Official Report: Tuesday 15 September 2015

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

Assembly Business

First Minister: Functions of Office

Mr Speaker: Before we commence today's business, I would like to clarify that, further to the ministerial resignations that I announced yesterday, I have received notification from the First Minister that, pursuant to section 16A(11) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, he has designated Arlene Foster, Minister of Finance and Personnel, to exercise the functions of the First Minister, effective from 10 September 2015. Mr Allister raised an issue in respect of that yesterday. I am sorry; it just was not obvious to me that that was the point you were making. I think it is important to get that on the record, so thank you for drawing attention to that matter.

Ministerial Statement

Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning): I wish to inform the Assembly that I am today launching the first stage of the Higher Education Big Conversation. The Big Conversation is an innovative and experimental approach to engaging with people about an incredibly important issue in Northern Ireland, namely the sustainability and the future of our higher education system. It will run from today until 23 October. The process is going to be iterative, exploring a range of weekly themes across two main stages, and building up to address some of the most critical issues now facing our higher education system.

The first stage, which will run from 15 September to 2 October, is designed to inform or remind people about why higher education is so important and how it is delivered and funded. It will also explore the challenges that our higher education system is facing and draw on the ways in which higher education is delivered and funded in other parts of the world. The second stage, to run from 5 October to 23 October, will invite people to have their say about the future of our higher education system.

Provision of higher education provides economic and societal benefits. As we continue to grow our knowledge economy, all our skills forecasts indicate a clear and growing demand for higher-level skills, not only at degree level and above, offered, in the main, through our universities and university colleges, but through our new system of apprenticeships, with a focus on higher-level provision, plus sub-degree levels, in which our further education colleges specialise.

The demand for higher-level skills will not only come from growing indigenous companies but from new investors. Northern Ireland is already the leading UK region for attracting inward investment outside of London and, time and again, companies cite our highly skilled workforce and the strength of our higher education system as integral in their decisions to invest in this region.

Our higher education system and the highly skilled workforce that it supports is now therefore one of the most crucial components of our investment narrative, and its role will become even more important under a potentially lower rate of corporation tax in the future. Indeed, the forecasts are clear that even current levels of supply will not be enough. We need to expand our skills base, not merely protect what we have.

Beyond the provision of skills, our universities and colleges make significant contributions to our economy as businesses in their own right. Each year, they support thousands of jobs and generate billions of pounds of spending in our economy, not only through their own activities but through multiplier effects, which stimulate other businesses and industries. Their research and innovation attracts investment from all over the world, they help businesses innovate and grow through their commercial interactions and knowledge-exchange activities, and they generate hundreds of successful spin-out companies, each with their own unique contributions to make.

Our higher education system does more than fuel our economy. Our universities and colleges are open to everyone with the ability and will to learn, whatever their background and circumstances.

Skills and qualifications are one of the surest ways for people to improve their life opportunities and employment prospects. Almost half of our young people are now entering higher education and a higher proportion of them are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds than in any other part of the UK. This is testament to the inclusivity of our higher education system and the ability of our people.

Higher education is one of our most important enablers of social mobility, social cohesion and social change. Unfortunately, the financial sustainability of our higher education system has come under serious pressure over the last number of years, putting all these benefits at risk.

In Northern Ireland, higher education is funded through a wide variety of sources, public and private. Public investment comes, in the main, through grants from my Department, which currently account for nearly 40% of our higher education institutions' incomes, but our universities can also attract funding from a wide range of other public sources, for example from Research Councils UK.

Private investment can also come from a variety of sources, including industry partners. The largest source of private investment comes from students themselves in the form of their tuition fees, which account for about 30% of our higher education institutions' incomes. The majority of students pay their tuition fees through student loans, which are financed and heavily subsidised by the wider taxpayer, so the dynamic between public and private funding is far from clear cut.

In 2011, the Executive decided to freeze tuition fees for local students studying in Northern Ireland, subject only to inflationary uplifts, and that commitment is written into our Programme for Government. While tuition fees have remained frozen, the level of public funding that is made available for higher education through my Department has decreased, year on year. The rate of this disinvestment has intensified significantly this year.

In the current financial year, my Department's baseline budget has been reduced by some 8·4%. My budget is almost exclusively used to enhance our skills base and to help people into employment. About one half of it is used to fund higher education. All other options for savings were explored before, regrettably, I had to turn to higher education. There has been an almost unavoidable impact on our universities and colleges.

This academic year, our universities and university colleges will be taking cuts of over £16 million and our further education colleges about £12 million, with an obvious impact on their higher education provision. As a consequence, we are witnessing a very real impact on student places and staff posts. Queen's and Ulster University, our two largest universities, are taking over 500 fewer local students this year, rising to nearly 2,000 over the next few years.

More students will now likely go to study in Great Britain. Northern Ireland is already the only net exporter of students in the UK, with almost a third of our young people choosing to go to England, Scotland or Wales every year, and far fewer coming the other way. When those students leave, they take with them a whole host of socio-economic benefits, and the figures show that about two thirds of them do not return to Northern Ireland for employment. More regrettably than that, others who do not gain a place here might simply decide not to enter higher education. The evidence suggests that people from disadvantaged backgrounds will be affected most of all.

The picture becomes even bleaker when we consider that, compared with other parts of the UK, our higher education system has already been significantly underfunded for some time. Even last year, our universities were underfunded by between £1,000 and £2,500 per student compared with their English counterparts, depending on their subject areas. We are now the only region in the UK actively disinvesting in higher education, at a time when it has never been more intrinsic to our success. As time goes on, our continued disinvestment will compromise not only the size of our higher education system but the quality of its provision. It will stifle the ability of our providers to compete with their closest competitors and on an international stage. It will hinder our economic growth and jeopardise our proud record of participation and fair access.

That is the context in which I am launching the Big Conversation. Over the next couple of months, my Department will work in cooperation with a range of stakeholders to engage with people about those challenges and to encourage a wider discussion about potential solutions. That staged approach is to ensure that the discussions we have during the Big Conversation, and the decisions that we make thereafter, are as informed as possible. That is precisely why matters such as higher education are devolved: to allow us to make our own decisions about what is best for Northern Ireland.

The first stage will focus on informing people about why higher education is important, how we deliver and fund it and the challenges that we face. My Department will run informative "Did you know?" surveys online, distributing information through a wide range of channels and organising various events. In this first week, we will demonstrate to people exactly why we need higher education by showing them the various benefits that we accrue from it as an economy, as a society and at an individual level. People are, for example, often aware of the benefits that higher education can bring for individuals, mainly the improved employment outcomes, but, often, the wider economic benefits of skills provision, job and wealth creation, and the attraction of investment and so on are not fully appreciated.

In next week’s theme, we will show people how we deliver and fund higher education in Northern Ireland. Often, when people talk about higher education, they do not look beyond traditional full-time study at our universities, but there is a wide range of delivery models available beyond the traditional routes. Under my Department’s new apprenticeship model, for example, more people than ever before will be able to earn while they learn, combining higher-level study through our universities and colleges with sustained and related employment. Similarly, it often goes unappreciated that most universities are autonomous bodies responsible for their own affairs and able to access significant sources of funding beyond those provided through public sources. Previous discussions about higher education funding have focused quite narrowly on public grants and tuition fees, but those two sources combined account for only about two thirds of our higher education institutions’ income sources.

In the final week of stage 1, we will have built up to some of the most pressing challenges that we face now, with a special focus on our skills and funding challenges. We will also look at different funding systems in place for higher education in other parts of the world, not just the UK, and think about the lessons that we can learn from them.

In the second stage of the Big Conversation, equipped with the knowledge gained in stage 1, people will be invited to tell us what they think about some of our most critical issues and how they think that we should deal with them. My Department and other stakeholders will hold a number of events to encourage people to get involved in the discussion. The second stage will also be themed across three weeks. The first week’s theme will be economy and skills, the second week's will be quality and accessibility, and the stage will conclude with sustainability in the third week.

Across the world, countries and regions approach higher education in different ways, with different combinations of public and individual financing for core teaching, different profiles in attracting external finance and different approaches to the provision of the high-level skills demanded by modern economies.

In recent years, the higher education landscape, including the funding landscape, has changed dramatically in every other part of the UK, with different regions taking very different approaches to ensure that their systems remain sustainable. The sustainability of the English funding system now rests on higher tuition fees, but, in Scotland, they have gone in the opposite direction, with free tuition for local students, and they rely instead on high levels of public investment. Now it is our turn to find our unique solution. We all need to be involved in that process. It is time that we had a discussion about what alternatives might work for us here in Northern Ireland.

During this process, I will not be advocating any one solution or another. If I were to do so, it would invariably narrow the scope of the debate and undermine the entire process. Our discussions should be as broad as possible. No options should be off the table, and we will doubtless hear a wide range of views from different groups, organisations and individuals.

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One thing that most people do agree on is that our higher education system is a worthy investment, regardless of where that investment comes from. During this process, I hope that we can strengthen that sentiment, particularly as we begin to think about our priorities moving into the next comprehensive spending review period.

After this process is completed, I will be taking stock of the options available to us and presenting them to the Executive.

Mr Speaker: I call Mr Robin Swann, Chairperson of the enterprise and learning Committee.

Mr Swann (The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning): Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Minister, in your statement, you seemed to contradict yourself. When you set the background, you said:

"companies cite our highly skilled workforce and the strength of our higher education system as integral in their decisions to invest in this region."

Later, you went on to say:

"We are now the only region in the UK actively disinvesting in higher education, at a time when it has never been more intrinsic to our success."

How will the Big Conversation address that contradiction?

Can I also seek reassurance from the Minister that, in this Big Conversation, he will actively seek and listen to the voices of students, university staff and the unions? Those voices feel that they have not been listened to in the recent cuts made by the two universities.

Dr Farry: Starting from the second point and moving backwards, I can very much give the Committee Chair that reassurance. This is meant to be an interactive and participative process. We are trying to move beyond the traditional model of public consultation to try to reach quarters that maybe do not normally engage in public policymaking processes. All the interest groups that the Chair references are very much part of our target audiences, and we will be working with them. There may be some events that are tailored to some of those groups in particular. I know that the universities themselves are very keen to engage in the process as well because they appreciate the magnitude of this.

With respect to the Chair's first point, there is not a contradiction in this. The point that I have to make very clearly is that we have been and continue to be very successful, based upon what we have done in higher education up to now. However — at this point, I need to be extremely clear and direct — we are in danger of undermining our ability to attract investment into Northern Ireland if we continue down the road of disinvesting in what we are doing around higher education. This process is incredibly important not just for our universities but for the future of the Northern Ireland economy, because we depend very much upon the skills of our people; that is the only natural resource that we have. Those skills come from those who go through the universities. There are other pathways as well through higher-level apprenticeships, and we can talk about how we can diversify and develop those high-level skills. However, if we find — this is particularly true if we move to a lower level of corporation tax in the next couple of years — that, on one hand, we are putting out there a very attractive offer but are, at the same time, undermining our ability to deliver, what we will be doing is, potentially, extremely counterproductive. So, it is important that we get this right and that we have a very wide-ranging and important discussion to make sure that we, as an Executive, make the right investments through whichever option ultimately finds the widest consensus.

Mr Speaker: Before I call the next Member to speak, I wish to make it clear that I was addressing you as the Chairperson of the Employment and Learning Committee. I did not redesignate your Committee arbitrarily.

Mr Swann: Not yet. [Laughter.]

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his statement. Has he given any consideration to what steps he can take to protect people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who will be affected by this disinvestment in higher education?

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for her question. It is very good to see that the Speaker is ahead of the curve on the eventual merger of Departments and Committees.

The Member identifies a very core point. Our universities have been very good and have a better track record than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK in attracting people from a range of backgrounds, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. As we well know, as well as benefiting our economy, investing in people's skills enables them to access a wider range of employment opportunities. The difficulty we have, in the context of disinvesting, is that we are seeing fewer places, and that will have a disproportionate impact on those who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

We see a situation where, shall we say, those who tend to come from more affluent backgrounds can more readily access university through their qualifications. When that competition becomes ever tighter, those who may have not done so well in their academic qualifications hitherto may struggle to get in. That is not a reflection on their ability because, once people get into university, they will progress along different pathways. However, when we have existing patterns of disadvantage and different patterns of primary and secondary education provision, we have different types of outcomes and pathways that feed into our university system.

Whenever we see a cut in the number of places, those people affected, who are disproportionately disadvantaged, will either be forced to consider going to Great Britain and will have to pay higher fees or will not have the opportunity to go at all, and their life opportunities will be sorely missed. I appreciate that there are wider discussions to be had around our Budget and on welfare, but it is important that we have a reality check on what we are doing. If we have a singular focus on transfer payments to people, we will have a good system for those who are on welfare, but we will not be sufficiently investing in the ladder that allows people to escape from dependency and have the life opportunities that they deserve. It is important that we have a balanced approach to tackling problems of disadvantage in our society.

Mr Ramsey: I thank the Minister for the statement. He is never short of a few words when it comes to it, and he has not disappointed us today. The big conversation in Northern Ireland at the moment is about the loss of jobs, capacity and courses and particularly the downward trend in student numbers. Following on from Bronwyn McGahan's question, the major concern is that the big impact in cities across Northern Ireland will be that young people will not go across to England. The widening participation strategy, which was highly complimented in the universities and by the Minister and the Committee for Employment and Learning, will fail drastically because our young people will now have nowhere to go. They will leave education and become part of the NEET bracket. Will he ensure that the widening participation strategy is a key part of the Big Conversation that he is going to have?

Dr Farry: I am happy to assure the Member that widening participation will be a key theme in taking this process forward. It will be useful to break this down into two different components in order to be very clear about what is happening. We have what the universities do around widening participation in their engagement and their policies. We are not seeing any deterioration in the level of engagement. Members will be aware that we have taken a decision to deregulate, to an extent, how the universities manage their commitments around widening participation. That gives them more freedom and allows some money to be freed up, and that has avoided even worse cuts to the number of places.

In that context, however, the universities are very clear that they will maintain the current standards. Distinct from that, we have the situation where we are seeing a net loss of places. That loss will disproportionately impact on those who are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. In that context, in the wider funding for higher education, there is a threat to widening participation outcomes, and it is important that we are very clear in that regard.

That leads to the issue of funding. I am very clearly saying that the current course that we are going down in Northern Ireland in higher education is simply not sustainable. Something has to give, one way or another. This process is designed to be iterative, where we work out a range of options or, indeed, reach a consensus around one particular option as to what we are going to do in Northern Ireland. However, we cannot continue down our current path; we need to make a decision. There are models in these islands and elsewhere in the world that we can look to and use to inform the decision that we take, but we have to take a decision one way or another, including as early as the comprehensive spending review that is coming up later this autumn, about how we are going to take this forward. We cannot go on the way we are going.

Ms Lo: I congratulate the Minister and his team on the very innovative approach to addressing the major issue of funding HE. In his statement, he mentioned that there is a wide range of delivery models in HE. Will he set out the potential for universities to engage with the new apprenticeships strategy?

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for her comments about the concept that we are launching. This is to be different from the traditional approach to public consultation, as we are trying to engage more with stakeholders and have ongoing dialogue as people work their way through the evidence to find the particular solution for Northern Ireland.

One thing that we do need to be conscious of, as the Member alluded to, is how we attain high-level skills in our economy. We see evidence from other countries of different mixes between universities — the traditional academic route — and developed vocational pathways. The Germanic countries are a case in point.

We also have an opportunity for universities to engage on apprenticeships or types of learning akin to the apprenticeship model. We launched the strategy in June 2014 and are well under way on pilot work. We are in advanced discussions with the universities on having almost degree-level apprenticeship pilots when students would be in employment and also part-time students on an apprenticeship framework. That is an area that we want to see developed much more over the coming months and years.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh ráiteas an Aire, agus an Comhrá Mór á chur i bhfeidhm aige inniu. I declare an interest as a current higher education student with the Ulster University.

I share the Minister's concerns, as most people do, about the impact of disinvestment in our further and higher education sector. I welcome that he will look for innovative and imaginative solutions, but I do not think that increasing tuition fees is a solution, and you would expect me to say that.

Given that one of the biggest costs facing students from a rural area in accessing higher education is housing when they have to go to an urban area, will this Conversation include the potential for additional quarters to be provided in rural areas such as the South West College campus in Enniskillen?

Dr Farry: Well done for being the first person to mention the word "fees". We got through five Members before getting to that point.

Let me say clearly that this is not a consultation about whether we do or do not have fees. Of course, all options have to be on the table, and fees are one of many options, but it is important that we do not knee-jerk into this becoming a bipolar discussion abut whether people are in favour of fees or not. If we look to models outside these islands, we will see different mixes of funding in different European countries and elsewhere. There may well be lessons that we want to pick up from those models.

In terms of student support beyond fees, we have very good systems in maintenance grants and loans. The Member will be aware of changes in that area happening in England, and the Assembly will have to get its head around that as well, given the impact that we will see in a negative Barnett consequential to our block grant arising from that. That will be a separate challenge.

The final point that the Member made was on rural provision. That is not to be directly addressed as part of the Big Conversation process. However, that is, I believe, project number 10 in our higher education strategy, and work is well advanced in discussions, including with the South West College, on the outcomes that the Member alluded to. Hopefully, there will be announcements to be made on that in the near future.

Mrs D Kelly: Whilst I accept that the level of cuts suffered by your Department, Minister, is extremely high and quite draconian, can you assure the House that the university councils are ensuring that front-line services are, as far as possible, protected and that the luxuries enjoyed by senior academic staff are targeted first in efficiency savings?

Dr Farry: Our universities are autonomous institutions, and government is a major funder of those bodies. We already talked about the sources of that funding, and 37% of funding comes directly from the state, but it is not for me as Minister to micro-manage how money is spent in the universities. However, we have had discussions with them at a high strategic level on how they would approach the cuts. In the past couple of weeks, we have received a lot of detail from Ulster University on how it is approaching the issue.

We have made requests, and the response from the universities has been very focused on the maximisation of what we can do in front-line provision. That includes, most clearly, the number of student places, but it also means that we should do what we can in research, which is also a key driver of our economy. We are in a constant process of encouraging universities to be as efficient as possible, but they also understand that they need to be efficient because their resource base is shrinking. They will have to make the assessments themselves on value for money and decide what to do in the delivery of their business and operational plans.

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Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. It was interesting, and I am happy that he intends to move beyond the usual groups that normally apply to consultations. I ask him to ensure that, when doing that, he includes in the process the many education projects dealing with deprivation in areas such as west Belfast; the likes of alternative education projects that encourage people into further education; and community-based education projects that do the same but experience blocks and blockages.

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his request. This is very much designed to reach out to all constituencies in Northern Ireland: geographically, different sections of the community and people at different stages of their education. It is important that we encourage progression pathways that allow people to reach their full potential. For some, that will be progression through to university. In other cases, it will be through further education or through to apprenticeships.

We are developing a suite of provision, including the new apprenticeship strategy and the youth training strategy — the new system that we announced in June 2015 — and that provides a range of different opportunities. It is important that we have good, strong careers advice that will assist people to find the pathway most suitable for them. We want to make sure, particularly on the theme of widening participation, that those who wish to access higher education will continue to have that opportunity. That is why it is so important that we get the funding right and that we are able to offer the full range of opportunities across the board.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for his statement. Will the Minister seek the views of part-time higher education stakeholders during the Big Conversation, particularly on the place of flexible/distance learning, which meets the needs of the economy, the people and the communities right across Northern Ireland?

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for the question. Absolutely. It is important that we get away from the traditional assumption that all students who go through our higher education system are full-time undergraduates below the age of 21 or 22. We have great diversity in higher education provision already, and, at present, just under 40% of provision is part-time. We have a good mix already.

It is important that we seek to consolidate and build upon that very strong footprint, because that diversification will be more in line with the future needs of the economy. In some respects, it overlaps with what we propose for higher-level apprenticeships, and that necessitates a degree of part-time provision in university access, insofar as the apprenticeship framework is delivered at the appropriate level. The Member will also be aware that, in parallel with this, we have just closed a public consultation on a number of options for better support for part-time and postgraduate students, and we hope that we will be able to make policy decisions on the preferred options within the next couple of weeks.

Mr Dickson: I thank the Minister for his statement and for the innovative way in which the consultation process will take place. It will clearly get to places that other consultations do not get to. I acknowledge that higher education is one of the routes out of deprivation and out of benefits. Will the Minister tell us how universities will be able to encourage students to become socially mobile once they have completed their courses?

It is important that we acknowledge that higher education delivers a clear route out of deprivation for many citizens in Northern Ireland.

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his question and recognition of the approach that we are trying to take. It is worth stressing again the importance of higher education and the investment in high-level skills in general as a means of encouraging social mobility.

Particularly at a time when there is a lot of focus on how we address most effectively those who are disadvantaged in Northern Ireland, it is important to bear in mind that it is through investment in employment opportunities and schemes through to what we do in further and higher education that we will provide the ladder for people to access new opportunities.

I rather fear that the impact of the cuts and an almost very singular approach to raiding public spending for other purposes leaves us in a situation in which the rungs in the ladder are breaking or falling away. We are in real danger of losing sight of what we are trying to do. We are not trying to keep people in poverty and keep pumping money into that system. It has to be about investing in such things as public health, early years education and, indeed, further and higher education, which we invest in to change people's lives and provide opportunities.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: Minister, the drastic cutbacks in HE have also been delivered in the FE sector and throughout the colleges. Will you outline the discussions that have taken place between DEL and DETI? It must be very difficult to sell Northern Ireland throughout the world when its greatest asset, its young people, are being forced to seek third-level education in GB and when, by your admission, two-thirds of them will not return to the Province. Will you give an overview of the discussions that are taking place?

Dr Farry: I am grateful to the Member for his question. There is an awareness across the three legs of the stool — my Department, DETI and Invest Northern Ireland — of the importance of skills to our ability to attract jobs into Northern Ireland. There is a growing recognition that it has to be turned around. It will not just be turned around by pumping in more money; more money has to go in on a strategic basis to make sure that we get the most out of the investments that we make. That means more and more targeted investments in the areas that are most relevant to the economy.

The Member also referred to further education being impacted. I suppose that, on that basis, it is a useful opportunity to reinforce that when we talk about higher education, we are not simply talking about our three universities and our university colleges — the teacher-training colleges — but all six of our further education colleges. People may not appreciate that almost 20% of higher-level qualifications are delivered through the FE sector, so there is a very big further education footprint there. The colleges are going through their own pressures on the back of cuts. We are asking them to be as focused as they can on the strategic needs of the economy, and they are seeking to see what they can do about protecting the higher education provision that they offer. They also face the same funding challenges as the universities.

Mr Allister: It would be naive to think that it will be a directionless conversation, and I suspect that the Minister has a very clear idea of where he wants the conversation to lead. Is it, in fact, a softening-up process of the public and politicians to advance an increase in tuition fees?

Dr Farry: Mr Allister has given me the opportunity, so let me be very clear: this is not a done deal or a process in which we are trying to convince people of the benefits of higher tuition fees in Northern Ireland. Let me honestly say that I am approaching it with an open mind. We do not have a blueprint of what we are trying to reach on the far side. It has to be a genuine iterative process in which, hopefully, we reach a consensus within this society as to where we want to go. The timing of this, in the current political context, is not ideal, but, nonetheless, it is imperative given the funding situation that our universities face plus the onset of the forthcoming spending round.

When we look to future funding, it is important that we acknowledge that there is a range of options. Often the debate is focused by reference to what is happening in England, with the assumption that we will more or less follow what is happening there. If we look at what is happening in Scotland, we see that the Scottish Government have almost written it in stone — they have literally written it in stone — that they will not increase tuition fees. They have free tuition for their local students, never mind the £3,500 that our students have to pay in Northern Ireland. So, even within these islands, we see two very different models. There are some drawbacks to the Scottish model. The level of public investment probably does not keep up with the level of investment that comes from the mix of public and private funding that universities receive in England. For those societies or regions that want to go down the route along the lines of the Scottish model, there are challenges of having a realistic assessment of what is required to make sure that that model is successful. We also see different models elsewhere in Europe. Obviously, the Nordic countries have a very strong focus around free higher education. Fees are charged in other countries around the world, for example the United States and, more recently, Australia. Other countries have mixed models.

There are questions around the size of our higher education footprint and whether we achieve higher-level skills through a different mix of vocational and academic provision, or whether we retain the current approach, which is heavily skewed towards academic. There is a whole range of different options, and it is important that we find the one that is most appropriate for our particular circumstances in Northern Ireland. That is why devolution is important. As I am coming to the end of this question time, I want to say that we should appreciate that devolution allows us to make these choices and, given the current context, that is very much in doubt. If we want to have control of our own destiny around higher education, it is important that we have devolution.

Mr B McCrea: I suspect that this Big Conversation is with the wrong people. Higher education is in crisis, the financial funding of it is unsustainable, and we are the only region in the United Kingdom to actively disinvest. The Minister chided, I think, Mr Flanagan for being the first person to bring up the issue of fees. Actually, apart from Mr Allister, nobody else has talked about it. This Assembly voted to cap fees. This Assembly said that it would make up the shortfall to the universities that that led to. This Assembly did not do that. It cut the funding. This is a stark choice; you have to get off the rhetoric. The big question that I want to ask the Minister is this: when is he going to have a big conversation with the MLAs around this Chamber who make these decisions, because that is where this decision needs to be taken?

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his question. His analysis is consistent with what we have set out already in today's statement. The Big Conversation is meant to include everyone, and that includes MLAs. As the process moves towards the final stages, the audience becomes the Executive. Strictly speaking, the Assembly has not taken a vote on the freezing of tuition fees; it was a decision taken in the Executive. Obviously, given the make-up of the Assembly, that decision was supported by all of the five parties represented on the Executive and, of course, in the Assembly.

Let me be very clear that this is not about a bipolar choice between having fees or not having fees. Those are options, and it is important to acknowledge that all options have to be on the table, but there are other ways in which we can do this. What is important is to realise that the current situation is not sustainable; it is broken. We need to find an alternative that works for Northern Ireland, and we need to find that alternative within the next number of months as we look ahead to the next funding review. It is important that we have that discussion.

I encourage MLAs to engage in the process. We will be discussing the matter with the Employment and Learning Committee tomorrow. I will be back to make a further statement at the conclusion of stage 1 as we move into stage 2, and, again, there will be opportunities for Members to engage further at that point. In between, I welcome Members engaging through the various social media channels, using the citizen space portal that will be used as part of this Big Conversation and engaging in other media-type conversations. It is important that we try to reach a consensus.

Given the nature of our government, it is important that we do not have one party going off on its own, making decisions. This is so fundamental that there has to be a consensus that we can sustain over a number of different Assembly terms.

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Executive Committee Business

Mr Speaker: This item of business is listed in the name of the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. As the ministerial office is vacant, the item of business cannot be moved.

Mr Speaker: This item of business is listed in the name of the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. As the ministerial office is vacant, the item of business cannot be moved.

Private Members' Business

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind. One amendment has been selected and is published in the Marshalled List. The proposer will have10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes to wind. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Mrs Dobson: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes that, in June 2015, there were 373,000 people waiting for a first outpatient appointment, a diagnostic test or inpatient treatment at hospitals in Northern Ireland and that this is equivalent to over 20% of the entire population; expresses concern that waiting times are now worse than at any time in recent history and that far too many people are having to wait in pain and under emotional distress for far too long; accepts that targets are set in the interests of quality and safety of patient care and that, with every delay, there is a risk of ailments progressing; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to work with each of the health and social care trusts to identify and resolve the causes of the delays.

I welcome the opportunity to move the motion. In the midst of yet another crisis facing the institutions, we must not forget the thousands on hospital waiting lists. Many are growing increasingly frustrated, and who in the Chamber could blame them? I can only imagine how exasperating it must be for people to be told that they could wait for months, if not years, for a crucial appointment, and then turn on the television in the evening and watch the farcical scenes here. The whole thing would be funny, if it were not so deadly serious. The intention of the motion is neither to make party political points nor apportion blame; it is to remind all Ministers and all parties that the longer the uncertainty about the future of the Assembly exists, and as we continue to fall deeper into our financial black hole, the longer ordinary people are left reeling from the consequences.

Let us remember the scale of the current problem. As the motion says, in June 2015, some 373,000 people were waiting for a first outpatient appointment, diagnostic test or inpatient treatment at hospitals in Northern Ireland — that is equivalent to over 20% of our entire population. Just think about that for a moment. The total number waiting for a first outpatient appointment is over 212,000, a 46% increase on the 145,500 waiting in the same period last year. Of all those waiting, 86,000 — or 40% — have been doing so for more than 18 weeks, even though the target is, of course, that no one should wait for longer than 18 weeks. In the words of the Department's publication:

"Northern Ireland, as a whole, did not meet either element of the waiting time target, nor did any of the individual trusts".

These delays are affecting a range of specialities, but a stark illustration is that 50,000 people are waiting for surgical appointments, often in debilitating pain and with increasing anger. Over 20,000 have been waiting for either trauma and orthopaedic (T&O) surgery or general surgery longer than the maximum 18-week waiting time. A frightening range of specialities is reporting immense pressures and worsening service provision, including trauma and orthopaedics, general surgery, urology, ears nose and throat (ENT) and pain management. Older people, young people, men, women, the rich, and especially the poor, are left living in pain and in fear about the state of their health.

I know, through my constituency office, that many of those who approach me about waiting times are also living in fear for their job prospects. This is a very real concern that is often overlooked in the debate about waiting times. There are a number of factors that, collectively, are contributing to the crisis in our waiting times. The most significant, however, was the decision to suspend referring patients to the independent sector. I understand the growing alarm at the spiralling cost of using independent providers; indeed, I remember joining others in speaking out against those rising costs. However, by taking such a conclusive stance and freezing all that work, it was inevitable that lists would take a nosedive. Unfortunately, that decision has had a major and undesirable consequence.

People who go through their GPs and are referred to a hospital or specialist now face one of two choices: they can either wait the six, 12 or 18 months, which is becoming the norm, or they can go private. Of course, not everyone can afford to do that. For instance, the price of a primary knee replacement only a few years ago was over £7,000, and the equivalent price on the NHS was only £2,000. Many people simply cannot afford those costs and are therefore left with no choice but to wait, often in excruciating pain. As they are waiting, visits to their GP are regular and their prescriptions are never ending, all the time costing money that would not need to be spent if only they could be seen within a reasonable time.

The consequence of lengthening waiting times is a truly vicious and painful cycle. The longer the current situation rolls on, the more uneven and unequal access to healthcare in Northern Ireland becomes. Take our A&E attendances, for instance. During 2014-15, only 73·8% of people attending the main emergency care departments were treated and discharged or admitted within four hours of their arrival, despite the target being 95%. Indeed, even in my local hospital, Craigavon Area Hospital, where the pressures are by no means as severe as they are in some areas, only 78·3% of patients were seen within four hours. Almost 17,000 people had to wait longer.

It is often said that how our A&E departments are performing is a barometer for the wider state of the NHS. Last year's performance, which was a deterioration on that of the year before, demonstrates that the crisis facing our hospitals is continuing to worsen.

Another area is the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The official target for an urgent referral for suspected cancer is that 95% of patients should begin their treatment within 62 days. Yet figures earlier this year revealed that only 72% of patients were seen within that time frame. In addition, the target waiting time for a first assessment with the breast cancer specialist is 14 days, so all urgent breast cancer referrals should be seen within that time. However, only 82% were. Whilst those figures may sound alarming, breast cancer diagnosis and treatment is not one of the worst performing areas. There are a range of other areas, not least urology, facing very serious delays.

Another contributory factor affecting diagnosis rates is the significant deterioration over the past five years in the average number of weeks that patients are waiting for either a CT or MRI scan. For instance, the average wait for a CT scan has jumped from 4·1 weeks to seven weeks in Belfast and from nine weeks to 16 weeks in the Southern Health Trust.

Only a few people should expect to wait more than four hours in A&E. Only the slightest ailment should deserve a waiting time of six or 12 months to be seen by a specialist. Cancer rips the heart out of our families and shows no mercy whatsoever. The fact that right now, as we stand here today, people are having their health compromised should be enough to shame the Health Department and the Health and Social Care Board into action. Indeed, earlier this year, in a leaked document from the Health and Social Care Board, there was a direct warning:

"‘increased waiting times for assessment may result in delayed diagnosis of a serious or life-threatening condition with reduced likelihood of a successful outcome".

We are dealing with matters of life and death, but the most frustrating thing is that we are simply being asked to accept it.

Try telling that to the young woman who is facing delay with her breast cancer treatment or the grandfather watching his grandchildren, knowing that he may not be around to see them grow up. I am in no doubt that every MLA in the House will be coming down with case files of absolutely desperate constituents who have been told that they have to wait for what seems like an unbelievable length of time. I know that I am. These cases tug at our heartstrings as they are shocking and appear completely irrational. I also continue to receive contact from health service staff who find spiralling waiting times totally unconscionable. If we do nothing, waiting times will only grow and grow, and patient safety will become further compromised. We need to ensure that the workforce planning is working as it should, especially so that major consultant posts are not lying vacant through lack of forward planning. We need to ensure that the service exists to primary-level care so that people are showing up at hospitals only when they absolutely need to. I know that that can be difficult, but we must work on those issues.

In conclusion, NHS health staff who have been left completely emotionally drained and demoralised are not to blame for the current problems. In fact, I believe that they are the last remaining defence against total collapse. These pressures, combined with the cavalier attitude of the former Minister, the board and some of the trusts, are contributing to worse morale. I urge the next Minister —

Mr Speaker: Time is up, I am afraid.

Mrs Dobson: — to meet and organise and do it for the public good as soon as possible.

Mr McKinney: I beg to move the following amendment:

Insert at end

";and further calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to take immediate action to alleviate current pressures and to fully implement and fund the Transforming Your Care plan to ameliorate future pressures.".

As SDLP health spokesperson, I welcome the opportunity to bring the amendment to the House. I just wish that my gratefulness to the House to debate this important issue was matched by a DUP Health Minister who would have welcomed the opportunity to respond to reflect to the Assembly, and to the wider public, that he has a plan to deal with the waiting list crisis that is perhaps the worst in health service history here for many years. But, no; the Minister has chosen not to be here. I urge all of you in the Chamber, in the Gallery, and even those outside the Chamber, to focus during this debate on that empty chair and, indeed, empty chairs right across the Benches opposite. That is the answer that the DUP has given to the debate on this unprecedented waiting list crisis. Absolutely nothing. I will touch further on its impotence over health service change later in my contribution.

The DUP has put huge public concern over this issue second to its own narrow political interests, which are in favour of a spat between it and the Ulster Unionists. Good luck to them. I hope that the public responds in kind and that that public remembers that, in their hour of need, the Health Minister ran away.

At the outset, I want to acknowledge that today's debate is a very important one. In every debate that I have participated in, I have acknowledged the dedicated professional approach of the nearly 55,000 staff employed by the health service here. I have applauded their commitment, their energy and compassion, and I do so again today. The pressures on our elective care waiting lists are as much a strain on them as on the public and those in need. The figures have been rehearsed over and over in the public domain among health professionals and also in the Assembly Chamber. They are disgraceful, and action is called for, not retreat. Waiting lists are the worst that they have been in 15 years. We have seen outpatient waiting lists swelling by 46% in the past year alone. That is creating great difficulty for many patients at the worst end, even contributing to deaths caused by system stress or the frail and the elderly being humiliated and neglected. I know this first-hand. My constituency office, like those of other Members, has been inundated over the last years. I have heard harrowing stories. Many of those suffering are in agony, with no end in sight as to when they will receive treatment. In the twenty-first century, that is simply unforgivable. This morning, we will hear more stories similar to those.

These are important contributions, but, ultimately, their resolution — and future resolutions — will not be mitigated until there is a proper strategic focus at the heart of our health service, followed by implementation. Strangely enough, there is one. It is just that it has not been implemented. I should know, because I have spent the last two years constantly asking questions about its implementation, only to be fobbed off with obfuscation.

11.30 am

First, there was reassurance that it was all being implemented and that there were targets in the Transforming Your Care (TYC) plan. Then, as the questions piled up, the evidence began to disappear, and, in the end, we had another review, which basically called it as it was: failure of leadership; failure in commissioning; failure to deliver. Of course, there were bits of movement here and there, but you tell the public, who watch in disbelief as the crisis piles up, that that is improvement and they have real cause not to believe you.

The present crisis in elective care was always going to happen. The reason is that the health service cut the budget on elective care surgery. The reason for that was that they needed resources to plough into the system to prevent the accident and emergency crisis that dominated the headlines for two years. The reason for that was that the health service was not properly budgeted for and a plan that they came up with was not implemented. Moving money and staff did prevent the A&E crisis, but the elective care waiting list just grew and grew.

Mr McCarthy: I am very grateful to the Member for giving way. As a member of the Health Committee, he will know that some time ago we were informed that a bid for £89 million had been put in to the Executive in the June monitoring round in order to overcome those problems. That June monitoring round has not even been spoken about and £89 million has not gone towards the health service, so, therefore, we are going further into the red as far as treatment is concerned.

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

Mr McKinney: Absolutely, and what would you have welcomed today? A Health Minister, or even some Health Committee members from the Benches opposite, to potentially explain your point. The process has been a sticking-plaster approach. Short-termism. Historically, the Department of Health relied on the private sector to effectively pick up the slack in addressing the elective care backlog, but, again, due to financial and strategic mismanagement, that funding is no longer available. The Department has consistently bid for that extra funding in monitoring round, as my colleague helpfully mentioned. When the money ran out and the focus was on the other big crisis, the route to the next crisis was fixed.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: Will the Member give way?

Mr McKinney: Very briefly.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: The Member has made reference, and I have to agree with him, to the absence of our in/out Health Minister today and his colleague who was formerly Health Minister; but I make it clear that, no matter what spat within unionism the Member made a comment on, the Ulster Unionist Party is here today because we care. I agree entirely with the comments made by my colleague. We care about our constituents who are in our offices day in, day out. The picture from today is of the absent seats to my left.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order. I remind Members that interventions are supposed to be brief and relative to the point.

Mr McKinney: Perhaps I would have bought that point had the Regional Development Minister not resigned. Is it entirely appropriate that he reflects that when he does not care about our roads system? Anyway, it is unsustainable.

The situation was foreseen. Over four years ago, authors of the TYC plan considered future demand and present stresses. They consulted, and I will tell you what they said in 2011. I will read it to you. They stated that demand would rise by 4%, that that would lead to an increase of 50,000 outpatient appointments in 2015, and that a failure to act:

"would quite simply fail the population as the system struggled to cope."

By any measure, the population here has been failed. Here we are in September 2015 with no Health Minister to address an issue that is impacting on one in five people here. The public are rightly angered.

I said at the outset that I would address one of the core issues at the heart of the problem. It is leadership at the highest level. The House and the public are right to ask why a queue of DUP Ministers has failed them so badly in health. First Edwin Poots, who attracted more publicity over conscience issues than health, failed to implement the plan and failed to secure sufficient budgets to run the system. His exit bought the DUP more time to attempt to explain away their failure with a new Minister, Jim Wells, who used up that vital time dithering and focusing on conscience issues. All the time queues were growing as the public were ill-served. Maybe we will have the absentee Minister in for an hour or so at some stage next week, until he resigns again.

Here we have the man with a disappearing plan —

A Member: Will the Member give way?

Mr McKinney: No, I cannot give way any further.

He would sooner resign his Ministry than confront the issues that affect so many people here.

There — right there — is his empty seat. That is his response.

Mr D Bradley: Will the Member give way?

Mr McKinney: Very briefly.

Mr D Bradley: Does the Member agree that the real renegade and roguish Ministers in this House are those who are absent today, especially, in this context, the Health Minister?

Mr McKinney: I thank the Member for his helpful intervention: I could not agree more.

It is not only that the DUP has no answers; the reality is that it is to blame. It has had its chance; it has failed and failed miserably. There is still a chance; it lies in the concepts and strategic thoughts around TYC, which, at its core, saw the strain on the health service, as I have reflected. All of this stands in stark contrast to how TYC systems were introduced, for example, in Australia, and where the transformational change in Canterbury, for example, reduced strain on the expensive end of the hospital. That worked very well.

To the Ulster Unionists, who may be thinking of not supporting the amendment, we say quite clearly that we need to take immediate action to alleviate current pressures. By that, we mean that the money must be found now to treat the patients now and action must be married to a further strategic TYC plan. I urge its support for our amendment in that context.

The picture is very clear: it is one of failure and one of no response. The public is rightly disappointed. I urge the House to support the amendment.

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this hugely significant issue for many people across all sections of our society.

I share the frustration of some Members who have spoken, and I share the anger of the wider public that, as we debate this hugely important issue for society, the DUP Health Minister, instead of treating this issue with the accountability, leadership and direction it requires, has treated the issue with contempt by being neither at his desk to take decisions nor in this Chamber to outline his response to these criticisms today and to this very important debate in a way that delivers for the people who elected him to deliver and show leadership.

I support the motion and the amendment. It is stark when we reflect that, in June 2013, there were 373,000 people waiting for their first outpatient appointment. As the motion states, that is equivalent to 20% of the population in the North. The Health Committee recently concluded a review into waiting times for elective care. We brought five recommendations directly to the door of the Minister. Today, that door is closed in our face. It is impossible for us as elected representatives, for people in the Public Gallery or for the people outside this Chamber to even get a sense of how those recommendations are being acted on or will be implemented.

We took evidence from Scotland, Portugal, England, New Zealand, the Twenty-six Counties and Scandinavia, and whilst we can all reflect on the constraints that exist in the system and many other systems, it seems to me that a practical way to deal with our waiting times is the use of a referral-to-treatment target. We have heard much evidence about this, and, in my view, it would ultimately lead to a more efficient spend on elective care.
It would, however, mean, as I said earlier, having leadership and decison-making processes; it would need to be accompanied by new arrangements for managing the performance of trusts against those targets. That system is used in Scotland and in England, where the target is that patients should expect to wait 18 weeks between being referred by a GP for an outpatient appointment and beginning treatment. Denmark also operates that type of target. Indeed Portugal is looking to move towards that system.

So, what do we have here? We had a Department of Health and a Minister who indicated that a move to a target-based approach was highly desirable. We do not know today, by the empty chair that has been referred to, whether it is still highly desirable or will, indeed, be actioned. They recognised that it would provide better patient experience, something that we all want to strive towards, and it is regarded as international best practice. It also removes the potential perverse incentives for delays at all stages of the journey.

In conclusion, I want to refer to the costing of such a scheme. We hear much about constraints in the system. The real debate in our health service is clearly the lack of a Health Minister to take decisions, but, equally, where our spend goes. We need to reflect on the fact that, every year, between £55 million and £65 million goes to the private sector for elective care. Surely, some of that money could assist with the establishment —

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

Ms Maeve McLaughlin: — of referral-to-treatment times. I support the motion and the amendment.

Mr McCarthy: On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the motion and the amendment. At the outset, I have to say that the waiting time figures are a total and absolute disgrace and unacceptable, given that our Health Department preaches prevention and early detection. Yet, when patients adhere to these directions, they are subjected to inordinate delays in getting an early appointment with a consultant. This is surely shameful and must be put right immediately by our Heath Department. It is also shameful, as others have said, that Simon Hamilton, the former Health Minister, has thrown in the towel and left this very important Ministry, which will undoubtedly mean that more people will continue to suffer. I am disappointed that Simon Hamilton has given way to the pressures — the shenanigans — that have gone on in other places.

I am a member of the Health Committee, which, as the Chairman indicated, carried out a comprehensive review of waiting times to assess the effectiveness of the Department's approach to reducing waiting times, to see how other regions have successfully reduced their waiting times, and how that could be applied locally. The Committee heard from a number of important people from various places and produced five recommendations that we considered essential for our health service to implement to get on top of the problem of excessive waiting times for all our patients. A referral-to-treatment time target was one important recommendation, which our Chairperson mentioned.

Our report was debated in the Chamber on 3 November 2014, with the Minister present, and it was unanimously agreed that the Minister should prioritise and tackle the issue. I have to say how disappointed I am that, despite all our efforts, the number of our constituents waiting for operations etc continues to rise. That means that such patients continue to live in pain and suffering, simply because our system falls far short of what is expected. As the Assembly mandate runs out at the end of March next year, or perhaps earlier, it is also a disgrace that those at the head of running the Assembly are already engaged in electioneering and point-scoring whilst our constituents continue to suffer. I say to those leaders, "Wise up. Accept your responsibilities and work for everyone in this community now".

11.45 am

A few years back, we were presented with a document, 'Transforming Your Care'; our colleague Fearghal McKinney mentioned it. It was a plan for major improvements right across the health service. Why oh why has this not been delivered? The reality is that our constituents continue to experience very lengthy waiting times, even to get a first outpatient appointment. This is and must be totally unacceptable. Our Health Minister — probably the permanent secretary now — the board and the trusts simply have got to come up with something to implement those five recommendations from our Committee report. That would be a start. Look at the other regions that have introduced new measures that would ensure better waiting times for everyone in Northern Ireland.

I have to congratulate assistant librarian Kristine Gillespie for her excellent information pack, which gives us all the information regarding the crisis in waiting times. The first few pages of that document contain news releases from the Health Department on waiting list statistics. The figures are very depressing indeed. Our Committee has expressed real concerns at the number of missed hospital appointments both by hospitals and by patients who simply fail to turn up for their appointments. The Department revealed that, in 2014-15, a total of 168,555 appointments were cancelled by hospitals in the five trusts, and a total of 147,536 patients failed to turn up, costing the health service £16 million. Those are staggering figures. Something has to be done to get on top of this totally unnecessary waste of time and money.

The Assembly has a bounden duty to everyone in Northern Ireland to provide good health provision. I say to everyone, outside or inside the Assembly: let us get on with it.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion and the amendment. As I take up my place on the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety this week, I really wish to join others in expressing concern that there is no one at the helm of our health service. At a time when the health service is clearly heading towards the rocks, the captain has jumped ship. I think that we are within our rights and that it is our duty to labour this point today, because nothing is more important than people's health.

My son was in hospital a couple of weeks ago. I thank the ambulance staff, nurses and consultants who all helped him. At that moment when you have a relative or friend in hospital, that is the number one priority in your life. It is absolutely shameful that there is no one here from the DUP to respond to any of these issues.

It is also important to remember that the gatekeeper who has been referred to has been left in the Executive to look after issues and to fend off the rogues and the renegades. The DUP needed to keep somebody in the Finance Department because it is so important, but the Health Department is also important. Why is there no gatekeeper to look out for the needs of those in A&E, the terminally ill or the 373,000 people on waiting lists? I argue that the Health Department is the one Department in which you do not leave a vacant seat at the head.

Kieran McCarthy has rightly commended the Assembly's Research and Information Service. We do not do that enough. There are some fantastic figures to assist Members. The number of patients who were first seen within 14 days following an urgent referral for suspected breast cancer has dropped by 12·2%. That means that 212 women were waiting too long for a referral for suspected breast cancer. The information pack also states that only 72% of patients begin treatment within 62 days of an urgent referral. That is a crisis in itself, never mind the totality of the figure. It also states that the number of people who wait more than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment has soared from under 40,000 to 107,000. That is shameful, a LeasCheann Comhairle. This is a huge number of people: 373,000 people; 373,000 families. A lot of them are in pain; a lot of them are under stress; and a lot of them are enduring weeks and months of uncertainty after uncertainty.

11.50 am

It is little wonder that the health service is in the state that it is. DUP Health Ministers who have gone before have been more focused on homophobic agendas than on people's health and well-being. They have had their wee pet projects that they have pursued and about which they have gone on the airwaves, week after week. The only thing that they should have been concerned about was people's health. So, we need to see more —

Mr Swann: Will the Member give way?

Mr McKay: I will; yes.

Mr Swann: It was the Health Minister who was able to step in and help save the Dal in our constituency. Does the Member agree that, without a Health Minister, the Dal, the Roddens care home in Ballymoney and the Pinewood care home in Ballymena are back under threat, because it is now over to the trust and civil servants to make those decisions and take them forward?

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

Mr McKay: I fully agree with the Member. We are stuck in limbo with regard to the health service. As a republican, I do not like direct rule, but I can tell you this: the public like to see local politicians make decisions regarding health; less so, they like to see direct rule Ministers make decisions regarding health; but, worse than both those scenarios, is an empty chair.

This may be some tactic from the DUP. The former Minister put out a press statement saying that the DUP will use the best tactics to get the right outcome. The health service is not a tactic or something to be used for political advantage, because that is what this is about. At the end of the day, the crisis in the health service is more important than the crisis in the DUP, the crisis over unionist voters and the crisis over the next election. That is what it is; it is about party politics. This is not about the health service. So, I ask the DUP, when they are resigning next week and the week after that to, perhaps, consider putting in a gatekeeper not only for finance but to look after people's health and those in our community who are suffering.

The former Minister Simon Hamilton is probably sitting in his office upstairs; he might even be watching this on screen. He should come down here and answer these questions. He disrespects the House; he disrespects patients who rely on him; and he disrespects the staff of the NHS.

Ms Hanna: I also welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on such an important issue. I rise in support of the amendment and the substantive motion. It is unacceptable that 373,000 people are waiting for a first outpatient appointment, a diagnostic test or an inpatient treatment at some of Northern Ireland's hospitals. My colleague has outlined that that includes over 212,000 patients who are awaiting a first outpatient appointment, that 86,000 have been waiting beyond the Department's 18-week target, and that the outpatient waiting lists have swollen by 46%. As others have said, the DUP's response is not only the standing down of the Health Minister, but, as we have been told by the former First Minister, that this is a strategy that is going to continue for six weeks. We do not have anybody steering the ship now, and we will not have for at least a month and a half. What leadership.

A few weeks ago, the Assembly was told that we could expect a world-class plan for a world-class health service. With respect to them, when it comes to debating, we have two Members left minding the shop and nobody taking in the information. If ever there was a need for leadership and strategic direction in the health service, it is now, and, instead, we have ploys for electoral gains. At least the party to my right is upfront about its abstentionist policy before an election.

I probably do not need to reiterate them, but all Members will have heard stories from their constituents about the impact that the continued wait for elective care has on their daily lives and, indeed, on their ability to work. With one in five people in Northern Ireland on a waiting list, it is probable that every Member has a family member affected. Members will also have heard about the heartache and stress that those strains are placing on health service workers, many of whom, of course, will be on waiting lists. We cannot ignore the impact of the health service crisis on our workforce and wider economy.

Waiting times are not new — we know that — but the party across the Chamber, never mind the current empty chair, has had four years but has failed to get a grip on this and steer a course through what is, I think everybody accepts, a perfect storm of health failure. There has been colossal financial mismanagement, as well as a downward spiral of contingency plans and escalation measures. As my colleague outlined comprehensively, there has also been a failure to implement and properly fund the one big ticket strategy that has been sold as the solution: Transforming Your Care.

We know that focusing all the ills of elective care on monitoring rounds does not address the issue. We have consistently made it clear — Fearghal outlined this again — that we cannot keep going for a sticking plaster and not a strategy. Budget considerations are the excuse that we always hear, but waiting lists have to be the priority. Yes, we need to address peripheral issues like appointments cancelled by patients and by doctors, but we are locked into a vicious reinforcing cycle, with conditions impacting on patients and, of course, on budgets. As my colleague stated, there is meant to be a plan in place, but a plan has not been delivered here, and there is no Minister to account for that. We need to properly fund TYC, and we need strategic leadership and not these sporadic short-term interventions.

I think that the public could understand it — people understand the pressures of an ageing population and all sorts of health considerations — if the Minister was in a meeting health trusts, answering urgent questions or meeting lobby groups, but people will not buy the fact that, for the next six weeks, he will be in a DUP back room writing electoral strategy while all of us and our constituents suffer from this health crisis. I urge support for the amendment and the motion.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Éirím chun tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún agus don leasú. I support the motion and the amendment. There is absolutely no doubt that this is a critical issue. I think that all of us would agree — other Members referred to this — that we spend a lot of time in our constituency offices trying to address waiting times.

In her opening remarks, Jo-Anne Dobson rightly pointed out that the absence of the Health Minister here today spoke for itself. She is right: the health service and all its related services are without the person responsible for providing that type of leadership. It goes without saying that it is an issue for any service or Department to be left without leadership on a day-to-day basis, particularly one as critical as the health service, which deals with the well-being of patients, people and staff, and it is obviously worth reminding people of that. However, I do not think that the Ulster Unionist Party can absolve itself from that by simply saying that the DUP Minister is not here today, because it has a responsibility that it should address. It failed in its responsibility, because there is no Minister for Regional Development, and that set off what many commentators and, indeed, many people out there say is the beginning of an electoral contest. We are without the DUP Health Minister today and a number of other DUP Ministers, but we are also without the Minister for Regional Development.

It is very clear to most people that the Assembly election has begun. The grab for seats within unionism has begun, and I do not think that any of us are stupid enough to believe anything different. None of us can ever talk with any certainty. Most people say it is either the knave or the unwise person who tries to predict the future, never mind the political future, but I think that we can say with a degree of certainty that there will be no electoral pact in unionism in this election. Beyond that, no doubt they will come up with a pact to keep the rogues and the renegades at the door. You can go to Google Translate to get a good definition of what "rogue" and "renegade" mean. I know that in our community it was very clear that it was a throwback to Lord Brookeborough: in other words, keep the Fenians where the Fenians belong — outside the front door. Thankfully, those days are long, long gone and are never coming back.

12.00 noon

I raised the issue of waiting times, and other Members made the point very well. Most of us would accept that it is not a new problem; it has been a problem in the health service for many years. That is not to say that jurisdictions in other countries have not faced similar problems and circumstances, but they have found a solution, as we should do here, for a better approach and a better way. That better way is out there for us to see, and Maeve McLaughlin referred to other countries that have carried that out.

In fairness to the Health Committee, it identified that there was a problem, and it went about it in a very strategic way. It was not an exercise in trying, if you like, to bash the Minister. The Committee was saying to everybody, particularly to the people whom we represent, that waiting times are an issue to which we have to find a solution. The review that the Committee undertook, in my opinion, put forward very practical steps based on the experience of other people who had found themselves in the same situation and found a way out of it.

There may be no Democratic Unionist Party people speaking today, but I am sure that they would accept that waiting times are an issue that can be addressed. The solution lies in front of us, and the motion and the amendment point to a way forward. We should support that to ensure that those who find themselves waiting unnecessarily are provided with a solution to alleviate that. We will support that as we go forward.

Mr Beggs: I support the motion. There are 375,000 people waiting. These are citizens who are in ill health and may well be suffering along with their family. That represents 20% of the population, which is quite stark when you think about it in those terms. This would not be tolerated in England, Scotland or Wales, so why do we tolerate it in Northern Ireland?

The DUP, which controls the Health and Finance Departments, is exposed for its underfunding of the health service and failure to act on the warnings that were given by Michael McGimpsey when he indicated what lay ahead with the Budget that was approved by many who are now complaining. I recall a clinician talking recently about the situation in the health service, and he compared it to an airport where the aeroplanes were being parked on the grass or on the tarmac and were not being allowed to take off. Essentially, we manage our health service in Northern Ireland by parking patients in not just one queue but multiple queues. There are 212,000 people in the queue to get a first appointment, which is up almost 46% on a year ago. That must be of concern to everybody. There are 10,000 patients in the queue for an integrated clinical assessment and treatment (ICAS) and diagnosis. There are almost 90,000 people, up 11% on the previous year, in the queue for the specialist diagnostic service, which provides clinicians with additional information to get to the root of the problem. In July 2015 30,000 people were waiting for nine weeks or more. After that, you have to wait for your diagnostic report to come through. I see that 95% are completed within two weeks, but that is still a time delay. Ninety-nine per cent must wait for four weeks, so there is a section of people waiting even longer.

The next queue is the inpatient admission queue, in which there are 60,000 people who have been assessed as needing treatment and needing to be admitted to hospital. That is up 20% on the previous year. Almost half of those people have been waiting for more than 13 weeks, and a quarter more than 26 weeks. It is queue after queue after queue, and, as my colleague Jo-Anne Dobson highlighted, delays cause concern to patients and their families, but, worse than that, their conditions can often deteriorate. That is what is obviously happening here. Let us be very clinical about this: that is causing more treatment in the NHS because people's conditions are worsening and more money has to be spent trying to put the problem right once the patient gets to the front of the multiple queues.

I think of the simple example of diabetes, an issue that arose when I was on the Health Committee. Insufficient money was being put into providing the advice and support service so that diabetics could better look after themselves. What has been the net result? Our failure to invest in that service has meant that we have higher levels of amputations than other places. Particularly at that time, the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, which covers my area, had a higher number of amputations. There was a higher likelihood of having a limb amputated in the Northern Trust area than in any other part of Northern Ireland because of the then inadequacy of the service. I believe that the situation has improved a bit since then, but we need to do lots of smart things to ensure that people are treated quickly.

How do we compare to other parts of the National Health Service? I had a look at the NHS England publication that came out around the same time — July 2015 — to see how it has been doing. As the Chair of the Health Committee said, England, Scotland and Wales do not operate with multiple queues and waiting times that are frequently breached. They have a referral time that is not to the next queue but to treatment. The important thing to a patient is this: when am I going to be treated? That is a very sensible measurement, which forces all the various cogs in the health service to work together to find solutions to get the patient treated quicker.

At this time, we have this fragmented service, where everybody gets parked in a different queue, and somebody then blames somebody else. Everybody needs to work together to get solutions and to get treatment faster. With that faster treatment will come more efficient systems and more patients treated in a better manner.

I was astounded when I read that report from England. It tells us that 1·9% of patients wait more than six weeks for a diagnostic test —

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

Mr Beggs: — and that 92·9% are seen and treated within 18 weeks. We need to change our system. We need better value for money and decisions to be made so that our constituents are better served.

Mr Allister: I commend Mrs Dobson for bringing the motion to the House. I will also comment on her restraint, in the context of the relentless vilification of the Ulster Unionist Health Minister, Mr Michael McGimpsey, by the DUP for four years when he was in office. We then discover that three successive DUP Ministers have presided over a system that has got a lot worse and that waiting times are at an all-time high. Given that context, Mrs Dobson was very restrained in how she presented the matter.

Mrs Dobson: I thank the Member for giving way and for his comments. I was restrained, you are right, but my focus was primarily on waiting times. The fact that we have had three successive Ministers and the waiting times are at such a crisis point speaks volumes.

Mr Allister: Indeed. In dealing with issues of waiting times, we all have our own experiences. I think back to last Friday and my surgery in Ballmoney. A man came in whom I had seen at the start of the summer. In May, he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's. I could see, and I am not a medical person, a vast deterioration in him over the summer months, yet that man came to talk to me about the fact that he was waiting for a neurological scan at the Causeway Hospital and could not get a date for it.

It is pretty clear to me that, if a neurological scan cannot be provided for somebody diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and he cannot even be given a date and is deteriorating before one's eyes, there is something radically wrong with the system.

I can think of other examples. I think of a man who has been in with me who has been told that he needs a heart bypass but is going to have to wait maybe six months. I think of a man with severe back pain who has been waiting 71 weeks for an appointment at Musgrave Park Hospital. I can think of another gentleman with acute gastro problems who has been waiting 12 months for a routine appointment. Those are the sort of stories that you would expect to hear in some sort of Third World country, not in this part of the United Kingdom, and they are a badge of the failure of devolution to make anything better in those terms in Northern Ireland. It is a rebuke to the Ministers who have held those portfolios that things have deteriorated rather than improved. We should not have to deal with these situations.

Of course, matters are now compounded by the political situation in which we find ourselves. I must say this to Sinn Féin: you need to get off your high moral horse as if none of this had anything to do with you, because it was IRA bullets into a man in recent weeks that were the catalyst for the terminal failure of these institutions that we are witnessing.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order, please. I am trying to be as flexible as I can and allow the cut and thrust of politics, but I believe that the Member is well wide of the motion.

Mr Allister: I am making a point that circumstances that put a man beyond the help of any health service are a contributor to the situation. I must also say to the SDLP, which laments the sparsity of spending for health, that it is a contributor to the fact that the Executive are losing £10 million a month out of public funding because of the penalties that have to be paid on welfare because of its intransigence, with Sinn Féin, on that. There are some points —

Mr McKinney: Will the Member give way?

Mr Allister: Certainly.

Mr McKinney: Will the Member accept that, while welfare reform issues have dominated, all the issues relate back to budgetary allocation and that, in fact, health service spend was ring-fenced, outside of the welfare issue?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I remind the Member that he had already qualified for an additional minute.

Mr Allister: I appreciate that. Yes, but to further bleed the public funds of £10 million a month means that there is £10 million less per month to spread over the essential needs of Northern Ireland. Whatever way you cut it, that is the reality.

The matters that we are discussing are evidence of the failure of this system of government, which is now on life support. This system of government is not serving the interests of anyone — patient or anyone else — and the sooner we put this system of government —

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

Mr Allister: — out of its misery, the better.

Mr B McCrea: The proposer of the motion has brought a very serious situation to our attention, and she deserves credit for that. I am less sure about the arguments that have flowed from it about who is to blame and who should be here in the Chamber. Does it really matter that the Minister is not here today in his place and does it matter who is responsible for why he is not here? The waiting lists will not change just because Simon Hamilton is not here or whatever. This has been an ongoing issue. The real reason behind it is that the challenges on our health budget increase 6% year on year and yet our income increases by 1%. There is a deficit that the Assembly has not been able to bridge. So, it is not correct to simply point the finger at commissioners, trusts and board members.

This institution will not take the decisions to implement Donaldson. It will not face the fact that we have seven hospitals when, in a region of our size, we might have three.

12.15 pm

When you look at who is to blame for the Minister not being here, it was rather leading with the chin when a UUP Minister is not taking his ministerial seat. In fact, there are some who would say that that action precipitated the entire crisis. That may be something that the UUP wishes to take credit for, but I do not think that that is a good plan. It is interesting to see them all here en masse —

Mrs Dobson: Will the Member give way?

Mr B McCrea: No, I will not give way, thank you. [Interruption.]

They are all here en masse — [Interruption.]

Mr McGimpsey: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Earlier, you ruled that Mr Allister was off the mark when he talked on this subject. Is Mr McCrea not also off the mark with his totally inaccurate remarks on a separate issue?

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I am sure that Mr McGimpsey will appreciate that, in acting as the Deputy Speaker, I have to wait to see whether the Member will relate his remarks to the motion. That is what I was doing. I thank the Member for his help.

Mr B McCrea: Mr Deputy Speaker, I am always grateful for your direction. You will be aware that I am responding to points raised around the Chamber. This is a debate. Do you know what, Mr Deputy Speaker? If the UUP cannot take a debate, it should not start an argument in the first place. [Interruption.]

I can tell you, as somebody — [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order. On this occasion, I believe that the Member is now wandering desperately away from the motion. [Laughter.]

Mr B McCrea: Mr Deputy Speaker, I think that —

A Member: Keep wandering. [Interruption.]

Mr B McCrea: Mr Deputy Speaker, remarks are being made from a sedentary position, which if we are going to be very precise —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order. I remind the Member that I am charged with the responsibility of dealing with people who make remarks from a sedentary position. I do not need his help.

Mr B McCrea: People in the Chamber have made certain statements during the debate. Members from Sinn Féin have pointed the finger at why the Minister is not here. I respond by saying that their failure to address welfare reform was part and parcel of the funding deficit that means that we cannot address the waiting lists highlighted in the motion. That is a point that I wish to make.

I heard Members from the Alliance Party say that it is a disgrace that there is no Minister here. Was it not the party that was going to vote for some form of suspension so that we would not have been here for four or five weeks? What would have happened to waiting lists then?

I remember being in the Chamber when I was in the UUP and was one of the very few people who would rise to defend the then Minister of Health. The rest of them scattered the minute there was any attack from the DUP. Let me tell you this: I am quite happy to stand my ground — [Interruption.]

— but this motion, when we come to it —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): Order. I thought that Members might have picked up that I would deal with people speaking from a sedentary position. I have noted a number of Members who are doing it and would advise them not to do it again.

Mr B McCrea: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. The crisis in waiting times is important, but it will not be resolved by finger-pointing. Everybody in here has a role to play. That is in getting around a table and making a meaningful contribution. Even Mr Allister in his contribution — [Interruption.]

Even he has a contribution to make. I would like him to be a little bit more welcoming of the institutions and not revel in the fact that they are not working. Let us find a way of making —

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

Mr B McCrea: Let us find a way of making them work. I am quite pleased — I am really pleased — that I have had the opportunity to make some really important points that I hope the wider public will listen to.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Member's time is up. I call Mr Dominic Bradley to make a winding-up speech on the amendment. I am sure that you will all listen carefully to his contribution and will not make remarks from sedentary positions.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It has been an interesting debate. I regret the fact that it was reduced to a spat between Mr McCrea and the Ulster Unionist Party. Mr McCrea made the point several times that the issue would not be resolved by finger-pointing, but that was after he had pointed the finger at almost everyone in the House.

We have heard the statistics, the figures and so on, and people have pointed out that there are long periods of waiting: there is a waiting time even to see your GP; there is the time between seeing the GP and the commencement of tests; there is the time waiting for specialist referral from the GP; and there is the time between seeing the specialist and the start of a treatment. We are also aware that we need 110 newly trained GPs annually in Northern Ireland, but we are training only 65 annually. That means that there is an annual shortfall of 45 GPs. Anyone who has spoken to general practitioners and their representatives will tell you that this spells more trouble in the future. Unless that situation for GP services is corrected, a serious train wreck lies ahead.

The SDLP's amendment calls on the Minister of Health

"to take immediate action to alleviate current pressures and to fully implement and fund the Transforming Your Care plan to ameliorate future pressures."

The SDLP has proposed a short-term solution and a longer-term solution. Transforming Your Care recognised the issue of waiting times and said that waiting lists would lengthen if changes were not made. The issue has not been dealt with and, not surprisingly, waiting lists and waiting times have increased. Previously, the Department used the private sector to alleviate such waiting lists and, even then, they increased on a year-on-year basis. The decision of the Minister to cut that funding has put more and more pressure on the public sector and, therefore, waiting lists have increased again.

We believe that we need a system that can deal with the demand from within effectively and efficiently without relying on the private sector. The motion calls on the Minister to identify and resolve the causes of the delays in appointments, and the amendment calls on the Minister to take immediate action to alleviate the current pressures. The absentee Minister of Health has been negligent in abandoning his role at this time of crisis in the health sector. He has left large waiting lists in his wake and has walked. He has been highly irresponsible and put the Northern Ireland health system under even greater pressure. In turn, he has put many people at risk with no end in sight. As I said earlier, this is the behaviour of a renegade, and this is the behaviour of a rogue who has deserted those in our society who are most in need.

In conclusion, we in the SDLP want to see a Health Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, and we want that Minister to do everything in his power to tackle the huge issue of waiting times in Northern Ireland. I am sure that, like me, nearly every Member, if not every Member, in the House has had representations made to them from patients who were in dire need of procedures, and I have had a number recently. One person has been awaiting an orthopaedic procedure at Musgrave Park.

His condition has deteriorated over the last two years to the extent —

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

Mr D Bradley: — that he now requires a wheelchair.

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

Mr D Bradley: They are the facts behind the waiting lists, and those people should be at the heart of this debate.

Mr McGimpsey: I thank my party colleague Mrs Dobson and all those who have taken part in this debate. We recognise this for the important issue it is. It is a part, although by no means all, of the problem that the health service is facing. The solution proposed by Mr McKinney — the full implementation of TYC — is a part, but not all, of the solution. I say that because full implementation of TYC would include charging for domiciliary care and closing statutory residential homes, which I have an issue with, and, as Minister, I resisted those types of measures. Much of TYC — I called it "shift left" in my day — is a good idea. It is about taking care into the community and supporting the community; but it needs major investment, and that major investment is not available, which is why we do not have it.

The other key element as we look forward is the Donaldson plan to rationalise the acute sector. Many Members have some difficulties with that, not least Dominic Bradley, who is bringing forward a debate about the A&E at Daisy Hill. That is an example of where change is inevitable, and the attitude shown in that debate can help the Minister for Health, whoever it is, make the decisions he has to make. I remember that when I took decisions on the health service, general hysteria broke out in this Chamber among all parties.

The waiting times now are as bad as they have been at any time in the last 15 years. When I took over in 2007, something like 200,000 people were on the waiting lists, and we got that down. To do that, certain steps have to be taken. We brought surgical teams in from England to work nights and weekends to address the needs of patients, because patients who are not seen in a timely manner are in pain and distress, and many come to harm. The waiting times for cardiology and for cancer mean that our patients are coming to harm.

Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: Does the Member accept that when patients are not treated in a timely fashion, many end up at A&E and contribute to the growing waiting lists there? I notice that, for example, in Antrim this July only 61·3% of patients were seen within four hours, and that is not in the middle of winter pressures.

Mr McGimpsey: I agree: 95% within four hours is the target. Recently, we were there or thereabouts throughout our A&Es. All waiting times have slipped, and if you are not being seen in a timely manner, you are liable to come to harm. That is the issue. Cradle-to-grave healthcare, free at the point of delivery, is what we are here to provide. If we are not prepared to face up to that, we need to be honest with our constituents.

At the last Budget I dealt with, in 2011, this House was not prepared to face up to the bill to run the health service. I said that, based on the money that was offered, I needed an extra £200 million a year for three years and another £150 million in year 4 — £750 million — just to keep the health service stable, and where we were then was an awful lot better than where we are now. This House voted against that. The DUP did not believe me; Sinn Féin did not believe me; the Alliance Party did not believe me. Those three parties streamed through the lobby and voted for a Budget that was inadequate. I actually predicted these consequences if we did not properly fund the health service. We all share the blame. All the parties that voted for that Budget share the blame. They need not stand and wag their fingers now, because they are the architects of this situation.

There are certain things that you have to do for the health service. You have to invest in your buildings, your equipment and your people; you have to be efficient — in my time we produced £700 million of efficiencies over three years; and you have to engage with the public about their health, and I set up the Public Health Agency to do exactly that. Of course, the DUP voted against it, but that is neither here nor there.

12.30 pm

The fact is that we have an urgent problem. Fully implementing TYC and Donaldson's recommendations will not fix this; we now need emergency measures to fix the problem. The Belfast Trust, for example, abandoned elective spinal care at the end of last year. Imagine the number of patients who are sitting in extreme pain and distress. Although 100% of urgent breast cancer referrals should be seen within 14 days, we are down to 80% being seen within that time, so a number of women who are in trouble are not being seen in a timely manner.

It is the same with cardiac surgery. When I was there, there was a demand for 1,300 open-heart surgery operations in Northern Ireland, but we had the capacity for 1,000. Ms McLaughlin talked about the private sector, but I make no apologies for buying operations wherever I could get them to make sure that those 300 patients were properly dealt with. If I had not done that, a number of them would have come to harm.

We are in an extreme situation, and we are not prepared to face up to it. As I said, I support TYC, with the two caveats that I outlined, but it will not fix the problem. I support much of what Donaldson said — perhaps not all of it — but his recommendations will not fix the problem now. This is an emergency.

Mr McKinney: Will the Member give way?

Mr McKinney: Our amendment is consistent with what you are saying. It calls for immediate action to alleviate current pressures. That should be the voice of the Assembly. The important point is that, when the Minister and the Department worked with the trusts on these issues over Christmas last year, it led to cuts. The contingency plans led to cuts like those to the Dalriada Hospital, the Armagh minor injuries unit and Bangor Community Hospital, although the DUP was able to argue narrowly on that point in that constituency. Your proposal could lead to a cuts charter.

Mr McGimpsey: I still do not understand the logic of your saying that our proposal will lead to cuts. You can only pay for the service that you fund, and we are not funding the service that is required. The Member is right that, under the last Minister, Bangor Community Hospital shut. One of the key elements of TYC is step-down beds, GP beds and intermediate beds. So the idea should have been to take folks out of the Ulster Hospital, where they were receiving acute care, and, if they were not fit to go home or into a nursing home, they are provided with good nursing care that is overseen by GPs. However, Bangor Community Hospital has been shut, despite promises to the contrary. I agree that that type of convoluted approach is wholly contradictory. I have an issue with domiciliary care charging and the statutory residential care home closures.

We have a major problem. There were clever remarks about DRD: our Minister resigned to go into opposition, and the fact that nobody has been nominated to replace him is not down to us. That is not our fault, and you should think about that. We have this huge problem, and we are talking about it and saying that we will fix it with TYC or Donaldson's recommendations. We are getting esoteric and philosophical, and we are saying that we should not have any more private money and all the rest of it. We must have a plan of action right now — I called for this in the Health Committee many months ago, and I am still calling for it — to address the issue. We are not seeing a plan, and, as long as that is the case, we are looking at patients coming to harm and being in trouble.

If we are prepared to address that problem, it can be fixed. This is not something that cannot be done: we did it before. I took over from Paul Goggins in 2007. He had begun a process, and, in the three years that I was Health Minister — I am by no means saying that it was all down to me — we put a system in place to fix this problem, but we have to provide the wherewithal and the means for that.

Let me give you another example. You talked about shortages. I found the money to train an extra 70 doctors a year in the Queen's medical school. I had to take the money off the wards, because, of course, the money for training doctors does not come from DEL or the Department of Education but directly from the Department of Health.

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

Mr McGimpsey: Last year, 50 of them went off to Australia and Canada, and that is an issue.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly notes that, in June 2015, there were 373,000 people waiting for a first outpatient appointment, a diagnostic test or inpatient treatment at hospitals in Northern Ireland and that this is equivalent to over 20% of the entire population; expresses concern that waiting times are now worse than at any time in recent history and that far too many people are having to wait in pain and under emotional distress for far too long; accepts that targets are set in the interests of quality and safety of patient care and that, with every delay, there is a risk of ailments progressing; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to work with each of the health and social care trusts to identify and resolve the causes of the delays; and further calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to take immediate action to alleviate current pressures and to fully implement and fund the Transforming Your Care plan to ameliorate future pressures.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately after the lunchtime suspension. I propose therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time.

The sitting was suspended at 12.36 pm.

On resuming (Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair) —

2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions


Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I have to inform the House that question 7 has been withdrawn.

Mr O'Dowd (The Minister of Education): Free school meals ensure that pupils from families most in need have access to a healthy and nutritious cooked meal during the day. A free school meal also provides support to low-income families that face financial barriers when their children are seeking to access and remain in school. The focus of my policy on free school meals is to ensure that they are targeted at children from families most in need. In recent years, I have extended the eligibility criteria to include not only families with no income but working families on benefits and low incomes. This resulted in over 34,000 pupils becoming eligible for free school meals in 2014-15. In 2014-15, nearly 98,000 children, which represents approximately 30% of the school population, benefited from the current policy on free school meals. This cost the Department of Education approximately £40 million. Given the current difficult financial climate, I have no plans to further extend free school meals to all younger school children irrespective of need.

Mr Gardiner: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does the Minister agree with the recent report from the British Medical Association (BMA) that recommends that schools in Northern Ireland start offering free school meals to all pupils from the age of four to seven?

Mr O'Dowd: That would be the ideal position to be in, but, unfortunately, we do not have the finances to follow up on the BMA report. Given previous decisions made in England on free school meals entitlement, and the Barnett consequentials that flowed from that to the Executive, the Executive made a decision to use that money in various Departments, including Health. I am not arguing against that decision because, as every Member knows, Health also faces significant pressures. I would like to be in the ideal position where we provide free school meals to all children, but we currently do not have the finances to back that up.

Ms Hanna: Can the Minister outline what steps have been taken to promote uptake and ensure that all children who are eligible are accessing and availing themselves of a nutritious school meal?

Mr O'Dowd: I issued several statements over the summer to encourage parents whose children are eligible for free school meals to take them up. Information is distributed through the schools. As the Member will be aware, there are also regular discussions in the media and elsewhere on free school meals and several other items on free school meal entitlement. It is important to point out to parents that there is no stigma attached to their child receiving free school meals. It is an entitlement. There is no stigma attached in the school, as it is no longer the case that children on free school meals have a different coloured ticket or different coloured pass. In many schools, there are now processes in place whereby no one knows who is paying or who is not paying directly for school meals. I encourage every parent to ensure that their children are receiving all the entitlements that they are entitled to in our schools, and I reassure every parent that there is no stigma attached to free school meals.

Mr O'Dowd: With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 2 and 13 together.

There continues to be a very strong performance by pupils here in GCSEs and A levels. It is important that we celebrate and acknowledge their achievements across the North. We should not forget the teachers and parents who have supported those children to reach this stage in their education.

At GCSE, there was an increase in A* grade from 8·9% to 9%. Grades A* to A also show an increase to 28·6%, and grades A* to C increased to 78·7%. At A level, 83% of entries here achieved grades A* to C. The overall pass rate remained much the same as last year, rising slightly to 98·2% of grades awarded A* to E. Some 7·6%, previously 7·3%, of grades were awarded at A*.

One of my top priorities as Education Minister continues to be raising standards. I am particularly pleased that we are seeing improvements in two key areas: the performance of young men at GCSE level and the upward trend seen in the proportion of entries in STEM — science, technology, engineering and maths — subjects at GCSE and A level. Those results are very encouraging, but we cannot become complacent. There remains unacceptable achievement gaps at all levels in our system, and I intend to do all that I can to tackle them.

Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for his response. I, too, congratulate all those students across Northern Ireland who received excellent results, as the Minister has outlined. Does the Minister agree that, whilst it is heartening that Northern Ireland pupils maintain a healthy lead in achieving grades A* to C at A level and five or more GCSEs compared to England and Wales, if we continue to diverge from the rest of the UK in the way that the exams are delivered, comparisons will be impossible in a short few years. Does he share my concerns that local pupils may find it harder to gain university places if we do not maintain parity with the rest of the country?

Mr O'Dowd: Education is a devolved matter, and it is a matter for the various devolved institutions as to how they set out their education policies. The Member will be aware that Wales has taken a different decision from that of Westminster, and Scotland has a completely different exam system. It has not proven impossible for young people from Scotland to travel to England, and back and forth, over many generations. It certainly has not proven impossible for young people to travel from Southern Ireland to England and vice versa in relation to university, employment etc and have their grades recognised. Indeed, many universities in Britain take students from across the globe, and they are perfectly capable of comparing international exams with their local exams. So, I have no concerns in relation to ensuring that our young people will have portable, respected qualifications moving forward.

I have not taken any decision in relation to the exams that we currently hold without first establishing an expert group on the matter, allowing it to consult and report back to me, and I have accepted every recommendation that that expert group has brought forward. So, I have taken my time in relation to any changes proposed to our exam system. I have listened to the experts in the field. I have consulted, and I will not make any further changes unless I do the same programme again; but we should not be sending out any stories or concerns from the Chamber that our young people's qualifications will not be valid and valued across these islands.

In relation to comparisons, while it is useful to compare to England and Wales, we have to ensure now that our young people are compared against international best standards. That is where we have to set our targets. I always ensure and monitor our comparisons with England and Wales, and it has nothing to do with politics with a small "p" or a capital "p". I am more interested in how our young people are comparing in the international field than I am in any small geographical network.

Mr A Maginness: Arising out of the Minister's answer to Mrs Overend, will the Minister outline any trends that there might be in relation to students here in Northern Ireland undertaking GCSEs or A levels under the English or Welsh education authorities?

Mr O'Dowd: We operate an open market here in our qualification system. The vast majority of qualifications in our schools fall under the CCEA remit, but there is a market there, and the Welsh and English examination boards operate here. I have met them, I have had discussions with them and my officials have had discussions with them as well. My message to them is clear: I am prepared to keep an open market as long as their examinations do not corrupt our curriculum. They understand my position and I understand theirs, and we continue to monitor that situation. So, as long as there is no corruption of our curriculum, I am more than happy to keep an open market running at this time.

Mr O'Dowd: The Department is considering whether the Manhattan database, which is used by the Education Authority for estate management purposes, could be used to provide updated information on the capacity of each school.

Mrs D Kelly: Minister, in calculating school capacity, does the Department use its own figures — that is, designated teaching space — or does it use education and library board figures that include space with the potential for dual use, such as assembly halls?

Mr O'Dowd: We use our own figures. That was the subject of discussion in a recent Audit Office report, and I am aware that that report comes before the Public Accounts Committee in November. The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee is sitting behind me, so I have no wish to pre-empt what will happen in that Committee's inquiry and the forthcoming report and recommendations that it will make. At this stage, I am aware that the old boards used the Manhattan system, and now the Education Authority uses it. My Department has another way of measuring teaching space etc. However, I believe that the Audit Office report, which flows from the Public Accounts Committee, and my Department's work will be able to merge into one system.

Mr O'Dowd: The contractual commitments for minor works from the 2014-15 financial year, together with the substantial reduction in capital budget from 2015-16 onwards, means that the capital budget for 2015-16 is fully committed. I have endeavoured, and will continue to endeavour, to reallocate funding where possible to minor works and to bid for additional funding at each monitoring round throughout the year. That is the current position. Later in this financial year, I hope to develop a programme of minor works and to progress the most urgent projects. Should it not be possible to secure additional funding in the 2015-16 financial year, it is anticipated that the highest priority works will be released for delivery in the first half of the 2016-17 financial year, subject to budget availability.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister is aware of my strong interest in three schools in the Omagh district, for which I have been lobbying over the summer months. They are: Dean Maguirc College, Carrickmore; St. Scire's Primary School, Trillick; and All Saints Primary School, Tattysallagh. Is there any way in which the Westminster Government can be persuaded to give the Minister's Department a workable budget to make sure that schools in category 1 can proceed without delay?

Mr O'Dowd: I am aware of the Member's strong lobbying on those schools and a number of others in his constituency. Other Members have also raised their genuine concerns about minor works programmes in the schools estate with reference to their constituencies.

The Member makes a very valid point. We require a working budget that is capable of delivering the basic necessities of education. When the global figure of £1·5 billion of cuts to the Executive's Budget over this last number of years is thrown around, the reality, when it comes down to ground level, is that minor works to the schools that he refers to cannot go ahead. Other programmes of work in education cannot go ahead, and there is a responsibility on the British Government to ensure that the Executive and the Department of Education have a workable budget.

I give the Member some stark figures. The initial capital budget for education for 2015-16 is £147 million, which is significantly below the 2014-15 figure, which was £183·4 million. Due to tight budgetary constraints, which I have outlined, the total budget available for minor works programmes in the current financial year is £34 million, compared to £123 million in 2014-15. The difference between those figures means that I cannot progress work in the schools that he has outlined, and I cannot progress work in other areas and schools that require it.

I will continue to work with my Executive colleagues — those who are in their Executive positions — and to engage with my party and others around the Chamber to ensure that, when we get talks and discussions off the ground and parties come into the Chamber and into those talks, high on the agenda is a workable budget for all Departments in this institution.

2.15 pm

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle, Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagraí go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for his answers up until now. In relation to the schools enhancement scheme, how many of the projects initially approved have, in fact, been completed or are nearing completion?

Mr O'Dowd: Mo bhuíochas leis an Chomhalta as a cheist. Currently, 22 of the original released projects are now on-site. I released an additional six schemes in July, and they should be on-site by November, bringing the total number of school enhancement schemes to 28. There are a further 11 projects at pre-tender stage. When budget becomes available, I will release them. Budget can become available in a number of ways. There can be slippage in other spends. That is what happened in July, when I released the six other schemes. There was slippage in spend in a number of other schemes across the capital works programme. My officials and I, in fairness, intervened immediately and ensured that another six projects got off the ground. If there is slippage in other capital schemes as we move forward, I will release the other 11 projects. As I said to Mr McElduff, I will continue to lobby those Executive Ministers who are in post and others to ensure that we have a workable budget.

Mr Beggs: The Minister has commissioned capital expenditure on a post-primary school for 14 pupils, rather than those children continuing to be educated in specialist Irish language units at existing post-primary schools. Does he not understand that, when he spends money in new schools, there is less money available for capital expenditure to maintain the existing schools with specialist Irish language units?

Mr O'Dowd: You can cloud your concern about the capital budget with the issue of finance, but you cannot cloud the fact that, in this instance, you are not concerned about the capital budget. You are concerned about Irish-medium education and its facilitation. That is your concern, so why do you not just come out and say it bluntly? Say, "Minister, I don't like the idea of you providing Irish-medium education to young people and I'd rather you stopped it", instead of coming in with, "By the way, Minister, you haven't got a great capital budget. Would you try and use it in a different way?" Just be straight and honest about the fact, and come out and say, "Minister, I don't like the fact that you're facilitating Irish-medium education".

I will continue to facilitate Irish-medium education. First, because I have a statutory duty to do so. Secondly, because I believe that it is the right thing to do, and, thirdly, because those young people who are benefiting from Irish-medium education have a right to have capital funds spent on them. It is not up to you or someone else to decide that, because people are taught in the Irish-medium sector, we should not provide capital funds and that we should put them somewhere else — and you referred to units. A development proposal process went through in relation to Coláiste Dhoire. I approved it. The school is now functioning and I wish it all the best for the future.

Mr O'Dowd: The Department sets admissions numbers for schools to determine the number of children they can accept in year 1 or, for post-primary schools, year 8. The Department also has the authority to grant additional places in a school by way of a temporary variation to the school’s admissions number, which is for one year only. Temporary variations are used to address short-term demographic pressures in an area and are not about meeting parental preferences for a particular school. Permanent increases to schools’ admissions and enrolments can happen only in the context of the overall area plan through the development proposal process.

The Member’s question, as posed, requests a significant amount of information, and it would not be practical to answer it in detail verbally. Therefore I will arrange for the Member to receive the information and for it to be placed in the Assembly Library.

Overall, however, I can advise that 90 primary schools were permitted a temporary variation to increase their admissions number for 2015-16, while 20 were refused any increase. For post-primary schools, 15 were permitted an increase, while six were refused any increase.

Mr Allister: I look forward to perusing the detail, but can I raise with the Minister some of the heartless decisions taken by his Department in relation to very obvious need for temporary variations?

I think of a young child who wanted to attend Culcrow Primary School. He is the eldest child in his family, it is the nearest primary school, and there were no obvious means of getting anywhere else, yet he was refused because places were filled by students from much further afield, even though the school was not their nearest primary school. However, when the Department was asked to allow a single increase, which would have kept the composite class at only 28, the Minister refused. Why is there such a heartless attitude to young children in the system?

Mr O'Dowd: I am reluctant to discuss an issue on which I do not have the details. However, perhaps the Member answered his own question, in that he said that the school accepted pupils who had travelled past their nearest school. I suggest that the Member go away and look at the specific school's entry criteria. The board of governors sets the entry criteria for any school.

The Member may have a valid point, and I will look into the matter further after Question Time, but I point him in the direction of looking at the school's entry criteria in this instance.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for his answers. Will he outline in how many and in which cases he personally intervened in order to grant additional places to a school via the temporary variation process, in doing so overturning the recommendations of his own officials?

Mr O'Dowd: The Member used to be a Minister, and he will therefore be aware that an official's role is to give the Minister advice. Perhaps his officials ran DRD. However, looking at some cases, I suspect that that would not have been so, because officials would have had more experience and been able to achieve more than the Minister achieved in his time there.

I am more than happy to provide the information that the Member requests. I do not have it to hand, but I will provide it.

Mr O'Dowd: The level of stress-related illness among teachers is higher than I, as Minister of Education, want to see. I therefore take the issue extremely seriously. My Department in conjunction with employing authorities and the teaching unions, through the teachers' negotiating committee, continue to work together to tackle the issue.

Examples of what we are doing on a practical level include a strategy for teacher health and well-being; a policy statement on tackling violence and abuse against teachers; a workload agreement; a teacher attendance procedure, which includes a new provision for the recording of incidences of work-related stress; a flexible working scheme; a job-share scheme; a career-break scheme; a temporary variation of contract; and a policy statement on planning, preparation and assessment time.

However, it is also important to recognise that what is reported as stress-related illness is not necessarily as a result of the work environment. To set the context, 21% of all sickness absence in 2014-15 was reported as being stress-related, and 3·7% of that was reported as being work-related stress. Those figures notwithstanding, I assure Members that it is a matter of the utmost importance to me and my Department. Most recently, I have personally endorsed the reinvigoration of the teachers' health and well-being working group, where work-related stress absence is the prime issue.

Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for his answer. Is the health and well-being project being pursued? Perhaps more importantly, is he aware that teachers who stay in the profession until they are in their 60s have a remarkably short life expectancy and no longer have the opportunity to retire earlier, as they may have done in the past? Is the Department taking that issue seriously, given that those people dedicated their whole life to the teaching profession?

Mr O'Dowd: First, I have reinvigorated the health and well-being working group. I want to see product flowing from that group, and I will continue to monitor its progress. The Member will be aware that teaching is a very rewarding profession in many different ways, but there are levels of associated stress. Our job, my job as Minister and the job of employers is to ensure that the level of stress is managed and that it does not affect the overall health and well-being of the teacher. That is what we are attempting to do.

Retirement age has been much debated in the Chamber and elsewhere, and changes made to it have put severe restrictions on the ability of the Executive to mitigate it. We are talking about significant amounts of money for the Department of Education or, indeed, other Departments to bring in an alternative scheme. However, I am looking at alternatives. I am investigating the use of funds to see whether we can facilitate earlier retirement for some of our teaching colleagues who may want that to be the case. I am going through those details with my officials. I will have to bring the matter to DFP, as would be the usual case — it has nothing to do with any new gatekeeping role that people have been self-appointed to. I will also then have to bring it to the Executive, but I assure the Member that I am investigating alternatives.

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Can I ask the Minister what actions his Department has taken to tackle the bullying and harassment of teachers?

Mr O'Dowd: Again, that is primarily the responsibility of the employing authorities and the employers of the teacher. However, in 2011, my Department, in collaboration with employing authorities and teachers' unions, agreed a teachers' health and well-being strategy. That strategy has been recently reviewed, and I am aware that recommendations related to it are being considered through the teachers' negotiating committee, at which my Department and employees are obviously represented. Most recently, as I said to Mr Dallat, I have reinvigorated the teachers' health and well-being working group, and as I said, I want to see product flowing from that as well.

Mr O'Dowd: The Irish League of Credit Unions recently published a report that highlights the cost to parents of sending children to school. In particular, it suggests that school uniforms are the most expensive items to purchase. To assist parents with sending children to school, my Department provides significant funding through a range of supporting measures; for example, free school meals, the clothing or uniform allowance scheme and providing assistance with transport.

At this time of year, I recognise that school uniform costs are of particular concern to parents. Whilst my Department provides assistance, allocating over £5 million of funding through the clothing allowance scheme, I believe that some schools could do more to ensure that their uniform policy is fair and reasonable in practical and financial terms. My Department has issued guidance to schools on school uniform policy. That guidance makes it very clear that DE expects boards of governors to give a high priority to cost considerations when deciding on what uniform their pupils should wear. I therefore encourage schools to consider whether their current arrangements are in the best interests of children and their family circumstances and to change them if they are not.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware of the growing concern that many people have about the cost of sending their children back to school, particularly with uniforms. However, some schools in my area are also charging up to £100 for a voluntary contribution to send their child to a school. Can I ask the Minister for his Department's position on those voluntary contributions, which add to the growing financial pressures that parents have in sending their children back to school?

Mr O'Dowd: Under current legislation, all schools may seek a voluntary contribution from parents for the benefit of the school or in support of activities organised by the school. However, the Department requires that any request from the school for a voluntary contribution must make it clear that there is no obligation for parents to make a contribution and that pupils will not be treated differently according to whether their parents have made the contribution. The clue is in the title; it is voluntary. Parents do not have to make the contribution. I appreciate that schools raise funds in many different ways. There are pressures on schools' budgets, but there are also pressures on family budgets. So, I ask any school that seeks voluntary contributions to think about it carefully and the level it is setting it at and to ensure that parents know that it is a voluntary contribution.

Mr O'Dowd: I am content that the statementing process is designed to meet the individual special educational needs of children, including those with autism spectrum disorder. The process is child-centred to ensure that children have access to an appropriate education that affords them the opportunity to achieve their personal potential in terms of age and ability, aptitude and any special educational needs they may have. It is in the interests of all concerned that statutory assessments and statements are made as quickly as possible, having regard to the need for thorough consideration of the issues in individual cases.

Following receipt of a request for a statutory assessment of a child's special educational needs, the Education Authority is required under legislation to complete the process in no more than 26 weeks, subject to valid exceptions. This period allows for a detailed assessment to be undertaken with input commissioned from the child's parents or guardians and a range of education and health professionals if appropriate.

All of the former education and library boards have recently reported that, in the majority of cases, the statutory target is being met, subject to valid exceptions. I will continue to closely monitor the Education Authority's performance in this regard. The Member will also be aware of the ongoing review of special educational needs and inclusion which proposes to reduce the statementing time frame from 26 weeks to 20 weeks.

2.30 pm

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We now move on to topical questions. The Members listed for topical questions 2 and 7 have withdrawn their names.

T1. Mr D Bradley asked the Minister of Education what examples of good practice in early intervention have been identified by his Department. (AQT 2821/11-16)

Mr D Bradley: Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur ar an Aire faoi na samplaí de dhea-chleachtas sa luath-chúnamh atá aitheanta ag an Roinn s’aige.

Mr O'Dowd: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as an cheist.

Early intervention is such a wide topic in the sense of the area or stage that it occurs in a child's development. Working with our colleagues in the Health Department, such as the health visitor in the earliest days of a child's life, right through to when that child is ready to go into nursery school, we have programmes in place. We have recently completed pilot programmes in and around preschools from which we want to learn best practice to develop as we move forward with the Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Bill, which I referred to in a previous answer. There are numerous examples of good intervention as early as possible. As I say, the pilot schemes are in place from which we also want to learn examples.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat arís, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an méid atá ráite aige ina fhreagra.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he agree with me that one of the key aspects of ensuring that children with autism develop to their fullest potential is early intervention and that that means early diagnosis and early statementing? Will he undertake today to do everything possible, as soon as possible, to ensure that those two processes are expedited?

Mr O'Dowd: I fully agree with the Member: early diagnosis, early statementing and early intervention are, without doubt, crucial and key to that. The best way in which I can answer the Member's question is in practical terms through the SEND Bill. It is vital that the SEND Bill progresses through Committee Stage, comes back to the Floor of the Assembly, is debated and amended as the Assembly sees fit and we then move forward to ensure that we have legislation that modernises special educational needs interventions and services and ensures that they are fit for the 21st century. That is the most practical way in which I, as Minister, can respond to the Member: we have draft legislation there; it needs to work its way through the Committee; and the Assembly needs to do its business. We need to ensure that that draft legislation becomes an Act and we start making those practical changes to our special educational needs services.

T3. Mr Gardiner asked the Minister of Education for his assessment of the recommendations in the Committee report on shared and integrated education. (AQT 2823/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: I outlined my responses to the Committee report during the debate, I think, this day last week. I agree with the vast majority of the recommendations. The Committee has carried out a very good piece of work that will allow us to ensure that the debate around shared education moves from debate to practical policy positions — I will be in a position to make an announcement on policy in the next day or so; that we then move to the legislation, which is currently with a number of Executive parties; that we move that legislation, again, to the Floor of the House; and that we produce a shared education Act.

Mr Gardiner: Does the Minister agree that, if we are to make meaningful progress in shared education, he needs to ensure that the restrictive barriers to fair employment across the sectors, such as the RE certificates, are removed?

Mr O'Dowd: I do not think that it is a barrier to shared education in that sense. Measures are in place. We have had this discussion, particularly during Question Time, several times now, with your party colleagues in particular. I do not think that it is a barrier, but we have to ensure that we remove the barriers to anyone who wishes to obtain the certificate and we make access to the certificate much easier. It is a duty on the Department and the employing authorities to ensure that our colleges and teacher training colleges have the facilities to do so. Shared education can move on regardless of what happens next to the certificate.

T4. Mr B McCrea asked the Minister of Education to outline his views on the professional development of teachers. (AQT 2824/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: It is clearly a worthwhile programme of work. Significant investment goes into the continuous professional development of our teaching workforce. The Member may or may not be aware that, as a profession, teachers have 10 dedicated training days a year.

Mr B McCrea: Is the Minister aware that the Regional Training Unit (RTU) previously held a summer camp that was attended by over 2,000 teachers but was cancelled this year because of funding constraints and that teachers went ahead and organised it themselves? Do you think that that was a worthwhile exercise?

Mr O'Dowd: The innovation of our teaching workforce in this instance proves that they are willing and want to continue to be involved in continuous professional development. I am aware that the RTU cancelled the summer scheme. It has a budget, and it decides how it spends that budget. The RTU decides on those matters. However, as I said, continuous professional development is delivered in many ways. The 10 dedicated days throughout the year are there for teacher training, whole-school training and so on. I congratulate the teachers who went ahead with the training programme over the summer.

T5. Ms Lo asked the Minister of Education to explain the relationship between shared education and integrated education. (AQT 2825/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: Integrated education is a stand-alone sector. I have a statutory obligation to facilitate and grow that sector, which we have been doing over the past number of years. I have said this many times: it is not a case of either/or. Shared education will be a development that will grow over the next number of years in connection with the policy that I hope to publish in the next number of days and the legislation that we want to bring to the Floor. There may be shared education projects that evolve into fully fledged integrated schools, there may be others that do not, but it is about ensuring that we have avenues in our education system and society that allow greater cooperation and greater learning from and about each other and ensure that our young people understand the complexities of our society and help to change those complexities.

Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for his response. Why is he so reluctant to accept that the fundamental principle of sharing is sharing that happens within one school rather than between schools, in exchanges in the playground or when meeting for certain subjects?

Mr O'Dowd: It is not a case of the Minister fundamentally refusing to accept that. The integrated sector has not convinced all parents of it. As far as I am aware, all parties in the Chamber support parental preference, so parents have the right to make a preference about which school and which sector they send their children. I have reacted to the demand in the growth of the integrated sector when proven cases have been brought forward to me that will allow the integrated sector to develop in a sustainable way. The integrated sector should not be looking over its shoulder at shared education and seeing it as a threat. It is actually a complement to all our education sectors.

It is worth noting — this has been said before — that, during the worst days of the conflict, many of our schools were safe havens for our young people. They ensured that our young people did not end up in conflict-related matters. Those schools, whatever their category — maintained, controlled or whatever — also played a significant part in trying to reconcile our communities.

T6. Mr McNarry asked the Minister of Education to sum up his mission statement for our secondary schools relating to future employment. (AQT 2826/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: I am not sure whether I have picked up the Member's question right or the direction he wishes me to go in. The mission statement for our secondary schools on the employment of the young people they are in charge of is about ensuring that they are prepared for the economy of the 21st century. The economy of the 21st century is rapidly developing and changing. We have to ensure that our young people have the skill sets that allow them to adapt to and change with that economy. I welcome that — I mentioned this in a previous Question Time — there has been a rise in the number of young people, particularly young women, taking STEM subjects in our schools.

Mr McNarry: I thank the Minister for fully understanding my question and for giving an appropriate answer. To develop that, is he in a position to explain to the House what improvements could be made to those direct links to employment that have been identified as being needed in the economy and the wider United Kingdom economy?

Mr O'Dowd: One of the areas that I have been working on — indeed, I see Minister Farry in the Chamber — is our careers advisory programme, which we have reviewed. Over the last number of years, I have been reaching out to employers — I know that Mr Farry has done so as well; it is his remit, in a sense — and engaging with them on what they expect from our post-primary schools and education system in the areas that I am responsible for and on the changes that have taken place in education over the last number of years that they may be unfamiliar with. I think that conversation has been very interesting, because many of our employers who left school a number of years ago do not recognise the changes in our education system and curriculum or the opportunities in the curriculum for young people to develop.

I have also put a challenge out to the business sector. It has to become involved in our schools and has to join the boards of governors. It has to be in and out of our schools and make itself familiar to them. I am talking not just about the usual suspects but about the schools in areas where there is social deprivation and high levels of employment. It is up to businesses to be in those schools and to provide leadership.

T8. Mr McCartney asked the Minister of Education, while welcoming his announcement of £7 million investment in technology in schools, to outline how the technology will be employed, particularly by teachers, school librarians and pupils. (AQT 2828/11-16)

Mr O'Dowd: Over the last number of years, it became evident that the ICT available to our teaching staff and librarians was outdated. In many cases, it was not working at all and, in other instances, it was not compatible with the new systems that we were putting into our schools. Teachers and teachers' unions lobbied me very strongly to replace the equipment, but I did not have the finances to do that. However, in the January monitoring round, we had an opportunity to access around £4·5 million of capital, which allowed us to purchase around 1,500 new tablets, computers and laptops for our teachers. That allows them access inside and outside the classroom and to prepare teaching plans etc. We also invested quite significantly in the new Alice system for our libraries. So there has been quite significant investment in our schools over the last number of months.

2.45 pm

Employment and Learning

Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning): In light of the current budgetary position, my Department does not have funding for any new initiatives to support the long-term unemployed. That said, there is already a range of provision in place to assist the long-term unemployed. In the first instance, a jobseeker will receive assistance from staff in our front-line offices. Enhancements have been made to this service, including additional training for front-line staff to assist clients and improve their job search skills and completion of application forms as well as developing work readiness.

In addition, at the point a jobseeker becomes long-term unemployed, they are eligible for participation on the Steps 2 Success programme. Steps 2 Success contractors agree a progression to employment plan with each participant that identifies how they will work together to find and sustain employment for the individual. Participants will be on the programme for an initial period of 12 or 18 months, depending on the client group. Participants who remain unemployed at that point will avail themselves of a further six-month period of front-line support followed by another 12 months on Steps 2 Success. I can confirm that my officials continuously review the provision in place to support all clients, including the long-term unemployed.

Mr F McCann: I thank the Minister for his answer but does he not accept that his current solutions are not delivering for those who are in long-term unemployment but are merely handing significant sums of money to companies to deliver schemes that are often of no benefit to the individuals?

Dr Farry: Let me break that down into two elements. I understand that the second half of what he is saying is an allusion to the Steps 2 Success programme. In that regard, it is important to bear in mind that they are there to provide a function on behalf of the economy in Northern Ireland and our wider society by helping the long-term unemployed back into employment. They have been set some very challenging targets, and we are looking to see a step up to a good level of performance from the Steps to Work programme. That will be assessed in due course once we have a critical mass of people going through to allow us to draw conclusions as to how that programme is working.

Just because the contractors may come from outside Northern Ireland is not a reason for dismissing their ability. If anything, they are bringing their experience from other jurisdictions to bear in the Northern Ireland situation. However, the model we are applying in Northern Ireland has been shaped to meet our own particular circumstances.

In response to the first part of the Member's question, I, absolutely, want to do more for the long-term unemployed. While we are seeing our claimant count situation improve, the percentage of people within that who are falling into the long-term unemployed category is increasing and that is, absolutely, of concern to me. I am further concerned that I do not have access to resources at present for us to invest in this type of intervention, due to the budgetary impasse and the ongoing problems around a lack of agreement on welfare reform. Once again, we are seeing money being, very sadly, stripped out of schemes and projects that can help people gain a foothold in employment because of a very single-minded approach to handling these issues.

Mr Eastwood: Maybe the Minister could answer this question without mentioning welfare reform. [Laughter.]

What work is he doing with other Departments and Ministers to tackle areas, such as mine in the Foyle constituency, that are specifically and particularly affected by long-term unemployment and any other measure of unemployment?

Dr Farry: I hear laughter coming from the SDLP Benches on the notion of not mentioning welfare reform, but let us mention welfare reform because it is there and it is a reality. The fact that we are now years into this current impasse is bleeding the Executive dry, and the money is not there for us to invest in helping the vulnerable people of Northern Ireland. It is time that we moved from the blinkered approach we have had from some parties and started doing sensible things that will help people across this society.

There are things that I would like to do, including on a geographical basis. Let me give you one clear example. We have an economic inactivity strategy that was agreed by the Executive in April 2015 but work on that has not commenced because there is no budget available for it. Had the situation been different in relation to our public finances, that would be moving ahead. We know that we not only have higher levels of unemployment in the north-west but some of the highest levels of economic inactivity in the United Kingdom.

Pilots were going to take place on a geographical basis, and that obviously means a lot of pilots concentrated in the north-west. That work has not commenced because of the wrangles around budgets and, yes, again, the welfare reform impasse.

Mr Cochrane-Watson: At 27·4%, the percentage of the Northern Ireland population deemed to be economically inactive is the highest of any region in the United Kingdom. That compares with 27% in 2007, when devolution was reinstated. Why has the Minister finally published the economic inactivity strategy that was promised in the Programme for Government? Why has it taken him until April of this year to publish it, and why was it not brought forward as we now approach the end of the mandate?

Dr Farry: First of all, I welcome the Member to the House. However, I also remind him that his party sat in my Department for a full four-year period without doing anything about economic inactivity — indeed, at a time of relative plenty in the resources available to us.

The economic inactivity figures have been bouncing around in the same zone for the past 30 years. We have had a structural problem of economic inactivity in the region of 27% since the mid-1980s. That has persisted, irrespective of the ups and downs of the business cycle, through the boom times of prosperity about 10 years ago and the difficulties with the recent recession and downturn.

This is a major structural problem. It was identified in the Programme for Government, and we have worked diligently to produce the strategy. We are now, very sadly, as I just mentioned, at the stage where we have a strategy in place, but, due to other factors, there is no money available to invest in it.

Dr Farry: The Ulster University first proposed establishing a veterinary school in 2013 and commenced the preparation of a business case to support it. However, a full business case has not been presented to my Department. There have been no discussions with the university on this matter since June 2014.

Veterinary science is one of the highest-cost courses to fund, and there is no shortfall forecast in the number of vets until at least 2020. In the current financial climate, when funding for higher education institutions has been reduced and undergraduate places withdrawn, it is very unlikely that funding will be made available for veterinary science courses in the short to medium term.

Ms Sugden: I thank the Minister for his response. Will he confirm whether the Ulster University is moving towards establishing centres of excellence in each campus, and that a veterinary school in Coleraine would be a perfect fit for what it is planning?

Dr Farry: In terms of the first aspect of what the Member says, as part of the response to the challenging funding situation, the university has responded in a strategic way by trying to create an identity for each of its campuses. The Coleraine campus has been identified in terms of life and biological sciences. In principle, what the Member says would be consistent with that vision.

However, I stress to her the high cost involved in veterinary places. If it was decided to redirect resources in that direction, that would have a disproportionate impact on the provision of other courses. In a crude sense, for every veterinary place you put in place you may have to sacrifice almost two other types of subject places, so we have to be conscious of the emerging needs of our economy. No doubt, universities are also doing that in how they plan and work their way through a challenging situation.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an fhreagra sin. What discussions may the Minister have had with DARD on the provision of a veterinary school at Ulster University?

Dr Farry: My officials and I have had discussions about that with our counterparts in DARD over the years, although it has not been a live issue on our agenda for the past 12 to 18 months. That reflects the sad financial reality in which we sit.

The Member can take from my answer that, while some work has been done in this area, it is not currently being taken forward. In the context of facing cutbacks, an investment of that type is not deemed affordable.

Dr Farry: Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I wish to group questions 3 and 13 and would like to request an additional minute for the answer.

Following publication of the Executive's draft budget in November 2014, my Department published a consultation outlining the possible impact on a wide range of functions and services across the Department as well as the potential impact on the universities and colleges, including a likely reduction in student places and staff numbers. Following that consultation, efforts were made to mitigate the cuts to the higher education sector. The cuts to the universities were the last resort to balance the overall budget.

I have had ongoing discussions with Ulster University on the possible implications of those substantial budget reductions. While my Department provides funding and sets the strategic direction for the higher education sector, universities are autonomous bodies and are responsible for their own course provision and staffing levels. During the discussions, I highlighted the need to reflect the ambitions of the Executive and the objectives of the Department, including the protection of narrow STEM subjects. To provide the university with some flexibility and to help mitigate the impact of the budget reduction, I have reduced the minimum requirement for direct expenditure on widening participation to 10% of the additional student fee income. That reinvestment of student fee income is undertaken to promote widening participation through outreach activities and support to less advantaged students.

I understand that the university will rationalise its offerings across its campuses, with Coleraine specialising in biosciences and Magee in computing, engineering and Irish history. The university has already indicated the scale of the job losses and the loss of places in the current academic year and over future years. The size of the cuts is a clear indication of the severity of the budget reductions faced by my Department, the university and the higher education sector.

Before making decisions on course provision and staffing levels, the universities take a number of factors into account, including my Department's priorities, the needs of the economy and student demand. Reviewing course provision is part of the normal annual cycle and is good business practice. It is a reflection of the current budget position that this has led Ulster University to close some courses and to consolidate others. In relation to the business case for staff redundancies, my Department does not have a role in approving business cases for redundancies at Coleraine, Magee or indeed any other Ulster University campus.

Mr Swann: I thank the Minister for his very detailed answer. The question that I asked was actually about what consultation you had with the Ulster University prior to the announcement. You are fully aware of and you detailed the cuts that were coming, and, at some stage, there surely should have been input from the Minister or the Department with both universities to make sure that there was still provision for the likes of languages in Northern Ireland. That has now been completely lost to our graduates.

Dr Farry: First of all, let me stress that there have been ongoing discussions between me and senior officials in both universities and at official level on how we plan for the cuts. The decision has not been taken in a vacuum. In particular, there were a number of aspects of those discussions. We have focused on the desire to protect narrow STEM subjects, which are the science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. We have also had discussions about how we can give the universities some ability to free up how they use their resources with a view to maximising the number of student places that are retained. It was in that context that we reduced the minimum requirement of spend of additional fee income on widening participation from 25% to 10%. That action alone has probably managed to save a couple of hundred places in each of Queen's University and Ulster University.

Ultimately, the decisions to be made are for the university to make based on a number of factors. I am certainly conscious that they have approached this in a strategic manner. Obviously, a number of course closures will spark a reaction. Indeed, all course closures should spark a reaction, but it is important that what lies beneath those decisions is analysed in greater depth, such as the factors around things like enrolment levels and where students are coming from.

Mr Dallat: I listened very carefully to the Minister. I am absolutely delighted that he is here today despite his party's best efforts to collapse the Assembly through its support for adjournment. Now that he is here, can he tell us this: is the Ulster University now at variance with our economic strategy, which aims to educate young people to a standard where they are capable of attracting new inward investment — that is, of course, a main argument for dealing with corporation tax — or, as I suspect, is the Minister sitting on his hands?

Dr Farry: First, I would have thought that a very experienced Deputy Speaker would know the rules about supplementary questions being relevant to the original question. However, given that he has mentioned the wider political scene, let me address that. The actions taken by my party were about creating stability to allow the context for talks to occur, and the fact that we are currently having talks about talks vindicates that in some respects. The situation that we face is one of huge uncertainty. That said, I continue in my role as Minister, and I am fully committed to delivering on my responsibilities in all my functions on skills and employability. I am certainly not sitting on my hands today or, indeed, any other day.

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Let me be very clear: we are in difficulties with how we ensure that we live up to the ambitions of the agreed economic strategy of the Executive. We know that skills are the key driver behind the transformation of the economy that we want to see, and, very sadly, we are de-investing in our skills offer across a range of fronts. Any loss of university places means that we are offering fewer locally provided higher-level skills, and that is detrimental to our economy.

We will act strategically to try to protect the areas that are most relevant to the needs of our economy, and it is in that context that we made the request to the universities to protect the narrow STEM subjects, given that those have been particularly cited by local companies and investors. There is a particular issue with modern languages, and we need to see what other provision can be made, particularly how we can use the academy model that we devised under our Assured Skills programme to see whether we can address some of the very particular business requirements for languages that companies have identified.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. I declare an interest as a current student of the Ulster University.

Given the launch of his Big Conversation this morning, will the Minister indicate what help his Department can provide to the Ulster University to help it to increase the private investment that it gets from students and companies without looking directly at increasing tuition fees?

Dr Farry: First, I welcome Sinn Féin's conversion to the free market. The best way that the universities can prosper is not through state funding; they need to go out and find money from the private sector. Of course, there has to be a balance between a range of funding sources, including the state, and greater access to private funding. We see that happening in areas such as knowledge transfer through programmes such as Connected and the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF). It is also worth noting that the business community interaction of our local universities is, proportionally, well in excess of our population share in the United Kingdom. That is an area in which our universities have been very proactive.

There is scope for improvement in our ability to access research funding from the UK research councils. We are also looking to see what we can do to draw more money down from Horizon 2020. The Member will know that we have a contact point in place in conjunction with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. We have dedicated people to assist with applications to the European Union and are seeing some very positive developments in that regard. Those are some of the things that are happening across the universities. Ultimately, if people think that simply passing it on to the private sector to fill the void will somehow allow us to duck the fundamental challenge of resolving how the state interacts with the universities, they are deluding themselves. That is the core issue and where the key aspect needs to be addressed.

Mr B McCrea: On the financial stability of the university sector, given what you know, do you anticipate further redundancies in following financial years unless action is taken?

Dr Farry: At this stage, the announcements that have been made are in the context of the cuts that have made. As those cuts are in the baseline of the Department, the universities will project that ahead. As we meet today, it is worth noting that we are literally only a matter of weeks away from decisions having to be made by the Executive on a draft Budget for the 2016-17 financial year, although that is presupposing that we get through the issues about managing the existing 2015-16 Budget, which, as Members will know, is considerably out of balance. Within that, it remains to be seen what direction we will take for funding for higher education. In the context that decisions deteriorate ever further and have an impact on funding, there may be a further impact on student places and the ability to retain staff.

Mr Agnew: The Minister spoke about the independence of the university. What strategic role does he have in those decisions; for example, the decision to close the school of modern languages, leaving us in Northern Ireland without third-level education in German? That seems to be counter-strategic, given his aims. What influence can he bring to bear?

Dr Farry: Universities are autonomous bodies; they are not NDPBs. There is the false assumption that they operate under a similar governance structure to a range of other public bodies. However, the state provides them with considerable funding. We interact with them through a number of areas. With regard to their funding each year, a funding letter sets out a number of expectations, and within that we have focused on the protection of STEM, how they can interact with the apprenticeship strategy and our expectations on widening participation. We also have in place Graduating to Success, a higher education strategy that was published in April 2012. That remains a live document, and it was devised in cooperation with all our higher education institutions. That is being implemented, and, notwithstanding the current challenges with budget, we are still working through those projects. Indeed, a number of those projects have now been concluded.

Ms Sugden: I asked this question as a priority, but the Minister is late in answering it, so I am happy for him to answer me now. Has he received an HR 1 about the loss of the school and the subsequent redundancies from the Ulster University?

Dr Farry: No, not at this stage. We would not necessarily expect to see one, because this will be in effect from the 2016-17 academic year. There are discussions ongoing in the university about exactly how it handles this.

Dr Farry: There were 84 community and voluntary sector projects funded through the European social fund programme. The projects could submit their claims on either a monthly or quarterly basis, resulting in up to 1,000 claims for each year of the programme. Funding for the community and voluntary sector over the last four years of the programme was almost £102 million, equating to just over £25 million annually. Of the £102 million, my officials have processed financial claims with a value of nearly £91 million to date.

My Department is in receipt of and processing claims received from the community and voluntary sector with a potential value of just under £9 million. There are also a number of outstanding claims with a potential value of £2·15 million for those organisations. My Department wrote to those organisations on 12 August encouraging them to submit their outstanding claims. That will enable my Department to process and pay those claims to the organisations as soon as possible.

In July 2015, my Department released £4·51 million in advance partial payments to ESF project promoters to help ease the financial pressures being incurred by the organisations. My Department is in the closure phase of the programme, which ended in March 2015, and is, therefore, committed to having the claims processed as quickly as possible.

Ms Hanna: Does the Minister agree that the delays may have acted as a deterrent for future rounds, particularly to grass-roots organisations? Can you outline the steps that will be taken to minimise disruption and for repayment in future?

Dr Farry: I do not think that the delays in themselves have had an impact on future provision because, in essence, we had two parallel processes in operation: one was the incoming programme for 2014-2020, and the second was the closure of the 2007-2013 programme. Decisions were made on the incoming programme at the end of March this year. Obviously, there have been delays in the closure of the programme, and I have been frustrated with a number of issues in the performance of my Department. One of the things that we did in response to that, mindful of the impact that was being felt by a number of organisations, was to put in place the system of accelerated payments. That means that, rather than waiting for the full vouching of claims to have occurred, at a risk being borne by my Department, partial accelerated payments were made to ensure that they had cash flow.

Mr Cree: The junior Ministers were tasked with bringing forward a strategy to help the voluntary and community sector. Is the Minister aware of the status of that work, and was he involved in it?

Dr Farry: At the moment, I am not even sure of the status of OFMDFM, never mind what it is doing on any work on how it can assist the community and voluntary sector.

That will probably also suffer from the current political impasse. I am, however, aware of discussions in the Executive in slightly happier times a few months ago about how the Executive could be more proactive in assisting the community and voluntary sector in a coordinated way. In particular, there was concern that Departments, as they tried to manage a very challenging situation, should not simply dump cuts on the community and voluntary sector, and we took a strategic approach to that.

For my part, I want to make a couple of points very clear. First, I fully endorse and respect the role the community and voluntary sector plays in assisting government to deliver a range of services. In some areas, the sector is better placed than the state to produce outcomes. Secondly, we have not made cuts to the European social fund programme that have impacted community and voluntary groups on the ground. The programme that we unveiled for 2014-2020 is bigger than the outgoing programme. Thirdly, concerns have been expressed about match funding and whether groups will be able to access match funding from a range of sources, given the impact of budget cuts. As a Department, we have tried to plug as many gaps as we can and are actually spending more on match funding this time than previously, including moving from the 25% that we traditionally funded for the European social fund to meeting, when we received applications, some claims for a share of 35% of programme costs.

Ms Lo: What impact will the ESF have on our economy and society?

Dr Farry: It is important that we recognise that the European social fund is a great asset to Northern Ireland. It is a positive reflection on our membership of the European Union and allows us to do things that we could not do otherwise. It allows us to go further in bringing people closer to the labour market and promoting social inclusion. There is a particular focus on things like economic inactivity, working with young people who are not in education, employment and training and also working with people with disabilities. We have a reach and an ability to deliver under the European social fund that we would not have otherwise. It also allows my Department to support further our work on apprenticeships and on youth training. It has supported our ApprenticeshipsNI programme and Training for Success, and, as we look to our new systems under the new strategies for apprenticeships and youth training, the European social fund, as set out in the operational programme, will be there to provide assistance for them as well.

Dr Farry: I am committed to improving cross-border student mobility. In accordance with EU treaty obligations, my Department funds further and higher education provision in Northern Ireland for all EU-domiciled students. The Department also contributes to the UK-wide promotion of the ERASMUS+ programme, which encourages the mobility of information, skills and people across the educational sectors in Northern Ireland and our European neighbours. Our further and higher education sectors have an excellent record in securing funding for mobility through this avenue.

The project group, which was established as part of my Department’s higher education strategy to facilitate cross-border cooperation in teaching and learning and student mobility, continues to make progress in a number of areas. To help to improve learner information, careers teachers and advisers have received additional training on the higher education opportunities available in the Republic of Ireland and on the Central Applications Office processes. Extensive information on Northern Ireland’s higher education sector is now available through the NI Direct portal.

The Irish Universities Association recently announced changes to the Central Applications Office points system to improve access for A-level students studying three subjects.

My officials have been working with officials in the Department of Education and Skills to research and analyse cross-border student flows. A joint report was published on 15 June that shows, amongst other things, that applications from Northern Ireland students to Irish institutions have been increasing since 2010. The report will be used to inform future policy development.

My officials and I continue to work closely with our counterparts in the South on this and other cross-border issues.

Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. Will this issue feature in the Minister's Big Conversation on the future of higher education?

Dr Farry: One aspect that will feature in the Big Conversation is the funding model that exists in the Republic of Ireland. Again, in that model, there is mixed reliance on contributions from students and contributions from the state. The balance there is probably closer to our existing model in Northern Ireland, even though that model is not sustainable, in contrast to what we are seeing in Scotland and England.

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There are other forms in which we are looking at student flows. Ultimately, the solution lies in trying to encourage a better two-way flow on the island. Indeed, we may well see a greater specialisation by universities around some of their relevant strengths and the development of a more natural, larger market for students, allowing a better use of resources in both jurisdictions.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Time is up for listed questions. We now move to topical questions. The Members listed for topical questions 1, 8 and 9 have withdrawn their names.

T2. Mr McGlone asked the Minister for Employment and Learning how many projects his Department has helped and the quantifiable amount of money that they have facilitated to be realised through Horizon 2020, which is a valuable project and something that, with the Irish Government and the project predecessor, FP7, has been highly successful in realising funding for research, innovation and development. (AQT 2832/11-16)

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I, too, am glad that the Minister is here to answer questions.

Dr Farry: As the Member will appreciate, it is still early days with the new Horizon 2020 programme. As I mentioned earlier, we have put in place a framework of Northern Ireland contact points across my Department, DETI, Invest Northern Ireland, DARD, the Department of Justice and possibly the Department of the Environment — although I stand to be corrected — to ensure that we are maximising the potential to draw down funds.

I am particularly conscious that our universities have, historically, been the main source of the drawdown in previous rounds, including FP7, and that is the situation at present. We have drawn down just over €15 million, of which about €11 million can be identified with the universities. There are a number of other large projects in the mix, and, hopefully, there will be some very positive announcements made in the near future in that regard.

Mr McGlone: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for that response. What level of collaboration or cooperation has there been with the relevant Irish Government Department or agencies to facilitate that drawdown? DETI had been working on that level of cooperation to facilitate a good working relationship and, more importantly, maximise the drawdown of funding from this very important EU programme.

Dr Farry: There are a number of different forms in which that type of cooperation is taking place. Obviously, InterTradeIreland can be a focal point in that regard. Specific to my responsibilities, we have an existing network where we have a new partnership between my Department and Science Foundation Ireland in the funding of research programmes. That is outside the context of Horizon 2020, but that type of collaboration provides us with a very solid foundation on which we can facilitate potential bids to Horizon 2020 from universities from both jurisdictions on a North/South basis. We also have the US-Ireland Research Alliance, which is a tripartite agreement between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the State Department of the United States. That supports collaborative research across the three jurisdictions. So, both of those provide us with very strong platforms from which we can encourage further bids to Horizon 2020.

T3. Mr Eastwood asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for a cast-iron guarantee that the draconian and ideologically driven provisions in the Tory Trade Union Bill will not find their way into law in this part of the world. (AQT 2833/11-16)

Dr Farry: I am happy to assure the Member that I have no plans to introduce any similar legislation in Northern Ireland. That said, let me make a couple of things clear. First, what is happening in Great Britain is disproportionate to the problem, or perceived problem, with industrial action. Whatever problems may exist in Great Britain, they are not mirrored in Northern Ireland, where, by and large, we have good industrial relations.

At times, I certainly get frustrated when strike action, particularly in the public sector, takes place, especially when that is aimed not at what is happening in the workplace in particular but at wider issues around complaints about government policy. At the same time, I respect that the trade unions are part of our civic society. We have long fought for and won rights on the ability to organise, and they play a very active role in other aspects of civic society through protests around a number of very worthy causes and, indeed, what they have done to support the peace process. Secondly, I do not think that there would be any prospect of agreement on such legislation in any event, even if I were predisposed to a different outcome, given the viewpoints of parties in the Assembly and the Executive.

Mr Eastwood: I very much welcome the Minister's commitment in that regard. When are we likely to see his employment Bill come before the House?

Dr Farry: I am afraid that that is a much sadder story in the sense that it is currently in the Executive system and has been for a little while. Efforts are ongoing to see whether we can find some agreement to allow that to come to the Floor of the Assembly. Let me stress that there is nothing in that that would threaten anyone's interests. It is about positive reform of our employment law, particularly around how we can introduce stronger forms of alternative dispute resolution to make the system work better for employees who have grievances that need to be addressed and for employers, who will have a much more streamlined approach through which these issues can be resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

T4. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for his reaction to today’s news that Queen’s University Belfast has slipped 12 places in the 2015-16 global university rankings. (AQT 2834/11-16)

Dr Farry: Let me respond to the Member in two respects on that. First, it is important that we take account of the international context in which our universities operate, and they will be judged against their peers. Without repeating all of the points that I made, it is a further reason why it is important that we invest fully in our higher education system, particularly in research, which often informs these surveys. Secondly, we should have a bit of caution around surveys. As the Member will know from his tenure many years ago as my predecessor as Minister for Employment and Learning, a number of surveys are published, and they use different factors and different weightings of those factors to reach their outcomes. A university that may claim to be number 1 in one survey may not find itself in the top 10 in a different survey, so there is a slight health warning around those surveys. However, for sure, we do not have any room for complacency in the international context in which our universities operate.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for his answer. I remind him that this is not a survey; these are world rankings. The Minister will know that the QS world rankings are based on a number of factors, including evaluating research, teaching, academic reputation, staff-to-student ratio and the number of international staff and students. Will the Minister take all necessary steps in engaging with Queen's University and the University of Ulster to ensure that the worldwide reputation of the local universities can be maintained and protected?

Dr Farry: I am very committed to doing that. Even at the margins this year, for example around teacher training, where we could have made a bad situation just a little better, we have had opportunities for the universities. It is in this context that we are having the Big Conversation, because we know that there is a situation where the funding context for higher education is simply not sustainable, so we have to do all that we can. That involves, for example, coming to agreements around budgets and welfare reform and ensuring that we seek to invest in our higher education system and not simply have a standstill situation as we look to future financial years.

I want to stress to the Member that there is a range of factors in these rankings, and different mixes of rankings and different weightings given to factors in the rankings will lead to different outputs. The fact that we have a drop is something that we need to take account of. That could be as much about other universities making further investments and leapfrogging ahead of Queen's as about a deterioration in where Queen's stands. However, we are aware that, in the main, the big challenge is how we preserve the international context in which we operate. Our universities in Northern Ireland are not there simply to serve a local population; they have to be genuine international actors in their own right. Whenever we reach those heights, we are able to deliver inward investment for Northern Ireland. Our universities are recognised and praised throughout the world for the quality of their graduates. It is important that we are able to consolidate and build on the success that we have rather than let that erode.

T5. Mr Beggs asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to state the number of students who will attend local higher education courses and the number of students who have been forced to travel elsewhere, albeit while congratulating those new students who are about to embark on their higher education courses this autumn and encouraging others to take up other forms of lifelong learning. (AQT 2835/11-16)

Dr Farry: It will probably be towards December that we will get the full picture of admissions in the academic year that is about to commence. We will make sure that the Member gets a full copy of that. We have been moving slowly in the direction of increases. We have been making incremental progress in increasing local provision. Obviously, that is now under threat, and we are going in the opposite direction, with fewer places. Clearly, that will have an impact, with some people being displaced to Great Britain and others simply opting not to go to university at all and either having to consider other provision or simply not engaging in any further education or training. That would be a major loss to our economy as well as having an impact on their personal life opportunities. It is also important to bear it in mind that a number of factors, such as demographics, will influence those outcomes. It is important that people are fully aware of the full context when they see those figures when they are published in due course.

Mr Beggs: I declare an interest, in that I have a son attending a local university and a daughter at a GB university. Regarding new students selecting their university, is the Minister aware of the differences in tuition fees between Northern Ireland and GB encouraging more people to come here? I think that the annual tuition fees in Northern Ireland are £3,805 as opposed to £9,000 in GB. Is there any evidence of students from elsewhere coming to Northern Ireland and ultimately displacing some of our students, who as a result may not be able to attend courses here and may be forced to attend courses elsewhere, paying £9,000, as well as the additional costs associated with studying further away from home?

Dr Farry: We are seeing some increased interest from other parts of the UK in studying in Northern Ireland, and that interest is based on the quality of courses. However, I should say to the Member that universities are able to charge up to £9,000 in fees for students who are not domiciled in Northern Ireland. That was part of the wider Executive agreement on tuition fees in 2011. That was done on the basis that we have to protect the local market for local students. If they are crowded out through displacement by students from Great Britain, we will see our students leaving and not coming back on an even greater scale than happens at present. The approach that we have taken in Northern Ireland is similar to the approach that Scotland has taken in relation to the rest of the UK.

T6. Mr Somerville asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for an update on the success of the skills strategy for Northern Ireland. (AQT 2836/11-16)

Dr Farry: The skills strategy is a 10-year strategy running through to 2020. There are indicators around, for example, the number of people in work who will reach a level 2 qualification, those reaching level 3, those reaching level 4 and the percentage who are engaging in STEM areas. The biggest leap that we are seeing is in STEM. I am pleased to see success in that regard. We are seeing good progress in level 4 qualifications. More work probably needs to be done on the level 2 and level 3 interventions. Obviously, the challenges that we have around budgets will create difficulties as we look ahead to the next five years through to the end of the strategy.

Mr Somerville: Thank you for that answer, Minister. Have there been developments with the South West College in Fermanagh delivering more apprenticeship-based courses?

Dr Farry: Yes. As the Member may appreciate, against the wider trend, my Department received £7·5 million of funding as part of the change fund from the current year's budget.

That is there to resource a number of pilots in relation to the apprenticeship strategy and the youth training strategy. A number of those were announced earlier this month, and work is under way to get them up and running. Indeed, South West College has been successful in a number of respects in that regard, and it has always been very proactive in seeking out new and innovative ways to invest in the future of the Northern Ireland workforce.

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Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Time is up. Before we move to the Adjournment debate, Members will take their ease while we change the top Table.

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


Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes and all other Members who speak will have approximately seven minutes.

Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat.

"In today’s economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever.

It’s not a nice-to-have — it’s a must-have. So it’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or as a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us."

Those are not the words of a militant feminist; they are the words of President Obama in his State of the Union address at the start of this year. His words are also applicable to our society and especially to those of us living in rural communities.

At the outset of my contribution on this important issue, I would like to place on record my deep appreciation at being given the opportunity to shine a particular spotlight on rural childcare provision in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency.

We are only too aware of the benefits that quality, affordable and reliable childcare bring to rural communities. It is no less important to rural parents and children than those in towns. As a mother who has raised her daughter in a rural community, I am only too aware of the challenges faced when trying to source quality childcare locally.

Childcare has an important role to play in helping to sustain rural communities. Parents need access to childcare so that they can make the most of the opportunities for employment, training or helping to support voluntary or community activities. Employers need childcare so that they can attract and retain a skilled and committed workforce. Children need facilities that help them to develop and integrate in a pleasant and safe environment, but the positive effects on all of society are that first-class provision of childcare helps parents into work and moves families out of poverty by helping to break the cycle of intergenerational deprivation.

When I put questions to our Minister of Agriculture, Michelle O'Neill, in relation to the progression of Bright Start actions in my constituency, she said:

"Good childcare that provides positive experiences and promotes children’s opportunities to develop is an essential building block for a stable and prosperous future for all."

The Minister further added:

"Bright Start is central in helping to grow the economy and tackle disadvantage".

Access to high-quality childcare and early education not only promotes a child's development but gives much-needed support to parents who are struggling to balance work and family obligations. A safe environment that enriches children's development is critical to working families and is one of the best investments that we can make in our economy. Ensuring that children have access to high-quality and affordable early childhood programmes can help children to prepare for school and succeed in later life, while strengthening the parents' ability to go to work, advance their careers and increase their earning potential. International research shows that money spent on young children is an effective investment, yielding benefits immediately to parents and, for many decades to come, to the children.

Parents who work in low-paid jobs can face real difficulties in affording quality childcare. Without help, many families can face untenable choices of not working or leaving their children in unsafe, unstable or poor-quality arrangements. Affordable, quality childcare can help parents so that they can go to work to support their family.

Learning begins at birth, and the earliest years in a child's life are the most critical for building foundational cognitive, social and emotional skills and patterns of engagement in school and learning. Studies show that children who attend high-quality early-learning programmes, including high-quality childcare, are more likely to do well in school, find good jobs, have fewer interactions with the justice system and have greater earnings as adults than those who do not.

In a response to a recent Assembly research question that I placed, I was informed that, in the majority of communities in south Tyrone, there are between 574 and 1,484 persons aged nought to 15 years, the age bracket that would avail itself of childcare. However, from constituents' experience, the childcare provision in place is far from adequate to cater for that number. A report carried out in 2014 revealed that, whilst there are 60,621 under-15-year-olds in the Western Trust area, there are only 632 registered childcare providers. That leaves 96 children per childminder. The Southern Trust area is worse again, with 76,342 under-15-year-olds, which leaves the number of children per childminder at a staggering 129. In south Tyrone, there is a grand total of at least one crèche, if not two, five out-of-school programmes and three two-year-old programmes. There is also a limited number of playgroups, amounting to just 20. For a sizeable area, that is astounding, and how it is feasible has to be questioned.

Drilling down further, and based on information provided by NICMA and forwarded to me by a childcare practitioner who works in this field in the Clogher Valley district — and who was in correspondence with me, the local MLA, over recent days — I have been informed that there has been a total loss of 65 places across all five wards. This equates to the loss of 31 under-five-year-old and 34 over-five-year-old places in Augher, Clogher, Fivemiletown, Ballygawley and Aughnacloy. That, coupled with the fact that no new childminders are coming on board, has presented a worrying trend in that rural area.

In the 2014 report, the area of provision where there was the greatest level of unmet need was after-school care. Some 21% of all parents interviewed stated that they would like greater access to after-school care, and, on average, they would like to use it for nine hours per week, compared to an average current usage of six hours per week. From research that I have obtained, it is apparent that there is considerable lack of after-school care in south Tyrone; yet it is estimated that, if 19% of all children in the North of Ireland aged four to 14 were provided with a place in after-school care, over 6,000 jobs would be created in the childcare sector.

With all of this in mind, I call on the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the junior Ministers, as well as the Ministers of Education, Agriculture and Health to work together with relevant networks and organisations to examine ways in which provision could be improved in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency and similar areas. They must explore existing facilities and activities for children and increase accessibility and affordability. Again, I commit to working with all the Ministers in examining this important matter further. The provision of rural childcare must be central to the OFMDFM childcare strategy that is out for consultation, and the draft strategy must address the gap in nought-to-four-year-old provision. We cannot ignore it.

I conclude my comments by calling on all citizens to study the proposals contained in the proposed childcare strategy and make submissions. In particular, I call on rural dwellers to study the strategy and make their concerns known in their responses.

For parents living in rural communities, accessibility to first-class childcare provision is an important issue, just as affordability is. Rural childcare provision must be central to any OFMDFM strategy being rolled out, and there need to be specific targets.

Mr Somerville: As a father of four, I am aware of the issues regarding childcare provision in Fermanagh and South Tyrone as well as in wider Northern Ireland. While I am fortunate enough in that my children are of an age at which they are not reliant on full-time formal childcare arrangements, it was not that long ago that they were, and I can remember all too well the issues associated with the provision of childcare in rural areas. Being a parent is a tough and demanding job. Little credit is given to parents who decide to stay at home to raise their children. To me, that is wrong. Those parents are delivering a vital service for their children in nurturing and developing them so that they become valued members of their community and society. Studies have shown that children who are looked after by their parent on a full-time basis often have better speech and learning development than children who have been in a nursery environment between the ages of naught and five years. That is not to demean the work that nursery staff do but merely to highlight the vital role of parents as sole care providers.

In the current economic climate, the choice to stay at home and look after your child until primary-school age is a luxury that most families cannot afford. They are faced with the dilemma of finding suitable childcare, whilst, on the other hand, there are parents who have worked hard to establish a career and are aware that, if they do not go back to work, they will miss promotions that they deserve. Some families are fortunate in that they have grandparents or other family members who can assist with childcare, allowing parents to go back to work. Others are reliant on third-party childminders or a nursery-type arrangement. That raises questions about where to send their children, with associated costs.

The 'Northern Ireland Childcare Cost Survey 2014' showed that a full-time nursery place costs, on average, £162 per week, and a full-time childminding session costs £167 per week on average. For 59% of families surveyed, formal childcare costs amounted to half of their partner's or their own take-home pay.

Good-quality, affordable, flexible and reliable childcare is essential to the sustainability and development of rural communities. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the provision of better childcare does not just benefit families with young children; it benefits the wider community. Rural childcare in Fermanagh and South Tyrone is not something that can be addressed or solved through a one-size-fits-all approach. There is a wide range of childcare options available. What is important, and what should be addressed, is each family's ability to access a range of childcare options in their community so that they may avail themselves of the option that best suits them and their child, whether that is a registered childminder or a nursery.

There should also be a more flexible approach in the times offered to parents for childcare. That is especially relevant for members of the hospitality and healthcare sectors, for example, where their work pattern is not a Monday-to-Friday, 9.00 am-to-5.00 pm arrangement.

The other main concern regarding childcare in Fermanagh and South Tyrone is the cost. More can and should be done to ensure that those families where both parents work do not have the second salary subsumed by childcare costs.

That is unsustainable, as it will ultimately result in one of the parents having to stay at home to fulfil the childcare responsibilities. The quality of childcare offered must be of a level that will help to develop well-rounded youngsters with the ability to do well in school and in later life. The impact of childcare costs on families across Northern Ireland is significant. It has a negative impact on living standards and career progression; it also has an effect on the older generation who are called on to provide childcare for their grandchildren.

I welcome the proposal in the childcare strategy, and I look forward to the consultation with parents on what can be done to address those issues. I feel that the proposals to make childcare more flexible and to highlight financial assistance already available to parents are sensible strategies to deal with issues of childcare in rural and urban areas.

3.45 pm

Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Childcare provision in rural areas is a huge issue, as I know from having listened to my colleague Bronwyn McGahan. I take this opportunity to thank her for bringing the topic to the Chamber today.

With rising prices, market costs and a weak job market, many families in our constituency are experiencing financial hardship and many find it difficult to make ends meet. High childcare costs place additional pressure on an already stretched budget, and the lack of affordable local provision is a significant barrier to employment, especially for lone parents. I know many parents who could not have pursued a livelihood through employment or continued their career had they not had helpful family members. However, the reality is that many did not have such a supportive structure and therefore struggled to balance work with raising a family.

Rural childcare provision must be at the heart of the OFMDFM strategy, and we must welcome the fact that it is currently out for consultation. That progress is also to be welcomed in the context that we do not have a proper infrastructure and lack good, accessible and affordable childcare, something that has been documented by Barnardo's. We need integrated work between Departments to ensure that childcare is suitably addressed. I commend the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle O'Neill, who is here with us today, for her Department's initiatives to address the issue under the rural childcare programme. I know some parents who have availed themselves of that scheme and returned to employment to the great satisfaction of their family.

A new rural development programme has recently been signed off in Europe. I recently held a rural business seminar in my area. It was attended by some 140 people, and I hope that the new scheme will provide opportunities for rural communities to address childcare and welfare issues for those living in such areas. We all meet parents from day to day in our constituency offices who tell us that the choice of local jobs available is currently limited, and many parents, particularly those on very low wages, ask themselves whether it pays to work.

In the North, as the previous Member said, the average cost of a full-time childcare place is approximately £156 a week, with some parents spending 44% of their weekly income on childcare for one child. That is a considerable amount. Furthermore, weekly childcare support for families has been reduced. We also have the welfare Bill, which, if implemented, will impact on families, particularly lone parents. That is why Sinn Féin argues that the less well-off and the disadvantaged must be protected as part of any changes to welfare.

Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I commend Bronwyn for securing the debate. The lack of childcare is one of the biggest barriers facing parents across Fermanagh and South Tyrone in entering or re-entering the workplace after having children. That is particularly so in dispersed rural communities, where the number of children is not always there to justify financially a private enterprise opening a childcare centre and making a profit. It is clear that what they call the "market" has failed. We need to see government intervention to make sure that it is not people who live in dispersed rural communities who suffer. Just because there are not thousands of children living within a mile or two of one another does not mean that the people we represent do not deserve access to affordable and accessible childcare close to their home.

In many rural areas, because there is no alternative, there is a complete over-reliance on family members and friends to deal with childcare. Many people want to go out to work, but some choose to raise their children. Some people do not have that choice: they cannot access childcare, so they stay at home, even though they may want to be out working. There is complete over-reliance on family and friends to allow people to get out into the workplace, whether that is to return to a job that they held previously or to take up new employment.

One of the confounding things in Fermanagh is the complete absence of highly paid jobs, so, even if somebody could access childcare close to their home in a setting that was of a high standard and with people whom they could trust, very many people could not afford it. That is because you are looking at significant sums of money to pay for childcare. Economies of scale are not there because there are not significant enough numbers of children to do that. You then have the added problem that people are working for very low wages, often the minimum wage — if they are lucky enough to get it in some cases — which makes it very difficult for them to justify or sustain the cost of childcare.

As well as the problem of low-paid jobs, there is also a problem with the number of people in Fermanagh who have to travel outside the county to access employment, particularly in the public sector. So many people have to travel to places like greater Belfast to access senior roles in the Civil Service. That presents them with the challenge of commuting a considerable distance. They may leave home at 6.30 am to arrive in Belfast at around 9.00 am to do a day's work. That means that they must access childcare from very early in the morning to very late in the evening. Not only does that present accessibility challenges in finding a childcare provider flexible enough to cover those long hours but the cost invariably increases with a longer day. It also means that parents are kept away from their children for much longer, whereas they would prefer to work closer to home, but that is an issue that is not related to childcare; it is to do with access to employment in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

When you compare the current reality in urban areas with rural areas, you see that there is a complete difference. People in rural areas face complete inequality, and I suppose most MLAs here who represent a rural constituency would stand over that statement. Certainly, parents of children in a rural area will tell you that it is much harder to get childcare there than in an urban setting. That is why it is particularly welcome to see the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development here, because, since 2007, the Department has taken steps to increase and support childcare providers across the North, and I know that a couple of them were in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. In future, that needs to be supported and expanded through European funding schemes, through the rural development programme and other funding streams. I am hopeful that the Minister will give us some positive indications when she speaks at the end of the debate.

The absence of employment options as well as childcare in a place like Fermanagh and South Tyrone has a serious long-term effect on our society. We see young people leaving our county to go to Belfast, Dublin or England to access university, and so many of them do not come back, because the basic services are not there to sustain them. Whether it is access to employment, high-speed Internet or mobile phone coverage, things like that just are not there, and childcare is just another issue on the list for them to consider. Many people do not come back to a rural area to start a family, and that is a serious problem because it has a knock-on impact on how we sustain our rural communities. Who will look after our older people? Who will take up the places in our schools? Who will look after the needs of a rural society and play for and sustain our football teams?

This is not just a short-term economic problem; it is a long-term social problem that the Executive and all of us with leadership roles in our society have to grapple with. It is not good enough for us to continue going the way we are, because the gap between urban and rural areas is getting worse. We need to see much more corrective action taken to address the problem.

Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I start by thanking Bronwyn McGahan for securing the debate and the other Members who have contributed to it.

You will be aware that OFMDFM is leading on the Executive's draft childcare strategy. I am fully supportive of the draft strategy, and my officials are working closely with OFMDFM to ensure that the specific needs of rural communities are taken into account as the strategy develops. In the difficult economic times we live in today, which Members have alluded to, many parents are working very long hours and taking on additional responsibilities at work just to make ends meet. Many want to train or further their education to improve their future employment prospects, as employment is the best path out of disadvantage and poverty. However, parents can find themselves hampered through not only the high costs of childcare, which can act as a barrier to economic participation, but a lack of adequate childcare provision. The situation is often exacerbated in rural areas like Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where geographical disparity can be an additional barrier for rural families. I welcome the fact that the strategy will aim to focus any additional childcare places created in areas where there is currently little or no provision, meeting the needs of disadvantaged communities and rural communities in particular.

I will continue to promote rural issues across government. Childcare is one of a number of services where rural areas are often seen as the poor relation.

Many other services, such as transport, mental-health provision and broadband connectivity, are limited or non-existent in some rural areas. To ensure that rural areas remain not only sustainable but vibrant places to live, work and invest in, I am bringing forward legislation on rural proofing that will support the equitable treatment of rural dwellers by requiring their needs and the impact on rural communities to be considered in the development and delivery of policy and public services. That will place an onus, enshrined in legislation, on Departments and councils to consider the needs of rural dwellers and, I expect, will help to ensure better service provision throughout our rural communities.

The provision of quality, affordable childcare is no less important to rural parents and children than to those in towns. I know only too well about the challenges faced when trying to source childcare locally. Childcare has an important role to play in helping to sustain rural communities. There are unique challenges that face rural childcare provision, such as small, scattered populations, long distances to travel and isolation. Those challenges make childcare services more difficult to deliver and hinder access to the services for parents.

Parents need access to childcare so that they can make the most of the opportunities for employment and training or for helping to support voluntary or community activities. Employers need childcare so that they can attract and retain a skilled and committed workforce. Children need facilities that help them to develop and integrate in a pleasant and safe environment.

In addition to the economic benefits that quality childcare can bring to the labour market, it has a key long-term benefit in what it delivers for our children. Providing quality affordable childcare not only offers children a better start in life but provides parents with opportunities through education, training and employment. As a society, we want to help people get into work or back into work, providing them with the assurance that their children are being cared for in a safe and caring environment.

Quality childcare provides positive experiences and developmental opportunities to nurture and promote lifelong achievement. It can help to break intergenerational economic inactivity and is a proven path out of disadvantage towards a more prosperous future for individuals, families and communities.

Difficulties in childcare are not unique to the North. The greatest social driver of childcare in Europe has been the quest to reduce poverty and increase employability. That is along with the benefits that childcare for children aged nought-to-three years from disadvantaged areas has for raising their ability to benefit from education and learning over the long term, as well as for reducing crime, unemployment and healthcare costs.

The European Commission sees one of its greatest immediate challenges as the formation of a clear, long-term vision of its aims for the future of childcare services in Europe. It believes that the provision of more childcare services will support its economic and social agendas; that is, the eradication of child poverty, the pursuit of gender equality in the labour market and an increase in labour participation, economic output and productivity. Those are also issues that the Executive struggle with and are a driving factor in bringing forward childcare solutions to meet the needs of families.

Access to childcare is critical to help parents into work, move families out of poverty and break the cycle of intergenerational deprivation. Good-quality childcare is an essential building block for a stable and prosperous future for all. It can help to grow the economy and tackle disadvantage. I welcome the aim of the strategy that is out to consultation, and I join Bronwyn McGahan in encouraging all people to respond to it. I welcome the proposed areas of development for moving this complex issue forward. In rural areas, affordability has been identified as a bigger problem than the availability of childminding services.

Therefore, I support the proposal in the strategy to look at the needs and rationale of progressing either the centre-based childminding hub or the childminding-network approach to support the needs of rural families and to consider developing a pilot in rural areas. That is in addition to the mainstreaming of rural needs across the range of proposed actions in the strategy. Until that process has been completed, it is too early to say how actions will be progressed in Fermanagh and South Tyrone specifically. However, under the key first actions, the aim is to initially sustain 70 childcare places for school-age children in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and to subsequently create an additional 82 places.

Under the Department's anti-poverty and social exclusion programme, I delivered the rural childcare programme. The aim of that programme was to address the difficulties faced by rural communities regarding access to and provision of quality and affordable childcare facilities. In total, 19 rural childcare providers were funded and 134 rural childminders registered, creating a minimum of 402 additional places. Furthermore, £1·13 million was spent across the North. As well as the social benefits, the economic benefits arising from my Department's previous childcare programmes include opportunities for employment for those benefiting from the scheme, where 199 parents and guardians returned to work, as well as opportunities for employment within the projects, where 157·5 permanent and 16·5 temporary full-time equivalent jobs were created in the childcare industry.

4.00 pm

Projects supported in Fermanagh and South Tyrone under that programme included the refurbishment of the former Eglish Primary School as a new day-care centre, with facilities for breakfast and after-school clubs, and the creation of an outdoor play facility in Glendurragh, Kesh.

Assessing current levels of childcare demand and supply is complex. It is hampered by the absence of monitoring of robust data in the sector and by considerable unknowns. Added to that is the network of informal childcare support that is particularly prevalent in rural communities. Others have picked up on the fact that, in most cases, families, particularly grandparents, help out and provide support to parents in order to meet their childcare needs. It is hard to get a true picture of the need.

Under the current rural development programme, over £325,000 has been spent improving childcare facilities in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and that has benefited in the region of 160 children. Under the new RDP recently approved by the EU Commission, the LEADER measures may be able to provide support for rural childcare projects under the rural business investment scheme. It will provide support for private and social economy-type business start-ups and business expansion in rural areas. Support may also be available for access to basic services or improvements in social infrastructure to improve welfare and access to basic services where there is a clear gap in provision for those living in rural areas. Those schemes will be delivered on behalf of DARD by the 10 LAGs. They will hold pre-funding workshops to inform potential applicants of the scheme requirements in advance of opening the call for applications.

I fully support the Executive's vision that every child, parent and family should have access to affordable, integrated and quality childcare, and, crucially, I welcome the fact that rural childcare needs will be mainstreamed across a full range of actions in the draft childcare strategy. That is rural proofing in practice, and it will be reinforced through the legislation that I intend to progress through the Assembly over the coming months.

In conclusion, once again, I thank my colleague Bronwyn McGahan for securing the Adjournment debate and everyone who contributed to it. I hope that I have addressed some of the issues, but, if there is anything outstanding from Bronwyn's contribution, I will be happy to respond. I share the vision for sustainable rural communities, and childcare has an important role to play in achieving that vision for areas such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone and many others. There are unique challenges in providing rural childcare provision, such as small, scattered populations, long distances to travel and isolation, all of which I have covered. However, in supporting families going forward, I believe that we have to look at the unique circumstances in rural communities and at what we can do. It is important, once again, to highlight the fact that we are calling on people to respond to the consultation in order to highlight why we need rural needs to be properly included in the development of the final published childcare strategy.

Adjourned at 4.02 pm.

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