Oral Answers to Questions

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Mr. Hanson: I have already capped the rate at 30 per cent. this year, pending a review.
David Simpson: Twenty-five per cent. is a better figure and if we could achieve that it would certainly help the business community. On the question of eliminating rural poverty, I welcome the fact that it is mentioned in the Government strategy. I also welcome the fact that migration from rural areas has been highlighted. However, the targets set by the Government for 2020 will be difficult to hit and it will be difficult to deliver what they have set out in the strategy by then—although I wish them well. We live in hope, and I hope we do not have to die in despair when we come close to that.
Dr. McCrea: Although it is true that the priorities and the strategies laid out in “Lifetime Opportunities” are not perfect, many are welcome. However, does my hon. Friend not agree that that there is an urgent need to hear how the Minister intends progressing and implementing them, and to know about the resources needed from the comprehensive spending review to fund such strategies and priorities?
David Simpson: I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. I would love to know how the Government intend to implement it. Perhaps the Minister will give us that information when winding up the debate. I would have a problem with many issues in relation to achieving the aims in the strategy document, but first let us hear what he has to tell us about delivering what is in the document.
I welcome the fact that eliminating rural poverty is mentioned in the document. Migration from rural areas, too, has been highlighted. However, among the most neglected and abandoned parts of Northern Ireland are the many rural towns that were devastated by massive IRA bombs over many years—towns such as Coleraine, Banbridge, Dungannon, Lurgan, Portadown, and of course the city of Belfast. Jobs were lost, economies blighted, opportunities destroyed, and the people were left to pick up the pieces. They have never recovered.
Such towns are going through a difficult time, and many rural towns are still playing catch-up with the rest of the United Kingdom. The Government are failing our rural heartlands, and they need to address the matter urgently. Our rural towns require substantial investment. Perhaps the Minister will give us some details about the financial input and capital expenditure that the Government have put aside for neighbourhood renewal schemes and public groundworks in the many council areas and rural towns.
I shall be brief because I know that other Members wish to speak. I mentioned the rural community, but in my council area we have what is known as the Craigavon and Armagh rural development board, and I serve on it. A lot of money is available from the European fund through the board. However, one of the most frustrating points—it is raised time and again—is that farmers and others living within the rural community who want to change from farming and to develop and diversify are hindered because of the basic planning regulations. They fail because they cannot get planning permission. We want to lift the economy and move Northern Ireland on; I believe that the Government need to address that point in order to help us to lift the economy.
I believe that Northern Ireland has a great future. I believe that we are economically well positioned in Europe, being a most vibrant global economy. We have heard today about moving forward for devolution. Yes, it is possible to achieve that but, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury said, one party is not here today. Unless that party comes up to the mark in all aspects, then devolution could unfortunately be lost. I urge the Government to put pressure where it needs to be put.
3.44 pm
Lady Hermon: May I say what a pleasure it is,Sir Alan, to have you chairing our meeting? It is an historic occasion. On behalf of the Ulster Unionist party—I am unanimous in this—I express our gratitude to the council and the mayor for the use of the City hall. Like the hon. Member for East Antrim, I hope that it is the first of many meetings of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee in Northern Ireland, but unlike him I like to think that it should meet in all the counties of Northern Ireland. We will even find a venue in North Down.
May I pick up on one or two points? I say to the hon. Member for Aylesbury that it would be lovely if I could have a direct reply to the question that I asked rather than an attack on a fellow colleague in the House of Lords who is not here to defend himself. The Conservatives did not vote against water charges. They did not consider the implications and the poverty that might be wreaked on families throughout Northern Ireland when they did not oppose water charging.
The Minister and all the Committee members will know from my voting record— and anyone who uses YouGov or who checks the statistics will also know—that I am the Unionist Member who has walked more often than any other through the Lobby in support of the Labour Government. I am not ashamed of this. I did vote for the new deal; I did vote for additional money for Sure Start; I did vote for additional resources in the Budget so that we could seriously tackle poverty. However, having thus prefaced my remarks, I am grieved this afternoon as I comment on this Government document. I have read it from cover to cover, which is why it is so heavily annotated. No one should worry, however, as I will wind up my remarks well in time for the Minister to respond.
This direct rule Administration has absolutely no one else to blame. They cannot blame the Assembly. I remember very well standing in the House of Commons when the Assembly was suspended in October 2002. The then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is now the Home Secretary, made it clear that we were entering a phase of good government—not just holding steady, not just taking care of business in Northern Ireland, but actually moving forward. It was to be a phase of good government.
I would urge the Minister to reflect on a statement right at the beginning of this document which jumped off the page as I read it. In response to a question “What is it like to be poor”, the reply was:
“The Government needs to accept that poverty is not a lifestyle choice.”
It is not a lifestyle choice for 327,000 people across Northern Ireland who are denied the opportunities to which they are entitled. That number includes 102,000 children. I am glad the Minister finds this amusing. I do not find it amusing. I would like the Minister to explain how the poverty for those children was actually measured. It would be interesting for the Committee to know that. The figure also includes 54,000 pensioners. Of a population of 1.7 million people, that is an awful lot of people in poverty, and it is not their lifestyle choice.
The hon. Member for South Down made some very interesting remarks, particularly about the rural poor. The hon. Member for Upper Bann also just mentioned the rural poor. The figures for the rural poor are not actually on the front page of this document; one has to leaf through it to find that there are 43,000 pensioners in rural poverty throughout Northern Ireland.
I say to the hon. Member for Aylesbury that I am speaking as the daughter of a lone parent. I grew up in a small 50-acre farm in County Tyrone. There were four girls in my family, with no brothers. When I was four, my elder sister five and the other two girls younger, my mother died on that farm. My father was a lone parent—not through choice—and I would ask the hon. Member for Aylesbury to speak to his party leader and ask him to have some sensitivity when commenting on lone parents.
On behalf of the rural poor, may I say to the Minister that my father is still on the home farm at90 years of age. It is a disgrace that his MP, the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness), does not take a seat in the House and does not represent his constituents, some of whom are pensioners. It is a shame and a disgrace that Sinn Fein, a party that prides itself on social inclusion and on tackling poverty, does not take its seats and does not make any effort to defend my father or other pensioners in Northern Ireland.
I have passed on a message to the hon. Member for Aylesbury and to the Minister—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Upper Bann wish to intervene? He is welcome to do so.
David Simpson: No.
Lady Hermon: Is the hon. Gentleman scared to intervene?
Hon. Members have said that education is a way out of poverty. My father had the foresight to see that education for four daughters was the way out of poverty. I am enormously grateful to him for that and for the opportunity, through academic selection, to go to a grammar school.
I have spoken to the hon. Member for Wakefield about this next point. She rightly drew attention to the huge benefits that arise from Sure Start schemes. There are only 23 such schemes in Northern Ireland, and perhaps seven have got off the ground since September.
The Minister corrected an intervention to ensure it was clear that there was just a review of capital expenditure on special needs schools on account of the Bain report. On 7 March, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 7 March announced:
“Children and young people are to receive £61 million over the next two years to help them get the best start in life.”
That was a huge investment in education. However, just two weeks later, on 20 March, the Northern Ireland Office’s website indicated that the Secretary of State had earlier that day visited a Sure Start scheme on the Shankill road. The press notice stated that this was by dint of a
“recently announced £75 million Children and Young Peoples’ package.”
Was £61 million or £75 million the correct figure? Perhaps the Minister will take the opportunity to make the correction. Is it new money? Is it packaged in some way? How is it being delivered? I repeat that an enormous number of children in Northern Ireland—102,000—still live in poverty. If education is the way out of it, and if the Secretary of State is so keen regularly to announce packages of investment in education, how can that figure be sustained?
Mr. Hanson: The difference between the two figures was because the Chancellor had a Budget in between, and the consequentials were added to the figure originally announced.
Lady Hermon: I thank the Minister for correcting that. I know that he will have limited time to wind up the debate. I am aggrieved that the Labour Government have not delivered more in the past four years of direct rule.
Mark Durkan: The hon. Lady will recall that in spite of the welcome announcement about the funding package for children and young people, education and library boards found themselves at the same time having to cut back on budgets and services and, not least, being forced to cut back on special educational needs. Yet the relevant education Minister in England announced last week that strategic education authorities there would only ever be allowed in future to improve or increase provision for special educational needs. A different rule was imposed here.
Lady Hermon: I am most grateful for that intervention. I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, particularly since I had the great honour of opening Clifton special school, a new special care school in North Down, on Maundy Thursday this year, which was a very moving occasion. However, the budget has been so restricted that we are concerned about the long-term future of that school, although I shall speak to the relevant Minister afterwards.
Finally, the Minister announced with great fanfare this afternoon that there would be a ministerial-led forum. Rather than give us the details of who would take part in that forum, he said that he would personally ensure that it met in the new year, in case it got caught up in the Christmas festivities. Let us forget about that—we need a forum set up as quickly as possible. I do not think that anyone would have missed a meeting of the forum just because Christmas was coming. This is the season of good will. We need the forum now, as the issue is serious in Northern Ireland. I am concerned that, as the Minister well know, the Assembly will be prorogued at the end of January, after which an election period will be commenced. We will then enter a period of purdah and not have any ministerial-led meetings of the forum, so why the hesitation? Why does the Minister not move now and show good will to those in poverty well before Christmas.
3.56 pm
Mr. Hanson: I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle has not been able to speak. I have approximately three or four minutes to respond to the points that hon. Members have made, and I shall try to answer the points that I can. However, I assure hon. Members that I shall read their contributions in Hansard and, if a further response is required, I shall make one in due course.
I thank the hon. Member for Aylesbury for his thoughtful contribution to the debate. He raised a number of points about drugs and alcohol, pockets of poverty, the pernicious impact of paramilitary groups on several of the communities in Northern Ireland and the need to grow the private sector generally. We share a common objective on those points, and I am grateful for his concerns and the way in which he put them. We have our historic enmities on issues such as the minimum wage, but that is for another day.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of the voluntary sector and partnership with it, which I should like to emphasise. The Government are trying to engage with the voluntary sector, to get it working in partnership, and to give it roles to support the objectives of the Government, while having the freedoms to manage its services. I assure him that we will work in partnership with the voluntary sector generally.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield made a number of important points. Given the time, I shall mention only one, which relates to fire alarms and home safety, which the hon. Member for South Antrim also mentioned. There is an ongoing programme to fit smoke alarms when undertaking repairs and improvements to council properties in Northern Ireland, and all new properties will have fire alarms fitted. I shall certainly look at the current percentages, and I shall come back to my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman on that in due course.
My hon. Friend also mentioned entrepreneurial skill, which it is important to engender. At the end of the day, work remains the best route out of poverty. Poverty is not, as the hon. Member for North Down said, a lifestyle choice, but a lifestyle that is forced on many people through circumstance. The objective of Government policy is to move people out of the cycle of deprivation.
The hon. Member for Belfast, North touched on a number of points. I recognise that there a number of areas of severe deprivation in his constituency. We are trying to tackle that through neighbourhood renewal but, in areas of special high risk, we are also looking at a number of programmes throughout Northern Ireland to work on those matters as a priority.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned children’s centres. We are establishing four children’s centres next year and we intend to establish four more centres by April 2008. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston, is looking at the criteria and the potential locations of those centres, but that commitment is there. That is real money and new progress. Things are happening next year and the year after that would not happen but for the Government’s investment, which will make a real difference to people’s lives on the ground.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the winter fuel payments, which are certainly an important issue. I accept that they have not risen, but they are currently at £200 for most pensioners and at £300 for those over 80. The figure for payments is also rising dramatically. The number of payments has increased from 242,000 to 269,000 in the past couple of years as a result of the growing number of people in that age range, and the amount of money being spent has risen by nearly£9 million. Considerable work is being undertaken on that front.
It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Alcohol Abuse

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Committee do now adjourn.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]
4 pm
Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): I am delighted to have secured this debate on a subject that I feel needs Government action as a matter of urgency. Alcohol abuse is becoming all too common in Northern Ireland. Tragic high-profile cases such as that of the late George Best bring home the message to everyone. To some of us, alcohol abuse seems more socially acceptable than other drug abuse. We must change hearts and minds on that belief. Despite medical advances, the number of alcohol-related deaths in Northern Ireland has increased in recent years. Dealing with the after-effects of excess alcohol uses up a lot of staff resources, particularly late at night in accident and emergency departments. We must seek to eradicate the culture of binge drinking, which is particularly prevalent during Christmas and the new year.
The report “Reducing Alcohol Related Harm in Northern Ireland” estimated that in 1997-98, the last year for which figures were available, alcohol-related costs to the Province’s health service amounted to £26.8 million. That includes the cost of occupied psychiatry and acute beds, general practice costsand responses to alcohol-related harm. When another £7 million a year for alcohol-related policing costs was added, the sum was more than the total spent on all forms of health promotion in the Province. It illustrates the extent of the problem.
The number of alcohol-related deaths in Northern Ireland rose from 193 in 2000 to 260 in 2004. In 2003-04, 90 children under the age of 16 were admitted to acute hospitals for alcohol-related illness. Alcohol is also strongly associated with criminal justice problems, especially in the young. In the 12 months leading up to May 2005, 359 young offenders committed to Hydebank Wood young offenders centre and prison declared a dependency on alcohol. Only 58 did not declare a dependency on alcohol or drugs.
The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety carried out the first ever census of drug and alcohol treatment services on 1 March 2005. From the data collected, 3,074 people were being treated for alcohol misuse and another 960 were being treated for both alcohol and drug abuse. In 2004-05, 6,581 patients in Northern Ireland were admitted with a primary or secondary diagnosis of an alcohol-related condition, and 842 of them were under 30 years old.
Six years ago, the World Health Organisation stated that
“alcohol is one of the greatest public health challenges facing the European region”.
In 2001, the Royal College of Physicians declared that a culture change was needed to move beyond merely treating the presenting disease to tackling the underlying alcohol problem and assume wider responsibility for health promotion. It suggested dedicated alcohol health workers, a view reinforced by the Government’s 2004 alcohol harm reduction strategy. That research identifies the need to develop better practice by health care professionals when caring for patients with alcohol problems.
This area of health care brings challenges. There is always the danger that addiction services and the treatment of those who abuse alcohol will fall between two stools. It is not always automatically easy to decide whose responsibility that ought to be. However, much good work is already going on in this field in Northern Ireland. Indeed, Gary Doherty has been chosen as nurse of the year for his work on alcohol liaison services at the Mater hospital. Thanks to that service, the number of admissions of people with alcohol-related illnesses has reduced and patients have experienced a shorter stay in hospital and are then better supported in the community.
The Mater hospital is in north Belfast and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North will testify, it includes some of the poorest wards in Europe. It was utilising more than 2,000 bed days over a six-month period for patients with alcohol-related illnesses. Alcohol was mentioned in the triage notes for more than 100 new attendances a month at accident and emergency, so it was felt that an alcohol liaison service should be commenced.
Individuals were screened by means of questionnaires in the accident and emergency department. There were a total of 527 admissions, 470 of which were emergencies, from those living in the north and west Belfast area to Eastern health board hospitals in respect of which the primary diagnosis was alcohol related. For a further 1,062 admissions—1,004 of those were emergencies—from this area, the subsidiary or secondary diagnosis was alcohol related.
There are numerous aspects to the work. It includes providing earlier identification of persons at risk of developing alcohol-related illnesses and providing them with advice, education and lifestyle interventions regarding the risks of harmful drinking. Advice was offered on education and information to in-patients concerned about their drinking, as well as to relatives and carers. Education and support was also given to staff in the hospital as part of improving care and standardising treatment for all patients with alcohol-related illnesses. Support from other agencies or services were signposted when indicated and links established with committed specialised alcohol psychiatry services.
An integrated care pathway was developedfor patients with alcohol-related problems,which included pharmacological guidelines. That standardised approach facilitated safer management of patients, which was evident in the decreased number of incidents of violence and aggression towards staff and other patients. Management of patients who either are harmfully using or are dependent on alcohol has improved, which in turn has improved the utilisationof beds. Liaison with general practitioners and community groups ensures an holistic approach for harm-reducing interventions.
The success of the service can be measured not only by the reduction in the number of admissions for alcohol-related illnesses, but by the bed days saved, allowing better utilisation of resources. That was evident in the reduced length of stay for patients with alcohol-related illnesses.
Other developments have included an education programme aimed at secondary school age children—11 years and up—and participation with Talkback, a local forum involving community groups, Radical, a local inter-agency drug education project, and involvement in the development of a local action plan.
It is essential that there is sufficient investment in alcohol liaison and support services throughout Northern Ireland, particularly those that are community based. Continued funding for alcohol-related public health programmes and information is important. Early intervention is the key. A similar service operates at the Ulster hospital in my constituency. Such services have been adopted elsewhere, and interest is also being shown by the Causeway Health and Social Services Trust and Tyrone and Fermanagh hospital in Omagh. The impact of excess alcohol on lives is enormous.
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I commend my hon. Friend for her work in this field and in all areas of health in Northern Ireland. Will she join me in commending the work of Cloona house, which is in the Belfast, West constituency but on the edge of mine, and which does excellent work in providing support for recovering alcoholics? Most of the work done there is voluntary and the house struggles to get adequate funding. Will my hon. Friend join me in pressing the Minister to consider the voluntary services that are available to help those recovering from alcoholism and whether those services can be given additional financial support?
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