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Session 2004 - 05
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Northen Ireland Grand Committee Debates

Racially Motivated Attacks

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Northern Ireland Grand Committee

Thursday 9 December 2004

[Janet Anderson in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP): On a point of order, Ms Anderson. I am not sure whether it is appropriate to raise this now or at the beginning of the main debate, but serious questions need to be raised about this sitting of the Grand Committee.

There is a dearth of certain Northern Ireland Members here: one party is completely unrepresented and another has only a sole representative. That probably has to do not only with the present political climate, but with the fact that we got, at most, only a fortnight's notice of the sitting.

In addition, as far as I am aware, there was no consultation with the parties on the subject for debate. The main debate will be on a multi-agency approach to tackling racially motivated crime, but no papers have been tabled in respect of that subject, so we have been left to try to imagine what the Government have in mind. These are serious points, because people in Northern Ireland from ethnic and racial minorities will look at the debate to assess the extent to which Parliament takes their problems seriously and they will inevitably see a rather scrappy debate, because of the short notice and the absence of material and of so many hon. Members. I have to tell the Government that that is not a good way to proceed.

Finally, just as so many other things about this Grand Committee are not satisfactory, we are once again meeting here, in Westminster. Ours is the only regional Grand Committee that, for some reason, is not allowed to meet in the region to which it relates.

The Chairman: The right hon. Gentleman will know that that is not a matter for the Chairman, but I am sure that he is glad to have had the opportunity to put his points on the record.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke) (Ind Con): Further to that not-really point of order, Ms Anderson. May other hon. Members have an opportunity to put their opinions on the record?

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman knows that this is a question not of opinions, but of points of order. If he has further points of order, he may speak.

Mr. Hunter: I was trying to identify myself with what the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said, but I fear that I cannot do so and remain in order.

Oral Answers to Questions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Teachers' Salaries

2.32 pm

1. Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): When he last met representatives of the teachers' unions in
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Northern Ireland to discuss teachers' salaries, and if he will make a statement.[202226]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Barry Gardiner): I have met collectively and individually, locally and nationally, representatives of the teachers' unions on a number of occasions in recent months to discuss teachers' salaries in Northern Ireland. The last such meeting was on 11 November. I am pleased that agreement has now been reached on the 2004–05 pay settlement and on a performance review and staff development scheme, which will enable eligible teachers to progress up the upper pay scale.

Mr. Beggs: I welcome the Minister's statement, because it was my understanding that after meeting with Northern Ireland teachers' representatives in London quite recently, the Minister refused to meet the unions in Northern Ireland on the ground that the salaries issue had been agreed. If movement to upper pay scale 3, teachers' conditions of service, and the recommendations of part 2 of the Curran report have not yet been discussed and agreed with the teachers' union representatives, will the Minister undertake to have a further meeting so that they can be discussed?

Mr. Gardiner: The hon. Gentleman is only partly right. A meeting had been scheduled to discuss matters relating to the upper pay scale, but once those matters were resolved, the meeting was no longer required. I understand that the Northern Ireland Teachers' Council wishes to discuss matters other than the ones that were originally tabled and on the agenda for that meeting, and I have indicated to the council that I am happy to do that in due course.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Can the Minister say whether in those meetings he discussed the pension arrangements for teachers in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Gardiner: No.

Hospital Waiting Lists

2. Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what steps he has taken to reduce hospital waiting lists.[202227]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela Smith): I have made the reduction of waiting lists a major priority. I have set improvement targets and established a regional steering group to oversee a significant regional programme of work to reduce waiting times. As the hon. Gentleman will know, I secured an extra £8.5 million in 2004–05 to support that work and considerable progress has been achieved. Ninety-five per cent. of patients in Northern Ireland receive their treatment within 12 months and almost 75 per cent. do so within three months. In-patient and day case waiting lists have fallen by 10,000 in the past two years.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I appreciate the Minister's answer and understand her concerns, but does she agree with me that, although there has been an improvement over the past year or so, there is a long way to go when people are still waiting more than
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18 months for treatment? I am not even talking about waiting times for appointments with specialists and for the diagnostic tests needed before seeing a consultant and then going on to a list to wait. May I therefore press her again on the matter? Some years back, progress was made in Musgrave Park hospital by using computer technology to reduce waiting times. I understand that senior civil servants who were seeking advice some years ago about what was happening in England were given the answer, ''That's a very interesting one. Why did they not ever try it?''

Angela Smith: I am slightly confused about the hon. Gentleman's point. What part of the waiting times issue—he mentioned waiting times rather than waiting lists—does he think needs to be progressed? He is right to say that considerable progress has been made. I pay tribute to the staff and the trusts who have undertaken a significant programme of work to address the problem, with different approaches taken in different trusts and board areas. There is a considerable way to go, but 3,500 fewer people are waiting now than were at this time last year.

I can highlight some examples. Yesterday I visited Antrim hospital, which has a new magnetic resonance imaging scanner, which will significantly move patients forward and decrease waiting times. Holywell, which I also visited yesterday, is examining mental health care and early intervention to prevent hospitalisation. The extra resources that have gone into primary cases sometimes ensure that people can be released from hospital earlier and more effectively, or that they are not admitted inappropriately. There is a lot of work going on. There are examples from which we can learn, and we do. Our targets are not as ambitious as those elsewhere, but they are challenging. I am sure that we can reach them. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is more to be done, but we must not underestimate the vast amount of work that is being done and having an effect.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): May I compliment the work of the health professionals who are striving to turn around waiting lists and waiting times? Does the Minister agree with me that the long-term solution to waiting times and lists is to tackle the health inequalities agenda? It is by challenging the lifestyle impediments to better health that we shall drive down waiting lists in the long term.

Angela Smith: I welcome my hon. Friend's comments. It is important that we do not deal with the health service only at the end of the process, whereby if someone becomes ill we treat them; we must also consider improving health outcomes. There are various cross-departmental projects on healthier lifestyles, in terms of what we eat, how we live our lives and the exercise that we take. I assure him that I am wearing my step counter at the moment, aiming for my 10,000 steps a day. All those things contribute to healthier outcomes and might reduce our reliance on acute care, which is where the waiting lists are.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): In a recent written answer to me, the Minister revealed that patients are now having to wait longer in accident and emergency before being admitted to a ward. Not only
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have the Government's published targets not been met, but the figures are getting worse, not better. Why are things going so badly wrong?

Angela Smith: I do not think that things are going so badly wrong. At times waiting lists in A and E have increased, but having visited a number of hospitals and A and E units and seen the work being done to improve the situation—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to see that for himself—I am confident that we are no longer seeing the trolley waits that we saw last year and that there has been distinct improvement. Having said that, we are conscious of the issue, as the additional improvements to and funding for the health service prove. It is a priority and I commend the staff for the action that they have taken to reduce waiting lists and waiting times.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): The Minister will know from the regular correspondence that she receives from me that one of the main complaints from elderly constituents in North Down is that waiting times for hip replacement operations cause major concern, distress and pain. What has been done to reduce the waiting time for hip replacement operations throughout Northern Ireland? Will the waiting time be 18 months or two years? Can patients be given an indication of their priority and of how long they will have to wait?

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Prepared 9 December 2004