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Official Report: Tuesday 17 November 2015


The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Executive Committee Business

That the Second Stage of the Rural Needs Bill [NIA 67/11-16] be agreed.

This important Bill is designed to promote a fair and inclusive rural society and ensure the equitable treatment of our rural dwellers, who account for more than one third of our population across the North of Ireland. The Bill's primary purpose is to introduce a statutory duty on public authorities to consider rural needs when developing policy and delivering public services. The Bill, as a whole, will ensure that the consideration of rural needs becomes an integral part of policy development and service delivery across all sectors of government.

The proposals for this new legislation have been welcomed by stakeholders, who have expressed their strong support for its provisions. I am grateful to all those who responded to the public consultation on the policy proposals for the Bill, in written responses and at the public meetings that were held, and also to those stakeholders who provided input prior to the formal consultation exercise. Their comments have made a significant contribution to shaping the policy for the Bill and to the drafting of the Bill itself.

Before I set out the Bill's main provisions, I will outline why this new legislation is needed. The Executive first committed to rural proofing in 2002, and they reaffirmed their commitment in 2009. This means that policymakers within Departments are required to assess whether their policy proposals are likely to have any adverse impacts on rural dwellers. To date, however, this requirement to rural proof is a non-legislative one and, although there are examples of where it has been working well, good practice in rural proofing has been patchy.

It is evident that rural proofing is not being carried out in an effective, consistent, cohesive and transparent way. Rural stakeholders and respondents to my Department’s policy consultation have been clear in their view that more needs to be done to improve rural proofing right across government so that it delivers real benefit to our rural communities. I believe that placing a statutory duty on government to consider rural needs, and providing mechanisms to support and monitor compliance with that duty, will help to ensure that the needs of rural dwellers are being properly considered as part of the Government’s decision-making.

I am also of the view that, in this difficult financial climate, with increasing pressures on budgets, it is even more important that the potential impacts of policies on rural dwellers are assessed and addressed appropriately within available resources so that decisions about service provision are as well-informed and evidence-based as possible.

I turn now to the main provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 will introduce a statutory duty on public authorities to consider the social and economic needs of people in rural areas when developing, adopting, implementing or revising policies, strategies and plans and when designing and delivering public services. This duty will also apply to decisions on the funding associated with such policies, strategies, plans and public services. Initially, that obligation will be placed on all Departments and councils. However, clause 1 provides for my Department to specify, through subordinate legislation, other public authorities to which the provisions of the legislation will extend in future. Any such subordinate legislation will be subject to the draft affirmative procedure, which will allow for thorough scrutiny, through the Assembly's procedures, of any proposal to extend the scope of the legislation in that way. The use of subordinate legislation to extend the Bill to other public authorities will allow the new arrangements to embed effectively in central and local government before they are rolled out more widely. There will be further consultation on the other public bodies to which the provisions of the legislation should extend.

Clause 2 will enable my Department to support rural proofing by providing guidance, information and advice to public authorities about matters related to rural needs and ways of meeting them. It will also enable my Department to undertake, commission or support research into matters relating to rural needs.

Clause 3 introduces a mechanism for monitoring and reporting on how public authorities have considered rural needs. All Departments and district councils, as well as any other public authorities that may be specified in future, will have an obligation to gather information on how they meet their statutory duty to consider the needs of people in rural areas, and they will be required to provide that information to my Department. DARD will have a duty to collate the information provided to it and to prepare an annual report, which will be laid before the Assembly. As well as information about the consideration of rural needs, the annual report will include details on how my Department has fulfilled its additional functions under the Bill, such as the support role that I have just mentioned. These monitoring and reporting arrangements will provide the Assembly with the opportunity to scrutinise how public authorities have met their statutory duty to consider rural needs and will provide for greater transparency and accountability on the rural proofing of government policy and service delivery.

The final provision of the Bill that I wish to highlight is the duty placed on my Department by clause 4 to make arrangements with public authorities for the purpose of securing cooperation and sharing of information between them. That provision will enable my Department, other Departments, district councils and any other pubic authorities that may be specified in future to work collaboratively and to exchange information and good practice where it is appropriate to do so. That will help to ensure a more cohesive and consistent approach across government to the consideration of rural needs.

In conclusion, I firmly believe that the Bill, if enacted, will provide a firm basis for the consistent, systematic, and effective consideration of rural needs. It will demonstrate government’s commitment to help all citizens to enjoy equitable treatment, regardless of where they live. Therefore, I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

Mr Irwin (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development): I speak today as Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and will represent the views of the Committee on the Bill. The Committee had a number of briefings on the Bill as it was developed and its policy proposals were firmed up. Our last two briefings were on 3 November and 19 May 2015. As the Minister outlined, the policy proposals were signed off by the Executive on 7 July, the Bill was drafted over last summer, and, on 20 October, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister agreed that it could be introduced using the urgent decision procedure.

At its meeting on 3 November, the Committee heard that the general purpose of the Bill is to impose a duty on public authorities to consider rural needs. Initially, that duty will extend to all Departments and to local government. It is anticipated by the Department that, in due course, it will be extended to all other public bodies. Therefore, the Bill will introduce a statutory duty on all Departments and district councils to consider the needs of people living in rural areas when developing policy and delivering public services.

The Minister has already outlined in her speech what each clause will do, so I will not go over that again today. Instead, I will outline some of the concerns that the Committee had when it last discussed the Bill. For example, we wanted to know what difference the Bill would make to rural communities and farmers. After all, the Executive have already committed to a rural-proofing obligation.

DARD has been unable to provide the Committee with any concrete information or research to inform it about how well or otherwise the rural-proofing obligation has been working in each Department. DARD officials told the Committee that, when it consulted on the Bill, respondents stated that there was a perception that rural proofing was undertaken in a patchy way. However, that is just a perception, and we have no definite proof that, in reality, this Bill is going to make a difference to rural communities and farmers. When we discussed the Bill with DARD, one member explored that aspect further, asking for specifics about how the statutory duty might have affected the closure of rural schools. What he wanted to know was whether, if the Rural Needs Bill had been in place, it would have made any difference to the way in which decisions were taken or policy made on rural school closures.

The next issue that I draw attention to is the financial impact of the Bill. All Bills, when they are introduced in the Assembly, are accompanied by an explanatory and financial memorandum. That document is meant to outline the financial impacts of the Bill so that we in the Assembly and the wider public can see the implications for the public purse. At this time, with tight budgets and less money to go around, it is even more important that the financial implications of new laws are explained in detail to allow informed and full consideration, so we were disappointed to see that the draft memorandum has only one short paragraph on finance at paragraph 12. There is no real detail on the financial aspects of the Bill other than a vague sentence, which states:

"The requirement across government to report on their functions under this Bill will require some additional administrative resource."

I personally do not think that that is sufficient. Surely it would have been wise for DARD to have made some firmer assessment of the additional administrative support required and what that means in pounds and pence. That will be one of the key issues that we will explore with DARD officials if the Bill comes to us at Committee Stage. We will want to make sure that a proper assessment has been done of the financial impacts across central and local government. I would go as far as to say that the Committee will need proof that that assessment has been made before we are content to allow the Bill out of its Committee Stage.

The provisions in the Bill also impose a new duty on local government. We want to make sure that the new councils are aware of that duty, are prepared for it and have the budget and resources to carry it out. Again, we think that it should be DARD's duty to do that assessment before the Committee completes its scrutiny of the Bill. Similarly, the provisions in the Bill may, at some stage, be extended to a range of public bodies. That would be done after the Bill is enacted and after a period of bedding down in central and local government. I anticipate that the Committee will want to discuss what consultation DARD will have with public bodies on a range of issues, including which bodies should be on that list and how DARD will assess their capabilities to consider rural needs.

The next issue that I want to mention is how the provisions of the Bill will work in practice. How will the various duties be delivered? What will happen if they are not delivered? In other words, given that the Bill has no enforcement, how robust will it be? If the Bill is not proposing methods of sanction beyond those that are already available to the public, such as writing to the Department or their MLA, what tangible difference will the Bill make, and why are we doing it?

A further concern is defining certain terms in the Bill that we believe need further clarification. What is meant by "rural" and "needs"? How will "rural areas" be defined? Will DARD use the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) definition, which is based on the size of settlements? Furthermore, with reference to NISRA, Assembly Members may be aware that NISRA already provides guidance and recommendations to Departments and other public authorities on using spatial measures of deprivation in rural areas. What is the overlap with the Bill? Is DARD now taking on responsibility for a NISRA role and remit?

That is a broad overview of the Committee's thinking to date. I look forward to hearing what other Members have to say on the Bill today. Thank you.


10.45 am

Mr McAleer: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I take this opportunity to express support for the Bill as we reach Second Stage today. As the Minister quite rightly pointed out, 37% of people in the North of Ireland live in rural areas, which equates to about 670,000 people. Whilst there are many advantages of living in a rural area — I am one of the people who cherishes that — many exceptional challenges face people, which include isolation; very poor infrastructure; poor communication; and access to services. Indeed, during the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development's tackling rural poverty and social isolation (TRPSI) inquiry, we heard of many examples from stakeholders. My constituency of West Tyrone has some of the most rural, isolated areas, such as the Sperrins, and Owenkillew, which is a super output area, is the number one most deprived area in the North of Ireland for lack of services. All that is compounded by the way in which deprivation is measured by NISRA, as a result of which, not one rural area in the North of Ireland is included in the top 10 most deprived areas, which has implications for funding and support for rural areas.

As for the bigger scheme, whilst we as a party welcome the Bill, we do not see it in isolation. We see it as an important part of a wider jigsaw and one of a package of measures to support and enhance rural areas. We are putting it in the context of important decisions on CAP reform and how the North is being treated as a single region as we progress towards an equal rate in the single farm payment. As we move into the incoming financial year, there is a well-funded £623 million rural development programme, LEADER funding for social and economic development in rural areas and the protection of the TRPSI budget.

As the Minister said, in 2002 and again in 2009, the Executive committed to rural proofing to realise the vision of fair and inclusive rural areas where people would have equal access to services. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that the mechanism that was being used for rural proofing is not working. It is not sufficient to achieve the Executive's aim of a fair and inclusive rural society. For starters, the scheme that has been in place since 2002 is voluntary. It does not have a statutory basis, so there is no statutory obligation on government organisations or any other organisations to rural proof their policies. As the Minister said, it is patchy in areas, and, at a Committee evidence session at the outset of the policy, one official said that rural proofing was not included at the inception of policies but was a bolt-on at the end. We believe that this legislation will have the potential to have rural needs included at policy inception and policy development and not as some sort of bolt-on at the end.

From working in rural areas, being on the ARD Committee and involved in the rural community sector, we know that, but you do not have to take our word for it. Last year, the rural stakeholder forum, which was set up around this time last year to consult with the Department on the need for a Bill, came up with a number of overriding themes and conclusions, one of which was that there is a need for more consistency across government. There is also a need for more transparency. The forum believes that the Rural Needs Bill will increase awareness of the need for rural proofing. A Bill will result in better application of proofing, leading to better outcomes for rural areas, and we support that. I should say that, in the context of our not looking at the Bill in isolation, our colleague Martin Ferris in Leinster House is also introducing a similar private Member's Bill in the other part of the island.

In conclusion, we feel that the Bill — its four clauses include the provision to extend the legislation using subordinate legislation — will be a major step towards achieving the Executive's objective of a fairer and more equitable rural society in which people and families will choose to live, work, learn and play. I commend the Bill.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Fáiltím roimh an deis labhairt ar an Dara Céim den Bhille seo. Creideann an páirtí seo gur gá le polasaí leas na tuaithe agus go bhfuil gá le reachtaíocht le déanamh cinnte de go bhfuil leas na tuaithe san áireamh agus polasaithe nua a gcur i bhfeidhm. Is ar an bhonn sin a chuirim fáilte roimh an Bhille. The SDLP has always believed that there needs to be strict adherence to a policy of rural proofing and that legislation from the Assembly is necessary to ensure that Departments do not carry out policies that have an adverse effect on the rural population. It is in that spirit that we welcome the Rural Needs Bill. We do, however, have some concerns about its implementation, as I will outline later.

Effective communication from DARD is necessary to ensure that rural proofing is in place to protect the interests of rural communities, and that, in turn, will strengthen their voice. DARD should always engage readily with rural communities to ensure the best outcome for those communities. The SDLP has said for some time that the Department must have a statutory role in promoting and encouraging other bodies to undertake rural proofing. The SDLP also believes that the DARD rural White Paper should be acted on and placed on a statutory basis. That would mean that voluntary and community-based support services would be given sustainable long-term funding.

The SDLP recognises the efforts that have been made since rural proofing was introduced in 2002 to make it more prevalent in departmental policymaking. However, it remains the case that no statutory obligation to carry out rural proofing has been in existence and, therefore, there was always the possibility that the rural communities would be ignored. Rural proofing has not received an appropriate amount of consideration and, as a result, many policies have passed through the House and through councils that have had an adverse effect on rural dwellers. One could say that the policy of rural proofing has, in some cases, been more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

The Bill is relatively short and contains the main headline provisions that our party would like to see. However, there are some omissions from the Bill and therefore some uncertainty. For example, a rolling programme of rural research upon which clear decisions of rural circumstance impact could be made would help any policymaker to rural proof a particular policy or decision. That is not apparent in the Bill, and there is not sufficient rigour to constitute an ongoing analysis that will produce long-term benefit. Other support mechanisms, including the availability of rural information and analysis, need to be included in the Department's processes around the Bill. The SDLP wants to see a consistent database of rural-specific research that can be used to create policy that allows for and promotes the unique characteristics and features of rural communities.

One flaw in the Bill can be seen in the form of clause 3, and that is in relation to monitoring. Mr Irwin pointed out that there are no sanctions to enforce aspects of the Bill. We in the SDLP believe strongly that an independent monitoring arrangement should be built into the Bill. Many stakeholders have expressed to us that independence is required in the reporting arrangements, that it does not make sense for the Department that is promoting the Bill and its provisions to also carry out the monitoring, and that there may be a conflict of interest in that respect.

We believe that monitoring should be carried out by an independent organisation properly resourced to enable it to discharge that role. Stakeholders suggested that it would be appropriate for that body to continue research into rural change so that the process could be developed and modified to meet evolving needs. Perhaps Members should consider the mechanisms for rural research more fully as the Bill passes through the House.

The potential conflicts of interest that I have mentioned also apply to the proposed role for any interdepartmental committee on rural policy, where representatives of all Departments would be expected to monitor their own performance. An independent monitoring aspect is needed to ensure that not all processes are taking place in-house and to ensure best practice.

The rural development network stressed the need for implementation to be taken seriously by the Department. They pointed out as a lesson the failure of the implementation of the biodiversity duty placed on public bodies by the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act 2011. The draft guidelines appeared three years after the legislation and were too vague and ambiguous. They have still not been issued in their final form.

In conclusion, the SDLP is supportive of the policy aims in the Bill. The thrust of the Bill is to place a statutory duty on Departments to rural proof. That is welcome. However, there is fine tuning to do around implementation and monitoring. The SDLP will engage fully in the Bill process to ensure that that happens. Mar fhocal scoir, a Cheann Comhairle, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leat arís, agus tacaím leis an Dara Céim den Bhille. We will be supporting the Second Stage of the Bill.

Mr Beggs: I rise on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party to support this legislation. I live in a rural community and am a governor of a rural primary school, Glynn Primary School.

Rural proofing is needed, and the need for public bodies to carry it out has long been spoken about in the Chamber yet little has happened. For several years, the rural community was promised what was initially called a rural White Paper, a document designed to prepare the way for legislation that would protect the rights of rural dwellers to basic services. Out of that came the rural White Paper action plan, a broad-brush list of aspirations. Of the 90 proposed actions, however, 22 were merely commitments to continue to do something as if the rural community should be grateful that services already available were not being withdrawn.

In the so-called action plan, there was an absence of specific and measurable targets against which Departments and Ministers could be held to account. It appeared to many that the plan, and much of the Department's hype around it, was being used simply as a fig leaf to try to present an image of something being done. Unfortunately, that set the tone for much of the debate since.


11.00 am

At long last, and after unnecessary delay, DARD produced the Bill that is before us today. It places a duty on public authorities to consider rural needs. That is a laudable goal, but what exactly does it mean? My party hopes that it means a genuine grasp of the challenges of living in rural areas, and how decisions to change services will often have a very different impact in a rural community than in the middle of a town or city. Take education, for example. In recent years, we have had the widely discredited viability audits. They were followed by the wholly dysfunctional area planning process. Never mind not working in rural areas, it did not work in urban ones. Schools were assessed simply by looking at numbers on sheets, enrolments and deficits particularly. I highlight, in particular, the recent Audit Office report that showed that enrolment numbers, which were contributing to empty-seat calculations in our schools, can be out by as much as 20% in some schools, so the basis of those sheets and figures can be discredited. At present, 55% of Northern Ireland's primary schools and 20% of its post-primary schools are in rural areas. Many of them face an uncertain future as a result of the flawed belief in the minimum enrolment number of 105 pupils for primary schools and 500 for post-primary schools. Senior officials recently suggested that the minimum should be 800 or 900 pupils for post-primary schools. It is not at all surprising to see the recent viability audits revealing that rural schools are much more likely to be identified as "in stress" than their urban counterparts.

Schools, and indeed playgroups, are vital to maintaining the cohesion of rural communities. The school is something that the community generally gathers round, and it is vital in a rural community. Were a playgroup to lose funding and fall, the option of travelling to a nursery school would be removed, so I would like to see increased focus on practical issues to protect schools and playgroups. If a playgroup falls, it puts at risk local schools that the young people would naturally have attended, so this is very important to rural communities. Often, child-minding arrangements are with the extended family, and they may be able to deliver and collect the children from an adjacent school or playgroup. Further travel could endanger such arrangements or, as a result, require expensive additional childcare costs to be borne by rural families.

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

Since we are talking about protecting rural communities and working together cohesively, I highlight the case of Islandmagee Primary School. This is a particular example of how the system has not worked. Some 10 years ago, three primary schools — Ballypriormore, Kilcoan, Mullaghdubh — agreed to amalgamate. It took considerable effort for each school, its governors and parents to buy into that. Ultimately, it was agreed to move to a new-build site. There followed a protracted delay in the planning process before a site was established. Then, we had to wait for the funding for the site. In 2006, a site was eventually bought, but it took far too long. Next, what did we find? A minimum number of 105 pupils must be enrolled. Of course, that caused everything to be frozen, and there was no more development. The remaining two schools — one has since closed — have approximately 120 pupils. The annual number of births in the Islandmagee ward is growing; it went up from 20 in 2011 to 26 in the most recent figures, so there is clear sustainability. What do we have? Is this one of the schools that has been prioritised for new-build funding? No, that has yet to be delivered, and there is huge uncertainty. If Departments are going to talk about rural needs, they are going to have to deliver them. Actions speak an awful lot louder than words.

Northern Ireland has fallen far behind other jurisdictions in the UK in rural-proofing decisions on schools.

In England, for example, there is a presumption against the closure of rural schools, and Scottish authorities are legally required to explore alternatives, as well as look at the impact of closure, particularly any adverse effects on the local community.

It is worthwhile remembering that closing a smaller rural school would often lead to significant additional new costs, such as transport, and to adverse effects on the local community and parents. Indeed, a report by Ulster University found that if smaller post-primary schools in Northern Ireland were to close — all 76 of them — there would be a saving of only 0·9% of the entire school budget, due to the extra costs that would need to be met. Does the Department of Education care? Will this Bill make it care? We will have to wait and see.

The Bill should apply to every Executive decision that has an impact on rural communities. Education will be one of the most prominent Departments to be affected, but we cannot forget issues such as the future structure and delivery of local health services either. For example, had this Bill been in place, I wonder if changes to care for the elderly in their homes would be viewed any differently.

Much will come down to the interpretation of the Bill, not least the key phrase, "consider rural needs". What exactly does it mean? Does it mean consider and change, if the Department or public bodies find that the proposal will have a damaging impact on rural communities, or does it mean consider and then progress, regardless of what has been found?

Clause 4 will be one of the most important clauses. It places a duty on DARD to secure cooperation and collaboration between Departments and district councils. With the new councils' community planning role, there is the potential for them to play a much more significant role in planning for rural communities, and I hope that that will be the case.

Ulster Unionists are content that this legislation passes to the next stage; we will support it.

Mr McCarthy: As a member of the Agriculture Committee, I, on behalf of the Alliance Party, support the Second Stage of the Rural Needs Bill. I concur with the comments made earlier by our Committee Chair.

The Alliance Party supports the implementation of an enhanced rural process across all Departments — and that is important, all Departments — because they all have a role to play in ensuring that all major policies and strategies are assessed to determine whether they will have a differential impact on rural areas. Where appropriate, adjustments must be made to take account of particular rural circumstances.

As an MLA for Strangford living on the Ards peninsula, a mainly rural area, I know all too well, as do others, that services in rural areas face a different range of challenges than those in other parts of Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, rural people and residents are entitled to, and deserve, the same as everyone else. Examples of those challenges include weaker infrastructure roll-out of, for example, broadband and gas heating. Indeed, it is still difficult for rural residents to get planning permission to build a dwelling for a family member, so that they can remain in that community. Another example is fewer public transport options. We must acknowledge the loneliness and isolation that can and does occur.

Something that concerns me greatly is the huge reduction in recent times in the provision of meals on wheels to rural residents. I recall being out on a delivery one morning to rural residents. I travelled down more than one long lane and I saw the difference that the arrival of meals on wheels made to the people there. Not only was it appreciated, but there was a face that those people could speak to — probably the first, and maybe the last, that they would see during the course of the day. That is an important aspect of rural need.

I am sure that all of us in this Chamber want the same quality of life for everyone in Northern Ireland, even if that means delivering services slightly differently in some places. My hope is that this Bill will go some of the way to ensuring that the difference in service delivery in rural areas is addressed. For example, as I said, a strategy to improve the availability of high-speed broadband could have to recognise that broadband is poor in rural areas to begin with, as indeed it is, and that this needs to be addressed. Or it could provide evidence that school reorganisation in rural areas would especially benefit from integrated education as some towns and villages would be able to sustain one school, but not two. My hope is that the model laid out in the Bill is one that ensures that public bodies are cognisant of needs. I will obviously work with my colleagues on the specific details of this part of the Committee's scrutiny.

My final point is that Alliance has long advocated shared future proofing to ensure that policies promote sharing and not separation. I have yet to hear a cogent argument from supporters of this Bill as to why this approach is possible for rural needs but not for shared future needs. I hope that we will soon be able to apply the approach taken by the Bill to shared future legislation. I welcome the Minister's contribution this morning and applaud the ideals contained in the Rural Needs Bill. I look forward to its successful progress through the House and onto the statute book.

Mr Anderson: As a member of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Rural Needs Bill. It is a small Bill of seven clauses, four of which contain the substance of the Bill, but it covers a big subject. It is of considerable relevance to many people, and I declare an interest in that I have been a rural dweller for most of my life.

At the outset, it is worth reminding ourselves of some of the key words covered by the Bill. The word "rural" is not defined in it, but, on the basis of the definition given by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), it means a settlement of fewer than 5,000 people. The term "rural needs", however, is defined in the Bill as meaning:

"the social and economic needs of persons in rural areas."

The countryside is at the heart of Northern Ireland life. Farming is one of the Province's oldest and most important industries. Many who work in our cities and towns choose to live in the countryside and rear their families there. Rural communities are an essential part of the fabric of society, but they have been disadvantaged and neglected for far too long.
The Bill seeks to address issues that have been of concern to rural dwellers for many years. Over those years, and more so in recent times, rural dwellers have lost many services and facilities. I frequently meet constituents who are very concerned about the reduction, or even the disappearance, of key facilities such as schools, banks, post offices, ATMs and so on. Often, the problem is exacerbated by cuts in public transport which make it even more difficult for rural dwellers to get into a town. This impacts on many folks in the countryside, but it has the most severe impact on vulnerable groups such as the elderly. Many rural dwellers are isolated, and many live alone.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

As part of the rural White Paper action plan, the Executive included a commitment to strive for a fair and inclusive rural society where rural dwellers enjoy the same quality of life as all others in the region. The consultation with key stakeholders that took place this time last year, along with the public consultation process that took place earlier this year, identified many of the problems that I have just outlined. The consultation also confirmed that there is broad support for legislation that puts the needs of the rural community onto a statutory footing.


11.15 am

Although the Bill is being taken forward by the Agriculture and Rural Development Minister, it is very much a Bill that transcends Departments. It stems from a broader Executive commitment and depends for its effectiveness on the willingness of all key players to step up to the plate. The logic underpinning the Bill is to make sure that all major policies and initiatives are properly assessed to see how they impact on rural areas. The Bill requires that consideration is given to what extent, if any, a particular policy might adversely impact on the rural community. Crucially, that rural proofing will involve not only central government but local government, and the intention is that other public bodies will be involved in due course. The Bill gives DARD the power to name those by affirmative resolution. The Bill also gives an enabling power to DARD to provide guidance and advice and to commission research into rural needs. I hope that DARD will not be found wanting in those areas.

I welcome the provision in the Bill to require all relevant bodies to compile data and share information. I also welcome the requirement for DARD to produce an annual report. However, as with all those things, legislation is only effective if it works in practice. It will need the full commitment and active support of central and local government, as well as other public bodies. I also feel that the new councils in particular will have a pivotal role to play. I look forward with interest to further exploring those and other issues at Committee Stage. At this stage, I am content to give my support to the broad principles of the Bill.

Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I would like to apologise to the Minister, the House and you for not being here for the start of the debate, but I want to make a few general comments regarding the Rural Needs Bill at Second Stage. It is a very important piece of legislation, and, in my opinion, it is long overdue. I am also delighted that the consultation with stakeholders and the wider public indicated widespread support for it, and all the comments of Members this morning have likewise done the same.

The Minister is to be commended for bringing the Bill forward. The Executive commitment to rural proofing in 2002, reaffirmed in 2009, was a step forward, but, without a legal requirement, it has not had the desired impact. During the recent TRPSI review and the motion debated here in the House a number of weeks ago on the multiple deprivation measures, we heard of the difficulties and inequalities for rural communities in access to services, opportunities and public funds, and the impact that that has on day-to-day life in the country.

Even the recent single planning policy statement failed, in my opinion, to make adequate provision for the rural dweller. Year on year, large numbers of young people who would have preferred to build in their local area have to relocate to urban settings. When the Regional Development Minister had to make savings in his Department, maintenance to rural roads and hedge cutting were among some of the first cuts to be made. Those roads may not have the same number of vehicles travelling on them as an A-class road, but, if they form part of your only route to and from your property, their quality affects not just your car but your safety.

If we want to sustain and grow our rural communities, which make up a large percentage of the North's population, they need to be supported and provided for. The Bill, if successful, will for the first time make it a statutory obligation for policymakers in central and local government to consider the needs of rural dwellers when developing policies and delivering public services. Importantly, it will also include an accountability mechanism.

I am delighted that, as stated earlier, Martin Ferris is bringing a similar piece of legislation to Leinster House. I look forward to a more detailed debate and discussion at the Committee Stage. That is my contribution this morning.

Mr Allister: No one will accuse the sponsor of this Bill of cluttering it with detail because there is a great dearth in that regard. Where that concerns me most is in respect of the reach of the Bill. As the Bill stands, it will apply only to Departments and councils and might never apply to anyone else. With so much policy delivered through arm's-length bodies, that is a fundamental flaw and mistake, as it is often through those bodies that the detrimental decisions of which rural dwellers complain are taken. Let me give some examples. The Northern Ireland Environment Agency is, in my experience, one of the most anti-rural and anti-rural dweller operatives in Northern Ireland. Yet, unless and until the Minister gets round to putting it on a list, it will be exempt from the statutory requirement to have regard to rural needs.

In my constituency of North Antrim, we have a significant concentration of the poultry industry, which is connected with the historical existence of O'Kane and Moy Park. In recent months, many affected farmers have come to see me in despair because the planning applications that they have made to extend their poultry houses or to replace them with new up-to-date poultry houses are being blocked by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. It has come up with a concern that, because of the prevailing wind direction, or some other contention, there is too much of an ammonia influence on a derelict bog in the middle of my constituency. For that reason, go-ahead farmers who are trying to provide for themselves and their families are being trumped by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency's total disregard for rural needs.

I would very much like to see the Northern Ireland Environment Agency subject to a statutory duty to have regard to the social and economic needs of persons in rural areas. That would put a brake on the folly that it is pursuing in respect of many farmers in rural constituencies. It is a disappointment to me that, in the Bill, that statutory duty is not forthwith extended to bodies such as the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the Education Authority. Other Members spoke of matters educational; why are they, too, not subject to that duty from the beginning? It would be very easily done. All you have to do is put in a schedule, as you see in much legislation, that is a list of the public bodies to which the legislation applies. That Minister would have an enabling power, by secondary legislation, to amend that list, to take from it or add to it, but they would be there from the outset rather than bringing in legislation that applies to Departments but not to their arm's-length bodies and councils, however that circumvents the application of the legislation for as long as we think appropriate for the bodies that really matter.

I appeal to the House to address that matter so that the promise that is possible by applying a statutory duty in respect to rural needs and rural proofing might actually be delivered. It will only be delivered if you include in the Bill the deliverers of services to the rural community.

The Minister and the Committee need to look with great sympathy at the idea of activating the Bill at the highest possible level, at the earliest possible opportunity, and with the greatest possible effect on rural dwellers. That can be done by making sure that bodies such as the Northern Ireland Environment Agency are, as they should be, subject to a statutory duty to consider and have due regard to rural needs rather than, as at the moment, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency belligerently sets itself up to suppress and override rural needs. I trust that that point will be taken on board.

Mrs O'Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am grateful to all the Members who contributed to this morning's Second Stage of the Bill. All contributions have been valuable and informative, and I want to try to address some of the issues that have been raised. Obviously, as we move forward through the passage of the Bill, I am open to looking at some of the suggestions that have been made by Members throughout the course of this morning's debate. Indeed, that is what the passage of the legislative process is for.

I think that most issues were covered initially by the Chair of the ARD Committee, so I will start by picking up on those. However, a thread of the same type of contribution certainly went through all of the debate. First, the Committee Chairperson asked why there is a need for the legislation. I strongly believe that a lot more can be done to improve the effectiveness, working and roll-out of rural proofing. It is fair to say that it has been patchy at best, and we cannot point to a very strong and good example of good practice in the past. So, any legislation that puts it on a statutory footing is to the benefit of rural dwellers — particularly when looking at strategic policymaking decisions — for all the reasons highlighted by quite a lot of the contributors in relation to the day-to-day challenges faced by people who live in rural areas.

For me, this is about having a consistent, cohesive and effective rural-proofing policy that is taken forward in a very transparent way, which allows all those policy decisions to be scrutinised so that rural people feel that their rights and entitlements are properly considered at the stage of inception of policy or strategic decisions that Declan McAleer referred to earlier.

The issue of resource implications was raised. I do not think that we are talking about large amounts of resource. This is something that is a change for Departments to do in the first year but Departments are already supposed to be doing it. They are supposed to carry out rural proofing of their policies. It is difficult, at this stage, to quantify precisely what the resource implication will be, but the long-term benefits for rural people will be that their needs are properly considered when it comes to strategic policy decisions being taken. Although the Bill puts in place a new monitoring and reporting arrangement, it is not anticipated that the resource allocation associated with that will be significant.

There is also the fact that my Department has set out clearly its willingness and intention to work with other Departments and councils on how the monitoring process will take place. My Department is certainly up for working with councils. In relation to that, someone referred to the potential administrative burden on councils. A new era of council structures has come into play. They are obviously actively involved in community planning. Alongside that work, rural development strategies are being developed for each of the LAGs. That, in itself, will mean that there is the proper and right opportunity that there needs to be for councils to embed, from their inception, how they are going to take forward policies and strategic decisions that cater for the needs of all the people that they represent in their council area. So, I do not believe that there is going to be a potentially increased administrative burden on councils.

It is a fair point to make that no sanctions for non-compliance are included in the Bill. It is difficult, at this stage, to set out what sanction would be appropriate in this context. However, the monitoring report will ensure that public authorities provide information on how they have complied with the duty, and that information will be made available. That, in itself, provides transparency and an opportunity for the rural proofing of each Department and council to be properly scrutinised after the report has been laid, and that leads to the challenge function that allows for Departments and councils to be challenged around what they are or are not doing.


11.30 am

In relation to research, we need to be very clear — I think that Declan McAleer also made this point — that this is not something that we look at in isolation. The Bill puts the need to rural proof and for rural needs to be taken into account on a statutory footing. However, we also need to look at other measures that are out there, and I believe that research is a key area. In the past, the Department has taken forward research. Last month, we commissioned AFBI to undertake a three-year research project that aims to assess the impact of rural proofing in improving access to services and to explore alternative models for delivering effective joined-up government in policy development and service provision to rural areas. All those things are complementary and will lead to an improved situation and improved recognition of the needs of rural dwellers. For me, that is all very important and all very complementary work. DARD has an ongoing programme of research under its evidence and innovation strategy that will continue to evaluate existing policy.

One contributor asked how the Bill would sit with the rural White Paper action plan. Again, that is complementary to what we are trying to do with the Rural Needs Bill. Those two things will continue to complement each other, and, on the back of the legislation, I am committed to refreshing the rural White Paper action plan and seeing what other new initiatives can be taken forward across Departments.

With regard to why the word "rural" is not defined the Bill, NISRA's findings of the interdepartmental review of urban/rural classification were published in March this year, and that review established a new default urban/rural boundary with settlements of a population of less than 5,000 being considered as rural, which, as Members know, was previously 4,500. The new settlement classification also includes consideration of service provision, which is estimated on the basis of the drive time to the nearest settlement containing a population of at least 10,000. There is still some scope for flexibility in the urban/rural classification, with the NISRA report recommending that users should continue to define urban and rural in ways that are appropriate for different projects and programmes. However, defining "rural" is complex and it is an ongoing piece of work for that to be a definitive blanket definition across Departments. That work will very clearly come from the research that my Department has commissioned through AFBI.

I omitted to say in relation to research that clause 2 puts the Department on a statutory footing to support research into matters relating to rural needs. It is something that we are already doing and something that we are always open to do more of where the need is identified. That will help to form an evidence base for any additional policy decisions in the future.

I think that all Members wanted to know, when the legislation comes into force, whether it could require a wider group, including arm's-length bodies, to consider rural needs. I look forward to that discussion throughout the course of the Bill. We consulted on that and, at this moment, I believe that a phased approach to the application of the Bill's provisions will allow for further consultation on those matters across all the arm's length bodies. However, I am open to discussing that during the passage of the Bill and, if there is an opportunity to do that, I will be up for it. If we are not able to do it during the passage of the Bill, I will want to come back to it. I do not believe that the Bill will deliver what we intend it to deliver as it stands, and we will need to come back with subordinate legislation. However, if we are able to have it in the Bill, I am certainly open to that. As part of the consultation, a number of bodies indicated that they were already undertaking rural proofing. However, I believe that if they are taking policy decisions that impact on rural people, they also should be put on that statutory footing to do so.

I thank Members for their contributions to the debate. This is a small but effective piece of legislation that will make a difference to rural people. I look forward to the passage of the Bill and to engaging with Members and the Committee on how we can improve things where we can to make sure that, at the end of the legislative process, we come out with the strongest possible Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Rural Needs Bill [NIA 67/11-16] be agreed.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Second State of the Rural Needs Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development.

That the draft Renewable Heat Incentive Schemes (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 be approved.

This statutory rule is being made under powers contained in the Energy Act 2011, which prescribes that these regulations are laid in draft for approval by affirmative resolution of the Assembly.

In addressing sustainable energy, our focus often falls on renewable electricity, yet a greater proportion of our energy use is for heat. That includes domestic central heating, heating of commercial premises and heating for industrial processes such as poultry production. Northern Ireland's predominant form of heating fuel is oil, in contrast to GB, where it is gas, which is a much cleaner fuel. The Executive are supporting the extension of the gas network through a grant of £30 million for gas to the west, and we hope to see that progress over the next few years, along with the extension of gas to east Down.

The Executive's principal vehicle for promoting renewable heat is the renewable heat incentive (RHI). That is designed to deliver the Executive's Programme for Government renewable heat targets of 4% by 2015 and 10% by 2020. That will contribute to the UK's target of 15% renewable energy by 2020, as required by the EU renewables directive. The non-domestic RHI was introduced in 2012. It incentivises the uptake of renewable heat technologies, such as biomass, heat pumps and solar thermal installations. It provides payments for 20 years, based on heat energy generated. The level of tariff is dependent on the size and type of technology and is calculated to cover capital costs, operating costs and non-financial hassle costs over the lifetime of the technology. Following that, the domestic RHI scheme was introduced in December 2014, replacing the earlier renewable heat premium payment scheme.

It was always the intention to introduce changes to the non-domestic scheme to make tariff changes and introduce cost control measures. Those were consulted on in 2013, but since then implementation of the domestic scheme has been given priority. These regulations begin the process of introducing measures to update the non-domestic scheme. First, new tariffs are being introduced for combined heat and power (CHP). That is to allow CHP projects to claim for their renewable heat under the RHI and their renewable electricity under the NI renewables obligation. Secondly, the medium biomass tariffs are being extended to encompass larger boilers. That will incentivise single larger boilers, and it brings Northern Ireland into line with GB. Thirdly, a tiered tariff and cap are being introduced for new small and medium biomass installations to ensure value for money.

Just under £38 million of funding has been provided by Treasury for the Northern Ireland RHI schemes during the five-year period 2011-16. However, low levels of uptake generated an underspend of around £15 million during the first four years. My Department's focus over the past 12 months has been on trying to improve the performance of the RHI scheme to achieve the Executive's Programme for Government target and ensure that the renewable heating sector and the wider Northern Ireland economy benefit from the investment. To give one example, extensive advertising campaigns were conducted during 2013-14 and 2014-15. These have resulted in increased scheme uptake over the last 12 months. The total number of renewable heating installations under the non-domestic scheme has increased from just over 250 to over 1,600 during the last 14 months.

Current estimates suggest that around 6% of our total heating needs in Northern Ireland are now met through renewable heating technologies. In addition to the reduction in CO2 emissions that that brings, the local Northern Ireland economy is benefiting from over £23 million of annual investment through the RHI schemes. That investment brings benefits in terms of job retention and creation in the energy services sector. Unfortunately, however, all that success comes at a cost. Total applications for the Northern Ireland non-domestic scheme are now exceeding our highest estimates. Therefore, we need to look at the full range of cost-control measures that have been introduced in GB. Of necessity, that will include measures to curtail the scheme should Treasury funding be restricted.

I will take a decision in the light of any announcements in the spending review. However, those are matters for another day. At this time, I ask Members to support the regulator.

Mr McGlone (The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire chomh maith. Thanks to the Minister as well. The Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment has closely followed the progress of the renewable heat incentive throughout the current mandate, from the outline proposals, which came to the Committee in June 2011, to the introduction of the non-domestic renewable heat incentive in November 2012 and the domestic RHI in December last year.

When it was introduced, the renewable heat incentive offered a structured means of providing long-term guaranteed financial assistance for renewable heat installations. The incentive is designed to provide a cost-effective option for consumers to switch to renewable sources of heat. It also provides an option for any consumer to avail themselves of a source of heating that can lead to lower CO2 emissions, increased fuel security and an increase in local employment opportunities in the green energy sector. This statutory rule will provide the legislative basis for extending the non-domestic RHI scheme to offer support for heat generated from combined heat and power installations and will introduce a tiered tariff for non-domestic biomass installations to ensure affordability and value for money.

The Committee considered the SL1 at its meeting on 8 September and was content with the policy proposals at that time. However, that was 10 weeks ago, and the Committee had the opportunity to consider the SR being debated today only at this morning's meeting. The Committee was concerned that, following a 10-week lull between the SL1 and the SR, the Department was suddenly in a hurry to bring the SR to the Committee and get it passed in a plenary sitting within a matter of an hour or so. The Committee, therefore, questioned officials on the reasons for the delay and for the subsequent sudden haste. Officials informed the Committee that the Department originally aimed for the legislation to come into effect on 4 November. However, they said that there was a delay in securing the financial and legal approvals. The Department was concerned to avoid a hiatus in the industry and, therefore, wanted to bring forward the legislation as quickly as possible.

The Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment supports the Renewable Heat Incentive Schemes (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 and recommends that the regulations be affirmed by the Assembly.

Mr Bell: I thank the Chairman for those very constructive remarks. Energy matters are, obviously, a major issue for the Assembly, as they are for local households and businesses. I take on board what the Chairman said, and I accept that it is somewhat unusual for a motion to be debated on the same day as scrutiny by the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. I know that he knows that my intention was to have the changes introduced from 4 November. However, due to the delay in progressing what were necessary legal and financial clearances, I was unable to bring it to the House earlier, but I wanted to do so as close to 4 November as possible.


11.45 am

I am committed to expanding opportunities to provide greater choice for consumers, promoting more sustainable technologies, and supporting those who wish to change from conventional fossil fuel heating. The development of the renewable heat sector promotes a more diverse and competitive heating market in Northern Ireland. It brings new jobs and businesses and contributes to our targets for cutting carbon emissions. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the draft Renewable Heat Incentive Schemes (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 be approved.

Private Members' Business

Mr Flanagan: I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Local Government (Numbers and Addresses of Buildings in Townlands) Bill [NIA 63/11-16] be agreed.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am delighted to move the Bill's Second Stage and ask that a debate now be heard. At the outset, I want to thank all those people, particularly the staff in the Assembly's Bill Office, who have helped me through the formulation of the policy and the drafting of the Bill itself. It has been a long process, and I am glad that it has finally got to this stage. At one stage, I feared that we would never get this far. Thankfully, we are now at the Second Stage debate, in which Members from all parties can have their say on the issue, articulate what they think about the proposal in the Bill, and speak about the wider issue of the promotion and protection of townlands.

From my perspective, a Cheann Comhairle, this is a very simple and straightforward Bill, but the positive consequences of the change are potentially significant. As a Fermanagh man, I am acutely aware of the significance of townlands to many of our citizens. As someone who is proud of my own culture and heritage, I know that the townlands that we come from and live in are an important part of who we are and how we identify ourselves.

I am proud to come from the townland of Tullymore, the big bog. There are not too many people who say that they are proud to come from a bog, but I suppose it is the use of townlands that allow us to have wee misnomers like that in society. Tullymore is on the shores of Lough Erne outside the village of Garrison in County Fermanagh. The identity that we all get from our collective townlands is something that all of us, across society, are deeply proud of and attached to.

Across Ireland, townlands are an important part of our shared history. They were an integral part of how this nation was subdivided for the purposes of administration of government and also identity. Most people are proud of the identity given to us by our home village or town or even city. Even those of us who come from Fermanagh are proud of the county or province that we come from. Those of us who know what townland we come from are proud of it also.

Travelling around Ireland, I, like other Members, often get a good sense from people of how they identify themselves. In many counties on this island, there is a strong sense of townlands playing a crucial part in that identity but, in some parts, it is stronger than in others. In places like Fermanagh, where addresses were historically organised on the basis of the townland system, the notion, understanding and usage of townlands among the common language is very strong. At this stage, I pose this question to Members: are Members content with the level of usage of townlands in their area or constituency, or do they want to see further changes made to how we promote, protect and indeed save the use of townlands?

The purpose of the Bill is to protect townlands. In doing so, it would allow councils, if they so wish, to allocate numbers to properties based on the system of townlands rather than by road, which is the only way that it can be done under the current legislation. The Bill would amend the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Order 1995 to make provision about the allocation of numbers to buildings and the format of addresses.

Over the three years that I have been working on the Bill, I have engaged with some Members who did not know what a townland is never mind what their own townland is, so I think that it would be useful if I provide a brief overview of what a townland is and where it comes from.

Mr McCarthy: I am gratified that you were willing to give way. Does the Member recognise that, on probably two occasions in the lifetime of Stormont since its restablishment, we had unanimous support for the retention of townland names and, as a result, have made significant progress, as shown in the very fact that the address of this establishment now has "Ballymiscaw" contained in it? The direction given from those motions was that all Departments and councils would encourage and use townland names, where possible.

Mr Flanagan: I thank the Member for his intervention. The debate that he and his now party leader brought on 1 October 2001 is something that I will reference later. I accept what the Member has said about there being unanimous support across the Chamber and society for the greater usage of townlands, particularly in the addressing system. The Assembly, under the stewardship of your predecessor, Mr Speaker, made great strides by adding the townland of Ballymiscaw to its address. It is right and proper that all correspondence emanating from this Building uses that townland, but I do not know how we can judge the extent to which the use of its townland name by this one institution, which does not correspond that much with people, protects and promotes townlands.

I contend that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development including the townland when it issues single farm payment forms or sends letters to farmers notifying them that they are having an inspection or getting a fine or penalty of some kind — and it nearly always is — would be much better than the Assembly, as a corporate institution, using the townland. So there has been some positive progress made over the last 14 years, as a result of the motion that the Alliance Party brought and of the work that the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee engaged in previously, but we are not there yet.

Unfortunately, despite all of that work, townlands are still not as prominent as they need to be. My proposal would not address that in totality, but it would provide an opportunity for some councils, where there is an appetite for it, to put townlands back at the heart of the addressing system — to allow people to understand what their address is, based on a townland system. That is what this proposal is about. I am not standing here telling you that this is going to be the solution to the eradication of townlands. All this does is provide councils with a mechanism by which they can offer and allocate addresses based on the townland system instead of the road name system, which was much lamented in 1973 by members from all parties.

I will return to my speech, Kieran, if you do not mind. Ireland was historically divided into four provinces — Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught — which were then separated into counties. Those counties were further broken down into baronies which, in turn, were split into parishes, with each parish made up of a number of townlands. Across Ireland, there are 61,098 townlands, 16,400 of which are in the province of Ulster. There are 1,756 townlands in Antrim, 967 in Armagh, 2,010 in Cavan, 1,282 in Derry, 2,737 in Donegal, 1,336 in Down, 2,300 in Fermanagh, 2,181 in Tyrone and 1,850 in Monaghan. So, as you can see from each of those nine counties, townlands have considerable significance in each county, but some counties have a better record than others in promoting and protecting them.

In the last number of months, when doing a bit of research on finalising the work on the Bill, I discovered something that many Members who were here for the debate in 2001 will be aware of, but which caught me by surprise: Oliver Gibson, a DUP MLA, revealed that the townland system was also in operation in Sudan. I was not aware of that. I am not sure whether they copied us or we copied them. I have never been to Sudan, but I have no reason to doubt Mr Gibson in that regard. I hope that the people of Sudan find the townland system working well for them.

The issues surrounding townlands have been somewhat controversial, in some parts, over recent decades. The Local Government Act 1972, which constituted the district councils to administer the 26 local government districts created by the Local Government Boundaries Act 1971 and abolish the existing local authorities at the time, saw the introduction of road names for the first time, at the expense of the more widely recognised townland system. The introduction of a formal system of road names was adopted by 25 of the 26 councils. Fermanagh District Council stood alone in retaining townlands, with universal support from councillors from all political parties locally. During the 2001 debate, Members from all parties supported the stance of Fermanagh District Council in preserving townlands and using them as the principal part of the address.

However, Fermanagh District Council reluctantly moved to adopt a system of road names after a lengthy policy of internal debate amongst councillors of all parties. That policy was enacted on 1 February 2013. The decision to introduce a road name-based system was not taken lightly by the council and was taken only because current legislation does not allow the numbering of properties in a townland-based system. The council also agreed at the time to continue campaigning for the minor legislative change that I propose today.

As someone who used to run a business that was heavily reliant on the ability of individuals and businesses to pass credit checks, I understand why there was a desire by some in the county for a change to be made, but there was never a demand for the abandonment of the townland-based system. People were sick, sore and tired of not being able to order products for home delivery or pass a credit check, as the previous system was not compatible with that of the credit checking agencies. The way in which those credit checks and home deliveries work is that you simply type in your house number and postcode. Using the Pointer system that Land and Property Services (LPS) operates, a unique property reference number is generated which then ties you to that property and allows credit checking agencies to ensure that you have a good credit record. It also enables GPS-based systems to allow satnav to find addresses very quickly. That was the problem in Fermanagh. That is why there was a call to implement a system whereby people could access credit and order things online and where a satnav-based system would work. There was never a demand to move away from a townland-based system. It was a very reluctant council that made that decision.

In my previous life, I spent far too much time on hold to credit checking agencies and other organisations trying to explain the uniqueness of the townland-based system in Fermanagh to people who were often based in the south of England, if they were that close. That was a huge problem for people: trying to get something as simple as a credit card, a mortgage or s mobile phone contract or ordering something from one of the multinational retailers online for home delivery caused huge problems. With the way in which technology has advanced, those should be fairly straightforward things for people to access. The whole reason why it was changed was to address those problems. The introduction of the road name-based system has largely dealt with some of those problems, but the knock-on effect has been the diminution of the use of townlands within common language and the threat that, because we do not have townlands at the heart of our addresses, future generations will not know or understand what their townland is. That is a huge concern for me, as it is for many other people in our society.

Despite the fact that the policy has now changed in the council — Fermanagh District Council previously enacted this policy which the 25 other councils had at the time — there remains a strong desire among the councillors on Fermanagh and Omagh District Council and in the population of Fermanagh to restore townlands to their former glory as the predominant part of the addresses of our properties. As I said, many people across the North have lamented the fact that the usage of townlands has largely ceased since the policy change of the early 1970s. The proposed change before the House today will allow councils, if they wish, to put townlands back in use as the principal part of addresses.

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

When speaking to people across the North as part of the public consultation, it is clear that there is a strong demand for the greater promotion and protection of townlands. I carried out a consultation exercise on the policy behind the Bill in September and October 2012. Over 80 responses to the consultation were received, including responses from individuals, groups involved in culture and heritage, political parties and local councils. The majority of respondents were supportive of the proposed change and of the greater use of townlands in society and in the address-based system. The reason behind that is that there is much concern about the declining use of townlands. Our townlands are in a very perilous state.

Fermanagh people were proud to be able to say that their county was the exception to the rule as a result of the council's policy of using townlands as the basis of allocating addresses. Everybody in the county knew what their townland was because their address was based on it. There was no confusion about where you lived or where you got your identity from in your townland. However, due to the advancements in technology that I have mentioned and the change in the way in which businesses operate, the previous system was not sustainable, and some form of change was required.


12.00 noon

The old Fermanagh District Council's preferred option was that this exact change in policy would be made. The council wrote to successive Environment Ministers asking for the change to be made, but that request was rejected. I now seek to progress this legislative change through a private Member's Bill. I have consulted DOE officials, as well as the Minister, with regard to previous concerns about the Bill, and, in my view, the concerns and objections that emanated from DOE have now been addressed as a result of the requirement for councils to take account of guidance issued by DFP on how to implement a policy of allocating property numbers in a townland-based or non-linear system. I have also engaged with the director of mapping services in LPS to ensure that the Bill did not have any problematic points for LPS or DFP, which manages the Pointer address database. I am content that it does not, although I hear that some in DFP and the political management in that Department are not supportive of the Bill. That is no real surprise to me, because, when the Finance Minister was Environment Minister, her party colleagues from Fermanagh District Council wrote to her to ask her to make this change, and she refused to do it. I am not entirely surprised that Mrs Foster remains opposed to the Bill.

The Bill would provide councils with the option of numbering individual properties in townlands instead of on roads or in streets. It does not require them to do anything unless they wish to do so. The amendment would allow the townland name to be placed first in the address and to become the principal part of the address. The Bill also states that, if a council chooses to prioritise the townland name:

"a council shall have regard to any guidance issued by the Department."

— the Department of Finance and Personnel. From my point of view, it is a straightforward policy change, and I encourage Members to approach it with an open mind.

I appeared at the Environment Committee last Thursday week and discussed the issue with Members from all parties. They all claimed to be supportive of townlands, but I hear feedback that some Members will vote against this proposal, which is changing the legislation to allow councils to better protect and promote townlands. I see the Bill as a progressive Bill that has a simple aim and objective. It would better protect and promote townlands, and allowing it to progress to Committee Stage would allow all those who are interested in saving townlands to bring forward their opinions and suggestions about what changes need to take place to ensure that townlands are not lost for ever.

As Mr McCarthy indicated, the Alliance Party tabled a motion in the House in October 2001, calling for each Department to adopt a policy of using and promoting townland names in all government correspondence and official documents. The motion was, of course, passed without any objections from Members. Members from all parties stood up and spoke in favour of retaining townlands. In reality, little has changed. It was a non-binding motion asking Departments to use townlands in their correspondence, but correspondence from Departments is only one small aspect of it.

Changes have been made so that townlands are now included in the Pointer system, which is another important step in acknowledging that the townlands are there, but they are not always used. We have seen examples of people being issued with a driving licence and, because the licence is so small, their townland is often left out. When there are only three, four or five lines to use, people have their house number, road name, town, county and postcode, and there is no space left. It is looked at very pragmatically, and if anything is going to be left out it will be the townland because it is not the principal part of one's address. The change that we are trying to bring in will have the townland as the principal part of the address, so that, if anything was going to be dropped from the address, it would not be the townland. That was the complaint that Members had in 2001, but it is the complaint that society has had since the 1970s. While the Bill would not produce a solution overnight and ensure that townlands would be retained in addresses, it would do something much more pragmatic and give councils the opportunity to number properties in a townland and ensure that the townland appears at the top of the address.

Since 2001, there has been little improvement in the promotion of townlands in most areas. I think that we would all agree that much greater action needs to be taken to promote and protect townlands.

The motion had an impact in that material coming out from Stormont now includes the townland of Ballymiscaw, but I think that the issue is much greater than any literature, post, emails or communication coming from the Assembly as an institution. It is a much bigger problem than that, and I think that this small legislative change would help to further protect and promote townlands. It is not the panacea. It is not a total solution, but I think that it is better than what we have at the minute.

It is clear that some councils want to adopt this change. Not all councils are going to do it, but I repeat that I am not forcing a council to do anything that it does not want to do. Belfast City Council has clearly indicated that it does not want to make this legislative change, and that is fine. If Belfast City Council does not want to do it, I will not force it to do it. It is up to it whether it wants to do it or not. With legislation of this nature, where we are transferring the power to a local authority to make a decision, it is up to those councillors, and to the experts who they have employed in building control, to decide what system suits their needs best. I think that that is the approach that we need to take.

I want to highlight a number of the comments that were made by Members in 2001. Mr McCarthy will speak for himself, hopefully, so I will not rehash anything that he said. Mr McGrady said:

"That sense of identity and heritage has been lost due to things such as numbering vague roads that can be up to 15 miles long." — [Official Report, Bound Volume 12, p263, col 2].

I think that that was a very fair comment, and that issue was raised at the Environment Committee when I appeared at it.

It is clear that some Members are going to flag up a potential issue as a red herring: that this policy change, if it is approved by the Assembly and enacted by a local authority, may present a difficulty for emergency services. However, during that same debate 14 years ago, Mr McGrady highlighted the fact that, in 2001, problems existed for ambulance drivers not being able to find a property on a 10-mile-long road. He said that, without knowing the townland in question, it is often impossible to find a property using the number and the road name because these roads go on for 10 or 15 miles and, unless you know where the numbers are, you might know which side of the road it is on, but it could be four miles away, 100 yards away or eight miles away. Unless you know the townland that it is in, local knowledge is not going to solve that problem.

Some Members may attempt to justify their opposition by raising the emergency services as an issue, but I want to put that issue to bed now and say that it is not a problem because most, if not all, emergency service vehicles and, indeed, individuals who are delivering goods to households and businesses will now use GPS technology or some form of satellite navigation system to find out where they are going and to get the quickest or shortest route. Allowing this change to go through will not impact on the use of satnav technology and the use of GPS systems, because each property will retain its unique property reference number through the Pointer system, which will then be given to the GPS and satnav organisations to direct people to the quickest or shortest way to finding a property. It will allow people to find properties more easily, but it will mean that we are not overly reliant on local knowledge and have a good balance of technology and local knowledge if you say that you are looking for a particular townland as opposed to looking for house number 297 on a particular road.

There are many roads across the North that are 13 miles long, if not longer, and, if an ambulance driver or a firefighter were looking for a property in an emergency, they genuinely would not have a notion where the house was without either some level of local knowledge or using GPS technology. This proposed legislative change would not make the solution any more challenging for those people, and I suggest to Members that the best way to establish this would be to engage with the emergency services through the Committee Stage of the Bill to explore whether this actually is an issue or not.

DUP MLA Oliver Gibson, who revealed that Sudan also used townlands, suggested:

"for those of us who are forced to do so, the townland name should be placed above the road name." — [Official Report, Bound Volume 12, p264, col 2].

That seems to be in line with what I am proposing today. That is what he wanted to see, and that is what a number of Members wanted in 2001. The simple, pragmatic solution for those of us who claim to want to support townlands is to allow councils to number properties in townlands and put the townland above the road name.

Jim Shannon said:

" the disappearance of townland names is further evidence of the eradication of our local culture and history." — [Official Report, Bound Volume 12, p266, col 1].

As we all know, Mr Shannon takes great interest in culture and heritage. I think that his comments about where townland names derive from and their meaning were very useful for all of us in providing the context for the significance that many of us, particularly those of us who live in rural communities, attach to our townland names.

The eradication of our local culture and history was well evidenced in Brian Friel's play 'Translations', which deals with the anglicisation of traditional place names from Irish to English in Donegal in the 1830s. The main characters in the play are working on the six-inch-to-the-mile map survey of Ireland for the Ordnance Survey, and a character called Owen acts as a translator and go-between for the English and Irish. Yolland and Owen work to translate local place names into English for the purposes of the map. "Druim Dubh", meaning "black shoulder" in Irish, becomes "Dromduff" in English, and "Poll na gCaorach", meaning "hole of the sheep" in Irish, becomes "Poolkerry". While Owen has no qualms about anglicising the names of places that form part of his heritage, Yolland, who is not actually from Ireland but has fallen in love with the place, is unhappy with what he perceives as a destruction of Irish culture and language.

David Ford, in his contribution to the debate in 2001, summed up perfectly what the problem with the current situation was, and, indeed, it remains to be the problem today. He highlighted the fact that Royal Mail and other such organisations will simply tolerate the use of townlands but not encourage it. He gave the specific example of going into a shop and providing his house number and postcode. The address generated, using a computer, often excluded his townland, as that field of the address is left out due to spacing issues on an envelope or a label. Often, it is done because these mailing companies send out tens of thousands of letters a day, and if they can remove one line from the address, it will save them a significant sum of money. The danger is that, if a line is going to be left out, it will be the townland name, which most of us hold very dear and want to see protected and sustained. Unfortunately, because there is no protection in law for townlands, that is not possible.

From my perspective, that is the crux of the problem: the fact that the townland will be left out if anything is going to be left out. In order to stop that, we need to put the townland in the principal part of the address at the top, because we cannot force private organisations and individuals to use townlands as much as I would like. For me, that would be the best solution: let us bring in a law forcing people to use townlands. I certainly do not think that that would be workable, but it might have the desired outcome that we all want. A compromise position, where we can get workable legislation that has the desired outcome of enhancing the use of townlands by making sure that they are put back at the heart of common language again, is to offer councils the opportunity to put townlands at the heart of the addressing system in their district.

From the outset, I have accepted that not all councils will introduce or implement that system, but some will and, in those areas where they do, it will enhance the use of townlands. For me, that is a positive step. I think that, if the Bill is allowed to progress to Committee Stage, some other ideas might be brought forward either by Committee members, external individuals, organisations involved in the promotion of townlands or experts who deal with the issue. This will not solve the problem across our 11 councils. If one, two or three councils adopt the change, it will have a positive impact in those council areas, but it will not make much impact in other areas, apart from starting the debate on how important townlands are for our people, culture and heritage.

I want to reiterate that no council here is being forced to do anything that it does not want to do. We are merely transferring a power to a council and broadening the scope that a council has when allocating property numbers to addresses. I am open to exploring at the Committee Stage other protections and measures that can be taken to protect townlands. I am confident that other ideas will be added to complement the Bill, and I encourage Members to explore that further.

I want to pay tribute to two organisations that do an awful lot of good work in promoting and protecting townlands on a national basis: Logainm, which is the place names database of Ireland and is developed by Fiontar at Dublin City University; and the place names branch at the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I also want to commend those involved in the place name project, which researches the origin and meaning of place names across the North and is based at Queen's University Belfast. Projects and organisations like those have a key role in increasing understanding and awareness of townlands in society.


12.15 pm

I remember being in P6 in school, and the 20 of us in our class were asked to do a presentation on our own townland, what it meant, what it stood for and how it contributed to our identity. It was fascinating to see how 20 nine- or 10-year-olds had such a great understanding of their townland. What concerns me is that, if you were to pick 20 random people from other parts of the North, that understanding of their townland, what it means and where the name derives from would just not exist. There is an onus on us as legislators to do something to restore townlands to their rightful place.

Since the early 1970s, the use and understanding of townland names has been on a downward trajectory. We need to take appropriate action to stop that. Townlands are in a perilous state at the minute. If it were not for Fermanagh, they would have been abolished and would have disappeared off the system years ago. The fact that townlands are now included in Pointer is a positive step, but it is not the solution; it is not as far as we can go. There are still too many instances of us getting correspondence from Departments and official sources in which the townland name is not included in the address. It is removed as a cost-saving measure or to save space on a label, an envelope and so on. I do not think that they would get away with it if the townland name were at the top of the address.

It is no coincidence to me that understanding and awareness of townlands is much stronger in Fermanagh than in any other area in the North. It is clearly a result of the historical and recent use of townlands in our addressing system. As an Assembly, we need to learn from that. We need to realise that the best way to promote and protect townland names is to have them as a principal part of the address, and we can do that by allowing councils to have the choice of allocating property numbers using the townland-based system if they so wish.

We should learn from the positive leadership that Fermanagh District Council showed for 40 years by refusing to implement a road name-based system. The sky did not fall in. The council did it without legislation to back it up. Most people in Fermanagh want to return to a system in which their address is allocated on the basis of their townland. That is the change that I propose through the legislation. I encourage Members to support the Bill and allow it to go to Committee Stage to see what complementary measures we can add to it.

Ms Lo (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment): I welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s debate on the Second Stage of the Local Government (Numbers and Addresses of Buildings in Townlands) Bill.

Following the Bill's introduction on 12 October, the Committee agreed to seek an oral briefing from the Bill's sponsor, Mr Phil Flanagan. Mr Flanagan briefed the Committee at its meeting on 5 November. He outlined the purpose of the Bill and his rationale for bringing it forward. As he has outlined, the Bill will amend the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Order 1995. The amendment would provide councils with the option of numbering individual properties within townlands instead of using roads or streets and would allow the townland name to be placed first in the address and thus become the principal part of it. During the briefing, Committee members were sympathetic towards the intent of the Bill, which is to promote the use of townlands. However, some questioned whether legislation was the best mechanism for that. Other members expressed support for the proposals.

Committee members asked Mr Flanagan for his rationale for wishing to legislate rather than to encourage councils to adopt the proposals voluntarily. He advised the Committee that people need a unique property indicator to access credit checks and background checks, which they would not be afforded using an unauthorised system. He said that a voluntary approach would not therefore work. The Committee heard that, in 2013, Fermanagh District Council had to move away from a townland system to a road names system and that the decision was taken only because the current legislation did not allow the numbering of properties in a townland system.

The Committee discussed the responses to Mr Flanagan's 2012 consultation and noted that, of the then 26 councils, only three stated that they would consider adopting the system if it was introduced. Belfast City Council expressed concerns that, due to continuous development in the city, the use of townlands had more or less stopped and that it would not work in Belfast.

The Committee also heard that the financial implications of the Bill, if enacted, are twofold. First, there are financial implications for a council that wants to change its existing system, and, secondly, minor changes to the Pointer system will be required by Land and Property Services (LPS) and the Department of Finance and Personnel. The Committee is aware that the Bill does not place a mandatory obligation on councils to adopt the system but rather provides a legislative base should any council wish to do so. Therefore, only councils that opt to move to a townlands system would bear the costs, and it would be a matter for that council to resource it.

The Committee also queried the implications for emergency services and how they would find addresses, as Mr Flanagan referred to earlier. The Committee heard that that is an area of concern, not only for a council that introduces a townlands system but for councils that have roads that are 13, 15 or 20 miles long, and that a legislative change would provide each address with a unique property reference number, addressing issues with GPS compatibility. The Committee also queried the process of numbering individual properties in townlands. The Bill, however, makes provision for DFP to issue guidance that the council has to have regard to. Each council will decide how best to number properties in a townlands system.

The Committee questioned the practicalities of how LPS would operate a system for councils that adopt different approaches, namely road names or townlands. The Committee heard that the system already exists with LPS, that there is a list of data fields and that the townland name would be moved above the road name. Mr Flanagan advised that the biggest challenge for LPS is deciding what parameters to include in the guidance to councils.

Other members expressed their support for the legislative route, given the threat of losing the use of townland names. Options of possible funding streams were discussed. That concludes my comments as Chair of the Committee.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, with your indulgence, I would like to speak as an individual Member representing the Alliance Party. As my party colleague Mr McCarthy and Mr Flanagan mentioned, the Alliance Party previously instigated two motions in support of the inclusion of townlands, so my party broadly supports the principle of the Bill.

I am sympathetic to the wish to preserve the use of townland names for heritage reasons. The Bill aims to amend current legislation to allow local councils, if they wish, to number properties based on the townland system, with street or road names being included after the townland name. My main reservations are about the confusion that could arise from numbering properties based on townlands rather than using a linear basis according to streets. Just putting the townland name above the name of the road would be straightforward. However, changing the whole system of numbers and postcodes seems rather complicated. A young friend of mine from County Fermanagh was buying a house in my constituency of South Belfast. All bills and statements used his townland address, an address that his mortgage provider did not recognise. That caused him a great deal of trouble when trying to prove that he had lived in a fixed abode for a number of years.

I welcome the Bill's intent to deal with practical issues but I wonder if the proposed change might just cause further confusion. I understand that there will be guidance from DOE and DFP that will enable councils to adopt these changes if they wish.

I am content to support the Bill. If it proceeds to Committee Stage, I look forward to scrutinising it in more detail.

Mrs Cameron: I appreciate the dedication and commitment that the Member has given to the subject, which is obviously precious to him. I read almost the entire information pack on the issue and heard Mr Flanagan present to the Environment Committee in relation to his proposed Bill.

I am at a loss to understand why the Member feels it necessary to propose that the use of townlands in postal addresses should be enshrined in legislation. From my reading, this concern by Mr Flanagan is rooted solely in County Fermanagh, and perhaps in the past, Fermanagh District Council.

The proposal is that the Assembly should legislate to allow councils, if they desire, to re-template their addresses by putting their townland and house number at the forefront of the address. The first question I would ask is this: "Why?". Why would we legislate to do something that there is no need to do? Why would we legislate to bring in confusion?

What consultation has the Member had with bodies such as the emergency services, including the police, the Ambulance Service and firefighters, Royal Mail, the Post Office, and not to mention schools, colleges, health care providers such as doctors, district nurses, carers, social workers and occupational therapists, among others.

Mr Hazzard: Will the Member give way?

Mrs Cameron: No, I am fine, thanks.

Do not get me wrong, I completely understand the historical value of retaining the knowledge and use of townlands throughout Northern Ireland, but there is nothing to hinder their use. Many councils value the retention and use of townland names, as does the Assembly already.

There are many, including those in my party, who wish to see townland names used and remembered, but does it mean that we need legislation to do that? Can the Assembly's time and efforts not be put to better use in the remaining months of this mandate?

A simple way to help retain these much-valued names is to continue to talk about them, to talk about them in schools, and voluntarily use the townland in addresses. Perhaps as council signage is being replaced — and we understand the financial restraints that our new councils are under — they could add the townland beneath the street or road to demonstrate where the street or road is within a townland.

The Member will be aware that as well as addresses being used by a host of agencies for domestic purposes, there is the more serious matter of addresses being used to identify criminal records of offenders. Given the concerns, particularly in recent years, about sex offenders in rural communities, I would be extremely concerned that changing the addresses of offenders may allow them to evade identification by way of some computerised loophole.

I have an understanding of what is being proposed but, in truth, I do not see the value of this piece of legislation. Our time and efforts can be put to better use in seeing through the many pieces of legislation that require our attention in the remaining months of this mandate.

I and my party do not support the motion.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá i bhfabhar an bhille seo. I rise to support and speak in favour of the Bill.


12.30 pm

I would like to pay tribute to Mr Flanagan for the work he has done, and the way he has presented himself in presenting this Bill to the Floor of the House, and also for the way he conducted himself in Committee when he presented last week. I listened to the Member who spoke previously and I think it is a wee bit disingenuous to ask why this Bill should be coming forward. I think that any Member should have an opportunity to use this forum to bring forward any piece of legislation, and I would like to take this opportunity to support Mr Flanagan in that.

I am from a small town in a rural area; I come from the townland of Caramoyle. Mr Bradley might be able to help me in relation to the understanding of the name. I think it is called "the bald friend", roughly translated.

Mr Boylan: That is the townland that I reside in and come from. I am very proud of it. I come from an area where there are a number of townlands, as in Fermanagh to which Mr Flanagan referred earlier. I know that, in the likes of Derrynoose, there are 22 townlands, a number of them with very beautiful names.

The important thing is the connection of the townland to the people and their identity. If you go into many's a graveyard in the countryside, you will see on many's a headstone the names of many's a townland, and people were very proud to come from and live in them. Townlands, as my colleague has outlined, have a historical, cultural and linguistic significance within the island of Ireland, predating parishes and counties. They tell a story of the local area and the people who lived there. They provide a sense of belonging and a link to the history of the area. The change of format in our addresses in the 1960s has meant that the younger generation, in particular, has little or no knowledge of the name of the townland they live in. That is very sad.

I welcome the efforts made by many in local government and the Departments to include townland names in their correspondence. However, I believe that, without legislative requirement, the format can vary and it relies on goodwill. I support Mr Flanagan in trying to introduce this option to give local authorities the chance to retain townland names so that the next generation will not forget them and will understand the significance and identity that comes with them.

I support the preservation of townlands and look forward to discussing this at Committee. I support the Bill.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Éirím ar an ócáid seo le tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille. I support the Bill. Rugadh mise i mbaile fearainn darb ainm Cloch Aireamhán a bhí suite taobh leis an Charraig Bhreac. Is doiligh ainmneacha chomh deas, chomh ceolmhar, nó chomh saibhir a fháil ná ainmneacha ár gcuid bailte fearainn. I was born in Cloughirvin, beside Carrickbrack. It would be difficult to get names that are as attractive in their sound, meaning and richness as the names of our townlands. For example, in my constituency, we have Annacloghmullin, Tullymacreeve, Ballymacdermot, Ballimar, Lisummon, Mullaghbane, and I could go on. A particularly attractive one that I came across recently was Achadh na bhFáinleog, "the field of the swallows." That is a beautiful name, is it not?

As I said, enclosed within our townland names is a wealth of history. Anyone who has had the opportunity of reading any of the publications of the Place-Name Project at Queen's University will know that the process of understanding a single place name involves a huge amount of historical research. I would probably take issue with Mr Boylan's interpretation of Caramoyle and refer it to someone more learned than me for deliberation, but I hazard a guess that "bald friend" may not be the correct rendition of that name. I may be corrected. In any case, as I said, the names are rich in history, as the Place-Name Project shows very clearly. What a pity that a previous Finance Minister, who knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing, would not provide the match funding to allow the Place-Name Project at Queen's to continue. I pay tribute to the work of Dr Kay Muhr and Dr Patrick McKay, who provided much of the material, and, of course, to the others who helped them and went before them.

Place names tell us about the geography, topography and social history of our local area, which families lived in which places and so on. They are well worth preserving for many reasons. The play, 'Translations', which Mr Flanagan referred to, is of course about the adoption of our place names from the original Irish into English. The anglicised versions still hold a reflection of the original Irish. Of course, I am also in favour of the Irish version of the place names being available.

I do not frequently attend Orange parades, but I do see the photographs of the Twelfth in the local paper. One of the things that I have remarked on is that almost all the Orange lodge banners have townland names, such as Altnaveigh, Divernagh, Creeve, Finnard and, here in Belfast, Ballynafeigh. The Orange Order is doing its bit to preserve townland names, and I think that we should support them in that.

Mr Flanagan spoke of the huge amount of work done by many people locally in County Fermanagh. In my county of Armagh, there is an enlightened awareness of the value of townland names. Some communities have marked out the boundaries of their townland in granite. When you are driving through the area — I am sure that Mr Boylan has noticed this — you will see the townlands marked by very attractive local granite stones. I have seen the same thing in other areas, such as the Connemara Gaeltacht.

I believe that, in many areas, townland names are not as prominently in use as they could be. Mr Flanagan's Bill will help to put them back into pole position in those council areas that choose to adopt it. I am very much in favour of preserving townlands, and my party agrees with me, I am glad to say. I would pose a couple of questions to Mr Flanagan. Has he taken into account the Good Friday Agreement, particularly paragraph 4 on economic, social and cultural issues?

I also ask him to look at the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, particularly article 7, paragraph 2. Perhaps he will also think of discussing his proposals with the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, in the light of the responses received on the proposed Irish language Bill.

Tá mé sásta tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille faoi mar atá sé san am i láthair ag an Dara Céim. Ar ndóigh, beidh faill agus deis againn na moltaí atá sa Bhille a iniúchadh níos míne agus níos doimhne sna céimeanna den Bhille. Gabhaim buíochas leat arís, a LeasCheann Comhairle, as deis labhartha a thabhairt dom.

I am glad to support the Bill. We will have the opportunity to explore and delve into its provisions at the various legislative stages, and I am sure that my party will be happy to cooperate with Mr Flanagan.

Mrs Overend: I rise on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. I very much support the use of townland names; in fact, I generally use my townland name in my postal address. It is Ballymacpeake, which means "homestead of the Macpeakes". It was a tradition passed down by my husband's ancestors, the McCaugheys, who lived there before us. Likewise, I spell the name of my road in the same way as my family did, despite it being different from the way in which it is spelled on the sign at the end of the road. It is a family tradition, and I follow it. I have experienced no problems including my townland name on official documentation, and I generally submit the townland name after the road name and before the town name. I therefore see no problem with continuing that practice.

As for the proposal to enable councils to bring forward changes to addresses so that houses will be numbered by townland rather than by road, I do not see why anyone would abandon the current, workable system. Yes, townlands are precious, particularly for those of us living in rural areas, and I commend the Member for his work, but that affection needs to be balanced with a sensible, effective and efficient address system. Given the choice between having their townland on the first line of their address or having a system that allows ordinary, day-to-day services to function, I hazard a guess that people would chose the latter.

It makes perfect sense to me to have houses numbered along the route used to get to a place. It seems to me that numbering houses by townland would send us back in time to when people would walk from one townland to another, visiting close friends across fields rather than by road. The world is a much smaller place now than in the days of walking to a neighbour's house across the townland. Delivery vans can follow road maps, knowing that even numbers are on one side of the road and odd numbers on the other.

I cannot imagine numbering houses in a townland. Where would we start? Would the numbers go clockwise or anticlockwise? Would we start from the centre and work outwards or vice versa? How easy it would be to confuse the postman. In addition, what would happen on roads that pass through several — sometimes, many — townlands? Sometimes, just by the run of the road, you can enter a townland, leave it and then enter it again. The confusion of such a system, including the sheer frustration of the people affected by the change, should not be underestimated.

Worse still, what about the blue-light services? Such a system would most certainly confuse ambulance drivers, who depend on a simple road number system to find addresses, especially when time is of the essence and an emergency has been called. In the depths of rural Northern Ireland, where there is no mobile signal for GPS systems, surely a simple road network system is the best. During his evidence to the Committee, Mr Flanagan was asked about these services. He took an almost primitive attitude. He claimed that the police, the fire brigade and the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service would depend on local knowledge. I remind him that it is 2015, and he should not totally dismiss the technological advances of recent decades. Local knowledge is invaluable, but I am sure I do not need to tell Mr Flanagan that, even in his constituency, with its swathe of rural roads and lanes, much like my own, many police officers are not from the area where they work. Indeed, I know that the PSNI even tries to base officers away from their home area, for sensible reasons I might add. I ask Mr Flanagan this: in an emergency, how are two officers, both from outside the area, who have the latest but now obsolete mapping kit in their vehicle meant to arrive at an address under the new system without having to waste crucial time? Of course, he also forgets that, in many areas of Northern Ireland, the PSNI is reluctant to casually walk up to a stranger's door and ask for an address. This system, well meaning as it is, is just not feasible. When people ring 999, they want the rescue services to arrive as soon as possible, yet, if what the Bill is offering were introduced in a council area, I suspect that response times would be severely affected.


12.45 pm

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for giving way and agree with the point that she makes. Does she agree with me that, particularly if we are talking about police arriving at an incident where there is a threat to life or a situation where an ambulance is needed — we often talk about the "golden period" around a heart attack, a stroke or something of that nature, where there needs to be swift intervention — the longer that is delayed, the greater the chance of the damage being permanent or, indeed, the person being dead. I suspect that, 99 times out of 100, the ambulance or police car arrives there at the time it is supposed to, but, if you get a situation where there is confusion and people are scrambling around, does she share my concerns that it might, in some extreme cases, be a matter of life and death?

Mrs Overend: I thank the Member for that intervention and agree with him. In the rush to bolster townlands, Mr Flanagan has simply decided to set that point aside.

Giving primacy to townlands rather than roads is just not workable. I wonder if Mr Flanagan has discussed the matter with Royal Mail to receive its analysis of the proposal. Furthermore, I am interested to hear the cost of introducing such a system for LPS and how it would deal with the varying systems of councils, since none is obliged to introduce the system.

Mr Flanagan stated that, in his consultation, he did not receive much support from councils to introduce such a townland system. In fact, he said during his briefing to the Environment Committee:

"While nearly all councils indicated that they were fully supportive of the use of townlands, none of them went as far as saying that they would want the system adopted. They said that, at present, they had no desire to make use of such a change."

Only three of the previous 26 councils had some sympathy for Mr Flanagan's desire to bring forward the legislation. Of course, having sympathy is very different from actually using it. Why bring in such legislation, then? I have spoken to my colleagues in County Fermanagh, who explained the unregulated system that existed there for a long time. There was much confusion and debate about simplifying addresses there. In fact, many people in Fermanagh were given new addresses only a couple of years ago, with new house numbers and postcodes. No doubt that caused some problems locally, so I am surprised that Mr Flanagan wants to inflict further upheaval on a far more significant scale.

After talking to people in Fermanagh and mid-Ulster, I believe that there is no desire to remove the current system and return to the simple use of townlands. I share the desire to keep our townlands but not the desire to give them primacy in our postal addresses. I too would like my children to know of the history of the area where we live, but we do not need this legislation to share that information with the next generation; instead, we talk to them about townlands. My children know about Dreenan crossroads and the Mullaghboy hill. They have heard of the Gall bogs and the land at Inneval that my grandfather used to farm. We refer to townlands in our daily conversation. We laugh about the sound of the names and talk about where they originated. That is how we make sure that they continue, not by this legislation, which, the sponsor himself agrees, no one really wants. I oppose the progression of the Bill.

Mr Girvan: I will speak against the progression of the Bill. I have some reservations.

The townland that I was born and reared in is called Dunturky. As stated, a lot of the townland names have been anglicised, and that has probably helped with the understanding of the townland name in the locality where I live. Straidnahanna is a reference to the village of Straid. We also have the townland of Calhame, which is an Ulster Scotsism.

I can see that the opportunity would arise for this to be part of a greater cultural war that has already existed, in which Irish has been promoted, and there would be an attempt to put those anglicised names into an Irish context. That has happened, and you see it as you drive around certain parts of Northern Ireland, especially when you go into a certain areas and find that you cannot recognise the street or road you are driving on. You see a road sign, but it has no resemblance to the name of the road that comes up on your satnav, because some well-meaning individual has decided to turn it into a war and use the Irish language as a mechanism for putting that message across. That is by the way.

I use my townland name, and it exists on the deeds of the property that I own within that townland. The names of the townlands are retained within that mechanism. To go down the route of changing numbers along roads within townlands could mean that, as you drive along a road, you could have seven number twos because it just so happens that that road crosses seven townlands. That is where the problem comes in.

On using the townland name first; the postcode system works and works very effectively. Most emergency services have the address, and the house number is located where it should be located There is a road in my constituency called the Seven Mile Straight. It is called that for obvious reasons, because it is seven miles along part of it. The numbers flow along that road. If you put in that you are looking for —

Mr Flanagan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Girvan: No, I will not. I have listened to enough nonsense from you. The fact of the matter is that if you are driving along the Seven Mile Straight and put number 255 into your satnav, you will find number 255; it comes up within a few hundred yards of the property. More emphasis should have been put on ensuring that, within a rural setting, people have house numbers at the ends of lanes or on their properties so that they can be identified by the emergency services, but that is not what is being discussed here.

We need to discuss issues associated with why we believe that councils should take this on board and use valuable public resources to create another layer. I have no problem with trying to retain townland names and ensure that they are passed down, but we should not try to legislate for that. We legislate for far too much in this society. Everything has to be legislated for. There is no common sense in an awful lot of cases, so we have had to legislate. If common sense was allowed to prevail, you would not need to put a mechanism in place to allow local authorities to take that approach.

We have heard how confusion has been caused in areas where people have attempted to renumber. Those looking for credit checks, because of an agenda that was being driven, did not wish to give their postcode or their house number, but were keen to just use their address as the townland in which they lived to ensure that that happened. Every address in Northern Ireland has a postcode. As a consequence, there should be some recognition in all of the databases of those who are involved in credit checks and such like so that they can access that information and make use of it.

There are a large number of townlands in Northern Ireland — we heard how many thousands there are. I happen to live on a road that has a fairly unique name, but in many towns there is a Church Road. As a consequence of having a Church Road, the only identifiable way of working out what town it is in is ensuring that the postcode is used.

My colleague who spoke before me asked a question in relation to conversations with Royal Mail. The fact of the matter is that its very name means the Member on the opposite Benches may be reluctant to speak to it because of the term "Royal". He might answer that in his response to this whole matter, but that is something I think that we have to be very careful about.

The words "can, if they wish" are included as part of it. There is no idea that it will be the first part of somebody's address; it would be the townland, the street name and the number. That has caused all sorts of concerns, and I take on board the emergency services' approach. If somebody gave only a townland and a number and the services were using the current system, they may not make it to an emergency in time before someone loses their life. But, on the basis that they were trying to make a political statement, they can rest happy in the fact that they died within the townland that they gave the name for, simply because they could not be found. That needs to be looked at.

We need to take on board more issues associated with, for instance, ensuring that we have street names properly identified by councils that can be read without having to spend time trying to interpret what the Irish name is, and that the properties on that road are numbered to ensure that they are easy to get at. I know that certain people say that the postman can find their house all the time. That is simply because the same postman is always on that route and he knows virtually who everyone is, so there is no issue. The problem is that, if there are no numbers on the ends of lanes, there is always a difficulty in trying to find an address. If somebody new comes on, he will run into difficulty in an awful lot of rural areas.

I, for one, know, because I come from a country location, that you probably know everybody with a mile-and-a-half radius of you, so there is not a problem, but there will be people who have to respond who do not have that local knowledge, and they will have a difficulty. We should be making some move to ensure that numbers are visible and easier to find in that type of environment.

The anglicisation of a number of the townland names was mentioned in the debate. I would like some clarification on whether this is another move by certain people to ensure the promotion of Irish townlands, as was stated by Dominic Bradley, who said that he would encourage that. I just wonder whether this is another string in the bow of those who want to engage in the cultural war that continues to be used, and I am using it because those in my community would say that Presbyterians were the people who kept the Gaelic language alive. Coming from a Presbyterian background, I do not say that I should not support the Irish language, but because it has been politicised and used on that basis, I feel that I cannot embrace it due to its politicisation, even within this forum. I believe that the Bill is another mechanism to do the very same.

Every person in this Building probably knows the townland that they live in or were born, unless they live in certain parts of Belfast where there may not be townlands. Most people, though, will never have thought of it being used politically or in any other way. We should be very careful about allowing this to happen.

It is a four-clause Bill that, in many ways, is relatively straightforward, but it makes absolutely no sense to me. Councils have a responsibility to ensure that numbering goes on, but numbering within townlands is not easy to appreciate. It is vital that we do not allow this to progress because it will just add more confusion for the 11 councils that have been set up. More of a war would now be created within them in relation to these matters. We should kill the Bill at this stage and not allow it to progress any further, because it will incur additional costs for councils and other mechanisms. From what I have been told, the GPS does not even recognise townlands as part of the mapping system. We should kill the Bill at this opportunity, and I will be opposing it.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business that we will return to will be Question Time.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 1.00 pm.

On resuming —


2.00 pm

Assembly Business

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before we commence the next item of business, I wish to advise the House that I have notified the Business Committee that I will not be speaking today to the topic for the Adjournment debate on the use of the Stormont Estate.

Oral Answers to Questions

Justice

Mr Ford (The Minister of Justice): Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I will take questions 1, 6 and 7 together. I apologise because that may make my answer slightly longer than usual.

Maghaberry is a challenging and complex high-security prison and this report demonstrates that. The progress that the prison made in 2012 continued through to 2014 against a backdrop of experienced staff leaving under the voluntary exit scheme and new staff coming in. The prison has faced three key challenges: resourcing, building a consistent regime and delivering outcomes for prisoners.

The report from the visit in May demonstrated that Maghaberry had been greatly affected by staff absence, which had had a serious impact on the regime and outcomes for prisoners. This has been addressed through robust management of attendance, recruitment and redeployment from other prisons. Since August, sickness levels have fallen sharply, which means more officers on the landings and a more progressive regime.

The director general of the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) has already taken steps to strengthen the leadership team at Maghaberry, including the appointment of Phil Wragg as governor. NIPS has developed a detailed action plan to address each of the strategic recommendations contained in the report. That has been published on the NIPS website so that the service can be held to account against that plan. What is important now is that the right leadership team is in place. In the six months since the inspection, the Prison Service has taken action to improve the immediate performance of Maghaberry to ensure that the prison is delivering better outcomes for prisoners and is playing its part in building a safer Northern Ireland. I am confident that, when the inspectors return in January, they will see significant improvement.

It is important to reinforce that the context in which Maghaberry operates is not the same as that for any prison in neighbouring jurisdictions. Prison officers are under severe threat, which means that an attack is highly likely. NIPS has effective mechanisms in place to disseminate information relating to threats, and staff are fully supported when security concerns are raised. Any threats to others, including contractors, are a matter for the PSNI, and there are arrangements in place to share information in that respect. In that context, I am very encouraged that over 1,700 people applied in the recent Prison Service recruitment campaign. Those individuals have an opportunity to play their part in building a safer community.

Mr Lynch: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra chuimsitheach sin. I thank the Minister for his comprehensive answer. Does he agree that a combination of a failure of leadership in the prison and a refusal and resistance to prison reform has led to what can only be described as a "damning report" by the Criminal Justice Inspection (CJINI)? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Ford: When I spoke about the report last week, I highlighted that I believe that we have good leadership in place, at prison headquarters and within Maghaberry, and very good cooperation between the governor and the headquarters team. So, we have now got leadership. There is no doubt that, as we have proceeded through the reform programme, some people have had more difficulty adjusting to it than others. We are seeing a team working together at Maghaberry under the leadership of the governor in conjunction with the work being done by NIPS headquarters and the Department.

Mr Allister: The Minister has not mentioned it, but a significant part of the report dealt with what could be classed as the disproportionate focus on the separated prisoners and the adverse effect that was having on the rest of the prison. What has been done to address that issue?

Mr Ford: Mr Allister raises an entirely reasonable point. The decision to introduce separation was taken by a former Secretary of State some years ago. Decisions on who is admitted to separated conditions are for the Secretary of State and not the devolved Minister. The Department of Justice and the Prison Service has to run the prison on the basis that there are two separated houses.

As part of the reform programme, it is proposed to reconfigure Maghaberry into three mini prisons, which would separate, if that is not an unfortunate use of the term, those who are category A prisoners, whether they are normal category A prisoners or those from the two groups of separated prisoners. That would ensure that it is easier to deal with their needs separate from those of the main bulk of the prison population. If capital funding is forthcoming, I will be very keen to see that happen as soon as possible.

Mr D McIlveen: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. He will be aware that, in March of this year, five prisoners were arrested over allegations of making threats towards police officers. There have also been numerous complaints from contractors going into the prison that they have been the subject of threats, particularly from Bush House. Does the Minister wish to comment on where we are today with the state of threats issued against officers, police officers and contractors?

Mr Ford: The point is made very clearly by Mr McIlveen. It is a point that I have made before. I said in my key answer that the threat against individual officers and police officers remains severe. There is no doubt that it creates very difficult working conditions. It is unfortunate that, in the particular context of the separated republican prisoners, the agreement that was made in August 2010, which was predicated on changes in the regime in Roe House, balanced against an end of threats to prison officers, has not been matched by an ending of threats, whether delivered, at times, inside Roe House or by supporters of the dissident prisoners through websites and various other social media. If we are to make progress, it is important that those threats are removed and that prison officers are able to go to work without facing threats, either internally or when they leave afterwards.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that the August 2010 report by the prison assessors' team led by Peter Bunting and Anne Owers states that everyone — staff and prisoners — should be treated with dignity and respect in a conflict-free environment?

Mr Ford: I am happy to agree with Mr Boylan, but I am not sure that it would necessarily be suggested that, in a team of four equals, Peter Bunting was the leader — although, undoubtedly, he would be one of the co-leaders. Mr Boylan is absolutely right: the 2010 agreement provided the opportunities to move forward, but it appears that dissident supporters outside and dissidents inside have not played their part.

Mr Ramsey: In light of the extensive reporting of the investigation, there is deep worry and concern amongst the families of staff and prisoners. Can the Minister give us an assurance that he is doing everything in his power to ensure the safety of the staff and prisoners in Maghaberry?

Mr Ford: Mr Ramsey has indirectly highlighted one of the unfortunate consequences. I have heard it reported in the media that the report said that Maghaberry was the most dangerous prison in Europe. It said no such thing. Comments from the chief inspector of prisons from England at his press conference went beyond the considered opinion of that report. They certainly were not the comments of the chief inspector of criminal justice. The Member is absolutely right that it is important that we ensure the safety of staff and prisoners. It is a fact that we are by no means the worst regime in these islands in providing safety in the Northern Ireland Prison Service, but there has to be ongoing, serious work and engagement by prison staff at the highest level to ensure that that is maintained. That is their daily task.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. In the Minister's response to Cathal Boylan, he talked about the approach of dissidents inside. Given what the director general said on Friday about the ineffectual relationship — she accepted that there was a resistance to change amongst prison staff in Maghaberry — does "dissidents" take on a whole new meaning in that context?

Mr Ford: I am not sure that I have ever used the term "dissidents" to refer to any member of prison staff, but I did say earlier that there are clearly members of prison staff who find the change to the new arrangements more difficult than others. Some who had served for long periods in difficult times took advantage of the early retirement scheme. Others remain, many of whom are playing very positive roles in the current operation of the Prison Service, but some are having difficulty adjusting to that.

Mr Beggs: The Minister referred to his action plan and the need to improve the lot of prisoners. Does he accept that it is also vital that we improve conditions for prison officers and that we improve their morale? Has he approached the Secretary of State to see whether the previous impositions need to be changed in order to manage that prison in an effective manner?

Mr Ford: I certainly agree with Mr Beggs that the issue of staff morale is important and significant. I have not specifically discussed with the Secretary of State any change to the separated regime. That is her responsibility. She has not made any proposals to me to change it either. The reality is that we are in a situation where separation was granted by a previous Secretary of State, and that is what we have to work with.

Mr Dickson: Thank you, Minister. It has to be acknowledged that you have been here on a number of occasions, robustly dealing with these matters, and you are to be congratulated for that. Minister, do you agree that, if you were to compare the date of the report with today and visit the prison today, you would find a transformed regime, people working together, reduced absenteeism and more prisoners engaged in meaningful work?

Mr Ford: I pointed out last week — I cannot remember whether it was in response to Mr Dickson's question on the statement — that I hoped that more members of the Justice Committee would get the opportunity to visit. I believe from my most recent visit, which was three weeks ago, that there have been very significant changes, including much reduced sickness rates and, therefore, better numbers of staff on the landings. There is positive work being done. For example, on that occasion, I saw people engaged in what was essentially public service work in doing Braille booklets. They were working through their lunch break with a prison officer who was working through his lunch break because they wanted to get a job done for the benefit of somebody outside. That seems to me symptomatic of the spirit of many of the people in there. It is the same when you visit the new cafe. We have heard a lot about the success of the Cabin Cafe in Hydebank Wood; there is now a very similar arrangement for the Riverbank Cafe in Maghaberry. All of that is symptomatic of the governor and his management team working with staff to ensure better conditions for staff and prisoners.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I move to the next question, I must inform the House that question 10 has been withdrawn.

Mr Ford: The average time to process an enhanced Access NI check was 19 days in 2013-14, 16 days in 2014-15 and eight days for the first half of 2015-16. With the introduction in April of online applications, there have been significant improvements in Access NI turnaround times. In addition, the PSNI has recently reviewed and improved the processes for dealing with the enhanced checks that are referred to them. This has resulted in a 70% reduction in the backlog of Access NI checks with the police over the past three months.

Mr Lyons: I thank the Minister not only for the answer but the very good news that it contains. He will be aware that an awful lot of community and voluntary organisations and faith-based groups depend on Access NI checks. In the past, far too many of them have had to wait far too long for those to come through. It is very welcome that the online system seems to have helped. The reduction is obviously very welcome. Can the Minister assure the House that he will keep an eye on the situation to ensure that the reduction continues and waiting times stay low?

Mr Ford: It is a pleasure to welcome Mr Lyons to a Justice Question Time. His predecessor Mr Wilson tended to be fairly critical of Access NI, so I have logged the praise for Access NI today. I will give him one specific further statistic: the number of cases that have been with the police for over 60 days for check was 789 in June and 128 last week. Clearly, there will always be cases that need to be checked in some detail by the police, but that shows a very significant turnaround by the police in their role, Access NI staff in their role and the enhanced IT system. I will certainly keep an eye on it as he has asked.

Ms Hanna: I am sure that many Members, like me, will not recognise those waiting times and may have been contacted by constituents who are waiting considerably longer. Having come from the voluntary sector, I know that that is not the story that I have heard from people. Can the Minister give an assurance that any further steps to take up processing will be taken, particularly in the case of an urgent job application? I am aware of people who have waited weeks or even months and been unable to take up employment during that time.


2.15 pm

Mr Ford: Ms Hanna asks a very reasonable question, which is, of course, simple to answer: people who get good service from Access NI do not contact their MLA to complain about it. The tens of thousands of checks that go through reasonably speedily go through, and people are happy. Some of them say, "Thank you" to Access NI, but most people accept that that is what they should expect from a public service. In September, for example, 95% of enhanced certificates were processed within 14 days of receipt of the application, while over 98% were processed within 28 days. We are talking about the small minority of cases, which, overwhelmingly, are those that require further checks by the police — the PSNI or another police service. Those are the applications that have, in some cases, taken a very considerable time, but, in the past few months, we have seen a significant improvement there as well.

Mr McCarthy: When will portable checks be available?

Mr Ford: Mr McCarthy highlights an ongoing challenge. A lot of work has been done, and I hope that we will have the full portability of checks at some point during the next calendar year. It is something that is very disappointing, because that was under way when I became Minister, just over five years ago. Changes were then made by the Home Office for England and Wales that had further knock-on effects for us, but we are looking to see portable checks introduced as quickly as possible. The idea of a portable check, which could be checked online any number of times that people needed, would be significantly better than the current system, which is effectively still a paper-based system, even though it is carried out online. That would show a significant improvement, particularly for those engaged in different areas of voluntary work or a number of short-term periods of employment who need to see that opportunity coming through. Frankly, it cannot happen too soon, in view of the complaints that people still have.

Mr Ford: Following the initial pilot across three police districts in Belfast, youth engagement clinics were rolled out across all districts in Northern Ireland over 2014-15, becoming fully operational in April of this year. I took that decision following a positive evaluation of the pilot, which demonstrated a number of benefits for children and young people. It is clear that youth cases that are dealt with at clinics are resolved far more quickly than those that progress to court, meaning that the negative consequences of delay in our system for victims and offenders can be reduced.

Youth engagement clinics can help young people make better-informed decisions about their options at an early stage by providing advice and support in a language and setting that is appropriate to their age and level of understanding. That includes explaining the consequences of accepting a diversionary or court-ordered disposal and how that might affect them in the future.

Participation in the clinics has allowed young people to take responsibility for and understand the consequences of their actions and to get appropriate support to address the underlying causes of their offending behaviour. That approach of supporting children at the earliest stage to address problems that could lead to further offending or risk-taking behaviour is a key element of the scoping study that I commissioned to improve outcomes for children in or on the fringes of the youth justice system. There is clear evidence that the more we can do to prevent young people entering the system in the first place or to divert them from more formal disposals, the better their long-term outcomes.

Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for a comprehensive answer. I am pleased to hear that the clinics are having such a positive impact on the outcomes for our young people. In view of the evaluation, has he other initiatives in mind to build on that success?

Mr Ford: I thank Ms Lo for her question. The key issue is the scoping study now looking into the whole operation of youth justice. We need to ensure that we build on the successes of the youth engagement model and continue to see how we can do it to streamline and simplify the system. That is what youth engagement clinics are about. That is what we expect to see followed up in the final report that is being prepared on that work by Criminal Justice Inspection. As we look into the scoping study on how we can make further improvements in the future, I think that there will be continued improvement in the speed with which cases are disposed of and in appropriate measures being adopted for individual offenders. We hope to see significant improvements for society on the back of that.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. I commend the Minister on a very in-depth and comprehensive answer. Can he elaborate on what lessons have been learnt from the clinics that could make access to justice more efficient and more effective?

Mr Ford: I thank Ms McCorley for her support. In a sense, it is slightly early, given that the pilot scheme has been running only in part of Belfast for any length of time and the wider roll-out was from April 2015. We need to be slightly careful. We do not have a full statistical basis, but there seems to be evidence from practitioners and from some young people who are participants that the arrangements have helped to create the joined-up response that has helped them to see their way to a better future and to manage their behaviour so that it does not lead to future offending. The benefits that that provides to young people and to those who might otherwise have become victims is to be welcomed. There is no doubt that, as we look generally at the way in which the clinics have operated, we see that they have built on the past successes of the Youth Justice Agency. We are seeing improvements, and we will see the proper evaluation when we get the CJINI report in the near future. I will look to it for full evidence.

Mr Ford: With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 4, 5 and 14 together.

Last week, I announced to the House that I welcomed the access to justice review part II report and that the publication of the report would begin a consultation period that would close on 9 February next year. The report has some 150 wide-ranging recommendations, and I hope that those with an interest in improving the justice system and the experience of those who come into contact with it will take the opportunity to comment on the report. I hope to return to the Assembly before the end of the current mandate to outline my proposed response to the report by setting out thematically the priorities that will drive the future reform agenda.

As I have highlighted previously, significant progress has already been made in delivering reforms of many aspects of the justice system. This reform programme will continue. Where there are issues of commonality between current reforms and recommendations in the report, I will reflect on the analysis in the report as I take forward the reforms.

On alternative funding arrangements for money damages cases, the report recommends a new approach that would enable the majority of cases currently supported by legal aid to proceed without that support. It is based on a conditional fee agreement with appropriate safeguards to prevent increased costs. This appears to provide a realistic alternative to the existing approach, and, in order to ensure that we draw out any concerns, I plan to consult specifically on this issue at the same time as consulting more generally on the report. That will ensure that we have a firm basis to proceed with a reform that will save money and improve access to justice.

The report makes a number of recommendations on improving the efficiency of criminal proceedings. I plan to take the views of the Lord Chief Justice on those matters. I meet him regularly, and I expect the report will be a regular focus of future meetings.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. Does the Minister agree that, without a properly funded legal aid system, effective access to justice for all will be undermined?

Mr Ford: I am happy to agree with Mr Ó hOisín on that one. The report made the point — I also made it in accepting the report — that we are not looking to reduce legal aid to the bare minimum; we are looking to provide it in a measure that is affordable but meets the needs of this society. That is why, for example, the point that I highlighted about money damages is about finding alternative ways of funding. It is why matters like mediation as opposed to an adversarial court hearing are being looked at as ways of ensuring that justice is provided, but that is not the same thing as continuing to maintain the current legal aid arrangements in all cases.

Mr Dallat: I listened carefully to the Minister. On this day of glad tidings and great joy for the future of the Assembly, will he now consider looking seriously at legal aid with regard to family law and those matters where people have been profoundly affected by the recent scarcity of resources?

Mr Ford: I will keep my counsel until I shortly attend an Executive meeting as to whether I agree with Mr Dallat that it is a day of glad tidings or whatever. Indeed, some of his party colleagues may have a different view from the way in which he has just expressed it.

On the specific issue of family cases, one of the major challenges that have confronted the system for some time and that I get frequent correspondence about is the availability of legal aid for one partner in a family dispute but not the other.

The allegation that is frequently made — indeed, there are several Members in the House at the moment who have made the allegation — is that legal aid is used as a weapon by the legally aided ex-partner against the partner who is on a modest income that disbars them from legal aid.

Those are the kinds of issues that need to be looked at, not cutting out legal aid from the basic key hearings that may deal with a divorce or a separation or issues such as the custody of children. It is about stopping the idea that people who would not take a case to court if they were funding it themselves would have immediate recourse to legal aid to mount a continuing series of challenges. I believe that that is an entirely appropriate way to change. We will see what the responses to the consultation document are; no doubt the joyful Mr Dallat and his colleagues will be among those who will respond.

Mrs McKevitt: Does the Minister have a preferred alternative to legal aid?

Mr Ford: It is not so much a preferred alternative to legal aid but a way in which we find that access to justice is provided by a variety of methods. Existing arrangements for legal aid will have to continue in some areas, but mediation, various forms of alternative dispute resolution, and finding different ways in which, frankly, those who are fighting over money or property of some kind fund it themselves out of the proceeds of that, are all issues that are entirely relevant so that we can concentrate the payment of traditional legal aid where it is most needed and where it has most effect. As I said in response to Mr Dallat, and to spell out what I said in my previous comment on the report, there is no question of removing those private family law cases entirely from scope as has been done in England and Wales. We will ensure that we maintain the basic level of legal aid for a decent, civilised society.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. Does the Minister agree that one of the main cornerstones of access to justice is legal aid, and that any curtailment of access to legal aid is a blockage to access to justice?

Mr Ford: No, I cannot agree with Ms McGahan when she puts it as baldly as that. I have made it clear that there are some areas in which traditional legal aid will continue to be provided. However, at a time of decreasing budgets and very significant financial pressure on the Justice Department, as indeed there is on the Executive as a whole, it is simply not possible to maintain traditional legal aid for all those areas that have had it. I have just highlighted some of the issues around money damages and ongoing family disputes, and we have seen examples from the legal profession, where good work has been done by various forms of alternative dispute resolution. That work has shown that it is possible to manage things in a way that is more constructive for those who are involved than an adversarial system where two lawyers fight it out and the participants see themselves more as spectators. If they are participants, they are much more likely to feel that they had a real part to play. They are much more likely to accept the decision of a mediator than is sometimes the case when a decision is handed down by a judge, to which, they have felt, they have not really contributed.

Mrs Overend: The Minister intends to speed up access to justice. How does he see that working with the closure of so many local courts, including the one in Magherafelt in my constituency?

Mr Ford: I will be making a statement after the Justice Committee has had the opportunity to consider the proposals for court closures. I am not discussing the court in Magherafelt or any other court at this stage. The issue is that access to justice is not access to an inadequate building in every district town. Among other parts of access to justice, it is access to a proper, decent and modern courtroom, which is a place where there is, for example, the ability to provide segregation for vulnerable witnesses and victims and where arrangements are such that there is proper IT, decent disability access and a whole range of matters that, frankly, some of our older courthouses do not currently meet.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes the time for listed questions. We will now move to topical questions.

T1. Ms Maeve McLaughlin asked the Minister of Justice, given the focus on Maghaberry over the last number of weeks, whether he agreed with the Criminal Justice Inspection report when it highlighted the serious flaws in healthcare provision in that prison. (AQT 3141/11-16)


2.30 pm

Mr Ford: Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I did wonder how many topical questions we would have on Maghaberry, given that I made a statement on it last week and that I have just answered three questions on it from the main list.

Ms McLaughlin highlights quite adequately the references to healthcare in the report of the inspection of Maghaberry, and that issue is being addressed by the South Eastern Trust. Therefore, I should leave that to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to discuss in detail other than to say that the Prison Service is certainly seeking to work in partnership with the trust and that the prison review oversight group, which I chair, gets regular reports as we look at the recommendations of the prison review team. Those reports include where there is engagement on health matters, which are adjudicated on by RQIA, just the same as CJINI deals with the matters that are purely for the justice system.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for that, but I do feel that the flaws in healthcare have not, at this point, even been adequately highlighted. Specifically, given that the Minister has a duty of care to those in Maghaberry, does he feel that there now needs to be a review of the relationship between the Prison Service and the South Eastern Trust?

Mr Ford: Ms McLaughlin has highlighted a significant point. I do not agree that we need a review of the arrangements. However, I agree that we need to see the recommendations made by Dame Anne Owers and her team, which are being worked through by the South Eastern Trust and checked over by RQIA, being carried through in full and that the ongoing partnership working needs to be reinforced to ensure that the lines of communication between the prison staff side and the healthcare staff side are fully dealt with. Those are the kinds of points that come back, but, frankly, I do not think that it is a matter of another review. I think that it is a matter of ensuring that the recommendations that we already have are put into place.

T2. Mr McCartney asked the Minister of Justice, following his mention of the newly appointed senior governor at Maghaberry, to give a categorical assurance that the governor will be allowed to run the prison and will enjoy close cooperation with the director general to do that; and, given that the Minister referred to Maghaberry being topical, does he accept that that is because we have an opportunity today to ask questions and, if we ask those questions today, Maghaberry will not be a feature of every future session of topical questions. (AQT 3142/11-16)

Mr Ford: It looks as if I have lost the topicality argument, Principal Deputy Speaker, but I take the significant and serious substantive point that Mr McCartney raises. It is an issue that he has raised previously. It is an ongoing challenge to ensure that the prison is run by the governor and his senior team, but that involves cooperation with other staff and with the associations that represent them. It involves not only discipline staff but those who are involved as instructors, the ancillary staff, the education staff and the healthcare staff. There is a huge mix of responsibilities.

I am always slightly reticent when I am asked to give guarantees in the Chamber for matters that are not my direct, day-to-day responsibility. However, since the arrival of Phil Wragg, the current governor, I have seen extremely good work being done, close cooperation with Prison Service headquarters and with the Department, and an understanding of the challenges that Maghaberry faces. Remember, Phil Wragg's previous experience was as governor of Belmarsh. Belmarsh may not be as complex as Maghaberry, but it does deal with some of the most difficult prisoners in custody in England and Wales. He clearly has a range of experience there as well as his experience in other mainstream, if you want to put it that way, prisons, which is being put to good use. I have no doubt that the very positive relationship between him and the director general, the other members of the senior team, his senior team in Maghaberry and even, dare I say, the Minister and the senior team in the Department is having good effects already in Maghaberry. I have no doubt that that will continue.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his answer to that question and his approach to it. At the Committee meeting last week, and in the Minister's earlier answers, it was said that Anne Owers in 2011 said that one of the ways around the complexity of Maghaberry was to have three mini prisons. I have a concern that that is being postponed until a new capital build. That is why I have made the point that, if the number one governor in Maghaberry can find the means to bring about three mini-prisons, it should not be contingent on a capital build. Will the Minister agree with that approach?

Mr Ford: We cannot do all that we would wish to do around the concept of three mini prisons without a fairly significant capital investment. For example, different arrangements for visitors cannot be accommodated in the concept of three mini prisons within the current capital configuration. However, Mr McCartney highlights a reasonable point about how we actually manage the arrangements for prisoners in the two separated houses, the other category A prisoners, and the great run of the prison population — the 90%-plus — who are not in those circumstances. It is about seeking to manage staffing as best as possible to ensure that the staffing pressures that exist in Roe and Bush do not impact on staffing elsewhere. That is why, for example, the reduction in the numbers on sick leave on a daily basis has been so important in ensuring that we can make those changes happen and disrupt the regime for that 90% as little as possible.

As for the other issues, as I say, I do not think that it will be possible to do all that we hope to do without a significant injection of capital funding. This is one of those points on which, if the Finance Minister were in the House, I would remind him that there is sometimes more capital funding available than resource funding, and that capital investment in our prisons could significantly save on ongoing resource expenditure. So, if anybody here would like to report that to the Finance Minister, I would be very grateful.

T3. Mr Lyons asked the Minister of Justice for an update on his Department’s budgetary position. (AQT 3143/11-16)

Mr Ford: That is certainly not as easy as the Access NI question.

Just before I came into the Chamber, I saw a paper, which will deal with an exceptional November monitoring round and is due to go to the Executive later this afternoon. On the basis that it is for the Executive, in confidence, I cannot give Members as full an update as I would wish. However, I can say that it is clear that there are very significant ongoing pressures in the Department of Justice. There has been some slight benefit this year, because police overtime has been slightly less than might have been the case in other circumstances — a further benefit of a relatively peaceful summer, which we should all be grateful for on more than just financial grounds. As Members will be aware, there are still very significant ongoing pressures around legal aid. We will see exactly how that resolves itself, particularly in the context of the current withdrawal from work by some solicitors and barristers and the potential for further pressures there if, following the judicial review, they are back to work. If that has given a flavour, without giving away Executive secrets, I hope it has been helpful.

Mr Lyons: I thank the Minister for giving me some flavour of the current budgetary position. An awful lot of concern was expressed last year about the £14 million underspend by the PSNI. Can he provide the House with any assurances that such money will not be returned again this year?

Mr Ford: I can certainly give the House the assurance that I will do my best to see that any money not required by any part of the justice system is recycled to other parts of the justice system that are under pressure, whether for legal aid, prisons or courts, all of which have pressures at present.

In many cases, when funding is allocated mid-year, it is very difficult for spending areas to make full use of it if they are expecting a cut the following year. Unfortunately, that is what happened to the funding allocated in-year to the police last year. If they had certainty of funding for a four- or five-year period, they would be recruiting more officers than they are currently able to recruit. Police numbers stand below the recommendation in the review carried out two years ago. So, there are clearly areas where the police, if they had certainty of funding, would be in a better position to spend their funding for a period of years than they are when given small sums in-year. The challenge facing the Executive, as a whole, is to get a coherent budgeting pattern through the next CSR period so that agencies know where they are.

I suspect that the Police Service is not the only service that is in a very similar position. It does not have the capacity to suddenly squirrel away money into one or two short-term things at the end of the financial year, because so much of its budget is tied up with staffing matters. That is a challenge that we now face to try to get matters resolved, which, I trust, we will be in a position to do after the Chancellor's autumn statement.

T4. Ms Ruane asked the Minister of Justice to join her in condemning the racist attack on members of the Muslim community in Ballymena and to update the House on the measures that are in place to support our Muslim community. (AQT 3144/11-16)

Mr Ford: Like, I suspect, all Members of the House, I immediately join Ms Ruane in condemnation of the attack in Ballykeel last night and, indeed, a number of other attacks that have happened in recent weeks, mostly in Belfast. Whatever the crude motivation may be, there can be no excuse for what went on last night. We need to not intrude on operational issues for the Chief Constable or the Director of Public Prosecutions. We have the ability for enhanced sentences relating to hate crime. There is a lot of work being done around the role of hate crime advocates. The hate incidents practical action scheme deals with providing protective benefits. The community safety strategy has elements about reducing the harm from hate crime, whether it be racial, religious or whatever. There are a number of streams of work being carried through, but it is clearly an issue where, most of all, we need a united community response against such crimes.

Ms Ruane: Tá mé buíoch as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for that answer. I absolutely agree with him on the operational independence. It is something that we will raise at the Policing Board. In relation to the last comment that you made about a united front, it is important that all Departments work together. Will the Minister confirm that he is willing to work with all the Departments to make sure that people from different countries who have travelled here and live here and families who have lived here for 20 years and still have a petrol bomb come through their house do not feel afraid?

Mr Ford: This is one of those occasions when you would just like to say yes, but I should go a little further. We have both the issue, as was highlighted, of those who have been here for a number of years but are still subjected to a variety of hate crimes and the issue of the Syrian refugees whom we expect to be in Northern Ireland before Christmas. I have no doubt that there is a relatively limited role for my Department, but, where there is a role for the justice agencies, they will play their part.

T5. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister of Justice to join the House in condemning the petrol bomb attack on the Ibrahim family home in Ballymena, the concerning social media posts that have appeared today, allegedly from the UPRG, that threaten the Housing Executive in its allocation of housing to refugees and the assaults that have taken place in East Belfast; and to send the clear message that Northern Ireland citizens of black and minority ethnic background and refugees who come to these shores will be warmly welcomed and receive the statutory support to which they are entitled. (AQT 3145/11-16)

Mr Ford: Anything that the Department of Justice can do, as I have just said to Ms Ruane, it will do to play its part in dealing with hate crime, ensuring that we provide support services for those who will come shortly as refugees and ensuring that we play our part in helping create a mood within the public that recognises the position of those who have been citizens here for many years, whatever their skin colour or religious belief may be.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree that anyone threatening people from a black and minority ethnic background is merely playing into the hands of the terrorists who seek to divide our community and threaten our freedoms? Does he agree that there is now a long-overdue need for OFMDFM to bring forward the racial equality strategy and the refugee integration strategy? Will he work at the Executive table to ensure that they are delivered?

Mr Ford: Just as I had to be slightly cautious talking about healthcare in prisons and speaking for the Minister of Health, I am not sure that the First Minister or deputy First Minister will appreciate me speaking for them, but the DOJ will play its part in the development of any of those strategies, which are a responsibility across the Executive, even if they are led by another Department. It is absolutely vital that we show a united voice and stand up against those thugs and terrorists, whatever their claimed motivation, who threaten people in this society, wherever they come from and whatever their background. Only with a united view from the Chamber, backed up by a united view at the Executive and strategies in place that ensure that all the relevant agencies work together, will we actually succeed in dealing with those problems.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes the period for topical questions to the Minister of Justice.


2.45 pm

Regional Development

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: This is, I think, the Minister's first Question Time, so we welcome her to that. I inform the House that questions 1 and 12 have been withdrawn.

Miss M McIlveen (The Minister for Regional Development): I am fully committed to the delivery of Belfast rapid transit, including not only the current phase, which connects east Belfast, west Belfast and Titanic Quarter via the city centre, but future extensions to the north and south of the city. I regard Belfast rapid transit as a transformational public transport project for the city. It represents a great opportunity for Belfast going forward and is a major decision for my Department in relation to the commitment of funding in support of an Executive priority.

I have a keen personal interest in Belfast rapid transit and recently visited some of the infrastructure that my Department is developing for the system, including the new 520-space park-and-ride facility at Dundonald and the ongoing works on the routes. The works have been well publicised, and details of the impacts on local traffic are available on my Department's Trafficwatch Northern Ireland website. The changes that the works will introduce and the changes that have already been introduced on completed sections of the routes will provide benefits for existing public transport in advance of Belfast rapid transit becoming operational. The procurement of the rapid transit vehicles is progressing well, and I hope to make a major announcement on that in the next few weeks. Phase 1 of the Belfast rapid transit system is scheduled to become operational in September 2018.

Mr Douglas: I thank the Minister for her answer, and I wish her all the best with the rest of her questions today. Does she agree with me that, in east Belfast, we should encourage commuters to use the Comber greenway as an additional route to the rapid transport scheme? Could the Minister outline any plans that she has to improve and enhance the Comber greenway?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his best wishes for today and for his question. I agree with him on the Comber greenway. Some may say that I am slightly biased given that it links our constituencies, but I believe that it is one of the best examples of greenway infrastructure in Northern Ireland. I am keen to explore how it can be improved to encourage greater use for commuting and, indeed, for wider reasons, including health and well-being. My Department is working on a scheme to improve the linkages to Belfast city centre, but I also want to see better access to the greenway provided at the Comber end, particularly linking into Comber town and eventually into Newtownards. That would allow for greater numbers of people to enjoy a safe cycling and walking route. That would be for commuters and leisure users. If Departments and councils work together, we have an opportunity to develop Comber greenway into a world-class facility.

Ms Hanna: I thank the Minister for her answers so far. You mentioned that there had been progress on procurement, but are you confident that the revised deadline of 2017 will be met for the vehicles to arrive fully assembled? Is there potential for that new deadline to slip?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. I understand that that is no longer an issue and that they should be in place. The procurement process commenced in September 2014, and tenders were returned on 1 May this year. Those have been assessed, and, as I said, there will be an announcement in the next few weeks. That was part of the project assessment review, and we are confident that it is on track to be delivered on time.

Miss M McIlveen: The Member will be pleased to know that Translink has commenced work towards the construction of a park-and-ride facility at Cullybackey railway station. A detailed design review and risk assessment, including a CCTV survey of the interaction of vehicles and pedestrians at the existing crossing, has raised concern that additional traffic introduced by the park-and-ride facility could potentially cause blocking over the automatic crossing.

That assessment, combined with increased crossing incidents, has led Translink to conclude that the level crossing at Cullybackey station should be upgraded before the park-and-ride project is commissioned. The crossing upgrade involves significant railway signalling alteration works. Timescales for the work depend on the certainty of capital funding and availability of signalling expertise currently engaged on a number of significant railway projects, most notably phase 2 of the Coleraine to Londonderry track re-lay project.

Translink has committed to aim for completion of the level crossing upgrade and the park-and-ride facility in 2018-19. It is anticipated that the land purchase will be completed in the current financial year, 2015-16, once site surveys conclude.

Mr D McIlveen: I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box today and thank her for her answers so far. The Minister, I am sure, will be aware, having spoken to some local representatives, that we have an issue whereby the park-and-ride facility at Ballymena has been put under immense pressure because there is little alternative for people, given the situation with Cullybackey.

Now that we finally have a Minister for Regional Development who knows where North Antrim is, I wonder whether I can encourage her to visit the constituency in the near future so that she can see for herself the pressing urgency of the project.

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his comments. I am happy to visit the constituency yet again. Undoubtedly, the proposed park-and-ride facility at Cullybackey would relieve the pressure on the Ballymena park-and-ride facility, certainly in the short to medium term and particularly for commuters from north of Ballymena.

Ballymena park-and-ride has 294 spaces. It is consistently at full capacity and, on occasion, accommodates vehicles well in excess of the designated number of bays. I am aware of traffic problems, as is Translink, as a result of commuters parking for long periods outside local residences. Hopefully, not in the not-so-near future but certainly within the next couple of years, that situation should be relieved.

Mr Allister: I express my dismay at the Minister's answer. It is two years since this was announced, with headlines in the local paper about a park-and-ride facility at Cullybackey. In March of this year, the Department announced that it was going to provide 110 spaces. The Minister now comes to the House and tells us that Translink has not even completed the land purchase and that it must revisit the level crossing and that it is going to be another three years before we have that basic provision.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to come to his question.

Mr Allister: Why is Cullybackey forgotten —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member must come to his question.

Mr Allister: — and why has its bypass also been forgotten, if we now have a Minister who knows where North Antrim is?

Miss M McIlveen: I am not sure whether I should thank the Member for that question, but he certainly has an opinion. He will understand that I am recently in post, a post that was held by another Member — indeed, another party. The matter has been drawn to my attention. I asked for an update and am asking for the matter to be progressed. We are working through the processes.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: I thank the Minister and welcome her to her first Question Time. In a similar vein, can she give an update on the development of the park-and-share or park-and-ride sites at Dungiven and Claudy?

Miss M McIlveen: The Department has invested in the provision of a number of park-and-ride and park-and-share sites in the north-western key transport corridor, including at Drumahoe, Castledawson, Craigadick, Toome, Dunsilly and Ballymartin, which amount to up to 1,400 spaces. In addition, as part of the A6 Dungiven bypass scheme, a park-and-ride facility is proposed to provide 60 spaces. I hope that that answers the Member's question. If I have missed something specific, I will certainly come back to her.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that this question is specific to the constituency and, in particular, to in and around Cullybackey.

Mr Dallat: I will do my best not to meander beyond Cullybackey. I thank the Minister for her continued interest in the Belfast to Derry railway and I congratulate her on taking that epic journey from Belfast to Bellarena recently to see the new passing loop. That was brilliant.

The Cullybackey park-and-ride facility is essential, but will the Minister assure me that no discussions are taking place about the future of the Knockmore line, which is mothballed. I heard a rather nasty rumour at the weekend that they are considering making it into yet another greenway. Can the Minister dispel that rumour?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before the Minister responds, can I remind the Member that this is a question specific to the Cullybackey park-and-ride facility.

Mr Dallat: It is just up our road. [Laughter.]

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Minister may answer.

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I had a very enjoyable journey to Bellarena to see the site there, and I am very encouraged by the works that are progressing. That will have a significant impact for commuters making the journey from Londonderry into Belfast and further. I am not aware of the detail of Knockmore. As the Member said, it is a rumour that he heard over the weekend. I am happy to look into that and come back to him.

Miss M McIlveen: 'Northern Ireland Changing Gear: A Bicycle Strategy for Northern Ireland' is based around a three-pillar approach. Those are building a comprehensive network for the bicycle; supporting people who choose to travel by bicycle; and promoting the bicycle as a mode of transport for everyday journeys. That balanced approach underlines the importance of high-quality bicycle infrastructure, good support measures for those who want to use a bicycle and effective programmes for behavioural change. I am particularly keen to explore opportunities to expand the cycling infrastructure, in building better infrastructure for the bicycle so that people can have the freedom and confidence to travel by bicycle for everyday journeys. Current work has focused on the urban bicycle infrastructure and the potential to develop greenways. Both are key elements of the bicycle strategy and fit in with the main purpose of the EuroVelo, which is to provide routes that people can use for daily journeys and for recreation. My Department has had discussions with Sustrans about the route for EuroVelo 1 in Northern Ireland. Those discussions included consideration of how the EuroVelo might form part of the comprehensive network referred to in the bicycle strategy.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. What plans does she have to develop the EuroVelo to include the north coast, perhaps linking to two potential greenways: from Ballymena to Cushendall and the Armoy greenway from Ballymoney to Ballycastle?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. This is ongoing and is part of a route that is being developed, as is the funding associated with it. Funding is critical to such projects, as is land acquisition. I am not clear at this stage whether anything further would be required in those areas, but I am happy for officials to look at it as we move forward through the project. This is an exciting option, and it will certainly develop cycling in Northern Ireland.

Mr Lyons: This is also my first Regional Development Question Time. I welcome the Minister and wish her well in her post.

I am sure that many Members will welcome the new Queen's Belfast Bikes station. Will the Minister give us a general assessment of the scheme to date, tell us whether other stations will be opened and whether the scheme can be extended to other towns in Northern Ireland?


3.00 pm

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Belfast Bikes has probably been one of the most successful bike share schemes introduced in the United Kingdom. The number of hires, since its launch in April this year, is now well above 100,000. It is a Belfast City Council scheme, although my Department provided capital funding of over £1 million for implementation through the active travel demonstration projects competition. Last week, the council announced an expansion of the scheme, with two new docking stations at Queen's University, and I know that the council is giving consideration to additional sites.

Obviously, the rationale behind the Member's question was whether the scheme could be extended to his constituency. If other councils wish to consider operating a bike share scheme, I suggest that they develop a business case, as Belfast City Council did. Hopefully, we will see the scheme being launched in various towns and cities throughout Northern Ireland.

Mr Lyttle: I welcome the Minister to her post and commend her Department for the support it has given to the Sustrans report, 'Belfast Bike Life 2015', which found nearly £12 million in health benefits to Belfast and 67p per mile savings to citizens of Belfast through cycling. The report also says that 78% of people in Belfast want more investment in cycling. Does the Minister intend to increase the budget for cycling to deliver the improved bicycling infrastructure that we need and deserve?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. The Member was present when I launched the first 'Belfast Bike Life' report on 21 October. This report was compiled by Sustrans and is based on Copenhagen's 'Bicycle Account' series. It is the first ever bicycle report for Belfast and provides information on cycling conditions in the city and the views of residents on various aspects of cycling. As the Member said, the report indicates the number of journeys — 19,000 — made by bicycle every day in Belfast, and this information is critical in informing decision-making in my Department and for policy development. Certainly, the investment in cycling has increased over recent years. The Member, and everyone in the Chamber, will be aware of the challenges with our financial situation, but, where there are opportunities, as I indicated in my response to Mr McKay on EuroVelo and the development of greenways, we will take them into consideration.

Miss M McIlveen: The A8 scheme represents a £133 million investment by the Executive. It forms part of the eastern seaboard key transport corridor, which is an important link between Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic and Scotland, via the port of Larne. I am pleased to advise that the new A8 dual carriageway opened to traffic, as programmed, on 29 May 2015. However, since then, as the Member will be aware, localised traffic management along the scheme has been required to facilitate ancillary works on side roads, utility works and the completion of the landscaping works during the planting season. Construction of this 8·7-mile-long dual carriageway scheme commenced in August 2012 and is on target for contract completion at the end of December 2015. Throughout the construction works, Transport NI and the contractor have ensured that any inconvenience to the public has been minimised.

This is an excellent scheme that will improve journey times for this stretch of the A8 by removing the issues associated with the queuing of traffic, thus reducing driver frustration and improving the safety performance of the route for all road users. In doing so, this much-needed upgrade will grow the local economy, contribute to wider economic development across Northern Ireland and help with the development of the port of Larne.

Mr Beggs: Over the past couple of months, the road has regularly been coned off for re-planing and resurfacing to meet Roads Service standards. When will that come to an end, and when will the maintenance of the road, the lights and, indeed, winter gritting be added to the burden already resting on her Department?

Is she satisfied that her Department has an adequate budget to look after the repair of street lighting, maintenance of the road —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Will the Member come to his question?

Mr Beggs: — and winter gritting services?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his numerous questions, a number of which will be covered in detail as we move through Question Time. As he will be aware, a normal winter gritting service will be in place and that that road, given its nature, will be included if it has not already been. We hope that everything will be completed by the end of December. Issues were identified during the construction process about the use of unsuitable material. That has been rectified.

The Member also asked about grass cutting in the area. That commenced yesterday along the central section of the A8 central reservation. Lane closures associated with that will be required so that the remaining outer strips of the central reservation can be cut. That is programmed to be completed by November 2015.

Mr Hilditch: I thank the Minister for her answers so far. The infrastructure in East Antrim, including the A8, is a great example of how devolution can work. Will the Minister indicate the economic benefits to the area, including journey times?

Miss M McIlveen: The traffic model suggests that, on average, journey times along the section of the A8 between Coleman's Corner roundabout and Ballyrickard Road will reduce by approximately 25% as a result of the scheme. That equates to a journey time saving of between two minutes 24 seconds and four minutes 56 seconds, which seems terribly precise, depending on the direction of travel and the time of journey.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister to her first Question Time.

There are many in my constituency who have a green-eyed envy of the A8. Can the Minister give us the final costings for its upgrade and tell us whether it is above or below budget?

Miss M McIlveen: At this stage, the approved scheme estimate for the works was approximately £133 million. As the contract for the work is ongoing, the out-turn cost has not yet been finalised, so I am not in a position to give the Member the figure at this stage.

Mr Ramsey: I congratulate the Minister and wish her well in her new appointment. You referred in an earlier answer to inferior materials being used on the road: can you assure the House that that was resolved at no additional cost to the public purse?

Miss M McIlveen: Yes, I can. Immediate action was taken in conjunction with the contractor to address that. The contractor replaced the affected surfacing to ensure that it met the standards that my Department requires. There was no additional cost.

Miss M McIlveen: The Member will, of course, know that the winter service programme is provided to mitigate the effects of adverse winter weather; it does not eliminate them. My Department will provide a normal winter service with over 300 staff and a fleet of 130 gritters available every day to salt the main road network. Salt barns have been filled to a maximum capacity of over 70,000 tons, with reserve stocks of around 20,000 tons in place. Salt bins and grit piles will be provided at strategic locations for self-help purposes. To further improve resilience, I have approved the purchase of four more snowblowers to supplement the Department’s fleet of eight. Snow clearance contracts are in place to enable contractors and farmers to be mobilised to clear roads during prolonged periods of snow. In addition to the preparations for adverse road conditions, Northern Ireland Water maintains a major incident plan to provide a fully planned reactive response to any major weather-induced incidents. Translink also has severe weather management plans in place to cope with the effect of severe winter weather on public transport services.

I fully recognise the importance of winter service to the people and the economy of Northern Ireland. I recently visited winter service depots at Ballykeel in Ballymena and Airport Road in Belfast to meet staff and see at first hand the vital work that they do. I realise just how passionate they are in caring for all of us at a time of severe weather. They take on a responsibility, and we should be mindful of the fact that they actually go out when it is frosty. The roads that they are on are ungritted, and we should give them a lot of praise for the work that they do.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for her answer. I also take the opportunity to wish her well in her new role. Can she confirm that she has the financial resources to properly and fully fund winter services?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank Mr Kennedy for his good wishes as I move forward in the role; I appreciate that. Yes, I can confirm that there is adequate funding to maintain a normal winter service.

Mr Clarke: I, like others, welcome the Minister to her first Question Time. Following on from the initial question, what preparation plans does the Minister have to prevent an incident like the freeze/thaw event in 2011 happening again?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. In relation to that, it is particularly around Northern Ireland Water. I remember that particularly well: at that stage I was Deputy Chair of the Regional Development Committee. One of the key recommendations coming out of the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation report on the freeze/thaw of that year was that Northern Ireland Water undertake a major public awareness campaign in an effort to reduce the extent of water wastage on the customer side. Northern Ireland Water is currently embarking on the fifth year of its winter advertising campaign, which will include television, radio, press, outdoor and online advertising. The theme of the campaign will retain the well-established "Beat the freeze" message. In fact, a number of Members in the Chamber, including members of the Committee, took the opportunity to get involved in some photographs in preparation for the campaign last week.

Northern Ireland Water intends to use media interviews to advise customers on the prevention of frozen pipes and wastage caused by burst pipes, including a video on precautionary measures. Northern Ireland Water also maintains a major incident plan to provide a fully planned reactive response to any incidents that may impact on customers, the environment or business. The plan has been regularly tested during the year and has been exercised in response to real-life emergency situations, including the multi-agency response to industrial action events of December and January 2015. I hope that answers the Member's questions. It is about raising awareness and making sure that everyone realises that they have a responsibility to look after their own property.

Mrs McKevitt: I wish the Minister every success in her new role. Given that RPA has happened and we have new councils, is the Minister confident that they have signed up to playing their part in clearing up any snow or ice? I would like her to include in her answer the clearing of footpaths in our towns and cities to keep our businesses open.

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. My Department has obviously prioritised its resources. Our key priority is to salt main traffic routes just to keep traffic moving freely. At the end of the 2014-15 winter season, Transport NI had arrangements with 25 of the 26 councils to provide salt to allow councils, where their resources permitted, to salt busy town centre footways in a time of prolonged ice and snow to keep the local economy moving. At this stage, Transport NI is in discussions to roll those arrangements over with the new councils. It is not anticipated that there will be any issues with that. I hope that that answers the Member's question.


3.15 pm

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes the period for listed questions. We now move to topical questions.

Ms Sugden: I congratulate the Minister on her new role and pay due regard to Mr Kennedy.

T1. Ms Sugden asked the Minister for Regional Development for an update on a solution to the significant and dangerous traffic problem at Castlerock Road in Coleraine on which she worked with the Minister’s predecessor. (AQT 3151/11-16)

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. I am aware of the issue at Castlerock Road and the nature of that in relation to school traffic and the movements in and around that area. I understand that various measures have been put in place to try to reduce risk there. A microprocessor optimised vehicle actuation system was introduced in May 2013; a puffin controlled pedestrian crossing was installed; and we have looked to improve cycling and pedestrian facilities along the Castlerock Road. There are competing demands in that area, and it has obviously become an issue. We are monitoring how those measures progress as a solution.

Ms Sugden: I thank the Minister for her response. Further to the measures that she outlined, I feel that the problem is significant enough to warrant more measures in that area. Will the Minister commit to working with the Minister of Education to find a way of providing a solution to the problem?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her supplementary question. I am happy to do that. I am also happy to discuss it further with the Member and, if it helps, to visit the site to see what the issues are and help to bring it to a resolution.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Ceist a dó. Question 2, please.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: It is a topical question, Mr Bradley.

Mr D Bradley: Tá brón orm faoi sin. Excuse me. Sorry.

T2. Mr D Bradley asked the Minister for Regional Development whether she is satisfied that the £14 million that was invested in the new railway station in Newry is being exploited fully by the rail company. (AQT 3152/11-16)

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. It might be useful if he gave me some more information about where he feels there may be failings and about his perspective from the constituency. Would he like to enlighten me?

Mr D Bradley: I certainly will enlighten the Minister. After the recent review of services, there are only 12 trains leaving Newry for Belfast each day, compared with 46 from Portadown to Belfast and 38 from Lurgan to Belfast. There is a 30-minute service from Portadown to Belfast, yet the Newry service has intervals of up to one and half hours. I hope that the Minister sees that there is an imbalance there. Will she review that situation with a view to increasing services from Newry to Belfast?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for that additional information. My understanding is that the numbers using trains from Newry, Poyntzpass and Scarva probably do not justify additional services, particularly early morning services. I will ask officials to look again at the timetabling in Newry to see whether there is a possibility of maximising further usage out of the station. You will understand that the revised timetables came about as a result of a reduction in budget to the Department and, therefore, to Translink. It is all part of a review that has been carried out. I am happy to take it back and look at it again.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I must say that it is good to see the Minister here and not in the castle. I am sure that she enjoys our company more than that of her Executive colleagues.

T3. Mr Flanagan asked the Minister for Regional Development whether she accepts the need for enhanced road safety measures in Fermanagh and to state what her Department intends to do to make roads safer in Fermanagh, given that 16 people have lost their life on Fermanagh’s roads in the last two years, making it the policing area with the highest death toll from collisions, and there were six fatalities on the A4 from Enniskillen to Fivemiletown and three on the A47 between Kesh and Belleek. (AQT 3153/11-16)

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. How could I resist coming to the Assembly for my first Question Time? It was the really the only thing that I wanted to do today.

Obviously, a death on the roads in Fermanagh or, indeed, on any road in Northern Ireland, is a tragedy. My Department works closely with the PSNI and other agencies to assess any safety measures that are required on specific roads. It also takes account of all the recommendations made by police and takes action where necessary. Again, as I have made clear to other Members, if there are roads with particular issues that you believe require specific attention, I am happy to meet the Member to discuss those.

Mr Flanagan: I thank the Minister for her answer and her open-mindedness on this issue. On a more general point, does the Minister accept the key role that catseyes play on our roads to show motorists where the road is going and where there are dangerous corners, particularly in the dark at times of heavy rain? If you travel around the South of Ireland, the catseyes are much brighter and I think that they are of a higher standard. I think that they are much harder to see in the North. Does the Minister accept that, and will she commit to prioritise funding for catseyes in future budgets?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. Catseyes are recognised as a safety device used in road marking. As the Member highlighted, they are particularly effective in wet weather and in fog, when the effectiveness of road markings themselves are particularly reduced. Obviously, the requirement for catseyes to be installed in a road will be assessed by the local section office. However, as I have said, road safety is a priority and anything that will mitigate loss of life should be included and seen as a priority in my budget.

T4. Mr McGimpsey asked the Minister for Regional Development, in view of the fact that, in built-up areas, planning permission no longer carries with it parking requirements, whether she agrees that residents’ parking schemes are the best way to protect local communities in areas such as South Belfast that are polluted by on-street car parking. (AQT 3154/11-16)

Mr McGimpsey: I too welcome the Minister to her first Question Time.

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Certainly, regardless of whether it is in Belfast city centre or even some market towns around the Province, parking can prove to be a problem, particularly in residents' areas. I am aware that my officials have been involved in advertising and in the consultation process for a parking scheme in south Belfast. I understand that there were a number of objections, which are being worked through.

Mr McGimpsey: I thank the Minister for her answer. Can she assure me that, in respect of the various proposals for residents' parking schemes, she will effectively keep the pressure on her Department to get to a resolution and give these communities much-needed breathing space?

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I understand that he recently had a meeting with my predecessor about this in the Donegall Pass area. I am happy to pursue this and to seek a resolution on the issues that have been highlighted.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Raymond McCartney is not in his place. I call Mr Gordon Dunne.

T6. Mr Dunne asked the Minister for Regional Development, after assuring her that his question is not about bikes, whether she recognises the need for Transport NI to do something to reduce the daily traffic congestion faced by commuters from north Down who travel from Holywood along the Sydenham bypass — approximately 40,000 vehicles per day. (AQT 3156/11-16)

Mr Dunne: I too welcome the Minister.

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Perhaps those who cycle to work might suggest doing that as an alternative. Transport NI is aware of traffic congestion experienced by commuters along the A2 between Holywood and the Dee Street junction in Belfast. The A2 Sydenham bypass scheme proposal for the route is to widen the existing two-lane dual carriageway to a dual three-lane carriageway.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for her answer. Can she give us some indication of when the project to widen the Sydenham bypass will get under way, which will deal with the problem at the entrance to Belfast City Airport as well?

Miss M McIlveen: I am conscious of the bottleneck in the area. The scheme proposal is now at the third stage of a three-stage development process. Stage 1 concluded in May 2008 with the selection of the proposed corridor; stage 2 concluded in February 2010 with the selection of the preferred option for the scheme; while stage 3 involves detailed assessment of the preferred option and ongoing consultation with key stakeholders. That will result in the publication of the statutory orders: the draft direction order, the environmental statement and the notice of intention to make a vesting order. The current budget allows that development work to continue. However, progression of the scheme to publication of the statutory orders will be subject to future years' funding.

T7. Ms Ruane asked the Minister for Regional Development for an update on the Narrow Water Bridge, given that she will be aware that it is a very important project, with the people of Louth and Down very interested in seeing it built. (AQT 3157/11-16)

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. I am aware of the Narrow Water Bridge project, which was proposed and sponsored primarily as a tourism project under INTERREG IV. My Department has, and has had, very limited interaction with the original project, other than on those matters relating to bridge orders and licensing. I am unaware of any specific intentions in bringing the project back to life, although I have heard speculation in news reports. As yet, I have not had any firm update.

Ms Ruane: I thank the Minister for her answer. I am aware of the bridge order, North and South, and the planning. In the light of the fact that it is such an important project — it is a tourism project but also an economic one — will she do everything that she can, including meeting the Taoiseach where appropriate, for the project?

Miss M McIlveen: I am happy to look at it as a project. However, I emphasise again that it is a tourism-led project as opposed to something of strategic importance for my Department. Nevertheless, I am happy to look at it.

T8. Mr Allen asked the Minister for Regional Development whether her Department holds any information on the number of footpaths in Northern Ireland that, at their beginning and end, do not have lowered kerbs. (AQT 3158/11-16)

Miss M McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I do not have that information at hand, but I am happy to give it to the Member by way of a written answer.

Mr Allen: Is the information readily available? If it is not, can research be carried out? As I am sure she understands, I have a major problem, and a number of constituents have approached me about the major difficulties that they have when trying to mount and dismount footpaths to get to another footpath.

Miss M McIlveen: I am happy to get that information. I will ask officials to forward it to you, if it is in a format that is easy to forward.

As a constituency MLA, as we all are, I am aware of the difficulties for people with a disability, as well as mothers with prams and so on in being able to use footpaths. Through my office — I am sure that others have the same experience — I have lobbied Transport NI, or Roads Service as it was, to make provision where necessary.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That ends the period for topical questions to the Minister. I ask Members to take their ease while we change the top Table.

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


3.30 pm

Ministerial Statement

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Minister of Education wishes to make a statement.

Mr O'Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom fógra a dhéanamh faoin ghrádú do TGM a bhronntar i dTuaisceart na hÉireann. I wish to make an announcement on the grading of GCSEs awarded in the North of Ireland.

Throughout my time as Minister of Education, I have sought to make decisions in the best interests of our children and young people. As a result of changes to examinations and qualifications policy in England over the last three or four years, I have been presented with a range of significant issues to be addressed as they affect here. My response has been to seek professional advice and discuss the issues with the education sector and the wide range of stakeholders who have an interest in education. I have taken my time, because policy development should be given careful consideration.

I have taken decisions that reflect the strategic priorities here rather than those of any other jurisdiction. In particular, I have sought to take decisions that support the shared vision we have for the future of our economy and society and reflect our collective desire to improve educational outcomes and tackle underachievement. I have considered the consequences, the evidence and our educational objectives.

Most recently, I consulted on the grading of GCSEs and whether grades should be awarded alphabetically from A* to G, as they are at present, or numerically from 9 to 1, as is happening in England. The question arises because of changes that have been made in England. Those changes are the responsibility of Ministers in England, and I understand that they must take the decisions that they believe are right for England. However, I need to respond to the impact of their decisions locally in a way that serves the interests of the young people in our jurisdiction.

From that consultation, I came away with two very clear messages. First, there are no educational arguments for changing the grading to a numerical system. Whether the award is in letters or numbers does not help to improve outcomes or address underachievement. This is not, therefore, an issue of outcomes. Secondly, there is general interest about whether it will be possible to compare one set of grades with another. At a purely practical level, English awarding organisations will, for a while, be making their awards using letters as well as numbers as their reformed GCSEs are introduced in tranches. The Welsh have decided to retain the alphabetical grading system.

There will have to be a comparative scale. All awarding organisations, including the CCEA, will be responsible for making sure that parents, schools, employers and others know how the two scales compare. We know, for instance, that grade 4 will be anchored to grade C, and grade 7 will be anchored to grade A. I especially recognise the concern that has been expressed to me that it will be unnecessarily confusing for everyone to maintain a mixture of letters and numbers for GCSEs. An exam certificate should be an immediately recognisable record of a young person’s achievement, not an alphanumerical challenge to a reader.

After consideration of the options available to me, I have reached the decision that grading of all GCSEs here will continue under the present alphabetical system. That will mean that, from summer 2017, GCSEs here, regardless of the awarding organisation, will continue to be awarded using the A* to G grades. I have instructed CCEA to continue its revision of GCSE specifications to reflect that.

I make it clear that my decision in no way affects the operation of the open market we have for GCSEs. Awarding organisations other than CCEA play a valuable role in our education system. I am not asking them to change from the alphabetical grading that they currently use, and I am very happy for them to continue to operate here and to offer services to our schools, provided they can meet our needs.

However, I appreciate that the different decisions reached here, in Cardiff and in London will inevitably present some challenges for other awarding organisations. I have, therefore, asked officials in DE and the CCEA regulator to work with the awarding organisations based in England to explore how we might support them and vice versa to make the necessary arrangements. WJEC in Wales will, of course, already be awarding using letters rather than numbers.

I have heard no compelling arguments for change, and I have heard strong arguments for consistency. I believe that it will be in the best interests of learners here to continue with the established practice of awarding using letters, and we must avoid unnecessary complexity as far as possible. I appreciate that there is anxiety around the perceived risk to our young people going out into the world with a GCSE certificate that is anything other than a string of numbers like their English counterparts have. However, I hear of no anxiety in Scotland about their young people not having the same GCSE grades as in England, and nor do I hear it in the South of Ireland, Canada, Poland, Germany or any other jurisdiction; rather, I see that they have confidence in their education system. I have confidence in our education system and in the hard work and attainment of our young people. I want that attainment to be rewarded and recognised across these islands and beyond.

Mr Weir (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): I thank the Minister for his statement to the House this afternoon and for the opportunity for the Deputy Chair and me to receive a briefing from the Department beforehand. Members of the Committee feel that, where there is reform and revision of our examination system, it should focus on ensuring measurable benefit for young people in Northern Ireland by providing high-quality portable qualifications that are easily understood, compared and appreciated by students, employers and further and higher education providers in all jurisdictions.

I welcome the Minister's remarks. It is the right decision to retain the alphabetical grading for Northern Ireland. I also welcome the fact that he is striving to avoid any level of confusion by ensuring that letters are simply retained rather than there being a mixture of letters and numbers. However, I still have concerns about comparability and portability. Will the Minister advise how he intends to take forward the issue that has been raised of a GCSE C here being considered as a 4 in England when employers in England may be seeking a 5 or above? Similarly, the A* here may well be regarded as being the equivalent of an 8 in England, thus potentially denying students in Northern Ireland the equivalent of the highest possible grade in England — grade 9 — which, again, may act to their detriment. How does he intend to cope with those issues of comparability, and how does he intend to keep the system under review so that, if problems arise, changes can be made?

Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Member for his questions. I apologise to him for not being able to brief him personally. I am sure that he understands, given the day that is in it.

I welcome the Member's comments around the decision that I have made. His comments around how we measure our qualifications against those in England are perfectly valid. They will be measured as we have measured other qualifications coming into our jurisdiction or as the English awarding bodies have to measure other qualifications coming into their jurisdiction. It will be done through discussions between CCEA and Ofqual. I am confident that the universities here and in Britain will be able to measure our qualifications against English-graded GCSEs, Welsh-graded GCSEs, the Scottish model or the model in the South. Even in these groups of islands, a very complex group of qualifications is emerging in the different jurisdictions as a result of decisions that Administrations are perfectly entitled to take. I am confident that we will continue to work together through Ofqual and CCEA and that we will be able to manage the process. I believe that the current grade C will be the equivalent of a grade 4, as the Member has said. There may be discussions around that.

It is also worth noting that the system in England is evolving. It has been brought in in tranches. It will take time to settle and evolve. We will work with our counterparts in England to ensure that not only are our qualifications understood in England but qualifications coming in from England to here are understood by employing authorities, educational authorities and universities.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: I thank the Minister for his statement. I note that he has said that there is a strong argument for consistency on this issue. Has there been any evidence at all that the changes in England will lead to increased educational attainment or better educational outcomes for our young people?

Mr O'Dowd: No, there is no evidence to support that. In fairness to those who sponsored the changes in England, they were quite clear from the outset that introducing the new marking system in England was not about increasing outcomes. I do not want to get into a discussion of why changes were made in England; as I have said repeatedly in the House and other places, they are perfectly entitled to introduce those changes. When they introduce changes such as that, it presents challenges for me as Education Minister. As I said in my statement, I have measured this debate. I have taken my time on these decisions and have consulted all interested parties. We ran a 12-week consultation on the matter. It has to be said that strong views were expressed on either side of the argument, but nowhere in the debate was there a strong educational argument that changing your awards from A* to G to 9 to 1 would improve educational outcomes. Our target and objective in this society has to be to improve educational outcomes for our young people.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a chuid freagraí. I thank the Minister for his answers so far. I have been around long enough to remember when O levels were graded from 1 to 9. We then changed to A to G at GCSE, and now the English are changing back, not from 1 to 9 but from 9 to 1. When I was there, the older cynics in the education system believed that one should not rush into any change because you usually ended up back where you started. I do not know whether the Minister agrees with that analysis. Does the Minister have the power to compel external awarding bodies to report in letters in Northern Ireland?

Mr O'Dowd: I am shocked that you have met old cynics in education; I do not know where they are. Yes, I have the power to ask what are known as the English awarding bodies to award their exams in connection with our curriculum and policies here. I have tasked CCEA to engage with those bodies and to establish how they assist us and how we assist them in moving the process forward. I have the power to do so.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for his statement. I share the concerns of the Committee Chair about the portability and comparability of the GCSE grades. Furthermore, I note that the Minister said that he values the roles of bodies other than CCEA in the provision of grades. If the English boards refuse to retain the alphabetical system, which they might, given the inconvenience and the small market for GCSEs in Northern Ireland, does the Minister plan to go as far as using his powers not to approve their qualifications, which could close the market for GCSEs in Northern Ireland and effectively create a monopoly for CCEA in the provision of GCSEs here?

Mr O'Dowd: First, on comparability — Mr Bradley also touched on the point — there are many people in the Chamber who have O-level certificates, and if they were to seek employment now they would use those O-level certificates, which employers and higher and further education bodies can compare with current qualifications. There are qualifications in the market other than GCSEs, and employers or higher education institutions can compare those as well. The comparability issue is not a new thing. It is new to the GCSE market because of changes that were introduced elsewhere, but employers, educators and others have had to deal with the matter since the beginning of time in the comparison of examinations. I am confident and they have expressed confidence to me that they will be able to cope with these matters.

I am not seeking to close down the market. I am seeking to work with what are known as the English providers on exams. I have tasked CCEA with going to speak to them to find out, as I have said, how we can assist them and they can assist us. If we work together, we will be able to assist each other in that regard. I certainly do not want commercial considerations to dictate how we set our education policy in this jurisdiction; that would be a huge mistake. I have no doubt that some bodies will have commercial considerations, but I cannot allow them to set our education policy.


3.45 pm

Mr Lunn: I enjoyed Mr Bradley's history lesson. I can add slightly to it, because I hold two certificates from a year that I am not going to mention: one for GCE and one for O level, both awarded in the same year. That was before the "S" came in and probably before the changes that Dominic mentioned. Does this mean that we will have five different systems across these islands, as we are prone to say, including the Republic of Ireland? Is the Welsh model the same as ours? I am not too familiar with the Scottish model. This is total confusion for portability and comparability purposes and for the universities that will be trying to weed out what the qualifications mean.

Mr O'Dowd: We and the Welsh have stayed with grades A* to G, so we are the same. England has gone down the figures route, 9 to 1. The Southern market has the junior cert and the awards and scoring within it. For as long as I can remember — others in the House may have the exact date — the Scottish have had their own very respected examination system in place. When you look at the obvious geographical closeness of Scotland to England and Wales to England, you will see that they have managed to cope with all those things. They manage to cope. Of course, students travel from here to England, whether for work, higher education, university or whatever it may be. I am confident, from the commentary in the consultation, discussions with experts in the field and the experience of universities that have to deal with qualifications from around the globe and around Europe, that the matter will be easily resolved by our university colleagues as well.

Mr Craig: Given the point raised by the Chair of the Education Committee, is the Minister inclined to introduce what would be the equivalent of grade 9 — an A**? I think of the poor parents who will have to struggle with the complexity of the numbers, letters and all the rest of it, so has any thought been given to what would almost be a dummy's guide to it, Minister? Not all children here go on to university in the Province; in fact, a lot of them go on to apprenticeships and equivalent jobs across the United Kingdom. It is important that there is an understanding of that.

Mr O'Dowd: I have no plan to introduce an A**. Our highest-performing pupils are awarded an A*, and they can stand confidently with that certificate in any jurisdiction and be confident that they are high-performing pupils, with the recognition that they deserve for the work and commitment that they have put into their exams and course work over that period. I have no plans to do that.

You mentioned parents and parental understanding of this. I am more than happy to send out as much information as possible or as required to whichever section of society requires it to familiarise them with the process moving forward. However, it is worth noting that, particularly in universities, it is only in a very limited number of courses that a university will go down as far as GCSE grades, and those are the highest-demand subjects in a variety of universities. I suspect that there is a long way to go before a university will go to GCSEs, because, for a number of those higher-demand courses, you have entry examinations into the university, your A levels, obviously, and interviews etc. As I said to other Members, the universities will be more than able to understand this.

The local colleges tell me that they will be able to deal with our grades being A* to G and England's being 9 to 1. The reason why I went and instructed CCEA to go to what are known as the English awarding bodies and tell them that any GCSEs being awarded here will be scored alphabetically was to ensure that, when parents are looking at the GCSE results that are coming from the local school, they will all be marked the same way. There will be no A**, 9 or whatever it may be; they will all be marked the same way. The information that parents have in front of them about their children's examination scores will all be the same in this jurisdiction.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. What assurance can the Minister give, particularly with regard to the continuing existence of barriers to cross-border mobility at undergraduate level, that this system will indeed be portable, compatible and recognisable in the rest of Ireland for people who want to go to university where stipulations are in place that they need a certain standard of GCSE English or maths?

Mr O'Dowd: The same rule applies perhaps, as I said to Mr Craig, in relation to universities in the South of Ireland: they will only be going down as far as GCSEs for the very-high-demand topics. Universities will be able to read this across, as has been the case before. We are not making any changes to our scores in that sense, so universities in the South will understand our GCSE scores, and they will be comparable to whatever other measures they have in place for entry to their courses.

As the Member will be aware, discussions will continue with university organisations in the South to ensure that our qualifications are given the due credit that they deserve. Significant progress has been made over the last number of years. Indeed, Mr Farry has been involved in those discussions as well. I am aware that discussions are continuing with the Irish Universities Association and within it about how to continue to improve the recognition of our qualifications here to ensure that young people have the ability to travel to either part of the island to continue their education.

Mr Hazzard: I welcome the Minister's statement. I think that it is a confident decision by the local education system to go this route. Will this decision have an impact on those subject areas here that maybe do not attract as many entrants as others? Will this decision perhaps have an impact on that, and what can we do to ensure that those subjects are still available going forward? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr O'Dowd: Clearly, with such a wide-ranging curriculum, a wide range of subjects can fall under GCSEs. There may be a number of GCSEs that have very low entry numbers, which, for commercial or other reasons, the English awarding bodies may not wish to award any further here. We will work with those bodies around that. We will see whether CCEA can develop examinations around that. There is also the option to buy the stipulations around those exams from another awarding body so that we can use them. There are a number of avenues that we can explore to ensure that we still have as wide a range of GCSEs available to our young people as was the case before.

Mr Allister: On a day when the Minister and his party roll over and ask Westminster to legislate on welfare reform, is this not an irrational and political decision to bolster the Minister's anti-England credentials, wreaking havoc with the portability of qualifications and creating a conundrum for students, parents, employers and universities? Indeed, it is a conundrum that might well fit a transfer test question: if John gets a B in Belfast, what would it be in Bristol?

Mr O'Dowd: There are too many conspiracy theories going on in the Member's head to be healthy, I have to say. If he takes nothing else on from me, perhaps he will take on that piece of advice. The Member is a barrister and therefore I would hope that, in his deliberations, he deals with evidence. If he cares to look at the consultation responses that have come back on this matter, he will see that there is very strong evidence for the decision that I have taken today. The strongest evidence that I have related myself to is that our objective — or any decision that you make in education — has to be about improving outcomes for young people. Changing how you score exams does not improve outcomes for young people. There is no evidence to support that theory. You do not change or improve your education system from the top down. I am very confident that universities in England, which deal with students from throughout the world, will be very able to cope with students travelling from here with GCSEs when the main determiner for entry into universities is A-level results. Even in England, there is not a whimper about changing how A levels are scored. They may make a decision in future, and they have a perfect right to do that. We will consult and gather evidence, and I hope that whoever is Minister at the time will sit down and talk to the experts in the field and make a decision. There is no conspiracy theory here; all my deliberations and decision-making are backed up with firm evidence.

Ms Sugden: I thank the Minister for his statement. How will GCSE-equivalent courses in FE colleges be affected by this?

Mr O'Dowd: Again, there are no changes. Our further education colleges will be able to read qualifications across quite easily. We have students coming here from England, and it will be the reverse of what colleges and universities in England have to do. They will compare those results across. Again, Ofqual and CCEA will engage with each other; we know that the 4 is set to a C grade. That information will be extrapolated across to our colleges. The colleges inform me that they will be more than capable of taking on board all that information and transferring it into how they deal with students entering their courses.

Private Members' Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That the Second Stage of the Local Government (Numbers and Addresses of Buildings in Townlands) Bill [NIA 63/11-16] be agreed. — [Mr Flanagan.]

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I want to start by thanking Members for their contributions to the debate earlier. Some of those contributions were insightful, some were helpful and some were completely off the wall, they were that detached from reality. The Minister of the Environment has informed me that, unfortunately, he cannot be here to respond to the debate. He is down in the castle or the house doing something. I am not quite sure what he is doing. Maybe there will be an announcement at some stage and we will be informed, but I accept that the Minister is unable to be here and I will not hold it against him.

I will turn to some of the comments that were made by Members. Anna Lo, speaking on behalf of the Environment Committee, wondered aloud why this policy change could not be done on a voluntary basis and said that, during the Committee hearing, some members had suggested that any councils that wanted to could merely introduce this change themselves. However, in Fermanagh, that was done not so much voluntarily but in an unauthorised fashion for 40 years. In recent years, that caused significant problems for citizens in their engagements with credit-referencing agencies. It is for that reason that the council moved away from the unauthorised or what some have called the voluntary system.

There was also significant potential that someone would take a legal case against Fermanagh District Council as a result of its failure to enact the legislation governing the issuing of property numbers along a roads-based system. As a result, the majority of councillors accepted the need to enact a legislated-for system. The council also sought this specific legislative change to be made to allow it to continue to use the townland-based system but in such a way that would allow citizens to avail themselves of credit, to get home deliveries and to use GPS systems effectively.

Anna Lo also reminded the House that her party had previously tabled two motions in the Assembly calling for greater support for townlands and she indicated that her party remained broadly supportive of the protection of townlands for heritage purposes. Ms Lo also indicated that she felt that changing the system appeared complicated. Hopefully, the Bill will pass Second Stage and be referred to her Committee where those complexities can be addressed appropriately, under her stewardship.

Anna also told the story of a young friend of hers from Fermanagh — it was not 'Anna from Fermanagh'; that is a story by a famous Fermanagh man — who bought a house in south Belfast and had problems proving that her old address existed using the townland-based system. That is exactly the type of problem that people in Fermanagh faced for years, where the unauthorised system was being used without legislation. That meant that people did not have a unique property reference number, which made it difficult for them to pass credit checks, get products delivered or use GPS, satnavs and things of that nature.

That is why the voluntary approach that some Members are proposing will not work. If we move to a system where a council introduces a townland-based system without it being set out in statute, we will throw up all the problems that were there in the past. The only solution to that is for this legislative change to be made to allow councils to number properties based on a townland system within legislation, and not stepping outside it. I am amazed to hear some Members, who will tell you that they are members of a law and order party and want the law adhered to, openly calling for councils to break the law. There is a very strange anomaly here. We have Members who call for people to support the law yet, on this occasion, are calling for councils to break the law and step outside the rules that currently govern how councils can legally administer property numbers. I was a bit alarmed to hear that. Hopefully, it was a misunderstanding, and they are not actually calling for people to break the law.


4.00 pm

Anna Lo concluded by saying that her party was content to support the Bill and to scrutinise it during Committee Stage. That is a pragmatic view, as not everybody is in favour of the specific proposal before the House today. I accept that, but I think that the best way in which to deal with any concerns that exist or any confusion that individual Members may have is to allow the Bill to progress to Committee Stage, where the 11 members of the Committee can engage in a proper public consultation, see what issues there are and see how those can be resolved.

Pam Cameron fails to understand why the issue needs rooted in legislation and wondered why we need legislation for something that there is no need to do. I contend that there certainly is a need and a demand for this among many rural dwellers, and not only those in Fermanagh. Some people think that it is only an issue there. It is not just an issue for Fermanagh. I had responses from every constituency in the North. People in rural communities, and, indeed, in many urban communities, are lamenting the fact that the townland-based system is being eroded, and it is being eroded because of the changes that took place in 1972 to amend the legislation to introduce road names. In the debate that took place in 2001 — 14 years ago — it was all well and good for Members to get up and blame Royal Mail. Everything was Royal Mail's fault or the Post Office's fault. It was not Royal Mail's fault at all. It was merely adhering to the legislation that was introduced. It was a legislative problem that a previous raft of reform of local government enacted. We now have a situation in which a legislative change can protect and promote townlands, and Members appear not to want to support that change, which I find a bit strange.

If the Bill moves to Committee Stage, hopefully the fuller public consultation that the Environment Committee will engage in will demonstrate that there is a level of public support for greater promotion and protection of townlands. I am confident that those who will engage in such a consultation will quickly see that there is a demand for this legislative change. Who knows? There may be issues raised out there about how we can better promote and protect townlands. Members opposite want to see a voluntary scheme, but they do not want to see any kind of a scheme set in statute. This would be a voluntary scheme even though it would be set in statute. We are not forcing anybody to do anything. Members opposite use phrases about why we cannot do this on a voluntary basis, but it would be done on a voluntary basis. We are opening up a mechanism to allow local councils to do this voluntarily if they so want. I have stated before that I am not forcing Belfast City Council or any other council to do something that it does not want to do. That would be wrong on an issue pertaining to the protection of culture and heritage. It would be done on a voluntary basis, but the councils need the legal protection to do it, and they need to be able to do it under a mechanism whereby citizens are not being disadvantaged by the change.

Pam also wanted to know what consultation took place with the emergency services and listed a pile of other organisations that she wanted to see consulted, including the Police Service, the Ambulance Service and the Fire Service. I want to put it on record that those organisations were all consulted. Their views were sought on the proposed legislative change. It may be the case that such organisations will be interested in participating in a more extensive consultation at Committee Stage, and that will be the best place for the Member to find out the views of the emergency services, instead of her standing up here speculating that those organisations will be opposed to such a change.

There is an element of doubt creeping in here around the suggestion that, if we use a roads-based system for allocating property numbers, there will never be a problem finding properties. In 2001, Eddie McGrady highlighted a case in which an ambulance driver stopped him in distress at not being able to find a property on a 10-mile stretch of road. That is the case across the North, where there are very lengthy pieces of road on which, unless you have local knowledge of where a house number specifically is or of where an individual lives, you will have problems using the roads-name-based system to find an address.

Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for giving way. That is a point that I wanted to raise with Mrs Cameron earlier in the debate, and I certainly contest that this is an issue only for Fermanagh. In my constituency of South Down, just outside Hilltown and Mayobridge, we have the townland of Leode — Leode Road — and the residents in that area refer to it all the time. They have trouble all the time with emergency services, which, for some reason when they look at Google Maps and satnav, see Cross Road.

Not one local resident refers to it as Cross Road, and that causes considerable problems. Emergency services have ended up in Crossmaglen, which is maybe 30 minutes away from the actual place. I put it on the record that this is not just a problem for Fermanagh but a problem right across the board. It is not the case that it will cause confusion; rather, in a lot of circumstances, it will go a long way towards helping to address confusion.

Mr Flanagan: That certainly highlights one of the challenges that we face across the North with addressing. It is clear that the people best placed to deal with addressing are the officials in LPS and the experts in building control in councils. I am not putting in any parameters for how issue property numbers or name roads. A sensible proposition coming out of the Chamber today is that councils are given the power not only to number properties, as they can do at the minute, along a road, a street, a cul-de-sac, a boulevard and all those other fancy types of street that have emerged in recent years but to go back to the historical system of townland names that was always used on this island.

I return to the emergency services issue. Whether a council uses a roads- or townlands-based system, the challenge will remain the same when trying to find a property in an emergency. That will not change. If you do not know where to find an individual property number along a 10-mile road, the best way to do that is to have an accurate GPS system that will bring you to it. Most emergency services and most people engaged in the delivery of services to houses now use GPS or some form of satnav to bring them there. As the Member for South Down indicated, that is not always 100% accurate, but it would be no less accurate in a townlands-based system than it would be in a roads-based system. If you do not have local knowledge, the only solution is to use GPS to find these places, unless you are willing to stop and ask for directions, which, unfortunately, we see emergency services having to do, even in areas where roads are used as a characteristic for finding properties.

We cannot expect everybody to know where every house in the countryside is, no matter what you do for a living. I suppose that there was a time when the parish priest knew where every house in the countryside was, and the postman might have a fair idea. However, as Mrs Overend indicated, even the police do not know where houses are. All those jobs are not now based in one area for a lifetime; you see people being rotated round various areas, whether they are clergymen or clergywomen, postmen, police officers or other emergency services personnel. The case that people do not know where every house is exists at the minute under the roads-based system. Introducing a townlands-based system would not make it any less efficient, and that problem, unfortunately, would remain under the current proposal. However, I will tell you what it would do: if an ambulance driver stopped and asked me where house number 297 was on a 13-mile road, for example, I would not have a clue, but, if you gave me an indication of the name of the townland, I could certainly tell you where the house was on that 13-mile stretch of road. That is how this change would have a positive benefit. All those issues are anecdotal and would need to be drawn out further at Committee Stage, if we want to find out how bad the problem is in the areas where a roads-based system has been adopted and whether moving to an optional townlands-based system would make it any worse.

Cathal Boylan said that he was proud to come from the townland of Caramoyle. He highlighted the fact that, when you look at headstones around graveyards, you can see the common usage of townland names by previous generations. If I had a time machine, it might be interesting to travel forward 50 years and look at people's headstones, because when I look at —

Mr Weir: Still no united Ireland.

Mr Flanagan: Sorry, does the Member want to make an intervention? No? I thank the Member for his contribution; I wish him well.

If we were to travel forward 50 years in a time machine, Peter Weir would probably still be over there as the Whip of the DUP.

Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?

Mr Weir: I am glad that, even in his speech, the Member is willing to acknowledge that, 50 years from now, we will still be in an Assembly in, obviously, a partitionist state. Clearly, even within 50 years, there will not be a united Ireland.

Mr Flanagan: I will return to the debate before Mr Beggs gets out of the Chair and gets too excited. Who knows what this lovely room will be used for in 50 years' time? I doubt that it will be used as a regional Parliament in the north of Ireland, anyway.

I return to the issue of townlands. If we were to travel forward 50 years in time and go round graveyards, would the headstones of people buried now read, "This is such-and-such from such-and-such a townland", or would they read, "This is such-and-such from number 155 on some random road"? Those are the anomalies that have resulted in recent years from the change. Will we stand idly by and allow this reduction in our culture and heritage to happen? Townlands are a part of us all. They are where we come from and where we take our sense of identity. I do not take my sense of identity from the name of a road, but I take it from a townland. I am conscious that many people in our society do likewise.

Cathal also highlighted the fact that he was concerned that the younger generation in particular had little or no understanding of the townlands in which they live. That is the rationale behind the proposed legislative change: it would cement the use of townlands in council areas that decided to implement it. In my view, there is no better way to increase awareness of townlands than to have them as the principal part of the addressing system. As I said at the start, not all councils will implement and adopt the change, so something else needs to happen in those other areas. However, the mechanism of allowing councils to number properties in a townland, returning townlands to the heart of the address, would go a long way to restoring townlands in many areas.

Cathal made a useful contribution when he welcomed the efforts of many local and central government agencies to increase their use of townlands but said that he believed that, without legislation, the usage of townlands was inconsistent. He said that he supported the Bill as it would help to ensure that future generations would be able to use and understand their townlands.

We had situations here in the past where MLAs told us that our townland was on our driving licence, but it is not on everybody's driving licence. If there is room for it or if the DVLA or the DOE can be bothered putting it on, it will put it on, but it is not a hard and fast rule.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Member for giving way. On his comments about inconsistency, surely, if the legislation were passed and councils had the choice of whether to implement it or not, you would still have inconsistency.

Mr Flanagan: I thank the Member for her intervention. I do not necessarily get the point that she makes; maybe she is making the point that, if some council areas adopt it and others do not, there will not be a uniform system across the North. Is that the point that you are making?

Mr Flanagan: OK. I appreciate that. Maybe it is an argument, but why do we need a uniform system in every district council area? Why can we not allow councils to decide how best to issue property numbers? Surely, they know what their people want better than anybody else. If I were to tell a Member of the House that they did not represent their constituents and that somebody else should make those decisions, that is effectively the same as telling councillors and local government officers that they are not best placed to make the decisions, even though it is they who have the statutory responsibility for issuing property numbers.

Mrs Overend: Will the Member give way?

Mr Flanagan: In one second, Sandra. All we are doing is — Jesus, there's the heavy hitters now — enhancing the ability of councillors and councils to offer property numbers in a townlands-based system. I do not think that there is any problem there with having one system in one area and a different system in another area.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Member for giving way. On that issue, I foresee a problem. For instance, my postal address is Portglenone, which is a County Antrim address. It is part of the mid and east Antrim area; yet, I actually live in County Londonderry. So there is a conflict there. I foresee that sort of problem.

Mr Flanagan: I suppose the problem there is that the Member's postal town is not actually a town in her council area. That will not be addressed by this issue, but it is an anomaly that happens right across the board. I used to work in Newry, and I used to see people from Crossmaglen coming in, and their address was Crossmaglen, Newry, County Down. People in Crossmaglen, I would imagine, do not like being told that they live in County Down, but that is what Royal Mail tells them.

Mr McCarthy: What is wrong with County Down?

Mr Flanagan: There is plenty wrong with it, Kieran. Pete McGrath is a top man, though.

The problem there is not with this system. Mrs Overend highlights a problem that exists already. This legislation would not make that any worse. It might not make it any better, but it does not change it. The problem that you highlight already exists, and the proposed change would not be the cause of that problem. I contend that your postal town should be your postal town, not one in a different county. That is a serious problem, but it is not something that this legislation is looking at.

Dominic Bradley, in his contribution, highlighted some of his favourite townlands in his area and said that locked within our townland names is a wealth of history. He highlighted that reading some of the excellent publications of the Place-Name Project unearthed our rich history. There then ensued a dispute between two Members from Newry and Armagh about the etymology of the townland of Caramoyle, and I am certainly not going to get involved in that dispute.


4.15 pm

Dominic lamented the fact that a previous Finance Minister, who he says knew the price of everything and the value of nothing, could not find the match funding to sustain the Place-Names Project. I certainly agree with that. I remember having correspondence with and meeting those behind the Place-Names Project at the time and getting some understanding of the benefit of that project in increasing the awareness and understanding of townlands across the North, particularly in areas where they had been allowed to fall into disuse. It was not so much in places like Fermanagh, Armagh or Tyrone but in other rural areas where townlands really were not on the agenda as such. They carried out an extensive project on getting the actual meaning of townland names and letting people in those townlands understand the origins of the word. We should consider looking at the Place-Names Project again. Dominic highlighted that townlands tell us not only about the topography of an area but about the people who once dwelt in it. You have townland names that are derived from the geographic nature of an area but also townlands that get their name from the people who resided in it at one stage.

Dominic highlighted something that I forgot to mention during my earlier contribution: the importance of townlands to lodges of the Orange Order. He said that the Orange Order is doing its bit to support townlands. I raised that issue during my contribution at the Environment Committee. I certainly agree with him, and if the Orange Order is doing its bit for townlands, I certainly think that we, as a legislative Assembly, should be doing our bit as well.

Dominic referenced the work carried out in many areas across the North to highlight townlands using attractive stones and markers. That approach was never needed in Fermanagh because of the central point of townlands on one's address; we did not need stones to mark it out. It is worth exploring that in areas where townlands are not well understood and where people do not know what townland they live in. Despite what Members say, I know an awful lot of people outside Fermanagh who do not know what a townland is or what townland they live in. So, anybody who tells me that there is no need for this legislative change and that we do not need greater protection for townlands is, frankly, arguing from a point of ignorance. Dominic also said that, in some areas, townland names are not as prominent as they could be. In my opinion, the Bill would put them back into pole position in the areas that adopt this change.

Dominic concluded by asking what account had been taken of the Good Friday Agreement and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. I will be honest: it was not to the fore of my mind when developing the legislation, and I specifically left out any reference to language at all because I knew that that would be the issue that some Members would run with. This is purely about the culture and heritage of townlands; it has absolutely nothing to do with the Irish language or with any other language. So, I remind any Member across the way who wants to throw that up as an issue that I deliberately left out any reference to the Irish language in the Bill in order to try to get cross-party support on what is a non-contentious issue.

I will turn to Sandra Overend's contribution. Sandra alleged that she has experienced no problem in getting her townland onto official addresses. Well, she must be the only one. I would be interested to see her bank statements, her driving licence, her mobile phone bill, her BT bill and other such correspondence because, frankly, I do not believe her. There are so many people trying to get their townlands onto such correspondence but who cannot do it, and it does not wash for one Member to say, "Well, I have no problem doing it and I do not see the problem here". Maybe Sandra will produce those for me at a later stage.

Sandra also said that she does not see why anyone would abandon the current situation. I say to the Member that the current process of numbering properties along a road name may be effective and efficient, but it has led to the decline of townlands. It has been highlighted in several debates in the Chamber, and outside it, how the numbering of properties along road names and abolishing the system of numbering them in a townland has had a direct impact on the preservation of townland names. This legislative change would, hopefully, reverse that in some areas.

Sandra then raised some practical matters not contained in the Bill, such as where we would start with the numbering in a townland. Once again, I deliberately left that out because I wanted the Bill to be as simple and straightforward as it could be; and the guidance and advice that came, particularly from DOE officials and officials in the Bill Office, was that the best course of action was to place a duty on DFP to issue guidance to councils on how to carry out the process of numbering properties. I say to the Member that where we start in a townland and whether you go clockwise, counterclockwise or up and down a road is purely a matter for the councils, taking into consideration the advice of DFP and the expert knowledge that each council has through its building control officers, because they are the people who know best how to decide on those matters. They are the experts in issuing numbers to houses and other properties. That is where we should leave the power. We should not be stipulating in the Bill how councils number properties. There is no stipulation in the Bill that odd numbers have to be on one side of the road and even numbers on the other. There is no stipulation that you have to start with the lowest numbers on the side of the road closest to your local post office or town hall or east or west. That is not stipulated in the Bill at the minute. The proposal I am bringing forward does not seek to amend or enhance that in any way. What it does do is call for the Department of Finance and Personnel to introduce guidance so that officers, when making those decisions, and councillors, when deciding on them, will do so with the best expert knowledge.

Sandra again raised the issue of the emergency services. I am amazed if Sandra is really that naive to think that there are no problems using the current roads-based system on roads that are 10 or 13 miles long. She also raised the issue of additional cost. There is going to be no additional cost to the Executive from this legislative change. The only additional cost is going to be for LPS, which will have to draft guidance for councils. It is not that cumbersome a process.

Mrs Overend stated that she does not want to give the townland primacy, which is an approach that I am reluctant to hear but it really sets the rest of her comments in context. She falsely claimed that I want to go back to the previous unauthorised situation. She must not have been listening to my contribution today or when I appeared before the Environment Committee. I have clearly outlined that I do not want an unregulated system. I want councils to be able to adopt an authorised system where townlands can officially be the primary part of an address-based system. Mrs Overend simply says she does not support that, and that is fine. Her opposition is clear and she should not introduce irrelevant issues into this debate to justify her stance.

Turning to the points of Mr Girvan; Paul rightly said that the current postcode system works well. I do not disagree with him. I do not propose to change that. Mr Girvan seems to use a satnav a lot, therefore finding properties would not be problem for him regardless of whether we used a road- or townlands-based system as he and others, like me, who use GPS technology would be directed straight to the property in question.

Mr Girvan referenced property numbers at the bottom of lanes. Maybe he is not aware that it is an offence not to display one's number at the end of one's lane. One is guilty of an offence and liable, on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding level 2 on the standard scale. Maybe he is already compliant with the law, maybe not. Either way, I have no intention of changing that.

Mr Girvan talked frequently about the Seven Mile road. I would be interested to know whether it is seven miles long or is it like most other roads that have no relation to the local community. I would hazard a guess that it is not seven miles long and takes its name like other roads where they just pick a random thing off the top of their heads and call the road that.

Mr Girvan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Flanagan: Very quickly, Paul, aye.

Mr Girvan: It is actually called the Seven Mile Straight but it is longer than seven miles. There is a seven-mile straight part of that road and that is why it is called the Seven Mile Straight but the road is longer than seven miles. [Laughter.]

Mr Flanagan: I thank the Member for that contribution. I am sure he drives with manners on it.

I was amazed at the tone adopted by some Members. I genuinely cannot understand Mr Girvan claiming that some people are engaged in a cultural war here. People like Jim Shannon called for the greater promotion of townlands. Is Mr Girvan alleging that Jim Shannon is engaged in a cultural war? I do not think that Jim would be that happy about that. [Laughter.]

Mr Girvan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Flanagan: No, I won't, Paul.

Mr Girvan uses language like cultural war when we are talking about something that is shared between all of us. It is something that is shared between all the communities on this island, including the Orange Order. He does himself no favours when he uses rhetoric like that. It has absolutely no foundation in reality.

Mr Girvan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Flanagan: Very quickly, Paul.

Mr Girvan: I thank the Member for giving way. I used the term because a number of the townlands have been anglicized. Unfortunately, we know the way that has ended up, with street names being turned into Irish all over the place. You see street names that have Irish names on them, and Mr Bradley said that he would be keen for Irish names to be used as opposed to the anglicized names.

Mr Flanagan: I thank the Member for his contribution. I agree with Mr Bradley: I would love to see the reintroduction of Irish as our native language but if the Member reads the Bill, that is not what we are debating. We are debating the reintroduction of townlands. The use of the Irish language is not contained in the Bill. I deliberately left it out, hoping that nobody would go on a random tangent as the Member did. Unfortunately, it is hard to hold people back.

One of Mr Girvan's final comments was that GPS systems do not recognise townlands. He is wrong, but if he were right, surely that demonstrates the need for this change to be made.

I think that we have perhaps debated this issue long enough for today. I hope that this is not the final debate on the matter. Each of us knows where the other stands on the issue, and we can now put it to a vote. I hope that Members will support the Bill and allow it to progress to Committee Stage. I thank Members for their contributions to the debate, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Second Stage of the Local Government (Numbers and Addresses of Buildings in Townlands) Bill is not agreed; the Bill falls.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs).]

Adjournment

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): As was announced before Question Time, today's Adjournment debate will not take place.

Adjourned at 4.38 pm.

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