Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Educational Vandalism must be stopped

I am delighted with the very successful launch of the Save our Children's Education campaign at the Town Hall on Tuesday 24th January. The follow up will be in the form of petitionions which I hope will endorse the fact that a large percentage of the population and indeed teachers do not accept what the Minister is forcing upon this country with regard to our children's future in education.

I feel we are now at an absolutely critical point in he whole debate on the Costello proposals. The Minister has virtually ignored her own consultation and the views of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland. She has now published a Draft Education Order, and article 28 of that Order specifically prohibits schools - including grammar schools - taking any account whatsoever of aptitude or ability when admitting pupils. This will enshrine the Costello proposals in our Northern Ireland education law.

That will inevitably lead to a comprehensive system of education; to admissions being on the basis of post-codes; to grammar schools as we know them disappearing; to a reduction in the present very good standards being achieved by pupils in Northern Ireland. And to reduced parental choice. When parents realise they cant get their children into the schools which they want and which would suite them there is going to be a very sharp reaction indeed. In short implementation of the Ministers proposals has the potential to be an education disaster and an administrative nightmare.

That is why North Down is mounting this campaign. It represents perhaps the last chance to stop the Minister wrecking our fine education system. If we can present her with a massive vote against her proposals she may finally see sense. There is no hiding ground on this issue; no possibility of simply abstaining ; no saying I am not sure. Any of those reactions will be seen as a vote for the Ministers proposals and their inevitable consequences.

It is important to stress that our absolute opposition relates to the very narrow way in which the Minister has drafted this particular legislation. She has simply left no room for maneuver. Most of us accept that the present transfer arrangements are well past their sell-by-date. Some change is therefore necessary. But any new arrangements must allow for flexibility and ensure that there is some way of matching what any school can offer to the aptitude and ability of the pupils.. There is still an opportunity to explore how that could be achieved - but not if the wording in the present Draft Order becomes law. That is why we are appealing for a massive vote for our petition.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Women in Local Councils

I have been made the first woman Vice Chairman of the Local Government Staff Commission and was invited to speak at the launch of 'Women in Local Councils' at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast on Thursday 19th January 2006.
The speech was as follows:

I am delighted to be involved with this important initiative “ Women in Local Councils” and to be given the opportunity this morning to share some of my own personal experiences with you.

First, for those who do not know me, let me give a little background about my own involvement in local government generally.

I have been a District councillor on North Down Borough Council for twelve yeas. Since becoming a Councillor I have also got involved with a number of other local government organisations. I am a non-executive director of the Ulster Community and Hospitals Trust. I have just been appointed Vice Chairman of the Local Government Staff Commission (I am afraid I remain a little old fashioned in the use of the term Chairman. But such is the involvement of females in what used to be a male preserve that the term is now completely neutral - and I see little point in being pedantic on battles which have been won.). I am also a member of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association and have been a member of the South Eastern Education and Library Board. I am proud to say I have also served as Deputy Mayor and Mayor of my Borough.

You will see therefore that I have a reasonably high profile in the area of local government. I consider I have that involvement not just as a woman but as a person in my own right - and that is a point to which I will return.

Twelve years ago I was not involved in any of this. So, how did it all start? I may well disappoint this audience by saying that I did not start as a Women’s Right campaigner but rather as what would now be called a single issues campaigner.

My entry into politics was through fighting to retain a local residential home for the elderly which had been earmarked for closure. I had very close connections with that home as my late mother-in -law died there after receiving the most loving care imaginable. I therefore agreed to form a committee to fight the closure. I can still remember the terror when I was first called upon to speak in public on the issue. However we fought a good campaign and at least managed to delay the closure for two years by which time most of the residents had made satisfactory alternative arrangements.

During that period I forged close contacts with a number of District councillors who were supporting the campaign. I quickly realised the importance of that support and that you needed to get involved with the local government structures if you wanted to even try to get things done. I also realised that there were a range of other local issues which needed to be tackled beyond the single issue on which I had cut my teeth. I was encouraged by a number of people who had been involved with me in that first campaign - particularly by the late Hazel Bradford who was then sadly coming to an end of her own very distinguished political career. I still reflect that her high profile involvement was at a time when the climate for female politicians was much less favourable than it is to-day.
Whatever your view on her politics she does deserve an honourable mention as one of the early pioneers of involving women in current affairs.

For reasons that I will not go into a bye-election was called in Bangor West. I was selected by the Ulster Unionist Party to be their candidate and then had my first experience of trying to persuade people that I was worth voting for. In the event I won that bye-election and have retained the confidence of the electorate in three subsequent elections.

So what advice can I give to other aspiring female politicians in this audience? Perhaps the first point is to be genuine and be yourself. The second would be not to take the view that you can succeed by simply being women. You must have a vision of what you want to achieve for the good of society generally. Different women will have different aspirations on the wide range of local issues facing us at present. You need to keep a broad perspective and not limit yourself to one or two pet issues.

The whole climate of women involving themselves in politics is changing to the extent that you will be unfortunate if you meet outright opposition from most of your male colleagues as you try to find a way forward. Be warned however that there is still a level of covert resistance out there which attempts to preserve the “male club” atmosphere.

One example was that early in my career as a new Councillor I was discussing an issue with a group of four experienced male politicians. I suddenly realised that without anything appearing to have happened I was no longer part of the circle having been carefully nudged to one side. My immediate reaction was to give them a good kick on the shins. Fortunately however feminine intuition took over. I simply tapped one on the shoulder, smiled sweetly and asked if he could possibly hold my cup while retrieved my name badge from my handbag. So I was back into the circle again and fully involved in the discussion. To make it even better I think some of the sharper ones realised exactly just what had happened. So despite the progress which has been made you may sometimes have to fight your corner - it is for you to decide whether to go for all out attack or a more subtle approach.

I made passing reference earlier to my view that chairman is now largely regarded as a neutral term. However there are still battles to be fought in terms of women’s role in our political system and our political parties. And I am not just talking about Northern Ireland. I think I must have read the same paper as the Chairman did, and picked up the quote, that there are still too many politicians throughout the British Isles who seem to think that the term “Leader” is a masculine noun!!

Events such as this are important in giving women confidence and much of the training and support is to that end. If you are starting from scratch that confidence building will be extremely useful. Even if you have already made a start down the path of greater involvement it will also provide valuable reinforcement.

But if you want to make real progress then at some stage you are going to have to stand on your own two feet as a person and argue your views logically rather than depending on some sort of nominal woman status. I don’t say that to be negative and others may well disagree with my point of view - all I can say is that it was the approach which I have always taken.

There were comments made this morning regarding the RPA – I have worries with regard to the future and RPA. I am here as a councillor for North Down, my constituents know me and I know them. But I must place on record that I am concerned about the decision taken on RPA i.e. 7 Councils. One of my main concerns is for the staff of local councils and just what is their position? There are many questions being asked of government and I am afraid very few answers being given.

Once again, I advise you, be yourself; be positive - the title of this morning is “Women in Local Council - Making a Difference”.

The challenge is there - I urge you accept that challenge!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Half Truths and Misinformation

The debate - if such it can be called - on the structure of Post-primary education in Northern Ireland is becoming increasingly sterile. That is due in no small measure to the complete intransigence of the Department and successive Ministers to take any account whatsoever of the strident arguments against their proposals. Successive public polls have shown that the people of Northern Ireland want to retain some form of selection, although not necessarily in the form of the present transfer test arrangements. There can be no doubt that the proposals in their present form would not be introduced by any devolved administration in Northern Ireland.
The whole debate has been running since the publication of the now discredited Burns report some 4 years ago. Throughout that period the Department and successive Ministers - we are now on to our fourth - have been attempting to persuade the people of Northern Ireland that our schools are a shambles and can only be saved by moving to a non-selective system. This so called status of our existing schools runs contrary to any available evidence. At its worst that evidence suggests that our schools are on a par with schools elsewhere - at its best it suggests our schools are much better than those elsewhere - and I am not just referring to grammar schools.
The people of Northern Ireland have been subjected to a major propaganda exercise in an attempt to persuade them of the folly of their ways. Like all such exercises it has been based on a combination of scare mongering, half truths and fairly blatant misinformation.
A few examples. We have been assured that the proposals will not affect in any way the ethos of grammar schools. That assertion is blatant nonsense. Everyone knows that grammar schools simply cannot retain their existing ethos if they are not allowed some way of matching their admissions to what they have to offer. We have been told that there should not be a problem with admissions as most grammar schools are not at present heavily oversubscribed. Of course they are not when everyone realises that pupils must reach a certain academic level for admission to most grammar schools. Once that is removed there can be no doubt that most grammar schools will be heavily oversubscribed.
That leads to perhaps he greatest misrepresentation of all. We have been constantly been told hat the new arrangements will not result in admissions by post-code. The then Minister made that assertion when Costello was first published. We were promised that the Department would undertake detailed work to produce a range of criteria not primarily based on distance from the school. Cut through the gloss of the latest consultation paper - on of the worst which the department has ever managed to produce - and what are we left with? Feeder primary schools parishes and geographical areas inevitably mean post-code. To suggest, as the Minister appears to have done, that this will not affect pupils in outlying and rural areas beggars belief.
We have been told that he proposals will not lead to the introduction of a comprehensive system of schools - do even he supporters of the new proposals believe that. We have been told that the new arrangements will improve standards. But there is not a shred of evidence to support that assertion. We have been told that the proposals will increase choice, how so when he only choice is likely to be the nearest school. I could go on.
Yet in spite of all of this the Minister - or is it the Department - has now brought forward firm legislative proposals to ensure that any form of admissions based on aptitude or ability will in future be banned by law. This represents an arrogance of the most extreme kind . The really worrying thing is that the Minister may be able to roll this legislation through Parliament by the truncated process used for northern Ireland legislation. We will then be faced with a fait accompli. Despite all that has gone on beforehand all those with an interest in our schools and in the future of our young people must persist in pointing out to the Minister and the Department the error of their ways. If they want to dig a hole for themselves so be it.

The sewage is still there!

At the January Amenities & Technical Services committee meeting I put forward the following notice of motion.

“It is unacceptable that in a modern society some of our raw and primary treated sewage is still being pumped directly into the sea. This is particularly apparent to an area such as the North Down, which once prided itself on the attractiveness of its coastline. My understanding is that North Down is not the only area where this is happening and this further exacerbates the problem.

To ascertain the extent of the problem I propose that we should write to the Department of the Environment and the Water Service requesting information on the extend to which raw and primary sewage is being pumped into rivers, lakes, waterways, Loughs and the sea throughout and around Northern Ireland.”

I have heard of others areas where raw sewage is being pumped out and I am really concerned that in the year 2006 we are still being forced to have standards which are little short of 3rd world foisted upon this country.

We must keep pressure on the Department of the Environment and the Water Service insisting that our water and sewage system must be upgraded as quickly as possible. I would also point out that I find it totally unacceptable that the citizens of Northern Ireland are financially penalised because of years of what can only be described as neglect to the infrastructure.

The notice of motion and my comments were agreed unanimously.

Plastic Bag Tax - A Must

As the person who re formed the Friends of the Earth North Down and Ards last year, I am greatly encouraged by the hard work they are doing within the Borough.

At the January Amenities & Technical Services meeting in Council I proposed “Plastic bags are an increasing nuisance and a cause of pollution in our society. Many European countries are already imposing a plastic bag tax and consumers reacted favourably or are increasingly using shopping baskets or reusable bags.
Friends of the Earth have carried out some research in Northern Ireland into the unnecessary use of plastic bags and have received a positive response from the public.

Apart from the rubbish they create plastic bag manufactures also use up our limited gas and oil reserves.

I therefore propose that we write to the Department of the Environment stating the following - that a plastic bag tax must be introduced in the very near future to help reduce this needless extravagance of modern day living.

As well, we write to all Councils seeking their support on this matter.”

I also propose that we write to the Minister responsible proposing that this tax must be brought in if we are to tackle the increasing problems caused by plastic bags. This problem is not just within towns but also causes real concern in the countryside.

Some stores already charge for their bags and it is amazing how quickly customers learned to bring their own bags. As well some stores have a receptacle for returning plastic bags. These at least are a beginning but much more must be done if we are to be serious in addressing what is a real problem to our environment.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

New Appointment

I have been appointed to the Local Government Staff Commission by Environment Minister Jeff Rooker. This appointment was as a result of an open competition recruitment process which involved being assessed by an independent panel. The Staff Commission is responsible for the oversight of recruitment procedures and terms and conditions of employment of staff employed by the 26 District Councils and the Housing Executive. It also has oversight of training requirements of staff employed by those bodies.

I am very pleased to have been appointed to the Staff Commission as a result of the public appointments procedures. This is going to be a challenging role particularly given the massive changes emerging from the Review of Public Administration. Those changes will have very significant implications for District Council staff. The Staff Commission will have a central role in the whole process in so far as it affects local government staff. and it is vital that change is handled with great sensitivity.