Civil Service (Special Advisers) (Amendment) Bill: First Stage

Mr Beggs: First, I recognise the professional manner in which the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency collects statistics to ensure that they are robust. This research was carried out in a very professional manner, which means that we are working with figures that are as accurate as possible.

When I look through the 52 indicators, I see a degree of validity in each one of them: a reason why it has been included. I do not think that there is a need for vast change, although there may be a need for tweaking. Certainly, like my colleague, I am open to taking a good look at and re-evaluating them. However, any change will need to stand up to scrutiny, not only from rural communities but from those in need in urban communities.

I note from the information pack provided to us by the Library, for which I am grateful, that, in the past, the statistics were produced using methodology developed by the Social Disadvantage Research Centre at the University of Oxford. They follow a methodology similar to those used to produce multiple deprivation figures for England, Scotland and Wales. It is important that we know what the need in Northern Ireland is relative to other parts of the United Kingdom.

There is wide recognition that not all deprived people lived in a deprived area, and, similarly, not all people in a deprived area are deprived. There is no perfect indicator: once you get away from the individual or the household to spatial areas, you lose a degree of accuracy. The most accurate measurement is of individuals and individual households: for example, in my constituency, Glenfield estate in Carrickfergus has been widely recognised over the years as an area of need, but its need has been masked by its location in an otherwise relatively affluent area — certainly, more affluent areas neighbour the estate. There are problems with whatever method is used.

When I tried to read up on this, I noted something in the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development’s position paper on DARD’s anti-poverty and social inclusion programme. NISRA has told the Committee that Wales has just provided an update and advised that it is waiting for — guess who? — OFMDFM and the statistics coordinating group, which is a cross-departmental group, to give direction on the way forward. The motion criticises the wrong group. NISRA appears to be saying that it is not holding anything up: it is the politicians in OFMDFM. We cannot criticise the statisticians when the political direction has not been given. Those who tabled the motion should have been aware of that, and, rather than criticising statisticians, recognised that the failing is in OFMDFM.

Going forward, local councils will play an increasing role in this area as they take a wider interest in community planning. I hope that that will be the case. There are particular challenges in rural communities at present. There is an obvious additional cost to every individual and every family living in a rural community when they have to travel, no matter what they do. Whether they travel on the limited public transport available, hire a taxi or use vehicles that families are forced to keep on the road as the only means of getting to their local town or village.

There is also the issue of heating. Gas is widely recognised as the most efficient method of heating, but it is not available in every rural household. That is just an outworking of the practicalities of gas supply. There are undoubtedly additional costs to living in rural communities.

I commend the MARA project for the work it has carried out over the years in trying to identify those in need who may not have taken up all their benefit entitlement and trying to give them help and advice. That has been a worthwhile project, and there will be a need for it going forward, particularly at this time —


2.00 pm

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Mr Beggs: — given the difficulties that exist in the rural community and the current financial situation in agriculture.

I am open to looking at change, and I support the motion.

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