The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
I beg to move
That this Assembly notes the effective impact the tackling rural poverty and social inclusion (TRPSI) framework has had on the farming and rural community; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to implement the recommendations outlined in the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development position paper on the review of the TRPSI framework.
The tackling rural poverty and social inclusion framework — TRPSI as it is known — is designed to address rural poverty and disadvantage via a range of measures in partnership with a number of voluntary and community groups and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. TRPSI focuses on three priority areas for intervention: access poverty; financial poverty; and social isolation. Its aim is to cover target areas such as the elderly, lone parents, the disabled, the unemployed and children.
The framework is delivered by DARD in partnership with other Departments and includes a wide range of programmes, each with its own objectives and targets, with an overall evaluation anticipated some time this year. It is also one of the Department’s targets in the Programme for Government and the rural White Paper action plan.
Members will be aware that those who live in rural areas are often at a disadvantage when it comes to service provision and employment prospects. They are often isolated and are living in poverty. Things that the urban dweller takes for granted, such as broadband, regular transport, access to essential services and job opportunities, are often missing in rural areas. This can have a long-term detrimental effect on rural dwellers, their families, their health and life in general. We are all too familiar with stories of the hardship and loneliness faced by the person living on their own or the desperation felt by our young people with no job prospects.
With this in mind, the Committee agreed to review the current TRPSI programme to find out how effective it has been and whether it could be improved in order to maximise opportunities. The Committee took evidence from a wide range of community and voluntary groups, the Department, the Public Health Agency and statistics' experts. It also commissioned a number of research papers on issues affecting rural poverty and isolation.
Due to the number of interested voluntary and community groups, the Committee was anxious that it captured as much evidence as it could to inform the review. It decided, therefore, to organise a stakeholder event, which was held in a central rural location to facilitate those groups. It was very clear to the Committee, even before the review commenced, that the issues faced by our rural communities today are genuine, cause great concern and need to be given the importance they deserve. The stakeholder event was a well-attended and worthwhile experience. It showed us the passion and commitment of rural dwellers, community groups and voluntary workers and the endless hours of effort they commit to in order to improve the lives of rural dwellers.
What was apparent from all the oral evidence sessions and the stakeholder event was that there was overwhelming agreement that the current TRPSI programme has had a substantial impact on the lives of rural dwellers. It was felt that the programmes TRPSI offers, such as the assisted rural travel scheme, farm families health checks programme and fuel poverty initiatives, to name but a few, have made a real difference to people in the rural community.
The groups and individuals that the Committee met demonstrated far-reaching local knowledge of the issues and concerns in their communities. This is one of the factors that has made the TRPSI programme a success. Local people working in partnership at a grass-roots level know what is happening in their own area. They have years of expertise and knowledge, which they are able to maximise to reach out to those most in need.
The voluntary and community groups are all known to one another and have good working relationships. They are able to signpost the services available, with numerous positive outcomes to date. This has been a key factor in the success of the TRPSI programme.
One of our key recommendations, therefore, is that the Department build on the successes of the current programme to include the knowledge of grass-roots organisations. They know the real issues the rural community faces and have the drive and ambition to deliver solutions. This aspect cannot afford to be overlooked by the Department, and, if used in a meaningful way, will inform and shape any future programme.
Particular mention should be made of the maximising access in rural areas (MARA) programme, delivered in conjunction with the Public Health Agency. MARA aims to improve the health and well-being of people living in rural areas, where the hidden nature of poverty and isolation can make it difficult to connect with the most vulnerable. The Committee heard that MARA has visited up to 14,000 households to share information on services, grants and benefits that the rural dweller may be entitled to. This has in turn released previously unclaimed money, which has not only been of value to the individual, but has benefited the wider economy of Northern Ireland. The success of MARA can be very clearly linked to the ability to tap into local knowledge and expertise quickly and effectively, thereby targeting those rural dwellers most in need.
Given that MARA has now collected a considerable amount of data, it is the opinion of the Committee that this data can provide a valuable insight into the issues of poverty and deprivation that the rural community faces. This is why we are recommending that the Department fully utilises the data captured, along with the evaluation of the project when available, to inform a successor programme.
Another notable issue that emerged during the review was about how rural deprivation is currently measured. Again, that is where the rural dweller is at a disadvantage. Unlike an urban area, where people are socially separated, rural areas quite often have an affluent person living alongside someone deprived and experiencing real poverty. That method of measurement has to change in order to accurately assess the real rural picture to better inform the decisions of the policymakers. As a Committee, we have called on the Department to work alongside the Department of Finance and Personnel to commission NISRA to undertake a review of how to measure rural deprivation. The Committee firmly believes, as do the community groups that appeared before us, that, if that review is carried out, it will make a real difference to the identification of rural deprivation and will, in turn, produce a positive outcome for the rural dweller.
Over the course of the review, the Committee heard from witnesses that there appears to be a lack of basic awareness of the use of the Northern Ireland multiple deprivation indices. Despite guidance being available from NISRA, it would seem that little or no attention is paid to that aspect of measuring deprivation. The guidance is vital to any policy that aims to target rural areas. The Committee, therefore, recommends that DARD actively engages with DFP to ensure that NISRA is commissioned to undertake a review of the NI multiple deprivation indices to establish how Departments use the indices and what importance they place on the guidance for rural areas.
Another issue that gave concern to the Committee was the responsibility for rural issues and rural proofing. During the evidence sessions, the Committee heard that there was a general perception that rural issues are the remit of DARD. Whilst it may seem appropriate for DARD to take the lead on rural issues, it was felt that it is not the only Department with responsibility for that area. Stakeholders agreed that Departments were not working with the rural White Paper and that their policies were not rural-proofed. The Committee has, therefore, recommended that DARD commences an evaluation of the level of consideration that other Departments give to rural issues in respect of policy, services and resources, and it is calling for the development of an interdepartmental working group to monitor that. We look forward to hearing the outcome of that recommendation.
Another concern for the Committee that emerged during the review was the intention of the Department to move £1·7 million from resource to capital and the requirement for it to be spent within one year. Whilst the Department has justified that budget move by stating that it will provide more sustainable development, the Committee is of the opinion that capital is generally more difficult to spend and is not necessarily where the need is. That is why we have recommended that the Minister rethinks that budget allocation. As a Committee, we remain to be convinced that that allocation of capital funding is the best option for the TRPSI programme.
Finally, there has been a great deal of apprehension around the creation of the new super-councils. Several stakeholders told the Committee that they fear that the new councils will not have a rural focus or make rural issues a priority. There has been considerable interest in the community planning process, and there is an expectation that rural areas will not be overlooked, but concern exists around budgets and funding for community groups. Again, the people on the ground are best placed to advise where and how any funding is best placed. The Committee is recommending that the Department proactively engages with the new councils to ensure that rural issues are a priority and that they are taken into account —
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I want to be identified with the comments that the Chair of the Committee has just made. I support the recommendations. I want to pay tribute to Stella, Elaine and the other members of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee team for working very diligently to make all this happen and for bringing the report before us here today.
From listening to all the witnesses during the review, I commend the fact that TRPSI is having a very positive impact on the lives of people in rural areas. Through correspondence with the Minister, I am aware that it is on course to meet its PFG target by 31 March this year. We have seen how MARA, the arts, the fuel poverty, the health checks and all the different components of the programme are having a meaningful impact on people's lives. Of course, on top of that, opportunities will be ushered in with the new rural development programme, which will address issues relating to social isolation and poverty.
In my contribution, I will speak specifically about one of the recommendations — my colleagues will pick up on other recommendations — on deprivation and how it is measured. During the inquiry, we heard some very strong views that the current methodology for assessing deprivation, the NI multiple deprivation measure (MDM), underestimates the extent of deprivation in rural areas. That theme was particularly flagged up by the Rural Development Council (RDC), the Rural Community Network (RCN) and the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) in their contributions to the review. I commend all those groups for making their way up here; we, of course, were also out in the community meeting organisations.
Those issues were also robustly flagged up by Trutz Haase when he appeared before the Committee. Last year, other MLAs, including Patsy McGlone, and I co-hosted a seminar organised by the Carnegie Trust on this very topic, entitled 'Poverty Amongst Plenty?' One of the recurring themes is that, under the current methodology, small and concentrated areas of deprivation are more easily identified in urban areas whereas deprivation is more dispersed in rural areas. In urban areas, there is more of a social concentration of deprivation, whereas it is more widely dispersed in rural areas. You could be in poverty but living in the midst of affluent neighbours in a rural area, and that is quite extensive.
The completion of the report is timely as we begin to scrutinise the Rural Proofing Bill. Many of the themes that were raised in the review will be relevant to the Rural Proofing Bill, which has been designed to protect and develop rural areas.
A number of concerns were raised about the measures, including the fact that the MDM focuses on income and not expenditure. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's minimum income standard project concluded that it costs 20% more to live in rural areas. Proximity to services is also a big issue. The weighting that was attributed to the overall score is only 10%; a study commissioned by the Church of Scotland and carried out by Geddes and Houston in 2012 concluded that deprivation of access is overwhelming in rural areas, which can have a significant negative impact on people's lives through employment, medical care and participation in cultural and social activities. That was supported by a study by McKendrick et al in 2011, which noted that the effect of the lower weighting, in which the domain of access to services is weighted at 10%, is that there is a negative impact. No rural areas are ranked in the top 10% of super output areas for deprivation across the North. The closest rural area that I am aware of is in Castlederg in my constituency, which ranks ninety-seventh, out of the 890.
The UFU representatives made a very good point in their contribution. They said that a method must be found to pinpoint deprivation in rural areas, unlike urban areas, which are more socially segregated. They said:
"One person could be in poverty and the person down the road could be in relative affluence."
The RDC and the RCN made the same points.
I believe that there should be fair and equitable treatment for rural communities. Rural proofing is vital for our society as a whole, and it is important for the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive to ensure that no policy should directly or indirectly impact on the rural community.
The SDLP is in favour of a framework for tackling rural poverty and social isolation. Since the revised framework was launched in 2012, there have been a number of significant outcomes. It is important to note that many of the projects involved in the framework have been completed in conjunction with other Departments and bodies, including the Public Health Agency, DRD, DEL, DSD, the Rural Community Transport Partnership and the Rural Support Network.
We want to ensure that everything possible is done to advance the rural agenda and to help our rural communities. We believe that this DARD initiative goes some way towards helping rural dwellers who face isolation.
A key goal of the Department is to improve the lives of farmers and other rural dwellers by targeting resources where they are needed most. I believe that the framework goes some way to achieving that.
The framework identified three key priority areas for intervention in rural areas. The first is access poverty, which aims to improve rural access to statutory services. The farm families health check programme has been very successful, and I am happy that nearly 6,000 checks have been completed in 266 locations across Northern Ireland. Access to health care is a major concern of the rural people of south Down. With the dilution of services at Downe Hospital and the removal of the stroke unit from Daisy Hill Hospital, rural people are not convinced of equal access. The closure of rural primary schools is a major concern, and the effect it is having on rural communities is very worrying. Access to broadband is a major drawback for the development of our SMEs throughout our rural areas.
The second priority is around financial poverty and ensuring that incomes can be maximised. The MARA project, which somebody spoke about earlier, is managed by the Public Health Agency and aims to help households complete an electronic assessment form to help assess eligibility for grants and benefits. The main aim of the project is to make our rural dwellers aware of the help that is available out there. The project aims to make people aware of the benefits that they are entitled to and to help and instruct them on how to apply for those benefits. I am happy to see that, by the end of August 2014, the MARA project surpassed the set target of visiting 12,000 homes. I welcome the recent announcement in my area of the Mourne Home 2 Hospital scheme, which helps transport rural people to hospital.
The third priority area is social inclusion. That focuses on measures that identify and address different types of isolation experienced by different vulnerable people. Rural community transport is an essential service to all our rural dwellers. For the last number of years, there have been a number of excellent community transport partnerships that deliver a vital and flexible service throughout rural areas.
I note that, within the framework, there are several different projects aimed at reducing social isolation. The assisted rural transport scheme has been very positive. The Contacting Elderly Rural Isolated project seems to be on track to meet its target of 81,000 additional contacts, with nearly 70,000 new contacts being made. It is also important to note the role of DRD in rural transport, as it offers funding to rural transport services.
Overall, I am pleased to note the positive outcomes that have already come from the tackling rural poverty and social inclusion framework. I hope that more can be done to help deliver the framework to improve the lives of farmers and rural dwellers and help to build a rural economy.
I also pay tribute to Stella, Elaine and their team. It was a useful exercise for the Committee to review the Department's tackling rural poverty and social inclusion framework. It confirmed what many of us will have expected, which is that individual programmes are making important progress in the areas in which they are operating.
Throughout the review, the Committee took evidence from a range of stakeholders, which included specific organisations and schemes being singled out for praise. One that I would like to highlight — it has been mentioned before — is the very important farm families health checks programme. Agriculture is not only a job but a way of life for many of our farmers. Unfortunately, however, it is a lifestyle particularly susceptible to health challenges. Those can range from the problems connected to working long hours in a physically demanding job to isolation from health services that many other people have easy access to and do not think twice about attending. I include in that list of challenges the mental health anguish often associated with living and working in isolation and the impact of working hard for low or below farmgate prices. The health checks programme has been a potentially life-saving programme to farmers right across Northern Ireland. It flags up early warning signals, and farmers are often then signposted on.
I pay tribute to the teams of nurses who work from the portable units in all types of weather and from all sorts of locations. Their work is to be commended and their impact on farming and rural families cannot be underestimated. I feel that it was a sensible decision to concentrate efforts on regional livestock markets. It makes sense to try to grasp the attention of as many farmers as possible in one location. In fact, I reckon that the current mobile units are becoming so much of a permanent fixture that it would cause issues in the farming community if they were to be removed. I know that a number of charities, including those that focus on mental health challenges, are considering making bids for European funding as a result of seeing the excellent work of these mobile units. Can the Minister detail what impact, if any, the recent reductions to the Public Health Agency's budget will have on the health checks? In regard to her own budget, does she believe that this is the type of programme that should be protected? I share the Committee's concern that next year's budget for the so-called tackling rural poverty and social isolation framework was allocated according to convenience rather than need.
The Committee was especially impressed to hear the glowing reports about the MARA project. It is no surprise that it has been so busy. Our rural population is often older, and we need to bear in mind the condition of some of the housing stock in our rural areas. Many people have lived in their current homes all their lives, and many other homes have passed from one generation to another. It was inevitable that these farmhouses could have benefited from additional energy-saving measures, and I am pleased that many have had elements of that work done.
Unfortunately, however, fuel poverty remains a major and uncompromising issue in rural areas. Some of this can, of course, be put down to the absence of natural gas and the subsequent reliance on oil, which, until recently, was becoming one of the largest household outgoings. However, I believe that even more could and should be done to target these homes. The old warm homes scheme worked well for those who benefited from it, but the number of those homes was too few and the cost of the scheme was too high. It is imperative that our rural roads and laneways are not overlooked by councils because other streets of houses are easier to reach. That may be the case, but deprivation and fuel poverty do not discriminate between those who live in urban and rural areas.
There is a range of other challenges facing our rural dwellers, some of which are addressed in this Committee review and others are not. I will cite just two. The ongoing absence of affordable childcare is often a major barrier to parents in rural areas taking up and sustaining employment. Another major problem right now, and an absolute contradiction to the supposed attempts to tackle rural isolation, is the reduction of care in the community, especially of essential services like home helps.
I support this very important motion. As an Assembly Member representing a rural constituency, I see areas and people throughout the community who strive to keep their heads above water. It is only right and proper that the Assembly recognises all the problems and concerns experienced by rural dwellers and that we try to do something about it.
As a member of Stormont's Agriculture Committee, I welcome the finding of the TRPSI — tackling rural poverty and social inclusion — framework review. Having listened to the contributors who came to give evidence to the Committee, I will say that no one should be in any doubt about the size and scale of the problems experienced by our farming and rural communities. Our Committee Chair and other members have outlined to the Assembly the many hardships and obstacles faced by the rural population.
I would like to put on record my thanks and appreciation for the work done by our Committee staff in bringing together the many stakeholders plus affected and interested parties. Our thanks also goes to those organisations, including the Department, that submitted all the written evidence that was received and considered by the Committee and to those who attended the stakeholder event held last November at the Greenmount campus. We are extremely grateful to the Assembly's research department for providing our Committee with information on rural isolation, rural poverty, rural well-being and many more topics. Our Committee agreed that the earlier work and current programme of TRPSI was done well. The positive impacts that it has made have to be maintained and acknowledged by the allocation of finance to each project.
We welcomed the comments by the RCN and the PHA about the social return on investment of the first phase of the MARA project, which stands for maximising access in rural areas. That showed that, for every pound invested by DARD and the Public Health Agency, over eight pounds were returned.
It was most gratifying to hear from the many groups involved in tackling rural poverty and isolation of their satisfaction with DARD's contribution. For instance, representatives of the Rural Development Council stated:
"We welcome the programme and commend DARD for its approach to implementation, which is largely focused on partnership working, collaboration and ...engaging rural stakeholders in communities."
Also, it has been mentioned by other Members that the farm families' health check programme got the seal of approval and commendation from the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers' Association, and the same appreciation came for the assisted rural travel scheme. The Minister, whom we are grateful to see, must be rubbing her hands with glee at all the commendations from other Departments. If so, let us give credit where credit is due and hope that it continues.
The MARA project has contributed enormously to tackling our rural problems. The simple fact — again, it has been mentioned — that it allowed some 14,000 householders to be visited and that those involved listened and, more importantly, acted on what they heard, has to be commended. We sincerely hope that the data gathered through the project will be wisely used by the Department to make further progress and to reduce and finally eliminate all rural poverty and isolation and to enhance social inclusion. I commend all the groups and the departmental officers for their work and dedication.
I hope that the Assembly endorses the Committee's efforts and appreciates all the positive contributions from all groups, including the Department. I also hope that the Department accepts all the recommendations and implements them without delay.
As a Member of the Agriculture Committee, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. At the outset, I would like to thank the Committee staff for all their work, the researchers and all the stakeholders who made inputs to the inquiry.
For many who live in insolated rural areas, the tackling rural poverty and social isolation framework has been a welcome initiative that has provided much practical help and support for those who are in real need. Minimising poverty, inequality, social exclusion and disadvantage, especially among vulnerable groups in isolated rural communities, is a policy priority in the rural White Paper action plan, and there is no doubt that, through the TRPSI framework, there is clear evidence that policy documents can become a reality and provide tangible benefits for those in greatest need. We have seen that happen with the TRPSI programme.
Unfortunately, poverty and isolation exist throughout all arts and parts of Northern Ireland, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to that problem. In urban areas, for example, a clear trend of poverty and isolation exists in certain geographical boundaries, where there are areas of affluence and poverty. While those areas can be fairly easily defined and initiatives can be put in place to target the problem, it is not the same in rural areas as no such boundaries exist, which leaves it much more difficult to tackle the problems that rural dwellers face.
No one in the House will be under any illusion as to the pressure that the farming community has been under over the past few years. Year on year, they have been squeezed so far as getting a reasonable price for their product is concerned and that, added to the difficulties posed by banks, has left many farming families struggling. Indeed, it has driven some to the point of despair.
Isolation, loneliness and economic pressures have had a substantial impact on farming families and the entire rural community. The Northern Ireland continuous household survey highlighted the fact that not only is there a growing number of people living alone but the number of people between the ages of 16 and 59 who live alone has doubled in the past 30 years. There is no doubt that that, along with the ageing population, is a contributing factor to rural isolation and loneliness. The challenge to all Departments is to work in tandem with each another to deliver for those who find themselves in such circumstances.
It is only right and proper that we acknowledge and recognise the good work that has been done through the Rural Community Network and the MARA project, as so many in the Chamber have done this evening. That work now needs to be developed further and built on. Figures show that MARA has visited some 14,000 households and helped deliver on the warm homes scheme, welfare benefits and boiler replacements to a total of £3·2 million. Its strength and success is its ability to tap into local knowledge and expertise and to do so quickly and effectively.
As we move forward in addressing the issue in rural areas, it is important to note what other stakeholders said when they came before the Committee. The Ulster Farmers' Union said:
"While it is right and proper that DARD should continue to take the lead on this issue, we believe that there needs to be a joined-up approach to this issue. Just because DARD is the only department with 'rural' in its name does not mean that it is the only Department with responsibility for rural dwellers."
The Rural Community Network said:
"RCN believes that the challenge remains that other Departments are not taking rural poverty and social isolation into account to the degree that they should in their service delivery."
It went on to say:
"It is the responsibility of all Departments to take the lead ... every Department has a responsibility to police its money and its priority for rural as well as for urban people."
That is where I believe the challenge lies, and it is out there for all the other Departments to make rural proofing a reality, for the benefit of the rural community and the people in those areas.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The revised tackling rural poverty and social isolation framework was launched on 22 February 2012 as a DARD initiative aimed at facilitating a cross-departmental coordinated service. The purpose of the initiative is to maximise access to benefits, grants and local and regional services that will help to support vulnerable rural dwellers who are already in or are at risk of poverty and social isolation.
The framework outlines three priority areas for government to target and take action against. Those are access poverty, financial poverty and social isolation. The Agriculture Minister, who has to be commended for leading on all of this and, indeed, for her innovative thinking on it, secured £16 million in the 2011-15 Budget period to tackle rural isolation and poverty in rural areas under the programme and has secured £5·5 million for the 2014-15 financial year. That money and the work with other Departments, such as the Health Department, have enabled us to lever down a further £11 million in match funding. That is significant investment across a range of issues such as fuel poverty, disability, the elderly and young people, to name but a few.
MARA is delivered through 13 lead community-based organisations. In the past three years, the organisations have arranged and delivered 13,700 home visits. Those visits have generated a further 36,500 individual referrals to other Departments and agencies for a variety of grants, benefits and services. With partnerships in the area of public health, the MARA project will continue into 2015-16, with a further estimated 3,000 home visits planned.
One of the many successes of the MARA project is the farm families health checks programme. Since the programme started in July 2012, 6,826 clients have presented themselves for a health check at 325 venues. Of those venues, 213 were at markets and 112 were at community events. Some 52% of the clients were subsequently advised to see their GP. Over half — over 3,000 people — were referred to their GP for a medical reason. The programme has proved to be a lifeline for farmers, as their work does not leave them time to visit GP clinics and, indeed, the location of their work means that they are isolated from the rest of the community.
I thank the Member for his intervention. No, I do not think so, because you will have a range of agencies coming in to deliver the programme. There will be enough to bring that round, considering the small number that was dealing with it at the start. However, I can see where you are coming from, and I appreciate your question.
The programme has proved to be a lifeline for farmers. Another great outcome has been the benefits check. For long enough, farmers have thought that, because they own land, they are not entitled to any benefits. The reverse has now been proven. It is important that vulnerable rural dwellers can access benefits, which are a great help to family incomes. In turn, they help address the extra costs of living in the countryside, such as fuel, transport etc. Farmers need that extra income for their families.
MARA has amassed a large volume of information for the main Departments on health, education, community development and welfare benefits. Rural living must be made more attractive. That is the point: we are now sitting with all this information. The Minister has opened the door for other agencies to come in, and they must come in and deliver on this.
I will give you some numbers from my area, to give you an idea. The north Antrim network has been delivering MARA projects since 2012. It has visited 1,600 households for a first visit. That has involved a total of nearly 1,900 individual assessments, with a follow-up of nearly 1,400 second visits to ensure referrals have been acted on. The outcome of the nearly 1,700 household visits is some 4,000 referrals.
Now that the councils have been set up, they must act on that information and make it a priority that goes into the community plans. Perhaps, the message will go out today that councils should go one step further and set up dedicated committees in their council structures that will deal with rural affairs, because, as those Members who come from a council background will know —
I rise as a member of the ARD Committee to speak in support of the motion on the position paper.
Northern Ireland has a rich industrial and manufacturing heritage, but not all of it is based in towns or cities — far from it. Indeed, our agricultural base, which is an integral part of our industrial and manufacturing heritage, is central to our economy. The well-being of the rural community is therefore a big priority.
In recent decades, our agriculture industry has suffered many setbacks, and that has had a big impact on the quality of life for our rural dwellers. As farmers' incomes have declined, they have been forced to diversify and have more than one job. They have also had to grapple with ever-increasing bureaucracy and red tape. All of that has had a major impact on morale and on the standard of living of farmers and families. Farmers are people with considerable self-respect, and they are often extremely reluctant to seek help. However, financial difficulties do not extend only to farming families. Many non-farming families are also affected, and, in the main, they are private people as well. For that reason, if for no other, I am pleased that a series of measures is being taken to address the financial hardships and pressures on those who live in the countryside.
We have many folk who live in the countryside who feel vulnerable, and I think particularly of the lonely and elderly who are often targeted for brutal attack where they live in isolated areas. Tackling poverty and social exclusion is a key target for the Executive. The tackling rural poverty and social isolation framework aims to help to tackle poverty and social isolation in rural areas through a series of measures in partnership with statutory and voluntary community groups and Departments. This is a DARD commitment, but it covers a wide range of areas of life, and other Departments and agencies are required to play their part. Too often, others view rural poverty and deprivation as matters merely for DARD. The Ulster Farmers' Union, among others, made that point very strongly.
As the motion confirms, the Committee has been looking at this area, and it has been reviewing the Department's progress on its commitments under its rural anti-poverty and social exclusion programme. Our position paper sets out the details and makes recommendations.
It is obvious that the Minister and her officials are taking TRPSI seriously, and, as we gathered evidence, we were also very impressed by the extent of the efforts of a range of voluntary and community groups to make a real difference to rural dwellers' quality of life. Our paper commends the —
Our paper commends the way in which the community and voluntary sector has risen to the challenge of TRPSI. Those groups deserve the highest praise. Rural Support, which provides a listening and signposting service for farming and rural families in Northern Ireland, is to be highly commended. It has been able to deliver practical results on the ground.
One area that I regard as vital is the transport infrastructure. In the countryside, people need a car just to go about the basics of life. They do not have the easy access to facilities that those who live in towns and cities take for granted. In a recent speech on higher education, I said that no one would argue that we should have a university in every town; the same could be said for hospitals and leisure centres and so on. However, we need to ensure that rural dwellers are not disadvantaged in those things because of where they live. Services to connect with rural dwellers need to be put in place. I commend the voluntary organisations that run transport for rural dwellers, and I would like to see more coordination of planning and resources in that area.
One project that has been well mentioned today and deserves the highest praise is the maximising access to services, grants and benefits in rural areas programme, known as MARA for short. Many who gave evidence to the Committee praised MARA. It is collating a most valuable database that can only help to take TRPSI to the next stage. It is vital that there is a new TRPSI in 2016.
This was also touched on, but another area that needs to be considered is the impact of local government reform on the overall strategy to tackle rural deprivation.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I will also speak in favour of the motion. Like Members who have spoken before me, I thank our Clerk, Stella, and the Committee staff for their sterling work on this important subject. Indeed, I thank all those who took the time to contribute in any way to the review. Their experience, assessment and input have been essential in evaluating the current programme. They have identified not just the successes, of which there have been many, but the challenges that need to be addressed.
Those challenges come in many forms. As outlined, we discussed how information could be shared, recorded and interpreted so that it could be used to best effect in the future. We have the changing nature of the difficulties facing our rural communities as a whole but particularly those impacted by poverty and isolation. For example, to name but a few, unemployment, emigration, severe weather, the added risk of stress for the growing number of lone workers on our farms and changes to public services adversely affect our rural communities. That is why it is important to take stock every so often, consult individuals and stakeholders and make recommendations such as those that the Committee is making today.
For my contribution, I want to focus on the formation of the new super-councils, the role that they will play in delivering this framework and the Committee's recommendation about them. It came as no surprise to me that the demand for information and involvement in LEADER and the local community plans exceeded expectations in the rural constituency of Mid Ulster. As a native and a representative of the area, I am only too aware of how widely dispersed the population is and how the issues and, indeed, the solutions can differ from one part of the constituency to another.
While it is important that expectations are managed for what is achievable, I am delighted that so many people came forward, presented their thoughts and ideas and expressed their willingness to play a role in shaping the priorities for local government. The new model of LEADER, with its wider local action group membership, will assist in involving a greater number of people, which I hope will ensure that the platform for raising concerns and providing new opportunities to tackle rural poverty and isolation will be as broad as possible. I believe that the councils themselves are well placed to identify areas where resources need to be targeted, but, as was suggested during the review, there will be a limited budget. To make a little go a long way, it will be imperative to match need to funding priorities and to work in partnership with all agencies and Departments, as well as voluntary and community groups, to share responsibility and best practice and to prevent duplication.
While it is right that DARD takes the lead on rural issues and provides the necessary guidance and support, it will be fully effective only when a joined-up approach is taken. I, therefore, support the recommendation that the Department engage proactively with the new councils to ensure that they are active and vigorous in taking rural issues into account in the development of policy and the delivery of services in rural and farming communities, as well as working effectively with the groups and organisations that have been successfully involved in delivering the TRPSI framework.
In closing, I commend our Minister for her commitment in prioritising this area of work and driving this important work forward.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Choiste as an obair atá déanta acu. I thank the Committee and its staff for the work that they have done in bringing the report to the Assembly for debate. As an elected representative from a rural constituency, and having represented parts of it from 1993 onwards, I am very aware of the impact that the tackling rural poverty and social isolation framework has had in tackling poverty and social isolation in farming and rural communities. Other representatives from similar constituencies will undoubtedly agree. That said, there is room for improvement, and that is what the recommendations from the Committee's review of the Department's anti-poverty and social inclusion programme seek to achieve.
"local people are best placed to identify local solutions."
The groups and organisations involved with the delivery of the TRPSI framework are undoubtedly one of its strengths, and, in no small part, they are a vital component of its success. In view of that fact, the Committee has recommended that the Departments build on the successes of the current programme, including the vast knowledge already available from grass-roots organisations in rural communities, to help to inform and to shape a new TRPSI programme; I will say a bit more about that after a while. Given the importance of joined-up thinking in this area, it is surprising and, as the Committee noted, disappointing that there appeared to be no plan for a coordinated approach to make effective use of the data from the more successful projects such as MARA to inform other projects or a future TRPSI programme.
As I stand here, I consider the number of times that I have received presentations — I and others — about rural poverty, rural isolation, rural health, rural transport, when a plethora of issues comes forward. Many of those reports — I certainly hope that this will not be one of them — are sitting on shelves, having not been acted on. Hence the importance of the Committee's second recommendation, which is that the Department, in conjunction with other Departments, fully utilises the data captured and the evaluation that MARA has produced and uses it to inform and shape the TRPSI successor programme.
It is important, however, that rural matters are not thought of as the exclusive preserve of DARD. Many of the issues have cross-departmental elements and, as such, it is fitting that the Committee also recommends that DARD should undertake an evaluation of the extent to which other Departments and the wider public sector consider rural issues in respect of policy, services and resources. It is at that point, as Mr Buchanan referred to earlier, that rural proofing kicks in. Rural proofing has been about as a nebulous kind of notional issue for a long time, but when it comes to its implementation, some give a nod to its policy direction and some just mention it and do nothing about it. It is high time that we had it on a full statutory footing to deliver across the range of services, because it is not just DARD; it is health, transport, jobs, training, and skills for young people. It is basically about getting social services and care community packages into areas. All of that forms part of rural proofing or, more to the point, the extent and level of services that should be delivered to communities and people in rural areas. Therefore, the Departments and the wider public sector must consider those rural issues in respect of policy, services and resources.
The Committee further recommends that DARD develops an interdepartmental working group with the buy-in of senior civil servants in the relevant Departments. One area of particular concern that the Committee highlighted was the impact that the new super-councils will have on the delivery of services. There are real concerns that new councils may not always have a rural focus — some are big rural councils; others have an amalgam of rural and more urban — and that policy and service delivery may be concentrated on serving urban areas.
Expectations have been raised, particularly in my constituency, as a result of the community planning process, but limited budgets may result in disappointment, and rural communities are concerned that there may in fact —
First, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the debate about the report. Secondly, I apologise to the proposer of the motion and to those who made contributions at an early stage for not being present. I am sure that they will get over that. Thirdly, I add my thanks to the Committee staff and the research teams who carried out much work for the project and the inquiry.
Before I get into the main aspects, I want to point out that living in rural areas in Northern Ireland is not all negative. We should not look on everything as having a negative aspect, because there are some very good positives as well. There are advantages, and many of us recognise that. As there has been such a demand over recent years for people to live in the countryside, it proves that many people enjoy the countryside and the pleasures of living there. However, there are many disadvantages.
I want to start off by talking about rural childcare, which was mentioned earlier, and, in particular, affordable rural childcare. Childcare centres, especially those in rural areas where they do not have the numbers of children attending them, are under huge pressure, particularly in relation to some of the guidance and procedures that have come forward from the health agencies. I ask the Minister to have a look at that at some stage. That says to me that one Department in the Executive is not consulting or doing what another Department wants —
I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that the Noble indices have as much to do with childcare and the lack of childcare in certain areas because of deprivation levels and how they look at them, and that that is out of the hands of everybody? The Noble indices now need to look at the rural dweller and give the mothers in the countryside better access to childcare.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I thank the Member for his intervention. I do not disagree that the Noble indices may have a part to play in it, but I can tell you from my experience in Fermanagh that I have met a number of childcare providers in recent weeks. They have found that, because of new guidelines and procedures coming down from health agencies and the increased numbers of staff that they have to have in order to satisfy the criteria, they find it absolutely impossible to provide that level of staffing for the number of children who come onto their premises. That means that they cannot provide affordable childcare. If they have to raise their fees by £2 per hour per child, it will leave some of those working parents unable to go out to work. It would be much more cost-effective for them to stay at home and not take on that part-time or full-time job. There is a real issue there that needs to be looked at. I have already found that on the ground in my constituency, Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
That leads me to the second negative aspect — if you want to look at it in that way — which is access to services in rural areas. I recall doing a Consumer Council public transport challenge — it must have been seven or eight years ago — in which it was suggested that I make a series of appointments and use public transport to attend them. As you will appreciate, there is no train service in County Fermanagh, so it was much more difficult, and I was limited in the public transport that I could use. I found that you had to make appointments around the times of the bus or public transport service as opposed to getting the public transport to suit whatever time you had made the appointment. You had to do the thing the opposite way around from how you would normally do it. I found that a difficult challenge.
The third aspect is about working in isolation. Working and living in isolation in the countryside can be a very lonely experience. We all know how the farming community has suffered financially over the last number of years and what significant pressure it has been under. That significant pressure can almost always be worse if you work in isolation, as many in the farming community do. Mental health and suicide issues have been a major traumatic experience in rural communities, and I pay tribute to Rural Support for the work it carries out. Also, when accidents happen, there is often nobody on hand to help. Once you have had an accident, you are on your own, and you are left in isolation. In the last few months, a farmer who lives close to me was attacked by his animals — or that is the thought —
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Members for their contributions to the debate. It has been very useful and helpful, and I welcome the fact that people are very positive about the work that is being done through TRPSI. I welcome the positive comments that have been made. Many Members have talked about the benefits of living in a rural community, but there certainly are challenges. Issues of poverty and isolation are very much a reality on the ground. I see it very much as my responsibility to take the lead in trying to bring forward measures to address those areas.
Most Members referred to the fact that this is not just the business of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development; it is the business of all Departments. Rural communities are entitled to the same services as others. I look forward to more cooperation with other Departments in taking forward the measures that we have set out and any new measures that we develop.
I greatly value the work that the Committee has done in producing the report, and I intend to pick up on the recommendations as I respond to the issues that have been set out. I am grateful for the report, and I assure the Committee that, in setting out future plans for tackling rural poverty and isolation, the report will help us in our considerations.
Many Members talked about the importance and the practical delivery of the TRPSI framework, and it is very focused on developing interventions and actions that can help to alleviate rural poverty and isolation and complement and add value to existing government strategies and, of course, help rural communities to help themselves. Due to the complex and multidimensional factors that contribute to poverty and isolation in rural areas, a one-size-fits-all approach definitely could not work. It would most likely result in only addressing pockets of rural isolation or distinct poverty issues. For that reason, the Department has, along with our partners, developed a broad spectrum of actions in an attempt to address the wide range of poverty and isolation-related needs in rural communities.
Members highlighted many very positive projects. I want to provide Members with a short overview of the actions that have been delivered and, in many cases, continue to be delivered as part of the TRPSI programme. I think that it is helpful to relate the actions to the three key priority areas identified in the framework: access poverty, financial poverty and social isolation. I will be happy to respond to any queries, and I will hopefully pick up on all the issues that Members have raised.
The MARA project, to which Members referred, is one of our multifaceted schemes in that it targets financial poverty, access poverty and isolation simultaneously. MARA is being delivered in partnership with the Public Health Agency, and, in this phase of the project to date, over 13,700 vulnerable rural households have been visited. That has generated 36,000 referrals for grants, benefits and local and regional services.
Through the recently completed rural challenge programme, my Department offered a small grant of up to £10,000 each to 44 organisations. Those projects, which concluded their work in December past, have helped over 6,700 individuals, with issues such as financial capability, mental health issues, parenting skills and exclusion all being tackled. Since 2012, the rural support helpline has received over 1,600 calls, all of which have been dealt with quietly and efficiently by their experienced team of volunteers to assist and signpost them to services that can help with problems such as farm finance, paperwork, inheritance, succession, stress and isolation. My Department is working with Libraries NI to extend the Health in Mind initiative in rural areas to increase understanding of mental health issues through reading, learning and information. The farm families health scheme has had a very positive impact to date, with over 6,800 clients availing themselves of a check-up at 325 venues. All Members referred to the benefit of that scheme.
I know that some concerns were raised about the Public Health Agency's role in funding the project, but I can confirm for Members that it has committed its funding for the 2015-16 financial year. That allows us to carry forward that scheme. For me and as everyone has said, it is a scheme that gives tremendous benefit to farmers who, often, will not seek medical help; however, while they are at the marts, this mobile service is there and has certainly been of tremendous benefit. I look forward to rolling it out further.
Through partnership with the Department for Regional Development, my Department has implemented a scheme that has constructed 63 private borewells where accessing the public water mains supply is not technically or financially feasible. Through the assisted rural travel scheme, which enables SmartPass holders to avail themselves of concessionary travel on rural community transport partnership vehicles, it has funded more than 700,000 passenger trips. The connecting elderly rural isolated programme has helped more than 1,900 elderly individuals and involved 10 community organisations that facilitate the scheme in assisting supported home living.
In relation to fuel poverty, we have supported the installation of whole-house energy efficiency improvements in over 500 rural households, and over 1,300 low-income rural families have benefited from loft and cavity insulation. The BOOST youth employability scheme has supported nearly 1,300 rural young people to develop core industry-recognised skills and therefore improve their prospects of getting into paid employment. In addition, through the rural youth entrepreneurship programme, my Department has supported over 660 young people who have participated in workshops to explore their enterprise and their entrepreneurial potential. My Department’s support for community development through the network of subregional rural community development support organisations also complements the objectives of the RDP by improving the economic capability of rural areas, increasing access to funding programmes and building capacity in rural communities.
Members will also be aware that priority 6 of the new rural development programme, which will be delivered by the local action groups, has a specific focus on poverty reduction and tackling rural isolation and will provide another avenue for funding that will complement and add value to TRPSI.
I am delighted with the impact that the interventions have had, and are continuing to have, in rural areas and that the detailed review undertaken by the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development has endorsed the work done through TRPSI and supported the full range of initiatives. Of course, we cannot stand still. There is still a lot to be done, and more that we can do. I have extended the Programme for Government commitment for TRPSI by £4 million into 2015-16. That will enable most of the schemes to continue where they are needed.
Members will be aware that the Department’s TRPSI framework has an associated Programme for Government target to bring forward a £13 million package of measures to tackle rural poverty and isolation. We are very much on track to achieve that target. I can assure the House that officials are working very hard, in conjunction with the various delivery partners, to ensure that the package of measures that I outlined reaches out to and continues to support the greatest number of those most in need.
Through the various TRPSI interventions, literally tens of thousands of rural people have benefited, and the impacts that the interventions have had on the lives of many cannot be overestimated. Indeed, in a lot of cases, they are life-changing. It is also worth noting that, through working in partnership with other agencies and Departments, it is conservatively estimated at this stage that the package of measures delivered has levered in over £12 million to date. That is all significant investment in rural communities.
We have taken the views of many different organisations into account. TRPSI could not be a one-size-fits-all package. It has had to be multidimensional, and our discussions with the public and voluntary sectors are reflective of that. My Department has been creative in using different approaches to target distinct needs in rural communities. Some, such as MARA and the farm family health checks programme, have involved visiting individual households or going to where the hardest-to-reach people can be found, as opposed to waiting for them to come to us. For other schemes, we have used workshops and the media to promote and encourage participation. That flexible approach has worked, and so too has the approach of working in conjunction with other Departments and agencies.
Looking forward, I remain firmly committed to tackling issues of rural poverty and isolation, and I am pleased to have extended the tackling rural poverty and social isolation programme into 2015-16, with an associated extension to the Programme for Government target of £4 million.
Already for 2015-16, plans are well developed to continue to assist rural transport, access and associated health issues; to maximise access to benefits and services; to support rural community development; to support youth employment and entrepreneurship; and to assist fuel poverty and broadband issues. In addition, officials are looking at options to provide support to help community and voluntary groups make available much-needed resources for their local communities. I particularly refer to new areas of work, such as a small capital grants scheme for community groups and a rural transport initiative.
I will continue to listen to the needs of rural dwellers, and I thank the Committee again for its recommendations, which will all be considered when developing future initiatives. In saying that, I believe that, from the contributions today, the House is very aware of, and very much wedded to, the benefit of the tackling poverty and social isolation work. We have the opportunity to build on the good work that has been done to date in the time ahead.
The six key recommendations in the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development's position paper look at how the TRPSI work is developed and taken forward. I am committed to working with other Departments, councils and statutory agencies to consider how best we can deliver collectively for rural communities. Those are key considerations for the TRPSI programme going forward. The report will assist in the evaluation of the programme and help us set out a chart for the way forward.
Some Members referred to my intention to bring forward primary legislation in this Assembly mandate to strengthen rural proofing across government, subject to Executive agreement. The proposed rural proofing Bill will support the equitable treatment of rural dwellers by requiring their needs and the impact on rural communities to be addressed appropriately in the development and delivery of policy and public services. The policy proposals for the Bill are out to public consultation until 16 March 2015, and I encourage people to respond to the consultation.
On recommendations 3 and 4, my proposals for a rural proofing Bill include a requirement for DARD to gather and compile information on rural proofing and to publish a monitoring report to be laid before the Assembly.
That will provide an accountability mechanism and greater transparency of the extent to which rural proofing is carried out. It will also include a duty on councils to take into account the needs of rural dwellers in the development of policy and the delivery of services.
With regard to recommendation five, my Department is represented on the statistics coordinating group, which is a cross-departmental group considering a review of the multiple deprivation measures. DARD has recommended that there needs to be a full, in-depth review of the measures that should take account of rural-specific issues.
Regarding recommendation six, officials are liaising with partner organisations on how best to use the capital budget in 2015-16, and the evaluation and planning of the post 2015-16 TRPSI programme will include longer-term plans for capital investment.
I will finish there and thank everybody for their contribution to the debate. It has been very positive. One of the Members said that I would be rubbing my hands with glee at all the positivity in the room, but I am rubbing my hands with glee for rural dwellers. This is a fantastic project that we can build on strongly in the time ahead, and I look forward to working with other Departments. I firmly believe, given the sentiment that has been expressed today, that rural dwellers' issues are not just the responsibility of this Department but of the Executive as a whole.
Our Deputy Chairperson, Mr Joe Byrne, was to wind up today, but he sends his apologies for missing the debate. I am therefore doing the wind in his place. I thank the staff of the Committee for all the hard work and effort that they have put in with regard to the programme and the inquiry over the last number of months.
As Chairperson of the Committee, at the start of this debate, I outlined the background and highlighted the main recommendations that we are presenting to the Minister. I was very interested in her reply, and I look forward to reading Hansard and giving due consideration to the points she made.
I am delighted to see so many people taking part in the debate. Rural issues and rural development have tended to be overlooked to a degree. I am glad that the debate has brought the issues to the fore, and I am pleased to be able to emphasise on the Floor of the Assembly the outstanding work that the community and voluntary groups have been doing. That has been one of the key themes of the debate, and it is great to see the work of rural groups recognised and acknowledged.
Another theme emerging is the success of the individual projects in the overall TRPSI framework, particularly the MARA project. Some here today have referred to the statistical evidence of the great work that MARA has done, but the success of MARA owes much to its approach. It is an approach that we would like to see duplicated and retained in any future TRPSI programme.
The issue of rural deprivation has also been raised by many MLAs representing rural constituencies. We know how big an issue this is, and that is why we need to see work started as soon as possible on the review of how rural deprivation is measured and used. While there is guidance on how to apply deprivation indices in rural areas, it is disappointing that there is no evidence to suggest that this guidance is being used.
I will now summarise the contributions made by other Members. Mr McAleer commented on rural deprivation and outlined some of the issues in how it is measured. Seán Rogers felt that there was a need to ensure that no policy had a negative impact on the rural community and that steps needed to be taken to continue to advance services and facilities in rural areas. Jo-Anne Dobson paid tribute to the farm families health checks and praised the nurses who delivered the programme.
Kieran McCarthy said that the rural community continually strives to keep its head above water and that many problems continue. He said that TRPSI is to be commended for its success and that stakeholders were happy with DARD and the partnership approach.
Mr McMullan commended the Minister for TRPSI. He said there had been significant investment across the Departments to deliver programmes and there have been many successes to date. Ian Milne felt that there was a challenge to make sure of all information gathered to date and to use it effectively. He said that councils need to work in partnership to share responsibility and good practice.
While Mr McGlone welcomed the impact that TRPSI has had, he said that there is room for improvement. He then focused on the data captured from MARA. He said that super-councils have a role to play.
Tom Elliott said that there is a need for revised guidance on childcare provision and said that it is becoming unaffordable. He said that access to services is an ongoing issue and that transport problems are also a concern for the rural dweller. He also said that working and living in isolation leads to mental health problems.
Tom Buchanan said that, just because DARD is the only Department with "rural" in its name, it does not mean that it should be the only Department covering rural services. He said that it is important that other Departments are involved.
Sydney Anderson, like many others, praised the rural stakeholders for their commitment and work. He singled out rural transport as the main issue affecting rural communities.
I think that that has covered everyone. Thank you.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly notes the effective impact the tackling rural poverty and social inclusion (TRPSI) framework has had on the farming and rural community; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to implement the recommendations outlined in the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development position paper on the review of the TRPSI framework.
Adjourned at 5.38 pm.