can the Minister assure the House that the changes that we are pioneering in Northern Ireland will not be stalled if they are not replicated in the Irish Republic or even in GB? Are the Irish Republic and GB making noises about lowering their drink-driving limits, and if so, what discussions are taking place on that?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

No, they are not. We will act independently of what happens in GB and the Irish Republic. However, I remind the Member that at the previous NSMC meeting, it was agreed that developing a co-ordinated approach to drink-driving limits should be considered. The Minister in the Republic has given a commitment already to seek to co-ordinate such things and to try to introduce them simultaneously. However, if that is not possible, we in Northern Ireland alone will make the changes.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. In an earlier response, he mentioned the poor state of road maintenance. Does he accept that poor maintenance of heavy goods vehicles in the Republic has associated safety risks? Was that matter discussed at the meeting? If not, why not?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

That issue was not discussed at the meeting, for the simple reason that it was not on the agenda. I am not even sure — I would have to check — whether it is one of the competent issues that can be discussed. A range of issues are prescribed for discussion at North/South Ministerial Council meetings; I am unsure whether that matter is on the list. However, I know that officials from Northern Ireland have discussed it with officials in the Republic. Even if it is not an NMSC issue, there is nothing to stop Ministers discussing such issues one-to-one. I have discussed other issues with the Minister from the Republic. Although the Northern Ireland Act 1998 lays down certain things that can be discussed at the meetings, I can assure the Member that that does not prevent the bilateral discussion of other important issues.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the statement. I note that we still lag behind the best-performing countries in Europe. Given that over the past 40 years more people have lost their lives on the roads than through the Troubles, does the Minister agree that we need meat on the bones rather than an aspirational or inspirational document if we are to honour those families who have lost loved ones, two of whom died in my constituency at the weekend?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I totally agree with the Member. All of us who know families that have lost loved ones on the roads know that the Assembly and the Executive can use such measures to improve the quality of life for people in Northern Ireland. However, I reject the Member’s other point. The road safety strategy is neither inspirational nor aspirational: it contains real, hard targets. I do not want to give the impression that I am complacent about this, but the targets for road deaths, fatalities and injuries in Northern Ireland for 2012 have already been achieved. We are now working on a new strategy that will supersede the current strategy.

However, the document contains hard targets to ensure that vehicles are safe for use on the roads, to reduce deaths and serious injuries, and to target vulnerable groups such as young people, motorcyclists and children on their way to school. The document is not vague and woolly, as other Members have suggested. We set those targets because, unless we do so, it can become, as the Member suggested, an aspiration that may be achieved or may not. The issue is too serious to be dealt with in that way.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP

I welcome the Minister’s statement, which referred to the strategic approach of improving road safety on both sides of the border. Will the Minister advise the House whether there are plans to set up a separate road safety authority in Northern Ireland similar to that in the Republic of Ireland? Moreover, given the large number of deaths on rural roads — and the Minister is aware of the recent deaths in my constituency of Mid Ulster — does he agree that the retention of acute hospitals in rural areas should be considered?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

First, there are no plans to set up a separate road safety authority. Indeed, all the responsibilities of the Road Safety Authority in the Irish Republic fall under a distinct section of the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland. Significant benefits can be brought from having it directly under the control of the Minister; providing that the work is done, it does not matter under what banner it falls.

The Minister of Health is in the Chamber, and I am sure that he heard the Member’s comments on accident and emergency provision in rural areas. I do not wish to intrude on that Minister’s patch.

Photo of Pat Ramsey Pat Ramsey Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his statement. The Member for East Derry John Dallat referred to the deaths of young people on the roads in his constituency. Last week, I attended the funeral of a young man in Derry, 18-year-old Kevin O’Toole. The previous week, I attended the untimely funeral of the McNicholl brother and sister in Loup, outside Magherafelt. There are still horrific circumstances on the streets and roads of Northern Ireland.

Therefore, it is timely that, at lunchtime today, the Assembly’s all-party group on road safety will meet. Previously, the all-party group asked for full reconsider­ation of the funding opportunities for the Road Safety Council of Northern Ireland. I understand that the Committee for the Environment also questioned officials on that.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Please ask a question, Mr Ramsey.

Photo of Pat Ramsey Pat Ramsey Social Democratic and Labour Party

In light of the fact that the Minister has few, if any, days left in office, will he give full reconsideration to providing funding to the Road Safety Council, which carries out sterling work to highlight, promote and advocate road safety?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I thought that I had escaped a session on road safety without the issue of the Road Safety Council being raised. I have gone over that issue time and again in the House and with the Committee for the Environment.

I emphasise once more that the decision to terminate funding for the Road Safety Council was made on the basis of a report that I could not have ignored. I wish that the Member would read that report. It showed that the Road Safety Council did not give vision, inspiration or support to road safety, or the guidance or leadership that was required to justify the money that was being spent on it. Furthermore, the Road Safety Council was so ineffective that it claimed only three quarters of the money to which it was entitled, and it spent 60% of that on administration. That is not how the road safety message should be delivered.

If money is to be spent on road safety, I want to ensure that it is spent effectively and that the message reaches target groups in innovative ways. Some of the money is being spent in the same way as it was spent in the 1950s, despite the fact that lifestyles have moved on. Therefore, it is important that the money will be redirected in innovative ways in the future. I will not reconsider the decision. I can stand over my decision, and that is the end of the story.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I warmly welcome the style, tone and demeanour of the Minister in his embracing of the all-Ireland architecture of the Good Friday Agreement. It really is a wake-up call for all of us that someone who was so suspicious of all-Ireland architecture has been so —

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order. Mr Attwood, this is not a debate about the Good Friday Agreement and the North/South bodies; it is a time for questions to the Minister on his statement. Please ask a question, Mr Attwood.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

My colleague Dolores Kelly asked about the agreed time frame for mutual recognition of driver disqualifications. The Minister knows from his experience on the Policing Board that mutual recognition of disqualifications to enable lateral entry for police officers, North and South, has not happened, nine years after the Patten Report, for legal and technical reasons. That is why an agreed time frame for new laws for mutual recognition of driving disqualifications is so important. Is any time frame in place here and in the Oireachtas that might result in legislation being passed to ensure that that issue is dealt with in much less than nine years?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 11:15 am, 30th June 2009

If we are talking about changed attitudes, I can say from my experience on the Policing Board with the Member that it was nice to see the way in which he joined the board and embraced policing in Northern Ireland, even though he had been reluctant to do so for many years. If he will damn me with faint praise, I will do the same.

My party and I have always made it clear that if there is a way in which to improve governance in Northern Ireland through co-operation with the Government in the Irish Republic or, indeed, the Government in any other part of the British Isles, we will, of course, work with them. I have highlighted some areas in which we can.

On 26 June 2008, I had a meeting at which it was agreed that the Department would prioritise the completion of legislation on procedures that is necessary to deliver mutual recognition of driving disqualifications. The British-Irish Council is also working on that. I have been informed that that has largely been achieved. I am not sure what will happen next. It is expected that formal declarations will be made to the Council of Europe and the European Union in accordance with article 15.4 of the European Convention on Driving Disqualifications. They should be informed by the end of the month. I assume that that will be done.

I am not sure what the process to introduce legislative changes in the Republic is thereafter. I will write to the Member in that regard. I hope that, at least, he can see that progress is being made on the issue.