Official Report: Monday 27 April 2015
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Dickson: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you advise the House who the Minister of Health is today, given the statement that the Minister's resignation will not take place until 11 May and that another Minister will take joint responsibility for some of the tasks?
Mr Speaker: My office and I have received no notification, so, until I receive such notification, the Minister of Health is Mr Jim Wells.
Mr Speaker: Mr Danny Kinahan has sought leave to deliver a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22. The Member will have up to three minutes to speak.
Mr Kinahan: I am really pleased to present this petition, which calls for the reconsideration of the proposed development of the Belmont Road on a site alongside the banks of the Sixmilewater river. The petition contains 1,047 signatures today and is, I am told, still live and now has 1,182 signatures. I thank Stevie Munn, a game angling consultant, and the Six Mile Water Trust and its colleagues, who pulled the petition together. They highlighted the key issues, and I have enjoyed working with them since I entered politics. Sadly, this matter has arisen at election time, and I hope that it can be resolved by all the politicians in the area working together into the future.
The valley and the river are just on the outskirts of Antrim, and a wonderful council-planned mill race trail runs along the riverbanks and is incredibly popular with locals as an area of natural beauty, for angling, for countryside walks and for nature. It really should be protected and preserved. It should be part of a tourist trail and a tourism strategy — if we had one — in Northern Ireland that promotes our country sports and countryside. We should keep in mind that, in Ireland, angling alone contributes €755 million to the economy.
We all know that the Sixmilewater has often been appallingly badly polluted, and, indeed, in 2008, there was great flooding after heavy rainfall. The blockages around the bridges and other pinch points led to appalling flooding in people's houses. We still have ongoing insurance problems. We should keep that in mind when we look at the petition and the plan.
The present plan is to develop 400 houses beside the river, with a 10-metre buffer — that is all — with no recognition of the needs of the wildlife, including the otters, the dippers, the dollaghan and many others. That all needs to be studied properly and accurately in an environmental statement. That should be carried out so that we know all the issues.
The application was validated just after the new super-councils began, so it should be subject to the new local area plan when it is created and should take into account all the community's views before any decision is made. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is the case and that previous area plans are now redundant. I also hope that DRD and DARD will look into the issues that are relevant to them. The development should either not happen at all or should be completely rethought. It is the test on the whole of our new planning system. Thank you.
Mr Kinahan moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.
Mr Speaker: I will forward the petition to the Minister of the Environment and send a copy to the Committee.
That the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order (Northern Ireland) 2015 be approved.
The uprating order is an annual order that sets out the rates of contributory and non-contributory benefits, together with the various allowances and premiums, that make up income-related benefits. Generally, the annual amounts from April each year are based on the increases in the general level of prices over the 12 months ending the previous September, measured using the consumer prices index (CPI), which is the measure of price inflation the Westminster Government consider most appropriate for this purpose.
At the end of September 2014, the CPI showed an increase of 1·2%. According to the latest data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), by February this year, that figure had fallen to zero and again remained at zero last month.
There has been some debate in the past about whether the CPI or the retail prices index (RPI) should be used as the measure; some people argue that using CPI will cost less. It is clear that there is no perfect measure of inflation, but uprating by CPI ensures that, at the very least, benefit levels maintain their value against inflation. In addition, some commentators consider that it better reflects the inflation experience of pensioners and benefit recipients.
In 2013, because of the national economic situation pertaining at that time, the Westminster Government brought forward the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Act 2013, which limits the increase in the majority of working-age benefits and statutory payments in Great Britain for 2014-15 and 2015-16 to 1%. Whenever the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions makes an uprating order under section 150 or 150A of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 or an order under the 2013 Act, my Department is empowered to make a corresponding order. There is no power to increase benefits by a different or greater percentage to that provided for in the orders made by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
Basic state pension is increased by 2·5% to £115·95, which is an increase of £2·85 a week, and the minimum guarantee in state pension credit is increased by the same amount, taking a single person’s weekly income to £151·20. For couples, the increase is £4·35, taking their new total to £230·85 a week. Those facing additional costs because of a disability or those who may have less opportunity to increase their income through paid employment have seen their benefits rise by the increase in CPI. Therefore, disability living allowance, attendance allowance, carer’s allowance and the main rate of incapacity benefit have all risen by 1·2%, as did the employment and support allowance support group component and those disability-related premiums that are paid with pension credit and working-age benefits.
Other benefits have been increased by 1%. As a result of the uprating order, we will be spending an additional £94 million on social security in 2015-16 — money that will go into the local community and the local economy. I appreciate that many of us would like to do more, but, as I already stated, my Department is empowered to increase the rates of benefits only to the same extent as those payable in Great Britain.
I am sure that all Members will wish to ensure that people in Northern Ireland, including some of the most vulnerable in our society, can continue to receive the new increased rates of benefit. Therefore, I ask them to join me in supporting the order.
Mr Maskey (The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for bringing forward the statutory rule and for outlining the purpose behind it.
The Committee for Social Development first considered the proposal on 5 February 2014 and was content for the order to be made. We formally considered it on 12 March, and the Committee was again content to recommend that the Assembly affirm the statutory rule. As the Minister indicated, the order is already in operation, and today we are simply being asked to affirm it.
The order, as we just heard from the Minister, is one of a series of statutory rules relating to the annual uprating for rates of social security benefits, pensions and allowances. The implementation of the uprating proposals is expected to increase the Department's annually managed expenditure by approximately £94 million. The uprating order also includes provision to increase the weekly rate of ordinary and additional statutory paternity pay and statutory adoption pay, the responsibility for which lies with the Department for Employment and Learning. DSD informed the Committee that it consulted with that Department and that DEL is content with the proposals.
The Minister already referred to this, but the only issue of contention for the Committee, which I feel it is important to put on the record again, is that the increase in the uprating is linked to CPI. Others have contested that that is less advantageous. Nevertheless, that is the position that we are in. The Minister outlined the reasons for the uplift and the limitations on the Committee and the Assembly to do anything about it at this point.
On behalf of the Social Development Committee, I recommend that the order be affirmed by the Assembly.
Mr Storey: I thank the Chair of the Social Development Committee and its members for the consideration that they gave to the matter and for the positive way in which they dealt with the order. As on previous occasions, I have taken note of why RPI is no longer used and why we now use CPI. I have no doubt that it is an issue that will continue to be raised in the future, but, as the Member knows, the outgoing coalition Government's view is that the consumer price index is the most appropriate measure for price inflation for this purpose. Therefore, it remains an issue that is in the domain of the national Government at Westminster.
I am certain that there will be a general welcome for the increases in the rates of benefits provided for by the uprating order, and I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order (Northern Ireland) 2015 be approved.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose the motion and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
That this Assembly notes the report of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee on the Operation of the Provisions of Parts 3 and 4 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 [NIA 242/11-16], made under Section 29A(3) of that Act.
The context to this report is that the Northern Ireland Act 2006 inserted section 29A into the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which provided for the establishment and function of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. Section 29A(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee:
"shall, by no later than 1 May 2015, make a report on the operation of the provisions of Parts 3 and 4 of this Act —
(a) to the Secretary of State;
(b) to the Assembly; and
(c) to the Executive Committee."
Since its establishment in May 2007, the AERC has reviewed and produced 10 reports, all of which are outlined in this report. In its approach to each of the reviews, the Committee has sought and considered the views of political parties in identifying what issues to review. Among those that it was asked to consider were the size of the Assembly; the number of Departments; the appointment of the Minister of Justice; the petition of concern mechanism; a review of d'Hondt and the introduction of an official opposition; and gender equality. All those issues were covered in the reports produced by the Committee. There were a number of additional issues that the Committee was asked to consider but they did not fall under its remit and were, therefore, not selected for review.
While the Committee did not always reach consensus on the issues considered in the 10 reports, it did set out in detail options for how they could be taken forward, with individual party positions on each issue. The outcomes from these reports recently proved useful in the negotiations leading to the Stormont House Agreement. For example, the Committee's views on how the number of Northern Ireland Departments could be reduced have been broadly reflected in the nine future Departments as announced by OFMDFM in March. Similarly, the extensive consultation and analysis undertaken as part of the Committee's reviews of d'Hondt, community designation, provisions for opposition and petitions of concern provided a useful foundation for the corresponding provisions in the Stormont House Agreement.
Preparing this report was an opportunity to reflect on the number of issues the Assembly and Executive Review Committee took forward. However, it is equally important to recognise the complexity and depth of some of those reviews — such as policing and justice — including reviewing the arrangements for the appointment of a Justice Minister, the establishment of an opposition, a review of the petition of concern mechanism and the reduction in the number of Departments and Members of this Assembly.
It is worth noting that the Committee commissioned 53 Assembly research papers as part of its inquiries. That was testimony to the extensive scrutiny that the Committee undertook to ensure that the parties represented on it were fully informed of the complexities of implementing institutional reform in Northern Ireland and were aware of models of best practice nationally and internationally.
The Assembly and Executive Review Committee requests that the Assembly notes its report on the operation of the provisions of Parts 3 and 4 of the 1998 Act to the Secretary of State, the Assembly and the Executive Committee.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the report. Indeed, I thank the Chair for his work over the last number of years, particularly on the reports that have been carried out recently. I am the only person who has remained on the Committee since its inception in 2007. I do not know what that says about the Committee or me, but I have been there from the beginning.
There have been 10 reports carried out, and the Chair outlined a number of them. For me, some of the reports were very informative, and the witnesses who came to the Committee and the number of research papers — as the Chair outlined, there were 53 — provided a lot of information and insight into how the Assembly could work better. I do not think that any of us is naïve enough to not know that some of the discussions we took part in would need some sort of political leadership as well. So, as we take things forward, we know that.
The first two reports that the Committee carried out were into the transfer of policing and justice powers. I was on the Assembly and Executive Review Committee and then sat on the Justice Committee when it was established, which no doubt provided an excellent insight into the many agencies and the many different aspects of the Justice Department that were coming here for the first time.
The last report of the Committee was on women and politics, which perhaps was not strictly within the confines of Parts 3 and 4 of the Act. Again, as we go forward, that will be seen as the basis for more discussion. Everybody in the Committee accepted that the Assembly — indeed, politics in general, not just here — could do more to encourage and make provision for more women in politics. That report will be seen in that context.
I commend the Chair and, on behalf of Sinn Féin, thank the Committee staff and the researchers for the valuable work they have carried out over a long number of years. Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
Mr Rogers: These reports are the product of a number of years' work and research, and I place on record my thanks and the SDLP's thanks to the Committee's Clerks and staff for their tremendous work.
As the previous Member said, the Committee's work involved working through the detail of the operational needs of Parts 3 and 4 of the Northern Ireland Act. Two reviews that I was recently involved with and would highlight were on petitions of concern and women in politics.
Voter disillusionment with Stormont, and with politics more generally, has been highlighted to me, and many in this House I am sure, in the past few weeks as we have been canvassing. Those two reviews, in particular, could help to lay the foundations for voters to start becoming more engaged with our politics.
Petitions of concern were designed to protect the equality and human rights of vulnerable groups. It is clear that the use of petitions of concern has evolved over the life of the Assembly, and they are being abused in a capricious manner. I am sure the discussions between the parties on petitions of concern will be aided and informed by the review so that we can ensure that petitions are employed in accordance with their originally intended purpose. The SDLP believes that any change in the use of petitions must be reflected in standing orders and be adjudicated upon.
The debate on the review into women in politics and in the Assembly nicely coincided with the celebrations for International Women's Day. It was heartening to hear cross-party recognition and support for the need for more women to enter politics. However, most people want to know what we are going to do about it. It is important that we implement the recommendations of the review and help to encourage and support more women to run for election in Northern Ireland at all levels.
I am confident that the vast work undertaken by this Committee will prove to be beneficial to the House and the Secretary of State. Thank you, Mr Speaker; that was short and sweet.
Mr Swann: I just heard Mr Rogers say, "Short and sweet." Hopefully, he was referring to his contribution rather than me. [Laughter.]
We note the publication of this report from the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. As the report outlines, a number of the elements of the provisions in Parts 3 and 4 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 are subject to discussion following the Stormont House Agreement. The report concludes that the Committee will revisit a number of the issues following the publication of the its report and points to the fact that other aspects were subject to discussions flowing from the Stormont House Agreement.
One of the areas that the Committee will revisit is the method of election of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. It is no secret that the Ulster Unionist Party would like to see a return to the joint election of that office. The Stormont House Agreement contained a reduction in the number of Executive Departments. Ultimately, it is the Ulster Unionist Party's view that we could have seen a more ambitious reduction in the number of Executive Departments. Nevertheless, we welcome the small number arrived at.
While the detail has still to be worked out, we hope that the reallocations of functions and services will see an Executive that greater serves the people of Northern Ireland.
Breaches of the ministerial code have been raised more than once during this mandate, and we believe that this is an area that needs looked at as well. As Mr Rogers also referred to, petition of concern is an area that is obviously in need of serious reform. However, this is one of the areas that is currently being reviewed as part of the Stormont House Agreement, so I await the outcome of that.
We note that the conclusions in this report point to the work that has already been carried out in relation to a number of provisions of Parts 3 and 4 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the work that is still to be completed following the Stormont House Agreement as well as by the independent financial review panel. We will no doubt come back to many of these topics in the future, either to welcome work completed or to investigate what more is needed to be done, but we note the contents of this report today.
Mr Lunn: The Chair laid out in his introduction why we were required to make this report. At the time, it seemed to come out of the blue and was a bit of a surprise. I would not say that we nearly overlooked it, but we did not have an awful lot of time to deal with the issue, not that that should be much of a handicap in the case of this Committee because, frankly, we never spend much time on anything.
I want to pay tribute to the staff, two of whom are here, Claire McCanny and Kate McCullough, and Jim Nulty. They have dealt with this as best they can, producing mountains of information for us. The Committee, once it got into its deliberations, met three times. I fancy that we may have spent between an hour and a half and two hours in total on this supposedly very important review, and here we are today. I suppose that we could say that we have fulfilled the obligation under the original Act to review the operation of Parts 3 and 4. We have done that, but, beyond that, there is not an awful lot to say about this.
The Chair, in his introduction, said that these reports provide a lot of valuable input for future deliberation, such as the Stormont House Agreement. I will go through some of the paragraphs in the report. Paragraph 31 notes the point that parties were asked to identify if there were any further provisions that they wanted to have included in the report. I think that that was the third time that they had been asked, and nobody ever came up with any suggestions. Paragraph 49 is on the operations of 16A and 16C of the Act. The Committee acknowledged that a consensus could not be reached. Paragraph 60 of the report states that, on the initial ministerial provision in relation to the Department of Justice, there was no broad consensus. Paragraph 67 states that the Committee could not reach consensus on the size of the Assembly. Paragraph 82 states that the Committee concluded that there was no consensus at that time on d’Hondt. Paragraph 90 refers to the Committee's report on petitions of concern and states that the Committee did not achieve consensus for most of its conclusions.
Mr Speaker, I do not want to query the clock, but was my time perhaps added to that of the Member who spoke previously? I do not think that I have been going for four and a half minutes. If I have, my time is nearly up. That will be a relief to some people.
Finally, Mr Swann referred to paragraph 102. It states:
"The Committee agreed that it would return to consider issues relating to the nomenclature and the method of election of the First Minister and deputy First Minister ... the Ministerial Code" —
Mr Speaker: You have an extra minute. There was a difficulty with the clock. I will keep you right.
Mr Lunn: Thank you. Paragraph 102 continues:
"and Strategies relating to Irish language and Ulster Scots ... following the publication of the Committee Report".
I respectfully suggest that the best thing that this Committee could do is to conduct a review of its own operations. It is a farce, and it really needs to be beefed up and tidied up. We continually do not reach consensus on virtually anything. I will leave it at that, but I will support the report.
Mr Campbell: I am little bit confused by Mr Lunn's concluding remarks in that he almost excoriated the report and welcomed it at the same time, but such is the Alliance Party.
I welcome the report, such as it is. A series of issues have been at the heart of matters since 1998, through the St Andrews Agreement and the Stormont House Agreement, about the size of the Assembly and the number of Departments. Those issues concentrate the minds not just of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee but of the wider public. In all seriousness, I share some of Mr Lunn's concerns, because, at times, the Committee goes over ground that we all know that we will not reach consensus on. Some critics need to make up their minds — I am not referring to Mr Lunn — in that, if we do not agree, they criticise the politicians and members of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, and, if we do agree, they criticise us for agreeing. They cannot have it both ways.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair)
There is no doubt that there is a gulf of difference between some of the parties, not least between Sinn Féin and us. The Committee went through the motions to arrive at the conclusion that that gulf exists. I do not see that there is a problem with admitting that to be the case. However, the Stormont House Agreement — AERC investigated some of the issues therein — addressed some of those matters, and we are very slowly, at a snail's pace, doing likewise. I do not accept the pace, and many people outside do not accept it either. I want us to make much more significant progress. What people want to say to us, and what I say today, is that we need to get on, address the matters, get the size of the Assembly down, get the number of Departments down and let us see a fully functioning, effective Government in place.
Mr Allister: Here we are again: another non-report from what is, effectively, a non-committee. Indeed, things are so bad this time that the report is reduced simply to reciting its previous ineffective non-reports. I say "non-committee", because the truth is that this Committee is either not permitted or is incapable of original thought. It can act only when it gets the nod from the politburo to agree something. Otherwise, its sole function is to meet occasionally, just long enough to drink the free coffee, take the free scones, dip into the free fruit platter, and, after 25 minutes, the meeting is over. That is the essence of the Committee.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Member for giving way. We do not get free scones any more.
Mr Allister: So this Committee made a decision, Mr Lunn says, that, such was the level of embarrassment over its inactivity, it would no longer have free coffee, free scones and free fruit. Well done, this Committee. Is that the product of all this? Yes, sadly, it is.
The Chairman, of course, who obviously has much more important things to do than even to be here for the debate — after his three-minute speech, he disappeared from the Chamber — told us that the Committee had had 53 research papers. It has had 53 fig leaves, because it has done nothing with any of them.
The real significance of today is that, after eight years, we reach the point at which the DUP promise of 2007 stands naked and exposed. The 2007 promise, after St Andrews, was: this was for the gullible, of whom there were many, and you will have to swallow mandatory coalition for eight years, but we have got it into the Act. We have amended section 29, and, in 2015, at the end of eight years — two terms — there will be a review to end mandatory coalition. What a con. Yet Members like the Chairman, who is on record as saying that he would rather go back to his shop than go into government with Sinn Féin, were gullible enough to swallow it, to peddle it and to pretend about it. Today he is probably out canvassing for a candidate who in 2005 took David Trimble's seat on the basis of a manifesto saying that mandatory coalition with Sinn Féin was out of the question. Ever since, he has spent his time propping it up, as has the Chairman.
The great promise for the gullible was this: at the end of eight years, there would be this mighty review. We were not tied into mandatory coalition in perpetuity; it would be magicked away by this review. That was the disingenuous nonsense that was peddled and that many of the gullible fell for, while some who wanted to fall for it grasped it with both hands. That is the truth and the reality of what happened in that party. Today, the truth and the reality of this fatuous, vacuous report is that it does not even amount to a row of beans — fitting, perhaps, given the disingenuous nature of the false promise so grandly made.
Mr B McCrea: Mr Allister referred to some people as "gullible". I may be one of those gullible people, because I voted yes for the Good Friday Agreement, and I would vote yes again for the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr Allister: The gullible I was referring to were those who voted no to the Good Friday Agreement, who pretended that they were still against the Good Friday Agreement and who were then so gullible to believe that they could endorse the Good Friday Agreement and, through this review mechanism, nonetheless get it changed. They were the gullible I was referring to; not you, Mr McCrea — you were always gullible. [Laughter.]
Mr B McCrea: I am trying to work out whether it is better to be wrong or gullible. I am grateful for the clarification, because the challenge I put out then, and the challenge I put out now, is this: give me an alternative. Give me something else that you can do that will get agreement. What the Member just outlined is that we have a stalemate. We cannot get any form of agreement; there will be no change. The reason why this is a complete waste of time is because there is no agreement.
I can accept some of the arguments that the honourable Member put forward about what he would like to see achieved, but the truth of the matter is that he will not see them achieved. The most serious issue that we have had — I think it is at paragraph 102 — is what to call the First Minister and deputy First Minister. That is what pervades every single political thought in this place and in this country; it does not matter what your policies are on anything. It all comes down to this: "Let's keep the Shinners out" or "Let's try and get the Shinners in". All other policy debates are reduced to nothing.
I checked to see what this Committee does, and I noticed that paragraph 12 on page 4 says that it agreed to write to all the independents and the party leaders on 27 January —
Mrs D Kelly: This is on a slightly different point, but does the Member not agree that neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP has fulfilled the promises of the Good Friday Agreement, which many people voted for because it was a better way forward, and that a sectarian headcount suits both parties?
Mr B McCrea: I am happy to develop that point. That is what was promised in 1998. We were going to try to put the past behind us and move forward. We were going to try to work our way through things. The history of this place has proven that it has not been possible to do that. Of course, people go through a few sham fights; they pretend that they are having disagreements, and then they go off and talk to their core electorate. Meanwhile, nothing, nothing, nothing gets done. This Committee will not produce any reports because this Committee cannot produce any reports.
At the risk of stating the obvious, we are getting to a stage where you find that the contempt in which the political process is held in this part of the world is palpable when you talk to people on the street. If we do not deal with that, we will not get people buying in to a political process, a peace process or any other process.
We have far more important things to deal with, whether they be youth unemployment, trying to get the economy going or trying to sort out our stance on gay marriage or any of the other issues that affect us. Let us have proper debate. But, do you know what? We cannot. Everything comes back to whether we will have Marty as First Minister or whether we will ensure that he is not.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, the clock is not working, so I do not know where I am with time.
Mr B McCrea: Sorry. I beg your pardon.
The key question that I want to ask is this: why can we not have some proper debate? I heard Mr Campbell say that we should reduce the number of MLAs. Fair enough, let us reduce the number of MLAs, but maybe we should look at changing the boundaries. Why do we have to follow the 18 parliamentary constituencies? That is the debate, and I am happy that some discussion may happen on that. We certainly need to get a more effective form of government.
People will know that I have long-held reservations about petitions of concern. We get into situations from time to time when both the main parties have said, "Do you know what? We really cannot see this passed". I want to see a more effective mechanism, whether it be some form of weighted mechanism, some sort of review or something else. We cannot get to a situation in which it does not matter what we say or speak on because a petition of concern will be tabled. As a result, this place will not change.
The issue that many people find strange is that the Assembly has little power on matters. Most issues — most difficult issues — are resolved at Executive level or behind closed doors. That is not what democracy is based on. We should be having the debate and come out and say what we want to see done better.
On Mrs Kelly's point, the disappointment that the people of our country feel is palpable. We need to do better, so we ought to have an official review. The AERC is the Committee that should be doing that. It is failing in its job, and collectively we need to do better.
Mr Sheehan (The Deputy Chairperson of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee): Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. As Deputy Chair of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, I will make the closing remarks in the debate on the Assembly and Executive Review Committee's Report on the operation of the provisions of Parts 3 and 4 of the NI Act 1998. I do not propose to summarise Members' contributions. They speak for themselves and will be available in Hansard.
I commend the Assembly and Executive Review Committee on the work that has been undertaken over the past eight years. At times, that work has been complex and sensitive when it came to considering the views of the political parties and individual Members of the House. I further stress that those same parties and individual Members were given the opportunity to contribute to the topics that were to be considered by the Committee.
The reports produced by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee over those past eight years have contributed to a number of key matters that have been taken forward by the Assembly, such as policing and justice, the procedures for the appointment of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, and women in politics.
I also agree with the Chair that, when we reviewed not only the reports but the mechanisms that we used to carry out the reviews, I was struck by the wealth of information and research that was commissioned on behalf of the Committee to reach the conclusions and recommendations in every report. In addition to the extensive number of research papers that were produced, the Committee engaged with a wide range of stakeholders as part of each review, from political parties to leading academics here and in the UK, as well as councils, think tanks and voluntary and community groups. The Committee also engaged with the British Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland Office, Executive Departments and non-departmental public bodies.
I emphasise to the House that the reports of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee have provided valuable information to the Assembly that have allowed it to consider ways of moving forward reform of the institution.
I conclude by thanking the Committee officials for the sterling work that they have done over the past eight years.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the report of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee on the Operation of the Provisions of Parts 3 and 4 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 [NIA 242/11-16], made under Section 29A(3) of that Act.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other contributors will have five minutes. As a valid petition of concern was presented on Friday 24 April in relation to the motion, the vote will be on a cross-community basis.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
That this Assembly welcomes the marriage equality referendum in the South of Ireland; notes that a growing number of Parliaments across the world have embraced, and legislated for, marriage equality; respects the rights of the religious institutions to define, observe and practise marriage within their beliefs; and calls on the Executive to legislate for marriage equality for same-sex couples so that all citizens will have the same legal entitlement to the protections, responsibilities, rights, obligations and benefits afforded by the legal institution of marriage.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Agus molann Sinn Féin an ceart um chomhionannas sóisialta, gnéis agus cultúrtha. I welcome the referendum for marriage equality in the South of Ireland. I will be voting yes — tá — on 22 May. I was part of the Sinn Féin team at the constitutional convention, and I was very proud that all our representatives voted in favour of marriage equality. If we vote yes, and I hope we do, we will be a step closer to cherishing all the children of the nation equally.
Sinn Féin wants to see this island part of a progressive world where all citizens can be married, regardless of their sexual orientation. We want to join the nations that have supported marriage equality: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, England, Scotland, Wales and Uruguay. This is the fourth time that Sinn Féin has brought this motion forward, and I have no doubt that there will be some among you who will be critical of that. We make no apology for that, because until all our citizens have equality we will continue to bring motions in relation to equality. Sin é; it is as simple as that.
I sympathise with Jim Wells in relation to his wife Grace, and I am genuinely sorry that they are going through such difficult and traumatic times; I mean that very sincerely. However, no matter how much pressure someone is under, there is no excuse for the comments that were made. What made the comments even worse was that they were made by the Health Minister, who has taken a pledge of office and who is responsible for safeguarding children. Jim Wells violated that pledge of office, and I believe —
Ms Ruane: No, I will not give way.
I believe that he made the right decision. The only part of the decision that I think is wrong is that he should have resigned from now and not from 11 May. Peter Robinson, the leader of the DUP, now has a decision to make. The public needs to be reassured that the new Health Minister will fulfil her or his duties in the Department, whether it is in relation to adoption, blood donation or child protection. We cannot continue to have policy made based on personal religious belief and then pretending that there is research to back it up. We have seen that with the last two Health Ministers. It is insulting to the community at large, particularly to the LBG community. Indeed, his comments were very insulting to lone parents.
I note that all of the parties have criticised his comments, and I welcome that, but now the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Parties like the SDLP and Alliance say that their policy is to support marriage equality, and their members say they support their party policy. But then, some of them do not turn up for debates, and we hear the most ridiculous excuses. So, I genuinely hope that there is a full SDLP team and a full Alliance team here today.
Ulster Unionist Party Members have a free vote — sitting on the fence as usual. I believe that the leader of the UUP has questions to answer. He is not here, unfortunately. He sits on the Committee with responsibility for equality, but he has questions to answer. His party has election pacts with a party that does not support equality. Then, he is on the radio making nonsensical arguments that the marriage equality debate is not about equality and that that is why he supports equality for LGBT people but not in relation to marriage. It is nonsensical. He should be here and he should clarify his position.
This is an equality issue. I can marry my husband. I can show the world that I have married him and that I love him, but my gay and lesbian friends who have been in relationships for longer than I have — I have been in it for only 22 or 23 years — cannot do the same, and that is not fair. It is not legally right and it is not fair.
Jim Wells is not alone in the DUP to have made such homophobic comments. The list is long — Sammy Wilson, Ian Paisley junior, Iris Robinson, Edwin Poots. We had Paul Givan trying to bring in a Bill, but, thankfully, Sinn Féin, with the Greens and Basil McCrea, are blocking that discriminatory private Member's Bill dressed up as a so-called conscience Bill.
To the DUP, I say that I hope that none of your children; grandchildren; nieces; nephews; brothers; sisters; aunties; uncles; cousins; neighbours; friends, or constituents are gay. The reason that I hope they are not is because they will be living in fear and getting very dangerous messages. They will be living in a culture of silence and rejection. There is a good chance that your policies and utterances are hurting them, and hurting them so deeply that they fear coming out. As Justin McAleese so eloquently put it in his article, when he heard Ian Paisley junior's remarks, it stopped him coming out for another while and left him suffering in silence. It is wrong, and things need to change in this part of the world. You are condemning them to silence and fear.
What are the arguments that we are going to hear today? That it threatens family values — yeah, yeah, yeah. We have heard it before. I will tell you when we heard it. We heard it when it was used to justify laundries, when women were hidden away to protect family values while they were pregnant and had their children. Children were sent to far-flung parts of the globe to protect family values. We do not want to protect those types of family values. We will hear that the institution of marriage is threatened. Where did we hear that before? It was in apartheid South Africa, to justify why black and white could not marry — because it would threaten the institution of marriage.
The other argument we will hear today is about religious belief. In case there is any ambiguity about it, the motion supports freedom of religion by allowing religious institutions to define, observe and practise marriage according to their beliefs. However, as legislators, we are not here to legislate according to our personal beliefs; we are here to legislate on the basis of equality, and that is what we will do. We will join the rest of the world in equality for all of our citizens.
My concluding message is to the LGB community. Sinn Féin believes that you have rights. We will support those rights. We will take on discrimination and homophobia using all the tools at our disposal, but the biggest message that I want to send to drown out the negative, hateful bile that is coming out of some people is: we love our gay aunties and uncles; we love our lesbian children and gay grandchildren. We applaud your courage and bravery and the bravery of organisations that work with you. Together, we will build a society that includes and embraces.
I urge politicians to be very careful when they are speaking. A gay couple knows only too well how scary it is, in the dark of night, when a brick might come through the window. It takes courage to come out, because hate crime is on the rise. Those politicians who incite hatred, do not wring your hands, cite your conscience or say that you are against violence, if your words — your words — are the words ringing in the ears of the person who throws the brick through the window. Shame on you. Shame on you.
Today, what we need is this House to support the motion.
Mr Weir: I am speaking on behalf of the DUP. My party will oppose the motion for a number of reasons. First of all, the proposer of the motion mentioned that it is the fourth occasion on which it has been brought to the House this mandate. The make-up of the House has altered very little during that period. Clearly, this is an attempt at an electoral stunt. This is not a serious debate. Indeed, that was indicated by the previous Member who spoke when she made the offensive remarks effectively comparing those who oppose same-sex marriage or a redefinition of marriage to those who took a particular view in apartheid South Africa. I find that deeply offensive.
I think that the game was given away by the proposer of the motion when she referred to the SDLP, Alliance Party and Ulster Unionist Party. Clearly, this is an attempt to try to exploit differences in those parties for pure electoral gain. It is disappointing that there will not be a serious debate on that basis.
At the outset, I want to say that the position with regard to the definition of marriage in the Republic of Ireland — although it is only obliquely referred to in the motion — is a matter entirely for them. I take no position at all on the referendum. It is not my place to try to interfere in the internal affairs of another sovereign country. However, I hope that such a referendum never takes place in this jurisdiction.
It is not about a rights agenda. When civil partnerships were brought in, that conferred a range of rights. That was meant to sort out the rights issues. It dealt with that. The motion is clearly an attack on the symbolism and institution of marriage and is an attempt to redefine marriage. My party believes, as do I from my personal beliefs and convictions, that marriage is between one man and one woman. Once you redefine that, you lose the essence of marriage itself. I have no doubt that some proponents of this will say that that definition is not inclusive. I freely accept that it is not an inclusive definition because marriage, by its nature, is not inclusive: it makes a range of boundaries and restrictions. There are restrictions on the age at which people can be married and the nature of the blood relationship between those who would potentially get married. Similarly, it is restricted to two people; one man and one woman. Marriage, by its nature, then, has a special place in society.
Perhaps the most serious thing is the impact that it would have on Churches and faith organisations. There was an attempt to sugar the pill in relation to that. We have supposedly, in the motion, the provision to try to protect those Churches. I ask what level of worth that has and whether we are faced today with a motion that is really the endgame. If we see a situation in which the definition of marriage is redefined in this nature and various Churches resist that, as they would, how long will it be before pressure comes on them and there is some of court challenge or indeed pressure is put on them with regard to the funding that would go to them? For those who see that as fanciful, we have seen recently in the Ashers case that there are to be no exemptions or exceptions for the exercise of conscience.
Mr Weir: No, I want to get through this.
Similarly, if we are looking at the endgame, we should remember that when the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, brought in civil partnerships, we were told that this was meant to clear up all the issues: civil partnerships were the complete solution, and marriage itself was not being tampered with. Yet we see, 10 years down the line, an attempt to redefine secular marriage. How much assurance can we have that, further down the line, there will not be an attempt at redefining the religious sacrament of marriage?
I have to say that, if you are a supporter of pure equality in marriage, this motion does not cut it for you because, essentially, it says that you can have marriage on certain grounds but there will be exclusions. As anyone who has campaigned for equality on any issue will tell you, it will, therefore, be simply a staging post. If the motion is passed and the Executive take action, the very same supporters of the motion will come back to take further action to remove any exemption for the Churches. There is no doubt about that. At best, today's motion represents — there has been an attempt to disguise this — a temporary reprieve for the Churches and those of faith.
For all those reasons, I urge the House to reject the motion.
Mr Eastwood: We are having this debate at a time of great concern for the many in our community who have not been treated as full and valued members of it by people in positions of authority. In the last few days, members of our community have been demeaned and their value and worth attacked. I am glad to see that we are now at a stage at which people own up to their mistakes, take it on the chin and resign. We do not have much of a culture of that here yet. I think that Mr Wells has done the right thing by resigning, and I wish him all the best in dealing with his personal difficulties.
As an Assembly, and as people in positions of power and responsibility, we need to be seen to embrace all members of our community — all members. The motion and the idea of equal marriage are about ensuring that people in our community can access the full services of the state and be seen as and respected as full citizens in our society. There is no reason whatsoever why the North of Ireland should be the only place in these islands that does not have marriage available to same-sex couples. That is the position that we will be in very shortly, because I believe strongly that people in the South will vote yes in the marriage equality referendum, and I hope that they do. We will be the only place on these islands that does not have that same equality for members of our community.
I fully respect people's views on this issue. I understand that people have deeply held religious views. People in our party have deeply held religious views about this issue. The SDLP's policy is clear, however: we support equal marriage. I know that that is our policy because I proposed it at our party conference, and it was passed by a majority. That is how we do things. We are very clear that that is our position, but we also recognise that we have to protect the Churches and religious organisations that do not want to take part in equal marriage. This is about changing civil marriage, not about changing anybody's religious interpretation of what marriage is. Marriage has changed and evolved over the centuries. This is about the access to civil marriage. In the event that the motion passes and we finally get to a position of equality with people in Britain, the Churches will be protected.
I fully respect people's right to oppose equal marriage, but people need to understand that we need to be seen to support members of our community who have been getting all the wrong kinds of messages from this place, whether telling people that their blood is not good enough to save lives or that they cannot adopt children, when children are crying out for loving fathers.
Mr Wells has done the right thing, but I call on the DUP to go further. One of the DUP's MPs has said that gay people harm society. That kind of bigotry is what harms society. That kind of bigotry is what got us into a lot of difficulties over the years in this place. I call on the First Minister to disassociate himself from Ian Paisley's remarks and to ask him to withdraw them, in the same way that Mr Wells did. Hopefully, the DUP will move to a much more tolerant place in society. If it does not, I do not see how any potential British Prime Minister could do a deal with a party that thinks that homosexuals harm society. We need to see a complete change in the attitude of that party, and I hope that, today, it takes the opportunity to begin that process.
Mr Kinahan: I rise saddened that the Chamber is being used by Sinn Féin to play party politics but, as ever, hopeful that somewhere in the words and minds of all those here is a genuine intention to do good. I will not be taking any interventions.
At school and in the army, I believed and, I am ashamed to say, joked, carried by the flow, that gay, lesbian and such matters were wrong and could be laughed at. I had never really sat down and thought about it. In the 1980s, when you were due for promotion from captain to major, you were vetted; every aspect of your life was questioned so that it could be judged whether you were suitable to take on higher levels of responsibility, such as receiving or giving orders, doing your duty and making decisions under pressure that would risk soldier or civilian lives. One of my great friends, an excellent soldier in another regiment, left the army, and it was only much later that I discovered why: he failed vetting because he was gay. That opened my eyes as to how wrong society could be. When serving and knowing the risks of doing so, you recognise the importance of absolute trust in your comrades. When on active service, you do not care about the religion, colour or sexuality of the man beside you, and, when injured, you most certainly never ask who donated the blood that saved your life.
A society that is great, whether British, Irish or Northern Irish, is a society where no one is discriminated against and where everyone is allowed to practice their religious beliefs freely and without fear. I want a society here in Northern Ireland where no one is made to feel like a second-class citizen to any extent, and certainly not due to sexual definition. I want no discrimination whatsoever on account of religious belief or sexual orientation.
I had a gentleman visit one of my constituency offices last week who proceeded to berate a young man working there about my stance on certain issues. It left him very shaken. That is totally unacceptable. Debate, yes; discuss, certainly; but bully, never. I want a society where no one feels that their religious belief is necessarily superior to others. I so want to see more Christian forgiveness, tolerance and understanding.
I am proud of the Ulster Unionist Party for making this a free vote, in which everyone can vote in accordance with their religious beliefs, values and conscience. That is how this debate should be for everyone. I suspect that some in the Chamber are not voting as they would really wish. That, on a matter of conscience or religion, is wrong — very, very wrong.
Serving in the forces or working in a job in trying and testing conditions can create great pressure. Even under pressure, you must always be able to debate or argue, accept each other's differences and, afterwards, sit down together and carry on amicably. That is being professional. That is how it should be in the Chamber. For those who cannot do that, that will always be their limitation.
I support the motion because it combines marriage equality and the respect for the rights of the religious institutions to define and practise marriage within their beliefs. Marriage is not just a Christian institution but one that crosses all religions and is also secular. Using a definition such as civic union can make that institution seem second class or second rate to some, especially when legislating for their protections, responsibilities, rights, obligations and the benefits of marriage. It is that strong perception of a second-class citizen that needs to be changed, which is why I support the motion.
Mr Lyttle: I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion, not least because it allows me to clarify and respond to the DUP Westminster candidate in East Belfast, who has quite underhandedly attempted to claim that my colleagues and I have been pressurised on the issue. Given that he has close knowledge of how intimidation, threat and attack, inflamed by the DUP, has not pressurised me or my colleagues one iota, I find it strange that he purports to believe that party process would have achieved otherwise. The only pressure that I put on myself on the issue is my own belief and standards to live up to my vocation. I will speak on behalf of the Alliance Party in supporting the motion.
The Alliance Party is committed to delivering a shared society for everyone based on religious and civil liberty and equality for all, regardless of age, gender, disability, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, and to standing against discrimination or stigmatisation of any kind. The Alliance Party believes that state-provided services should be available to all citizens. Civil marriage is a state-provided service. It is differentiated from religious marriage in the Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 and required by that law to be secular in nature: that is, to have no religious or spiritual basis. The Alliance Party, therefore, supports the extension of state-provided civil marriage to same-sex couples, provided robust legislative protection can uphold the religious freedom of faith groups to define and practise religious marriage as they determine.
Mr Dickson: Will the Member join me in expressing disappointment at the deployment of a petition of concern today, particularly given the recent comments by the First Minister that he feels that freer thought should be allowed on some of these issues?
Mr Lyttle: Yes, I agree. That point is well made. We recognise, of course, that there is a wide range of sincerely and strongly held views on the issue. There are people who oppose the proposal because they believe that it contravenes their faith. There are people who oppose it because they believe that equality is afforded to same-sex couples via civil partnerships. There are, however, many people who support it because they believe that it is the duty of the state to treat all citizens equally.
I am a Christian. I cherish the freedom of religion that I have in a democracy to practise and communicate my Christian faith and my belief that marriage is the voluntary lifelong union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others under God. I recognise that I do not always live up to that faith and that many people do not agree with my personal belief. That, however, is who I am. I believe, therefore, that the religious freedom of people and groups of faith to define and observe their understanding of religious marriage should be upheld.
I believe in the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, but I believe that the principles of freedom of religion, freedom from religion and equality for all citizens that democracy affords provide the best framework in which to build a safe, fair, shared and prosperous society under government by the people. I also believe that freedom of religion relies on freedom from religion. There is stark and brutal historical and present-day evidence of how a lack of freedom from religion has allowed the perversion of religion to justify terror and totalitarian rule against people of all backgrounds, including Christians. I believe that the application of these principles and a reading of the law on the matter, in particular the Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order 2003, support the extension of state-provided civil marriage, regardless of sexual orientation and, therefore, to same-sex couples.
As I mentioned, the Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 makes a distinction between religious and civil marriage. It is an explicit requirement of civil marriage that it be conducted in a secular manner. The proposal is that civil marriage be extended to all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation; it is not the redefinition of religious marriage.
Whilst I have my own faith and belief about marriage, I find it reasonable that a person of same-sex orientation, which is a legal sexual orientation in Northern Ireland, expects, under the principles of democracy, equal access to state-provided civil marriage. I also believe that, if the faith groups' ability to define and observe religious marriage as they determine is upheld and shown to be a positive experience of marriage, the aspects of that marriage that they hold dear can survive and thrive. My aim has always been to contribute to respectful and accurate dialogue on this issue. I hope that my contribution has reflected that aim and the Alliance Party commitment to equality and to building a shared society for everyone in Northern Ireland.
In my remaining minute, may I extend my sincere thoughts and prayers to Jim Wells and his wife for the health challenges that they are facing? However, on behalf of the Alliance Party, may I also make it clear that the comments by the Health Minister, Jim Wells, in this recent week were completely unacceptable, unsubstantiated and, unfortunately, part of a wider pattern of DUP hostility to equality for all citizens here in Northern Ireland? The DUP leadership needs to make it clear where it stands on these important matters. The Ulster Unionist Party leadership and supporters who will be voting for DUP candidates in the Westminster election need also to reflect on the credibility of their support for that DUP approach to equality.
I support the motion.
Mr McCausland: Mr Speaker, this is the fourth time that what is sometimes referred to as "same-sex marriage" has been debated here in the Northern Ireland Assembly. All the issues were analysed and debated at length during those previous three debates, and, on each and every occasion, the Assembly voted to retain the traditional definition of marriage.
This is not an equality issue, although some people try to present it in that way. Neither is it a human rights issue, although some people attempt to present it in that way. The European Convention on Human Rights does not recognise what is called "same-sex marriage" as a right, and member states have the right and, indeed, the freedom not to redefine marriage in that way. It is really about the nature, understanding and purpose of marriage. It is an attempt to change the definition of marriage, change the understanding of marriage, abandon the traditional view of marriage and introduce a new one.
I believe that the traditional understanding of marriage, which is also the biblical understanding, is the right one. A marriage is a loving union between a man and a woman, and it is foundational in the sense that so much else in society depends upon it. It is also universal in that it has existed throughout history, across human cultures, across religions and around the world. Marriage is also beneficial to individuals and society, and it is beneficial to wider society in a variety of ways.
In this debate, and in the wider public discourse, we should, to borrow a biblical phrase, speak the truth in love. I speak, I believe, in love, but I also want to speak the truth. Whatever we say on either side of the debate should be spoken in love, and no one on either side should be subjected to harassment or mistreatment. Whenever we uphold the traditional and biblical definition of marriage in our society, we do so out of a genuine belief that traditional marriage is important, that marriage is good and that it is beneficial to society.
The campaign to redefine marriage is an attempt to change one of the fundamental institutions in our society, and to change it for ever. We have been told that there could be protection for Churches that might refuse to perform same-sex ceremonies, but that is only one point, as this is a much wider issue. Consider the impact on Churches in Northern Ireland: Protestant Churches and the Roman Catholic Church have reaffirmed their commitment to traditional marriage. Apart from a tiny handful of exceptions, that is the position across not only Christian Churches but other religious faiths as well. Across the religious spectrum, there is a consensus that marriage is the union of a man and woman. Yes, there are promises of protection, but, so often, such assurances seem to evaporate over time. If our society alters the meaning of marriage, that is what will happen.
Consider the impact, too, on those who work in registry offices and that on many other businesses. That issue has been highlighted in recent days. Consider the wider impact on society. This is an attempt to change for ever the legal definition of marriage for all of society: for not just those who believe in the introduction of same-sex marriage but all of us. Of course, some people argue that we are out of step with the rest of the United Kingdom and that what has happened in Great Britain should also happen here. However, there are times when it is right to be different.
For all those reasons, I oppose the motion. I support the retention of the traditional understanding and definition of marriage and the current legal understanding of marriage here in Northern Ireland.
Ms Fearon: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. It is a genuine honour for me today to be able to speak in favour of extending the right of civil marriage to those who are LGBT. I express at the outset my solidarity with my comrades across the Twenty-six Counties who are fighting for a "Yes" vote in the upcoming marriage referendum, although I do not believe that we should be having to vote in the first place, because, quite frankly, it should not be an issue in 2015. We must make sure that the referendum is won, because it is the right thing. This is, first and foremost, about love, and love alone. I cannot begin to imagine the elation of a young LGBT person waking up on the morning after a "Yes" vote. I hope that, some day, we can do that for all the people across this island.
I will briefly comment on the recent controversy around Jim Wells. I will not say much, mostly because I do not want to give more attention to his, in my opinion, disgusting views. The mask slipped, but it is important to remember that he is not the only one wearing one. I take no confidence at all from the DUP statement that there will be any attempt to address the wider party prejudice. I think that that is a real shame. We do not just need a change of Minister but a change of mindset, and we need there to be respect.
Of course, today we will hear the DUP and others talk up the benefit of a civil partnership and how that is more than enough. As I have said before, you cannot be a bit equal to someone: that is not how it works. Civil partnerships are not enough. If we were being really honest here today, I would say that it is not that you think that civil partnerships are enough but that you think that they are already a step too far.
The motion respects the right of religious institutions to define and practise marriage within their beliefs. I understand and respect the fact that some people hold sincere religious beliefs that mean a lot to them, but those beliefs should not impact on a law that affects everyone. Since when does religious freedom mean that you can blatantly discriminate against fellow citizens? The very concept of personal freedom means that, if we do not all have it, none of us does.
Just the other day, I was speaking about the issue with an elderly gentleman from my area who would describe himself as a committed Christian. He said to me, "Megan, the way I see it is that, if you are using the Bible to hate people, you are using it wrong". I thought that that was quite a profound statement for him to make.
The motion is about civil marriage, and it is sad that I already know that there will be all sorts of ridiculous arguments made as a distraction from that throughout the debate. I think that people should be careful with their words, because what happens in here has a direct impact on people's lives out there. This is about dignity and human rights. Gay and lesbian people do not want special treatment. They do not want different rights from those that straight people already have. They just want equality under the law.
Adoption rights are another element of the wider debate. The narrative that a child needs a man and a woman in order to be raised properly is completely false. In reality, all that a child needs is a loving home and environment in which to grow up. My mum is from a single-parent family, and I think that it is insulting to single-parent families everywhere to say that a child needs a mother and a father. In fact, it is insulting to all families to say that.
The sad reality is that, because of the intimidation that they would face, there are people out there who would rather not live than be openly themselves, and that is an indictment of our entire society. We cannot stop until we have achieved full legislative equality that extends the same rights, privileges and protection to all. None of us can judge or quantify true love. Sexuality is not a choice and neither are the people that we love. We should let people who love each other be together in the way that other couples are able to: people such as my friends, some of whom are here today.
Despite another abuse of the petition of concern from the DUP, I encourage all progressively minded people to do the right thing today, and support the motion. Of course, we have to recognise that marriage is just one of the many battles that need to be fought in the overall fight for LGBT equality. We have seen blatant, often DUP-led discrimination against the LGBT community in recent times, whether it is the blood ban, adoption rights or the so-called conscience clause. There is a long battle ahead of us, and the reality is that those who will vote against this today will be on the wrong side of history. In years to come, when I am asked where I was during the fight for equal rights, I will be more than proud to say that I was there.
Mrs Foster: I oppose the motion brought by Sinn Féin not out of love and respect for the homosexual community in Northern Ireland but for its own cynical party political posturing. Comments from Chris Lytle are, of course, also disgraceful, but some would say that that is more about his party's desperation in East Belfast than the debate in the House today.
The motion is couched in the usual Sinn Féin-speak of equality. The call for equality suggests that there are not equal rights for gay people in relationships, and that is, of course, factually wrong. We have civil partnerships in Northern Ireland, which allow persons of the same sex to acknowledge their commitment to each other in relationships. Civil partners in Northern Ireland enjoy the same rights as couples in a same-sex marriage in England.
We should remember that Sinn Féin's equality agenda is not all that it would seem. It is a twisted logic brought forward to demonise those who disagree with it. Any motion from Sinn Féin on equality has to be put in the context of their party president, Gerry Adams, in Enniskillen a couple of months ago. I apologise to the House for the use of foul language, but, referring to this party, Mr Adams said that equality is being used as a "Trojan Horse" to "break these bastards". When it tried to murder and bomb us into submission, the IRA did not break this community, and it will not succeed in its false equality agenda either. For that is what it is: false.
To the gay community, I say: "I respect you. In many individual cases, you are my friends and I enjoy social fellowship, but don't allow Sinn Féin to suck you into their agenda. Remember it is themselves alone. As apologists for some of the most heinous crimes in Northern Ireland, they have zero credibility to campaign on any issue of equality."
I know that many gay people have been subject to homophobic attacks because they are in a minority. I know what it is like to live as part of a minority community. I know what it is like to be forced from my home because we did not agree with the mainstream view in our neighbourhood. I empathise with those victims of homophobic attacks. Those are wrong on every level, just as my forced exodus from my home at the age of eight was wrong. However, you will not hear Sinn Féin campaigning for me and others like me, because it sponsored such actions.
This is the fourth time that this motion has come to the Assembly, and it causes distress every time. It causes distress to those who support the institution of marriage. Many have phoned, emailed or called with me, absolutely distressed at the prospect of redefinition. Frankly, it also causes distress to the LGBT community, as it raises unrealistic expectations every time the motion comes back to the House. Of course, Sinn Féin does not care that it causes widespread distress; in fact, that adds to its day.
Finally, those who support marriage and oppose its redefinition have been labelled "homophobic" by those in the House and outside it. Such an expression is, of course, lazy politics and lazy journalism. Indeed, it is dangerous politics and dangerous journalism. Unlike the party opposite, I have a consistent record on opposing violence against anyone, regardless of their sexuality, their race, or their religious or political opinion. If respect and tolerance are to be the order of the day, it is a two-way street. To be clear, I and my party are willing to play our part, and I hope that there are those in the LGBT community who are willing to display respect and tolerance for those of us who believe in marriage.
Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome and support the motion.
Our society in the North has undoubtedly been rocked over the weekend as a result of the actions and words of the outgoing Health Minister, Jim Wells; but let me put on record my genuine hope that Jim and his family take the time over the next number of weeks to move on to a better place for him and for the health of his wife.
We now need to hear from the DUP that it has not just heard the huge backlash from local people but has listened as well. The days of vilifying and attacking our LGBT brothers and sisters are over. As communities across the world modernise and look to sweep away any vestiges of archaic discrimination and inequality, we, too, must look to show leadership and legislate for equality on all issues across all parts of society.
When I was graduating from university, the keynote speaker told us to go forth and change society, that oppositional voices would be strong but that the insatiable desire for progress would ultimately win the day. He was 100% right. We will see marriage equality across this island for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. There is no doubt about that. It will not be today, and it will not happen if we sit back and do nothing. It is why we continue to champion the rights of our LGBT community and why we continue to bring this motion to the Floor time and time again. We will do so until we are blue in the face and until it is successful.
Danny Kinahan belittled the motion as party politics but went on to say that he had not really taken the time to think about the issues before. That shows exactly why it is important to bring the motion: it makes people have a think. I also suggest that Danny talks to his party colleague Harold McKee in south Down because Harold certainly needs to take the time to think as well. That is why these motions are very important. It is also why the marriage referendum in the South is very important. It is another welcome stage on the road to equality across this island, and I look forward to being able to campaign with my comrades in the South once the Westminster campaign is over in a couple of weeks.
Nelson McCausland said that he is wedded to the traditional and original concept of marriage, but even a cursory glance at the evolution of the definition of marriage will show that it has changed throughout the ages. I know that Nelson is not the biggest fan of evolution, but surely, if we keep bringing this message back, the progressive voices in the party will come to the fore; people like Pam Cameron, who stood up and realised that Jim Wells was wrong and distanced herself from those comments. We need to see more progressive voices from the DUP to stand up for our brothers and sisters.
Mr Allister: I have listened with interest to the Member. Does that mean that, by the same token, he condemns and rejects that which the archbishop of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Eamon Martin, wrote to Assembly Members in respect of this debate? He very carefully points out that the motion on same-sex marriage undermines a key foundation of the common good. He says:
"We say this both as a matter of human reason and of religious conviction. We believe that the union of a 'man and a woman' in marriage open to the procreation of children is a gift from God who created us male and female".
Mr Allister: — it is an abuse of equality law to talk in equal terms.
Mr Speaker: Order. Interventions should be short. You know that.
Mr Hazzard: I thank the Member for his intervention. I tend not to reply to statements, but it is a welcome development to see the Member sticking up for the rights of the Catholic Church and being so interested in its press releases. The bishop has every right to comment on this. I do not agree with what the bishop said on the matter. We are dealing today specifically with civil marriage. A number of people have touched on that. I am not saying that the bishop was doing this, but various parties in this Chamber tend to resort to weaponising scripture when it comes to these debates. I think that it is a retreat into the world of scripture. I do not think that it does anything to help them. They know that there is no empirical evidence to back up their case so they resort back to text that is thousands of years old, they distort the meaning of it in various ways, and they saturate society with twisted logic that does nothing but hold us back.
Finally, I want to touch on the issue of how this would redefine marriage. It is a complete fallacy. The suffragettes did not redefine voting practices. You only have to look around this Building to see that there are still not enough women in politics. The black Americans did not redefine how we eat out; they only wanted a seat at the table, and our lesbian, gay and bisexual community only want a seat at the table of marriage. They do not want to redefine it; they simply want a piece of the cake.
Mr Kennedy: At the outset, I want to make it plain that I oppose the motion. This is yet another debate — the fourth — on this issue in a very short time. It is very clear to everyone today that the decision of this House will not change, not least as a consequence of the petition of concern tabled. I say to the sponsors of the motion that they are guilty of engaging in a highly cynical political exercise and, undoubtedly, an electoral exercise that will be of absolutely no benefit to any section of our community, least of all the LGBT community, which is being deliberately used by Sinn Féin for perceived political advantage.
I choose to speak not as a Minister or, indeed, on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. The House will know that my party believes that issues of this nature are matters of personal conscience. Therefore, although called as an Ulster Unionist, I speak in a personal capacity, and it is a matter of regret that Members from all political parties are not allowed the liberty to speak freely according to their conscience on this issue.
In previous debates on this matter, I made clear my opposition to any change in the current legislation in order to allow for same-sex marriage. That remains my position. It is a position based on my religious beliefs and is consistent with the teaching of my Church — the Presbyterian Church — and also the publicly expressed views of other Churches, including, as we have heard, the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland. Finally, it is a position that I believe is fundamentally consistent with the teaching of holy scripture. What is of importance to me in this debate is not the teaching of any Church but the teaching of scripture itself. It is clear to me and my understanding of scripture that there should be no change in the current situation.
In past debates on this subject, I have highlighted my clear view on the clear differences that exist in the teachings of the Church and the law of the land as both define marriage. The separation of church and state, therefore, becomes of extreme importance. The state has no right to dictate the terms of religious marriage to the Church. The state has created the mechanisms under which same-sex civil partnerships can be enacted with protections under the law which, in most cases, are equivalent to the responsibilities, rights, obligations and benefits enjoyed by married heterosexual couples. In my view, it is neither sensible nor desirable to allow the state to interfere in the religious institution of marriage simply for political convenience.
Redefining marriage would have far-reaching consequences for our entire society. Furthermore, I do not believe that there is widespread public support in Northern Ireland for such a proposal. In holding my view, I do not believe that I should be regarded as homophobic, and, indeed, any suggestion would offend and abhor me. I do not disparage people in the LGBT community, many of whom I count as personal friends, nor is it my role or practice to be judgemental, but for the reasons that I have set out, which are personal and deeply held convictions that I cannot and will not set aside, I remain opposed to this proposal.
Mr Attwood: Save for Jim Wells's colleagues in the DUP, I am probably one of those who has known him, in the political world, for longest because we were at college in Queen's together 35 years ago. My sense of the man is that, just as he carried his responsibilities as Health Minister heavily, I think that, in the last couple of days, he has probably carried the issue that has arisen heavily. For those reasons, whilst I think that the decision is the right one, I convey to him and his family my personal good wishes.
I will make a number of points about this issue. If there is one thing that we should draw from the last two or three days, the last two or three months or the last two or three years and decades, it is this: if our society is not based on respectful relationships, we end up in a situation of not just disrespect but of division and denial. If this debate is meant to mean anything, in the context of the last number of days and in the context of all our learning over the last number of decades, it shows that, if the issue and all the other issues that crowd in on our society are not based on respectful relationships, we end up ill-serving our community and our society. You can see that across the full range of political and policy issues that we face at the moment and that we will face after the election, not least in the resolution of the parades disputes. The one thing that we have to conclude from all of this is that all these debates have to be informed by an approach that is about respectful relationships. Otherwise, difference is forced to the point of division, and people's rights are forced to the point of denial.
A number of years ago, I read a book that argued that the future of Ireland had to move away from what it referred to as:
"the bloodlines of ethnicity to the lifelines of human rights".
I do not completely agree with that analysis because I believe that our different backgrounds are part of the richness and diversity of this island, but I agree with the argument that the society that we have to create here and elsewhere has to be based around the "lifelines of human rights". That is the approach that the SDLP takes to this issue. Articles 12 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights have been interpreted judicially in relation to equal marriage, so they should be the template and the standard that we uphold. However, in so doing, I confirm the words of my colleague from Derry Mr Eastwood that recognising equal marriage can be accommodated in a way that also recognises moral tenets and the theological and faith views of many in our community. I say to the DUP that, in making those arguments, this is not a temporary response; it is a permanent guarantee going forward.
I express some regret about the contribution made by the proposer of the motion. We are a party that comes from the tradition of democratic dissent: it is at the heart of what was created through democratic struggle in this part of the island of Ireland after all the years of inequality. Dissent is part of our creed, and we welcome and encourage it, unlike her party. That dissent on issues of freedom of conscience means that our party allows people not to vote in favour of equal marriage. Our party upholds the right of dissent on an issue of conscience.
Finally, to be talked to in this Chamber about the denial of rights of others, when people in our society were denied rights because of the uniform they wore —
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member's time is up. I am sorry.
Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up, please. I am on my feet.
Mr Speaker: I call the Minister. We just have time before Question Time, if that would help.
Mr Hamilton (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I join with the many contributors who wished Jim Wells and his wife well at this difficult time for them and their wider family. I would, however, go further than many and condemn the vile personal abuse and threats that he and his family have received, particularly on social media, in the last number of days.
The baseball commentator Yogi Berra once famously said:
"It's like déjà vu all over again."
I know how he felt. This is the fourth time this subject has been debated in this Assembly term, and it is déjà vu all over again. Effectively, it is the same motion, tabled by the same people, with the same MLAs speaking, saying the same things, with most probably the same outcome.
I note that the call to action in the motion is directed at the Executive as a whole. However, as the subject falls within the remit of my Department, I agreed to respond. In saying that I believe that this motion will suffer the same fate as the three previous motions, I am not seeking to be curt or dismissive. I am merely recognising the fact that most Members have voted, and will continue to vote, according to their conscience, no matter how much pressure is brought to bear.
There would appear to be a view that claims of inequality, if repeated often enough, will inevitably succeed. When the last motion was debated, on 29 April 2014, there was talk of second-class citizens, marginalisation and discrimination. The reality is, I am happy to say, somewhat different from the rhetoric. Same-sex couples in Northern Ireland are not denied the opportunity to live in a loving, secure, stable and permanent relationship with all the protections and benefits that such a relationship can bring. They can do just that by entering into a civil partnership, and many have.
If you choose to focus on negative concepts, such as marginalisation and discrimination, you will inevitably lower self-esteem and create unnecessary divisions. Different approaches are not lesser or discriminatory, and it is wrong to imply that a civil partnership is an inferior status. Our marriage law recognises the unique relationship between a man and a woman, just as our law on civil partnerships recognises the unique relationship between two people of the same sex.
Those who criticise civil partnerships are quick to suggest that other jurisdictions have a greater respect for diversity because they have introduced same-sex marriage. However, such suggestions should not be taken at face value as same-sex marriage in some jurisdictions has not resulted in certain restrictions being lifted for same-sex couples. Such restrictions are not, of course, highlighted because they undermine the arguments that some prefer to present.
Critics are also quick to suggest that Northern Ireland must introduce same-sex marriage because the other constituent jurisdictions of the United Kingdom have done so. However, the position in the UK is by no means unique, and other jurisdictions, such as the United States, New Zealand and the Netherlands, have territories that have not introduced same-sex marriage. Furthermore, Northern Ireland is not alone in the world in not having legislated for same-sex marriage. There are close to 200 countries in the world; only 17 allow same-sex marriage. A further 30, of which we are one, have civil partnerships with similar protections. Notable countries that have not approved same-sex marriage include Australia, Germany and Italy, and it is the same in one third of the states in the US. The list of countries that have not introduced same-sex marriage is much longer than the list that have.
Some states now provide for same-sex marriage following a democratic vote or judicial ruling, and I respect the position in those states. Next month, the Republic of Ireland will decide whether it wants to amend its constitution to allow for same-sex marriage. Again, I will respect the outcome in that jurisdiction. However, comparisons with other jurisdictions are, ultimately, of limited value. This Assembly does not, and should not, simply align itself with other legislatures. It has a duty to question, challenge, probe and produce laws that take account of the needs and interests of all our citizens. A major reason why we have devolution is so that we can have different laws from other parts of the United Kingdom to suit the views of the people of Northern Ireland and our circumstances.
The argument for the motion and a redefinition of marriage is, again, grounded in equality. This, however, is not an equality issue. People in Northern Ireland have an equal opportunity to enter into a committed relationship with all the benefits that that entails. Opposite-sex couples can do that through marriage, and same-sex couples can do it through civil partnerships. It has been acknowledged that a same-sex marriage in England and Wales confers the same — not different, not more, but the same — benefits as a same-sex civil partnership. Equality, therefore, is not the issue.
Article 16 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as upheld by the UN Human Rights Committee, defends a traditional view of marriage. In European law, article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights also upholds that definition, and the European Court of Human Rights has deemed the definition of marriage to be not a matter of equality but a matter for individual state law. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission highlighted that the international treaties protect the right to marry but has conceded:
"The restriction of marriage to opposite-sex couples does not violate the international standards and this is clear from both the International treaties and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations Human Rights Committee."
It is clear, therefore, that the United Nations, Europe and our own Human Rights Commission all agree that this is not an issue of equality.
The motion uses the language of religious tolerance, and it suggests that suitable protections can be afforded to people of faith. However, the proposed protections relate only to the clergy and religious organisations. There is no offer to protect the religious beliefs of others, such as teachers or registrars.
There is a tendency to portray opposition to same-sex marriage as evidence of an underlying animus toward the lesbian and gay community, and that is wholly unjust. As I have said in the House, opposition to same-sex marriage is not grounded on opposition to any particular type of relationship but on support for the traditional, long-standing, centuries-old definition of marriage and a genuine belief that our current legislative framework achieves a fair balance between the competing interests.
In all the correspondence that I received in advance of this debate from those opposing a redefinition of marriage, which far outweighed any correspondence in favour, none of the language used by good people from across this country has been nasty, bitter or aimed personally at members of the gay and lesbian community. However, those people are often painted and portrayed as bigots by those who, ironically, want to redefine marriage on the basis of tolerance. I have said this before in the House, but it is worth repeating: I was always taught that tolerance was when you disagreed with people but respected their right to have a different position to you. Today, unfortunately, it seems that, for some, when you fail to fall in line with their thinking, you are the intolerant one.
Opposing a redefinition of marriage is not bigotry, narrow-mindedness or even intolerance. It is a view held by many — quite possibly, the majority — in Northern Ireland. Those people are members of the Presbyterian Church, the Catholic Church and no Church at all. They are Members on all sides and in all corners of the House. As we debate the issue in this place and outside, whether for or against, the true meaning of tolerance should be at the forefront of our minds and reflected in the language that we use. I oppose the motion.
Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can the House have an explanation as to why it appears that the 90 minutes allocated for this debate will not be utilised? Why, in the calling of Members, if my mathematics is correct, were twice as many people called to speak in favour of the motion as to oppose it?
Mr Speaker: There are two points. The Minister was called when there were barely the 15 minutes left that he was entitled to to respond to the debate. In the debate, there were contributions from people speaking against the motion and from those speaking for the motion. To that extent, it was a balanced discussion.
The House will now take its ease until after Question Time. The first person to speak after Question Time will be Daithí McKay to make a winding-up speech on the debate.
Mr B McCrea: On a point of order, Mr Speaker, under Standing Order 17. I understand that this is a cross-community debate and that the vote will be taken on that basis. I respectfully draw your attention to the fact that only one unionist spoke in favour of the motion and quite a few spoke against it. I would have preferred to have had the opportunity to add to the balance of the debate.
Mr Speaker: I have considerable sympathy for the position. Indeed, there are a few Members who had their name down for the debate whom I would love to have had the time to bring in, because I think that they would have added to the value of the debate. However, I have to work with the Business Committee's decision. It allocated 90 minutes and allowed 15 minutes for a response from the Minister. It allowed 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech, and every other Member called to speak was given a five-minute slot, which included interventions. Some Members did not use the entire five minutes, and some abused the privilege and spoke for longer than the five minutes, despite my efforts to move them along because I was anxious to include those who had taken the time to put their names on the list. I have to apologise that that was not possible in the debate.
The debate stood suspended.
Mr Bell (Junior Minister, Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): Racial equality and good race relations remain key goals for the Department. Recent race hate attacks are a brutal reminder that we need to strive to achieve those goals and not to take them for granted. Attacks, whilst relatively few in number, cause fear, alarm and despondency among our minority communities. They shame all of us, yet they reinforce our determination to create a society that allows people of all backgrounds to live here in peace and to be treated with respect and dignity.
We are working on a strategy that will genuinely tackle the barriers that stand in the way of people feeling that they belong here. We received a large number of responses to last year's 16-week public consultation. We had 97 written responses from groups and individuals and 303 requests for consideration of specific strategies for Roma and for Traveller people. Forty-nine online questionnaires were completed, and we had feedback from six public meetings and other meetings with academics, trade unions and other key stakeholders. The analysis of all of that is being finalised, and officials have met a large number of representatives of the sector to hear further reflection and input and to clarify what the key issues are. That engagement, along with the analysis of the consultation responses, will inform the final strategy. In conclusion, we want to produce a strategy that embodies both the aspirations and the everyday needs of the families and individuals who have come to live here and who have contributed so much to our community.
Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for his response and agree with him that we should all be ashamed of attacks where they happen in our community. Does he agree that the absence of such a strategy is a hindrance to the efforts to combat this type of intolerance? Can he update the House on when, he thinks, a strategy will be published?
Mr Bell: There are pieces of work under way with the sector. I am not sure that the people perpetrating the attacks are necessarily looking to a strategy for the reason why they behave in such an abhorrent way. We have sought to meet the groups concerned. We have listened carefully to their needs and aspirations. There is tremendous local work going on across Northern Ireland, specifically in our communities, to make this a welcoming place. It is vital that all those voices are brought together to deliver a strategy that delivers most for those for whom it is intended. We will not be found wanting in producing that.
Mr Spratt: I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that South Belfast has some good examples of community engagement on race issues. What work is being done to improve and increase engagement throughout communities on race issues?
Mr Bell: The Member is correct: there is some tremendous work being done right across Belfast, specifically in the South Belfast area.
I look to the Belfast Mela as a key example of how the Indian community has led the way in bringing in the many other cultures that represent so much, have contributed so much, have put so much into the economy and have made a net gain contribution from the minority ethnic sector to our economy and our society. It has made us the diverse and rich society that we are. When I first went to the Belfast Mela in, I think, August 2011, I was overwhelmed by the numbers present. Yet, year on year, the numbers are getting bigger, and the involvement by the whole community, from right across Belfast, is now so strong that you have to queue for a long time to get in. That is the work the community sector is doing on integration, celebrating diversity and enjoying the society that we are today in Northern Ireland, which is enriched by the diversity. We hope that our strategy and the minority ethnic development fund, which we kept at its current level despite all the financial crises and pressure, will be our commitment to the minority ethnic sector and to the community sector to continue to build on those good race relations.
Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire don fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his answer. I think that we all agree that political leadership is needed at the highest level to tackle the growing problem of racism. Does the Minister agree that his party's failure to distance itself from racist views and, indeed, previous comments by his party leader fuel intolerance, racism and disrespect towards other cultures and races?
Mr Bell: It is difficult for those of us who have come through it all. We do not want to look back to the past, but I look at the number of people murdered or maimed by the republican movement, which went across Europe shooting people, shooting children and everything else. If the Member wants to look back, he has enough significant material in the abuse of people that his republican movement was involved in without pointing the finger at anybody else.
From the First Minister down in our party, we have completely condemned all recent racist and hate incidents. When I am with the First Minister with the Islamic community, with the Indian community or wherever we are, we give a consistent and strong message. I do not know where he gets those messages from, because they are not being given to me by the minority ethnic development community. When we have seen a problem, the First Minister, along with us and our officials, has worked with the minority ethnic sector. We recently convened a special sitting of the good relations board at which we looked at what immediate action all of us in OFMDFM could take to tackle race hate. That programme board has met on a number of occasions, and it will do so again, because we want to work together to show that that minority of cases whre there are race hate attacks — they are a minority — do not represent us or any party in the House. Frankly, silly slurs like that do not help anybody.
Ms Lo: The ethnic minority fund for 2013-15 ended on 31 March, and it is not known to the organisations when the new round of funding will finish. Obviously, the two- or three-month gap in funding will negatively impact on the ability of ethnic minority organisations to help finalise the racial equality strategy. Will the Minister consider extending funding to all the organisations that have received funding for the previous two years until the outcome of the funding round is known?
Mr Bell: First, I offer a sincere word of thanks to Anna Lo. She has been of tremendous assistance to us in the office and has met us regularly. She has real credibility and can help us understand the voice of many in the minority ethnic development sector. I want to record my thanks for all her assistance.
The direct answer to the question is that the invitation for new applications opened on 27 March, and the closing date was today. As I said earlier, we are pleased to confirm that, despite all the financial pressures, the minority ethnic development fund is £1·1 million for the 2015-16 financial year. On top of that, we have put together a crisis fund of £100,000 to help those most in need or crisis.
We did that, as well as holding a number of drop-in workshops in Belfast, Londonderry and Craigavon to help the groups with the application process. We hope to let the applicants know the outcome of their applications by the middle of next month.
As the Member said, a number of requests were made, mostly from those who had been in receipt of minority ethnic development funding, to argue for the funding to simply be extended for a further period. The Member will also be aware that other organisations supported the opening of a new call for applications to those who had not been successful previously or who were involved in work in that area but had not been funded. Some of the organisations were new and some were not so new, and we wanted to see which of them could potentially serve their community and broader society well with the help of funding. We felt that it was fairer to allow everyone to apply and have the same opportunity. Options were put to us, such as the one that the Member suggested of just continuing —
Mr Speaker: I advise the Minister that his two minutes are up.
Mr Bell: — for a further period. We took the decision that, on balance, it was appropriate to open it to all the organisations.
Mr P Robinson: I would like to begin by giving an overview of what we have already done to introduce affordable and flexible childcare. As you know, the first phase of the Executive's childcare strategy was launched back in September 2013. It included a number of key first actions to address the main childcare needs that had been identified through research and consultation.
School-age childcare was the greatest area of need identified. The school-age childcare grant scheme, which we launched just over a year ago, was developed to create new high-quality school-age childcare places and sustain the places we already have. To date, the grant scheme has allocated £2 million to 50 successful school-age childcare projects. Those projects will sustain or create approximately 1,500 low-cost quality childcare places.
We expect to grant aid further school-age childcare projects before the summer and launch a third call for applications to the grant scheme in the autumn. This will result in further low-cost childcare places being created or sustained. In parallel to that, work to develop the full childcare strategy has been taken forward on a co-design basis, with close engagement between officials, the childcare sector and childcare stakeholders. We aim to put the full strategy and its actions out to public consultation in the coming weeks and launch it in the autumn. Again, we expect that those additional actions will further increase the supply of low-cost childcare services, including flexible childcare services to meet the needs of parents who work unconventional hours.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Agus mo bhuíochas leis an Aire chomh maith. My thanks to the Minister. Has the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister raised the plan to cut preschool funding with the Minister of Education? That has caused great concerns for parents and employees in the childcare sector, including the Early Years organisation. Would his Department be prepared to support a bid for extra funding for that sector in the June monitoring round?
Mr P Robinson: I share the Member's concerns and have met the stakeholders involved. The Education Minister is also aware of the issue, and we have discussed it at an Executive meeting.
The Finance Minister will undoubtedly take on board any bids that he receives in monitoring rounds, but we need to be careful. I see it in the work, or art if you like, of some Government Ministers to hold back issues from their spending plans that they feel the Executive would not want to see dropped, in the hope that they can pull in additional resources to their budget for that purpose. The Finance Minister will want to be satisfied that the Department cannot fund that priority and will determine what other priorities the Department has that perhaps might be less important than the one he has mentioned.
Mrs Hale: I thank the First Minister for his answers so far. First Minister, you talked about how childcare places should be flexible and suit working parents. How many childcare places do you hope to create under the framework?
Mr P Robinson: In my initial response, I indicated that we had already identified projects for 1,500 places. When the various actions have been completed, we hope to create in the region of 8,000 places in the overall schemes. That would turn out to be a lower number per head of population than in some other parts of the United Kingdom, but research also shows that there is a much higher level of home support, through grandparents and so forth, in Northern Ireland than there is in other parts of the United Kingdom.
Mrs Overend: What exactly is the role for private-sector childcare providers, and how do they qualify for funding?
Mr P Robinson: The main objective of the Bright Start key first actions was to support affordable models of childcare. Private childcare providers aim to make a profit, which is either reinvested in the building that they are using or given for staff wage increases or to supplement directors' remuneration. Therefore, they were not viewed as suitable for the first key actions. However, we have committed to looking at ways of supporting small private providers in the substantive childcare strategy, providing they fulfil our aim of affordability for parents.
Ms Sugden: Why has the First Minister's Department failed to spend £8 million of the £12 million that was allocated for childcare?
Mr P Robinson: Much of the application comes to us, so it is based on the applications that we receive. The deputy First Minister and I were somewhat disappointed that some other Departments had either not made applications at all or did not make sufficient applications to use up that funding. However, the strategy is very clear; we are now basing it on the principle that we want to provide the best and most affordable low-cost childcare to parents. The Member will be aware of other schemes that move away from the voucher scheme to a tax-based support system. That, again, will considerably help parents in Northern Ireland in the uptake of schemes.
Mr P Robinson: Work is progressing across the seven headline actions arising from the Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC) strategy. Following a second call for applications to the shared education campuses programme, six proposals are currently being assessed, covering more than 20 schools, with decisions due in June 2015. Progress on the United Youth programme has seen 50 organisations proceed to a further development stage, following which, 10 pilot schemes will progress to delivery later in 2015.
A total of five urban village locations have now been announced. There has been considerable stakeholder engagement in relation to the lower Newtownards Road urban village scheme, which the Member may take a particular interest in. The first social housing development under the shared neighbourhoods programme at Ravenhill Road has opened and a community cohesion plan is being developed. It is envisaged that nine out of 10 of the remaining sites will be under construction during this financial year.
Work to date has reduced the number of interface barriers from 59 to 52, and engagement is ongoing in 40 of the 52 remaining areas. The summer camps pilot programme opened for applications on 15 April 2015 with a closing date of 8 May 2015. We are on target to meet our commitment to deliver 100 summer camp pilots in 2015. A 12-week pilot project for the cross-community youth sports programme ended on 31 March. The programme seeks to use sport in a central role to break down divisions in society and to deliver a good relations programme to young people drawn from all sections of our community. An evaluation of the pilot will help to inform the further roll-out of the programme.
Mr Newton: I thank the First Minister for that very detailed outline. Will he tell the House how much money will be spent on addressing sectarianism, particularly around the signature projects in the T:BUC strategy?
Mr P Robinson: My colleague the junior Minister spoke earlier of the concerns and issues arising from racial tensions and hatred. It is right that we speak out on all of those issues. It is equally right that we look at the sectarianism in our society, no matter where it is displayed or what its source may be. It is right, therefore, that we were able to garner an additional £10 million of funds for T:BUC and, indeed, a further £3 million on top of that from the change fund. All that we do within that scope is related to improving relations in every part of our society. I personally take the view that the best way to deal with sectarianism and start getting reconciliation is to concentrate on the youngest so that they might grow up not looking across a fence at somebody who is different from them but at somebody who can be a friend.
Mr Lyttle: Two years on, what progress has been made on the T:BUC commitment to roll out a buddy scheme in publicly run nursery and primary schools in Northern Ireland?
Mr P Robinson: The buddy scheme is not a signature project under T:BUC, but it is an action. However, the Department of Education is in the lead on that and has the responsibility for it, so the question could be more properly put to the Education Minister.
Mr Kinahan: It is good to hear about the summer camps, but will the First Minister confirm that the 100 camps that he is talking about are all new? Will the camps be spread throughout the summer holidays so that they are not all jammed in at the beginning or the end?
Mr P Robinson: I could not possibly know the answer to his question yet because it is out for application, and we are waiting for the projects to be fully identified. If it is helpful to the Member, as soon as we have identified those projects, I will make sure that he gets a copy, and he can make his own judgement on how new or how widely spread they are.
Mr P Robinson: Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will ask junior Minister Jonathan Bell to answer this question.
Mr Bell: We have regularly stated our commitment to producing a sexual orientation strategy in the Assembly and in the text of the good relations strategy, 'Together: Building a United Community'. To achieve that commitment, we asked officials to commence a public consultation process. The first phase of that process ended in June last year. The analysis of responses to that 12-week consultation has been completed, and the results are being used to inform the content of a draft sexual orientation strategy. It is our intention to develop the strategy using the outcomes-based approach. That view was shared at the most recent meeting of the sexual orientation project team on 15 April 2015.
Work will continue over the coming weeks to develop outcomes and subsequent indicators with the project team. Once the draft strategy is finalised, it will be referred to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for consideration, before seeking Executive agreement. A further 12-week period of consultation will then take place, and I anticipate that the sexual orientation strategy will be published after that final phase of consultation.
Mr McMullan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the junior Minister for his answer so far. Given recent events, will the junior Minister confirm that we need a sexual orientation strategy urgently, and will he distance himself from the views expressed by his party colleague Jim Wells?
Mr Bell: I will answer the questions in reverse order. Jim Wells has made it clear that his comments on child abuse were inaccurate and wrong. It is not a DUP view or policy. We immediately publicly indicated that it was not the DUP view now, nor will it be.
Anyone who says that it is because they want to use it for some form of electioneering or whatever can take that wherever they want to go, but it is not helpful to people who are looking towards the strategy, particularly given the levels of mental ill health that the sector has come and spoken to me about. Young people are experiencing not only mental health issues but suicidal ideation. Those are issues that the trans community has spoken to me about in particular. The strategy will be there to try to give best practice to all our people. Let me make it clear that we value the innate human dignity and worth of every one of our people, regardless of their background, the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation.
Mr Nesbitt: Does the junior Minister agree with me and indeed with very solid research from institutions such as the University of Cambridge that, when it comes to a child thriving at home, it is all about the degree of engagement and quality of support that the child gets, not about whether there is a single parent, mother and father or two parents of the same sex?
Mr Bell: There is a lot of research on child development. What we know is that children thrive best where there is stability, security and love. In fact, the greatest gift that we can give all our children is the gift of time to make sure that they grow up nurtured in a secure environment where they can develop and fulfil their potential. We should always look towards best practice in child development.
Mr Lunn: Does the junior Minister agree with others within his party and perhaps without that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice?
Mr Bell: This issue has been raised on a number of occasions. It is not for me to determine what a person's sexual orientation is or how they arrived at it. It is for me, as an MLA and Minister, to recognise the innate dignity and human worth of all people. Regardless of a person's colour, religious belief, political opinion or sexual orientation, I will always advocate and stand for the human rights of that individual. In public policy, that is the stance that we will always take.
Mr P Robinson: Unfortunately, it is difficult to ascertain from the question what is really being asked. However, consultation takes place every year on a wide range of issues, some affecting all the people of Northern Ireland and others relating to the needs of particular geographic areas, which is what I take the Member to mean by her reference to specific constituency matters.
As the Member implies, it is important that the method and scale of consultation is appropriate to the issue. A variety of methods have been increasingly used to maximise the participation of stakeholders in the consultation process. There is also an increasing emphasis on ongoing active engagement between Government and citizens in the development of policy from the earliest stages and a move away from relying exclusively on set-piece formal consultations. Consultation can therefore range from the traditional method of publishing a consultation document to, for example, roadshows, the facilitation of focus groups and of course direct engagement with local community interests.
To stimulate interest and awareness, consultation documents and details of formal consultation events will also be published through local media as well as online at Northern Ireland Direct and departmental websites.
Mr Speaker: I call Ms Sugden for a quick supplementary question.
Ms Sugden: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the First Minister for his answer. I have a situation in Portrush where we have a cross-departmental programme on an initiative. I have had a lot of representations from constituents who are concerned about the lack of consultation with them. I want to know what influence, if any, the First Minister and his deputy have in respect of influencing Departments to actually seek the views of the people who matter.
Mr P Robinson: I do not know the particular case that the Member referred to. If she would like to write to me or even to bring a delegation to see the deputy First Minister and me, we are both always willing to meet people and hear their views on issues that affect our Department. If it is cross-departmental, it may involve another Minister. If the Member wants to speak to me afterwards, I am happy to see if we can assist her in making sure that people's views are heard. The deputy First Minister and I are always willing, when possible, to take those on board.
Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions, and we move on to 15 minutes of topical questions.
T1. Mr Boylan asked the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, given their responsibility for equality, how the First Minister proposes to address the litany of homophobic remarks made by DUP representatives in the last number of years. (AQT 2401/11-15)
Mr P Robinson: I recall how, on many occasions, my predecessor used to tell party colleagues to remember that we are a political party and not a Church. It is the role of Churches and faith groups, not political parties, to direct people's moral positions. However, it is necessary and, at times, unavoidable for parties to take a position on public policy matters as they relate to some of these issues.
One of the three core principles of my party is that everyone is equal under the law and equally subject to it. This party will defend the legal rights of everyone in our community and promote equality of opportunity. My party opposes any form of discrimination, whether it relates to sexual orientation or any other issue. In articulating public policy, we are mindful — I trust that every section of the House will be mindful — of the need for it to be conducted respectfully on all sides. We are dealing with public policy issues that relate to changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. As the law stands, people have the choice of entering into a civil partnership if they are a same-sex couple, or engaging in the ordinance of marriage if they are heterosexual. My party sees no justification for change.
Mr Boylan: I thank the Minister for his answer, but I do not think that he has actually answered my question. Let me put it this way: will the Minister outline how such expressed views will not lead to policies that will lead to discrimination? I think that recent views will lead to policies that will discriminate against people. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr P Robinson: With these issues, we need to be very careful to be proportionate in how we react to comments. The comment was made by a Minister who, for a considerable number of months, carried on his work during the day and sat beside his wife throughout the night as she has undergone operations and been fighting for her life. Immediately that the Minister made the comments, he recognised that they were inaccurate. He sought and got the attention of the chair of the meeting to make a clarification. After the meeting, he gave a fulsome apology, something that we have not had from others for the crimes that they have committed in this society. On foot of that, he recognised that the burden that he carries at present is so great that he needs to take a break from front-line public life. That being the case, I ask people not to take on the characteristics of a lynch mob in these matters. The Minister has apologised and indicated that the facts, as he related them, were inaccurate. I immediately indicated that they were not the views of the party now and nor would they ever be. That is the clearest direction of all that I can give: no policy will be based on information that the person who made the comment has already indicated that he regards as inaccurate.
T2. Ms McCorley asked the First Minister and the deputy First Minister whether the First Minister’s party will commit to signing up to a sexual orientation strategy that tackles prejudice, given that it is clear from Jonathan Bell’s earlier remarks that there is an attempt to drag out this issue. (AQT 2402/11-15)
Mr P Robinson: The Member must have been listening to a different Jonathan Bell than I was. Nothing he said indicated that there was an intention to drag this issue out. The strategy undergoing consultation and being prepared in the office will come to the Executive as a whole for approval. I imagine that that will take its own pace as it goes through the issues. I can think of a number of issues that are being delayed at an Executive level that the Member is not enthusiastic to have pushed through but that would have a very profound impact on the future of the Assembly and Northern Ireland.
Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat. Does the Minister agree that there is a serious issue of public confidence here and that his party needs to restore that? Does he also accept that, given that one of his Ministers has had to resign, there are issues of human rights? Does the LGBT community not have the human right to be able to get married?
Mr P Robinson: Again, we come back to the definition of marriage. I suspect that the Assembly discussed that for some considerable time before Question Time began. The definition of marriage that many of us recognise is that it is an ordinance handed down by God for the procreation of children to ensure that a man and a woman can get married. If there is a same-sex relationship, that is catered for — if I can use the term — within the scope of the existing law by way of a civil partnership. I cannot understand why we have to redefine the God-given term of marriage to ensure that it covers something that already exists under the law by way of a civil partnership.
T3. Mrs Hale asked the First Minister and the deputy First Minister for an update on the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement. (AQT 2403/11-15)
Mr P Robinson: On a weekly basis, the leaders of the parties have been meeting together with officials, including the head of the Civil Service, to take forward the issues that some, if not all, agreed at Stormont House and Stormont Castle. Progress has been made on a number of those matters. Indeed, at a recent meeting the Executive dealt with some of the issues relating to the number of Departments, which was part of the Stormont House Agreement. Decisions have been taken on other parts, but it is agreed that they will not be actioned until welfare has been dealt with. I think that it is probably fruitless for us to attempt to resolve that before or on foot of a general election, but I hope that there will be concentration immediately the election is out of the way to get that matter resolved because it is stopping the flow of the overall issues of Stormont House.
Mrs Hale: I thank the First Minister for his answer. He talked about the election. Do you, First Minister, believe that the outcome of the general election will have any implications for the resolution of welfare reform?
Mr P Robinson: If I knew the outcome of the election, there will be issues, I suspect, that will be not substantial in terms of the Labour Party, which might change some aspects of it. The Labour Party is on record as indicating that it would do away with the bedroom tax. I think that everybody in the House knows, although some try to say otherwise, that the deputy First Minister and I agreed that the bedroom tax would not apply in Northern Ireland. So, it is part of our proposals already to do away with the bedroom tax. Therefore, if the rest of the United Kingdom came up to scratch, as we have, on that, it would mean that we would get the Barnett consequentials, which would probably give us an extra £20 million or £23 million a year that could be used otherwise.
I do not think that anybody is quite clear on the Conservative Party's full intentions, or, at least, the detail of its intentions, on further welfare changes. I think that it is reluctant to give details, at least before 7 May, on what those may be. It could well be that they will have further implications for Northern Ireland. Where the present set of proposals is concerned, the only change that I can see is if the new House of Commons was to vote against having a bedroom tax. That would save us some money that could be applied elsewhere.
T4. Lord Morrow asked the First Minister and the deputy First Minister whether the First Minister believes that the outcome of the Westminster election will have any implications for the Executive's Programme for Government. (AQT 2404/11-15)
Mr P Robinson: The Executive are first going to update their Programme for Government, because, after the original Programme for Government was published, a decision was taken to extend the term of the Assembly from four to five years. My understanding is that that is moving forward. Members will be able to make their comments on that in, I hope, a matter of weeks.
On the future Programme for Government, we obviously have to have some knowledge of the comprehensive spending review that a new Government will bring forward in order to know what funds will be available for us to be able to action our Programme for Government. Some of the elements of our Programme for Government might be improved if there were a statistical advantage gained by the presence of Northern Ireland Members of Parliament. I hope that they would use that not for any selfish party interest but in the interests of Northern Ireland as a whole. In those circumstances, there could be real benefits in a new Parliament.
Lord Morrow: I thank the First Minister for his fairly comprehensive and detailed response. On the next Programme for Government, does the First Minister believe that there is the potential to create more wealth and prosperity for the people of Northern Ireland?
Mr P Robinson: Any time that I get a question like that, I respond first by pointing out just what we have succeeded in doing, because we have a very negative media in Northern Ireland that are happy to tell us all the things that we are not doing or are doing wrong but slow to tell us that there is more foreign direct investment per head of population coming to Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, including London and the prosperous south-east. The media do not tell you that Northern Ireland has had more investment than at any time in its history, even against the backcloth of a global recession. Nor do they tell you that we have the lowest taxes in the whole of the United Kingdom. Nor do they tell you that we have had more infrastructure build in Northern Ireland than at other times in our history.
We have done a great deal — so much, in fact, that Invest Northern Ireland has exceeded its targets, even though we set targets that were very demanding of it. In that context, what the Executive need to do is to continue on the path that they have been on, which is getting growth into our economy, particularly growth that is export-led. All of that is important and requires us, as an Executive, to be investing in the drivers of growth, which include innovation, skills and training, infrastructure in certain areas, and trying to drive up productivity. That is what provides real stimulus to the economy, meaning more jobs. From a Treasury point of view, it means that there is more income tax. It means that there is more being spent in shops. People's earnings go up. Increasing growth is the way to prosperity.
Mr Speaker: I call Mr William Humphrey. Mr Humphrey, there may not be time for you to ask a supplementary question, so you may want to swap.
T5. Mr Humphrey asked the First Minister and the deputy First Minister whether the First Minister believes that the Northern Ireland economy has turned the corner and, if so, whether that recovery can be sustained. (AQT 2405/11-15)
Mr P Robinson: After 27 consecutive months of the claimant count reducing, it is clear that we are more than turning the corner. Based on the labour force survey, we have an unemployment level of 6%. It indicates that more jobs are being created in Northern Ireland.
I go back to the fact that Invest Northern Ireland had committed to create 25,000 jobs, and we ended up with, I think, over 37,000 jobs being created. That is a massive increase on the number that was set out in our Programme for Government. That is equally true for investment over that period, which was targeted to be £1 billion over the period and turned out to be £2·5 billion. So we are exceeding targets, we are on the road to recovery, and I believe that it can be sustained.
Mr Speaker: That ends the period for topical questions. I ask the House to take its ease for a moment while we change the top Table and the Minister's table.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
Mr Storey (The Minister for Social Development): In the weeks immediately following the Stormont Castle agreement on welfare reform on 19 December 2014, the focus of my work and that of my officials was on the development of an Executive paper which set out the main terms of the agreement and the associated costs. Sinn Féin representatives were consulted on the content of the draft Executive paper as part of the normal consultation process. That paper was subsequently agreed at the Executive meeting on 22 January 2015.
The Stormont Castle agreement committed the Executive parties to a package of support measures, including the development of a number of agreed schemes. The schemes were intended to provide the details of how the different measures would be implemented by the Social Security Agency. Preparatory work started in January 2015, and my officials started to share the detail on the schemes with Sinn Féin representatives from early February.
From the beginning of March 2015, the level of engagement with Sinn Féin representatives increased from weekly meetings to a period during that month when discussions on welfare reform were taking place on a daily basis. I was involved in a large number of those discussions, along with my officials, who have been providing technical support to the First Minister and deputy First Minister in seeking to identify solutions with regard to the supplementary payment scheme. Whilst discussions have continued during April, the level of engagement between myself and my officials and Sinn Féin representatives has reduced significantly.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister for his very explicit answer, which has made clear that there were daily meetings between his Department and Sinn Féin. He will be aware that the Ulster Unionist Party did not endorse the Stormont House Agreement. One of the reasons for that was our suspicion from past experience that there might have been a dual process and discussions not involving all five parties. Does the Minister think that it is in any way acceptable that the first time three of the five parties who sat at the Stormont House Agreement talks found out about this raft of private papers was when Sinn Féin published them?
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. Of course, the Member should not fall into a trap when considering the document that was produced by Sinn Féin, which, ironically, is called 'Welfare: The Facts'. Careful reading of some of the content and innuendo in that document will clearly indicate that it is nothing near the facts. I advise the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party to be very careful about believing everything he reads that comes from that particular organisation.
Mechanisms already exist through the normal consultation process by which any proposals which are to be put before the Executive will be consulted upon with the other Executive parties. It has also been argued and agreed that any proposed changes to the Stormont Castle agreement would have to be agreed at the five party leaders' forum, of which, I understand and know, the Member is a part. Sinn Féin had particular concerns about the detail of the supplementary payment scheme. The discussions that were taking place were to identify whether there were solutions within the parameters of the Stormont Castle agreement that could address its issues
As someone who has been involved in this process since we had what we believed was an agreement, it is extremely frustrating to be treated in the way that the House, and, more importantly, the people of Northern Ireland, have been treated by those parties, namely Sinn Féin, on this issue. The way in which they have treated their own community and the rest of Northern Ireland is shameful and needs to be highlighted on a day and daily basis. Northern Ireland is losing out, and that is because there was no agreement by one party to the Stormont Castle agreement and the Stormont House Agreement.
Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I ask the Minister to note that it is very interesting that Mr Nesbitt is saying that his party did not agree with the Stormont House Agreement, yet he sat around the table on the day it was agreed and said that it represented significant advances and that he would recommend it to his party executive and give it a fair wind.
Mr Maskey: I will leave that to one side. Will the Minister confirm that he will continue to meet our party and, indeed, any other party that is interested in resolving the outstanding matters on the Welfare Reform Bill?
Mr Storey: The Member knows, as I trust that Members of this House know, that I will expend whatever time and effort that can be used in order to get an agreement on this issue. I am open to having discussions on this matter on a daily basis. However, I think that we need to face up to reality. As the First Minister indicated earlier, it is highly unlikely that we will get any further meaningful discussion on welfare until we have elections to the national Parliament on 7 May and have the formation of a Government at Westminster on which we are totally dependent.
I remind all Members, whether they would like to accept the fact or not, that it will only be through the formation of a Government at Westminster that we will have any finance to be able to run any Department in Northern Ireland, because we are totally dependent on the block grant and the money that comes from Her Majesty's Treasury in London.
Mrs D Kelly: What information did Sinn Féin seek about future claimants; what type of benefits did that include; and can the Minister share any information that he provided to that party with the other parties in the House?
Mr Storey: The Member knows that I am more than happy to meet her party and representatives to discuss any of the issues that have been discussed to date. If that is what she is asking for, I will be more than happy to facilitate that. That discussion would be meaningful and beneficial. Whatever details may emerge will be dependent on who forms the Government after 7 May. However, having had discussions with the Labour Party just last week when some of its representatives were in Northern Ireland, I do not get the sense that there would be a huge difference from the current construct of welfare reform.
The First Minister highlighted the bedroom tax issue: in terms of other elements of mitigation that we in Northern Ireland would put in place or propose to put in place, some of them would be reflected in a national programme on welfare if a Labour Government or coalition were to be enacted in Westminster. I am more than happy to meet the Member and discuss the issues with her party.
Mr Lyttle: I welcome the Minister's commitment to adequately resource the advice sector in response to welfare reform. Given that the deadlock on welfare reform is costing the Northern Irish taxpayer around £2 million a week, what discussions are currently taking place to make progress? Can the Minister assure the public that this issue has not been parked during the election campaign?
Mr Storey: I assure the Member that the issue has not been parked. I pay tribute to my officials, who have worked tirelessly during the lead up to the Stormont House Agreement over Christmas, and subsequently, in providing technical support, help and information to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. A huge amount of work has been done.
Amidst all that is taking place at the moment, with the focus on the election on 7 May, the voters of Northern Ireland need to keep in mind that there was one party that pulled the rug from under all our feet and left us in the situation whereby Northern Ireland is losing £2 million a week from the block grant.
That has to be set in the context of the stated aims and objectives of the party opposite that it is about protecting the vulnerable, those who are in need. If those are the actions of a party that wants to be seen to be protecting the vulnerable, they need to be judged against the reality for many organisations that are now feeling the pinch of decisions that cannot be made because the money is not there.
Mr Allister: With £564 million already supposedly to be siphoned off the block grant over future years, does the Minister have any sense that it is at all possible to find any further money without doing irreparable damage to basic services by further undermining the block grant? Can he make clear his position on that?
Mr Storey: I assume that the Member refers to the overall package that was agreed. Let us remember that, at Stormont Castle and in the Stormont House Agreement, a financial package was agreed. The First Minister has made it clear that the amount of money has been agreed. The implementation has become the difficulty. In our work with Sinn Féin and other parties, we will continue to see how we can get a resolution of that.
The Member makes a point about the overall amount of money that will be needed. There is no bottomless pit. There is no tree somewhere that magically produces a huge amount of money to feed every political aspiration and wish list presented to satisfy a particular party. We have made it clear that the financial arrangements in the agreement that we all entered into are as they are. We have been working on their implementation. Were we to get an agreement, subject to the creation of a new Government at Westminster, and bedroom tax was not to be implemented, the only additional money that would be available at the minute would be the £20 million that we have already set aside in Northern Ireland to mitigate that measure.
Mr Storey: The number of social housing units completed in the new Fermanagh and Omagh District Council area during this mandate from 2010-11 to 2014-15 is 139 units. The Housing Executive is responsible for assessing the level of social housing need, determining the need for schemes in specific areas and formulating the social housing programme. The Housing Executive also carries out an annual housing needs assessment of all district councils to examine the supply and demand of new social housing. This assessment is then used to determine the Housing Executive’s unmet housing needs prospectus, which identifies locations where there is general unmet housing need beyond the schemes included in the social housing development programme and where it has not been possible to secure new-build sites.
Housing need is identified by the number deemed to be in housing stress. This is where applicants have 30 points or more on the Housing Executive’s housing selection scheme. Housing need in Northern Ireland is addressed through the social housing development programme in a fair and equitable way. Much has been achieved in addressing housing need, and there is no doubt that the serious financial challenges we face moving forward will make this an increasingly difficult task. However, the delivery of social housing will remain a priority for me, my Department and the Housing Executive.
Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer and welcome the units that he mentioned. However, Minister, there are over 600 on the waiting list in Enniskillen and another 400 throughout the rest of the county. How do you plan to alleviate that long list?
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question and inform him that, after Question Time, I will meet Fermanagh and Omagh District Council to discuss, no doubt, elements of this but also its budget and other issues that it wants to bring to our attention.
The Housing Executive is working to address housing stress levels in the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council area in a number of ways. For example, housing stress is addressed most notably through the re-letting of existing stock, the refurbishment of void properties and the allocation of new-build schemes. The number of new social homes required is based on the annual housing need assessment, which examines the supply and demand, highlights any areas where there are gaps and predicts what will be required over a five-year period to develop the social housing development programme. If there are other specific areas that the Member wants to raise with us, I am more than happy to give him more detail.
Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for that update. Has the number of people in housing stress in the Fermanagh area generally increased or decreased over the last few years?
Mr Storey: For the Member's information, I have the current waiting lists in that area. At December 2014, there were 1,400 applicants on the waiting list for the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council area, 774 of whom were in the Fermanagh area, with 626 in the Omagh area. A total of 488 applicants on the waiting list are deemed to be in housing stress, of whom 307 are in the Fermanagh area and 181 are in the Omagh area. I do not know how that compares with the previous year. However, I am more than happy to provide that information to the Member.
Mr Lyttle: Does the Minister know when the Housing Executive maintenance programme to install cavity wall insulation in homes in the Braniel estate in east Belfast, which was scheduled for October 2013, will be delivered?
Mr Storey: I appreciate that the Member is seeking to be inventive. However, going from Fermanagh to Braniel is pretty inventive. Even for the Alliance Party, that stretches the definition of being inventive. I am happy to get a written answer to the Member. It will probably be after 7 May.
Mr Storey: As with all Executive Departments, my Department is required to implement efficiencies in 2015-16, including in services provided by the voluntary and community sector. I undertook a series of formal and informal discussions with ministerial colleagues and MLAs on the proposed allocations to particular funding streams. A transparent, robust approach was undertaken aimed at maximising the delivery of high-quality services to the most disadvantaged and to ensure that available funding was prioritised against the highest-quality projects, where successful outcomes could make a difference to people's lives.
Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for that answer. Does the Minister agree that the nature of the community and voluntary sector is such that it relies on a cocktail of funding from various sources and that, because of that, there are very often adverse impacts on its services and programmes when one gets cut, because they depend on one another? In that context, does the Minister agree that there is a need for a clear strategic approach?
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for her supplementary. One element of the considerable work done by my officials was to ensure that we cross-referenced between the offices in the Department, from the north-west office right through to the Belfast offices, to ensure that we were not in any way treating any group or organisation differently because of its geographical position. It is not often that we get praise in west Belfast in the 'Andersonstown News' from the SDLP and Sinn Féin, but there was recognition from west Belfast's political representatives that, while there was some bad news for community organisations from the Department for Social Development, the cuts have not been as bad as was originally feared. The article goes on to highlight a number of issues, and the Member knows that I met her and colleagues in relation to specific issues.
It places a responsibility on Departments to ensure that, collectively — I know that the issue has been raised by NICVA with the First Minister and deputy First Minister — there is a cross-departmental approach that has a positive outcome for the voluntary and community sector as opposed to one Department doing one thing and another Department doing something else. We have seen that particularly in relation to a question raised earlier about early years. The Department of Education cut £1·7 million out of its budget, which has had a clear impact on community organisations, some of which are in West Belfast and other constituencies across Northern Ireland.
Mr Ramsey: I acknowledge the immense contribution that the community and voluntary sector makes across Northern Ireland, particularly on welfare rights. Is there any evidence or indication of collaboration between organisations delivering projects through DSD in the community and voluntary sector?
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for the work that he does on the issue. Many examples are used, and the Member who spoke previously referred to a cocktail of funding. It requires organisations in the voluntary and community sector to be innovative in a way that ensures the best possible financial arrangements to deliver the particular project. When you see a project delivered in a way that has brought about collaboration, you see that it enhances the project. It also brings a particular challenge, which is that, as we have seen to date in some areas, when one element of the funding arrangement is not in place or is removed, it could have a long-term effect on whether that project survives.
I referred to preschool places. Some preschools in my constituency now face a very bleak situation, not because money was not available from other elements of government but because the money that had been removed from the Department of Education probably was a cornerstone to that money being used for that organisation. If it is not there, the viability of those organisations becomes untenable, and, ultimately, some projects would close as a result.
Mr Swann: The Minister referred to having conversations with other Ministers: did he have any conversations with the Employment and Learning Minister in regard to the European social fund and how some in the voluntary and community sector, such as the women's sector and young people not in employment, education or training, will lose out on funding?
Mr Storey: I thank the Member. As Chair of the Committee, he will be well aware that this has become a particular problem. We had discussions with some of the organisations that came to see us in the lead-up to us making a decision on the budget. I should have said earlier that I am sorry that it took so long for us to get to the point where we made the announcement, but that came about as a result of a variety of discussions that we had with organisations to give some sense of where they would be post the announcement that we would make. I can confirm that we had consultation and discussion with the Minister on the elements of ESF that have ultimately resulted in some organisations having severe difficulties and severe financial problems.
Mr Middleton: Can the Minister tell us if the budget for Supporting People will be affected?
Mr Storey: I thank the Member and welcome him to Question Time. I look forward to working with him. I know that he will continue to do a good job for the people he represents, as he has done as an elected representative on the council in Londonderry. I look forward to working with him in the weeks and months ahead.
It is clear that we endeavoured to do all that we could to protect the Supporting People programme. The funds of a number of community sector organisations providing housing support services to very vulnerable people in our society are supported through the Supporting People programme. I have protected, as far as possible, the Supporting People budget for 2015-16, which will secure the delivery of those housing support services by the voluntary and community sector.
Indeed, on the day that I was appointed Minister for Social Development, 24 September, Members will recall that a lobby group came to the Assembly and, as dutiful MLAs, we all got our photograph taken to ensure that we supported that campaign, but that is not the reason why I was keen to ensure that the Supporting People programme was protected. Little did I know that, that afternoon, I would be responsible for that budgetary head. Maybe the lesson to be learned from that experience is always to be careful of the photographs that you get yourself into.
I believe that the Supporting People programme plays a vital role in ensuring that people have floating services and that the 80% of the money that goes towards the housing element of the scheme is invaluable, and I want to protect it going into the future. I trust that we can build on the success of the Supporting People programme.
Mr Storey: I am sure that the Member is aware or should be aware that a system of selling social houses to existing tenants is in place in Northern Ireland in the form of the house sales scheme. The house sales scheme gives eligible tenants of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive or registered housing associations the right to buy their property from their landlord at a discounted rate to the normal market value. The initial discount for the house sales scheme is set at present at 20% of the market value, increasing by 2% for each additional completed year of tenancy to a maximum of 60% or £24,000, whichever is lower.
Mr Brady: I thank the Minister for his answer. What consideration has he given to stopping the ongoing sell-off of publicly owned housing?
Mr Storey: The Member's colleague, who is sitting beside him, commented on concerns about the Housing Executive that a plan would be afoot that, at some stage, I would put the Housing Executive into a new arrangement that would take it outside public ownership. Since I have come into post, I have endeavoured to build a working relationship with the Housing Executive. I am very cognisant of the fact that it has done a very good job in the past. Like any organisation, it has had its difficulties and challenges. However, I want to ensure that we have good homes in Northern Ireland, and I do not believe that that will be provided for through a one-size-fits-all approach.
As was highlighted by the Member's colleague, a request has come to me via the Housing Executive board that it be given additional powers to borrow money and, therefore, be in a better place to do a better job. I will endeavour to work with the Housing Executive. We are seriously considering those issues at the moment. I trust that, with the help of the Assembly, I will very soon be in a position to give an assurance to the Housing Executive, to its tenants and to the people of Northern Ireland that we are not in the business of selling off but that we are in the business of ensuring that we get the best possible outcome for our tenants to deliver the best possible homes for the people of Northern Ireland.
Mr Wilson: Does the Minister agree that, first, the purchase of homes by tenants is popular; secondly, it releases capital that is tied up in houses that are not available for public dispersal at present; and, thirdly, will he reject the left-wing state-controlled ideology of Sinn Féin that wants people to be dependent on the public sector rather than have the freedom to own property if they so wish?
Mr Storey: As always, you can depend on the Member for East Antrim to set an issue in context. I agree with him. We must have a mix of provision that does not restrict the people who want to advance and own their own home. Equally, when there is not the opportunity for people to do that, we must have a system whereby people still have access to good homes.
I trust that the public and parties in the House will eventually take this up, but we often refer here to building houses, when, as I have said in the House before, it should be about building homes. I have seen communities with a mixture of provision, whether it is private, social or co-ownership. However, whatever the provision and whoever the provider, the one thing we need to ensure is that they are quality homes that are fit for purpose.
I will shortly be bringing to the Social Development Committee and the House the outcome of the Savills investigation. The sad reality is that when we see the detail of that report, we will find that it will clearly indicate that a huge amount of work and money will be needed to bring the existing Housing Executive stock up to a level that any of us would be happy with in this modern day and age.
T1. Mr Boylan asked the Minister for Social Development why there has been such a delay in dealing with Housing Executive workers’ pay increment. (AQT 2411/11-15)
Mr Storey: That is obviously an issue for ourselves and the board, and I hope to be in a position to have it resolved within a matter of weeks.
Mr Boylan: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will you outline what engagement you have had with DFP on this matter, and can you outline a timeline for its resolution? Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr Storey: As in all these things, this remains a matter on which we have to engage with DFP and the processes that we have. I will write to the Member with an answer about the timeline.
T2. Mr F McCann asked the Minister for Social Development for an update on the empty homes strategy, including private and social housing, and to explain what is being done to bring these houses into use to deal with the lengthy waiting lists. (AQT 2412/11-15)
Mr Storey: I thank the Member. When it comes to housing issues, the Member is someone who always endeavours to keep a watching brief. I am concerned about the ongoing work that needs to be done with the Housing Executive and other organisations.
This goes back to the point that I made about how we engage with those organisations to ensure that they do not suddenly come to a point where they believe that they are involved in some meaningless process, when actually there is a focus on them to ensure that they deliver for their tenants. My Department continues to work with the executive and other organisations to ensure that, whether the issue is empty homes or maintenance, they are well aware of their requirements to do what they can within the budgetary envelope that was given to them to deliver those services.
Mr F McCann: I thank the Minister for his response. World Homeless Day was the week before last, and several events were held throughout the city of Belfast and a number of organisations marched to City Hall. Yet only yards from where that march took place, there are hundreds of apartments that have been lying empty for quite a number of years that could, if brought in to use, help to deal with some of the serious homelessness problems.
Many people who have —
Mr F McCann: I am asking the Minister this: how can you deal with landlords who have hundreds of homes or apartments lying there that could be brought back into use to deal with homelessness?
Mr Storey: I think that it is true to say that the Housing Executive and housing associations remain committed to moving tenants into available homes as quickly as possible. The standard tool of measurement for the process is the proportion of empty stock, or voids, at any given time. Quickly moving people from the waiting list into homes once they become available is reflected in a lower proportion of empty homes. The target for void management of social housing is 4%, as it is for overall Northern Ireland void management of relevant social housing providers.
I agree with the Member that we need to do all that we can. I heard some comments that made the assertion that somehow we were not taking the issue seriously. I take very seriously ensuring that we are doing all that we can, whether for people who are deemed to be homeless, people who are in housing stress or people in particular areas where there are certain challenges to getting a better return from the overall waiting list. I give the Member that assurance, because there is a responsibility for landlords — the Member is absolutely right — but it is a collective responsibility on our part to do all that we can to encourage and facilitate a resolution to the issue.
T3. Mr Milne asked the Minister for Social Development to outline the criteria that were used to determine the reduction in DSD funding for urban regeneration, which resulted in Mid Ulster being the hardest hit, with a reduction of 25·24%. (AQT 2413/11-15)
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. I go back to the comments that I made earlier about the amount of money given to us. He has to appreciate that what we had given to us was a reduction in the overall amount that we had previously and that that was going to have a particular impact on the roll-out of neighbourhood renewal. Indeed, if we had had agreement from his party to having the issue rolled out on 1 April, it would have been local councils dealing with it, as opposed to my Department. However, failure to get agreement on that and his party not trusting its own councillors to administer it are issues that Sinn Féin has to explain to its elected representatives.
The rationale that we used was to look at areas that were outside the scope of neighbourhood renewal, at whether the process had given value for money and at the way in which the project might have been time-bound. As a result, some projects did not continue, because the funding allocation was coming to an end.
Mr Milne: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for his answer. Given that he has stated that the regeneration of Magherafelt town centre is an ongoing commitment of his Department, can he outline what impact the substantial cut will have on future progress in that regard?
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his question. I have met representatives from the Magherafelt area and from the new council, and I do not believe that we will see any long-term disadvantage to the amount of money being allocated, because I think that the new council will endeavour to ensure that the money is spent in a way that gives us a good outcome in Magherafelt, and in other areas within the new council boundaries.
T4. Mr Allister asked the Minister for Social Development whether his Department plans, again this year, to provide a grant to Belfast Pride. (AQT 2414/11-15)
Mr Storey: I approved the continuation of the Belfast city centre community activity grant for the financial year 2015-16. My Department has allocated a budget of £220,000 from the Belfast city centre events and community activity grants for the financial year 2015-16. That represents a reduction of some £80,000 in the amount that has been available in recent years.
The grant schemes were previously known as the "Laganside events grant" and the "Laganside community activity grant". However, in April 2013, the applicable boundary was extended to take in the city centre, and, as a result, the grant schemes were renamed the "Belfast city centre events grant" and the "Belfast city centre community activity grant".
A call for applications for the Belfast city centre event grant scheme was made on 9 April 2015, with a closing date of 23 April of this year. The Department received 34 applications, and the applications will be assessed over the coming weeks, with the decision on funding being issued in due course. Included in those applications, as it has been in previous years, is Orangefest.
Mr Allister: Is Belfast Pride included in those applications, and does the Minister anticipate again giving funding? Does he think that it is a prudent use of £250,000 in these times of austerity to sustain events such as this?
Mr Storey: I have not had personal sight of the applications, and that process will be carried by the Belfast city centre events grant scheme. It is the administrator for the scheme, and it is up to it to decide in relation to the process that will be used and the allocations that will be made.
T7. Mr McQuillan asked the Minister for Social Development how much the benefit uptake programme generated last year. (AQT 2417/11-15)
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for the question. I am committed to promoting the uptake of benefits in an effort to tackle poverty and improve life for those who are most vulnerable. In 2013-14, over 4,000 people, many of them older people, gained £14·2 million in new and additional benefits. In fact, since 2005, benefit uptake work has generated over £81 million in additional income for people in Northern Ireland. This is additional income for people in Northern Ireland, and I think that that proves the worth of the programme. I am committed to ensuring that it is continued in the future.
Mr McQuillan: I thank the Minister for his answer, and I think that £81 million over five years is a big turnaround. Minister, how does your Department promote the uptake of benefits?
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. My Department has four separate but complementary strands of activity to generate additional benefits for harder-to-reach groups of people. They include writing to over 25,000 individuals identified from benefit data sets, encouraging them to have a full benefit entitlement check and to ensure that they are not missing out on any benefit supports or services to which they may be entitled. Make the Call is the regional advertising and promotion campaign and is endorsed by the Commissioner for Older People. Community outreach officers based throughout Northern Ireland deliver benefit uptake activity by visiting vulnerable claimants in their own home, carrying out benefit entitlement checks and assisting with claims and form-filling. They also provide a valuable service to communities by delivering community promotional events and clinics, providing redundancy support to business and individuals and taking referrals from a wider range of partners. There is also the innovation fund and partnership working with Atlantic Philanthropies, and my Department funded community-based organisations to trial new innovative approaches to improving benefit uptake. Full evaluation of this approach will also be available in the summer of 2015. I trust that that gives the Member some overview of the ways in which we endeavour to promote the uptake of benefits via writing to people, Make the Call and community outreach officers.
T8. Mr Ó hOisín asked the Minister for Social Development what protections are in place to ensure that new councils will not be able to use the financial package provided to deal with social need for other purposes. (AQT 2418/11-15)
Mr Storey: I thank the Member: he raises a valid point. The answer may lie with his colleagues on the Social Development Committee, who are currently looking at the Regeneration Bill. I await the outcome of the deliberations of the Committee. I have listened to some comments that have already been made to me about the definition or lack of definition of social need, and I think that we need to ensure that the title of the Bill is reflected in the activity of the council. The Bill is currently called and remains the Regeneration Bill, and there needs to be a focus on the aspects of regeneration that benefit society and community.
Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his answer. Can he tell us how, in the Regeneration Bill, he could best ring-fence funding for social need?
Mr Storey: It could be done by setting down certain criteria and giving guidelines in the Bill or guidelines following as a result of the progress of the Bill. That would be the template that councils would be asked to use to ensure that the specific purpose for which money is given is the purpose for which it is used.
Mr Nesbitt: I am very grateful to you. I would be grateful if you would review Hansard for the remarks by Mr Maskey in which, if I heard him correctly, he implied that at the Stormont House talks I said I would take the agreement and recommend it to my party executive. That is not true, and he knows it is not true. I am sure you would agree that we should use the Chamber respectfully and not as the set of 'Jackanory'.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): It seems the Member has clarified the point. Of course we can view Hansard; sometimes, though, it would be useful if Members who are not speaking would remain silent and then, perhaps, the person in the Chair might hear better what is going on.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly welcomes the marriage equality referendum in the South of Ireland; notes that a growing number of Parliaments across the world have embraced, and legislated for, marriage equality; respects the rights of the religious institutions to define, observe and practise marriage within their beliefs; and calls on the Executive to legislate for marriage equality for same-sex couples so that all citizens will have the same legal entitlement to the protections, responsibilities, rights, obligations and benefits afforded by the legal institution of marriage.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support the motion. It has been a worthwhile debate. Some Members referred to the fact that we have been here before, and I am sure we will be here again until the issue is dealt with, as it is being dealt with elsewhere on this island and on the island opposite.
Justin McAleese gave an interview to a newspaper recently. He referred to the MP for North Antrim, the effect that comments made by the MP had on his personal life and the struggle he had, not to come to terms with his sexuality but with the fact that much of society was opposed to his sexuality, to him as a person and to what he was. An interesting quote from Justin was:
"Language matters, words matter, marriage matters".
That is something that many Members opposite in the DUP need to reflect on. Language and words have a deeply damaging effect on people, on members of the LGBT community.
Mr McKay: I will not give way, sorry.
The response from Mr Paisley, which is in the 'The Irish Times' today, is that he thinks Mr McAleese and others should "get over" themselves. That was the response that the MP for North Antrim made. He said:
"all of this stuff where people are self absorbed about their own gender and how everything is about them ... Get over it. Get over yourself."
That is not a mature response for an MP, an MLA, an MEP or any elected representative on this island.
Churches, of course, have different views on marriage equality. Political parties have different views on it as well. Danny Kinahan made an important point when he said that marriage was not just a religious institution. We have civil marriage and we have marriage in many of our Churches. The language used by the DUP as a party and by many of its leading members is despicable, dangerous and wrong. This is a party that talks about itself as a party of the economy, but this is embarrassing on an international stage, where we are trying to secure jobs and foreign direct investment. A lot of these comments put people and companies off. There will be different views on marriage equality, but the language, more than anything, that is used by the Democratic Unionist Party makes some of these stories go round the world faster.
Marriage has not been the same institution for thousands of years. It has changed many times and taken many forms. What we are talking about for the LGBT community is civil marriage, not marriage in a church. Civil marriage was introduced in the 1800s; it does not go back centuries. Civil marriage has been subject to many changes in recent times. It is not something that goes back thousands of years. Marriage has changed over time and needs to continue to change for the better.
This highlights the need for church and state to be separate. We have to accommodate everyone who lives in our society, and we have to accommodate people of all backgrounds. Some Churches do not advocate divorce. Government offers people the choice of divorce, but they do not have to avail themselves of it. Some Churches oppose contraception, and the state allows people the freedom to make up their own mind on that. Some Churches oppose marriage for same-sex couples, and government should ensure that same-sex couples have the ability to decide for themselves. No one who does not believe in same-sex marriage — no one who does not believe in marriage, for that matter — has to enter into one if they do not want to.
Of course, sometimes this debate sets church and religion against the rest of society, but, as we know, there are many strands in Christianity, as well as in Judaism and other religions, that have no issue with marriage between people of the same gender. I know many people in the North — members of the Presbyterian Church and of the Catholic Church — who have no problem with equal marriage.
The resignation of the Health Minister is hugely significant. This is the first time that a politician has been forced to resign in the North because of the strength of public opinion against homophobic remarks. That is a big change for us as a society in the North of this island. I believe that the public recognise that it is simply wrong to speak about gay people in that way.
Nelson McCausland spoke about the need to protect traditional marriage and about the wider impact on society, but he did not give any evidence to back any of that up. Marriage equality has been introduced in a number of countries, and the sky has not fallen in. It has been brought in in Scotland. Has society been irreversibly damaged in Scotland? No, it has not. Most people now look on Scotland as somewhere that, thanks to a lot of political debate over the past couple of years, has become a better society. I believe that this society will follow in its footsteps.
The Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone said that she was sympathetic to victims of homophobic attacks, but she failed to make the link between those attacks and the prejudice that leads to them in the first place. I come back to what I said at the start: Members of the House need to be especially conscious of their comments. I recognise that there are those on the unionist Benches who approach the issue with the sensitivity required, but there are many who do not and fail to recognise the impact of their comments.
Danny Kennedy said that we had tabled the motion for electoral purposes: that is nonsense. This is not about getting more votes. We may get more votes in certain areas because we have a line on equal marriage, but I know people who previously voted for us but who will not vote for this party because of the equal marriage issue. The reason why we brought the motion to the Floor is that it is the right thing to do.
Caitríona Ruane rightly referred to the fact that the issue could affect Member's children and grandchildren, and it could have consequences in our families that Members may not yet be aware of. I am sure that, given the comments made in the past number of days, children of gay members of our community will go, and have gone, to their parents, knowing that they are gay, and asked what Jim Wells was talking about. It is wrong that people have been put in that position.
Of course, many gay people and their children also face the brunt of homophobia and the roll-out from those comments in our schoolyards. Danny Kinahan referred to his experience in the British Army, and we will all know that, growing up, there was rampant homophobia in schoolyards and playgrounds. When my generation was growing up, that, given the number of comments made, was certainly the case. Children did not know what they were saying, but it was rampant throughout our playgrounds. I am sure that that still goes on to a very high degree — I know that it does. That has a big impact on depression, anxiety and suicide, so it needs to be a priority for the Executive — for Education, Health and all the relevant Departments.
In the closing seconds of my contribution, I would like to pay tribute to everyone in the LGBT community who has campaigned, and will continue to campaign, on the issue until they succeed. I have no doubt that the momentum is firmly with them. Every Sinn Féin MLA will vote for same-sex marriage today, and I urge other progressive parties to ensure that a full complement of their Members do the same.
Mr Speaker: I remind Members that the vote on the motion will be on a cross-community basis.
The Assembly divided:
Ayes 47; Noes 49
Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Mr D Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Hazzard, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mr McKinney, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr Ramsey, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan
Mr Kinahan, Mr McCallister, Mr B McCrea, Ms Sugden
Mr Agnew, Mr Dickson, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mr Lyttle
Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Fearon, Ms Ruane
Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mr Beggs, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mrs Dobson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Gardiner, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr McGimpsey, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Mr Middleton, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr Wilson
Tellers for the Noes: Mr McQuillan, Mr G Robinson
|Total Votes||96||Total Ayes||47||[49.0%]|
|Nationalist Votes||37||Nationalist Ayes||37||[100.0%]|
|Unionist Votes||53||Unionist Ayes||4||[7.5%]|
|Other Votes||6||Other Ayes||6||[100.0%]|
The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Mrs Cochrane, Mr Lunn, Mr McCarthy
Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).
Mr Campbell: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish to raise a matter of security. In this debate, which has lasted an hour and a half, nine Members spoke from the Benches of Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the UUP and Alliance. On all sides, there was mention and criticism of my colleague the honourable Member for South Down Jim Wells. That Member has been subjected to the most severe online intimidation and harassment since the events of the past four days. Not a single Member mentioned or condemned that harassment and vile abuse that he has received not just for himself but for his family, and some of it used his seriously ill wife's name as well. I hope that you will agree, Mr Speaker, that it is a shame and disgrace on every Member who spoke but did not refer to it, let alone condemn it.
Ms Ruane: Further to that point of order, I was here for the entire debate. I heard every single Member who spoke sympathise with Mr Jim Wells. Just in case there is any ambiguity about this: every single person who spoke here sympathised with Mr Wells. I am sure that I speak for everyone in the House when I condemn any abuse towards anyone, including Mr Wells. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. I listened very carefully to what Mr Campbell said, and he isolated and mentioned the fact that there was no reference made to the abuse. Whilst that was outwith the Assembly, I have no reason to doubt that Mr Wells and his family were subjected to it, and I think it reprehensible if it were the case. However, I do not think that the fact that that was not mentioned is a point of order on the debate that we had. It is a sin of omission from your perspective, Mr Campbell, but of course on all sides of the Chamber, there was equal opportunity for people to raise that particular aspect, so it is a matter of the record of the debate, and, on that basis, I do not accept your point of order.