Official Report: Tuesday 27 September 2016


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

Assembly Business

Mr Nesbitt: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can I ask you to review Hansard and satisfy yourself that, in the period since the EU referendum on 23 June, the House has not in any way been misled on contingency planning by the Executive for a Brexit vote? I ask because we now know that there is a document, compiled by officials of the former Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, entitled 'Preliminary Analysis on the Impact of a UK Referendum on its Membership of the European Union'.

Mr Speaker, perhaps you will further consider whether the non-publication of this document represented a breach of the ministerial code on openness, which states that information should be restricted:

"only when the wider public interest clearly demands."

I suggest that it was in the public interest for this document to be published.

Mr Speaker: I have noted your opening comments. On your point about the sharing of Executive information, that is not a matter for the Speaker. The Member will know that it is for Ministers to decide how they answer questions or how they share information. It is for the Member, in fact, to pursue his concerns through the normal available channels, whether they be questions for oral or written answer. I will pursue your first comments.

Executive Committee Business

That the Second Stage of the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill [NIA 2/16-21] be agreed.

In July 2014, one of my predecessors Nelson McCausland published proposals for the way forward on changes to the law regulating the sale and supply of alcohol in Northern Ireland. The measures in the Bill are broadly in line with those proposals, which are aimed at tackling ongoing political and community concerns surrounding the excessive and harmful consumption of alcoholic drinks. The Bill will also provide some assistance to the hospitality sector to support the tourism offering here.

The Bill contains 27 clauses, which are divided into provisions that affect licensed premises — pubs, restaurants, hotels and the like — and amend the Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 and those that affect registered clubs and therefore amend the Registration of Clubs (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. As many of the provisions affect licensed premises and registered clubs, I will provide an overview of those first.

The period of drinking-up time at the end of a premises and registered club’s permitted hours will be extended by 30 minutes to one hour for a trial period of one year. This will discourage customers from stockpiling drinks during last orders and drinking too quickly and will allow for a more gradual dispersal of people onto the streets, allowing staff more time to clear the premises in an orderly fashion. That will reduce the impact on local communities at closing time; in particular, it will allow people to remain inside while they are waiting for a taxi.

The removal of alcohol in sealed containers will also be prohibited. This will reduce impulse buys at the end of the night that often lead to prolonged drinking, either at home or, worse, on the streets.

Young people will be allowed to attend functions in certain licensed premises and registered clubs provided that a number of conditions are met. This will ensure that they have a safe environment to hold events, such as formals, where adequate safeguards are in place and no opportunity exists for them to obtain alcoholic drinks.

The sale and supply of alcohol by self-service and vending machines will be prohibited. This will ensure that the sale of alcoholic drinks is always supervised, allowing trained staff in a regulated environment the opportunity to monitor alcohol consumption and refuse the sale of alcoholic drinks when necessary.

The Department will be able to approve a code of practice, provided it is produced by a person, or group of persons, with a relevant interest in matters surrounding intoxicating liquor. Courts must then be satisfied, depending on whether a licence is being granted or renewed, that the licence holder is aware of their responsibilities under the code and has been complying with those responsibilities.

A voluntary code of practice currently operates. It was launched in 2012 and outlines the basic standards involved in the promotion, retail and service of alcohol. It applies to on- and off-trade and looks to promote best practice and prevent alcoholic drinks being promoted or sold in an irresponsible fashion. This amendment will allow the Department to approve a code of practice with legal consequences for non-compliance.

Licensed premises and registered clubs will no longer be required to obtain a children's certificate. However, they will have to comply with a number of conditions if children are to be permitted on the premises. All current protections for children will remain in place.

Children’s certificates date back to a time when some licensed premises and registered clubs did not have adequate facilities for children, such as toilet facilities or seating and dining areas. The diversification in licensed premises in recent years has resulted in higher-quality facilities, and the time is right to ease the burden on business by removing the requirement to go to court to obtain one of those certificates.

Later opening hours on the Thursday before Good Friday, which previously allowed certain premises and registered clubs to stay open to midnight, now mirrors the later opening available for any other weekday in the year; up to 1.00 am the following day. Easter is a period of special significance in Northern Ireland, which is reflected in licensing law, and I am not prepared to remove the current restrictions entirely.

Moving on to the provisions that affect licensed premises only, liquor licences and entertainment licences will be aligned so that entertainment or refreshment provided during additional permitted hours is not allowed to continue after the end of drinking-up time.

This will make it easier for the police to ensure that all premises are complying with the law. Premises that are already permitted additional hours until 1.00 am will be permitted to apply for one additional hour. The additional hour can be granted for a maximum of 12 days in a year. This will allow certain premises to open later on nights such as New Year's Eve and other special occasions. I am not prepared to move to a general 2.00 am closing.

The law in respect of children will be strengthened to ensure that young people can no longer accept delivery of intoxicating liquor at the home address of the purchaser. Delivery drivers will be required to record in a log book occasions when they requested identification and to detail the form of identification provided. Licensed restaurants will be required to display a notice detailing the conditions under which alcohol may be sold on the premises. This will provide clarity in restaurants by openly showing the conditions that they are bound by. This will address the growing concerns in relation to licensed restaurants that are operating more like pubs but without the associated overheads of a pub.

Off-sales premises, including supermarkets, will only be permitted to advertise alcoholic drinks in the area that they are permitted to display them within their premises. This is intended to reduce the instances of impulse buys of alcoholic drinks, particularly in supermarkets. They will also be prohibited from advertising alcohol promotions within 200 metres of their premises. Angostura bitters will no longer be exempt from the definition of intoxicating liquor and, as such, may only be sold in licensed premises. This brings duty and licensing regimes into line following the repeal of the excise duty exemption that previously applied to Angostura bitters.

Finally, I come to the provisions of the Bill that apply only to registered clubs. A sporting club will be able to apply on six occasions per year to extend the area of its premises licensed to supply alcohol, provided that certain conditions are met. This will allow sporting clubs to take advantage of events at their clubs, such as captain's day, which attract large numbers of members and guests, by extending the area where they can supply alcohol to club grounds. Young people will be allowed to remain in the bar area of a registered club until 11.00 pm during the summer months, 1 June to 31 August, or to attend an awards ceremony on one occasion in a calendar year. This will allow young people to avail themselves of the full range of sporting activities open to them during the summer months, which often extend into the evening. An awards ceremony allows sporting clubs to celebrate the success of young people who participate in the sporting activities offered by a club.

A registered club will be allowed to advertise any function outside a club premises where the advertisement clearly states that only members of the club and their guests may attend. Currently, members of the general public are permitted to attend functions where the proceeds are devoted to charitable or benevolent purposes. However, the law prohibits a registered club from publicly advertising the function. This provision will ensure that there are no restrictions on the advertising of such events.

Some of the measures in the Bill will, I hope, contribute to a reduction in alcohol-related harm by encouraging those who choose to drink to do so sensibly. I believe that the Bill strikes the right balance between controlling the sale of alcoholic drinks on the one hand and offering some support to the hospitality sector on the other. It is clear from the consultation responses and discussion with stakeholders and other parties that there is significant support for these proposals. On that basis, I hope that all parties will give the Bill their support and allow it to move to Committee Stage.

Ms Gildernew (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): Many of us in the House and many more outside have been waiting in anticipation for a large number of years for a Bill to address licensing reform. It has been a bit like 'Waiting for Godot' but with less expectation that the Bill will actually arrive first. However, it has arrived, so the Minister deserves credit for that at least. As Members will know, Second Stage is not about discussing the details of the Bill; rather, it is about the principles of the Bill.

The principles are relatively straightforward and easy to agree on. They relate to bringing forward measures that seek to address excessive alcohol consumption and support the hospitality sector. The Committee supports this principle. However, during Committee Stage, we will seek to establish whether the Bill strikes the appropriate balance between these apparently competing objectives.


10.45 am

Clearly, industry sources already feel that the aspects of the Bill that seek to liberalise our licensing laws do not go far enough. Others, who may be concerned with the negative impact of alcohol on health and society in general, might feel that they go too far. We do, of course, have a responsibility to ensure that the legislation does not provide the framework for harm to be visited on society, but neither do we want to be accused of presiding over a nanny state. It will be the job of the Committee to consider these arguments and, on the evidence presented, advise the House accordingly.

All of us will have personal views about alcohol based on experience or perhaps even moral or religious beliefs. It is my opinion, and I hope others share it, that while those personal views should inform our consideration of the Bill, they should not direct it. We are here to legislate for all of society, not just a narrow section of it that may share our beliefs. The Committee acknowledges that it is not easy to strike the right balance between proposals to assist our hospitality industry and the public health concerns about the impact of alcohol. Therefore, a mature, informed discussion is called for, particularly given that the public consultation on the Bill took place four years ago.

If public health concerns are to be addressed, it is important to consider drinking patterns and where people are consuming alcohol. This is important so that we do not end up taking action through the Bill that neither addresses the negative aspects of alcohol consumption nor supports the hospitality industry; in effect, giving the perception of real reform on both key issues when nothing of actual substance has been achieved on either. That is why reference to evidence is so important. For example, in regard to addressing excessive alcohol consumption, the DHSSPS report 'Adult Drinking Patterns in NI 2013' asked people where they consumed alcohol. Around two thirds of respondents who drank said that they did so in their own home — 65% — while around 20% drank in the pub, 17% in a restaurant and 16% in someone else's home. So, over 80% of people drank in either their own home or someone else's home.

It has also been clear for at least a decade that the number of people drinking in pubs has been falling. In fact, the same report notes that there was about a 40% reduction in the number of males drinking in pubs between 1999 and 2013 and a reduction of almost 50% in females drinking in pubs during the same period. The industry is now in a position where only 26% of men and 12% of women who drink do so in pubs. The figures on drinking at home also go some way to explaining the increase in solitary drinking from 17% in 1999 to 22% in 2013. One can only guess at the potential mental health issues that that may contribute to.

The question that the Committee will have to ask is this: is the Bill doing enough to address excessive drinking where most drinking actually takes place — in the home? Indeed, we will need to consider whether this Bill is even the proper legislative vehicle to do anything about that. On the basis of where people who drink say they consume alcohol, we should at least recognise that the greater problem is more likely to be as a result of home drinking and drinking alone and not necessarily as a result of drinking in the local pub.

As a resident in and representative of a rural constituency, I know that the local pub is often the centre of social gatherings and is used for meetings of local community groups. It often has a significance to the community that perhaps an urban pub does not have because there does not tend to be any other option in rural areas if the local pub closes. These pubs are under severe pressure. In fact, a report carried out this year by the insolvency practitioner Begbies Traynor revealed that one in four pubs in the North were operating under significant financial distress and struggling to remain open. There are roughly 2,000 licence holders here. On that calculation, 500 of them are struggling to remain open. Even taking just three employees per licence holder, which is not unreasonable, that is 1,500 jobs at risk. In February this year, Bombardier announced that 1,000 jobs were to go, and there was absolute uproar. Ministerial statements and calls for action were flying right, left and centre, and this was for a company that, according to then Minister Bell, received £75 million of Executive assistance between 2002 and 2015.

If 1,500 jobs are at risk in the hospitality sector, should we not be making as big a hue and cry as was made in February? Should we not seek to ensure that the sector has the best operating environment in which to survive? Not a penny of Executive financial assistance has been called for. We need to see what is achievable and what is necessary to support the industry. I am sure that, with appropriate counsel, we can do that without contributing to the already significant burdens on the health sector or to the moral degradation of our society, as some might suggest.

Of course, pictures on the TV of antisocial behaviour in town centres as a result of excessive alcohol consumption fan the flames of the negative stereotypes associated with alcohol. However, I suggest that the vast majority of people who drink alcohol do so responsibly. Should we not seek to facilitate good behaviour as well as address the bad? Following that logic, we will need to consider whether we are doing enough via the Bill to support the hospitality industry. By limiting the proposals in the Bill that, in general, may be seen as liberalising our current laws, are we, in fact, inadvertently penalising the hospitality industry because of an erroneous perception of where the alcohol problem lies?

The Committee has been advised by officials that the measures proposed in the Bill are modest. Modesty is often said to be a virtue. In the context of the Bill, it might be considered a vastly overrated virtue; one that is a poor substitute for creative thinking and ambitious proposals for the modernisation of licensing laws and, therefore, the hospitality industry. I also need to point out the importance of the pub industry to our tourism sector. I am sure that other Members will refer to that in their contributions.

If we have a vision of what we want our society to become, and if that is an outward-looking and progressive society framed by legislation that encourages its development, the legislation, if we get it right, can, in a small way, send out that message. Hopefully, the Minister will work with the Committee, if we believe that changes should be made to strengthen the Bill and make it appropriate for a 21st-century society.

Mr Bell: The legislation — the Minister has given a comprehensive overview of it — will probably be among, if not the, most serious legislation that we will deal with in this mandate. That is not hyperbole. Alcohol-related deaths numbered 238 in 2014 and 236 in 2013. If we compare the 2014 figure for alcohol-related deaths, 238, with the road death statistic of 79, we see that the former is 300% higher. If we were to come to the House with the outrage that we rightly have about road deaths and were experiencing a 300% increase in their number, we would be looking, by accelerated passage or whatever way we could, to introduce legislation to do something about that. Yet, slowly and imperceptibly, we have allowed the real danger of alcohol in our society to continue, with the deaths that it is causing and the severe mental and physical health effects that it has. Year after year, we walk almost blindfolded, ignoring what has occurred.

I spent over two decades in professional practice and have seen the effects of alcohol on individuals. I have seen the increased risk of suicide and suicidal ideation. I witnessed the Royal College of Psychiatrists informing us that alcohol is our favourite drug. Interestingly, one very senior medical person in Northern Ireland told me today that, if alcohol were to come on the market today, there would be serious concerns about whether it would be issued with a licence.

We are dealing with something that is very serious. It is not hyperbole. We are dealing with something that has taken 474 lives in the last couple of years, in 2013 and 2014, and that has had physical and mental health effects on literally tens of thousands of people. In a way, the legislation that we are dealing with today is real politics and will affect real people. We have to be very judicious in how we take it forward. I do not excuse the pun, but we have to be incredibly sober as we look at all the facts that are brought before us. The minimum bar for me and, I think, for the House should be that, whatever we do, the legislation, almost like the Hippocratic oath, must do no harm. In fact, our legislation should be about the reduction and, indeed, the prevention of that harm.

Personally, having seen the effects in professional practice in the health service, I came at this with the very simple point of view that extension of opening hours and changing arrangements, on the one hand, looks like it will allow for more alcohol-related harm. My gut reaction was that we should not do it. I will be absolutely straight about that. I have seen too much, and my gut reaction was that we should not do it. That was the simple response. Having considered all the evidence, I now realise that it was the wrong one. I believe that the Bill that the Minister is bringing forward will lead to a reduction in alcohol-related harm. It goes further than holding it where it is and tries to reduce it. I will develop the points as I go along in this piece of legislation.

We have to tackle some of the practices of the licensed trade. It is imperative that we regulate the sale and the supply of alcohol in Northern Ireland. Critically — and this is what I love about it — the Bill strengthens the protections for children and young people. It does not take away any of the current protections. All those protections for children and young people are maintained. The Bill then goes further: it strengthens the protections that are available for children and young people. My reason for saying that —

Mrs Long: I thank the Member for giving way on that point. I agree that it is important that we consider how children and young people are introduced to alcohol. Does he agree, though, that many other countries where alcohol is more available to young people under the supervision of their parents have less of an alcohol problem than here, where it is absolutely prohibited for them to be in a place where alcohol is served?

Mr Bell: The Member makes a very interesting point. I have two views on it, which are not necessarily contradictory. I looked at some of the evidence from Belgium. I remember being out on business and noticing in the early hours of the morning that there did not appear to be the same alcohol-related problems that we have here. When I asked some Belgian politicians and community representatives why this was, they made a point similar to the one just made by the honourable Member. They said that children in Belgium grow up with beer in the fridge. Very often, the way we would normally say, "Do you want some tea or coffee?", when we are looking for a mortgage, consulting our solicitor or speaking to our bank manager, in Belgium they will say, "Would you like some tea, coffee or beer?". It is just in that manner. However, they made the point that young people are taught the dangers of alcohol from a very early age. I am very loath to go along fully with what the honourable Member has said, for these reasons: all the medical evidence that I have seen is that a child's body, a child's body going through puberty, a pubescent child or an adolescent — there is really no argument that allows for a safe amount of alcohol for the child, given their physical development. We have to be very careful, because alcohol affects all of us in medical terms at different stages.

Mrs Long: I thank the Member for being so gracious as to give way a second time. To be clear, the point I was making was not that I want children to be able to drink. That is not my point. My point is that children in such places can have a moderating influence on adults' behaviour.

For example, you will very rarely see the kind of behaviour that you often see outside a pub happening at a family wedding because there is the moderating influence of having younger people around throughout that event. People moderate their intake as a result.

(Madam Principal Deputy Speaker [Ms Ruane] in the Chair)


11.00 am

Mr Bell: I apologise for picking the Member up wrongly at first. Yes, I agree with her about that moderating influence. I have to say that it is the first time in six years in the House that I have been accused of being gracious, but I respect that.

Let us move on to address some of the concerns that very legitimately exist in the hospitality industry, some of which the Deputy Chair of the Committee has outlined. I have spoken at reasonable length to representative bodies and to individual retailers and suppliers — whatever the proper term is — in my constituency. I have to say that, when I look at the voluntary regulatory code that Hospitality Ulster has developed — professional men and women of the highest standard in Northern Ireland, who do not take the attitude of, "Let us make the biggest buck and the devil take the hindmost" — I see in it expertise; genuine appreciation of the health issues regarding alcohol, which I will outline further; and genuine commitment to the society that they serve. It ultimately makes sense for the likes of Hospitality Ulster to develop that excellence because it knows that, if we get this legislation right, the hospitality industry can only grow in the long term and the future benefits to society can also grow.

When I look at those different bodies, not just Hospitality Ulster and Colin Neill, but Michael of Cafolla's, Newtownards, and the Old Cross Inn, and listen to what they do with regard to first aid, personal safety, protecting young people and females, ensuring that people have proper transport, I see people who are in the hospitality industry for the long term and who are operating to the highest standards of integrity in the industry. I am very proud to represent them and their commitment.

Mr Agnew: I thank the Member for giving way. He made the point earlier about alcohol-related deaths, and, of course, we should be concerned about them. He has outlined the role of Hospitality Ulster and the code in moderating alcohol consumption in pubs and clubs. Is that not an argument for why we need to ensure that we support the industry to promote responsible drinking and reduce alcohol-related harm from the more harmful practice of drinking cheap supermarket alcohol at home?

Mr Bell: I think that the Minister has outlined already some of the responses to what you said — and said well — about harmful drinking and how patterns have changed over time. That is why the Minister has referred to advertising and where advertisements are placed. That is why what the Minister outlined in allowing children to be part of functions where there is more safety, more protection, and that moderating influence that Mrs Long referred to, is so critical.

However, we must realise that we have sleepwalked into a situation where we are quite happy — actually, not quite happy but almost ambivalent to the facts of hundreds of deaths — 300% more than on our roads — and must do something to contribute to a reduction in alcohol-related harm. That is why it is not an easy thing for the Minister to take forward, given some of the difficulties that I will outline shortly; the alcohol-related problems that the medical, psychiatric and psychology professions will tell of, to do something that has a genuine chance of reducing alcohol-related harm.

That is why it is courageous legislation for the Minister to take forward. I know about the difficulties and the many views on the issue. It is important to take an evidence-based approach, informed by medical knowledge, best retail practice and people's alcohol consumption habits in 2016.

We know that some 73% — just short of three quarters — of our population in Northern Ireland consume alcohol: 76% of men and 70% of women. We are talking about legislation that is directly relevant to three quarters of our population. I appreciated the honesty of people when they informed us of their personal binge-drinking habits. The Good Book is absolutely correct:

"Judge not, that ye be not judged."

I am not going to stand in judgement of anybody, but I appreciate people's honesty. We are told that 31% — basically, one in three — of the three quarters of the population who take alcohol are binge drinking: 35% of males and 24% of females. I will put that binge drinking into perspective: for a man, I am talking about 10 or more units — five pints — and, for a female, seven or more units — four medium glasses of wine.

As somebody with a background in psychology, I say to you, as, I think, nearly any nurse, doctor or mental health social worker will tell you, that most people are not, to put it politely, entirely truthful about their drinking habits. That is for a number of reasons, whether societal or individual pressures. With what we know, we can reasonably assume that to be an underestimation of the difficulties. We know that 31% of the three quarters of the population who drink alcohol are binge drinking to seriously harmful effect. Of those, 11% have an identified severe alcohol problem. That is why I appreciate the Minister's courage in taking the Bill forward. The DUP committed to do it in the run-up to the Northern Ireland Assembly election because we saw the need to change legislation to better society and to make alcohol less harmful to individuals.

We all know the pressures on the National Health Service, and I know the pressures in my Strangford constituency, particularly in accident and emergency departments, due to alcohol-related harm. Those pressures will, if anything, increase. In my constituency, we are preparing for a new town the size of Ballynahinch every 25 years because of the success of our health service in combating mortality. However, we also know that, with that increased population, we will have to deal with more problems with morbidity, and we have to do something to try to alleviate the pressure on the health service.

If the Minister, in bringing forward a Bill, were to say, "I can bring forward something that can lead to a 12,010-person reduction in admissions to acute hospitals", I think that we would be cheering on every side of the House. We have to acknowledge the reality that, in a certain period, 12,010 people in our society can be admitted to hospital with an alcohol-related problem. It is impossible to quantify the cost of that in human terms, in mental health and physical health terms, in damage to families and society, in breakdown in families and in domestic violence, which are all issues connected to alcohol-related harm. A useful guide is that alcohol excess is costing Northern Ireland in the region of £900 million every year.

To people who are looking for simplistic solutions that seem to suggest that we should just reduce the hospitality industry, I say to them that not to change anything out of fear that you will be accused, and that by not changing something you will have increased the problem, is wrong. It would be disingenuous of a Minister not to bring forward a Bill when all the evidence coming before him is that, with the changed drinking habits of 2016, there are proposals that have been examined, have had the expertise fed into them and have the potential to contribute to a reduction in alcohol-related harm. Those proposals have the potential to reduce the 238 deaths a year that I can find from 2014, reduce the 12,000 admissions to our acute hospitals due to alcohol-related harm and save some of the £900 million that we are spending in Northern Ireland and that we could use for a better purpose.

As we go through the Bill — I know Members will have gone through the 27 clauses and are probably delighted that I am not going to take them all individually — I ask everybody not to take a knee-jerk reaction to what is being proposed and to look at the bigger picture. There will be a review of some of the clauses in 12 months; so no one is saying that this is a blanket issue. This legislation will be reviewed and, if we find that it is not doing what we believe it should do, which is to reduce alcohol-related harm in Northern Ireland, we will have the opportunity to change it.

Members, if we are in a position where we have the opportunity to change legislation for the betterment of an individual, family, children, our health service or to reduce the costs and the mortality rate associated with alcohol-related harm, we need to have the courage to go ahead and do so regardless of some ill-informed criticism that may come about. There will be a trial period for allowing longer drinking-up time. We all know that alcohol affects your judgement and will lead you to take greater risks. Take someone whose judgement is affected — I am not standing in judgement, I am just talking reality — who hears the call for last orders, we know from practice that they will purchase a stockpile of alcohol. People are buying excess alcohol that, if they had the time, they would not possibly drink. If they had a space in which to wait for their taxi to get them home safely, they would not stockpile.

The hospitality industry has been very clear that it is concerned about stockpiling, not because it can make more money out of that but because it knows that, in the long term, the danger of alcohol-related harm in Northern Ireland is quite literally unsustainable. We cannot go on with the situation we are in. So, allowing that 30 minutes to 60 minutes trial period will give people a clear indication that there is no need to stockpile and that they should not be stockpiling at a time, largely late in the evening or in the early hours of the morning, in which their judgement is impaired and they cannot make a proper decision for their own health — physical and mental — as to how much alcohol they need. They are responding to the fact that someone has put a time frame on them. They do not need to stockpile and drink that amount of alcohol in such a short period of time. This is a reasonable and proportionate response that has, as its background, the need to ensure the security, safety and long-term interests of the individual.

I have two teenagers, and, let us face it, we live in an alcohol-saturated society. In preparation for the debate, I had an evening of watching television and saw the number of times that alcohol was advertised or appeared in dramas, soap operas and films. All of us watching it would almost perceive that this is the norm.

Yes, it is alcohol-related harm, but it is the norm, so do not do anything about it; let people continue to die; let society continue to suffer; let the National Health Service deal with it. This is the norm, everybody does it, therefore we do it as well.


11.15 am

That is where we need to really stress to young people the damage that alcohol does to the pubescent body and to inform them, in advance, of the danger to them and the potential harm to their physical and mental health. Then we should do what the Minister said: put strict regulations in place to ensure that those young people can have access to the music and access to the school formal — I have two teenagers, so I know the importance of the school formal. I am a governor, and I know that it is a very good and healthy development of young people as they progress to whatever they are going to do at the next stage of their life. But, allowing it to happen in an alcohol-free and safe environment is the right thing to do. It says to young people, "Yes, you can have a good time, but you do not need the danger of alcohol and the harm that it can do to you".

What the Minister and the Bill have cleverly done is put a prohibition on alcohol from self-service and vending machines. That way, we have some form of regulation; we can have some form of control; and we can have responsible people — in many cases, people trained in basic first aid — in charge of the sale of alcohol, and they can ask for ID. Minister, over the next number of decades, the prohibition on the sale of alcohol from self-service and vending machines will, critically, be very beneficial to young people, because it will allow control, it will allow proper care and, most importantly of all, it will allow proper responsibility. If our professionals are properly trained — there are people who are more expert in this, but I have spoken to dozens of people in the hospitality industry, and not one of them is not prepared to refuse alcohol to a young person if it is illegal and that young person does not make the grade. So not allowing young people to self-serve or use a vending machine for alcohol and maintaining that prohibition is a particular piece of excellence in the Bill.

The responsibilities under the code that I mentioned earlier were developed by Hospitality Ulster itself. Let us scotch any idea — that is probably the wrong pun, again — of the hospitality industry being interested only in profit. Hospitality Ulster, the hotels federation and many others that I have spoken to about this Bill are very clear: they are looking for a long-term, viable future for their industry that is sustainable and healthy. The Deputy Chair outlined very well the importance to the tourism and hospitality industries of local hospitality and the local product. The people running those local industries are often families and generations of families, and they too know the long-term interest for their business is responsibility and a contributing to a reduction in alcohol-related harm, while, at the same time, ensuring that the people who come to Northern Ireland can enjoy our hospitality and the excellent food and drink offering that is available.

Hospitality Ulster developed that responsible retail code and their members voluntarily signed up to it, and when I talk to them, I find that what they really want the Bill to do — and I raised this in Committee — is give it teeth. Skinner's theory of classical conditioning states that you should always reward good behaviour. Here is an industry that has behaved intelligently, that has developed the code, that has self-disciplined itself to that code and is now looking to all of us to give that Hospitality Ulster code real teeth. I believe that the Bill will allow for real teeth to be given where we have an approval and a code of practice that has legal consequences, that looks at promotion, the retailing and the serving of alcohol.

People have raised the issue of Easter with me. Easter has a special significance to Northern Ireland. I believe that it is the highlight of any particular year when I remember the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. I know that there are people of different faiths and no faith who do not share my views, but I have found that, when I talk to them about the importance of Easter to Northern Ireland, I do not get dismissed; I do not get the cavalier attitude of, "Well, you think that. You might believe that, but we don't, so let's get on with it". When I have spoken to people about how we address the issue of Easter — we will allow the normal procedures that apply throughout the rest of the year to apply for the Thursday in the Bill — I hear respect. To all the people out there who do not share my beliefs — I hope that, one day, they will believe in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and its significance — I say that I deeply appreciate the respect that they have shown for my faith and the significance of Easter to a huge number of people in Northern Ireland. I appreciate their tolerance and the sensitivity with which they have approached that. That is why the protection of Easter and its maintenance in the Bill is particularly critical.

I mentioned earlier that, for children, all certificates remain in place. We are not reducing anything for children or young people; we are maintaining everything and enhancing protection in the Bill. I value the fact that the liquor and entertainment licences will run concurrently. I understand that that will help the Police Service to deal with and uphold compliance with the law.

I want to say a special word of thanks to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Hopefully, towards the end, I will thank the Ambulance Service, the paramedics, the nurses, the A&E staff and the hospital staff. I remember watching how the police police what is a very difficult issue. I remember, on a historic night in Northern Ireland, walking from Belfast city centre up to Windsor Park. Northern Ireland were playing Greece. We all know about the brilliance of that night. I am not sure whether we all fully appreciated, at about 5.00 pm that evening, that it was going to be as good as it was. I had the opportunity to watch police policing thousands of people, sometimes only two or three at a time in different spots of the city centre, all the way out to Windsor Park and back again. I saw policing in Northern Ireland at its best. I saw person-centred policing. I saw police helping people who had taken too much to drink. I saw police making sure that people received the proper level of first aid. In the throng of thousands of people and all the celebrations, including disabled people and people who were on crutches and different things, I watched police providing the highest level of service. I did not see any difficulties, but that was not a surprise; I am sure that Brother Humphrey will remind me that the Northern Ireland fans received the best fans in Europe award and have subsequently been re-awarded what they obtained more recently after the Euros.

I watched the police apply, uphold and protect the licensing laws with the utmost sensitivity in very difficult circumstances, with tens of thousands of people — I am not exaggerating — on the streets and going to the match or watching it in bars, clubs and different things. I watched them do it with sheer professionalism. That is why I like the fact that we are responding to what the police are saying; we are going to bring the liquor and entertainment licences together to assist the brilliant men and women in the police with upholding the licensing law in a professional and very person-centred way.

I think that the Minister is correct to not just go to a blanket ban for 2.00 am. I understand that he will be criticised on all sides. Some of us who were Ministers know that it can be a very difficult and lonely place to be when you seek to do what is right. My apologies to John Bew if I have this quote wrong from his brilliant book on Lord Castlereagh, but he referred to Viscount Wellington as saying that you have to do what is right for people, sometimes more than what people want you to do.

I believe that, in the Bill, the Minister has got it absolutely right. There will be a demand for a blanket extension to 2.00 am, and I understand where that is coming from. However, the Minister is right: he has a responsibility not just to the industry but to society in Northern Ireland to take a judicious approach. The allowance of up to one hour extra on 12 days, with protections for Easter, Christmas and everything else built in, is proportionate. It is a reasonable demand, and it contributes to the overall balance of reducing alcohol-related harm in Northern Ireland and not extending it. I hope that he gets support from every section of the House for the Bill and what it seeks to do as a measured approach with the aim of reducing alcohol-related harm in Northern Ireland.

Let me turn to a very insidious, disgusting industry that has developed in Northern Ireland and to which Mrs Mallon and others referred in Committee: taxi drivers supplying alcohol to minors who know that, because of the professionalism of the industry, off-licences will not supply alcohol to young people. There are those who, for a quick buck, are prepared to buy alcohol for young people. They often sell it on to them at an increased profit and provide them with alcohol that will seriously damage their developing bodies and affect their physical and mental health.

Mr F McCann: Will the Member give way?

Mr Bell: Sure.

Mr F McCann: When you make a statement like that, you have to quantify it. The vast majority of taxi drivers are good, decent people who are out to make a living and do not take part in the practice that you are talking about.

Mr Bell: I am happy to underline everything that you have said. My constituency is exactly the same as yours, and the vast majority of taxi drivers are responsible. However, when you, Nichola and I looked at it in Committee, we realised that there were some who are not. They are the minority, as the Member was right to correct me. I did not mean it to come out like that, and, if that is the way that it came out, I stand corrected. That minority — not just taxi drivers but people using their personal vehicles — supply alcohol. The Minister has sought to deal accurately with a problem identified in 2016. The requirement in the Bill is that we will check that the reception of alcohol from taxi drivers and others who deliver it cannot be by a minor. That logbook will send out a clear warning that, as the honourable Member Mr McCann said, we will stand with all responsible taxi drivers and everybody else who refuses to engage in this abusive behaviour. We will require the logbook to be held because we want to ensure that we stamp on this practice that is going on.

I have talked to police in my constituency, and there are concerns about public venues such as public parks. We have tried to tackle it as best we can, but, in dealing with community safety, we know that young people are gathering, taking serious levels of alcohol and ending up in our A&E wards. It appears from anecdotal and other evidence that the alcohol has been provided to them by adults. Sometimes, that alcohol has come out of the boot of a personal vehicle or whatever vehicle it is. It is given to young people illegally, and the people practising that trade know that they are doing it illegally. We are on to them, and we serve warning to them that we will check those logbooks to ensure that there is a proper log of any alcohol being transported and that no minor can receive it. That is responsible.


11.30 am

I turn to the issue of advertising. It must be reasonable and proportionate. We know that, at times, alcohol can appear cheaper than some of the more expensive bottled waters. What message are we sending out in our advertising? We referred to children earlier: when they go to a supermarket with their family, they are hit first with an offer, perhaps a loss-leading offer, to get people in, on the balance that they take a loss on the alcohol but will make the profit up on the food and everything else that is retailed. We do not let children walk through the alcohol aisles, and we do that for very good reasons. We are not going to create a society where we tell children, "This is the norm; this is OK. Walk through the aisles, and it's just like picking up a Coca-Cola or a bottle of water". It is not. We are dealing with a very serious drug. If we are not prepared to let children walk through the alcohol aisles, we should follow the logic of that and not allow them to see the advertisements in other parts of the supermarkets and other places that take away from the message that this is a serious matter and should only be dealt with by reasonable and responsible adults. The regulation by the Bill of where advertising can be placed — it has to be kept within the alcohol areas, in boundaries and other areas — is there to protect young people and make them aware and take away from them the power of advertising a serious drug that they know will harm their physical health.

I support the regulation of clubs, too. I know from my constituency and across Belfast that the responsibilities are taken seriously by the people who run the clubs. It is right, when we do promotions and things, that we make it clear that it is for the members of the club. It is also reasonable, as the law currently allows, that, where there is a charitable or benevolent purpose, people can be allowed in for that reason. That is a measure of responsibility and reasonableness, but in the other terms — where it is for the club — it is for club members only.

I have seen sports clubs do a tremendous job for Northern Ireland. My children participated in many of them, and I watched for years as my son went through from primary school to captain Ards Rangers — better skills in football than his dad. I watched those sports clubs teach young people personal responsibility. Ards Rangers can have up to 300 young people two nights a week and in matches on a Saturday morning and afternoon, but I watched them help young people with their personal development. Those of us psychologists who believe in the link between physical fitness and mental fitness watched them develop in all aspects of their educational career. It is right that we look at those summer months and allow the young people on one occasion in a calendar year to be part of their sporting club, with all the protections that are there. That is saying to people that we are not taking a blanket unreasonable approach; we will enhance the protection for young people, but we will allow them the full range of benefits of their sports clubs. If we were to put a value on that, it would be worth millions of pounds to Northern Ireland, with all the volunteers in those clubs. We are recognising the value of sports clubs, enhancing protection for children and allowing them, on one occasion, to participate within their club.

Let me go back to why we need the Bill. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, alcohol is our favourite drug. Let us be very clear on that.

Alcohol is our favourite drug. That is not my observation nor the observation of research; rather, it is the observation in a detailed report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists. I encourage people to read the report, 'Alcohol: Our Favourite Drug', which is available on the Internet. We need to wake up to the fact that, while we live in an alcohol-saturated society, alcohol does more harm than illegal drugs. When I talk to teachers and youth workers — I am involved in some voluntary youth work myself — I find that there does not seem to be the level of understanding that, factually, alcohol is more harmful than illegal drugs. Alcohol is more harmful than cannabis; it has done more harm in Northern Ireland than heroin. That puts what we are dealing with into perspective.

As I conclude, I want to look at how alcohol affects our judgement. People in Northern Ireland take risks when they have abused alcohol; they enter into arguments that they would not normally enter into; and families experience financial trouble as a result of excess and abuse. Sadly, there are family incidents, violence, harm, verbal abuse, domestic violence; there are, in cases, sexual abuse, irresponsible sexual behaviour, and an increase in accidents on roads, at home, in water or on sports playing fields. All those tell us that the Bill is absolutely necessary.

I go beyond the mere severe hangover that people talk about as being the punishment that they experience for alcohol. I look to the medical evidence that says that you will have not only a severe hangover but, likely, gastritis, stomach pains and vomiting, and that you can go into unconsciousness. We in Northern Ireland know that you can experience death. That is before we deal with liver disease and the increased risk that alcohol poses to both you and any future career that you may have. I conclude with the mental health problems and the proven links to depression, suicidal ideation and, sadly, suicide itself, as well as memory loss, brain damage, and hearing noises and voices that are not there.

I say to all Members that, when I approached the issue, I took the position, "Let's not do anything. It's bad enough as it is. Let's be careful". However, on examination of the Bill and its real potential to reduce alcohol-related harm in Northern Ireland, to protect Easter, to allow young people to have not only all the protections they currently experience but enhanced protections, and given the 236-plus deaths in Northern Ireland, I believe that the Bill's time has come and that it should have the support of everyone in the House.

Mr Allen: I am pleased to speak on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party on the Second Stage of the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill 2016 and to indicate our support for the Bill's progress to Committee Stage. I will state clearly, however, that the Bill, as presented, does not go far enough and needs to be amended. I believe that the purpose of the Bill should be crystal clear: the modernisation of Northern Ireland's liquor licensing laws. Modern licensing laws intelligently implemented could actually help to alleviate problems as well as help to revive the nighttime economy in our provincial towns and villages.

This is the first Bill of this mandate and the first that the new Committee for Communities has been tasked with scrutinising. As a relatively new MLA, I have, in recent weeks, researched the licensing laws in Northern Ireland and the background to the new Bill. There have been over 12 years of false starts, false promises, delays and disappointments. As the Minister outlined, the Bill, as presented, contains some useful improvements to the law; however, there are gaps. No mention is made of microbrewery licensing, dog tracks on a Sunday, or the minimum pricing of alcohol.

I recognise that some progress has been made in Northern Ireland, albeit at a slow pace. In 2007, former Minister Margaret Ritchie piloted a Bill that ended up as the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2011.
It was a short Bill that covered areas such as the closure of licensed premises and clubs; penalty points; proof of age; irresponsible drinks promotions; pricing; and authorisations for special occasions. It was, however, to be the first stage in a process. The second stage — further legislation — was never progressed under Ministers from 2011. What we had under former Minister McCausland was another consultation process in 2011, which eventually led to a press statement, made during the summer recess of 2014, promising new legislation, but none emerged before the end of the previous mandate.

According to Hospitality Ulster, this version of the Bill is less impactful than the draft Bill written a number of years ago and does not reflect recent changes in consumer and industry trends. One change that I will briefly highlight is the growth of microbreweries developing local, home-grown craft beers and ciders. At present, local companies are being massively restricted by our licensing laws, and there is nothing in the Bill to give them any help whatsoever. They cannot sell their wares on their premises or avail themselves of the opportunity to sell their produce at farmers' markets or shows. Surely now is the time to introduce a new category of licence so that small breweries can apply for permission to sell at source —

Mr Stalford: Will the Member take a point?

Mr Allen: I will finish these points and then let you in. The Bill should also contain options for them to apply for occasional extensions to sell at local events.

Mr Stalford: Thank you, Mr Allen, for giving way. In conversation at the Committee for Communities, there has been agreement across parties on the need to address the issue of microbreweries. Had the Minister sought in legislation at this juncture to address it, it would have entailed an entirely new consultation process. There is nothing to prevent the Committee from bringing forward an amendment and dealing with the issue in that way. As I said, I do not think that there is any disagreement over the issue and the need to address it.

Mr Allen: I thank the Member for his intervention. I will come to that. I recognise that there is broad support for microbreweries on the Committee, and that is why I raise the matter here in the House.

Given that the BBC Good Food Show is happening at the Belfast Waterfront in a few weeks, it is an issue that should have been dealt with long ago. Microbreweries' licensing is something on which, I hope, the Committee can come to a consensus with future amendments, as is the whole issue of Easter opening and wider opening hours for licensed premises. The Committee can get its teeth into the detail, but, suffice it to say, we really need to look seriously at the issue and take the opportunity to make the law fit for purpose.

Many in the Assembly will say that alcohol is a social evil and that an unacceptable burden is placed on the NHS. I absolutely agree that there are many problems associated with alcohol abuse. However, those who say that the answer is to enforce highly restrictive practices on the hospitality industry are getting it completely wrong. As Hospitality Ulster has pointed out, the problem of alcohol abuse cannot be laid solely at the doors of licensed premises. The Department of Health's 2013 survey, which was mentioned, showed that 65% of alcohol consumption happened at home, with only 20% in pubs and 17% in restaurants. I firmly believe that we need to support our hospitality industry. Surely we should all be trying to help the sector and the tourist trade.

In closing, I commend the Minister for bringing forward this proactive Bill, and I look forward to working with my colleagues in Committee to improve it.

Ms Hanna: I will try to be brief, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. I know that a lot of Members are down to speak, and I do not want you to have to call last orders on me. Nichola Mallon will outline our thinking more fully shortly.

The SDLP supports the Bill, because our licensing laws are in dire need of reform. We hope, however, that it will go further by amendment. I commend the Minister for being out of the traps this early in the mandate. It was frustrating for many people that, on this issue, as on several others, we ran out of time before the election. It is good to see some movement.

Updating the licensing laws will have a very positive effect on the hospitality sector, which is vital to our wider tourism and economic pitch. Hopefully, it will also be a small factor in encouraging our own brightest and best young people to stay here, because people are frustrated that they do not feel that they can use their leisure time as they want to, and would elsewhere.


11.45 am

We agree very much that many people in this society have a very unhealthy and destructive relationship with alcohol. We believe that this reform can assist with the regulation and control of alcohol to that end and, hopefully, reduce some of the antisocial behaviour associated with binge drinking. We support that as a stated aim of the Bill but we will say that it is absolutely not just down to the licensed premises. It is easy to see that longer drinking hours do not necessarily result in more antisocial behaviour. If you want a case study, you can go and look at almost all of mainland Europe, which has much more liberal licensing laws than we have but does not seem to have the same level of antisocial behaviour — unless people from these islands are over visiting.

While it held the Social Development Ministry, the SDLP initiated a consultation with a view to reforming licensing and achieved some liberalisation of the licensing of clubs. I note that the Department carried out a public consultation in 2012 and received over 2,500 responses which, I imagine, even though it was four years ago, was reflective of the urgency required by the sector as well as the frustration of many members of the public.

As other Members have outlined very thoroughly, it is estimated that approximately one fifth of alcohol consumption is in pubs, with 80% of it taking place in the private homes of individuals or in somebody else's home. As such, it is unfair to place almost the entire regulatory burden on venues that account for 20% of consumption, as well as the fact that pubs can be considerably more controlled environments. In a former life, I was a personal licence holder in Lambeth. In England, the licence is attached to the individual and not the pub, and I had to go through a lot of training and licensing exams to be a designated person. There are a lot of burdens on licence holders here and most licence holders and pubs take those very seriously in terms of selling to underage people and intoxicated people. The conditions of the licence are strict and stringent and a lot of that regulation is available in pubs while it is certainly not available in private homes. It is the "below the radar" drinking that we need to —

Mr Butler: I thank the Member for giving way. In July, I asked the Health Minister about underage drinking and hospital admissions and treatments. Sadly, the answer was that there were no statistics for underage drinking. I agree with the Member about the burden of responsibility being borne not just by proprietors but by Departments. Does she agree that there needs to be a closer working relationship between the Health and Communities Departments to look at this issue in particular because we are not collecting statistics to address the problem properly?

Ms Hanna: I do agree, and I think that it is worrying that we do not have that information. Unfortunately, underage alcohol consumption is visible to any of us when we are out, and I am sure that, as elected representatives, we hear about the negative effects of that and try to mitigate it. It is worrying if we do not have a statistical basis to help us tackle that. Actually, it is about the societal relationship with alcohol and, in fact, we can use licensing control and licensed premises to demonstrate how alcohol can be consumed responsibly.

The Minister and others have outlined the provisions of the Bill regarding Easter. It will permit normal opening on the Thursday before Good Friday. We support that, but we support it being enhanced and extended. For many of us, Easter is a time for family, for reflection and for religion, but we cannot tell everybody that they have to sit in their homes and reflect all weekend. It is a bank holiday weekend and many people will find it literally ridiculous that they cannot have a glass of wine with their lunch on a bank holiday Friday. I believe that Hospitality Ulster quantifies the loss to the sector at about £16 million. It is an important tourism weekend as well. People might go home and say that they had a good night out but had to go home at 11.00 pm, which will not encourage them to come back on another weekend. Concerns have been expressed in the media discussions about staff not being able to have that weekend off. Yes, it is nice that there is shutdown time for everybody, but I am very comfortable that this can be accommodated by individual businesses and within the framework of existing labour law.

The changes to additional hours are reasonable, but we understand that many licence holders will want a dependable, year-round licensing framework that will assist them with their staff planning and with marketing and so on. Drinking-up time is the key to reducing the antisocial behaviour that we see on our streets in the wee small hours. As the Member outlined, it will discourage people from stockpiling and buying double rounds and so on just before last orders. Crucially, it will stagger — pardon the pun — reduce and spread out the number of people on the streets at closing time seeking taxis, fast food or whatever, some of which frequently leads to antisocial behaviour.

Children's attendance at functions and the related provisions will be explored by colleagues later. This issue has also been well aired recently in the media, and it is very appropriate that we regularise the ways in which premises that sell alcohol can be used, because they do not just sell alcohol. In many cases, they do have a wider social function.

Mr McGlone: I thank the Member for giving way. At least two premises in my constituency have been hit with this balk in the legislation, which actually creates more of a problem. I heard Mr Bell referring to taxis delivering drink. Where you have young people in a controlled, monitored and supervised environment, I feel that that is much better than them roaming the streets with drink, as they do on many occasions, that may have been bought by other adults for them.

Ms Hanna: I agree with that. As I said, it is an opportunity to show younger people how alcohol can be consumed. There are many more protections that we can give young people than when they are getting together in a bandstand in a park, or wherever.

Additional issues that we hope can be incorporated by amendment have been mentioned by others. One is provision for microbreweries. Craft brewing is a growing industry here, and it very much promotes quality over quantity. It is not about firing a whole load of alcohol into you. The legislation in this area needs to be amended to allow breweries to sell the product on their premises or at trade shows. These beers do not have the big networks that others have. If people like them, they cannot say that they will go down to Tesco and buy a whole load of it. The major BBC Good Food Show, which is coming to Belfast next month, cannot operate here the way that it will elsewhere, where people can sample alcohol-related products and buy them to take away. This was flagged up by the industry in January or February, and the show takes place next month, in October. The Executive did not have time to respond. That is an issue where a wee royal prerogative would have come in handy, and I think that people will be frustrated that it is only used to help the Executive and not to help the wider sector.

Also, I remember that we had a blip in 2011, when Belfast City Council put on and supported the MTV music awards. That was supposed to be about a big pitch to event organisers that Belfast and Northern Ireland are suitable venues for big events, but, as it was on a Sunday, it was lights out and bedtime at midnight. There was no flexibility and no ability for the council to respond to that. It was supposed to be a big sales pitch to a lot of those —

Mr Stalford: Will the Member give way?

Ms Hanna: I am happy to give way.

Mr Stalford: The Member will be aware that, in mainland GB, many places have 24-hour opening hours. I assume that the Member does not want South Belfast, the constituency that we both represent, to become like Blackpool at the weekend.

Ms Hanna: You assume correctly, and the Member has in no way called for that. I think that that is the point. It is not about absolute liberalisation with 24-hour opening or what we have now. There are very many positions between the antiquated licensing laws that we have and one that is fit for purpose. In fact, there are various bodies of evidence on how that has and has not worked out. I have said that I think people do have a poor relationship with alcohol here, and, as I said, when you are on the Continent, you see that the natives are enjoying a quiet beer at 1.00 am while it is the British and Irish people who are going hell for leather and causing all the trouble. I do not think that it is just the licensing hours; there are other things. We have not at any point called for 24-hour licensing.

Mr Humphrey: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. She has twice made that point, but I ask her to desist from labelling everyone with that sort of behaviour when they are on the Continent. The Member will know that the Northern Ireland supporters and the Republic of Ireland supporters both received awards. They may have consumed some alcohol, and I was there at one of the games and saw it being consumed, and I may have consumed some myself. They did not behave in the way that the Member has just outlined to the House.

Ms Hanna: I am happy to respond to that. I do not think that anybody here will judge you for having a drink on your holidays. This reinforces my point. It is not the licensing laws that are the issue. In the places where they were celebrating, alcohol was available. It does not have to mean that everybody is going to lose the run of themselves. That is why there is a problem in having a regulatory framework that implies that, if we open the pubs a little later, we will all lose our minds. That is where we can get the balance correct.

In summary, this is both an economic and a social issue. The hospitality sector provides 60,000 jobs and over £1 billion to our economy. As well as the fact that it is time for our laws to come into the 21st century and reflect how people consume alcohol, this is the Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink. Discover NI has a big flagship promotion to support our growers, our brewers, our cooks and so on, but we are in ways holding back this sector.

Of course we need a robust regulatory framework, but we cannot put all the burden on the licensed premises that are so important to our economy.

It is also a societal issue. As I said, we have societal problems with alcohol, which puts enormous pressure on our health service and other public services, and nobody is denying that, but we are here to develop evidence-based policy. There is no evidence that those problems are all coming from the licensed sector; it simply is not there. The Member has shown that pubs opening later does not mean that people will act in negative ways. So, it is right that we use the evidence and make the Bill, now that it has come forward, as strong and as useful as possible.

Mrs Long: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill. The Bill is a long overdue step in trying to benefit our tourism and hospitality industry in Northern Ireland, so I welcome the fact that the Minister has brought it before the Chamber.

We recognise that alcohol is a controlled substance with the potential, when it is abused, to cause significant damage to the health of the individual and to cause public nuisance or disorder. Therefore, we are not seeking, and nor is the industry, complete deregulation. However, it is recognised that the majority of alcohol is consumed at home. Up to 70% of the alcohol that is drunk in society is consumed at home, where there are no limitations on what people can drink, no safe measures, no one to intervene and say that someone has had enough and no going home time because people are already there. So, the issue around public health is more to do with trying to get people to have a responsible attitude towards alcohol, rather than simply constraining those who are already drinking responsibly in the hospitality sector and in bars and clubs.

People purchasing cheap alcohol and drinking it at home, because they are staying at home or before going out, is a much bigger challenge than what people are consuming in pubs and clubs. Many of the difficulties that we see in society, which have been reflected by Members who have spoken, are not the result of people drinking in bars and clubs in licensed premises; they are the result of people drinking off-sales either in a place where they should not be or at home with no supervision or control. We need to take that into account.

I welcome the restrictions that the Minister has discussed with regard to advertising in supermarkets, because impulse purchases are a challenge in terms of the health demands that we are looking at. There is a wider issue here, both in advertising and in how we integrate children into more adult environments. We need to better educate our young people to move away from a binge-drinking culture towards responsible drinking. The best way to do that is to demystify alcohol instead of making it something that people are rushing to get because it is forbidden and making it a big deal for people to get their hands on it. There is nothing like telling young people, through the power of negative persuasion, that something is not allowed to encourage them to do it.

So, the more we integrate young people into environments where people are drinking responsibly and sensibly — their presence will moderate behaviour — the more healthy our attitude to drinking will be. That is reflected when you go to the Continent and see young people sitting in bars with their parents and families. That curtails the tendency for adults to overindulge in alcohol, but it also demystifies what happens in a bar or a pub or club and what alcohol is about. Young people on the Continent — in countries where that is the norm — are much less likely to resort to binge drinking than young people here.

There is a genuine issue with how we get the balance right in aiming for responsible drinking and better educating young people. The difficulty is that we risk punishing the licensed trade for problems that are not of its making and are connected to what other people are doing, such as the rogue taxi driver who takes the drink to young people in the park. We should not be looking at those issues as part of this, because licensed traders are not the main problem.

The licensed trade and hospitality industry have a vested interest in trying to ensure that people drink responsibility, because to do otherwise could risk their licence and livelihood. Far from trying to put overly weighty restrictions on licensed premises, we should be ensuring that, when we have those restrictions in place, they are sensible and properly enforced. That is the best way to ensure that those who have licences are responsible in how they deal with alcohol and encourage their patrons to do likewise.


12.00 noon

For the last number of years, the Alliance Party has called for licensing reform in Northern Ireland. That was demonstrated just last year when my colleague Judith Cochrane made small but significant amendments to alcohol licensing for the three national stadia in Northern Ireland. Just as that private Member's Bill was a common-sense approach to licensing that removed the lack of certainty that had accompanied applying for occasional licences, today's Bill represents an opportunity not only to modernise our licensing laws but, hopefully, to simplify them significantly in a way that will restore the faith of licence holders, brewers and the general public in the Assembly's ability to respond to their needs.

I do not want to list all the changes that the Bill will bring. The most pertinent are the modest increases in opening hours, particularly over the Easter weekend; a modest relaxation of licensing rules; a modest increase in opening and drinking-up hours, which is welcome; and restrictions on the advertising of intoxicating liquor in certain licensed premises. All are things that, in general, we can support. We believe, however, that the Bill could go much further in the reform of our licensing laws and, in particular, to address emerging areas of growth in the sector. As it stands, it is a foundation to make a significant stride forward in supporting the tourism and entertainment industry. I hope that the Minister and his team will be open to any amendments that may come from the Chamber or the Committee to try to improve the Bill as it goes through its scrutiny stages. The hospitality industry is worth £1·1 billion to the Northern Ireland economy, and 60,000 jobs are reliant on it, so it is important that we respond to the needs of that industry, particularly given the constructive way that it has engaged and the responsible way that it has addressed what it wants to achieve.

I will mention a number of things that could be done. We have a number of licensing challenges. The Easter weekend is always the one that people focus on. They do so for the obvious reason that, from a tourism and hospitality point of view, it is almost the exception, in that it is a four-day bank holiday weekend and, therefore, quite important. A modest change has been made to the drinking time on the Thursday prior to Easter. However, the Bill has failed to simplify the opening hours over that bank holiday weekend or introduce any increases that would make a significant difference to the perception of tourists who come here for that period.

I recognise, as other Members do, the importance of Easter as a Christian festival, and it is important that that is respected. However, if people do not wish to avail themselves of licensed premises over that weekend, they are, of course, free not to do so. This restriction tends to lead to people drinking at home over the Easter weekend, which is precisely the behaviour that is problematic to health. People who want to drink will drink anyway, but they will do it at home in less controlled circumstances, and people who do not want to drink will not have to. For me, it is about trying to get a balance. It would be possible to extend and regularise the hours in a way that makes it simpler and less costly for the industry, as well as easier for people to understand.

That is one of the other things that I want to raise. In general, we need to simplify licensing so that those who run licensed premises, the police and councils who have to enforce licences, and the public are clear about the licensing hours. People should know when they can and cannot drink and what their drinking-up time is. At the minute, it is a bit of a hotchpotch, with a series of entertainment licences, late licences and so on. That is much more difficult from an enforcement perspective. It is also much more difficult for the public to respect the licensing laws if they are not really sure what the rules are when they set out for the evening. Work can be done on that, and I hope that the Minister will be open to listening to the case that others and I will put to him over the coming weeks and months.

There is also an issue with supermarkets purchasing the licences of former licensed premises solely to use the licensing certificate of owners. That can lead to a switch from people having a local pub in a small village in a rural neighbourhood to that licence being transferred to a large supermarket that is only interested in off-sales. There is a contentious issue about the fact that no additional licences are created in Northern Ireland. Changing that has implications for licence holders because it devalues their licence itself, but not changing it is a constraint on expansion of the industry and the growth of new business, particularly in areas where that business might thrive. You can have licences essentially being bought from rural areas where pubs are struggling and transferred to more urban areas where the businesses are sustainable, but that can have a knock-on effect on local communities. The release of a small number of new licences each year is one solution that should be considered and at least investigated as the Bill goes through.

There is also an opportunity to shift some of the powers of the courts to local authorities as part of the Bill, in order to streamline processes for licensing and to save considerable amounts of money when it comes to how licences are handled. Councils generally are effective and efficient in their licensing processes, and it may well be that they can handle some of the more routine matters that currently require a publican to go in front of a magistrate. That should be considered as a way of trying to streamline the process.

The issue of microbreweries and craft distillers in Northern Ireland has been referred to. It is a rapidly expanding sector and, given Northern Ireland's reputation for outstanding food and drink, one that we have the potential to grow much more rapidly in the future. It deserves support. As others have mentioned, there are reasons why it has not been included in the Bill. Four years ago, this was much less of an issue. It is worth noting that the only distiller that can currently allow you to taste and then purchase on site is Bushmills. It is the only one that has a licence to allow that. To do so, it must have a full off-sales licence. There is an opportunity to create a class of licence that would allow people to sample the wares of craft brewers and craft distillers and then to purchase. For example, when people go abroad and visit places like Napa Valley or Hunter Valley, they taste the wine, visit the vineyards and buy a bottle of wine. It is what people do. They purchase the local produce and bring it home as a gift for family and friends. We want people, when they come to Northern Ireland, to purchase things that are uniquely about us and that benefit our local economy. One opportunity to do that is for them to visit one of the craft distillers, particularly the gin distilleries that have grown up over recent years, but also the craft breweries. I have three in my constituency: Boundary, Knockout and — I have gone blank. I have spoken to them of late, particularly about this element. For many people who come to Northern Ireland on a short break or even on a business trip, being able to take something home that is uniquely about the place that they have visited is much more meaningful than taking some kind of other souvenirs home. There is a real opportunity for us to support local business and entrepreneurial activity and to encourage people to sell their wares.

There is also a need to look at the issue of artisan fairs. People have talked, for example, about the food and drink events, but there are also craft fairs, artisan fairs and so on. People could sell their wares at those but, currently, under the law, cannot. That needs to change. We are not talking here about the kind of go-to alcohol purchases that are problematic for society. If people want to drink to excess, they do not buy craft beer and craft gin to do it. We need to be aware that this is potentially a growth industry. It is counterintuitive not to create that opportunity, so it would be useful to specifically have a licence class that would allow people to do that.

The other issue raised was the one affecting Drumbo racecourse, which has been caught between two pieces of reform. Initially, there was no need for it to have a licence on a Sunday because you could not gamble on a Sunday. Now, you can gamble on a Sunday and have a meal on a Sunday, but you cannot have a glass of wine with your meal because there is no licence for it. It is a very small change, but it would make a significant difference to the business, and we should consider it. It seems counterintuitive to constrain a business that could otherwise grow by preventing that from happening.

On that basis and on behalf of the party, I support the Bill and look forward to assisting it on its way through Committee. I hope that the Minister is open to considering the things raised in the Chamber by members of the Committee and will give thought to them. Given how long this legislation has been in gestation, it is important that, when we pass it, it is something for the future and not something that is dated before it is even enacted. It is important that we are at the very front of what we want to do and that we do something that modernises and simplifies a business that is of huge importance to the Northern Ireland economy.

Mr McQuillan: I thank the Minister for introducing the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill and welcome moving forward with our licensing laws in Northern Ireland. It is hugely important in growing our hospitality industry, and I have every confidence that we can see the Bill through to its Final Stage and full implementation. The Bill was introduced as a result of a public consultation in which over 2,500 responses were received. That shows the vast public support for change to our licensing laws.

I welcome the change to the Easter opening hours to allow later hours on the Thursday before Good Friday. Currently, premises and registered clubs with additional opening hours are allowed to stay open until midnight. However, the provision will mean that late opening on the Thursday before Good Friday will be the same as the late opening available for any other weekday in the year, which is 1.00 am. We realise that that may not go as far as the licensed trade would like; however, it is a step in the right direction. It is important to consider the balance between the licensing trade and the health and well-being of our constituents.

I am disappointed that we have not yet made any provision for the inclusion of microbreweries in the Bill. However, I understand that microbreweries were not as popular when the Bill was first drafted in 2012. There are over 30 microbreweries in Northern Ireland, and they have become increasingly popular in recent years. The craft beer industry is continually growing and is an important aspect of tourism in Northern Ireland, as it introduces something new and local to our tourists. Craft breweries have been a popular tourist aspect in the UK for a number of years, and there are also many craft brewery tours in England. I feel that we could introduce those here. However, there needs to be relevant legislation in place to allow visitors to buy the product at the end of a tour.

Breweries are not included in the 13 categories of premises that are eligible for a licence, and that prevents them from selling at source. Visitors can take tours of microbreweries and sample the produce, but, at the end of the tour, they cannot purchase what they have sampled. That is counterproductive and stunts business opportunities, job growth and tourism. Many microbreweries home-brew from very small premises, and the ability to sell at farmers' markets and festivals would allow for better business sustainability. I understand that if the breweries were big enough and had enough money they could purchase an off-sales licence to sell their liquor. However, most microbreweries are co-operatives and do not have the cash flow to facilitate that. The lack of legislation affects my constituency and the Lacada brewery in Portrush, which I visited with the First Minister in February. When Minister Givan is next in my constituency, it is somewhere that I would like to take him to show him, at first hand, the negative effects of not having relevant legislation in place.

I also welcome the proposal to allow under-18s into licensed premises, providing that alcohol is not available. That will enable hotels to provide safe and controlled environments to hold events such as teenage discos and school formals and to help to sustain hotels' incomes during off-peak seasons and provide more jobs and a boost to the economy.

I welcome the Bill and hope that MLAs can see it through to provide a fully functional liquor licensing Bill that considers the hospitality sector and the health and well-being of our constituents.


12.15 pm

Mr F McCann: Like Adrian, I will try to be brief, because there will be a number of other opportunities to discuss the Bill, including in Committee.

This has been much anticipated legislation, and I have no doubt that, over the next few weeks, we will hear a wide range of opinion and listen to the experts on the important decisions that the Assembly needs to make on the sale and consumption of alcohol. We have been advised by the Department that the purpose of the Bill is to place restrictions on the advertisement of intoxicating liquor in supermarkets and off-sale premises; to introduce occasional additional late opening for certain licensed premises; to make modest changes to the Easter opening hours for certain licensed premises and registered clubs; to extend drinking-up time for a trial period of one year; and to align intoxicating liquor and entertainment licences to licensed premises allowed late opening. It will also remove the requirement for children's certificates in licensed premises and registered clubs and permit underage functions in licensed premises and registered clubs, as long as certain conditions are met. It will require licensed restaurants to display the conditions of their licence and will place a requirement on delivery people to record the details of identification shown, if there is any doubt that the person might not be over 18 years of age. The Bill will also permit the formal approval of codes of practice on responsible retailing and make minor changes to the law affecting private members' clubs. These are very modest proposals indeed.

I was on the Committee for Social Development for some years, and my party has always argued that, whilst we need to deal with all the problems thrown up by the sale and consumption of alcohol, including poor health, scenes of excessive drunkenness and antisocial behaviour, we also need to look at the impact that legislation has on wider society. In fact, we as legislators need to find a happy medium that not only deals with the above problems but recognises the rights of citizens to enjoy all aspects of social interaction, much of which is connected with the provision of entertainment, the sale of food and the sale of alcohol. We have all seen on TV ugly scenes of public disorder, which is one of the effects of the sale of alcohol on people and communities. We have also heard of the dangers to health of consuming alcohol and the cost to our health service of treating the after-effects of alcohol abuse. We as legislators need to look at ways of dealing with this and take into consideration the best ways of moving the debate forward. I have been concerned for a number of years that we have not effectively dealt with the issue; in fact, we seem to have taken one step forward and two steps backwards, certainly during my time on the Committee. We need to find a happy medium, but, in doing so, we need to recognise what people want from us in the legislation.

Over the next weeks, we will hear from an industry that is in the business of providing places of entertainment, hotel accommodation, restaurants, bed and breakfasts and registered clubs, which provide tens of thousands of jobs and serve increasing numbers of tourists. The industry is fast becoming one of the success stories of our economy and brings in an estimated £1·1 billion annually. I have been told that the industry continues to modernise but says that the legislation has not been modernised to meet the pace of changing circumstances, something that I do not believe a light-touch approach, or what the Department and Minister call "modest proposals", will do.

If we fail to grasp the nettle this time, we will be back in the Chamber in another few years speaking of missed opportunities. Legislation needs to recognise the changing society in which we live. It needs to recognise that almost 70% of alcohol is bought in supermarkets and off-sales for consumption at home. It is also estimated that 22% of people drink at home alone. Those are frightening statistics. That is where the main problem exists, and the only proposal that we have in front of us is to ban the advertisement of alcohol 700 yards from a shopping complex. A chairde, the battle that we need to win is against the increasing consumption of alcohol at home. I understand from figures supplied in lobby letters and by Hospitality Ulster that just 20% of alcohol is consumed in pubs, 16% in restaurants and 9% in hotels, which, we are told, is a heavily regulated environment. All that needs to be taken into consideration when making decisions. There is no control over the sale of alcohol in supermarkets, shopping centres and off-sales. People can go freely. At least within the confines of the places that I have spoken about, there is direct control, professionalism and a will to move this forward.

I live close enough to Belfast city centre to be in it quite regularly. Over the Easter period, you meet tourists and other people who are in the city centre to eat. They find it difficult to socialise and tap into the entertainment that can be expected in other countries 52 weeks a year. I believe that there are other anomalies in the legislation that need to be dealt with, not least the whole question of Drumbo racetrack, which Naomi mentioned; the prohibition of young people going to entertainment in licensed premises; and microbreweries and what they can offer for employment in the future.

Mr Stalford: Of the constituencies that will be directly affected by the legislation and the problems that it seeks to address, my constituency of South Belfast probably ranks very high up the list, because, on any given weekend, you can see the problems that are associated with the excessive consumption of alcohol, particularly in the city centre.

I welcome the fact that the focus that has driven forward these measures is protecting local communities and their interests. I sense — I think that this is a good thing — that there is broad consensus around the Chamber on the direction in which people want to go. There might be some differences in emphasis, but I think that there is broad consensus. I sensed that in the Committee. I was therefore a bit disappointed when my constituency colleague Claire Hanna seemed to set up some straw man arguments and then knock them down again. They were arguments that actually neither the Minister nor anybody from these Benches had been making about the licensing regulations. It might be a source of disappointment to some people that the arguments that they were anticipating have not actually been made and that the legislation that has been produced by the Minister is a rounded piece that strikes a balance — an important balance — between promoting jobs and growth in the economy and protecting young people, in particular, and wider society.

In that vein, I welcome various measures that are contained in the draft legislation. I welcome the fact that we will ban vending machines that dispense alcohol. I also welcome the fact, however, that the ancient and noble tradition of the school formal will be allowed to continue in Northern Ireland because of the measures that have been brought in, whereas it had previously been under threat as a consequence of the existing regulations. I am pleased that the Minister has taken action on drinks promotions. I welcome that. I also welcome the fact that the phenomena of dial-a-drink or dial-a-carry-out is to be tackled. As has been said numerous times by many Members, we need to take action in that area.

I am pleased that there is agreement across the Committee that more must be done to help microbreweries and craft distillers. I think that there is agreement in that regard. I agree absolutely with what the Member for East Belfast Mrs Long said with regard to the tourism value and potential that those outlets have. That is something that can be uniquely Northern Ireland —

Mrs Long: I thank the Member for giving way. I just felt that I had to mention Yardsman, because I went blank at the time and I do not want anybody in the constituency to think that I favour one brewery over another. I am sure that they would welcome you to come and visit as well.

Mr Stalford: Well, I am not going to pass comment on where and when the Member for East Belfast drinks, but I am sure that it would never be before she gets to her feet in this place.

It is important that we recognise that this is a potential growth area for the economy and tourism.

I am pleased that the Minister will indicate — or I hope he will — a preparedness to work with us to accommodate those establishments in the legislation.

I do listen sometimes to some of the contributions that are made, and they almost make continental Europe sound like some sort of Utopia, where everything is open all the time and everyone is allowed to do whatever they want, but they all do it moderately, and everyone gets along terribly well. We need to be slightly more realistic about that when everyone is holding up the great continental model of how to do things. I am not saying that just because I am an anti-federalist. We need to be a bit more realistic, reasoned and grounded in the arguments that we make.

I am pleased that it was acknowledged that complete liberalisation and 24-hour opening was not a path that people wanted to go down. I am pleased that people recognise that increased liberalisation of opening hours does present particular challenges. I welcome the massive uptake that we have had in tourism in this city over the past 15 years. That is a good thing, but I for one would hate to see Belfast, Londonderry or any other part of Northern Ireland become like some seaside resorts in England, where people go for hen and stag weekends and just ruin the town and its reputation. They make eejits of themselves and make life miserable for the people who live there.

We all want tourism, but we want tourism that brings with it benefits for the community. There are more important things sometimes than just money. It is important that we use this as an opportunity to —

Mr E McCann: Will the Member give way?

Mr Stalford: Yes, of course.

Mr E McCann: In light of the Member's accurate remarks about the dreadful effect that overconsumption of alcohol can have in certain places, would he agree that there is a contradiction and anomaly lurking in the Chamber in that we are discussing during what hours alcohol can legally be sold while at the same time in our society there is an absolute restriction on the possession, much less the sale, of the relatively benign, harmless, non-existent drug cannabis? Should not that be resolved at the same time as we decide on the opening hours for pubs and clubs?

Mr Stalford: I was going to say that the Member is at perfect liberty to bring in private Member's legislation in that regard, but he is not any more. I am certain that if the Member was to bring a motion or what have you before the House on that, there would be a full and varied discussion. He probably knows what side of that discussion I would be on, as I do not support the legalisation of cannabis, but I recognise the very negative impact that alcohol can have on our society. I also recognise that there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that cannabis is not a benign substance and it does have a negative impact on people who use it frequently or over any sustained period.

Mr Bell: Will the Member give way?

Mr Stalford: I will.

Mr Bell: I appreciate the Member highlighting that matter, because much of the professional medical psychological and psychiatric opinion is what the Member says. We are speaking of licensing today, and I have raised the increased dangers, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, of alcohol over cannabis. However, it should be remembered that cannabis is known as the gateway drug. It does lead to mental health problems, particularly among young people. So, to send out the message that this is harmless is not only wrong but has the potential to significantly damage young people's mental health.

Mr Stalford: I thank the Member for his point, and he is obviously much more qualified in these matters than I am. It is probably better that we — [Interruption.]

Mr Stalford: Through his professional career, Mr Kennedy, not through consumption. [Laughter.]

I think Mr Bell now has grounds for a defamation action.

We recognise that this legislation is a positive step forward. I think there is a genuine spirit not only in the Committee but around the Chamber to bring this process to a quick conclusion by putting in place a framework that allows for the expansion of vital tourism sectors but that also protects wider society. I commend the Minister for bringing the measures before the House, and I look forward to working not only as a member of the Committee but with all Members around the Chamber to see them progress.


12.30 pm

Ms Mallon: Although I am still a new Member in the House, I am aware of the deep sense of relief, particularly in the hospitality and tourism industries, that the Bill is finally making its way through the Assembly, and I want to pay tribute to the Minister for bringing it forward so early in his tenure.

As many Members have pointed out, the purpose of the Bill must be to modernise liquor licensing legislation whilst working to reduce alcohol-related harm. Absolutely no one, especially in the hospitality sector, is making a case for deregulation. Therefore, the fear of a leap to deregulation should not cloud consideration of the merits of any amendments which might subsequently come forward in respect of the Bill. If we are serious about joined-up government, then the Bill should seek to make the licensing trade offering more sustainable and attractive to tourists. This is a strategic objective that is necessary if we are serious about meeting targets in tourism income and delivering the 50,000 jobs related to it by 2020.

As this is only the Second Stage of the Bill, the Committee for Communities, as Mr Stalford pointed out, has not yet had time to reach a considered and agreed view on any amendments that it intends to bring forward. It is fair to say that there is a degree of consensus emerging but it is not for me to pre-empt that discussion or process.

The SDLP, recognising the critical role that the hospitality sector plays in shaping the visitor experience and in providing a controlled environment in which to consume alcohol, would be in favour of extending opening hours, increasing the number of nights applicable under additional hours late licences and increasing the extended hours late licence per year beyond what is currently proposed in the Bill. This is not to advocate or create a situation where we have 24-hour access to alcohol in clubs and bars; these increases would be intended to moderately and modestly build on those proposed by the Minister.

Regarding the anomaly affecting under-18s at functions like school formals, the SDLP welcomes the proposals contained in the Bill permitting the attendance of under-18s at functions in licensed premises provided the bar remains closed. However, we are also sympathetic to the amendment being suggested by Hospitality Ulster to allow under-18s to remain in licensed premises after 9.00 pm when attending a family function. It is unnecessarily harsh, for example, to send a 16- or 17-year-old away at 9.25 pm from the birthday party of a father, mother or grandmother where there are responsible adults and family members present. The proposed amendment adds a helpful degree of common sense in a responsible manner, which is, I believe, the balance we should be seeking to strike in this legislation.

When we are talking about responsibility, it is important to acknowledge and recognise the great strides that have been made by the hospitality sector to promote the responsible sale and consumption of alcohol. The industry itself, as many Members have pointed out, has voluntarily led the way when it comes to developing and implementing an industry-wide, high standard code of practice. I welcome the fact that the Bill intends to give statutory recognition to that effort and the industry code of practice, which, I would argue, provides a model for other industries to learn from.

The SDLP's current thinking is to welcome key aspects of the Bill and expand on others. We also believe that a gap exists in the legislation through the fact that it omits the licensing of craft breweries and distillery premises. I believe that this fails to recognise the unique and bespoke offering that many microbreweries and distilleries offer in the industry and in enhancing our tourism offer. There has been much consensus on this point during the debate today and I look forward to seeing it evolving and being shaped as the Bill moves forward.

Ms S Bradley: I thank the Member for giving way. When talking about the industry, bringing things up to date and, obviously, craft beer, you rightly point out that there is agreement here. There are barriers but there is also the aspect of actual sales outputs and looking at online sales to be considered. This is a new venture for a lot of those industries and it may be worth looking at the context of the online sale of alcohol as well.

Ms Mallon: I agree with the Member; it is something that we need to take a serious look at to reflect the reality of the current situation. I also agree with Mr McCann that the anomaly and omission of Drumbo racetrack is another matter that we should explore further as the Bill progresses.

As Members who have spoken before me have rightly pointed out, 70% of alcohol in the North is consumed at home. In a vast number of situations, that is fine and poses no problem, as it is taken in moderation; in other instances, however, it is much more harmful, and I understand the rationale for a debate on minimum unit pricing.

In my constituency — this has been referred to a number of times in the debate — we have the harmful and illegal phenomenon of "dial-a-drink", as it is known. It certainly needs to be tackled more robustly. I do not believe that enough is being done to tackle it, considering the very harmful nature of the activity.

We cannot address all of our concerns about the harmful overconsumption of alcohol in this Bill, but it must modernise our outdated licensing legislation and do so in a way that supports and encourages the consumption of alcohol in a controlled and safe environment.

Mr McGlone: I thank the Member for giving way. Given that Hospitality Ulster has made a case for the modernisation of legislation to include one extra hour for the sale of alcohol on two nights per week, it might be useful, as we work through the Bill, for the Minister to explain why he proposes to allow an additional hour for the sale of alcohol on only 12 occasions a year. What is the rationale for that proposal?

Ms Mallon: Thank you, Mr McGlone. I am sure that the Minister will take the time to explain the rationale of the Bill as currently proposed.

I will take some time to outline the SDLP's current thinking on amendments — undoubtedly, we will table others as the Bill progresses. We seek the right balance between a robust and attractive hospitality and tourism sector and ensuring that we do what we can to reduce the harm caused by drinking, particularly drinking in the home. We look forward to considering the Bill in Committee and to working with the Minister as we shape the Bill going forward.

Mr Agnew: In the Bill and in our discussion of the issues with alcohol we have to balance personal freedoms with the need for public health and safety. In at least one aspect of the Bill, we have to look at respect for religious practice, but we have to balance freedom from religion with freedom of religion. I hold the pillar of personal freedom very highly, and we should restrict personal freedom only where we can demonstrate through sound evidence that there is a need to do so for reasons of public health and safety. The difficulty with our licensing laws as they currently exist and, indeed, as they would exist if the Bill were passed unamended is that they place significant restrictions on personal freedoms without the evidence that they do what they purport to do, which is to reduce alcohol-related harm.

Jonathan Bell spoke at length — I think that he took the extra half hour of winding-up time that debating a Bill allows for — and he highlighted the dangers of alcohol. Nobody can say that alcohol is a benign drug. Without getting into the debate about cannabis, I do not think that anyone would make the point that alcohol is a benign drug. We know the harm that it does in our society. Jonathan Bell read out the number of deaths each year, and we know about the impact on families and the alcohol-related acts of domestic violence. I do not want to stand here and say that alcohol cannot be harmful. However, that does not necessarily justify the restrictions in our licensing laws, unless we can demonstrate that they reduce that harm. I put that out there. That is why, although the Bill is coming from the Minister for Communities, we need input from Health and, in terms of crime and public safety, the Department of Justice. I hope that, in the four years since the initial consultation on the Bill, that evidence-gathering has taken place and that perhaps the Minister will refer to some of it as he winds up. Those are the types of question that I, as a member of the Communities Committee, will tease out as part of the deliberations.

I support and welcome the Bill today. It has been a long time coming, but, to be fair to the Minister, he has acted quickly to bring forward what is the first piece of significant primary legislation in this Assembly mandate. I welcome the Bill, but it needs my significant amendment. As a member of the Committee, I will hear the briefings from the industry, which has been referred to a lot. It is important that we look at how we support not just our tourism and hospitality industry but the constituents who elected us, who enjoy their evening social life and do not feel that it is the Government's place to tell them what time they should finish drinking and what time they should be home and in their bed by.

Let us look at some of the key provisions in the Bill. We have the welcome proposal to have extended opening hours, but it is limited to 12 days a year. I do not know some of the evidence that the Minister has available on how that helps to improve public health and safety. Why was 12 days chosen? Why such a restriction? Why not more frequently? To me, it seems reasonable to look at whether that could be common and normal practice at weekends, but I do not have set views on that. I am open to hearing the evidence and the debate.

I welcome the half an hour extra drink-up time. It is a one-year trial. I do not think that it will see the decay of our civilisation, so I suspect that it will be a successful trial. I hope that, after the one year, the Minister will be open to extending it. To be fair to the Minister, I am taking it as read because it is in there that he is open to that. I hope that the one-year trial becomes normal in future.

Easter opening hours have caused much debate, certainly on radio phone-in programmes. They have certainly caused much consternation in the industry but also among our constituents, who want to enjoy the extended bank holiday weekend in licensed premises. I said at the start that I fully respected the religious views that exist in our society and the right of people to uphold religious practice and customs, but I do not see where those who do not subscribe to those values in any way impinge on those who do by consuming alcohol in licensed premises as opposed to at home, which is clearly what takes place instead. I do not fully understand the need for our restrictive licensing laws over Easter. I welcome the small step that has been made in extending the opening hours for the Thursday before Easter, but we can and should go further than that and normalise the licensing laws for the Easter weekend.


12.45 pm

I have no set position on this at this point in time, but I have some concern about the proposal to align entertainment licences with liquor licences. I suppose that there are two ways that you can do that. You can move liquor licences to entertainment licences, and I would have perhaps been more positively disposed to that. Instead, we have gone the other way and seek to further restrict entertainment licences. A lot of the drive behind the need to reform our licensing laws has come from those who want to see a degree of liberalisation or modernisation — the term that is often used — of our laws. This proposal runs contrary to that. I will listen to the evidence as to why they feel the need to do that. The Minister said that it would assist the police. I have not seen the briefings from the police that say that it is necessary, so I will look at those. I will listen and make a decision, but my instinct is that the extra restriction is the wrong direction of travel.

That may be a counterexample, where there is arguably a simplification in aligning entertainment and liquor licences. Although, as I said, in my view, it is moving in the wrong direction. Overall, however, there has been a strong, justified call to simplify our licensing laws. I am not sure that the Bill meets that challenge, and, through the Committee, I am happy to interrogate how we can do that on a wider basis. Our licensing laws are undoubtedly complicated, and, having researched them, I am still unclear as to what some of them are, so those who have not had cause to look into our licensing laws in great detail can only be confused.

Reference was made to an example of where we are further complicating things, and that is the requirement on restaurants to display on signage when and in what circumstances they can and will serve alcohol. The Minister referred to restaurants acting like bars. I am interested to see why we need that distinction in our licensing laws and why we feel the need to have so many different categories of licence.

As I said at the outset, the Bill is a long time coming. It is to be welcomed. Even if the detail and the progress that I would like to see is not all contained in it, it is at least a vehicle for change, debate and the modernisation of our licensing laws. However, I see it as baby steps, and I hope that, over the passage of the Bill, we can grow up a lot when it comes to how we regulate and license alcohol sales in our society. I support the Bill's progress, but I hope that it will see major reforms before its Final Stage.

Mr E McCann: One of the issues that arises from the debate is this: what is it about our society that causes so many people, and particularly young people, to want to get out of their heads over weekends and, indeed, on weekdays? The point has already been made, but it is worth underlining. You cannot walk through many of our city centres late at night or early in the morning at weekends without seeing squares and streets in city centres carpeted with young people out of their heads on drink. There is a very interesting question as to why that happens. What is it about alcohol that leads that to happen? That needs investigation. It needs medical and social evidence to be brought before us before we can make a determination as to what conclusion shall be drawn from that.

Let me make it clear: I am not saying this in any killjoy sense. I support the Bill and see no reason for restrictions on the sale of alcohol or, indeed, of anything else. If it is already legal in some circumstances, I can think of no argument why the hours should not be expanded or people prevented from exercising their choice. However, I do say this: when we are discussing the availability of mind-altering substances — that is what alcohol is — we must see it in the round. I see no point at all in isolating alcohol from other drugs. Incidentally, it was said during the debate that cannabis is a gateway drug to more dangerous drugs. No, it is not. There is no evidence — none whatsoever — for this proposition, despite the fact that it is trotted out over and over again by people who claim to be experts. I ask them to produce the evidence and to examine the situation in Portugal between alcohol, which is sold on a non-restrictive basis —

Mr Agnew: Will the Member give way?

Mr E McCann: Yes, I will.

Mr Agnew: I previously worked in the field of community drug and alcohol awareness. I saw evidence that the gateway drugs are tobacco and alcohol, not cannabis.

Mr E McCann: Absolutely. Fortunately, or unfortunately, in my career as a journalist, and simply because of growing up and living in this society, North and South, I have known quite a number of people who, sadly, were addicted to heroin and many who died from heroin. I had a good friend — a flatmate — who died from heroin. He had wanted to get off the heroin but simply could not. He began on alcohol. I have never known a junkie who did not start on alcohol before going on to heroin; I have never known a junkie who went on to heroin as a result of smoking cannabis.

There is a connection between alcohol, which we are discussing here, and harder drugs: unlike alcohol, cannabis is illegal. To get your hands on cannabis, you have to go into murky territory outside the law, where all sorts of other substances might be offered to you, particularly by the people who are selling you cannabis. It is absolutely true that there are people whose health is being harmed by cannabis. Any mind-altering substance is bound to do you harm.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: This is the Second Stage of the Bill. I ask all Members to stick to the principles of the Bill rather than departing into another debate.

Mr E McCann: I will, of course, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. We might come back to the other subject that I referred to. If there was not a restriction on the introduction of private Member's Bills, there would have been a Bill along the lines that the Member suggested. There will be such a Bill before this session is over.

Mr Bell: I appreciate what the Principal Deputy Speaker said, and it is part of the debate I mentioned. I accept what the Member said. We need this Bill. I have used evidence from the Royal College of Psychiatrists to say that alcohol is more harmful than illegal drugs. I make the caveat — this evidence is available from the NHS — that cannabis will damage your mental health, give you a link to schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses, damage your fertility and your ability to drive.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker: I remind all Members that we are debating the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill. The debate being entered into is another debate and another discussion.

Mr E McCann: Thank you very much. There is an answer, but I will not give it now. In response to the Member, there is a comprehensive answer that I hope to be able to discuss at length in the House.

We are talking about dangers. The point has been made previously, and it is worth underlining. I doubt that there is one Member of the Assembly who does not know somebody, either a family member, a neighbour or a friend, who has died from alcohol. I do not believe that there is one Member who does not know families who have been torn apart by alcohol. That is one of the distinctive features of alcohol in our society.

If you turn on your television at night, you will see adverts telling you that, if you drink alcohol, you will have a wonderful time, you will be freed from your inhibitions, and no harm will come to you. Who has ever seen an advert for Guinness ending with the sight of young people lying on the pavement being sick into the gutter? Who has ever seen that, yet it is not an untypical result of overindulgence in alcohol?

I am a liberal. I believe in having as few restrictions on our behaviour as possible. I support the Bill, but I would go further, as I say. I think we are discussing it in an extremely narrow way. It has to be seen in the context of all sorts of other forms of human behaviour and the use of mind-altering substances, which is what we are talking about. They are all bad for you. It is a fact that, of all the substances mentioned here, particularly alcohol, the younger you are when you start, the more damage they will do to you on a permanent basis. There is a simple reason for that: the brain of a child or an adolescent is not yet fully formed and is going to be more damaged by alcohol or any other such drug than it would be if you began when you were 20, 25 or a much later age. We have to take all that into account. I am in favour of liberalising the laws, but I am also —

Mr Stalford: I thank the Member for giving way. Very briefly, he says that the younger you start, the more damage it does. Does he agree with me, then, that that is a solid argument against the Continental approach to alcohol whereby young people are exposed to it from a very early age?

Mr E McCann: I think that it is an argument for looking at this thing seriously and for saying that what we need here is not to have restrictions on when you can drink, at any age. Rather, what we need is education. We need people to understand the dangers of it and not to take it casually. In our society, over and over again, if you walk around the streets, you will see billboards, television screens and the rest of it urging you to drink alcohol. After all, why do companies like Diageo, which makes Guinness, spend millions of pounds making very well-made, artistically very impressive adverts to put on television? They do so to invite people to drink and drink more. That happens all the time, and there is no real debate about it.

I am not suggesting, again, that we put restrictions on advertisements on television or anywhere else. What I am saying, however, is that there are huge dangers here that can only be addressed by education, in every sense, for people from a very young age about the dangers of alcohol. When we do that, without transgressing on the rulings you made, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, we should also include information and education about what other drugs will do and point out that, among the drugs that are freely available in our society, alcohol is the most dangerous, and some of the drugs that are illegal are much less dangerous. What sense can this make? Where is the rationality in this situation?

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

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.58 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Education

Mr Weir (The Minister of Education): The statutory curriculum places significant emphasis on developing the core skills sought by employers and on preparing young people for the workplace. Pupils have opportunities to acquire and develop the cross-curricular skills of communication, using mathematics and using ICT. Thinking skills and personal capabilities, problem-solving, self-management and working with others are also mandated in the curriculum. At post-primary level, the curriculum covers the local and global economy, career management and enterprise and entrepreneurship. Young people investigate the need for creativity and enterprise, whether as an employer or employee, and identify and develop skills and attributes associated with being enterprising.

The entitlement framework ensures that pupils studying at Key Stage 4 or post-16 have access to a broad and balanced range of economically relevant and individually engaging courses. It requires all post-primary schools to provide pupils with access to a minimum of 24 courses at Key Stage 4 and 27 at post-16, of which at least one third must be general and one third applied. To enhance the delivery of the curriculum, my Department provides funding to a number of organisations to provide enterprise, employability and innovation programmes and events for primary and post-primary pupils, inside and outside school. Developing effective links between schools and the business sector is also an important aspect of developing business skills in schools and ensuring that our young people can appreciate the full range of progression routes open to them.

Mr Smith: I thank the Minister for his answer. Has he considered cross-departmental cooperation on the issue, such as the implementation of projects such as university technical colleges for 14- to 19-year-olds, as is done in England?

Mr Weir: There is always merit in exploring where we can have cross-departmental working, particularly with this aspect. That applies both between Departments and outside into industry. Particularly as we move ahead with looking at the curriculum, I am struck by the need for a degree of cooperation between schools and further education colleges. That impacts on the Department for the Economy, and there are opportunities for a greater level of nexus between the two Departments and between the skills involved.

It is also important that we have a high level of engagement with those at the coalface. For instance, I recently met the CBI to discuss its thoughts. I know that, in the relatively near future, it is due to produce a report looking at better linkages across the whole UK. I am keen to tap into that and to carry on those discussions. There is already a range of activities involving schools with outside bodies such as Young Enterprise. It is important that those linkages exist.

The more that we can encourage those from a business background to have direct, hands-on involvement in schools, the better. As opportunities arise for school governorships, I will certainly encourage those from a business background to apply, because if we can broaden the skill set of the volunteers on boards of governors, that is also something that will be useful. It is about embracing all of that. I am certainly open to seeing a greater level of cross-departmental work.

Ms Bunting: What is being done to promote digital skills in schools?

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for her question. Work is being progressed by my Department. Without having pre-empted Mr Smith's previous question, I say that it is done on a cross-departmental basis. Work is being done by my Department, the Executive Office, the Department for Communities and the Department for the Economy to progress a digital skills programme, DigiSkillsNI. It has three main aims: to create an innovative, long-term strategic partnership among industry, education and communities; to maximise sustainable development, building capacity and empowering education; and to develop a skills pipeline for a generation of young people, creating an informed society and developing synergies between industry and education.

DigiSkillsNI believes that its digital learning in schools programme will help build that capacity in formal education for digital skills and computing. It therefore works at an early stage. The hope is that we will have an innovative and collaborative programme. That will help to ensure that we are on track to position Northern Ireland as a leading provider of digital skills in education. On this aspect, as with other things, it is important that our society is, as much as possible, ahead of the curve rather than simply trying to play catch-up with other societies.

Ms J McCann: The Minister mentioned the curriculum. Will he ensure that vocational subjects are given the same priority as academic subjects in schools and that children will have a broad-based curriculum to choose from when they are choosing what they want to do?

Mr Weir: That is an important issue. It has been approximately 10 years since the last overall review of the curriculum. That is something that we will be doing in this term. Even if everybody thought that everything in the curriculum was absolutely perfect, it is something that needs to be looked at in the primary and post-primary settings. It is important that we develop pathways to give that level of clear recognition and regard, particularly to vocational subjects.

I want to be careful that those operate in tandem so that they are not necessarily seen as an either/or. If it is seen as a zero-sum game of improving provision for vocational subjects at the expense of academic subjects, or some sort of rebalancing in that sense, that would be the wrong way to look at it. We need to ensure that a range of different pathways are available to pupils so that their opportunities are maximised in the world of work and for the rest of their lives and that they are well prepared for that. That work will be a key element as we move forward on the issue of the curriculum.

As part of that, I have mentioned the role of the Department for the Economy and the CBI and other organisations. The involvement of some of those bodies, external to the Department of Education and to schools, will also be critical because we need to look at this in a slightly more holistic way and not simply look at what can be delivered by schools. It is about trying to ensure that we get the needs of all our young people fit for the 21st century.

Mr Speaker: Before I call Mr Keith Buchanan, I remind Members that this question is specific to the Mid Ulster constituency.

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for his question. There is one special school in Mid Ulster, which is Kilronan School. Since 1 April 2013, the Department has invested approximately £8 million in the school, of which £6·7 million was in resource funding and £1·3 million was in capital investment for minor works such as an extension to the building and the creation of a sensory garden.

Mr K Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his answer so far. What action is he taking regarding the overall funding pressure on and in relation to special educational needs (SEN)?

Mr Weir: We are in a particular situation when it comes to special educational needs. Thankfully, for instance, we are seeing earlier diagnosis of special needs problems, which allows us to have an earlier level of intervention. Obviously, that will mean that there is an increasing level of demand for SEN support and the costs associated with that. For example, if we take a snapshot of the children with an SEN statement as one measure of that, the percentage of all students with an SEN statement has increased from 4·3% four years ago to the latest figure of 4·9%. A significant amount of the Education Authority's (EA) budget is being spent on special educational services, comprising a range of things, including special schools' support services, classroom assistants and transport costs.

Special education funding has been prioritised as much as possible as part of the budget-setting process over the last number of years and additional funding for SEN has been secured. For instance, in the last monitoring round, £5 million was secured from the Finance Minister as part of in-year monitoring. This is very much a demand-led service, so, should the EA identify budget pressures for SEN that cannot be met from the existing education budget, I will continue to work with Executive colleagues to ensure that we secure additional funding.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for that response. I do not know whether he has the statistics to hand, but can he detail the number of pupils attending Kilronan School and whether the school has met the demand for places over the past five years? I know from speaking to people in the school that that is an issue in our local area in Mid Ulster.

Will he give serious consideration to a new capital build for Kilronan special school?

Mr Weir: I do not have the exact figures to hand. Kilronan covers the full remit of special needs schools, covering children aged three to 19. Therefore, it is a very productive model. The assessment of numbers for a special school is on a slightly different basis from the assessment for mainstream schools. I am happy to get the detail on the number of pupils to the Member.

All of these issues are considered as part of the overall calls for capital build, in which there is a level of open competition. One of the restrictions and, maybe, frustrations that all of us have is that a capital budget could be spent at least three or four times over in any one year. When there are calls for capital build, be it by way of a school enhancement programme or major capital works, there will be the opportunity for all schools to bid. They will then be graded according to the matrix of need and a scoring system. Given the nature of that, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on an individual school and say that it will be given priority. There will be fair and open competition for those places. I think that everybody is aware of the need to provide a particular level of support for special schools. In the near future, as we move towards the area-planning process, there will be a specific section on special schools. That will also form part of the assessment on the way forward.

Mr Milne: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Will the Minister ensure that nursery-school provision for special needs schools such as Kilronan will meet the needs of children with complex needs and the needs of their families?

Mr Weir: The placement of children in nursery schools, particularly on the special needs side, is an operational matter directly for the Education Authority (EA). We always want to make sure that our provision is entirely adequate and fit for purpose. If it is an issue of a capital project or a development proposal, a particular decision will have to be taken. There is a limited amount that I can comment on directly, but I want to try to ensure that any facilities, particularly those for special needs children, are adequate for what is needed. We have to realise, particularly when dealing with special needs, that we are talking about what has been, in a virtuous way, a changing picture over the years. Particularly in the case of severe learning difficulties, children who many years ago would not have survived to school age are now able to enter the school system and go on to adulthood. There is a constantly changing position in special needs, and we must keep constantly up to date to ensure that what we get for that category of children meets their needs.

Mr Speaker: Before I call Ms Bradshaw, I remind her that any supplementary must be specific to the constituency.

Ms Bradshaw: I will leave it.

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for her question. I have met the Minister for Education and Skills, Mr Bruton, formally twice since coming into office. The first occasion was an introductory meeting before the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) plenary meeting, and it was, largely, a "getting to know you" session. Despite getting to know me, he was not put off meeting me on a second occasion. Last week, I had the opportunity to meet him again at the North/South Ministerial Council education sectoral meeting in Armagh on 21 September. At that meeting, I was accompanied by junior Minister Megan Fearon. I am slightly restricted in what I can say because I will make a statement to the House next week on that meeting, but I will give the Member a little bit of a taster to tantalise her so that she is here next week.

We discussed a range of education issues, including the implications of the UK referendum; educational underachievement; special education needs; school, youth and teacher exchanges; teacher qualification; and cooperation between education inspectorates. I will be able to go into those in greater detail when I make the statement next week. I am committed to developing in particular the opportunities for sharing best practice between our two Departments, and I look forward to continuing engagement with Minister Bruton over the months and years to come.


2.15 pm

Ms Dillon: I thank the Minister for his response. Has he read the Irish Government's recently published action plan for education? If so, is he familiar with its specific proposals for reducing inequality and tackling disadvantage, including cycles of disadvantage within families and communities? It is important for both Administrations on the island of Ireland to work closely together on tackling disadvantage and underachievement.

Mr Weir: I have not read that specific report. Obviously, certain decisions will lie purely within the remit of the Minister for Education and Skills and relate to his own jurisdiction. There is a conference scheduled for fairly soon on learning exchanges between the two jurisdictions, and particularly on tackling educational underachievement. I think I am due to address that. As we all appreciate, Ministers on both sides of the border are trying to deliver the best we can in education, particularly in educational underachievement, with a limited level of resources. What is important for all jurisdictions is the learning of best practice. Even within Northern Ireland, I sometimes wonder whether there is knowledge of the very good things that happen.

I am keen to see, both on a North/South basis and within Northern Ireland, that learning experience. As I mentioned — I will go into in slightly greater detail next week — one of the agenda items we discussed was educational underachievement and how we can take forward a level of learning by way of practitioners exchanging views. I stand to be corrected, but I think that relatively soon there is a seminar in Newry — it may even be in the next few days — that I will be speaking at and trying to get that level of learning between both jurisdictions on the subject.

Mr McGrath: Does the Minister agree with me that having meetings with Education Ministers from other legislatures in relation to youth service provision would be a worthwhile exercise? Will he be able to keep the provision of youth services on the agenda for discussion with those other Ministers, to share good practice?

Mr Weir: As I said, I am always mindful of the need to, as much as possible, share good practice. That is about learning experiences. It is also sometimes about learning from where a jurisdiction has tried something that has not worked. That can also be a very good object lesson. There is the old saying that a wise person learns from their mistakes and that an even wiser person learns from somebody else's mistakes. I do not know, from that point of view, whether those of us in Northern Ireland will be the ones giving the education or having the learning experience.

In trying to learn best practice, whether that is on the basis of educational underachievement or youth provision, none of us in this House should be so arrogant as to believe that everything that we have done in every service in Northern Ireland, whether it is education or any other subject, is so perfect that we cannot learn lessons from elsewhere, or spread lessons. Whether that involves the Republic of Ireland, some of the other jurisdictions in the United Kingdom or indeed further afield, I am very happy to have those exchanges and try to learn those lessons. All of us in this House will be collectively focused on trying to provide the best possible services for all our young people. If we can learn from what has happened elsewhere to improve our provision, none of us should be so proud as to think that everything that we have done has been 100% correct.

Mr Hilditch: What are the NSMC areas of cooperation within the education sector?

Mr Weir: Specifically, the council meets on common policies and approaches. It will be areas such as education for children with special needs. Very specifically, obviously, on a North/South basis we have the Middletown centre. I have mentioned educational underachievement. There is the issue of teacher qualifications and trying to ensure that there are no artificial barriers there, and there are exchanges, which can happen at school, teacher or youth level. In each of the areas of cooperation, there are common policies and approaches that are agreed by the North/South Ministerial Council but implemented separately in each jurisdiction. There will be a relationship between the Department of Education in Northern Ireland and its counterparts at Westminster or other jurisdictions. One of the issues where there is a mismatch is in the remit of the Department of Education, because it concentrates on children's services through primary schools and secondary education.

For instance, the Department of Education and Skills in the Republic of Ireland is closer to, if you like, a DE plus the Department for Employment and Learning. It deals with issues of training and skills and further and higher education. There will be some aspects where there is not a particular match-up in that regard. The main issues that I have listed are where there is the most direct interface.

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for his question. The Delivering Social Change literacy and numeracy signature project has been shown to be successful, in particular in enabling schools to develop effective ways of developing and targeting underachievement and putting in place appropriate intervention strategies to raise attainment. As part of the dissemination of the legacy of the programme, the Education Authority produced publications for primary and post-primary schools entitled 'Literacy and Numeracy Legacy'. Those resources identified a number of longer-term benefits derived by schools, teachers and pupils from taking part in the programme: the value of increased external collaboration by teachers in and across schools; the positive impact of the professional development opportunities provided by the programme; and the benefits of effective parental engagement. Perhaps most importantly, pupils supported by the programme showed an increase in self-confidence and greater engagement with the whole curriculum. The legacy publications have been circulated to all schools, and I am aware that some school leaders are already mainstreaming the effective approaches to targeting and tackling underachievement that were developed under Delivering Social Change. We have a lot to learn from the signature programme, and I will be exploring further ways in which I can help to take forward the legacy of the signature project.

Mr McMullan: I thank the Minister for his answer. Minister, have your Department and the Executive any plans to reintroduce the literacy and numeracy programme? Do you agree that it has made a massive difference to young people by widening the net for free school meal entitlement? Can you give an assurance that you will think about reintroducing it?

Mr Weir: It is certainly something that I will always keep open. There are a number of aspects to this. There is taking the lessons that have already been learned and ensuring that they are mainstreamed and legacied. I certainly concur about the positive response as a result of the programme. We have to remember how it was funded, which is why, to some extent, this is also a question for the wider Executive. The programme was centrally funded and time-limited by the Executive. The cost of the programme was £15·8 million over three financial years, of which £13·8 million was provided centrally by the Executive. If central funding is provided by the Executive for this programme or for a successor in title, I would certainly be keen to see it rolled out. In the absence of central funding, I will look at ways in which successful interventions developed by schools can be sustained in the long term.

As with other things, it is also about learning a level of lessons. In the short term, primarily it is for school leaders to mainstream the approaches to tackling underachievement that have been shown to be effective in many of the schools supported by Delivering Social Change. I am aware from the feedback and the evaluation programme that that already happens in many schools. The managing authorities — the Education Authority and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) — also have a role to play. They will use what they have learned from the implementation and management of the programmes to support schools in their work to target and address underachievement and to try to raise attainment levels across the school system.

Mr Lyttle: Why does the Minister think approximately 35% of pupils in Northern Ireland are not achieving numeracy at grade C or above in GCSE maths? What reforms or investments has he planned to increase attainment in that area?

Mr Weir: We have to remember that there have been improvements in our overall performance at GCSE and A level. In recent years, the gaps between the level of attainment of those on free school meals and those not on free school meals has been closing. There has been a greater and swifter level of improvement among free school meals-entitled pupils than non-free school meals-entitled pupils, and I want to see that increasing. There has also been a much greater uptake of mathematics. There may be a question mark over whether that also means that the standard dips slightly. I think that I am right in saying that, for the second year running, mathematics is the most popular GCSE subject. From that point of view, there are lessons to be learned from the mainstreaming of the delivery of numeracy and literacy. As with a lot of interventions, particularly for tackling underachievement, there has to be a bit of patience. The most effective intervention is early intervention, but, with various early intervention schemes, it might be 10 or 12 years before you see the direct dividends. We always have to ensure that we do not simply have quick fixes. If there is any way in which I can assist that process when we come to look at curriculum review, that should be encouraged. One encouraging thing is that we have seen a steady increase in the number of pupils taking mathematics, in particular, and STEM subjects. That is positive and is to be welcomed. Maybe the only difference between the Member and me is that I am looking at it as glass half-full, and he might be looking at it a little more as glass half-empty.

Mr Speaker: I remind Members who wish to ask a question that they should continually rise in their seat.

Mrs Palmer: I thank the Minister for his response thus far. The Minister indicated that the funding was over £15 million centrally to deliver the literacy and numeracy signature programme. Will he give a commitment that, in the interim, he will provide at least some of the budget to deliver it through the mainstream programme in schools?

Mr Weir: The project has completed, so it is not a question of its continuing; it is about trying to ensure that the lessons from it are mainstreamed. The bulk of the money, as I said, came centrally, and a range of activities are already happening on that basis. Am I in a position to give additional funding for that? No, I cannot give that commitment today. The Executive as a whole need to look at how we could take this forward. In particular, there has been widespread concern over the level of direct funding of schools, and we need to look at that. To some extent, before we look at additional or new programmes, we need to ensure that we get the maximum amount to existing resources and existing need. That question, from a funding point of view, is for the Executive as a whole.

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for the question. I know that he has a particular interest in the issue. I look forward to visiting Ballybeen to look at the issue with him in the near future.

I am committed to ensuring that every child receives high-quality education that enables them to fulfil their potential. Funding to the Education Authority ensures that there is a range of educational provision to support children with SEN, including autism, and that includes mainstream provision, learning support centres attached to mainstream schools and special school provision. The authority is, I think, working to enhance autism-specific learning support centre provision throughout the region.

The Education Authority's autism activity and intervention service provides support to pupils in schools through training and advice for teachers and individual interventions with pupils. It also provides support to parents. In addition, my Department provides funding to the Middletown Centre for Autism, which has been able to expand its programme with direct support and intervention to children with complex autism who are referred by the Education Authority and to provide professional and parental training and research services. For anybody who has an interest in the subject and wants to learn a great deal more about it, a visit to Middletown — I did it earlier this year — is extremely worthwhile. Since the launch of the Northern Ireland Executive's autism strategy and action plan, the Department of Education has been working closely with the Education Authority, Middletown Centre for Autism and other Departments on the implementation of its actions. They include delivering training programmes for teachers, education professionals, youth workers and parents; providing effective support for pupils with autism; and working in collaboration with health and social care trusts. At that point, I will curtail my answer, as my time appears to have run out.

Mr Speaker: Members, that ends the period for listed questions. We now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions.


2.30 pm

T1. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister of Education for an update on the Education Authority’s preparation and publication of area-based plans. (AQT 236/16-21)

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for his question. That is likely to happen imminently. On Friday, I chaired a meeting of the area planning strategic group. In the past, everybody has accepted the concept of area planning, but I know from the previous Education Committee, for instance, that there has been a degree of criticism about its implementation. One of the things that we have very much tried to get right this time is ensuring that representatives of all the sectors are around the table. Arising from that meeting, I anticipate that the Education Authority will publish its overall area plan for Northern Ireland imminently, probably within the next week or two. That will then go out to consultation for about two months.

There is a limited amount that I can directly say about the area plan. It will be high-level and strategic in nature, but it is likely to contain particular provisions for special needs schools and will drill down into overall needs, divided up into the 11 council areas. The aim is then to move ahead with whatever changes happen after consultation and look at annual plans — the area plan is due to be on a three-year basis from 2017 to 2020 — and move towards specific, more localised plans to put more meat on the bones.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for his reply. Given the historical delays involved in all those processes, what is the timescale for the area plans to be completed? How will he and his Department encourage those deadlines to be met?

Mr Weir: I think that there is a realisation that there needs to be a step change in the work that happens on area planning. Simply letting things drift at times does not help anyone. It does not help any of the schools, it creates greater uncertainty and it means that the reallocation of resources within the broader schools area plan does not happen when it is needed.

As I said, the main plan should be published imminently, and there will be a two-month consultation period. I am acutely aware that that will probably require a re-profiling of a certain amount of resources within the Education Authority, and, indeed, the Department will provide whatever support the Education Authority needs to ensure that we move ahead in a timely fashion. Uncertainty, whether at a broader area level or at the level of individual schools, does not help anyone. I want to see us moving ahead as quickly as possible on some things, while ensuring that there is proper consultation alongside that.

T2. Mr Maskey asked the Minister of Education to confirm that all children with special needs who were seeking admission to preschool provision in mainstream schools have secured a place and to acknowledge that, four weeks into the school term, not all the children who were seeking preschool admission in a special school have been placed. (AQT 237/16-21)

Mr Weir: I will check, but my understanding is that places have been provided for all children with special needs. I think that I am due to appear in front of the Committee on 12 October, and I will be able to provide a greater level of statistics then.

There was an increase, particularly at nursery level. The advantage of early diagnosis means that we can tackle problems at an earlier stage. The problem with that for the education system is that it has to react a lot more quickly to find places for people. Consequently, particularly on nursery provision for special needs, there will be an ongoing process with the EA to try to provide a much more strategic direction for that. That will obviously be grounded in proper discussion and consultation, particularly with experts and parents' groups, as we move ahead.

As with all nursery provision, the vast bulk of those who seek a preschool place are able to be catered for, but not everybody will necessarily get their first choice. If there are specific issues in individual areas or there has been a problem with someone not obtaining a place at all, the Member should provide me with details of those and I will be happy to try to get answers for him.

Mr Maskey: I appreciate the Minister making that commitment. I will come back to him on that with some details. My understanding is that a number of children have applied for preschool special school provision and that has not yet fully been met. I make the point to the Minister that, although I am grateful for his commitment to look into this, if that were the case, we would have to say that it would amount not only to disparity but possibly to discrimination against a very important sector of our community. I will come back to the Minister on that.

Mr Weir: Although direct placements are an operational matter for the Education Authority, my understanding is that places have been found for everybody. The issue to some extent is whether those are in the places that people wanted as their first choice and whether the provision is of exactly the nature that the parents wanted. We have a situation where, across the board with preschool places, there is a mix: about 62% of children will get part-time places, and 38% will get full-time places. There will not always be a match with what the parents want. I suppose the issue is whether someone has been denied a place entirely or whether there was a desire to have a place in a particular location or, indeed, whether someone wanted a full-time place but only a part-time place was available. The key bit is ensuring that at least there is a place for everyone, but it will not necessarily be that everyone gets precisely what they are looking for. If it is a question of people being denied a place entirely, again, I would be happy to take up any specific examples of that.

T3. Mr Logan asked the Minister of Education for his assessment of the Queen's University nurture unit evaluation report. (AQT 238/16-21)

Mr Weir: I attended the launch of the report, and I heard about some of the worked examples in schools. The scheme, if you like, covers 32 primary schools. I was very encouraged by the response we got at that. One of the clear indications is that intervention has been of tremendous value to children, particularly to some vulnerable children and those who need that degree of help. The report draws a clear distinction between children in schools where nurture units have been made available and those outside the system. Another thing that came across clearly from the report was that, even though only a limited number of children are directly involved in a unit, intervention through nurture units in schools creates a whole-school improvement and children across the board get that. I have taken that not simply from the direct evidence in the report; I have had the opportunity, in my time as Minister and briefly before, to visit schools where nurture units have been made available. It is undoubtedly the case that you get a real sense of pastoral support for children in the units, and I think they have been able to take full advantage of that.

Mr Logan: I thank the Minister for his answer. What assurances can he give to schools currently in receipt of funding for nurture units?

Mr Weir: We are in the position where the next step is to look at how this can be in some way mainstreamed. There is a range of options in that, and some of it will depend on the funding that will be made available. There is a strong desire to see an expansion if possible, but we also live within a level of budgetary constraint. Designing a way forward in the system will take time and may take different directions, but I want to place it on record very clearly that, until we have a new scheme agreed and in a position to be implemented, funding will continue for the nurture units at all 32 schools currently funded under the nurture unit provision. It is important that there are no gaps in provision and that people are not left in a situation where it is stopped in their school but then, because of a different scheme, reinstated at a later stage. It is important that, at the very least until we reach the point of having a new scheme that may benefit more schools or different schools — there is a range of models — there is an absolute guarantee that I will make it a priority to ensure that those schools are funded during that period.

T4. Mr McPhillips asked the Minister of Education whether he can reassure the pupils and families connected to St Mary's High School, Brollagh, Belleek that the school will not close in the foreseeable future, given that he will be aware that, in June last year, St Mary's ranked tenth for GCSE results out of all the schools across the North, albeit that it has been threatened with closure for a number of years, with plans to merge it with a school in Donegal seeming to have stalled. (AQT 239/16-21)

Mr Weir: In speaking directly on potential development proposals, there is a legal restriction on what I can say. The Member says that I will be aware of the situation at St Mary's: I would say that if I were not aware of it, the Member would be quick to remind me. I know that he has been very proactive on behalf of the school.

I understand that the previous Minister asked CCMS to look at the options and the possibility of a cross-border delivery model as an alternative to closure. At that stage, work was developed by CCMS. I think that there was analysis at that stage, dated from 2014 into 2015, that the cross-border approach would neither be cost-effective nor its quality threshold assured. That clearly did not appear to be a runner. What I think is the case is that the proposal simply does not appear to be doable. What is important is that the first level of engagement is with CCMS, as it is essentially the provider body. I have asked that it engages with the school, particularly on future provision. Clearly a conversation needs to be held to see what other options or alternatives are there.

Mr McPhillips: I thank the Minister for his response. Obviously the concerns about closure have been looming for the last number of years. I am aware that he is relatively new to the post. In that context, with closure looming — I was made perfectly aware of that when I visited a board of governors meeting recently with my party colleagues Councillors Coyle and Gallagher — will the Minister give a commitment to visit the school with me and meet the board of governors to hear their concerns?

Mr Weir: I am happy, sir, to go to the ends of the earth with you with regard to school visits. Seriously, if an invitation comes in, I would be more than happy to consider it. I am happy to visit schools. Again, simply visiting a school does not mean either the kiss of death or alternatively some level of revival for that school. Initial discussion of any possibilities cannot be on the basis of what was there previously. I think that that was explored very thoroughly by CCMS and by officials and was found not to be a runner. We probably need some level of fresh thinking. As CCMS is the managing authority, that discussion probably needs to be concentrated between CCMS and the school in the first instance. I am sure that I would be happy to accommodate visiting St Mary's as part of my general tour of schools in Northern Ireland. I am sure that, if the invitation comes through him, the Member will ensure that he is invited on that visit as well.

Mr Speaker: I call Ms Clare Bailey for a quick question and a quick response from the Minister.

T5. Ms Bailey asked the Minister of Education for his assessment of whether a consistent approach to the teaching of relationships and sexuality education (RSE) in all our schools would help to reduce educational inequalities. (AQT 240/16-21)

Mr Weir: There are important issues for RSE teaching in that regard. From that point of view, we want to see as much consistency as possible. It may be less about removing inequality than about trying to make sure that all children are equipped to deal with the complex questions that face them regularly. As regards pure implementation, I will not be in a position necessarily to micromanage what happens directly in the classroom. I am not there correcting textbooks or ensuring precisely what the lesson plan is. I think that as much consistency as possible is something of advantage, but I appreciate that there will be sensitivities around the issue. It is important that we give schools a little space to deliver on that curriculum.

Mr Speaker: There is time for a very quick supplementary and a very quick response.

Ms Bailey: Thank you, Speaker. Thank you for your answer, Minister. That being the case, can you let us know how the Department evaluates the education that happens in our schools?

Mr Weir: The evaluation, with a range of other issues, will be subject to Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) inspection, which will look at a wide range of subjects that are provided in schools. While it is funded via the Department, it is essentially at arm's length and will provide that level of independent evaluation. It is important that the relationship in that sense is not so close that there is any question of bias.

I have great faith in the ETI's ability to provide that level of inspection. It already does that for RSE and will continue to do that in an effective and professional manner.

Mr Speaker: Time is up.


2.45 pm

Finance

Mr Ó Muilleoir (The Minister of Finance): Ba mhaith liom ceist 1 agus 7 a thabhairt le chéile. With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 1 and 7 together.

I have written to the Taoiseach and the Finance Minister in the South of Ireland, assuring them of my Department's full cooperation with any investigation by the Irish Government into Project Eagle and the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA)/Cerberus deal. I have not had any specific contact with the Public Accounts Committee — it has not been in touch with me — but I will, of course, offer any support that the PAC needs in the conduct of its inquiry, inquiries or investigations. The Member can rest assured that all efforts and investigations to reveal the truth of what happened with Project Eagle, and what happened subsequent to that in relation to NAMA and Cerberus, will have my total backing.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for that response. During yesterday's Opposition day debate on NAMA, Sinn Féin and the DUP combined to remove from the motion references to damage to Northern Ireland's international reputation. As a frequent visitor to our key market of the United States of America, does the Minister not agree that the NAMA scandal has had a negative impact on our political and business reputation?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Member for her supplementary. It is, perhaps, worth putting on record what happened yesterday. The House united, through a majority vote, to ask for a full investigation into the NAMA/Cerberus deal and to say that it would support all investigations.

The Member will be aware that I spoke yesterday about meeting the National Crime Agency (NCA), but the NCA is not the only law enforcement agency investigating. An Garda Síochána and, in the States, the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) are also investigating.

As I travel, it is my opinion that businesspeople, particularly in North America, look on this deal in two ways. They believe, as do most of us in the House, that there was something rotten in how the deal was fixed, formed and brought over the line, as well as in how £7 million ended up in the Isle of Man. Businesspeople who I meet are heartened by the fact that people are revolted by that and determined to get at the truth.

There is an added layer that will, I think, give the Member some heart and confidence in how we are viewed abroad. Those in high positions in corporate boardrooms in North America also welcome the fact that, on the American side, the purchase of Project Eagle by Cerberus is the subject of intense investigation by the FBI and the SEC. They are two almost parallel but separate lines of investigation.

The people who I meet are confident that the FBI and the SEC have the resources to get to the truth of what happened. I have said this before, and I will say it again, Mrs Overend: it is my opinion that getting to the truth will not be easy, and I really think that we need an all-island investigation. However, I have a lot of faith in the agencies — starting at the level of the FBI and the SEC, and then, of course, the NCA and the gardaí — bringing to book and to justice those who are guilty of what I believe was wrongdoing,

Mr Speaker: May I remind the Minister, at this very early stage of Question Time, about the two-minute rule?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Apologies.

Mr Mullan: Minister, despite your protestations, I have to say that, during yesterday's debate, it was hugely disappointing that the DUP and Sinn Féin prevented moves for a new inquiry and an all-island investigation. Does the Minister agree that the actions taken by the Executive parties to create a smokescreen around issues with NAMA's sale of Project Eagle have only further damaged the credibility of the Executive and Government?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: The Member may have been at a different debate yesterday but I would say this to him: the debate I was at yesterday, and how I voted, was to support an all-island commission of investigation into the NAMA/Cerberus deal in the sale of Project Eagle. The Member is new to the House, but I have spent the last 24 months probing this issue and it is my contention and resolve to get to the heart of the corruption regarding the Project Eagle deal. I remain absolutely determined and will not be deflected from my desire and resolve to deliver what the people want, which is the truth about the sale of Project Eagle. The Member might have been at a different debate, but Sinn Féin in this House — if I may speak for Sinn Féin for a moment, Mr Speaker — and I, as Minister of Finance, will do everything in our power to get the people the result they deserve, which is to have the truth and have the wrongdoers brought to book.

Mr Milne: Buíochas fosta leis an Aire as na freagraí sin. Will the Minister provide us with an update on his recent meeting with the NCA?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat as an cheist sin. I thank the Member for his question. I met the NCA in Lisburn last Thursday. Finance Committee members will know, as they have been briefed repeatedly, that the NCA remains on course. All of us share the frustration of how slow and meticulous these investigations are, which is of necessity. That said, the NCA has delivered in the course of the inquiry, as it pledged to us, and has reported back to the Finance Committee and to me. While the nature of our discussions have to remain confidential, I am pleased that there has been no let up in the NCA's intent to not only find out what happened in terms of the Project Eagle sale but to bring those involved to book.

I hope that the commission of investigation that is being suggested and proposed by the Taoiseach comes about and that it has an all-island brief. In the time ahead, there will be ample opportunity to test the resolve of the NCA on this issue. Like the Executive, the Minister of Finance, Assembly Members and the Finance Committee, the NCA will be will be tested on its delivery, and the officers I met understand this. In this test, they are determined to succeed.

Mrs Long: The Minister said that it is a test that this is properly investigated, not just for the Department of Finance and the Executive but for Members of the Assembly. Does he agree with my party leader, David Ford, who suggested that party leaders in the Assembly should come together and agree a means by which these matters can be investigated where there is common agreement around how this is taken forward, particularly in relation to the non-criminal matters and allegations relating to inappropriate behaviour in public office?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank Mrs Long for her question. I thought that that was Stephen Farry's idea yesterday.

Dr Farry: No, no.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Well if David Ford wishes to claim —

Dr Farry: It all starts with David Ford.

Mrs Long: Everything comes from David down.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: There are many masters when there is a good decision like that.

My approach, as the Member knows, is one of inclusion. The Finance Committee has not decided the most appropriate way forward for it. The Executive have many ways to continue to support the many investigations into this matter and I hope that they step up and support all the investigations. I have no hesitation in saying that if parties want to gather together and consider a way forward they should do that. However, Mrs Long, perhaps the way to do it is through the Finance Committee where all parties are represented. The Committee is taking its own counsel as regards its next best steps.

For my part, I agree, and Mr Farry said — I am not sure whether I caught Mr Ford saying it — that it is essential, if we are going to get to the truth, that the commission of investigation has to have a wide ranging all-island brief. I hesitate to say that it has to go off the island as well, because some of the goings on and shenanigans happened in other jurisdictions, but I agree with Mr Farry that the commission of investigation needs to be all-island and we need to make sure that it can do its work north of the border as well.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank the Member for his question. The Northern Ireland Civil Service wage cost for the last four full financial years is as follows: for 2012-13, it was £927 million; for 2013-14, it was £951 million; for 2014-15, it was £943 million, and for 2015-16, it was £901 million.

The wage cost will materially reduce further in 2016-17 as the effect of the NICS voluntary exit scheme, which closed in May 2016, has a full-year impact.

Mr McCausland: I thank the Member for his answer. It is encouraging to see that there has been a reduction in the wage bill. It will give us more money to go out to front-line services, although, obviously, some Civil Service work is front-line service. Can the Minister give some indication of what the likely spend will be over the next couple of years? Will it remain static, or are we likely to see a significant increase?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: The Member concentrates on the NICS — I understand that, as I have responsibility for the Civil Service — but he will know that the voluntary exit scheme extends beyond that. The reason that we can make the books balance, the reason that Mr Givan was recently able to give extra money to libraries, the reason that I was able to pledge more money for life-prolonging drugs, the reason that we are able to put more money into entrepreneurship and building the economy is that we have reduced the size of government. We have made sure that our colleagues in the Civil Service and the public sector were able to exit with good terms and a great package, but, at the same time, if we have only nine Departments, we do not need as many people to provide the services.

The Civil Service has done its bit; it has lost over 10% of its workforce under the voluntary exit scheme. However, I hope that people in the back-office jobs who want to retire in the years ahead will have the opportunity to do so and that, without affecting the quality or the excellence of the service, some of those back-office jobs can go. In that respect, Mr McCausland, I think that you will acknowledge that the digital revolution that we are in the midst of gives us the opportunity to do jobs more efficiently and, perhaps, not with the same number of staff.

Mr Butler: Last week, it was revealed that the Northern Ireland Civil Service absence rate had increased again to 11·7 days. Is the Minister concerned that the unsystematic roll-out of the voluntary exit scheme contributed to that deteriorating performance?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank the Member for his question. I am always concerned when we get sickness figures, and I studied them in depth at the time. I resisted the temptation that the UUP could not resist to have a dig at the public sector and the Civil Service. In my opinion, our public sector performs heroics every day, whether it is in our museums, our art galleries, our libraries, our hospitals or our schools, and we need to stand behind the Civil Service and applaud and commend its work.

Sickness levels are higher than I wish them to be. However, I wonder whether the Ulster Unionist Party would like to give us its sickness tables for the year and compare them with the Civil Service. People get sick. It is a tough job that people do in the public sector. Instead of sniping at those who have been ill during the year, we should reinforce our determination to build an excellent public sector and provide our people with the front-line services that they need.

Ms Dillon: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Can the Minister tell us what savings the voluntary exit scheme has produced that can be reinvested in front-line services in our communities?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Yes, I can. I do not think that I mentioned the figure earlier in response to Mr McCausland, but the global figure for savings in the wage bill is around £150 million. I know that the Opposition are always interested in contributing to the debate on the Budget and where money should be spent, but they should acknowledge for a minute that the reason that there is additional money to spend on front-line services is the prudent way that we have managed the voluntary exit scheme. People leave with good packages, they are rewarded and thanked for their contribution, and we take the money that we save and put it right back out — right back out — to build the shared and prosperous future that we wish to see. In that regard, it is around £150 million saved per year that goes right back into the Budget.

Mr McPhillips: Can the Minister advise how many civil servants and employees of public bodies earn in excess of £100,000 per annum?


3.00 pm

Mr Ó Muilleoir: I cannot, but I am happy to get that figure for the Member. I suspect that, at the top grades, we have about 120 civil servants. I am happy to report to the Member in writing on exactly what wages those people get.

Dr Farry: Given the voluntary exit scheme, combined with the reorganisation of Departments and the warnings that we are getting about difficulties with the relocation of DAERA to Ballykelly, does the Minister, given his responsibility for the Civil Service, have any concerns about business continuity into the future?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank the Member for his question. I advise him not to listen too much to warnings. Listen to the AERA Minister when she comes in.

Dr Farry: What about the Brexit warnings?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: You really should spend more time listening to me, Stephen, and stop watching the news. I think that you will find that concerns on those issues have been exaggerated.

Is it a time of turbulence? Yes, it is, Mr Farry. Is it difficult for our public-sector workers to take on more responsibilities? Yes, it is. Despite that, the evidence that I have — I have travelled round many offices and activities that my Department is involved in from NISRA and the LPS to those who work with me directly, our economists and those working on European funding — is that business continuity is there to see. Rest assured, Mr Farry: you should not listen to any warnings in that regard.

Mr Speaker: Before I call Mr Colin McGrath, I remind Members that the next question is a constituency-specific question.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Thank you, Mr McGrath. I thought that you might help us by mentioning the word "Rathkeltair", so that we would find out whether it is pronounced "Rathkeltair" or "Rathkeeltair".

I am advised that neither my officials nor the staff in Rathkeltair House — is it "Rathkeeltair"? — are aware of any contact enquiring about the use of the land for the promotion of access between businesses and Downpatrick town centre. However, Mr McGrath is obviously, I presume, working on the issue as a constituency issue with local traders. I am happy to discuss the issue further with Mr McGrath if he wishes to write to me or bring it up directly with me in my office. We are always willing to consider any plan that would help our town centres, which are under considerable pressure.

Mr McGrath: I thank the Minister for his response about Rathkeltair House. The land prevents people from accessing a retail park, which results, essentially, in Downpatrick having an out-of-town retail park. People are not able to get onto the main street. Whilst I welcome the Minister's remarks, I ask him to instruct officials to meet the local council — the issue was raised as part of the master plan — and maybe with the Department for Communities. The initiative will breathe life back into the town centre of Downpatrick. We desperately need it, and I hope that we can get your support.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank the Member for his supplementary. As Carla Lockhart did in relation to a health centre in Banbridge, you are making commonsensical points about joined-up government and how government should help to revive our town centres. You have my pledge that I will do all in my power to bring the council together with my officials to make sure that the arrangement in Rathkeltair House — the pronunciation was 50:50; I got it wrong — is to the benefit of the town.

Mr McKee: Will the Minister consider allowing pedestrian access across that or any other piece of land under the control of his Department to encourage footfall from out-of-town shopping to the high street?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: "Any piece of land" might be a bit too generous, even for me, but, in this case, it is certainly a reasonable proposition. I know that Mr McGrath will bring that forward. If the Member wishes to join him in that, I am content. There are certainly a number of issues with government buildings where they are not doing what they could to build community in the areas that they are in. In this case, I am certainly happy to investigate whether we can do exactly what you are talking about.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabhail leis an Chomhalta as an cheist. I had a very positive meeting with council mayors and chief executives last Thursday, 22 September. It was perhaps the first time that any Minister had had the chance to meet all the councils; as you know, they have just reorganised. We discussed the range of options available to councils that could facilitate greater investment.

I view the meeting as the beginning of a new conversation with local authorities. I was delighted to see so many mayors present and represented, as well as CEOs. I heard their ideas and plans for economic development in their areas and outlined some of the alternative funding sources that could help them realise their ambitions. My Department stands ready to assist our councils in this regard. I will continue to engage with councils on this and other issues and I look forward to attending the next partnership panel meeting led by Minister Givan between Executive Ministers and local government elected members on 12 October.

I met mayors from all parties in Lisburn civic centre last Thursday, and I think that this is an issue that crosses party political boundaries. I see more and more evidence of the amalgamated councils wanting to step up and increase the pace of investment. When I said at that meeting that I would be a champion for councils that wish to step up at the Executive table, I think that I echoed the views of every Member here who would like to be a champion for their local council and step up for them if they will step up as well.

Ms Hanna: Is the Minister aware of the concept of a city deal? By way of context, Glasgow leveraged an extra £1·1 billion of infrastructural funding for their city. Did the concept of a regional city deal for NI come up, and did the Minister support it?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Ms Hanna, I see that you bumped Philip McGuigan down the list, but he may come back later.

A city deal did come up, but the young gentleman who brought it up, Councillor Tim Attwood, was outside the meeting for the bit that I was at. I know that he is an advocate for a city deal, a business zone, a city zone or even a west Belfast zone in his constituency. I have an open mind in that regard. I told the councils that have no problem with them exploring alternative ways of building up their council area, whether Belfast, Derry or Ballymena, but, in the here and now, we can deliver short-term to medium-term transformative projects, policies and strategies in each council area from our own resources.

If we ask the British Government for a city deal, that will bring us down a different path. I am not necessarily against that, but, in the here and now, the Executive control Invest NI's grant allocation, so we could influence that. We have good strong local influence over the transport infrastructure. We control the rates and we should have, within our gift, enough powers, resources and ability to make a difference in our council areas. If people want to come up with other ideas, I am happy for them to pursue those, but the things that I am interested in are what will really make a difference today and tomorrow.

Mr Speaker: I passed over Mr McGuigan for a supplementary question.

Mr McGuigan: Fadhb ar bith, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá sin ceart go leor. Given that the Minister spoke in glowing terms about the new councils and the fact that European funding is essential to them, was any concern expressed during the meeting regarding the future of EU funding?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Go raibh maith agat as an cheist. As we left the meeting, the councils said, "You are going to be our champion", and I said that I would be champion for the councils that want to borrow, invest and build their cities, towns and villages. So I commend the great work that is being done to rationalise councils, but the people who want to take the next step forward are those who I would really like to partner in government.

EU funding came up at the meeting and was raised by some of the representatives from Newry, Mourne and Down — I do not know whether I have that order correct. In relation to Peace funding and, in particular, INTERREG funding ,which I know is of grave, deep interest to Members, the statement from the British Chancellor, Mr Hammond, on 12 August falls short, as you know, of what I would have liked to have seen, particularly in relation to Peace and INTERREG cross-border programmes. The Chancellor made a commitment to underwrite project approvals and letters of offer and contracts made in advance of the autumn statement on 23 November. I believe that this is insufficient because it leaves €1·1 billion in other European funds at risk in the time ahead; funding for contracts that we expect to be signed off post-November.

It is important to say that I am also concerned about the €500 million that was to go out before 23 November. I think most of us thought that we had done marvellous work on expediting the application process. All the bodies had stepped up, including councils and the INTERREG partners, to ensure this money got out the door. At present, we have €120 million of letters of offer for cross-border job, environmental and health projects, and they are logjammed in the system.

Mr Speaker: I remind the Minister —

Mr Ó Muilleoir: With your permission, Mr Speaker, if I could continue.

The Executive, the Finance Department, the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) and the INTERREG panels have all stepped up to expedite those funding applications. In fact, I think they have done Trojan work to speed up the process to ensure that money is released to the peacemakers, the bridge builders, the entrepreneurs and the job creators on the ground. I respectfully suggest that their efforts need to be matched by the Irish Government, the British Government and the EU Commission. Notwithstanding the grave difficulties surrounding the EU referendum, all three of those institutions should commit to releasing this €120 million as soon as possible.

Mr Speaker: I remind the Minister that, when you wish to give a prolonged and detailed answer, you should ask for an extra minute at the beginning of your answer.

Mr Smith: The Minister will be aware that the rate of transferred functions grant was going to be reviewed when regeneration powers were devolved to councils to give them the resources necessary to deal with their extra RPA powers. Given the decision by the Executive to walk away from this previous commitment to transfer these functions, this review never happened and councils are still working from a figure that is now a year old. Can the Minister give a commitment that the Executive will now bring forward a new 2016 regulation to increase the grant?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank Mr Smith. I will not be over two minutes with this particular answer. That issue also came up at the meeting of councils last week. I want to see them have more powers and more competencies and to see them be able to step up. I also said to them, "Don't hesitate, don't delay, don't make any excuses". They have enough genius, ability, talent and resources to make a difference in their communities. I understand everyone is often focused on the next day and more powers, and sometimes the fact is that government is not joined-up enough. What I have said to all 11 councils is, "Press on, move forward, build the type of community you know your ratepayers are entitled to and we will support you."

I hope all these issues are resolved in the time ahead, Mr Smith, but, for now, let no one suggest that the councils should pause for a moment in doing the work that they can do in leading economic growth.

Mrs Little Pengelly: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. In relation to an earlier answer he gave on Peace funds, can the Minister confirm that there is a very particular problem and challenge at the moment with the Republic of Ireland Government on stepping up to the mark? Does he agree with me, as I am sure he does, that this hesitancy by the Republic of Ireland Government could cost Northern Ireland a significant amount of money? What plans does he have to ensure they step up to the mark to make sure this money will come through in a timely way?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: The €120 million I refer to, Madam Chairwoman, relates particularly to INTERREG funding, but you are right: the Peace money is going to come on stream and the Peace letters of offer will be ready to go out when the panels meet in short order. I do not want to get into blaming anyone for the hold up, but I have said that we have done our bit. InterTradeIreland, which is waiting for over €10 million to support small business in the border region, has done its work, and the letters of offer are ready to go.

The health boards on both sides of the border have done their work and are waiting for vital money to fund cross-border health initiatives. The Donegal, Derry and Strabane councils have done their bit on the greenways and are waiting for €15 million of funding to make that happen. We all have stepped up to the plate. I have asked that the three other bodies involved — the European Commission, the Irish Government and the British Government — match the intense effort we have put into this. I do not want to get into a blame game, but someone needs to match our efforts. This money is vital and urgent, and we need to get it released. In my view it is shameful that the money is logjammed at this stage.


3.15 pm

Mr Speaker: Members, that ends the period for listed questions. We now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions. I have to inform the House that topical questions 1, 6 and 8 have been withdrawn.

T2. Mrs Overend asked the Minister of Finance whether he has seen the paper that was produced in May 2015 by the European policy and coordination unit in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, entitled ‘Preliminary Analysis on the Impact of a UK Referendum on its Membership of the European Union’. (AQT 247/16-21)

Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank the Member for her question. A good sign of the importance of a document is how long the title is and how difficult it is to pronounce it. The Member will be aware that, when I came into this post, I commissioned my Department to carry out contingency planning on the effects of a "Leave" vote in the EU referendum. I think that that contingency planning, while relevant only to my Department, emphasised and highlighted the veracity of the report prepared by Neil Gibson for Oxford Economics about the potential downside of a "Leave" vote in all aspects of our economy — tourism, manufacturing, trade and services. I think that the issues highlighted in that document reflect that. I did not see anything additional there, but it is, I suppose, added evidence that we are set on a course that, I think, will be very challenging in the time ahead.

Mrs Overend: The Minister successfully managed not to answer my initial question about whether he had or had not seen the document. Is he as surprised as I am that that document, which forecasts such a major impact on the Northern Ireland economy and finances, was not disclosed either before or during the referendum or even in last week's Brexit debate?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank the Member for her supplementary. As she will know, I am never surprised when people agree with me; that does not happen very often, mind you. I think she will accept that the case I have made for remaining in Europe is based not on the politics — set the politics to the side for the moment — but on the detrimental impact that it would have on our community, our economy, our tourism and our education sector. I think that that is held up by the evidence in the document that she refers to. What I will say — I perhaps have the privilege of doing this, since I am not wearing a political hat for this discussion — is that there is a real need for all of us to speak to, in particular, our partners in the Irish Government, which is one of the reasons why I was a bit more circumspect than Mrs Little Pengelly in that regard. The Irish Government have a special obligation to make a case to the British Government at this early juncture about how best the crisis unfolding around the EU referendum can be handled. I have no doubt that the document to which you refer, with its very long title, would be helpful to the Irish Government in that regard.

T3. Mr Robinson asked the Minister of Finance whether he will work with the Minister for the Economy to make finance available to develop further air links between Northern Ireland and continental Europe. (AQT 248/16-21)

Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank Mr Robinson for his question. I met the Economy Minister yesterday, and among the topics we discussed was the need to try to improve connectivity. He recently visited Germany; you know that the prize we were seeking for a long time was a direct link from Belfast to Germany. I believe that the Berlin flight has started. I have a relative in Germany; he is not very interested in coming home, but he if were, it is now a lot cheaper and easier to come back to Belfast. I think that the Minister is pleased that we have delivered that. The use of the air connectivity fund is a matter for the Minister.

I also met recently Brian Ambrose at the City Airport, Graham Keddie at the International Airport and, of course, our friends in the smaller airport in Eglinton. All of them, I know, are determined to get more connections. In my view, it is essential. If we want to reap the benefits of the tourism infrastructure we are putting in place, never mind reap the benefits of our efforts to grow the economy, we need to have more flights coming into the two large local airports.

Mr Robinson: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree that the recent financial package announced for Londonderry airport is vital investment in the north-west's economic future?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank the Member for his supplementary. I do not rise often enough to say that I am very pleased that there has been investment in the north-west, so you can be sure that, on this occasion, I am very pleased to hear that. I hope that it is just the start of a series of investments that we can all agree on. I know that Ballykelly was discussed in my Department earlier today. We are working on other pivotal, transformative projects, not least two roads into the north-west and Magee college, but I believe that the efforts by Eglinton to try to focus on manufacturing in order to get an extra impetus and stimulus to leverage the asset that it has is the right way forward. I hope that we can stand here in the time ahead, Mr Robinson, and commend it on winning that contract for manufacturing, which I know that it is chasing.

T4. Mr Logan asked the Minister of Finance whether he would consider rate relief for new business start-ups to help provide an incentive for such start-ups and encourage growth in the sector. (AQT 249/16-21)

Mr Ó Muilleoir: We have a very complex, complicated and generous rate relief system, but, notwithstanding that, if we do not get the entrepreneurship piece right, we will not be able to build our economy at the pace at which we wish to build it. I am therefore happy to look at ways in which we can encourage entrepreneurial hubs. We have at least two in Belfast: the Propeller PR idea and Entrepreneurial Spark in Lombard Street. I think that there is one in Ballymena as well, and, if we can look at innovative ways in which to make it worthwhile for people to set up businesses, especially by way of clustering, I am happy to look at that.

I am convinced that one of the ways in which to grow our small businesses is to keep them alive for as long as possible. Capital is very scarce and hard to get, and I would not like to think that entrepreneurial young people are being put out of business because of rates. If the Member wants to come forward with thoughts on the issue, I will look at them sympathetically. Of course, it will be a matter for the Assembly to decide on, but the matter does require looking at sympathetically.

Mr Logan: Thanks to the Minister for his answer. Do you have any plans for a new targeted rate relief scheme for small independent retailers?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: That goes back to Mr McGrath's earlier question about Downpatrick. Other areas, such as Banbridge, were mentioned. How do we bring life and vitality back to town centres, which have taken a bit of a hammering over recent years? I have been to Portadown town centre and Newry town centre. Some of this is to do with out-of-town supermarkets, but much of it is to do with there not being enough support for town-centre businesses.

I am therefore looking seriously at a new approach to the small business rate relief that would focus on the independent retailers, because they live locally. The money that they bring in is distributed around the economy. Every pound that we spend locally has a 70p benefit to the economy, whereas every pound that we spend in the large supermarkets may have only a 15p or 20p benefit.

Yes, I will bring some ideas forward. For me, the key areas are independent retailers and anything that helps to build our tourism product. Hospitality, tourism and independent retailers are the key areas, and I will hopefully be able to bring some suggestions to you.

T5. Ms J McCann asked the Minister of Finance for an update on his plans for the Government art collection. (AQT 250/16-21)

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Some Ministers heard that there was a Government art collection only last week when it was mentioned on the radio. I had lots of people rapping the door trying to get some of the beautiful Neville Johnsons, William Conors and other wonderful pieces.

We have 1,400 pieces of magnificent work in our art collection. My desire is to liberate it so that it is not the preserve of Ministers or senior civil servants but can be seen when you visit your local hospital, health centre or job advice centre. My desire is that we make sure that the collection — this wonderful treasure that we have — is shared with our citizens.

I have brought together a panel of experts, led by Dr Denise Ferran, who is the president of the Royal Ulster Academy and also an artist. The other conviction that I have, and I hope that Members will support it, is that we need to invest in our young artists. Earlier, Mrs Overend mentioned travelling and trying to promote business and make business contacts, but culture counts. People say that they want to come and take up jobs in this jurisdiction because they know that there is a strong cultural base, yet we do not invest in our artists.

After four years, when the graduates leave Ulster University, they have a beautiful end-of-year show. Representatives from the Office of Public Works (OPW) in Dublin come up to buy some of the work, but we do not buy any of it. We used to; we used to believe in investing in our artists. It would be a small amount of money, but artists have to eat too. We need to put our money where our mouth is and we need to invest in our artists, but we then need to share their fabulous work with the rest of the community.

I hope that the little panel of experts that I brought together, which includes Roisin McDonough, the CEO of the Arts Council, Paul Seawright, who is a great artist and the head of the Belfast School of Art, Deirdre Mackel from west Belfast and Paul Terrington from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), will come forward with some ideas around liberating the Government art collection and starting to restore it. I do not think that we have bought any of the artwork produced by our local artists in this century. Terence O'Neill revived —

Mr Speaker: I remind the Minister of the two-minute rule.

Mr Ó Muilleoir: — his collection in the 60s, but I do not think he would be very pleased with what we are doing today, which is disinvesting and divesting ourselves of our artists. I hope that the Member will come back again —

Mr Speaker: I again remind the Minister of the two-minute rule.

Ms J McCann: I thank the Minister for his answer. He mentioned it in his answer, but are there any lessons that we can learn from the Irish Government's use of their art collection?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: Mr Speaker, I thought I was Simon Hamilton for a moment there; I got carried away. [Laughter.]

The OPW has 16,000 works. You can see them all online in a beautiful online catalogue, but we do not even have an online catalogue for all the artistic treasures that we have.

If I may, Mr Speaker, I will share one quick story, which will take less than two minutes. When Dr Denise Ferran came in to view the art collection, she discovered one of her own artworks which she did 30 years ago. That was good, but as an added bonus she discovered a work by her husband Brian Ferran, which we had bought in 1967. I hope that we can match the Office of Public Works in the South and have a really vibrant online catalogue as well as getting the works out to the public.

T7. Ms S Bradley asked the Minister of Finance, in the interests of clarity, while giving him a third opportunity to answer such a question, whether he did or did not have knowledge of the ‘Preliminary Analysis on the Impact of a UK Referendum on its Membership of the European Union’ paper. (AQT 252/16-21)

Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank Ms Bradley for her question, and I will repeat myself again. When you examine the decision I took on the EU referendum, setting aside party politics, it was about saying that there was no upside economically in this particular vista for us, if there was a vote to leave or if we were forced to leave on the back of a vote in England and Wales. I stand over that. If you view the work that I did around my contingency paper, you will see that it is reflected in the predictions in the document to which you refer.

Mr Speaker: We have time for only a quick supplementary question and a quick answer from the Minister.

Ms S Bradley: Can I assume, then, from the Minister's answer that he did have sight of the document ahead of the referendum?

Mr Ó Muilleoir: I am happy to repeat to Ms Bradley that I am content that the position I took around the contingency plan and the position that we outlined is correct. Without going into the politics of it, time will tell whether we have huge challenges ahead in terms of offsetting the impact of the efforts to push us out of Europe.

Mr Speaker: The benefit of a brief answer means that Mr Chris Lyttle gets a question.

T9. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister of Finance what work he has undertaken to tackle the cost of division, which an Ulster University report puts in the region of £850 million a year to Northern Ireland. (AQT 254/16-21)

Mr Ó Muilleoir: I thank the Member for his question. I hope he is thankful to me for letting him in by my brevity. I support many of the measures that his party has championed around reducing the cost to our society of division. Of course, these matters do not fall to my Department, but I have made clear to every Department I deal with, including those of Minister Givan, who has just joined us, and Minister Weir, that where they can bring people together they should do so, and I believe that there is a cost saving in that.

Mr Speaker: That concludes questions to the Minister of Finance. I ask Members to take their ease while we change the top Table.


3.30 pm

Executive Committee Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That the Second Stage of the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill [NIA 2/16-21] be agreed.

Mr Givan (The Minister for Communities): I thank the Members who took part in the debate for their contributions. There is no doubt that the Bill's Committee Stage will be a very interesting session when the members of the Committee explore the range of issues that were discussed. I outlined in my opening statement the broad principles of the Bill. Members got into specific detail on the Bill, but now the Committee will go into detailed evidence-gathering and, I have no doubt, will bring forward issues that we will seek to try to find an accommodation on. Let me give an undertaking to the Committee that my officials will be available; we will proactively engage with the Committee. Where we can find common ground on issues that Members have touched upon that were not consulted upon in the Bill, I will want to work towards that. Where we cannot find common ground will be a matter for Consideration Stage, and we will have to take positions on amendments that come forward on those issues.

Members' contributions were, in the round, well informed. However, it is always important to recognise that alcohol, as the Member for Foyle Eamonn McCann said, is a mind-altering substance, and it is important that we have that foremost in our thinking. Members indicated that, on the one hand, we need to tackle alcohol abuse, and I very much want to tackle the misuse of alcohol in our society; on the other hand, we want to support the hospitality industry where we can, and the Bill will introduce a much more regulated framework. Members may have other suggestions on how they believe that can be added to, and I will be open to that for consideration.

I will pick up on some things that Members said in the debate. Ms Gildernew, who spoke first, talked about some of those issues and used language about making sure that the Bill represents an outward and progressive Northern Ireland; she said that we need to use the Bill as a vision for Northern Ireland. Claire Hanna indicated that Northern Ireland needs to come into the 21st century. In response to those kind of comments, I make the point that one person's version of what is progressive and modern may not be the same as other people's interpretation of what represents a modern and progressive society.

Let me pick up on what Ms Gildernew said. Let us have a mature and informed discussion about all these issues and take evidence-based decisions. It is easy to fly the flag of continental Europe, and my colleague Mr Stalford touched on that point. People say that they do it there and ask why we cannot do it here. When I have been to continental Europe, the experience that I have had is of shops shutting in the middle of the day and not being open. When I come back to Northern Ireland, I find that shops are open more frequently than they are in continental Europe. That tells me that different approaches need to be taken in different societies, not just in the United Kingdom but across Europe. We need legislation based on the particular needs of our community; we need to address our own drinking culture in Northern Ireland. Rightly, all Members who commented on this identified that there is a specific culture where binge drinking is prevalent, and that needs to be tackled.

People will have different approaches as to the best way to tackle it, but we have distinct issues in Northern Ireland when it comes to alcohol misuse.

Let me crystallise the financial cost across government of alcohol misuse: every year, it costs £900 million. That figure comes from a report compiled by the Department of Justice, when we were looking at the impact of alcohol misuse. Twenty per cent of all crimes in Northern Ireland are the result of people suffering from the consequences of intoxication of liquor; 45% of all crimes that relate to violence against persons are the direct result of individuals being intoxicated by liquor. One in six admissions to accident and emergency units is the result of alcohol misuse, which increases to 80% at peak times at weekends. We need to be careful that people do not take a blasé attitude to alcohol and frame their arguments in a way that can at times be dismissive to the real consequences of alcohol misuse.

There are approximately 12,000 admissions each year to acute hospitals as a result of alcohol misuse. Four thousand people in Northern Ireland are being treated for alcohol misuse. When we get down to the impact that it can have on younger people, 38% of 11- to 16-year-olds have consumed alcohol. There are dire consequences, and Mr McCann painted a very bleak picture of people lying on the streets vomiting. He said that advertisements always glamorise the consumption of alcohol and never show what it is like to live in a home where the mum or dad has an alcohol problem and how the children can live in a difficult environment as a result. The advertisements never take you to the scene in a hospital bed, where someone has organ failure as a result of a lifetime of alcohol abuse. You will never see that in advertising. How do we address that?

I accept that the vast majority of alcohol is now consumed in people's homes. Around 70% of all alcohol is bought in off-licences and supermarkets, taken home and consumed, often in social isolation. That is where the primary cause of concern lies. If people are going to drink, I would much rather they did so in a regulated framework, where it is an offence for publicans in licensed premises to serve people who are drunk. It is not an offence at home to continue to drink and drink and drink, but it is an offence to serve someone who is already intoxicated by alcohol in a licensed premises, and you will be fined £2,500 for doing so. The Committee might want to look at how hard such cases are pursued. In a licensed premises, there is a more regulated framework, where some social responsibility is at least being exercised on individuals who want to drink alcohol.

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

It is wrong for people to then say that that means that licensed premises and the regulated framework should not be subject to regulation. Here is where I part company with Mr McCann and some of his contribution. He described himself as a liberal on the issue and said that he would go much further. I did not take an exact quote of what he said, but I note that he indicated that there should be "no restrictions whatsoever". I stand corrected if that is not an accurate quotation, but advocating no restrictions whatsoever is not being a liberal; that is being absolutely lawless on a very important issue whereby people should be entirely free to do whatever they want. We need to take a much broader, more sensible approach that balances the needs of the industry. The hospitality sector will, rightly, pursue greater flexibility. We need to ensure that, in that context, we take in the whole industry. It is not beneficial for people to be drinking to 2.00 am or 3.00 am. What impact will that have on our economy when it comes to 8.00 am and you are meant to be out at work? The hospitality industry and tourism sector will pursue a particular narrow remit, but we need to take a much broader look.

I am not aware of people being attracted to Northern Ireland for that reason or looking at Northern Ireland and saying, "I am not going on holiday there because the pubs do not have long enough opening hours". I am not aware of that being a big issue in people determining whether they come to Northern Ireland on holiday. In fact, it would concern me if we wanted to make a tourism pitch for Northern Ireland based on saying, "Come to the Province, and you will be able to consume as much alcohol as you want at whatever time you want". We would need to be careful of that. We have a tourism product in Northern Ireland that, in my view, is much better than having unlimited opening hours. We need to strike the balance.

Mrs Long: I thank the Minister for giving way. I do not think that anyone was suggesting that more people would come to Northern Ireland simply because they would be able to drink more. The issue is that about 35% of what people spend when they are here is spent on food and drink in the hospitality sector. It could certainly enhance their spend while they are here.

Mr Givan: I am all for trying to enhance people's spend when they come here. I would like to encourage people to spend money on tourist attractions and going to facilities and not market Northern Ireland on the basis of the availability of alcohol. I do not think that that is the vision that we want for Northern Ireland. I do not believe that it is the progressive vision that people want for Northern Ireland, and I do not believe that it would deal with some of the issues that are being raised.

I outlined at the start that there were some aspects of the Bill that are very beneficial for the industry. I accept that they will want a lot more, and it is their right to make that argument. However, we as legislators need to take this in the round and address the important issue of alcohol consumption and, in particular, how we deal with the misuse of alcohol.

Mr Chambers: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Givan: I will give way in one moment.

Mrs Long and other Members talked about whether we should expose young people to this. I think it was specifically around demystifying alcohol for children and almost how moderation is the best practice in dealing with this. I would be wary about that approach. You could apply that approach not just to the consumption of alcohol but to a lot of things in life. That would be exposing children to something that, I believe, is absolutely harmful for them. Nobody here at any time advocated that children should be encouraged to drink alcohol — in fact, quite the opposite. When you bear in mind the devastating consequences of the misuse of alcohol, we would need to be cautious about how we would introduce alcohol into the attitudes of children and the educational approach to them. We would need to be careful about that.

I will take personal responsibility for how I bring up my children, and I will certainly not expose them to an approach of moderation being OK when it comes to drinking alcohol. There is a wider issue of parental responsibility. I look at what happened at the MTV awards up in Londonderry. Streams of teenagers were piling out, intoxicated, of an event that had a licence. Where was the parental control? Where were the adults over 18 who are meant to accompany children of that age? It did not work. If people look at that, it should help to inform the approach that we take to what is a very important issue.

Mr Chambers: I thank the Minister for giving way. On cigarette sales, we have recently put doors on cigarette cabinets, introduced plain packaging, cut the size of cigarette packets and so forth because of the health implications for smokers and the strain on the health service. You have shared some horrendous figures with us on the effect that alcohol has in crime and the cost to the National Health Service. Does the Minister agree that there may be a case for considering some limitation of the display of alcohol in off-licences? You can go into an off-licence as a non-drinker and almost want to buy a bottle of alcohol because it is laid out so attractively and so colourfully. Does the Minister think that there is a case for bringing in some control on how alcohol is displayed in off-licences?


3.45 pm

Mr Givan: This will be an issue that Members will want to explore in more detail. There are proposals in the Bill by which I will restrict, through legislation and subject to the will of the Assembly, the ability to advertise within 200 metres of premises. We want to make sure that, when supermarkets have areas in their premises that are zoned off for selling alcohol, they are not able to advertise outside that area as well. That is something on which, I suspect, Members will feel we should go even further in tightening, and again I encourage the Committee to consider what areas we need to go further on to make sure we tighten it up as far as possible.

Members touched on Easter, and I think Mr Agnew commented about freedom of religion and freedom from religion. What I will say to Members is this: Northern Ireland rightly, in my view, recognises Easter, both in the Protestant and Catholic community, as a time of significance for religious belief. Without the basis of Easter, which is grounded on religious belief, there would not be a public holiday. You cannot on the one hand argue that we want to avail ourselves of the right of having a public holiday that is given to you on the basis of religious belief but then not expect that, in some way, respect should be given to that holiday period. That is something we should bear in mind.

There has been some proposal about the Thursday that goes into Good Friday, but, again, in the Irish Republic, the law prohibits the opening at all of any licensed premises pub in the South on Good Friday. They cannot open — full stop — on Good Friday. In Northern Ireland, obviously, on Good Friday, you are able to open. Yes, the opening hours during the Easter period are not what they normally are throughout the rest of the year, but Easter is not what it is throughout the rest of the year, given the religious significance of it. We need to be mindful of that and take the balanced approach that we are taking to it.

Without going into any more detail, this will obviously be something the Committee will engage on. I think there are grounds where we can find commonality, but I have no doubt — I have every confidence in the Committee — that it will explore this in great detail. When we come back at Consideration Stage, there will be amendments that will need to be properly considered. The House, ultimately, is responsible for the legislation. It will be passed by the will of the Assembly, but we need to come to it on the basis of a mature and informed discussion. If we do that, we will reach a satisfactory outcome at the end of the process.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill [NIA 2/16-21] be agreed.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The Minister will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other speakers will have five minutes.

That this Assembly takes note of the content of the draft BBC Royal Charter and Framework Agreement.

As Minister with responsibility for broadcasting matters in Northern Ireland, I am pleased to be here today to debate the draft BBC Royal Charter and Framework Agreement. BBC charter renewal is a very important issue for the broadcasting sector in Northern Ireland. People here attach a great value to having a comprehensive public service broadcasting service that reflects all aspects of our social, cultural and political life.

The Royal Charter is the constitutional basis for the BBC. It sets out its public purposes, guarantees its independence and outlines the various duties placed upon it. The current charter outlines the duties of the BBC Trust and the executive board. The proposed new charter will come into effect on 1 January 2017. The BBC’s Framework Agreement is an agreement between the UK Government and the BBC, and it sits alongside the charter. It provides detail on many of the issues outlined in the charter and also covers the BBC's funding and regulatory duties. The BBC charter renewal is a very important issue for our broadcasting sector, and it is essential that the needs of Northern Ireland are catered for in the new charter and Framework Agreement.

I want to see opportunities in the TV and film industry being maximised for local workers and companies, and it is essential that we receive fair treatment in regard to public service broadcasting spend on commissioning, particularly in relation to spending on Irish language and Ulster-Scots broadcasting. The BBC should meet its obligations within the charter to provide services for all its communities, including indigenous language broadcasting. It is also important that the portrayal of Northern Ireland on the networks shows a fuller picture of us as a modern society. It is essential, and increasingly so, that the role that diverse groups play within our society is reflected and that people are not portrayed by a single aspect of their identity, such as ethnicity or disability. The creative industries are important to our economy, and the BBC is a major player in the creative industries ecosystem. As a result, it is essential that we have strengthened links and meaningful collaboration between the BBC and the wider creative industries.

Essential changes, some of which I touched on earlier, include that there needs to be a full, authentic, accurate and more up-to-date portrayal of Northern Ireland on the networks that shows a fuller picture of our society. We have been underserved by public service broadcasting spend up to now, and we therefore need to see an increase and improvement in the commissioning of original programming that showcases our local communities. There also needs to be more local cultural TV and radio coverage, and opportunities for local workers and companies must be maximised, with greater emphasis placed on home-grown productions and the harnessing of local talent. There must be increased commissioning of original programming that showcases our local communities and what they have to offer.

It is crucial that the BBC has governance, management and funding structures that reflect the needs of each devolved Administration and region and better support the development, production and delivery of content from us — content that is available not just to our own audiences but to wider audiences within the United Kingdom and internationally. There should be a simple and transparent BBC strategy for Northern Ireland that is not only available for scrutiny by those responsible for governance but available as a road map and an empowering authority for the executives in the BBC and BBC NI.

It is also essential that the Assembly has some means of holding the UK Government and the BBC to account to ensure that they provide for a truly representative service that is fit for purpose in the 21st century. Our memorandum of understanding gives the Assembly a formal scrutiny role in regard to the BBC. It also provides for BBC officials appearing before Northern Ireland Assembly Committees on matters relating to Northern Ireland on the same basis as it does in Westminster. Those arrangements will be enshrined in the new charter and should provide a mechanism that makes the public service broadcaster accountable and answerable to the Assembly. Accountability should help to ensure that we receive the economic and cultural value that we deserve and warrant from the BBC. In the past, there was a failure to ensure that Northern Ireland received the cultural and economic value from BBC network production that our population and devolved status demands. We need to be certain that that will not happen again, and the proposals set out in the draft charter will go a long way towards ensuring that it will not.

Provisions of particular interest to Northern Ireland include that specific provision is made for the nations in the new licensing regime. In addition, the new charter commits the BBC to continued support for the minority languages of the United Kingdom. In respect of accountability and governance, the BBC must reflect the constitutional arrangements within the United Kingdom. All the devolved Administrations will be able to agree to the appointment of their respective member to the new BBC board before they are appointed. The BBC has committed to improving representation and portrayal of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom through its services.

The nations and regions public purpose will emphasise the need for the BBC to support the creative economy of each nation of the United Kingdom through the delivery of its mission and public purposes. The BBC must now report against the creative remits set out in the annual plan on a nation-by-nation basis. The UK Government have recognised that the BBC's impact on and contribution to the creative economy, particularly in the nations, is an important one, and I welcome that recognition.

In conclusion, at this stage, the BBC charter review has given us in Northern Ireland a formal role in contributing fully to the review process. The current drafts mirror many of the demands of the devolved Administrations, and my officials and I will continue to engage with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) over the next number of weeks as we seek to ensure that our interests are clearly reflected in the final documents.

Ms Gildernew (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): The Committee received and noted copies of the draft charter and the draft agreement that the House is being asked to take note of today. The Committee has been offered a briefing by the current BBC Trust member and will decide at its meeting on Thursday whether that is required on foot of today’s debate.

The future of the BBC has been much debated by the media over recent months, but I suspect that much of the detail of the debate has been of real concern only to those in the media. There seemed to be a question at certain points in the charter discussions whether the BBC would survive at all as a public broadcaster, given what appeared to be ideological opposition to public-sector broadcasting from the two previous Conservative Culture Secretaries, Sajid Javid and John Whittingdale. That argument has been settled, at least for the next 11 years, given that the charter lasts until 2027.

I respectfully suggest that the details of the charter and draft agreement are of little relevance or interest to the ordinary person in the street. Of course, there are issues that do generate interest, such as the requirement to name people in the organisation who earn over £150,000, including the people who think of themselves as big stars. In the overall scheme of things, however, that is not important. What is, or should be, important to us all is that we have the confidence that the BBC here is well governed and managed; that the licence fee is value for money; and that the BBC maintains its independence from Government. I think that it is broadly accepted that the new arrangements go some way to embedding processes within the structures of the BBC that seek to achieve those objectives.

As mentioned, a key issue for the BBC throughout the charter discussions was certainty about funding. The renewal of the charter is for a further 11 years and should provide stable funding for the organisation. Arguments over the continuation of the licence fee have been put to bed, and the BBC should be able to get on with its mandate of providing broadcasting to the public that will educate, inform and entertain.

It is also important to note the change in governance arrangements, with the establishment of a new board rather than the current system of trustees. The role of the board will be extensive, but it is important to highlight the requirement for transparency in the workings of the board and the independence from Government of each member. It is to be noted that the Government will directly appoint five of the 14-strong board, including a new chair and the four national directors for the North of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. That leaves the BBC able to appoint four executive members of the board alongside another five independent members. This should provide some assurance that the board is independent.

The change to the regulation of the BBC is a fundamental one. Currently, the BBC is self-regulating, but from next year Ofcom will take on the responsibility, and it will have extensive powers. Of particular interest are the powers of Ofcom to determine whether the BBC’s commercial activities, because of their link to public services, give it an unfair competitive advantage. An operating framework will be produced in which Ofcom will set requirements that define what the relationship between the BBC and its commercial activities should be. This will be crucial, given that Ofcom's powers in relation to the BBC are extensive. They include the power to order the BBC to cease activity that Ofcom judges to be anti-competitive.


4.00 pm

In principle, most of us support the idea of external, independent regulation, but it will be important to see to what extent the new arrangements restrict the BBC’s commercial activity. That will be important in the context of section 13 of the charter, which seeks to promote and establish creative partnerships with other organisations where they would be in the public interest. We have seen the growth of the creative industries here over a number of years. According to the Department, 36,000 people — 4·6% of the workforce — are employed in the creative industries or creative occupations. We do not want to see the potential of the BBC to assist with that burgeoning industry curtailed by regulation.

In addition, the National Audit Office will report on the group accounts. The Secretary of State must then lay the group accounts and the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General before Parliament, and these must be subsequently published by the BBC. Similarly, they have to be laid before our Assembly on the same day as, or as soon as possible after, they have been laid before Parliament in Westminster. This should afford transparency on the organisation's expenditure activities.

Turning to the local, as well as to the "big ticket" programmes that have proved popular —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Will the Member draw her remarks to a close, please?

Ms Gildernew: OK. Local programming is also important to people, whether that be stories about our communities, local sports programming or a locally produced series with wider appeal, such as 'The Fall'. The Committee has received an offer —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Member's time is up.

Ms Gildernew: OK. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Bell: It is an important debate. As I understand it, while it is down as a take-note debate, the UK Government will look at what comes from the Northern Ireland Assembly and from Scotland and Wales. That will then be factored into the report that the UK Government will present on the charter and the agreement to the Privy Council in time for it to come into force on 1 January 2017. The points that we can make today, albeit within five minutes, should be those that we want carried through.

Indeed, the BBC has come a long way from the British Broadcasting Company, as it was in 1922. Then, I think that it was — I will probably not get the pronunciation correct — the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres who chaired the committee that, in 1926, looked at the United States and said, "We do not want to see unregulated broadcasting", and produced a report, which was accepted. I think that that has been a very good thing. The BBC became the British Broadcasting Corporation, deriving its authority from a Royal Charter.

We now have an opportunity to present the points that Northern Ireland wants to see within the report. I note with a lot of alarm that the BBC has developed production centres in England, Glasgow and Cardiff, but none in Northern Ireland. I congratulate the former Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure for the work that it did in its legacy report on this, because it is not acceptable to have production centres in England, Cardiff and Glasgow, but not in Northern Ireland. If we had a BBC production centre in Northern Ireland, it would give our licence fee payers a proper return for the investment that they have put into the BBC.

There is a lot that we want to see. We want to see independence and transparency. I know that Gregory Campbell MP, formerly of this parish, will be delighted if journalists — particularly one, I suspect — have to declare anything over £150,000 in earnings. It is really important for Northern Ireland that we take a strategic approach to supporting the creative industries here. Over the years we have seen so much, not just by the BBC but others, from 'Line of Duty' right through to other productions outside the BBC, such as 'Game of Thrones', where you have had some excellent productions and millions of pounds brought into the economy as a result of the creative industries. The demand that we should place here, through to the UK Government, is that we want a production centre in Northern Ireland to allow us to take a strategic approach and, as I say, give the licence fee payers some sort of return for their money.

I like the fact that the BBC will be put on a proper financial footing that should enable it to plan properly for the future. I also like the changes that will take it outside political cycles because I believe that there is a role for the BBC to be independent into the future.

Can I say one particular thing? I do not know whether I am having a midlife crisis or it is just whatever age I am getting to, but I am listening more to radio and podcasts than I am watching television. I understand that Northern Ireland's listenership to BBC radio is much higher than it is in any other part of the UK, so there is a strong argument for radio services to be more appreciated by the BBC. There is some excellent radio — from BBC4 podcasts that I enjoy to conspiracy thrillers from Matthew Broughton down. Wonderful creative radio and news. We should recognise, particularly in Northern Ireland, where we have an ageing demographic, that many older people look to their radios as a form of company; it is their choice of what to listen to in the media. Given a higher radio listenership in Northern Ireland, we should have an increased investment in radio.

For me, critically, we need a proper BBC production centre in Northern Ireland, as we have already shown that we can outperform in the creative industries. Such a centre would be an asset for the BBC, an asset for us, and an asset for the licence payer.

Mr Allen: In opening on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I will, if I may, pay our condolences to the renowned BBC NI broadcaster and journalist Paddy O'Flaherty. Our sympathies are with his family at this time.

The BBC charter review is timely and necessary. The BBC is a national institution that contributes greatly to the cultural life of the United Kingdom and, on the whole, enjoys a great deal of public support. In return for the licence fee, the audience, rightly, expects the BBC to continue to produce high-quality, creative and innovative content.

In my party's response to the BBC charter review, we recognised that this was a time of change for the UK, not least in how devolution is impacting on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The BBC needs to adapt to these changes and ensure at the same time that the interests of the nations and regions are given a voice. One of the most important changes that the news and current affairs departments in BBC Northern Ireland have to adapt to is to recognise the existence of an official Opposition at Stormont and to balance its reporting accordingly.

In fairness, the BBC does not have an easy job, given that it has to cater for an extremely wide range of age groups, ethnicities and communities, including, of course, those in the devolved nations and UK regions, where audiences' needs and expectations can, and often do, vary widely. Quite correctly, all feel that they have a stake in the BBC and that they all should be reflected in what the BBC does.

We are well aware of the debate about how well the BBC services licence payers in the devolved regions. Regional opt-outs ensure that local news and programming fit within the BBC nationally. It is extremely important that the people of Northern Ireland have access to a respected national broadcaster.

We note in schedule 2, paragraph 6 of the draft agreement, that Ofcom has a great deal of discretion. It states:

"Ofcom must impose on the BBC the requirements they consider appropriate, having regard to the needs of the nations and regions".

Many of the following clauses begin with "what appears to Ofcom" or "such provision as Ofcom consider appropriate". That theme is continued in schedule 2, paragraph 7, "Programme making in the nations and regions", which states:

"Ofcom must impose on the BBC the requirements they consider appropriate for securing ... what appears to Ofcom to be a suitable proportion of all the network programmes made in the United Kingdom are programmes made in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland;"

Again, the phrase "what appears to Ofcom" keeps cropping up, and the role of Ofcom is obviously key in ensuring that the nations and regions receive fair and equitable treatment. The Ulster Unionist Party greatly values the importance of locally produced and commissioned programming. However, it must be of high quality. There is no doubt that the creative industries have been a real Northern Ireland success story in recent times. The BBC has a major role to play in commissioning programmes and working with external producers in making programmes. This is an area where the BBC can make a real, positive impact on Northern Ireland plc and help the local economy in the process.

I will return to the issue of BBC funding. The BBC faces challenges that were unforeseen even 20 years ago. The success and popularity of Sky TV and the growth of digital media platforms provide a very different operating environment from the days when the only competition came from ITV and independent radio. It is crucial that the BBC has a stable funding framework in order to enable forward planning. The 2006 charter will extend for a further 10 years until the end of 2027, and the 2006 agreement will be revoked and replaced by a new framework agreement.

That is a time frame that should provide sufficient security and stability for the BBC going forward.

The Ulster Unionist Party recognises the key role that the BBC plays, both UK-wide and at local level. We want to see a BBC that is fit for purpose and meets the needs of the people of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as we progress into the 21st century.

Ms Mallon: I fervently believe in the importance of having a reliable public broadcaster that acts in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services that inform, educate and entertain. You will find no disagreement here on this objective of the BBC's mission in its Royal Charter, but the real test is in how those objectives are put into practice. I do not intend to go through the charter comprehensively — I know that other Members will point out issues of importance to them — but there are just a few things I would like to touch on. The SDLP welcomes the out-of-London quotas, but that must extend beyond the outer suburbs of London. It must reflect the cultural and social —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Sorry. I am picking up a number of conversations. Perhaps Members would, if they wish to conduct conversations, conduct them elsewhere or less audibly at least.

Ms Mallon: We are very clear that the out-of-London quotas must extend beyond the Outer Hebrides and include the social and cultural distinctiveness of Northern Ireland. In the North, for example, Derry and Belfast have clear cultural and social distinctions that must be protected and reflected through local services like Radio Foyle. The SDLP also welcomes the extension to the Assembly of parity with Scotland and Wales in relation to the appointments of nation members to the new unitary board. That is an accountability step that is long overdue. Members also touched on the issue of salaries.

Mr Stalford: I thank the Member for giving way. The Member will be aware that I raised the issue of public appointments in the Committee for Communities. I suspect that there is a coterie of about 100 people in Northern Ireland who absolutely dominate all public appointments. Does she agree that, if the BBC is to be a truly national broadcaster, it is essential that it is reflective of the public? That includes not just the usual definitions but things like social class.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Member has an extra minute.

Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his intervention. I firmly believe that all appointments should be done in an open and transparent manner, whether for a spin doctor or for appointments to the new unitary board.

Members passed comment on salaries, which is only right. We welcome the move to greater openness and transparency regarding the salaries of the BBC's highest earners. The public have a right to know how public money is spent, and it is as simple as that.

Just to air a note of caution, the SDLP would be strongly against any suggestion of a move to introduce subscription charges for the BBC. We do not want to see a first-class and second-class system in which people can access their public service broadcaster only on the basis of their ability to pay. However, we welcome the move to open up the tendering process and think it will be a positive move if approached correctly. It improves the opportunities for us in Northern Ireland to build on our success in producing world-class TV productions, not least 'Game of Thrones'.

Finally, my party colleague in Westminster, Margaret Ritchie MP, has already sought assurances from the Secretary of State that the collaboration between the BBC and RTE, which is much valued, will not be undermined. It is important that I take the opportunity to reiterate that point.

Mrs Long: I welcome the opportunity to speak on behalf of Alliance about the BBC Royal Charter and Framework Agreement announced in Parliament on 16 September. The charter is an essential instrument for an organisation that has become a cornerstone of broadcasting in the UK and throughout the world. It is uniquely well respected as an institution, and, whilst it is not without flaws, it has an important role to fulfill as a public broadcaster.

I want to focus my comments on three aspects of the draft charter and the particular opportunities and challenges they present to the BBC and Northern Ireland. First, I am concerned, unlike some others, that with this charter review we are witnessing the further erosion of the BBC but by means of stealth. The current Government appear to want the BBC to be both a public service broadcaster and a commercially competitive organisation and place challenges in its way on both fronts.


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As has been well documented in the media, the charter will lead to the publication of the salaries of presenters and talent on the BBC. There is a strong argument that that accounts for public money being expended, but it could lead to the release of information that would be considered commercially sensitive by its competitors and could make the poaching of household names from the BBC by other channels much simpler. Whilst that may not seem much of an issue, it disregards the BBC's investment in talent and development and the negative impact that it could have on viewing figures and the popularity of its shows, for which the same people will no doubt also judge its performance very harshly. It seems that the Government live up to the adage of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The same pattern of commercialisation has led to the outsourcing of much BBC programming to independent production companies. That in itself is not a bad thing, and it results in programmes that only a public service broadcaster could afford to risk making. Once those programmes gain popular appeal, they are sold off to the highest bidder, again diminishing the BBC's schedule, despite its investment in developing those programmes. A recent example of that is 'The Great British Bake Off'. Who would have thought that a show about competitive baking would grip the nation? It has, but it took a public service broadcaster to broadcast it on BBC 2 before it was able to be mainstreamed onto prime-time television on BBC 1. The BBC has now lost out to a commercial operator. While some argue that that will allow new talent and opportunities to break through, it hits BBC viewing figures, against which its performance is judged.

It has also been announced that the BBC will fund free television licences for the over-75s in the charter. I welcome that move and, indeed, believe that it could go much further. However, it will come at the expense of the BBC's running costs, its staff and programme content rather than through additional funding, which further undermines its competitiveness. For both those reasons, I fear that the intentions of the current Government are perhaps not as honourable as they claim.

My second concern is the independence of the BBC, with the inclusion of political appointees on the board. As a public service broadcaster, it must be seen to be independent, and it is hugely important that that is maintained. Political appointments have the potential to diminish that significantly, and, given the questions raised about public appointments in Northern Ireland, I am grateful that there will be a degree of transparency and openness. It should not be politicised.

The appointment of someone from Northern Ireland to the board represents opportunities to increase Northern Irish-created content. Content made in Northern Ireland for Northern Ireland is hugely important, but, if we are to develop our creative industries, it is also important that the BBC commits to making national content in each constituent country. Through television shows such as 'The Fall', 'Game of Thrones' and 'Lily's Driftwood Bay', we have demonstrated that Northern Ireland can create and produce world-class television. I want to see that built on through the BBC's local content commitment.

Finally, an opportunity has been lost to decriminalise the non-payment of a TV licence. My party leader, David Ford, raised the issue with the Home Office during his time as Justice Minister, and it could have been addressed in the charter. Last year, a quarter of criminal prosecutions in Northern Ireland were for failure to pay a TV licence, and fewer than half were found guilty. That puts significant pressure on the legal system. Decriminalisation would allow cost savings, and non-payment could be pursued through non-criminal means.

I note the BBC charter review and hope that the opportunities for improvement in the charter will be fully realised while the risks to an excellent public service broadcaster and its independence are minimised.

Mr Stalford: The BBC is one of the great national institutions. It is extremely powerful. I would suggest that, certainly in Northern Ireland and potentially in the United Kingdom as a whole, it is much more powerful than any political party. With such power comes a responsibility for regulation, so I welcome the fact that Ofcom is to assume regulatory powers with regard to the BBC. It is right that an organisation that millions of people are taxed to pay for should be regulated in that way and scrutinised for the way in which it is run.

I welcome that, as Naomi Long, a Member for East Belfast, said, there will be a Northern Ireland representative appointed to make our voice heard. Given the comments from the former special adviser turned Assembly Member for North Belfast, I am sure she will be able to advise of the public appointment procedures she went through.

I am delighted that progress has been made —

A Member: By royal appointment.

Mr Stalford: By royal appointment.

Progress has been made with openness and transparency. The headlines have obviously been grabbed by the issue of talent pay. I think a more important issue is that the coverage produced for Northern Ireland should reflect Northern Ireland. The BBC recognises that and that it has an obligation to minority languages and cultural expression. One of the areas where I believe there has been a falling away is the representation of the entire Ulster-Scots tradition. I am not an Ulster Scot in the sense of family background, but it is something that interests me and that I have taken an interest in because of the shared heritage and tradition that there is. Northern Ireland and Scotland are divided by about eight miles of water at some points and precious little else. It is part of who we are; it is part of our tradition and our identity. I would like to see more of a reflection of that being produced by the BBC.

I am absolutely not saying that the growth of one should be at the expense of another, such as the Irish language. I recognise that that is important to people as well. I think we should have greater parity between those two traditions and how they are reflected. Some of the programmes produced have been really good. I think particularly of the series that was produced about the Ulster-Scots contribution in Canada. I would like to see more high-quality programming like that being produced as part of the obligations the BBC has in that regard.

The BBC likes to talk about the unique way in which it is funded. That is code for the TV tax we all pay. I agree with the point made, again by the Member for East Belfast, about the need to decriminalise the non-payment of a licence fee. It cannot be right that so much time, effort and resource are spent pursuing people, with criminal charges being brought against them, for the non-payment of a TV licence.

Moving forward, more openness and transparency are needed about how money is spent, and there needs to be a greater preparedness to reflect the society it serves. There also needs to be a genuine commitment to independence and neutrality. The BBC is, as I said, a great national institution. It covers big national events like the Queen's jubilee and the state opening of Parliament. Even its general election coverage is better than that offered by anyone else. It is in all our interests for it to continue to be a success, but it is also in our interests for it to be held accountable for the way in which taxpayer money —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close, please.

Mr Stalford: — is spent.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I declare an interest at the start: I was one of the Ministers — the other one is over there — who probably started the process of the review of the BBC charter and funding agreement. I am delighted to see that some of the suggestions that were brought forward have been taken on board, but I still think that, notwithstanding that our Committee will meet on Thursday, there are some concerns about some of the issues. The whole issue about the independence of the BBC is, I think, just a given. However, as a result of the Silk and Smith commissions, the funding arrangements, particularly for Scotland, and the memorandum of understanding that was brought forward then, we here and Wales felt there was an inequality. So that seems to have changed. I had a concern about any body regulating itself, so Ofcom has now become the regulating body, and even the concerns about the arrangements around the advisory committee have been listened to as well. In one year, the BBC had accrued around £4 billion. A lot of us would like to know how that money was spent.

I listened to Jonathan Bell talk about the BBC needing to have a production house here. I tend to disagree with him. I think that one of the successful arguments that we have made is that we have excellent producers and commissioners and the ability to commission programmes here, and, in order for our independent creative industries to thrive, we need to try to support that. The BBC has not exploited the skills and expertise that we have here as much as it should have, in my opinion.

I also believe that, without the broadcasting funds, the BBC has not contributed enough to Ulster Scots and the Irish language. While the broadcast funds are administered through the BBC and even through the work of NI Screen, it still, for me, raises concerns. I am not convinced that the argument around parity of those broadcast funds stands up, to be frank.

I have shared some of the concerns, and that will be reflected somewhat in the charter, about making sure that we are represented in a way that is true, reflective and faithful to the people here, and the Minister touched on that in his opening remarks. That is really important, and I believe that the BBC has lacked in that in the past. One of the best ways that we can change that is to spend more money here commissioning programmes. We have made excellent programmes that can be shown anywhere. I believe that it is a two-way process, and not enough has been done, despite the fact that the creative industries sector here, NI Screen and the BBC here have lobbied and argued for that.

The context for all that argument was particularly around the charter renewal and the funding agreement. I do not think that it is challenging the independence of the BBC to ask where the money is being spent and, more importantly, how it is being spent. I would definitely like to see more of a breakdown of local commissioning here and, particularly, more commissioning in addition to the broadcast funds around the Irish language and Ulster Scots. I shared some concerns around the outworkings of some of those programmes, particularly in relation to Ulster Scots, but that is by the by. That is something that we need to look at.

It is really important that we look at governance and lessons learned from the failure around some of the governance issues with the BBC in the past. One of the biggest issues is the governance around some of the historical sexual abuse allegations. I think that the BBC was quite disgraceful in the way that it governed. It looked after the celebrity rather than the victims. If anything, this presents us with an opportunity to ensure that that never happens again. I am quite looking forward to hearing what some of the big presenters earn. I think that we could take a guess on that.

This is a take-note debate —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Will the Member draw her remarks to a close, please?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Yes. Beidh mé ag críochnú anois. I am delighted to take part in this and delighted that we have got it this far, but there is still much more work that we need to do.

Mr McCausland: The BBC, as the principal public service broadcaster for the United Kingdom, has a special place in the life of the nation. It has a role in representing Northern Ireland to the wider United Kingdom audience through its programming and, in the other direction, in representing the diversity and unity of the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland viewers. It is, of course, the British Broadcasting Corporation. It is important also that it has a role as regards preventing the marginalisation of Northern Ireland and, indeed, the other nations and regions and avoiding what has, in some cases, been identified as a rather London-centric approach, particularly in regard to commissioning, where Northern Ireland has not been adequately represented in commissioning at a United Kingdom level.


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There are also the important issues of the provision of employment in Northern Ireland and supporting the cultural sector, whether that be in-house productions or the work of independent producers. Going forward, we want a greater focus on Northern Ireland, especially through equitable capital investment. Other regions of the United Kingdom got major capital investment, but Northern Ireland was overlooked. There are some excellent locations in the heart of Belfast, close to the University of Ulster and on the north side of the city centre.

Ms Mallon: Hear, hear.

Mr McCausland: I am glad that I have the endorsement of one of the other Members for North Belfast.

Several Members touched on the need to reflect cultural traditions and diversity in Northern Ireland. That has to be a commitment because education and broadcasting — the school system and the broadcasting system — are hugely important in affirming, sustaining and supporting local cultural traditions. That is why the Irish language lobby has put such emphasis on Irish-medium schools and ensuring that there is substantial provision for the Irish language in BBC broadcasting. There is an important role for broadcasting in affirming, sustaining and supporting cultural traditions, but it is important that it is done in a way that is fair and equitable.

Karen Bradley MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, in a letter that was circulated, referred particularly to minority languages — in our case, Irish and Ulster Scots — culture and cultural broadcasting. That is not simply a BBC issue; it is an equality issue for Northern Ireland. It is also a human rights issue.

I notice that the former CAL Minister has now left us. Her view was that there was not a strong case for parity between the two broadcasting funds. If you look at the evidence, you see that that simply does not stack up. When I pressed her once on how you would measure need and justify spend, she mentioned viewing figures. Look at the viewing figures for programmes supported by the Irish Language Broadcast Fund; then look at the viewing figures for programmes supported by the Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund. In most cases, figures for the programmes supported by the Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund are higher. The one exception, I have to confess, is the programme in which Daniel O'Donnell's country music show goes to Newry. That will gain strong support from Mr Kennedy and folks in that area. I suspect —

Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Of course. any mention of Newry is worthwhile. It might be interesting to study the viewing figures for 'Stormont Today' among insomniacs and burglars.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Member has an extra minute.

Mr McCausland: I have not seen those viewing figures.

I suggest to Members that the viewing figures, which are exceptional, for Daniel O'Donnell and his country music show are probably more a reflection of his fan base than a measure of support and interest in the Irish language, but I leave that to others to work on.

In Northern Ireland, the approach by the BBC has been inequitable and unfair, with preferential treatment and provision for Irish culture. The BBC's core budget has funded an in-house Irish language unit, which was never replicated, and there has been a huge disparity between the two broadcast funds, as was mentioned. Sadly, the previous Culture Minister did not fight the corner for equity and parity. Her party has a message that it often puts up as a slogan — "An Ireland of Equals" — but, when it came to the broadcasting funds, some were more equal than others. Certainly, it was her cultural tradition that she was fighting for rather than any other. I emphasise the need for the BBC budget and the two broadcast funds to ensure that there is an opportunity for fairness, equity and equality, and that cultural rights are delivered to us all.

Mr E McCann: I think it is fair to say that there are no two British institutions more widely admired around the world than the BBC and the National Health Service. They also have this in common: both institutions have for some time been and continue to be under relentless assault from people and interests who believe that the free market should be allowed to rip through every aspect of our lives. That aspect of what is happening to the BBC is represented in the charter, and I regret the fact that it has not been mentioned by any Member so far.

If you look at the charter document, you will see that it refers to the necessity of the BBC in the future to be aware of what it calls the wider media market. The key word there is "market". In the rest of the charter, if you read through out and comb out the phrases, you will see what is intended: the direction of travel in which the Government in London and commercial interests — most ferociously the Murdoch empire — want to force the BBC to go. On scheduling, this is what the charter says:

"The BBC must ... have regard to ... any potential adverse impact on fair and effective competition."

What does that mean? It means that, when deciding what to broadcast, when to broadcast it and on which channel to broadcast it, the BBC must take into account the effect that that might have on ITV, Sky or other providers; in other words, it is saying that the BBC must step into the commercial market, otherwise it will not, according to the charter, meet its legal responsibilities. I regard that as a very ominous aspect of the charter.

There is much in the charter that I welcome, but I am drawing attention to the things that concern me and ought to concern the House. There is little in it that would safeguard the BBC's independence in funding or governance. Ms Gildernew has already mentioned the fact that the Government will appoint the new chair of a unitary board — a very powerful position. That chair — a government appointee — will then appoint not four, as she said, but five other non-executive directors. That means that the Government of the day will be in a powerful position to influence how the BBC is run, which values it expresses and all the rest of it. That is regrettable, and we all should express our regret about it.

The Government have shown no willingness to respect the BBC's independence. Let me give you one example from the recent past. The Government decided that the BBC should fund free licences for the over-75s. What was the rationale for that? Why did they do that? They spelt it out. They were quite open about it: it was part of welfare reform. This is what was said at Westminster: "We will hit the BBC for millions as part of welfare reform". That is an absolutely disgraceful way to treat an institution like the BBC.

We in the North have a lot to thank the BBC for. I come from Derry, where Radio Foyle has phenomenal listenership figures for the size of its area. It is tremendously important for the cultural life of Derry, just as Radio Ulster is for the whole of the North. I have a particular interest in popular culture and popular music. Take the BBC in Derry with Stephen McCauley's 'Electric Mainline' programme and in Belfast with 'Across the Line' with Stuart Bailie and other people. There would not be the wonderful efflorescence of youthful talent in the area of popular culture had the BBC not given an audience to many of the young bands that were coming forward when it made no commercial sense for it do that. It made no commercial sense at all for Stephen McCauley to play the music of local bands, yet some of them have gone on to great things. Even those that have not gone on to great things have provided an uplift and an area of imagination to thousands of people that they otherwise would not have had.

I am no starry-eyed, uncritical admirer of the BBC, not by any means, but I believe that it is a precious asset for our society that should be defended. It should not be left simply to BBC employees, like the journalists organised in the NUJ, to defend its independence. Assemblies like this should step forward and defend the BBC, and I urge us all to do so because it is under threat.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call the Minister for Communities, Mr Paul Givan, to wind up the debate on the motion; I emphasise to him that he has 10 minutes.

Mr Givan: I will not need 10 minutes, Mr Deputy Speaker, but thank you for the offer.

We have had an interesting debate. Members raised a number of important issues, which I have no doubt will ultimately be reflected on by Westminster when this is being debated there, because it is a UK-wide issue. We have had an opportunity this time, unlike before, to feed into the process and influence it. When you look at the draft charter, you can see tangible evidence of the value that that input has had, and I commend my officials, who have been engaging on the issue with DCMS and counterparts in Scotland and Wales. We have, I believe, been able to put forward a case for the devolved regions of the United Kingdom that is being reflected in the charter and framework agreement. We will see tangible benefits flowing from that.

A couple of comments that I picked up from some Members were noteworthy. I was impressed with Andy Allen's effort to indicate that the charter and framework should have more of a focus on ensuring that the Opposition get better representation. Let me say that I would be delighted to have ever more publication and coverage of how the Opposition perform in Stormont to the masses. It would probably do them no good at all, but I would be quite happy to put forward such an argument.

Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He will note that today's business had to be presented to us not by the leader of the Opposition but by a member of the Government, the Deputy Chair of the Committee for Communities. Yesterday was the first so-called Opposition day that we have had in the House, and the leader of the Opposition, or Mike Nesbitt's deputy, or whatever his official title is, could not be here then either.

Mr Givan: I thank the Member for that comment. I will leave it hanging there.

Members raised a number of points. In the round, I do think that we are very well served in Northern Ireland by the BBC. I will point out a couple of areas in which it could do a lot better in representing Northern Ireland more accurately, but, in the round, it is an institution that should be defended. Mr McCann said that, as one of the two finest British institutions, the BBC is up there. Consider coverage of the radio programmes that were highlighted by Eamonn McCann. I prefer Hugo Duncan over other programmes in the morning. I have to say that, since I took up this post, I listen even less to the news output now than ever before, but Hugo Duncan I find provides good value for money. It is worth paying the licence fee just for that slot.

When you think of how local sport is covered, think of the coverage of Ulster Rugby; think of the motorbike coverage of the North West 200 and the Ulster Grand Prix. It is fantastic, not to mention the audience that it gets when it is streamed across the globe. Therefore, with our local sports coverage, we are very well served.

Do I believe, however, that the BBC could do more? Yes, I do. It could do more in reflecting our culture. Take, for example, Scarva and the Royal Black Preceptory parade that take place. Tens of thousands of people take part in a demonstration of our heritage and culture. It is a demonstration of the arts. What coverage does the BBC give to that event? Very little, if any at all. That is something that the BBC needs to address.

Take its news output. Obviously, it is independent in taking its editorial decisions, but the BBC is an incredibly pro-European organisation, and that was reflected in its coverage throughout the referendum campaign. I think of its coverage of social issues across the United Kingdom. Again, it pursues an incredibly left-wing, liberal agenda. [Interruption.]

When I listen to the commentators, so-called, who dominate the BBC's programmes, I struggle to find ones who are brought on as independent who ever represent the more socially conservative point of view that prevails in Northern Ireland. The BBC could therefore do more to reflect Northern Ireland accurately. There will be an opportunity now, because the Assembly will be able to hold to account the BBC; it will be able to pull people in and ask them how they are representing Northern Ireland. Those are two areas where I think that the BBC can do more.


4.45 pm

The BBC does, of course, have to represent the values of the United Kingdom right across the world. Those values of fairness are fundamentally important, and the BBC does that well. It is to the BBC's credit that it was recognised in a Royal Charter. The organisation is unique in the way in which its incorporation is found. As an aside for Members who want to read the Royal Charter, the language on its opening page is an excellent demonstration of the English language:

"Elizabeth the Second by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Our other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith".

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Givan: You can go on and read the language that is used. It highlights the role of the Minister at Westminster and uses a title that I would love to have were it to be incorporated into a body in Northern Ireland. It reads:

"to Us by Our right trusty and well beloved Counsellor Karen Anne Bradley, Our Principal Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport".

That is a fantastic demonstration of how the English language can be presented in such a fabulous way. I encourage Members to read all of that. If time permitted, I would love to read it into the record, but I think that it is a tremendous recognition of the BBC as the British Broadcasting Corporation. In Northern Ireland, the BBC should be very proud of that.

Obviously, this will have a positive impact on the content of the charter. Over the next 11 years, Northern Ireland, I believe, will get a more equitable deal from the BBC. In these documents, the BBC has set down that it accepts that it has a clear obligation to provide services for all its audiences and to represent and reflect its nations, regions and communities. In addition, under the new arrangements, the Assembly will now be able to hold the BBC to account when it falls short on that delivery.

I commend the draft BBC Charter and Framework Agreement and ask the Assembly to support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly takes note of the content of the draft BBC Royal Charter and Framework Agreement.

Motion made:

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

Adjournment

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): In conjunction with the Business Committee, I have given leave to Ms Claire Hanna to raise the matter of the irregular flying of flags in South Belfast. The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes.

Ms Hanna: I thank those Members who have taken the time to participate in the debate. It is disappointing and a little bit unusual that there is no Minister in the Chamber today. I appreciate that this is a complex issue and, indeed, could probably have landed in one of three or four Departments. I understand, however, that it was assigned to the Executive Office and that none of the four Ministers is available, despite the normal publication cycle of the Order Paper.

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

No one is saying that flags are the biggest or most pressing concern for the Assembly to discuss, but, nearly two decades after the establishment of the Assembly, it is an issue that we have to make progress on and remove from the "too difficult" pile, where it is with victims, the past, the 11-plus and a number of other issues. Our party and others, including the Alliance Party, which has a long-standing and honourable position on the issue, have been seeking regulation for several years. If that is not going to come centrally, we need to push for it.

A commission on flags and identity has been created, which, after a year, has released the names of its members, but we have yet to hear any news from it. As it is primarily made up of representatives of political parties in the Assembly, it is fair and interesting to hear from those parties in this debate.

The issue of flags sucks up an enormous amount of traditional media and social media time, but, hopefully, we can discuss it here in a way that gives us time to draw out points and that is less fraught than some other discussions. For clarity, by irregular flag flying, I do not mean flags flown from private residences or public buildings.

I defend the right of anyone to fly a legal flag from their home, provided that it is not in support of an illegal organisation or of violence. There are, of course, separate regulations and guidance for public buildings.

In practice, certainly in South Belfast, the issue is primarily related to flags reflecting a unionist or loyalist identity. In a report from Queen's, the ratio is reported as being 13:1. However, in discussing the issue and potential solutions, we will absolutely include all such manifestations of identity, including the hunger strike banners that are being displayed on parts of the Ormeau Road. Although I consider them to be in a different category, flags of the Northern Ireland football team and GAA clubs, which have been up and down at various times in South Belfast during the summer, are entirely regulatable. A 2010 Queen's study suggested that sporting and other displays made up approximately 5% of the total of things flying from lamp posts, but, if there is support for these displays, there should be a lawful way for people to apply, setting out the aims and the purpose of the flying. It is not the primary subject of the debate, but, if a set of principles were agreed, they could be applied to, for example, new murals appearing as well.

Most acutely problematic — they should not be regulated but obviously immediately removed — is the display of paramilitary flags. I noted these as recently as this summer at locations in South Belfast. At the root of the wider problem is the perception by very many people, me included, that, in a lot of cases, those flags are being used to mark territory, to intimidate and to divide. This is an issue raised with me by literally dozens of people every summer. I know that many of them contact all their elected representatives, so those of you from South Belfast will have heard from them as well. It frustrates me greatly to be able to do nothing. Those of us who are elected to represent people are literally powerless in this matter until there is some regulation. There are patchy improvements, and I am glad to report that flags came down in the very mixed neighbourhood of Rosetta just this weekend. I commend the people who were involved in local decisions and had the ability to get flags down in certain residential streets in Finaghy. There are slips too, and flags appear each year in places where they had never been before.

South Belfast is probably the most diverse, vibrant and participative constituency in Northern Ireland. Our neighbourhoods are home to people of all faiths and none and all political backgrounds. Of course, they are home to many people from new communities. I know that many people opt to live in South Belfast precisely because it is so open and welcoming. This is not just an issue of community relations and preventing what in some cases is identity being used as a weapon; there is an economic issue. There is evidence that is quantified year on year by the Northern Ireland life and times survey that flags can produce a chill factor that discourages people from shopping in particular areas.

It is an issue of confidence in law and order. How can people have confidence that the Executive are serious about tackling paramilitaries when in many cases their logos fly unmolested from our public property? They are organisations of community control, extortion and drugs, and, if their logos are able to fly, that shows that we are not in any way serious about addressing them. Although I appreciate that it is absolutely not always the case, national flags that do not bear paramilitary logos are often erected by gangs of men, sometimes with their faces obscured, and it is not that cold in South Belfast in May. That is not just a perception of mine: in the life and times survey, 66% of people across all communities stated their perception that flag flying was done by paramilitaries. I am also aware of families who have received intimidation when a flag outside their house was removed, not by them, I might add. The police will confirm, as will many of us who have had conversations about the cat-and-mouse chasing to get the flags down, that the people who they are conducting those conversations with frequently are in paramilitary groups. I know genuinely that no Member of the Assembly is in any way condoning that behaviour, and I know that there are people with much more benign aims who put up flags and other things, but the fact is that there is a disparity. Your poster about your lost cat or charity disco, which is considerably less divisive, will be removed a lot more quickly.

There is a serious lack of clarity, and I think that there is a deliberate political fudge on what is and is not permissible. For that reason, we believe that fresh legislation is overdue. I want to be clear that the SDLP's preference and ambition is for neutral public space that is free from the flying of this sort of symbol. We are not blind to the fact that not all of them are malign. I understand that not everybody is seeking to just mark territory. Also, we know that that aspiration is not shared by all parties in the Chamber.

We think it is time for a fair compromise. Fair compromises are possible. I believe one took place at City Hall on designated day flying. In this case, we think it should be based on the principle that individuals and small groups do not get to decide on the character and atmosphere of an entire neighbourhood and that one event or political viewpoint cannot dominate a whole neighbourhood for months on end. As stated, we support the right of any individual or family to fly a legal flag but do not support someone unilaterally, with no consultation, projecting that view on everybody else for the whole summer and longer.

For the many constituents who contact me on this, it is the duration of flag flying that distresses them most. I grew up a few metres off the Lisburn Road. In fact, in 30 years at five addresses in South Belfast, I have never lived more than 200 metres from a main route that has been flagged and a main parade route, and I will state for the record that I have never in my life objected to an Orange parade along those routes. When I was growing up, flags went up about a week before the Twelfth demonstration and came down about a week after. People probably were not dying about it — we were not dying about it — but we lived and let live because we understood how important that key parade route was to very many people. We understood there was a balance: the flags went up and came down in a fairly timely fashion. That compromise has been lost now in many areas, as flags are left to rot for months on end.

I did a small survey last summer to gauge the level of local support for flags. I did it in one ward, and I think it could be done in others. Malone Ward runs, as South Belfast representatives know, from Balmoral Avenue to Marlborough Park. I walked up one day, and there were 23 flags on lamp posts. I did a consistent survey in every street in the ward, which is home to about 4,000 people in about 200 households. I found that four houses were flying flags, so I do not think it is fair to say that that is representative of the neighbourhood. I am not saying it is a plebiscite in every area — other factors will be taken into consideration — but I do not think the views of four households should have been projected on to every household in that ward and in a very busy shopping area for so many months.

Much reference is made to the 2005 flags protocol, which was devised between the PSNI and various Departments. It has been eroded in almost every aspect. The proliferation of flags on arterial routes was supposed to have been prevented, and flags were definitely not supposed to be flown in integrated areas. Finaghy, the Lisburn Road, the Ormeau and Rosetta fit that bill probably more than any streets.

Mr Stalford: Will the Member give way?

Ms Hanna: I will, Christopher. Do I get an extra minute if I give way? I have a lot to say. Go ahead.

Mr Stalford: Would the Member care to hazard a guess about the year the number of flags on lamp posts throughout Belfast skyrocketed? Hazard a guess about when people decided to put extra flags up. What do you think might have prompted that decision?

Ms Hanna: I am happy to address that. Would the Member like to state other areas in which it is appropriate to break the law because you do not like a democratic decision? If people put up signs or start street riots because they do not agree, for example, with the UK-wide vote on Brexit, is that acceptable to us? Are we saying you can break the law because you do not agree with a decision that was made by a majority of elected representatives? The fact is that this has been a problem for a very long time, and it is not good enough to say, "Because of a separate democratic decision, we will break the law". Apparently, our elected representatives —

Mr Stalford: Will the Member give way?

Ms Hanna: No, you can come back in. You will have your own time.

Mr Stalford: Don't worry: I will. Hypocrite.

Ms Hanna: Apparently elected representatives will sanction that. Further, local arrangements in many cases have no clear basis and are made by self-appointed gatekeepers, with no discussion with local residents. People do — [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): Order. I remind all Members that even comments made from a sedentary position can be noted by the Speaker. I caution Members about the terms that are used.

Ms Hanna: Thankfully, I did not hear that.

I have sympathy for the public agencies that are called on to devise policy and cover for what is a political problem, although I would like them to be more consistent. An SDLP councillor was asked very promptly to remove anti-burglary posters he erected a few months ago. Transport NI cannot be solely responsible for regulating flags on its property, and I felt for the Housing Executive on Thursday when it was asked to unilaterally adjudicate on the suitability of a new UDA mural on one of its properties. However, it is a pressure that is probably most acutely felt by the PSNI, which is being asked to judge flagging or flag removal in the context of public disorder.

They cannot be expected to police us out of political failure, and action or otherwise on any issue should not be dictated by who is going to make the most trouble. The spectacle of the PSNI apologising for removing flags in Ballyclare because there was a riot afterwards is an affront to any society based on law and order, but it is inevitable when we are asking an organisation that is necessarily impartial to operate in a political context with no framework. We are not being prescriptive at this stage about what form a licensing system would take, but we are asking that people at least acknowledge that there is an unsustainable issue to be dealt with and to engage rationally and constructively in finding a solution.


5.00 pm

Last year, my colleague Mark H Durkan, the then Environment Minister, brought forward rational proposals to regulate the most extreme end of summer bonfires. There is a direct parallel here. It is fair to say that I would rather that that practice dies out, as we think that there are environmental burdens and community relations burdens. However, the fact is that we accept that it is important to people so we did not seek to ban it. We sought to regulate the more extreme end of it. Like with many SDLP Members, various references to me and my posters have been burnt on numerous bonfires, but I still voted for a bonfire management scheme that incentivises good behaviour. It is not about projecting a view onto everybody.

The devil will be in the detail, of course, but a licensing scheme could regulate the duration of flying and be linked to a specific time or event; a specific parade, the Queen's jubilee, a sporting event or whatever. Crucially, a named individual will be responsible for removal by a specified date and, if not, the authorities can act to remove it. Having a fair and open set of criteria will empower those public bodies. If anybody wants to dismiss this theory as unworkable or unenforceable, just take a wee minute to ask yourself what you are saying about who is calling the shots here and how acceptable that is to you.

Fair regulations for election posters, advertising, fly-postering and graffiti mostly work. The solutions on removal are not 100% perfect, but the problems are largely addressed and the law upheld. If it is good enough for every other aspect of society, it should be good enough for what are, in some cases, divisive symbols in this society.

There is a large body of high-quality academic research and data on this, not least from Dominic Bryan and Paul Nolan who published a very useful snapshot of views earlier this year. They consulted very widely, including all the parties in the Assembly. Their top-line recommendation was a two-week window for flag-flying, but they brought forward a number of recommendations that bear repeating, namely: in residential areas, the views of all people, including minorities, should be given consideration; flags should not be placed outside homes; and flags should not be placed outside places that deliver public services. They also stress the importance of communication, recommending courtesy to people who might feel uncomfortable and that, to reassure people, people should know who is putting the flags up and how long they will be displayed. It is suggested that this information is communicated to the police.

In conclusion —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): I ask the Member to bring her remarks to a close.

Ms Hanna: Yes, I will. I have reflected the aims of that flags protocol, which was about improving the environment, a partnership approach to community relations and a legal and enforcement framework if necessary. It is an important issue, and I hope that Members will engage with it rationally.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): All other Members who wish to speak will now have approximately eight minutes.

Mr Stalford: Mr Deputy Speaker, you will be familiar with the fact that it is often unionists who are accused of being absolutely obsessed with flags and the display of them. Yet, during the months of July and August, our friend from South Belfast, my constituency colleague and others dine out on nothing else but the issue of flags in the media, or at least that is how it seems to the people in the constituency. The limit of her ambition in dealing with issues around flags and identity is not to be underestimated, but it was interesting to note that we had one cursory reference to displays of a non-unionist kind. Oddly enough, the lady from South Belfast and others are very prominent any time — it is usually the third week in June; you could set your watch by it — a few flags go up on the Ormeau Road. The hissy fits start. It is not only the SDLP and the Alliance Party, but it is generally the SDLP and the Alliance Party.

Unlike any other representative in the Chamber, I was actually born on the Ormeau Road and come from there. I know that, during July and August, people put flags on lamp posts. I am sure that that is the case in parts of your constituency, Mr Deputy Speaker, and in other constituencies, because those months are a special time in the broad unionist tradition. I have absolutely no objection to Union flags, Northern Ireland flags and Orange standards going up during July and August. For the benefit of the record, I believe that no paramilitary display and no display of any terrorist organisation should occur. They should not be there and are outwith the July and August tradition. They form no part of that tradition. July and August, in the unionist community, are about the celebrations associated with Orangeism and the victory of William at the Boyne, which is an important part of who I am and of the identity of the community that I come from.

The Ormeau Road was always a mixed community, and people there knew that, during July and August, flags went up. My ideal scenario is that, at the end of August or the start of September, they come down. I think that progress is being made in that regard. I deliberately did not say anything about the displays that went up below the Ormeau bridge over the last few months. I deliberately did not say anything because I would have been a hypocrite if I had defended the Union flags going up at one end of the bridge and then condemned republican symbols going up at the other end of the Ormeau Road. To do the reverse is also to be a hypocrite. To cast a blind eye and say nothing when republican symbols go up at the bottom of the Ormeau Road but get oneself into a state of righteous indignation and fury when unionist symbols go up at the top end of the Ormeau Road is to be a hypocrite, and some of those who whip themselves up into a frenzy during July and August over flags in South Belfast are noticeable by their silence when it comes to other displays.

For the record, I have no problem, Claire — through the Deputy Speaker — with Bredagh GAA club putting up its flags. Bredagh GAA club contributes positively to the community in South Belfast —

Ms Hanna: Will the Member give way?

Mr Stalford: No. You get to make a winding-up speech. I do not have as much time as you.

Ms Hanna: Do I get to wind up?

Mr Stalford: I do not have as much time as you, Claire.

Ms Hanna: I just want to put on record that I did apply the same considerations —

Mr Stalford: I know.

Mr Stalford: I have no objection to a GAA club putting up its flags, especially one that contributes to the community in the way that Bredagh does. I do not and would not object to that because it is reflective of the fact, as has been said, that South Belfast is a diverse community. There are people from a Protestant background, a unionist background, a Catholic background and people who have none of those identities. They all live in South Belfast. You talk about a shared future and shared space, but the image of the shared space that was painted in the opening section of this debate was an absolutely bland one in which people could not in any way express themselves for fear that someone else would be offended by a display —

Mr Lyttle: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyttle: Very briefly?

Mr Lyttle: I will not get to speak.

Mr Stalford: OK. Very briefly.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. Given the Member's support for the display of flags on street furniture, does he support the search to find an open and transparent legal mechanism, which does not exist at the moment, to regulate and make that process open and understandable to the public?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): The Member has an extra minute.

Mr Stalford: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

That is what we are trying to work through, and I welcome contributions in that regard. With the greatest of respect, what will not solve the problem is Assembly Members securing an Adjournment debate on this and tut-tutting at working-class loyalist communities that put flags up. [Interruption.]

You do. The Member does. Every year, we see people who have absolutely no connection with the working-class loyalist community tut-tutting —

Mr Lyttle: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyttle: Very briefly?

Mr Lyttle: You are not attributing that to me, though. Will you make that clear?

Ms Hanna: Will you make it clear that you are not attributing it to me either?

Mr Stalford: They tut-tut at that community. They have no connection — [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): Order. I ask the Member to address his remarks through the Chair.

Mr Stalford: We were told by Claire Hanna that people should not be made to feel uncomfortable. It is evident that, as a member of the SDLP, she was not made to feel uncomfortable by a party that names a play park after a terrorist. She was not made to feel uncomfortable by a party that campaigns for the release of terrorists from prison. I am thinking particularly of Dolours Price and Gerry McGeough — Gerry McGeough, who, incidentally, was responsible for attempting to murder a member of my party. She was not uncomfortable being led by a man who took part in a funeral where a paramilitary display took place, but apparently a flag on a lamp post makes her feel uncomfortable.

Ms Hanna: Will the Member give way?

Mr Stalford: When people look at the double standards —

Ms Hanna: Will the Member give way?

Mr Stalford: I am indicating that I am not giving way. When people look —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): Order. The Member has made it clear that he is not prepared to give way.

Mr Stalford: When people look at the absolute dual standard that is applied by the SDLP in relation to the issue, it is no wonder. They do not want to hear; they will not listen to be execrated and condemned by a party with such a dual standard on issues like this.

As the start of my contribution, I said that I am from the Ormeau Road. That is where I was born. I am from Annadale, and I am very proud to come from there. My vision of the future is a time when it becomes accepted that these displays happen at certain times of the year. That was the case many years ago. We should take the heat out of these issues and agree to live together. Part of agreeing to live together means that people are free to celebrate who they are and what they are. I am a unionist and a loyalist, and I am very proud of the tradition that I come from. Neither I nor the other people who come from that tradition should be made to feel guilty or bad for displaying it during what is a special time of the year for them. I do not complain when others in the part of South Belfast that I come from display their tradition, because to do so would be a dual standard — a double standard.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Mr Stalford: Thank you. I want everyone to work together to build a genuinely shared future, but it will not be achieved by lecturing from ivory towers.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): I remind the House that it is an Adjournment debate and that there is no winding-up speech by any Member.

Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, Claire, for bringing the Adjournment debate. Thank you, Christopher, for your comments as well.

The unregulated flying of flags from lamp posts in South Belfast is, without doubt, a significant issue for a number of people living and working in our constituency. As Claire said, it is one of the top five issues that is raised with me. We should not underestimate the scale of the problem. Residents are concerned that flags are displayed as symbols of paramilitary control and to mark territory, which undermines their desire to live in a mixed community and, unfortunately, can have a negative impact on traders' ability to reach out to the whole community. Nevertheless — it is unfortunate that you are leaving, Christopher, because I am coming to the point that you were making. Nevertheless, it is important to reflect that a whole lot of people in South Belfast take pride in the display of flags and emblems. I have included the word "emblems" because it is not just about the flying of flags but the flags on paramilitary memorials, community gardens and stuff that we need to consider.

There are cases during the year — special occasions — when the flying of flags is entirely legitimate and a positive expression of commemoration and celebration. It is further noted that the displaying of flags is quite normal across the UK and Ireland, both around specific times of the year, at sports finals, local festivals and national commemorations, and in general. Northern Ireland is distinct, however, in that people from different backgrounds can view the same flag in different ways. I would like to once again put on record that, for the Alliance Party, a shared future does not mean a neutral, nondescript future. Indeed, in a positive, progressive society, we need to recognise that the display of emblems and flags is a legitimate democratic right, whether or not we endorse the flag or emblem ourselves.


5.15 pm

We need to be clear about the problem. The problem is what many of us would regard as an unreasonable display of flags and emblems that does not have cross-community support. It is not the display itself. For example, few people had any serious objection to the display of the Union flag to commemorate the royal wedding and the Queen's golden jubilee a few years back. Those were obvious displays of national pride, and even though the feeling may not have been shared by the whole community, in a progressive society, they proceeded without controversy, and rightly so. As has been mentioned this afternoon, Bredagh GAA flags were recently flown on the Ravenhill Road to mark the all-Ireland football championship final, a highlight of the GAA calendar, and it could be seen that they were put up in celebration and not to cause offence. On the other hand, almost everyone objects to a Union flag, a tricolour, or any national flag, being left to turn to rags on a lamp post. Even those who regard the flag as their own can object that the flag is disrespected when it is allowed to fall into a poor state of repair.

Let me be clear about what I have said, because this is a controversial issue, and it is very emotive as we have already seen this afternoon. In one case, there is almost universal support for the display of the flag, regardless of what the flag is; in the other, there is no support at all. The question is this: when does an obviously reasonable display of celebration or commemoration turn into one that is disrespectful, even to the flag itself? In other words, how do we build consensus about what is perceived as a reasonable display and what is not and how do we agree on how to manage the grey area in between? The fact is that much of the work has been done. Many of us may not have found it ideal, but I think that the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) is to be commended for developing and adopting a protocol and for seeking to ensure that it was enforced. That cannot have been an easy process for the LCC, and in many areas across Northern Ireland local accommodation was found this summer and things were better than in previous years. Of course, in some places, such as South Belfast and the Knockbreda Road, there were more flags than usual. However, the Loyalist Communities Council also issued guidelines for the flying of flags, which indicated where they should and should not appear. We have to recognise that progress has been made.

The last question that I will pose is this: how do we build community confidence across the constituency? How do we build consensus on protocols, guidelines and local dialogue? We would do well to note that interventions absolutely must not do further harm to a process that is going in the right direction in most locations. Out of frustration when I joined the Assembly four months ago — like Claire, I am contacted a lot by desperate constituents, saying, "What are you going to do about it?" — I started work on a private Member's Bill to create a legislative framework that would establish the legal right to display flags and emblems for commemoration and celebration, while seeking to ensure maximum consensus and that flags are on display only where there is local agreement. I do not propose any specific means of doing that nor any particular outcome in the development of the Bill, as I have just begun the consultation process and, as I am today, I am very much in listening mode. Frankly, I think that people have had enough of politicians claiming that they want to build consensus but then putting all sorts of caveats over what the outcome must be. Let us focus on the need for consensus.

Ms Hanna: Will the Member give way?

Ms Hanna: I do not get to wind on the debate, but I think that it is appropriate to correct the record, because I have been unfairly tarnished in this debate. I appreciate your giving way. I made a comment in June about the hunger striker banners: I raised them proactively without being asked in a BBC interview. The day after the decision was made on the Raymond McCreesh park, I issued a statement condemning it, and I made efforts in my party to the same end. I have restated that position at least six times, in broadcast interviews, because many people, like Christopher, are keen to throw out the hypocrite line but very few are keen for the record to be corrected. I was not elected at the time of the Gerry McGeough issue, but I wrote to DUP councillor Sammy Brush after his local council passed a motion calling for the release of that person. I am very glad to say that we had a number of very courteous and pleasant phone calls, when I expressed my sympathy at the traumatisation that he has been put through. I will not accept that I take a differential view. I have stood at all times, in my elected and unelected life, against all forms of paramilitarism, and it is an outrage to suggest otherwise.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Kennedy): Order. The Member has an additional minute, although I suspect that much of it has been eaten up. I also remind Members that interventions ought to be concise.

Ms Bradshaw: Thank you. I am finishing off.

I said that we needed to focus on consensus, reflecting that, if we can manage it in South Belfast, we could manage it anywhere in Northern Ireland. I will close by saying that I hope and trust that the South Belfast MLAs and other elected representatives will engage positively and constructively with my work on the private Member's Bill so that we can address the issue for residents and traders once and for all.

Mrs Little Pengelly: Thank you for the opportunity to speak