Northern Ireland Assembly

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 14th February 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. The Minister of Finance and Personnel wishes to make a statement to the House.

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

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome the opportunity to update the Assembly on the outcome of the Executive’s deliberations on how to address the financial consequences of the Irish Government’s decision to materially revise their funding commitment to the A5 and A8 road schemes.

As Members will be aware, the Irish Government had committed to providing a total of £400 million towards the completion of the A5 and A8 road schemes. Nearly all that funding — £378 million — was to be provided in the 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 financial years. The difficult economic circumstances facing our Southern neighbours are well known, and, in that light, the Irish Government have now revised their contribution to £50 million, which will be spread evenly over the 2014-15 and 2015-16 financial years.

The Irish Government’s decision to materially reduce their original contribution clearly left us with no choice but to reconsider how to take forward the capital investment in the affected years. In considering how best to respond, the Executive were particularly mindful of the need both to balance the allocations against the regional impact and to consider how best to maximise the economic and social impact of the revised allocations.

Against that background, I am pleased to announce that the Executive have now agreed to commit funding for the following projects within the next four years. There will be an investment of £330 million to upgrade two sections of the A5: that from Londonderry to north of Strabane, and that from south of Omagh to Ballygally. Secondly, there will be £57 million — [Laughter.]

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP


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

Arlene Foster has tried unsuccessfully to correct my pronunciation of that area. I thought that I had it right, but anyhow. Linking east and west is an idea. There will be £57 million for the A2 Greenisland road scheme; £105 million to take forward the A8 Belfast to Larne dual carriageway; £28·5 million towards the next phase of the Altnagelvin Hospital refurbishment; and £63·2 million to allow acceleration of the new Omagh Hospital and phase B of the Ulster Hospital.

The Executive recognised the need to reduce journey times between our two largest cities and the west of the Province. The planned upgrade of the A5 road will do just that and will have significant economic benefits for Northern Ireland. That represents a key step towards improving our strategic roads infrastructure. It has also become increasingly clear that a considerable bottleneck exists along the A2 between Belfast and Carrickfergus. I witness that bottleneck daily, although that did not influence this decision, Mr Speaker; let me emphasise that. The A2 road scheme will address that issue and will ensure faster journey times on that key commuter route.

The new commitments to investment in our roads network will significantly improve key sections of our strategic roads infrastructure and demonstrate the Executive’s commitment to promoting our long-term economic growth prospects. It will also provide a significant boost to our construction industry at a time when the wider economy is still recovering from the economic downturn.

The delivery of quality healthcare services remains a key priority for the Executive. The hospital allocations announced today inject an additional £91·7 million into our health infrastructure over the next three years. The decision to invest in the three key hospital projects will enhance our health sector’s capacity to deliver quality healthcare services in Londonderry, Omagh and Belfast. That will have significant benefits for patients in those areas. Like the roads investment, it will also provide much needed employment opportunities for our construction sector.

In total, the projects announced this morning will generate in excess of 2,500 construction sector jobs. Proceeding with those funding commitments will have implications for the funding available in each of the next four financial years. Although the impact for next year — at less than £1million — is negligible, the position for the following three years is that we range from having some resources unallocated — just under £80 million in 2013-14 — to an over-allocation of some £185 million in 2014-15.

The issue is material but manageable. It would be easy for me simply to sit back and say that we must only ever allocate exactly what we have available in any one year and that we must similarly plan to spend up to that limit, regardless of any mature consideration of the economic or social value of such spend.

Although we must deliver spend to those constraints, it is important to take a much more pragmatic and flexible approach to planning, particularly when responding to issues such as the Irish Government’s late reduction of their funding promise to us.

We have a number of safety valves open to us, not least the general variation in departmental spending against plan, demonstrated again in this financial year, and the fact that, since Budgets were set, I have secured some measure of automatic end-year flexibility (EYF) from the Treasury for Northern Ireland. That has not yet been factored into spending plans. We also have capacity to accelerate spend from years when overcommitted into years where resources are available. For example, our commitments to the three sporting bodies as regards stadia developments extend into the next Budget period, and there is scope to bring that forward.

I will be returning to the Executive with further specific proposals on that issue in the near future, but the key point at this stage is to provide certainty for the public and the construction sector about our commitment to proceed with high levels of investment. Such investment brings major economic social benefits for the whole of Northern Ireland and will help to provide a boost to our construction industry in these difficult times. I, therefore, commend these additional allocations to the House.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I thank the Minister for his statement, and I welcome it. I see that he continues to struggle with Ballygawley. Given that his colleagues appear to be warming to our national game, perhaps he could use the term “Errigal Ciarán country” from here on in.

Nonetheless, I very much welcome the statement that the Minister has made this morning. It is significant good news, particularly at this time, when, even in my constituency, we have had announcements of job losses. Today’s announcement will help to lift the mood again in relation to that.

Will the Minister outline for us how these funding announcements align with and support commitments in the draft Programme for Government and the economic strategy? The Minister said that there would be a significant boost to the economy with in excess of 2,500 construction jobs. He will obviously be aware that that will provide significant opportunities, through the use of social clauses, to ensure that there is a significant social output and an output in respect of the Executive’s priorities for the recruitment of apprentices from our long-term unemployed. Can he give assurances that Central Procurement Directorate in his Department will be ensuring that the multiplier benefits of those construction jobs reach areas in which the Executive have an interest, through social clauses and in ensuring that there is equality and fairness in how the benefits of today’s announcement are distributed across society?

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

I assure the Member that I will not attempt the Irish pronunciation. As the First Minister has pointed out; if I cannot get the English right, I will hardly get the Irish right. I will leave it at that.

This announcement fits in with the first priority in the Programme for Government, which is to help the growth of our economy. It helps in a number of ways. First, as the Chairman has pointed out, in dealing with long-term unemployment and youth unemployment, there will be social clauses in the contracts, which will, of course, help the Minister for Employment and Learning with some of the targets that he has set regarding youth unemployment and bringing people back into work.

Secondly, it will create 2,500 jobs in the construction industry, but that is not the end of the matter. There is a multiplier effect for this. It is reckoned that the £500 million that we will be spending will, in turn, generate additional spending, which, because of the multiplier effect of about 2·8:1, will be nearly £1·6 billion over the period. The people who get the jobs will spend money in local shops and buy goods and services, etc. That is good news for the wider economy.

Thirdly, it will help infrastructure. I am going to mention one section of road, particularly because I want to get the word right. The section from Omagh to Ballygawley is particularly important from the trade Minister’s point of view. She wants to see better links for the west of the Province with the port in Belfast, for example, so that engineering firms that manufacture goods in the west of the Province will have easier access. Such links will make her task of promoting jobs in manufacturing in the west of the Province much easier.

This morning’s proposals will have an immediate impact on each of these areas, but they will also have a long-term strategic impact in ensuring that we have an infrastructure that will enable us to attract industry across Northern Ireland.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

I welcome the Minister’s statement to the House. I suppose I was straying into this area yesterday, when the Speaker pulled me into line. This is one of the largest investments into roads infrastructure and health that we have seen in the west for quite a long time, and that is to be welcomed. Does the Minister agree that it will have a huge impact on manufacturing, trade, business and commuting to and from Belfast and that it will open up the entire west of the Province for future development and job creation?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury) 10:45 pm, 14th February 2012

I knew that the Member would get a second bite at the cherry today, Mr Speaker. Even though he was ruled out of order yesterday, I knew that he would get good news when he raised the issue today. Therefore, it was worth waiting for.

Of course, he is exactly right. It is an important infrastructure development for the west of the Province. I emphasise again that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment was keen to have that kind of linkage, because it is important to have contacts between those areas. I have visited many of the manufacturing firms in the west of the Province. There, strong manufacturing firms are doing business right across the world, and an infrastructure that enables them to transport their goods that much more easily to the port in Belfast will be of immense benefit. I know that there was a strong lobby for it. However, there are those who will say that the decisions on the two sections of the A5 were simply political. They were not political decisions; they were made on the basis of good economic judgement and arguments. The infrastructure will benefit the west of the Province and help to sustain some of the firms that are already there doing international business.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

I also welcome my good friend the Finance Minister’s statement. The Minister, in his statement, used the term “generate” when referring to the 2,500 jobs. Will he clarify whether that is generating new jobs or supporting existing jobs?

I was pleased that he referred to the Ulster Hospital project. Will he confirm that it is ready to go, and has he any indication of its likely phasing?

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

The jobs that will be created may well sustain jobs in existing firms for which work is running out. In some instances, new jobs will be created in firms that did not have a work stream here in Northern Ireland. It will be a combination of the two. Nevertheless, it ensures that people who are out of work or would, potentially, be out of work because work is drying up for some firms, are guaranteed an income into the future, and that income will generate additional spin-offs in Northern Ireland.

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has said that it is ready to go ahead with the project at the Ulster Hospital, a section of which needs refurbishment. As a representative for the area, the Member will know the problems that have been caused. The hospital has a brand new wing, beside which is a wing that is probably 30 or 40 years old. It is in a considerable state of disrepair and requires maintenance. He will need to take up the exact phasing of the project with the Health Minister, who can give him more detail on the profile of the spend. However, the anticipated spend on the Ulster Hospital is £22·5 million in 2012-13, £7·5 million in 2013-14 and a further £7·5 million in 2014-15. Most of the work will start and be carried on in the next financial year.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister’s statement. It is a positive and welcome story. The upgrade of the A5 ends the uncertainty, and that is very welcome. I also agree with the Minister that it is an important economic kick-start for the local economy, particularly the construction industry in the west. Are the Minister and the Executive still committed to completing the remaining sections in the long term, given the uncertainty created because of Irish Government funding? It is important for us to reaffirm our position on the overall scheme.

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

As I said in answer to an earlier question, as far as I, as Finance Minister, am concerned, the decision on any roads scheme must be based first, on the priorities in the Programme for Government and, secondly, on how the scheme fits into the priorities that Departments have set for themselves. There must be objective criteria on which such investment decisions are made. There are schemes for parts of the A5, two of which have been mentioned, that, under any Department for Regional Development (DRD) measure, would have gone ahead anyway because they met the criteria. There are other parts, and the Member will know them, that have had a far, far lower priority.

The second thing, of course, as the Member will know, is that I cannot possibly make any commitment for the next Budget period, because I do not know what the Budget is likely to be or what other schemes this would be competing with. At the same time, I do not want to give any commitment today that would take the pressure off the Irish Government to make a contribution. I think that the Member will recognise that it would be very foolish to do that. We have a £50 million commitment from the Irish Government. If I were to signify that we were quite happy to continue with the rest of the road, no further money would be forthcoming. It is my job to maximise the amount of money that comes into the purse in Northern Ireland so that we can maximise our spend.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. In the round, it is a very welcome and very sensible way forward. I particularly welcome the schemes for the A2 Shore Road and the A8 in the East Antrim constituency and the amount of work that will be done on those. Some of us have been waiting for over 30 years for work on the A2 to be done. The Minister is to be congratulated on making his decision on that.

Minister, is there really a role for the Regional Development Minister now that you have made that decision? Or is his job just to get on and do it?

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

Let me make something very clear: this was an Executive decision. There were discussions with Executive colleagues. I discussed it with the First Minister, the deputy First Minister, the Minister with responsibility for roads, the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, and the Health Minister. All these things were discussed with Ministers, and the Executive made and endorsed a collective decision this morning. Of course, the priorities and the information that the Minister with responsibility for roads provided was an important input in deciding where the money should go. Primarily, most of the money was roads money. Therefore, you would have expected that the Department for Regional Development would make a claim on that money. Although I would love to take all the credit for the way in which the money was spent and allocated this was a collective decision that was made on the basis of the kind of arguments that I mentioned. What is the economic potential of this allocation? What is its social potential? How does it fit in with the priorities in the Programme for Government? How does it measure up against other demands for money in the system?

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

I warmly welcome the statement this morning, and I particularly welcome the two projects in the East Antrim constituency. I am sure that the Finance Minister agrees that, although the A5 project is important to the west, the A8 project is strategically very important for businesses across Northern Ireland, given the volume of freight traffic going through the Port of Larne.

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

One reason why the A8 is a high-priority road scheme is because it is one of the Trans-European Network road schemes, and, for that reason, it is an important strategic link for businesses in Northern Ireland in getting to the Port of Larne. Equally, it is an important strategic link for goods coming from Stranraer and Cairnryan into Northern Ireland for distribution. Again, it was chosen on the basis that it is a strategic scheme. The Minister still has to see the commissioner’s report. I do not know what variations there may be to the scheme as a result of that, but, ultimately, the Minister will be able to decide how to proceed once he has received the commissioner’s report.

Photo of Pat Doherty Pat Doherty Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement and thank him for it. However, I have one slight reservation. I hope that the consultant engineers, particularly the contractors, understand that the project is for the Omagh to Ballygawley section rather than Omagh to Bally-whatever-Sammy-called-it.

Will the Minister confirm that the work that he announced on the upgrade of two sections of the A5 will start this autumn? Will he confirm a date for the start of the work on the new hospital in Omagh?

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

First, the spend on those two sections will start this year. In fact, the projected spend for the next financial year, 2012-13, is £40 million on the section of the A5 from Omagh to Ballygally — or Ballygawley; I will get it right — and £35 million on the section from Londonderry to Strabane. So, there is a substantial spend. The heavier amounts will fall in years 2 and 3, but the spend will start this year.

The proposal on the new Omagh hospital will mean that there will be less time between the enabling works being carried out, which I understand are being done, and the hospital’s being built. There was going to be a bit of a gap there. There will be substantial spend of nearly £10 million on the Omagh hospital this year.

Photo of David Hilditch David Hilditch DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement, and I give it a very warm welcome, particularly the announcements on the A2 and A8 schemes. If there is one going to Ballygally, we will take it too, Sammy. Will the Minister indicate the benefits of his announcements to wider job creation and economic development in east Antrim?

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

The immediate impact will be on the construction jobs that result from the A2 and A8 contracts. Those schemes will generate a substantial number of construction jobs in the area.

As the Member will know from travelling on the road between Carrickfergus and Belfast every day, the improvement of that road will open up huge possibilities. For example, I suspect that many firms are put off locating at the Courtaulds site outside Carrickfergus because the difficulties in travelling from the site in the evening or to the site in the morning are such that people can spend an hour sitting in traffic jams. Such delays add to the costs that a business would face if it were to locate in the Carrickfergus area.

Hopefully, once work on the road is completed, those costs will be substantially reduced, which will mean long-term possibilities of and potential for job creation. Again, that is the kind of argument that the Enterprise Minister would have been making to us when we looked at the scheme.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

As an East Antrim MLA, I welcome the new funding that has been allocated to easing congestion at Greenisland and the ongoing funding that has been allocated to the A8 scheme. However, all the necessary permissions have to be in place before public money can be spent. Will the Minister acknowledge and confirm that the A2 scheme has its permissions, meaning that vesting can take place and a contractor can be appointed but that the public inquiries still have to be completed on the A8 and A5 schemes?

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

As far as the A2 is concerned, the Member is quite right: the public inquiry has been completed. Much of the land has been bought. I think about £16 million has already been spent — I could be wrong, but it is somewhere around that — on purchasing properties along the route. All that has to be done now is to put the scheme out to tender. The procurement will start and should be completed sometime in the middle of the financial year so that money can be spent in 2012.

Due to the lead-in time with the tender and whatnot, it is estimated that a very small amount will be spent this year on the A2 scheme. That is because by the time a contractor is put in place and whatnot we will be getting towards the end of the financial year.

As far as the A8 is concerned, the Member is quite right. Again, all the permissions are in place. A contractor has been appointed, but the Minister still has to receive the report from the public inquiry.

I do not know what changes the report may recommend, because I am not privy to it, or indeed whether the Minister will accept any of the recommendations from the public inquiry. However, I understand that he is to receive that fairly soon.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin 11:00 am, 14th February 2012

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas ar maidin. I thank the Minister and welcome his decision and statement.

The Minister will be well aware from the One Plan of the strategic importance of the A5. His announcement is an obvious commitment to the One Plan and will be very welcome in Derry. I am sure the Minister is aware of an important event in Derry tonight in relation to the regeneration of Ebrington Barracks and four or five Executive Ministers are coming down. So, I would say you would be a very welcome visitor tonight, and we would even allow you a mispronunciation of “Derry”.

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

Altnagelvin Area Hospital is listed in the statement as a refurbishment. Will the Minister confirm that there will be a newbuild on the site as part of that process?

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

I had hoped to attend the event in Londonderry this evening, but I suspect, given how long-winded Members will be in the Budget debate, and if some contributions I heard yesterday are anything to go by, I and others may well be here long after the opening of the square. I have met representatives from Londonderry chamber of trade, Ilex, the council and a wide range of representatives on a number of occasions. In fact, I think I have visited that city more often than anywhere else.

There is a very positive attitude in the city. I hesitate to say it, but sometimes there was a reputation of maybe a wee bit too much whinging. However, I have detected a very positive attitude. The One Plan, of course, was important. The whole idea was how to maximise whatever spend was undertaken by public bodies to ensure that it had the greatest economic impact. Altnagelvin hospital will get new wards to replace those in the tower block that have become not really fit for purpose. I trust that the spend on the road to Strabane and at Altnagelvin hospital will not only create jobs but improve the infrastructure, which will enable the other spend that will be going into the city to be maximised.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I thank the Minister for his statement, and I pay tribute to my colleague Joe Byrne, who has been assiduous in his pursuit of the A5 project. Will the Minister, in anticipation of the UK Budget on 21 March, suggest whether he can see or project any possible readjustments to that as a result of the out-turn of the UK Budget? Will he also have discussions directly with the Minister for Regional Development about the Ballynahinch bypass, since the line has been prescribed for it but no funding identified?

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

I know that the Member thinks that her party can magic money out of thin air, although it never materialises. We have used and maximised the money we have available. Of course, Ministers will have other capital schemes. In due time, if money becomes available, I am sure she will make representations very strongly on that issue, as she has done to me on other projects.

As far as what will happen in the UK Budget, I do not have a crystal ball. I do not know what the proposals or implications are likely to be. Listening to the Chancellor this morning on the radio talking about the threat of the United Kingdom’s credit rating maybe being reduced in a year-and-a-half’s time, I suspect that he is not going to loosen the purse strings a great deal. Of course, if that is the case, there will be implications for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome the planned investment announced. What is the timetable for new works at the Ulster Hospital? What significance will those works have for areas such as north Down, which lost its local hospitals many years ago?

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

The exact timetable is something that the Member needs to raise with the Health Minister. As far as the Ulster Hospital is concerned, we will spend £37·5 million on two main blocks. Those are the ward block and the acute block, which will then be completed. The ward block work is already going ahead. That new money will make possible the second part of the acute development at the Ulster Hospital; namely, the accident and emergency department, theatres, and so forth. The Member needs to take up the issues of exact timing and completion dates with the Health Minister.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

Like other Members, I thank the Minister for his statement. It is a welcome announcement, given the jobs that will be created. However, I cannot help but notice that the Belfast rapid transit system is not mentioned in the statement. Given that it would connect two of the most deprived areas — north and west Belfast — to jobs, which are extremely important for people who live there, can the Minister please update the House on the project?

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

Again, that is a matter for the Minister for Regional Development. All that I am doing is announcing where the £583 million that is available to us as a result of the decision to withdraw funding from the A5 project will be spent. I am not sure where exactly the rapid transit system sits in the regional development strategy. From my days on Belfast City Council, it has always been my understanding that a substantial amount of private money has to go into that project. Of course, that is the responsibility of developers at the Titanic Quarter.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I certainly welcome the statement. In the light of the Irish Government’s decision to withdraw funding, this has been a sensible allocation of money. I welcome the answers that the Minister has given on future strategic decisions, because the A26 project and improvements that are needed on that stretch of road will come into play for the entire Province.

I ask the Minister to highlight again the importance of the decision to the construction industry. It will benefit not only one section of the industry but a wide spectrum: building contractors; electrical contractors and engineers; mechanical contractors and engineers; and all specialised subcontractors.

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

It will indeed. Of course, it will also benefit support industries, such as architects, quantity surveyors, surveyors, and so on. The entire construction industry will benefit. As I pointed out in earlier answers, the total impact should be 2,500 jobs, which will be in existing small and large firms throughout the industry. A wide range of skills will also be involved, from roads construction — civil engineering — to the construction of hospitals, which will require all the skills that the Member mentioned. The construction industry has told us that it wants certainty. We have now told it how we plan to spend money over the next three years. That will enable the industry to plan its investment and training. The important point to make is that we want to see continuity of work for the construction industry so that it can, in turn and with certainty, take on people, train them and retain a skill base for the industry in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Judith Cochrane Judith Cochrane Alliance

I, too, welcome the funding commitment to various projects, particularly for phase B of the Ulster Hospital in my constituency. However, I am concerned about the implications for future years, given the other pressures that we will face with continued UK budgetary cuts. Given the already apparent over-allocation, can the Minister give any indication of ideas that he might have to deal with those other pressures and proper long-term budgetary planning?

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

I have been upfront with the Assembly this morning. I did not have to go into the figures in as much detail as I did, but I was upfront in indicating that there is an over-commitment in the final year of the Budget. That can be dealt with in a number of ways. First, we could re-profile some of our capital spend. We should not forget that, in the second year of the spending plan or the third year of the Budget, we will have a surplus of £78 million. We could bring some of the spending from year 4 of the Budget or year 3 of the spending plan into that year to reduce that over-commitment.

We could also use end-year flexibility or carry money forward. Frankly, rather than working to a timetable of spending only the money that we have and then finding in the final year — we found that this year — that we are carrying over more money than the Treasury allows and having to give that money back, I would prefer to have three years to plan for how we deal with that over-commitment. In that way, we will be able to keep the money in Northern Ireland. There are other means of dealing with that over-commitment that I will bring to the Executive. In fact, I made it clear to my Executive colleagues this morning that, to deal with that over-commitment, we will have to look at making other decisions. However, I do not think that those decisions will be particularly painful.

Representatives of the construction industry have said that the industry is reliant on government spending. Hopefully, that situation will change during the next three years and more private spend will come through. However, given the plight of the construction industry and the need to create jobs, I think that it is a risk worth taking. It is not a massive risk; it is calculated, and I believe that it can be dealt with. It is worth re-profiling some spend that will leave us with an over-commitment in the final year, but with three years to deal with it.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I look forward to the time when Mid Ulster becomes a priority for the Finance Minister, but I hope that the construction jobs that will be created will help the constituency. Will the Finance Minister detail what proportion of the jobs created will be Northern Ireland jobs? Have contracts been awarded? Where will those contracts go?

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

Some of the contracts have been awarded, and contracts for two parts of the A5 and for the A8 were awarded to Northern Ireland firms. The contracts for the hospitals and the A2 have not yet been awarded.

The Member will know that, under procurement rules, we cannot show favour to Northern Ireland firms. However, I hope that the success that Northern Ireland firms have had in tendering for the some of the major schemes will continue and that the contracts for the other schemes will go to firms based in Northern Ireland.

At the end of the day, we have to get the best value for money through procurement; you would not expect anything else. There are strict rules for procurement, so I cannot predict the outcome of the procurement exercises on the outstanding schemes.

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. It is evidence of a considered and pragmatic approach, and it is welcomed by the Committee for Regional Development. Will the Minister confirm whether the criteria that were used for the two sections of the A5 that he identified will go ahead under normal DRD construction criteria?

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

First, discussions were held with the roads Minister on those schemes. Secondly, all the facts and figures about traffic movements, accident statistics and the kind of traffic that travels on those roads are available to DRD. The two parts that have been chosen would, by any objective roads criteria, have been high up the priority list anyway. The traffic volumes on the A2 and the A8 and the strategic nature of those routes were more than sufficient to justify the expenditure on them.

I want to emphasise that, as I said in the statement and as an examination of the detail of the particular schemes will show, strict economic, social and strategic significance was considered when the decisions were made as to which schemes should go ahead.

Photo of Phil Flanagan Phil Flanagan Sinn Féin 11:15 am, 14th February 2012

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fearadh na fáilte roimh ráiteas an Aire inniu. The Minister and his Executive colleagues will be all too well aware of the ongoing problem of rising emigration that we face, particularly in rural communities such as Fermanagh and Tyrone. He will also be aware of the impact that this positive announcement about immediate capital projects will have in giving some sort of hope to young people who are choosing to emigrate, particularly to those who have qualified in the fields of construction and engineering.

What is the Minister’s assessment of the impact that those project announcements will have, not only on short-term job creation but in the long term in society as a whole, as we seek to move from decades and, in fact, centuries of historical underinvestment in infrastructural projects west of the Bann?

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

I do not agree that there have been decades of underinvestment. The Executive have spread investment across the whole of Northern Ireland. Everywhere I go, no matter whether it is east, west, north or south, to speak at chamber of trade dinners — the most recent one was in Newry — it never fails to amuse me when I hear the same story about historical underinvestment. People in my constituency of East Antrim tell me that no government jobs are located there, and they talk about historical underinvestment. Everybody will tell the same story, although the reality is something different.

The Member has made an important point, however. I have said this before, but it bears repetition: when we invest in strategic roads, it opens up economic possibilities. Invest NI has already bought sites along the road from Dungannon to Ballygawley — I got it right this time — that will enable economic development there. I have no doubt that the road from Ballygawley to Omagh will do exactly the same. Of course, it is important that the firms that are already established there have an infrastructure that enables them to be sustained and to open up further possibilities.

Yes, there is a short-term benefit, but, if there was only a short-term benefit, this announcement would not represent all that significant an investment, because once the short-term jobs are gone, they are gone. If these are the right investment decisions, and I believe that they are, the benefits will be felt by communities that are impacted by those roads in the much longer term. Hopefully, that will address at least some of the problems. As far as the Executive can do, when we are facing global pressures, it will help to address some of the issues that the Member has raised.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I also welcome the Minister’s statement and the green light for two sections of the A5. I am also very pleased to hear about the investment in our healthcare infrastructure, particularly in the Western Trust area.

As the Minister outlined earlier to Mr McCartney, the Altnagelvin hospital investment will facilitate the construction of a new north wing, which will comprise six wards and should greatly enhance the experiences of patients and staff at the hospital. The Omagh investment will bring that project forward by a year. I very much welcome the capital commitment and the jobs that it will create. However, will the Minister tell us whether the Executive will display the same commitment to the retention of health service jobs in the Western Trust area, which is an area of very high unemployment?

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

It is nice to hear the Member welcome something. He usually picks holes in everything that I bring to the Assembly. He has four pieces of news to welcome: that must be a record. I hope that it will keep him happy and off my back for a wee while at least. Once there is investment in the hospitals infrastructure, there will be employment consequences. As for the detail of what is happening with the health spend in the Western Trust, it is more appropriate that that is drawn from the Health Minister than from me.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome the money for new projects. May I request that any future moneys — any loose change — are directed to the Regional Development Minister for the upgrade of the A26, where so many fatalities have occurred, and the Dungiven bypass project to alleviate the health risks to residents and commuters alike in Dungiven?

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

As I mentioned, as a result of the statement, there is already an overcommitment in the final year of the Budget that has to be addressed. We have to look at whether the Budget review that we will undertake will release some capital from other Departments for roads, whether additional money will come from other sources, or whether, as a result of Executive discussions, we find that we can draw in private finance for schemes. I have to say that the Executive understand the importance of spending on our infrastructure, not only because of the short-term jobs that that creates but because of the long-term possibilities. Through the Budget review group, we will continue to explore other ways in which we can bring forward more capital projects in the future, if possible.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

This is a good news story, and everyone in the Chamber welcomes it. There are some disappointments. Ballynahinch is not mentioned anywhere, even though it has been waiting 30 or 40 years for a bypass. It was interesting that, I think, every Minister, including the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, were in the Chamber this morning to listen to the statement, but the roads Minister — the Minister for Regional Development — was not about.

Some Members:

He was.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

Was he? [Interruption.]

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

I apologise, but he did not hang around very long to hear the rest of the discussion. [Interruption.]

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Order. We are discussing the Minister’s statement and not who is here and who is not here.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

It is a good news story that comes after a bad news story yesterday, with the loss of 300-odd jobs in Armagh. It is a good news story, which, along with everyone else, I very much welcome. In particular, I welcome the investment in all the hospital sites. As the Alliance Party health spokesperson, I am delighted that that investment is being made. My main concern is the 2,500 jobs that the Minister said that he will try to create. That will not be his job. It will be Minister for Regional Development’s job —

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

— to ensure that the work will be given out locally, and there will be no hanging around. Get on with the job, get it done, and create all those jobs.

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

I am not sure what the Member wants. One minute he condemns the Minister for Regional Development for not hanging around and then he says he does not want him to hang around. I wish that he would make up his mind. In defence of the Minister for Regional Development, and in the pursuit of co-operation between the two unionist parties, I will explain that he, along with the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the Health Minister, is doing a press conference. They left to do the press conference during questions on the statement. So he did not walk out because he was in bad form or anything like that; he had a commitment to talk about the schemes in his Department’s remit.

Mr McCarthy and, I think, a couple of other Members mentioned the Ballynahinch scheme. One of our criteria for spending the money was whether it could be spent in the time available. As far as the Ballynahinch road scheme is concerned, I understand, from speaking to Mr Hamilton, that, even though there is a proposal for a bypass, the land has not yet been bought. The Member may shake his head, but he will know that there is a required process. Given that the scheme has not advanced even to that stage, it is unlikely that we could have spent the money in the time available.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

This morning’s announcement about the A5 demonstrates that, in the Executive, what Sinn Féin wants, Sinn Féin gets. Three months ago, after the Republic backed out, the Minister, through the BBC, told us:

“the road cannot be financed and cannot be built … We’re looking at how we re-profile that and what we spend it on.”

He went on to say that spending the money on hospitals, schools and houses would be a better spend in any event. Today, he tells us that, though the Republic’s Government have backed out, he will build big chunks of the A5 for them anyway. Where is the business case for the A5 project that he has approved? When did he approve that, or has due process simply been trumped by political horse-trading? If due process were in vogue, he would be announcing the advancement of the A26 project this morning, because it meets the traffic volume criteria, which the A5 comes nowhere close to meeting.

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

I know that the Member acts as a kind of lone opposition in this place. However, I would have thought that, on a morning when we have what is generally accepted as good news across the House and will, undoubtedly, be accepted as good news right across the construction industry and the wider economic society in Northern Ireland, he could at least have avoided being churlish. Of course, as the old saying goes, every silver lining has its cloud. I suppose that that has been justified here this morning.

I know that the Member thinks that Sinn Féin wags the dog in this place, but I have been at pains to explain that that is not the case. Sinn Féin made it clear that it wanted the whole A5 done. It wanted all available money from our Budget and that of the Republic to be spent on doing as much work on the A5 as could be done with the £450 million available. That did not happen. We chose particular parts of the road on the basis of traffic volume and economic benefit.

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has already made it clear that, as far as she is concerned, the work will help to sustain and generate jobs in the west of the Province. I think that it is important that the economic benefits that stem from whatever actions the Executive take are felt right across Northern Ireland. That is always an important consideration, but not to the extent to which we would go ahead with unjustifiable projects.

The reason why the rest of the A5 is not being done is that it did not stack up. We could have put more money into that, because we did not spend all the money from the A5 reallocation. The reason why we did not do so was that other projects stacked up and were considered to be of higher priority. I know that the Member will not accept that. However, all I can say to him is that that is the way in which the decision was made.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

One thing that disappointed me about the Minister’s statement was that he was unable to pronounce “Ballygawley”. That disappoints me, as it is the town of my birth, so I will have to talk to him to find out what is going on.

In relation to the A5, a sensible decision has been taken to drop the section from Aughnacloy to Ballygawley. From day one, some of us said that it could never be justified, and I am pleased that that has happened. However, as a result of today’s statement, something needs to happen, and it is this: we need to get a hold of the public inquiry into the A5. Only the Regional Development Minister knows why he will not release that. Furthermore, we need to remove the blight from the section between Ballygawley and Aughnacloy. There is a lot of farmers’ land there, and that land could continue to be blighted if a clear statement of intent is not made soon. I welcome the Minister’s statement.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury) 11:30 am, 14th February 2012

Most of what the Member has raised is a matter for DRD. However, I have made it clear that as far as I am concerned, any further work along any section of the A5 will depend on money from the Irish Republic. We want to maximise that. If there are parts of that road that the Irish Republic believes to be of strategic importance to it, that will be the case. The Member is quite right: the stretch from Ballygawley to Aughnacloy was one of those that, on objective criteria, would not have been justified.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the NI Act 1998, regarding a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NMSC) in education sectoral format. The meeting was held in the joint secretariat offices in Armagh on 1 February 2012. I represented the Executive, as Minister of Education, along with the Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland MLA. The Irish Government were represented by Ruairi Quinn TD, Minister for Education and Skills. The statement has been agreed with Minister McCausland and is made on behalf of us both.

I will summarise the main points from the meeting, ranging across all the agreed areas of education co-operation. With respect to the education survey in the border regions, we recognised the importance of facilitating parental preference in participation in schools. We noted the changing population in border areas and the impact that that might have on schools. Taking into account those issues, we discussed how those parents who so wished might be able to send their children to schools on either side of the border.

With respect to taking forward greater parental preference in schools in the border regions, we discussed the developing plans and agreed the next steps for the conduct of a joint survey to inform cross-border pupil movement and school planning. An interim report on the preparation for the survey will be presented to the next NSMC education meeting. The survey is due to be conducted later this year, and its results and proposals on the way forward will be considered by the Ministers no later than the first NSMC education meeting of 2013.

With regard to special educational needs, the Council reaffirmed its commitment to the future development of the Middletown Centre for Autism. We welcomed the progress made by the two Departments in conjunction with the centre on the development of a multi-annual plan for Middletown. The plan will take full account of developments in recent years. It will also reflect international best practice. It will, of course, be deliverable within the financial constraints faced by both Administrations. Taking account of those factors, we noted that a paper containing proposals on the way forward for the Middletown centre will be brought forward for decision at our next meeting in May. We welcomed the continuing progress made by the Middletown centre in delivering training to professionals and parents, in outreach support for children and in the continuing programme of research.

The Council noted that future meetings of the educational underachievement working group will include an important focus on sharing best practice in raising literacy and numeracy standards. We welcomed the publication of a joint report by the two inspectorates on promoting and improving literacy and numeracy in schools and a commitment by both inspectorates to continuing collaboration.

We noted that Marino Institute of Education in Dublin is considering a proposal from the University of Ulster to deliver a preparatory course to enable students to undertake assessments leading to the Scrúdu Cáilíochta sa Ghaeilge, an Irish-language teaching requirement in the South. We also noted that St Mary’s University College, Belfast has expressed an interest in delivering the course.

We noted that an Irish-medium collaborative programme for the 2011-12 academic year to support Gaeltacht schools and Irish-medium schools has been approved and is being implemented.

The Council welcomed the publication of the ‘School Leadership Matters’ report, which is available on the Regional Training Unit and Professional Development Service for Teachers websites. We welcomed ongoing exchanges and sharing of good practice in school evaluation by the two inspectorates.

As regards school, youth and teacher exchanges, the Council welcomed North/South student exchanges, which are due to take place in March, and we noted that the evaluation of the dissolving boundaries programme has been completed.

In closing, Ministers agreed that the North/South Ministerial Council in education sectoral format should meet again on 30 May in Armagh.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

There is little to welcome in this statement to the House. It seems as though the type on the statement gets bigger but the content gets less. It raises a number of serious issues.

First, I want to raise concern about the comments made in the paper about parental preference for parents from the Irish Republic. When will the Minister ensure that that is extended to parents in Northern Ireland, given the position that he and his party hold regarding certain sectors of education?

A very serious issue is what the paper describes as the “continuing progress” of Middletown. Minister, Middletown has now become an albatross for your Department. It is delivering nothing for the children in Northern Ireland who have serious problems and challenges. Let me conclude by quoting a parent. Middletown is not supported by autism organisations and the Northern Ireland Audit Office. The parent said:

“Why has there not been a comprehensive review of the value of Middletown? It appears to me as if it muddles on in its development stage. No one is taking any notice of the fact that schools cannot manage children and young people with ASD.”

Minister, when will you stop the charade and put the money to better use to serve the children of Northern Ireland who are crying out for your help? Unfortunately, it seems as though your ears are closed.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for the series of points that he raised. First, I welcome his comment on the slowness of some of the programmes of work. The wheels of bureaucracy grind quite slowly on both sides of the border. I assure you that there is great cross-border co-operation on that matter. I am of the view, and I think that I fairly reflect Minister Quinn’s point of view, that the programme of work regarding the delivery of services on a cross-border nature in education needs to be expedited. The survey that we are conducting will assist both Departments in bringing forward a planned approach to the delivery of education in a cross-border region, to the benefit of the young people involved.

You raised some more specific issues. I assume that when you talk about parental preference, you refer to academic selection. I wonder how much preference parents had last Saturday morning when they were opening letters to be told that their 11-year-old child was rejected from a school. Where is the parental preference in that? I assume that that was what the Member was referring to.

I can assure you that my ears and eyes are not closed to the issue of Middletown. Minister Quinn and I have had several discussions about that matter. We expect a report from our Departments towards the end of February, and that will involve a number of options on what the future holds for Middletown. I will study that closely, and at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting in May, we will announce the way forward for Middletown. As I said in my statement, it will be based on current positions in both jurisdictions, international best practice and the best way forward for young people with autism. That is what the decision will be based on, and I assure the Member that all the views that have been expressed by parents and autism groups will be taken on board. At this stage, my political views and those of other Members should not be taken into account. The decision will be based on service delivery for autism.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. Some of the schools involved in the joint cross-border survey will be affected by the Commission for Catholic Education’s report that was launched yesterday. How will the proposals in that report affect the cross-border flow of pupils? Perhaps he could give his overall view on the report.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for the question. The Commission for Catholic Education’s report is a comprehensive piece of work that was conducted over a number of years and sets out the future of Catholic education for, perhaps, a generation to come. It deserves close scrutiny. I will await the publication of development proposals, if we reach that stage, for the five proposed closures, and I will make due judgement on those proposals following the consultation process. There are several other recommendations on amalgamations, and so on, that will also require development proposals.

The Member asked about cross-border travel for pupils. Proposals that will come in the later stages of the process, perhaps a year or two from now, may be affected by the cross-border survey and student and parent demand for schools on either side of the border. It is only right and proper that any proposals for the future of a school in that corridor are taken into account and looked at in conjunction with any parental demand for cross-border travel.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

As roads are the flavour of the day, I will couch my question in that context if I may. In the context of parents who wish to send their children to schools on either side of the border, does the Minister see that as a one-way or two-way street, with two lanes heading South to avoid what he sees as the evil of selection, and a hard shoulder coming in the other direction? How would he characterise the potential outcome?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

We are conducting the survey to establish exactly how many lanes we need on the highway. I want it to be two-way traffic, and there is already two-way traffic of cross-border pupil movement. If pupils head from the North to the South, my Department picks up the tab; if pupils go in the opposite direction, the Dublin Department picks up the tab. At this stage, we are not looking to establish any policy until we have the information at hand. The cross-border survey will allow us to see the parental demand for such a network of provision, and we will also see the obstacles for parents being allowed to send their children in either direction. I will wait to see how many lanes we need on the highway, to use your analogy, and then build it accordingly.

Photo of Conall McDevitt Conall McDevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party

In light of yesterday’s report, what message can the Minister send to young people in Garrison or west Fermanagh? Will their future be a 30-mile commute to Enniskillen, or will the report allow them, potentially, to access a school in Bundoran in the foreseeable future? How far away is that foreseeable future?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

It would be inappropriate for me to discuss individual proposals in the commission’s report that may lead to development proposals because I am the person who will have to make the final decision on those matters. That decision can be made only after the consultation process, which has yet to start. So I will not pre-empt any proposal or recommendation in the commission’s report. The cross-border survey will report back to the first North/South Ministerial Council meeting in education format in 2013, along with proposals on the way forward. If there is a demand for firm proposals, they will come to fruition within that timescale.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 11:45 am, 14th February 2012

I remind Members that questions are to this morning’s statement.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I want to ask the Minister about the section of his statement dealing with teacher qualifications, particularly the work being done to allow all potential teachers to obtain the scrúdú cáilíochta sa Ghaeilge.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

Well done. You are learning.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

The trouble is that, when you say that, you lose your thread.

I ask the Minister whether both jurisdictions are really serious about that. It would be a big step forward if that could be progressed to the point at which there was a level playing field for all potential teachers, North, South and, perhaps, from the European Union.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Yes, both jurisdictions are serious about it because teacher mobility is to the benefit of both. The ongoing work by St Mary’s in Belfast, other institutions in the North and, indeed, institutions in Dublin to co-operate and collaborate on recognisable qualifications, in the medium of Irish and across education, can only benefit education as a whole. I am confident that Minister Quinn wants his Department to work in that direction, and my Department, along with the enabling bodies, including the qualification bodies, etc, is working towards that goal as well.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

Minister, I note that you await proposals in May on moving forward the Middletown Centre for Autism. Will you assure the House that that will be done in conjunction with existing charities? Our experience of Middletown in its previous incarnation was that it just copied and then usurped and undermined charities by carrying out work that they were already involved in. The only difference was that its work cost the taxpayer a fortune compared with what had been delivered.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

There are several different charities involved in autism and several different opinions on how you deliver autism services to young people. I cannot reconcile all those different opinions with the way forward. That would be impossible. I am not saying that there is disagreement, but we certainly cannot get agreement within the autism sector on the best way forward for educational services.

I am of the view that given the 10 years that have elapsed since the original proposal for the Middletown centre, which was based on best practice at the time, the way forward will have to be based on the evidence of the current provision of autism services on either side of the border. We will reflect and learn from best international practice. However, it must be said that the Middletown centre has provided training to thousands of parents and professionals and played its own role in improving autism services on this island. It has not lain dormant, and the building has not been idle. A service has been running.

We have not yet built the accommodation for a residential training model. We will wait for the report’s recommendations on the way forward. The Dublin Government and I want to reflect on the best way forward for that residential model and on the training currently provided.

The autism lobby has, quite rightly, made its voice heard on the matter on both sides of the border. We will listen to the views of the autism charities, but no Government should be run on the basis of trying to accommodate every demand. You have to reach a decision and make the best possible proposal on the way forward on the basis of the evidence in front of you.

Photo of Phil Flanagan Phil Flanagan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh ráiteas an Aire. The Minister referred to the changing population in border areas and right along the border corridor. We have seen, in the proposals from the Catholic sector, how that has impacted on the future of some schools. Will the Minister elaborate on the outworkings of the survey that the NSMC proposed and outline what we can expect to happen next?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

At the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council on education, there will be a report on how the survey will be conducted. Following that, the survey will be distributed to schools on either side of the border and relevant community agencies, and it will be publicised so that we get as good an uptake as possible. We want people to be able to give feedback because we want a sound information base to ensure that the results from the survey are as broadly based as possible. Then, at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting in education sectoral format in 2013, both Departments will bring proposals on the way forward based on the evidence of demand from the survey.

So, we are working to a number of time frames. The next meeting this year in education sectoral format will look at the survey and how it has been conducted. Then, in 2013, we will see the results of that survey and will decide how it will be moved forward.

Photo of Brenda Hale Brenda Hale DUP

Could teacher qualifications in Irish-medium assessment courses be used as a shortlisting criterion? If so, that could further disadvantage students who choose not to take that course.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

The objective is certainly not to disadvantage anyone. I want to ensure that the courses are available to as broad a range of people who wish to take them. At this stage, the Irish-language qualification will really be for teachers who are teaching in the Irish-medium sector and those who wish to go down that career pathway. I want to see qualifications recognised on either side of the border not to disadvantage anyone but to promote the employment of as many teachers as possible.

Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP

Minister, you said in your statement:

The Council reaffirmed its commitment to the future development of the Middletown Centre for Autism.”

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s 2009 report concluded that, at the Middletown Centre for Autism:

“Key services…are not being achieved”.

How can those statements be squared?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

The Audit Office report was factual. The Middletown centre was not developed during the period that the institutions were down. That is a reality. All-Ireland cross-border co-operation stalled, or was certainly on hold, when the institutions went down. So, through no fault of its own, the Middletown centre was not allowed to progress. The Audit Office report was factual. We are saying that, as a result of our recent deliberations, we want to assess the services that are provided. Excellent training services have been provided for professionals and parents. We want to see what the next steps will be. Will it be the consolidation of that service? Do we need to move to a residential option? What is international best practice telling us? What are the services that are available on the island of Ireland telling us about what the next option should be? So, my statement and the Audit Office report are not contradictory in any way. The next steps will be evidence based. There will then be a full report to the meeting in education sectoral format, and I will report to the Assembly on the way forward for the Middletown centre.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

Maybe the Minister will make a brave decision on the Middletown development by drawing a line under it, moving on and acknowledging the disaster that it has been.

I am not sure whether the following part of the statement is about the Department for Employment and Learning or the Department of Education. The Minister talked about the University of Ulster delivering on Irish language, and he said that St Mary’s intimated that it also wants to do it. The Minister made a significant statement on that that I want to ask him about directly. He said:

“This is an Irish language teaching requirement in the south.”

Is the Minister now proposing to also make it compulsory for all students in Northern Ireland?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

No, I am not proposing to make it compulsory for all students. It is a voluntary process in the North, and I see no reason to change that. It is about improving the delivery of Irish-language education in the Irish-medium sector and, indeed, through other sectors, if they so wish. So, I am not choosing to make anything compulsory for anyone.

As regards making a brave decision about the Middletown centre, a decision that is made in the absence of all the information would not be a brave decision but simply the wrong decision. So, let us have all the evidence before us so that we can make the right decision in May, and we will move forward from there.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement. I feel that I have to stand up for the Middletown centre, given all the negative comments. Given the latest announcement about possible job losses in Armagh city and district, of which there have been 340 over the past couple of weeks, I think that the announcement on the Middletown centre is positive and welcome. Could the Minister give us an update on the discussions that he has had with his counterpart, Ruairi Quinn, in relation to the Middletown centre?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Yes, we have to remember that when we are talking about any institution, there are employees and staff behind that, with genuine concerns about their future and the way forward. However, as with any decision, we have to focus on the needs of the client base, which, in this case, is the young people with autism, and we want to ensure that we are delivering the most up-to-date and proper service for them.

Minister Quinn and I have liaised as regards Middletown. Minister Quinn is keen to ensure that he has a modern delivery service for autism in his jurisdiction, and I am keen that we have a modern delivery service for autism in my jurisdiction. We want to ensure that whatever decision we come to around Middletown is based on best practice. We await the report of our Departments, and our officials are working closely together on that. When that report is available, Minister Quinn and I will resume our discussions around the matter and reach a decision by the May deadline, when the North/South Ministerial Council will next meet in education sectoral format.

We have to come to a final decision on this because, as the Member said, there are staff behind this decision as well, and they want to know what the future holds for them. There are families with young people with autism who want to know the way forward. As has been mentioned by another Member, there are also charities doing very good work as regards autism that want to know what their role will be. All those individuals and bodies deserve certainty on the way forward for Middletown.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I want to ask the Minister about his enthusiasm for cross-border schooling, which I assume was shared by his unionist minder Nelson McCausland when they committed to the further survey. Does the Minister anticipate that, in due course, from the Northern Ireland Budget we will be providing places and siting schools in order, in part, to facilitate pupils and parents from the Irish Republic? On the question of teacher mobility, did they take time to consider the closed shop arrangement, the Catholic certificate in education, that is a barrier to that?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

The Member will, I am sure, be delighted to know that I do not need any minders no matter where I go. I am more than capable of looking after myself, and I have not met any elected representative yet, including your good self, who is capable of giving me enough problems to make me require a minder.

I do not believe that cross-border mobility will be a cost to the Budget here because, as I have said, we already have pupils travelling back and forth across the border. When students leave this jurisdiction to go to the South, we pick up the bill. When students from the South come to this jurisdiction, the Dublin Government pick up the bill.

There is already a review taking place into the Catholic certificate, and that review will report in due course. As with any review, we will decide the way forward based on the evidence and information gathered by the review, rather than some people’s perceptions of what that may be.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

That concludes questions to the Minister of Education on his statement.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, regarding a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in tourism sectoral format.

The meeting was held in Armagh on 25 January 2012. Minister Carál Ní Chuilín MLA and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive. The Irish Government were represented by Leo Varadkar TD, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, who chaired the meeting. This statement has been agreed with Minister Ní Chuilín, and I am making the statement on behalf of us both.

Ministers welcomed the recently appointed chairperson, Mr Brian Ambrose, to his first NSMC meeting. The chairperson and the chief executive officer (CEO), Mr Niall Gibbons, updated Ministers on the work of the Tourism Ireland board, including implementation of the 2011 business plan and the development of the 2012 business plan.

The CEO made a presentation to Ministers on market performance in 2011. The Council noted the success of the 2011 marketing campaign.

That included the historic state visits, which provided a major tourism boost and £250 million of positive publicity; the greening of a number of iconic landmarks worldwide on St Patrick’s Day, which reached 250 million potential visitors; and Belfast’s being centre stage for the MTV Europe music awards. The performance overview for 2011 showed a growth in overseas visitors for the first time since 2007.

The Council discussed Tourism Ireland’s key marketing campaigns planned for 2012, including the roll-out of a new global destination advertising campaign. Ministers received an update on the planned events and targets for the ni2012 Your Time, Our Place tourism initiative, including the Titanic Belfast Festival 2012; the opening of the new visitor centre at the Giant’s Causeway; the Irish Open golf championship at Royal Portrush Golf Club; and the 50th Belfast Festival at Queen’s University, as well as the events organised in Northern Ireland in 2013 including the Derry/Londonderry UK City of Culture and the World Police and Fire Games.

The role of Tourism Ireland in overseas marketing was outlined to the Council. The Council discussed the main priorities for Tourism Ireland in 2012 and reviewed progress on finalising the business plan and budget for 2012. The Council agreed to meet again in tourism format in autumn 2012.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:00 pm, 14th February 2012

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive report. Tourism Ireland is doing a good job for all parts of Ireland, and it is very important that that job be continued. However, what strikes me in particular is the new global destination advertising campaign, which is particularly significant. Will the Minister comment on that? What potential does she see in that for tourism in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Chair for his question. Having received briefings from Tourism Ireland, he knows that it is looking at four main markets, particularly for Northern Ireland, the biggest of which is visitors from Great Britain. Our target over ni2012 — our huge year of opportunity — is to grow the number of GB visitors by 10%, which would hopefully mean an additional 100,000 visitors with a total impact of £66 million over the next four years. Part of working towards that is, undoubtedly, the marketing campaign, as the Member mentioned. I am happy that he is happy. I think that the global destination advertising campaign, in conjunction with the very successful Northern Ireland Tourist Board advertising campaign being shown across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, will impact on the number of tourists deciding to come to Northern Ireland this year. However, it is not just about this year; it is about next year and the years rolling on from there. It is about making a huge impact in 2012 and then reaping the benefits in future years. Although 2012 is huge for Northern Ireland, we are also looking to the sustainability of tourism in the following years. That is an important point.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. Will she detail the discussions on the logistics, promotion and advertisement of the Irish Open golf tournament that are necessary to make it a very successful event?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

It will not surprise the Member that it is a huge event for the Royal Portrush Golf Club and the whole of Northern Ireland. We have been very impressed with the number of enquiries made on the back of the announcement that the Irish Open was coming to Northern Ireland for the first time in 60 years. I commend the partnership that is developing between the Royal Portrush Golf Club, the local council at Coleraine, DETI, the Tourist Board, Tourism Ireland, the Department for Regional Development and Translink. All those elements need to come together to make sure that the Irish Open is a huge success. Last year, around 84,000 people visited Killarney for the Irish Open over a period of four or five days. We are hopeful that we will have 100,000 visitors to the north coast. Of course, it will not just be to the benefit of Portrush; it will be right along the north coast and, I would say, across Northern Ireland. Visitors will come for the period of the Irish Open, but they will want to spend longer in Northern Ireland and, therefore, visit all the other sites that are available to them. Plans are going well in relation to the Irish Open, and we look forward to a very exciting time and to an opportunity to place ourselves in front of the world again at the end of June.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Is the Minister aware of some of the barriers to tourists entering from parts of Asia? I am aware that the Irish Government have introduced a visa waiver scheme, which allows visitors from 16 countries to enter Ireland with no extra visa cost, but it is not the same vice versa. Will the Minister liaise with Minister Varadkar and, if necessary, the Secretary of State to ensure that tourists who come from a third of the global tourism market — Asia — can access the North?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

That is an issue that we have discussed in some detail, not just with our counterparts in the Republic of Ireland’s Government but with the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, Hugo Swire. In the past couple of weeks, I have discussed with him the fact that there is a visa waiver scheme for people who come from the Far East and Middle East into the Republic of Ireland. If they have a UK visa, they do not need an Irish waiver. However, if they have an Irish visa, they still need to have a UK visa, and that is where the difficulty lies.

I raised the issue with Hugo Swire, and I understand that it is about safety and security and about mechanisms between the Republic of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is something that we are actively looking at to see if we can address that issue. I am sure that the Member will agree that it is particularly pertinent now that we have flights coming in from Dubai and Abu Dhabi. We would like to attract some of those visitors up to Northern Ireland. Therefore, it is on the schedule to see if we can deal with the issue. However, it is a difficult issue that we will continue to work on with the Minister of State.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I thank the Minister for her work in helping with the Irish Open and increasing tourism in the different areas. However, I found it somewhat surprising to read in the statement that the Minister is championing the greening of a number of iconic landmarks worldwide on St Patrick’s Day. Can the Minister detail the actions that she might take to ensure that St Patrick’s Day celebrations here in Northern Ireland are, in fact, less green and more inclusive for all the people of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

The Member will know that I would welcome a more inclusive St Patrick’s Day that we can identify with here as a unionist community in Northern Ireland, but she must also recognise that 70 million people across the world celebrate St Patrick’s Day. Therefore, we must try to get the benefit of that by attracting them not only into the Republic of Ireland but into Northern Ireland. That is the reference to the greening of those landmarks. The wheel in London was greened last year to try to attract people into Northern Ireland.

One of the campaigns for Tourism Ireland in the GB market is to have that differentiation between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is hugely important that our nearest neighbours recognise that this is our big year of opportunity. They should come along and enjoy all the cultures that we have in Northern Ireland, and we look forward to welcoming them when they come.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I also welcome the Minister’s statement. It is very positive, and the prospects for the next couple of years look extremely good. In her answer to Mr Maginness, the Minister mentioned future years. That brings in the question of anniversaries and centenaries, which also have tourist potential. Can we take it that there will be the same level of co-operation between Tourism Ireland and the Tourist Board in the various jurisdictions to maximise the potential of the various centenaries?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Absolutely. I know that the Alliance Party has a motion down on the centenaries that we are looking forward to over the next 10 years. I hope to be able to respond to that motion in the Chamber and to detail all the actions that we are taking in relation to all those centenaries. Some of the centenaries are, of course, coming up very quickly. Therefore, I will welcome the opportunity to come to the House to speak about them in the very near future.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. What impact will the opening of the Titanic signature buildings and the Giant’s Causeway visitors’ centre have on attracting visitors to Northern Ireland? I welcome the support of Tourism Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board for the Circuit of Ireland rally, which this year becomes part of the IRC championship, the first stage of which is based at the Titanic Quarter in Belfast.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I wondered how the Member was going to get the Circuit of Ireland rally in, but I am pleased that he was able to do so. We welcome the fact that the rally is taking in the Titanic Quarter as part of its circuit this year and that, yet again, we will be able to shine a light on what is happening in that area. It also helps us to link the Titanic with another big sporting event. That is what this year is all about. It is about linking all the different events together so that when people come to Northern Ireland they have not just one thing to see, do and visit but a range of events.

We have eight tier 1 events in place, but a raft of other events — some new, some existing — will take place across Northern Ireland for the whole of the year. We very much look forward to the increase in visitors who will come and to the increase in visitor spend that will, undoubtedly, accompany that. More importantly, it gives us a chance to change global perceptions about Northern Ireland, to deal with those issues and with perceptions of safety and security and to say that Northern Ireland is confidently moving on.

Photo of Phil Flanagan Phil Flanagan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the indication in the Minister’s statement that, for the first time since 2007, we have returned to a growth in visitor numbers. Hopefully, we are starting to turn the corner with that.

I want to return to the visa waiver scheme, which my colleague raised. When was the Minister first made aware of that issue? Does she have any indication of a figure for the potential economic impact that the lack of co-operation on a visa waiver scheme is having on the economy in the North?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I have been aware of the issue for some time. It has become more of an issue now that the Etihad flight is coming into Dublin, and there has been a renewed sense of needing to deal with it. I am not underestimating the difficulties with the issue. However, it is incumbent on me, as tourism Minister, to draw as many tourists to Northern Ireland as we can. That is why I am having discussions with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in the Republic of Ireland and the Minister of State here in Northern Ireland. It is an issue, and I would like to see it sorted out, but it is a difficult one.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I thank the Minister and the Department for all that they do for tourism. However, she will be aware that when Mr Gibbons briefed the ETI Committee on 12 January this year he was unaware of the significance of 14 June and the Olympic Club in San Francisco. What does Tourism Ireland specifically plan to do to maximise the unprecedented focus that there will be on Northern Ireland and its golfers as they try to win the US Open for the third year running? Has she rejected the proposal that I put via the First Minister last June?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his continuing interest in golf tourism, and I look forward to the day that he spreads out into other tourism initiatives. However, I continue to see his comments as helpful. After his recent intervention, I wrote to the chief executives of Invest Northern Ireland, Tourism Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and asked each of them to make sure they knew exactly what they were doing in each of the markets. That will mean that his comments about Tourism Ireland not doing something at Pebble Beach or, in any event, the US Open — I do not think it is in Pebble Beach this year — are addressed. The slack can be taken up by Invest Northern Ireland, which has a presence there and will be promoting Northern Ireland as the home of champions. There is an imperative on us to grasp the opportunity that has been presented to us by our three champions, and I have made Tourism Ireland, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Invest Northern Ireland very much aware of the fact that we need to grasp it with both hands.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 12:15 pm, 14th February 2012

I thank the Minister for her statement. Realising that St Patrick represents the epitome of the unity and diversity concept, does she agree that, although much has been done on the St Patrick signature project, more investment is required to develop the assets and realise their full tourism potential in the North and that there is an all-island dimension to that form of tourism heritage, as some of the key sites are located in the South of Ireland? Will she ask Tourism Ireland to give greater priority to marketing our Patrician heritage?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I am somewhat surprised that the Member is giving up a bit of Patrick and allowing him to be claimed by another part. I thought that south Down had the only claim on St Patrick. However, she will know that we looked at all those issues during the very good Adjournment debate that she brought on the tourism potential of south Down. I said to her then and say to her again that the key to developing St Patrick and, indeed, all the signature projects and the nine destination areas is partnership and working with the local councils. Under RPA, new powers on tourism development will go to local councils. It is about working with the tourism destination areas and the signature project areas. She will also know that NITB and Tourism Ireland will continue to market St Patrick in a meaningful way. It is one of our special stories, and we will continue to use it in our global marketing campaigns.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

In noting the headline events that were commented on at the Council meeting in respect of this year and next, I observe no mention of the two largest cultural gatherings that there will be in both years: those on the twelfth and thirteenth of July. In that context, one also notes the total absence of celebration of the covenant day in the showcase production of ‘Your Time, Our Place’. What steps has the Minister taken to rectify that omission, if omission it was?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Of course, I expected that question. Given that it is a matter for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and not Tourism Ireland, the Member is straying into new ground. Perhaps he wishes me to take matters that are the subject of NITB into a North/South Ministerial Council. Frankly, I will not do that. However, I will continue to work with the Orange Order, the Royal Black Institution and the Apprentice Boys. Some Members may be embarrassed that they will not be at all those events during their summer holidays. However, I have no such embarrassment, and I will be at every one of them, as I am always, including the County Donegal demonstration in Rossnowlagh. Two years ago, I had the pleasure of hosting a reception that Tourism Ireland held at Rossnowlagh.

As I understand it, Mr Hume at the Orange Order has indicated to my officials that information on the 2012 tourism flagships will be with my officials next Monday. We look forward to profiling all that the Orange Order has to offer. We will continue to work with Orangefest, the Royal Black Institution and Scarva. I was invited to Scarva last year as a special guest, along with the chief executive of Tourism Ireland and the chairman of the Tourist Board. I am sure that the Member has his Royal Black Institution calendar for this year. In it, he will see that I am pictured at the Scarva demonstration. Perhaps he will let us know whether he was at Scarva last year, as I was and will continue to be on every occasion that I can.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as sin.

I thank the Minister for her extensive report. Mr Dunne referred to the Titanic project earlier, which is there to attract visitors from overseas to learn about that ill-fated ship. Given the relevance to these matters of Cobh, which was part of its journey as well, can the Minister advise us whether there has been any collaborative effort with the rest of the island and with the Government in the rest of the island to promote this joint project in a more collaborative way?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his question. Indeed, there are many places, as the Member will know, that will claim ownership of the Titanic story. I have to say that the Titanic story belongs in Belfast. I went around the signature building two weeks ago. It is at a very advanced stage now, and the Member will be pleased to know that some of the photographic imagery there was taken from Queenstown, as it then was, showing the ship leaving for the very last time. In fact, that is the last photograph of the Titanic, leaving Queenstown and going off into the Atlantic. There has been some collaboration, of course, in relation to the other areas that the Titanic went to before it sank. However, Belfast is the key area for the Titanic. That is a message that we need to get out globally. It is amazing how many people do not actually realise that the Titanic was built in Belfast. It is our job and it is incumbent on every Member to make sure that everybody knows that the Titanic was all right when it left Belfast.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I want to raise a concern with the House. Members have been furnished today with a written statement from the First and deputy First Ministers to announce the publication of the Programme for Government end-of-year delivery report. Will the Principal Deputy Speaker raise my concern with the First and deputy First Ministers as to why an issue of such importance was not met with an oral statement to the House?

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

That is not a matter for the Speaker. Under Standing Order 18A(2), it is up to the Minister to decide whether a statement should be oral or written.

The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. I therefore, propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm, when the first item of business will be Question Time.

The sitting was suspended at 12.22 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:00 pm, 14th February 2012

Question 8 has been withdrawn and requires a written answer.