Official Report: Monday 12 October 2015
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to today's business, I have some announcements to make.
Mr Speaker: I advise the House that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment resigned his office on Tuesday 6 October 2015. Standing Order 44(3) provides for a seven-day period during which the party that held that office may nominate a Member of that party to replace him and take up office. That period expires at the end of Monday 12 October 2015.
Mr Speaker: I advise the House that the Rt Hon Peter Robinson, as nominating officer for the DUP, nominated Mr Simon Hamilton MLA as Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Miss Michelle McIlveen MLA as Minister for Regional Development and Mr Mervyn Storey MLA as Minister for Social Development. Mr Hamilton, Miss McIlveen and Mr Storey each accepted the nomination and affirmed the Pledge of Office in the presence of the Principal Deputy Speaker and the Clerk/Chief Executive on Wednesday 7 October 2015.
Mr Speaker: I advise the House that those three Ministers subsequently resigned their offices on Thursday 8 October 2015. Standing Order 44(3) provides for a seven-day period during which the party that held those offices may nominate Members of that party to replace them and take up office. That period expires at the end of Wednesday 14 October 2015.
Mr Speaker: I advise the House that the Rt Hon Peter Robinson, as nominating officer for the DUP, nominated Mr Jonathan Bell MLA as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Mr Bell accepted the nomination and affirmed the Pledge of Office in the presence of the Principal Deputy Speaker and the Director of Clerking and Reporting on Friday 9 October 2015. I am satisfied that the requirements of Standing Orders have been met. Let us move on.
Mr Flanagan: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Standing Order 19 deals with the tabling of questions by Members to Ministers and members of the Assembly Commission. Can you provide the House with guidance as to what is supposed to happen in the event of a Minister not being in office to take one of those questions? When Members table a question to the Business Office, we are informed by the Business Office that, as there is no Minister in office to answer that question, the question will be withdrawn, but the same system does not seem to fall under Standing Order 20, which deals with questions for oral answer, where questions can be submitted for oral answer at a time when there is no Minister in office to respond. Is there any guidance that you can issue to Members with regard to how we can best comply with Standing Order 19 and the tabling of questions to Ministers, given that the primary function of this Assembly is, in fact, to hold the Executive to account, and not being able to table questions under Standing Order 19 presents us with some difficulty in doing that?
Mr Speaker: I have considerable sympathy for the point that the Member is making. These are, to say the least, unusual and exceptional consequences for Members like you. At the end of the day, the question is whether there is a Minister in place to be in a position to respond to questions for oral answer. With this in-out situation of Members being nominated and ratified as Ministers, going through the normal procedure and then resigning, what happens is that, if there is no one there to respond to questions for oral answer, they are lost.
If questions for written answer are submitted whilst a Minister is in office, even if that Minister subsequently resigns, those questions can be picked up if a Minister is appointed at some stage in the future. That is the simplest and most compact way in which I can describe it, but I absolutely sympathise with all the Members about the difficulties and frustrations that can arise. Let us hope that that set of circumstances will not be long with us.
Mr Flanagan: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Standing Order 19 does not deal with a situation where there is no Minister in office. Would it be possible for a change to be made in the Business Office so that questions can be tabled to the Minister in the event that there is no Minister in office and they can be subsequently answered, as is the case with some Ministers at the minute, when they return to office?
Mr Speaker: No, and let me just be clear that the Business Office is following the procedures as laid down and is guided not only by Standing Orders but by the Speaker's rulings. That is the situation that pertains. The best solution possible is that the full Executive get back to business as quickly as possible.
Mr Speaker: Mr Martin McGuinness has made a request to make a statement under Standing Order 24.
Mr M McGuinness: First of all, I thank the Speaker for the opportunity to address the appalling tragedy, which took the lives of 10 people — five of them under 10 years of age — at Carrickmines in south Dublin. The victims were Thomas Connors and his wife Sylvia, their children Jim, who was five, Christy, who was two, and five-month-old Mary; Sylvia's brother Willie Lynch and his partner Tara Gilbert, their children Jodie, who was nine. and Kelsey, who was four; and Willie Lynch's brother Jimmy Lynch. I extend my deepest sympathy and condolences to all their families and to the Travelling community.
It was a horrific incident, which took the lives of 10 people and has had a very profound impact on the local community and on the Travelling community in particular. No doubt, this will be the subject of a very serious investigation by those responsible for investigating these incidents. I think that the fact that 10 people lost their lives raises questions as to how all of us can consider, on the island of Ireland, the safety of all our citizens, particularly people in the Travelling community, given the conditions that some of them choose to live in and, on some occasions, live in as a result of not having the support that they deserve from government authorities.
It is terribly sad. It is heartbreaking, and, at this time, it is very important that we send a message to their families and to the community in that area that they are in our thoughts and prayers. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Speaker: I remind Members who wish to speak that they should rise in their place.
Mr Dallat: I share the sentiments of the deputy First Minister. Sometimes, out of tragedy, something positive might emerge, and that would be the wider community's attitude to the Travelling community, which has been part of a special heritage for many years. Perhaps, as the Travelling community arranges the funerals of its loved ones, we can all reflect on how we look upon the Travelling community; become part of the campaign to ensure that Travellers' living conditions are improved, whether they are travelling or static; and seriously ask why their mortality rate is poor and why they share so badly in our education systems, North and South.
A few years ago, when the Travellers were in Kilrea for a prolonged period, I had the privilege of meeting them to share their culture, music and storytelling, and their desire to end their continual struggle to survive and make ends meet, so I am pleased that the Assembly has found the time today to pay tribute to the 10 people, young and old, who lost their lives.
Without wishing to repeat myself, I hope that, as we watch the funerals, everyone in the wider community will develop a better understanding of how we can be part of a new era in which the Travelling community will have equality and their rights perhaps better respected so that this kind of tragedy might not happen.
Mrs Overend: On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I offer my condolences to this family. No one could fail to be affected by the news that we heard of this terrible tragedy in Dublin, in our neighbouring country. Our condolences go to the families of the 10 whose lives were taken early. Five of those were children, and it makes you sick in the stomach when you hear of such a tragedy in which lives so young were taken from us. It shows the danger of fire and how it can take life so quickly. I sincerely hope that the authorities will efficiently and effectively find the causes of this fire so that tragedies like this do not happen again.
In conclusion, our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who have lost loved ones and with those who are in hospital fighting for their life.
Mr Dickson: Thank you to the deputy First Minister for raising this matter. Clearly, the unimaginable horror of 10 lives lost cannot go unmentioned in this part of the island of Ireland. Our sympathy goes out to the family and friends of those who lost their lives, one a six-month-old baby. We also think of those in the Dublin Fire Brigade who had to cope with the fire itself and of the forensic people who will be working on that site today. All do a professional job, but, at the heart of it, they are human beings having to deal with an immense tragedy. It is right and proper that the concern of the Assembly goes out to those in the Republic of Ireland jurisdiction so that they know that we care and that we are responding.
Others have said, and I think that it is right to comment on the fact, that we need to learn lessons from this, whether in relation to our community relations with the Travelling community or to fire safety matters. All of us should make sure that lessons are learned from this immense tragedy.
It would, nevertheless, be remiss of me not to mention other lives lost this weekend, particularly those lost in the bomb attacks in Ankara.
Mr Agnew: I would like to add, on behalf of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, my condolences to the families of the 10 Travellers, who, unfortunately, died as a result of this horrific fire. It continues to be the case that Travellers are one of the most discriminated against groups in our society, and, whilst it is easy, as we have seen too often in our history, to label groups, and to dismiss their rights and their needs when doing so, an incident such as this should remind us of the humanity of any individual in any community; in this case, the Travelling community. Hopefully, today we stand and speak in sympathy and, going forward, can act in a similar manner, to ensure that the Travelling community in Northern Ireland and across the island of Ireland receives proper treatment and equality within our society.
I would also like to add my condolences to the families of those shot dead in Louth, including police officer Anthony Golden. It really does seem to have been a tragic weekend on this island in terms of casualties. So, on behalf of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, I would like to echo the words of other Members and recognise what has been a saddening weekend.
Mr McNarry: I have no difficulty in sharing the sentiments of this statement and the tragedy that it encapsulates. It has been mentioned, and I want to mention, that a message should be added for the family of the young guard, who was ruthlessly murdered by a dissident republican, who shot a woman, seriously wounding her, and then shot himself. I think that it would be right for the House to couple those sentiments of condolence, which we can send.
Mr McCallister: I would like to associate myself with the words of the deputy First Minister in sending expressions of condolence to the families affected by events in the Republic. They were truly horrific. Earlier this year, my neighbour perished in a house fire and, certainly, it was a very harrowing scene. Coupled with that, as a father of very young children, to hear of the loss of so many young children is just heartbreaking. Certainly, the support that we as a society can offer is important at this time. I certainly would want to be associated with those remarks and with extending sympathies, to all those affected, whether in Ankara or, indeed, in County Louth.
Mr Speaker: Members, before we proceed to take an additional Matter of the Day, I want to make it clear that ordinarily I would not have accepted a Matter of the Day on qualification for an international tournament. On these matters, I have to be mindful of precedent at a time when we have so many people in so many sporting disciplines doing us proud on the sporting field, and this week's activities are clearly a good example of that. However, I have made an exception on this occasion, given the nature of the achievement and the fact that it has been 30 years since the team has qualified for such a prestigious tournament, and to acknowledge that Michael O'Neill, the manager, was here for the launch of the sporting exhibition, which stood in the Great Hall over the summer. It was a very successful exhibition, and we were very grateful for his attendance. So, I am happy to allow some time today to mark the team's achievement.
Mr Speaker: Mr Chris Lyttle has been given leave to make a statement on Northern Ireland qualifying for the European Championships, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24.
Mr Lyttle: Thank you very much indeed for allowing this Matter of the Day, Mr Speaker, to recognise the historic achievement of the Northern Ireland football team.
I think that it is fair to say that elected representatives seeking to acknowledge sporting success are often met with a fair dose of cynicism, but I think that it is worth saying that there are many elected representatives who are themselves amateur football players, coaches, board members, volunteers and, above all else, genuine fans of the beautiful game.
It is therefore only right that the Assembly and the Executive recognise the outstanding achievement of the Northern Ireland football team, the IFA and the best fans in Europe, the green and white army, in qualifying as group winners for the European Championship in France in 2016, our first major football tournament in 30 years and the first time that a fifth seed has ever topped a qualifying group stage.
It was an absolute privilege to be among the almost 12,000 people at the stadium on Thursday night to experience the historic sporting achievement that has united, inspired and lifted the spirit of an entire community. On a personal level, it made me proud to be Northern Irish, but, most important, it was a proud night for everyone involved in Northern Irish football. All the history makers — the fantastic manager, Michael O'Neill, the players, the team behind the team, the fans and everyone who dared to dream — deserve all the credit and congratulations that they are receiving.
The achievement is no fluke; nor would it have been possible without serious vision, dedication and professionalism. Many people contributed to the transformation of football in Northern Ireland, and there are a few who deserve special mention: Michael Boyd, now IFA director of football development, his community relations team and the amalgamation of the Official Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs have been pivotal in delivering a football-for-all ethos and approach that has ensured that the sport is open to everyone across Northern Ireland and delivered the famous "sea of green" atmosphere in our stands that has seen Northern Ireland fans recognised as the best and most welcoming in Europe. IFA president Jim Shaw and CEO Patrick Nelson also deserve credit for setting the main target of the IFA and Northern Ireland as qualification for a major tournament. I know that many people questioned that goal, but they got behind our fantastic manager and team and dared to dream that dream.
I hope that the achievement will demonstrate to young footballers and everyone in Northern Ireland that we are a talented people and that, when we work together, we can achieve what seem like impossible dreams. The managerial ability and leadership of Michael O'Neill has been vital in building a unique belief and spirit in the Northern Ireland team. I know that Michael has said that it might be hard to top this achievement, but I certainly hope that, with the support of an entire community behind the team, they can achieve even more in France at Euro 2016.
I also add my best wishes to the Irish soccer team in their ongoing efforts for qualification and to the Irish rugby team as they continue to do us proud at the Rugby World Cup.
Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am already on record as having passed on my best wishes to Michael O'Neill and Martin O'Neill in the run-up to the games on Thursday and yesterday. I think that both Irish teams did the island proud. Soccer is not my sport, but I recognise the pleasure and enjoyment that people get from it, whether through youth competitions such as the Milk Cup and the Foyle Cup, both of which are played in my constituency, or indeed the domestic club scene or the internationals. I also recognise the good work that the IFA has done at grass-roots level. A number of years ago, I was involved in a small way with the Football for Peace competition. That said, there are still issues outstanding. I and others in my party met the IFA a number of years ago to address some of them, and I hope that we can do that again.
If anything, this weekend's sporting achievements again outline the discussion that should be happening on an all-Ireland team. We have seen in the Rugby World Cup a feisty performance from the Irish rugby team and people of all political persuasions and none were behind that. I believe that, had we had a single soccer team on this island, then, who knows what would be achievable.
Mr Eastwood: I join others in congratulating Michael O'Neill, the Northern Ireland team and all the supporters for the fantastic way that they have approached this tournament so far. It has been a great weekend for sport on this island. The all-Ireland rugby team are doing fantastically well in the Rugby World Cup, and we wish them all the best. The Northern Ireland team qualified top of their group, which is something that I do not think that anybody would have expected. It was an outstanding achievement.
I think that the Republic of Ireland team is going to qualify as well when they get through the play-offs. They beat the world champions, Germany. That was a fantastic achievement. I look forward to both Irish teams competing in the finals in France next year. In the future, I look forward to there being one Irish team competing at major tournaments together, because I think that could be a fantastic thing for this island, as sport continues to unite and break down barriers.
Mr Nesbitt: Cliff Morgan, the late, great Welsh out-half, once described sport as "a nonsense"; an important nonsense, but a nonsense nevertheless. Given the deaths that we have just discussed in the House, Cliff Morgan got it right.
I find it incredible. I stand here as the last man ever to commentate live on Northern Ireland at a major championship final. We played Brazil in Mexico on 12 June 1986 — who could forget it? — with Zico, Socrates and the rest. Those moments are more than sporting moments; they are about social inclusion and unity, and we saw that on the streets of Belfast last Thursday night after that fantastic win at Windsor Park. I congratulate the captain, Steve Davis, the manager, Michael O'Neill, and I also congratulate the new chairman of the Irish Football Association, Gerry Mallon. Together, they are bringing a spine of solid, progressive leadership to football in Northern Ireland.
So, we prepare, 100 years after the Somme, to see Europe gather again in France, but for a much more benign reason; nothing more serious than sporting rivalry. We wish Northern Ireland every success when they get there next summer.
I also hope that Martin O'Neill takes the Republic of Ireland to France next summer. He performed a remarkable hat-trick last Thursday night. Already, he was the only man ever to captain a team — Northern Ireland — to home and away wins over Germany, West Germany as it was then, in the 1984 European qualifying competition. So, it was a remarkable achievement for Martin to engineer a victory over Germany, the world champions.
I think that it is time now not to look back to Spain 1982 and Mexico 1986, or, indeed, back to Sweden in 1958, but to look forward to new memories, new stories and new joint ventures for all our people in France.
I will finish by going back to Guadalajara and that match against Brazil. At three-nil down, Billy Bingham, the manager, turned to Gerry Armstrong, our hero from four years previously, and said, "Get warmed up. I am going to give you a run out." As he got to his feet, Gerry noticed that the noise level of the crowd rose. He was delighted; the Brazilians remembered him, the man who scored against Spain four years previously. He started limbering up, and the noise level rose again. He started jogging towards the corner flag, and the noise level rose for a third time. Emboldened, be sprinted the last 15 yards to the corner flag and 50,000 Brazilians got to their feet in a frenzy. He turned around and, 100 yards away, Zico was warming up for Brazil. But, we are not Brazil, we are Northern Ireland.
Mr Allister: Before commenting on these joyous matters, I add my voice of condolence on the human loss south of the border at the weekend — 10 lives, including many children — and the loss of the garda officer.
Turning to this matter, it is a joyous occasion, and one that does not come along very often. We simply want to say to the members of the management and team of the Northern Ireland football squad, "You have done us all proud." Who would have thought that little Northern Ireland would not just qualify but would come top of their group?
I think the level of pride that most of us felt was immense. I think of my constituency, particularly given the role of captain fantastic, Steven Davis. What do I say? He was born and reared in Cullybackey, and that small town is bursting with pride and joy at the achievement. He is a young man who went to Ballymena Academy where he was in the same class as my eldest son until he left at, I think, 16, to go off and play across the water. He has brought great credit to the team.
A few miles up the road, in Rasharkin, is the family home of Chris Baird, who, equally, has been a stalwart of the success that is the Northern Ireland team.
We wish them well. If the Irish Republic qualifies, and so much the better if they do, I look forward to Northern Ireland having the opportunity to prove which is the better soccer team on this island. I have no doubt that it is Northern Ireland.
Mr Agnew: I cannot help remembering back to, "Here we go, Mexico". It was certainly the first football occasion, the first World Cup, that I got excited about as a child. I am delighted that another generation of young people will be excited and inspired once again by the Northern Ireland football team.
I was fortunate to be at Michael O'Neill's first game at Windsor Park against Norway. I remember the first half, feeling the excitement coming back and seeing the good, attractive football that the team started to play under Michael O'Neill . Unfortunately the result was disappointing that night. Indeed, we had a period of disappointing results in the early part of his management, but he stuck true to what he believed in, brought the players and fans with him and has now clearly brought the results with him.
We had the Lawrie Sanchez and David Healy period, of which we have fantastic memories of fantastic victories — I think in particular of David Healy's hat-trick against Spain — but we fell short of qualification. It may have looked as though qualification for a major tournament was going to elude us for many years to come, but Michael O'Neill came forward and has done a fantastic job. Kyle Lafferty has filled the hero role that David Healy held. Even when we did not have Kyle Lafferty for the game against Greece, who would have thought that Steven Davis would score an 18-yard header, or any sort of header for that matter. It was a shock, and a very welcome one.
I look forward to France with most Northern Ireland fans' usual mixed feeling of absolute excitement and trepidation. I am just delighted that we have the opportunity to be there. I wish the Republic of Ireland team well in its qualification. The result against Germany was a tremendous one. I hope that it is able to qualify as well. I would also like to wish the Irish rugby team continued success in the Rugby World Cup. It is good to get talking about football in the Assembly Chamber, albeit briefly. I look forward to talking about it much more when the World Cup kicks off.
Mr McNarry: I did my sciatica no good at all when leaping into the air three times for three goals. I would do it again. Three goals — my word. What a day; what a night. It was a pain worth bearing.
Sport is a great equaliser, and we know that it brings people together. More than anything else, that result, the team and its advancement is going to bring our young people together in great numbers to support its success. We can all be supportive, particularly when the team wins, so let us back it to the hilt when it only gets a draw, and let us not contemplate it being defeated. It is a team that Michael O'Neill has put together, and it is a team of winners.
UKIP supports sport for all. Top of the group, the green and white army marches onwards to Paris. UKIP's best wishes go with it on that journey. Our congratulations to the team, to the phenomenal manager, to the most brilliant fans that one could ask for, as Chris Lyttle pointed out to us all, to the coaches, who are often not mentioned, and, of course, to the IFA.
Let us hope that they acquit themselves well. I am sure that they will. Maybe, Mr Speaker, without any consultation or queries, you will allow a debate or motion such as this in May next year.
Mr McCallister: It is great when we have an occasion to truly celebrate tremendous sporting achievements. What a fabulous four or five days of sport we have had, with victories to watch. As, I think, Mr Agnew highlighted, the last time Northern Ireland qualified, I was a 14-year-old boy, so it has been quite a long wait to have that again — [Inaudible.]
Mr McCallister: It is good to hear that UKIP's maths are as sharp as ever.
It is a brilliant achievement that has truly united us all. There is a great sense of pride in who we are and where we come from. There is excitement and a buzz around. I would certainly be delighted if the Republic of Ireland qualified, too. It would be great to see them making the cut and getting to the finals.
Of course, as many other Members said, I wish the Ireland rugby team every success in their upcoming matches. It is great to see. The Rugby World Cup has been so exciting to watch up to now, and I am sure that that will continue.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 15 January 2016, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Justice (No. 2) Bill [NIA Bill 57/11-16].
In the absence of the Chairman, who is chairing the Ad Hoc Committee on the Mental Capacity Bill, I am pleased to move the motion today. Committee Stage began on 9 September 2015. The Bill consists of 47 clauses and three schedules covering a number of policy areas, the most significant of which are the collection and enforcement of fines, and the establishment in statute of the functions of the Prison Ombudsman in terms of complaints, the investigation of deaths in custody and investigations requested by the Department of Justice.
Prior to the commencement of Committee Stage, the Department of Justice informed the Committee of proposed amendments that it intends to table at Consideration Stage. Some relate to proposals for fine collection and enforcement, and others relate to firearms legislation, which is not currently covered by the Bill. To assist its scrutiny of the clauses and schedules, the Committee has sought views from a range of key stakeholders and placed notices in local newspapers and on the Assembly website. The Committee has also taken the opportunity to seek views on the amendments proposed by the Department.
The Committee has received 21 submissions, many of which comment on or raise a number of issues, particularly in relation to Part 1, which covers the arrangements for fine collection and enforcement; Part 2, which covers the arrangements for the Prison Ombudsman; and proposed amendments to firearms legislation. As the Chairman said during the Second Stage debate, the Committee is already very aware of the problems associated with the current fine default and collection scheme and its governance arrangements; the significant value of unpaid financial penalties — the total outstanding debt at 31 March 2014 was £22·684 million, of which it was estimated that £7·335 million is impaired and unlikely to be collected — and the findings of the judgement delivered by the divisional court in five judicial reviews. It is clear that a radical revision of the system is required.
The Committee wishes to give careful consideration to the provisions in the Bill that relate to fines and enforcement and the Prison Ombudsman to ensure that the legislation will introduce sound and robust systems for the future. Members therefore agreed, at the meeting on 24 September 2015, to seek an extension to the Committee Stage of the Justice (No. 2) Bill until 15 January 2016.
The Committee began taking oral evidence on the Bill at its meeting on 1 October. The extension will enable us to schedule further oral evidence sessions with stakeholders and Department of Justice officials during November, carry out detailed scrutiny of the clauses and schedules and compile and agree the Committee report. The Committee will report to the Assembly on the Bill as soon as possible within the proposed timescale of 15 January 2016. I commend the motion to the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 15 January 2016, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Justice (No. 2) Bill [NIA Bill 57/11-16].
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I beg to introduce the Local Government (Numbers and Addresses of Buildings in Townlands) Bill [NIA 63/11-16], which is a Bill to amend the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 to make provision about the allocation of numbers to buildings and the format of addresses.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
That the Second Stage of the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill [NIA 62/11-16] be agreed.
Much has been said about Government and opposition in this place and many others for a long number of years, probably since these institutions were set up. I know that the deputy First Minister was — as perhaps even you were, Mr Speaker — a fan of the late, great Seamus Heaney. I will start with a quote from Seamus Heaney:
"Anyone with gumption and a sharp mind will take the measure of two things: what's said and what's done."
Much has been said, and this is the chance to see what can be done about it. There is a chance, with this Bill, to truly reform.
First of all, I want to set out some of the reasons — the very real reasons — why we need the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill. You would need to have been living abroad for a considerable time not to think that the Assembly and the Executive could do their business better. We only have to listen to the words of the First Minister, the joint head of the Administration, who, in the past, has described them as "dysfunctional". At times, we have brought that level of dysfunctionality to an industrial scale. Where are we on the big issues of welfare, hospitals, Transforming Your Care, funding our universities, or the business community, which is crying out for leadership?
One of the key drivers in delivering a much better economic performance is delivering political stability. I quote Kevin Kingston, a past president of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who said:
"Political stability is a key facilitator of economic growth and Northern Ireland is already lagging behind the other UK regions in terms of a recovery."
"The importance of political stability and a Northern Ireland Executive pulling together on the economy cannot be underestimated."
A key message has to be about getting stability. A key motivation for me in pushing the Bill and moving it has been about delivering good governance that leads to political stability and tackling all the issues that we have to tackle and that many Members feel passionately about. Those include delivering social justice in our most deprived communities and tackling educational underachievement and economic inactivity. We are not doing any of that or delivering on any of those.
We have come to the point at which, in effect, we either reform the Assembly or it will fail. I do not say that lightly. We have been teetering on the edge for months; this is not the first crisis that we have hit. Rather than the political adage of "crisis, what crisis?" we seem to hear more of crisis, which crisis? That is because we are never quite sure which crisis will bring us down. Will we make it through to the end of the mandate? We have to be about much more than just surviving. We were told in 2011 that this was the term of delivery for the Assembly. We had survived 2007 to 2011, and this had to be the term of delivery.
We all know the reason why the Assembly and these institutions are here: they were born out of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. At times, I feel that I am almost one of the few unionists in this Building who actually proudly says that I voted yes in 1998, and I have never changed my mind.. Does that mean that we want these institutions to be somehow frozen in time? Absolutely not. It was always envisaged that they would evolve. However, the broad principles of that agreement, about genuine power-sharing and inclusivity, are those that I voted for and still agree with and adhere to. It is about how we deliver that normalisation of our politics, where parties present costed, realistic manifestos before an election.
In the lead-up to that election, parties and the apparatus of government might start to look at manifestos, think who would form a likely Administration and, after an election, a coalition might come together to agree a Programme for Government and be bound by collective responsibility. Instead, what we have in politics is the endless silo mentality, not only of the structure of our government, but of our politics. Silo because our Departments think in silos — politics make them think that way. We think in our silos of a unionist versus nationalist bloc on every occasion. Instead, we should be looking at a Government and an opposition to hold them to account. An opposition to hold them to account and to provide our voters with an alternative Administration, should they so wish, because power in an elected and representative democracy comes from the people. We should never forget that.
I want to turn to some of the approaches to the Bill. In looking at this, several things came to mind early on. Could we do this without legislation? Could we do it just by Standing Orders? Can we do it all or, as some have suggested, should Westminster not lead on this issue? I want to tackle that. The Bill's structure is somewhat unusual, to say the least, in that it has the parts that we can do and, built into that, there is an Assembly and Executive reform motion that we would also want to have debated. There is endless — actually, ample — opportunity to debate, not only in Committee, should the Bill be approved by the House today, but at Consideration Stage, Further Consideration Stage and so on.
I want to take on some of the issues about doing it in legislation. I know that Members have followed the debate on having an opposition for some time. I refer Members to the Research and Information Service's pack on the Bill, which shows that, in moving amendments in the House of Lords, Lord Empey makes the case and sets out the agenda that he would also be worried about anything that could take away from the powers — should the Assembly do this by Standing Orders — that would make it easy for those powers to be removed again. A Bill makes it much harder to remove such powers. If we enshrine them in primary legislation, they are very hard to become the gift of any Executive.
Lord Empey referred to "grace and favour" opposition. The Bill would make it very, very difficult for a future Executive to, at some point, take away the rights, powers and role of an opposition. That would become very difficult to do.
In rejecting doing it in the House of Lords — this is why it comes back very much to the structure of the Bill — Lord McAvoy spoke on behalf of the Labour Opposition and Baroness Randerson on behalf of the coalition Government back in 2014. Lord McAvoy said:
"The Assembly must reach a cross-community consensus on the creation of an Opposition before Parliament can consider legislating in this way ... Consensus cannot be created retrospectively as this amendment would seek to do. It is for the Assembly to make the first moves towards creating an Opposition".
In further debates in which this was moved, Lord Alderdice referred to the issue of whether Westminster or we in the Assembly act first as a bit of a catch-22. Those were the challenges that I faced in looking at the possibility of this legislation. It was almost a chicken-and-egg situation as to which came first. The position was very clear in the House of Lords debate. Lord McAvoy said:
"A consensus must be reached in Northern Ireland before we can accept this amendment ... If the Assembly were to pass Standing Orders to create an Opposition and the Executive were to ask the Secretary of State to consider legislation, then it would be right to give the proposed amendment serious consideration."
Baroness Randerson makes it quite clear. She said:
"It would not be appropriate for the Secretary of State to have authority over the Assembly's internal affairs, as the amendment suggests. In the view of this Government, it is not appropriate for the Secretary of State to intervene internally in the processes of the Assembly."
That gives you a flavour of what was said in the House of Lords throughout the debate. In a further debate, Baroness Randerson said:
"It is absolutely fundamental that the Assembly itself reaches this agreement. The Government see their role as that of facilitating the operation of the opposition parties within the Assembly when the Assembly reaches that decision for itself."
Those comments were made during the debates in the House of Lords when Lord Empey tabled the amendments. I ask the House to bear in mind two things. Lord Empey voiced genuine concern about a future Executive being able to take away or change Standing Orders. This legislation makes that very, very difficult to do; doing it in the way that I am proposing would make it very difficult for a future Executive to do that. It is also abundantly clear that Westminster will not act on this without the Assembly or Executive making the first move.
I will also read from correspondence I had from the Secretary of State, the Rt Hon Theresa Villiers MP; it is a response to a letter from me on 15 December 2014. I will briefly quote from the final paragraph. She said:
"In principle, the Government supports your suggested legislative approach in the Assembly. However, as some of your proposals involve changes to the architecture of the Belfast Agreement, the UK Government can only give effect to those where it can be demonstrated that such changes command the broad support of parties in the Assembly."
That is why I am taking the approach that I am with the Bill, and bringing it with an Assembly and Executive reform motion attached to it.
Mr Agnew: I thank the Member for giving way. I welcome the Secretary of State's commitment to listen to the views of the House. Given the Member's enthusiasm for the Good Friday Agreement and given that it was passed by referendum, does he not agree that it is not just the support of this House that should be required but that of the people?
Mr McCallister: On that point, I disagree with the Member from the perspective of the functions of this House and the way in which the Executive, our Government, should do their business. I do not think that it is necessary to go to a referendum. The Good Friday Agreement was at the end of a troubled, difficult and turbulent time in Northern Ireland's history, when over 3,500 people lost their lives. It was different. There was sea change. There was also constitutional change for those in the Republic of Ireland. This is about saying to the people of Northern Ireland that we hear the message that they want a functional Government. I truly believe that people want to see this place work. They want to see it do more than just survive. There is a chance for parties to put commitments in their manifestos and put them before the people, possibly on 5 May 2016. People will want to go out and vote on the basis that they will get something up and running with a functional Executive, a functional Government and a robust opposition to hold that Government to account.
I will look at some of the key points in the Bill. First of all, there may be criticisms from some that I have not sought to change any of d'Hondt. Quite frankly, we are not at a place where we are ready to give up on d'Hondt in its entirety. In the past 17 and a half years, we have not made the type of progress to normal politics that we needed to make. In fact, it is well and truly argued that we are possibly more divided than we were 17 and a half years ago. Sometimes, I look back over the last six or seven weeks and wonder how on earth we did what we did in 1998, because we seem to have lost any capacity for moving forward or spirit of generosity in our politics.
The reason why I am sticking absolutely with d'Hondt is that it respects the parties that are getting mandates. I am not about saying to parties that have strong mandates that they should not be part of the Government of Northern Ireland. The big challenge for them is to step up and be the Government of Northern Ireland and to act responsibly as that Government. That is why I have stuck with d'Hondt.
We know that Sinn Féin has a mandate. I respect its mandate and that it had 29 Members elected here in 2011. In fact, I suspect that there is only one party leader here who would not like to get 29 Members elected at a 2016 Assembly election. That is a tremendous mandate. I am not about excluding or trying to exclude one party from the Government if their electorate wishes it to be there. You might well ask, "Then, why the threshold?" It is about ensuring that those parties in government agree a Government and act responsibly, and also that you reach a certain level to get that automatic right into government. I know that some parties will have concerns about that. I will quote from Robert Dahl back in 1966. The example in the research pack is good. It states that:
"‘by making the mistake common in ethnic conflicts of failing to distinguish inclusion in the 'political Community' from inclusion in government, the arrangements left the Assembly bereft of any effective opposition to challenge executive dominance".
That is the reason for staying with d'Hondt and committing to it. I am not about excluding from government any parties that reach a large mandate.
That will be their right, but it is also their responsibility to step up and be the Government.
The notion of renaming OFMDFM the Office of the First Ministers has become one of the most divisive political issues, but for what reason? Everyone knows that it is a co-joined, co-equal office and that, in theory, one cannot order a cup of coffee without the other, so why do we not call it what it is — the Office of the First Ministers? It is a joint Administration and they are joint holders. Everything about it is joint. One cannot sign off on something without the other — that is built in.
Key to that is that the parties that want to be in government should have to agree a Programme for Government with broad Budget headlines. That is absolutely vital. For too long, as the First Minister has pointed out, we have just about survived. This has to be about delivery, whether that is in South Down, Foyle or East Belfast, and whatever the issues are that we are tackling. It has to be about an effective Government moving to a unitary model; not endlessly having departmental silos that do not speak to each other.
I am setting out a vision for genuine power-sharing, not shared-out power. What we have at the moment is not power-sharing; it is shared-out power whereby Ministers can gang up and vote in the same way in the Executive and be at a picket line later that day, denouncing their ministerial colleagues. That cannot and should not be allowed to continue. All that it has achieved for us is absolute public scorn. The public see, know and think "dysfunctionality". If anyone ran any business in such a manner — one partner does one thing and the other goes off in a completely different direction — it would not survive the test of time.
On the subject of building in collective Cabinet responsibility, let me quote Eoin Daly from an article in 'The Irish Times' in April 2014:
"Collective responsibility of Government is not simply a political convention but rather a legal principle enshrined in the Irish Constitution. While article 28 of the Constitution states the government must be collectively 'responsible' to Dáil Éireann, it also stipulates that it shall 'meet and act as a collective authority'. This means that observance of the rule is not simply a matter of political convention, as in Great Britain – in theory, it is legally binding and justiciable at least in some instances."
"it prevents government by faction, and ensures that executive power is located in a single accountable authority. For government to be effectively responsible, it must first be a collective – a single unit – rather than a cluster of undisciplined factions. Indeed, the principle first developed in Great Britain as a means of wresting executive power from King to cabinet."
"For government to be effectively responsible, it must first be a collective – a single unit – rather than a cluster of undisciplined factions."
I suspect that that may ring some bells when people observe the Northern Ireland Assembly and how it has worked in recent times. Collective responsibility, moving to a unitary Government, is absolutely vital to ensuring delivery and to the Government speaking as one voice.
I touched on the issue of the threshold. I think that it is important that we do not have an automatic entitlement to ministerial power and being in office. If you want to get an agreed Programme for Government that truly means something, you will have to put in some limits, and people will have to sign up to that. Of course, parties falling below the threshold could negotiate their way into the Government, but they would be bound by collective responsibility.
Turning to key reforms for the Assembly — this is included in the schedule — I would like to see the way in which we elect our Speaker changed. I would like to see that being very much within the gift of the Assembly and Assembly Members. During your election, Mr Speaker, I think that I said that it should be within the gift of the Assembly. I certainly do not have any personal dispute with you, but I think that it is incumbent on us to ensure that the speakership is seen as being and is completely, totally politically independent.
I think that it would be difficult for a Speaker of whatever political party or background to have to go back to seek election in their constituency while not being able to write to Ministers and have the same level of contact even in the local press. It is also difficult for a Speaker to do all the things that we as constituency Members do and to take definitive positions, whether on planning or other Government policies, and maintain neutrality. I, therefore, think that the way to do it is to have the Speaker lifted, effectively, out of party and constituency politics, and the party of the Speaker, who has been removed from that, would then be able to co-opt.
You will be aware, Mr Speaker, that, in Dáil Éireann, the number of seats in the Speaker's constituency is reduced and the Speaker is automatically returned. In Westminster, the Speaker faces virtually no real opposition from the main parties. I think that, in 2010, John Bercow faced somebody who was campaigning for representation of Buckingham, which is his constituency. That somewhat limited and disenfranchised constituents living in Buckingham, because, as one example put it, if you were going to concrete over all of Buckingham, the Speaker of the House of Commons could do very little about it. That is something that I would seek to avoid.
Turning to other changes under the opposition and Assembly reforms, I think that having a leader and deputy leader of the opposition is key. That is the key in saying to people, "There is a huge role for parties in opposition". We have a mindset here that the only thing that you need to get great power is one seat in the Executive. There is huge benefit in having an opposition. Remember this: today's opposition is tomorrow's Government. The hope is to have an opposition that is working and functioning well.
Indeed, having the Chair and the Deputy Chair of the Public Accounts Committee as members of the opposition, just about every academic quoted in the research paper, from Derek Burrell to Yvonne Gilligan to Cathy Gormley-Heenan, talked about that change, which, I think, would be very welcome. It is common practice in the Dáil, Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay — all the Parliaments that you could mention.
Again, the right to form a technical group is common practice in the Dáil. There are something like 23 or 24 Independent Members in Dáil Éireann currently. I think that it is right and proper to set some threshold on that, so that the leader of a single party does not automatically, by some electoral fluke, end up being the leader or deputy leader of the opposition. If you set a base of, say, 5%, as I am proposing, that is six Members. It may just be convenient that there happen to be six of us in this corner, but I can assure the Speaker that that is purely coincidental. Between us, we would exercise those rights. At the minute, the six Members here cannot table motions in the Assembly and cannot have speaking rights or access to the Business Committee in that way. That would help our democracy and would help to give real meaning and substance.
I have often said that my main criticism of the old Stormont Parliament is that you did not have an effective opposition and so had no ability of choice or change. The electoral system was changed at the 1929 election mainly to keep down that dangerous notion of independent unionists and to stop them getting too many seats. That also gave us no ability to change our Government; too many people ended up being returned here completely unopposed for too long. That is not good for engagement in a democratic system, and that is why not having an opposition did a huge disservice to Northern Ireland and to the body politic and is why these changes are essential now. Forming technical groups can be a huge part of that.
I will move on to the ability to ask topical questions and financial support. For example, looking at financial support, I have written into the Bill that we would move and allow the independent review panel to look not only at salaries for leader and deputy leader of the opposition but at all the allowances that are given to political parties. It may be of interest to some Members to note that the salaries of all Ministers are paid by the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is somewhat strange that Departments do not pay their Ministers' salaries. Part of a Minister's salary should come from a Department. It may also interest you to know that it costs the Assembly around £750,000 per year by the time you add in salary, national insurance and pension contributions. I am not saying that all of that would have to come from Departments, but we should certainly look at whether it should be incumbent on Departments to pay their own ministerial salaries. There is scope to see what money could be reviewed and what money, under our financial assistance to political parties, should move from the Government to opposition. It would also build in opposition-day debates and changes to the Budget committee.
I have also built into the Bill — this is a hugely important line — that it would remove community designation from the Northern Ireland Act. I understand the reasons that community designation was there in 1998. We were trying to move from conflict to consensus and to build up trust. I am not suggesting that we are entirely there in building up trust, but further changes in the St Andrews Agreement have rendered community designation almost pointless.
In the original agreement, community designation was important in determining who got to be First Minister and deputy First Minister. As I said earlier, that is a phoney war, if you want to describe it as that, over who gets the First Minister and deputy First Minister positions. It is no longer used for that. The largest party now gets to select the First Minister. I want to rename that. Therefore, the only things that we now use community designation for is cross-community votes and to determine who can run an event in the Assembly. That is all we need it for. My personal view on running events in the Assembly is that this is our Parliament and it should be open to all, even those who do not like it and do not want it here. It should be open to a free and democratic debate.
Therefore, the need for community designation has outlived any sense of purpose. It is now dividing us along sectarian lines where it does not need to, and its end should be welcomed. I say to Members that d'Hondt is your key into government. Community designation on this and other occasions serves no purpose whatsoever.
I am also proposing to make the petition of concern much more accountable with the need for broader support to trigger. I want to change its name to a "minority community protection mechanism". I want it to need 30 signatures, as at the minute, but for them to come from three different groupings or parties. The reason for that is that we have a tremendous track record of using and abusing petitions of concern throughout this mandate. One party can use it on its own, and that is a problem. In this mandate, from May 2011, at a rough count we tabled about 100 petitions of concern. That is close to double what we used in the preceding 13 years, so they are becoming very common. In 45 of the 100 tabled, the amendment was never moved or a division held. You are down to a 19% strike rate on this. In many of the things that they are tabled on, you have to ask where the community protection was.
I give Sinn Féin some credit on signing petitions of concern in that, because they needed to, they sought as wide a coalition as possible. One of the last ones that they signed was on mandatory minimum sentencing, which Sinn Féin signed, as did the SDLP, NI21, the Greens and Ms Sugden. So, you had a broad coalition to do that. I made the point that you did not actually need to do it because, of the 55 petition of concern votes, in two thirds it did not change the result. Of the 100 petitions of concern we used, only 19 changed the result. That is easy for me to do the percentages on, and is a pretty poor strike rate.
What are we protecting but something that has become a matter of public scorn? If you want to build in a community protection mechanism, get broad support. That also ties in with the broad package of measures in this Bill. It ties in with the fact that you will have an agreed Government. Your most likely outcome could be a DUP/Sinn Féin Government, and they should not be submitting petitions of concern or asking for a different vote on their own policy. If you have agreed Government policy, they should not be signing petitions of concern.
The reason why the Bill builds it in is to stop any opposition tabling these things at will. You will have to have a broad coalition of support for a petition of concern. That very much provides the safeguards that we all want to see but does not make it so easy that we table petitions of concern on just anything. Examples of subjects on which they have been tabled include the Criminal Justice Bill, the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee on welfare reform, and the National Crime Agency. The National Crime Agency is a useful example. A Minister was asked to think again about something and then negotiate a deal and get, primarily, the SDLP over the line. Given the allegations about the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) and the role that the National Crime Agency is playing in that, many parties in the House are now glad to have the National Crime Agency here and welcome it. There was also a petition of concern in relation to the A5 dual carriageway project.
Throughout the list, so many were tabled to amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill. Up until what happened in March, the lead parties in government had effectively agreed on a policy on welfare reform. When they agreed on a policy, they could push that through. Had the smaller parties in government at that time been able to call on some of these and block the Budget, we would have been in an even worse position. You might well debate whether or not we have much of a Budget at the minute, but we could not have passed the Budget. That is why I would like to change it to a simple majority vote. A Government that cannot pass their Budget falls. That is the democratic norm around the world. If you cannot get supply, your Government falls and you immediately go to an election. The case for changing the petition of concern and setting a higher bar for such a mechanism to be tabled is well and truly made by looking at the facts from this mandate.
Removing community designation and changing the petition of concern are fundamental. We currently have effectively two tiers of MLAs when it comes to a cross-community vote. The votes of the eight Members from the Alliance Party and Mr Agnew do not count in a cross-community vote. Therefore, the people who elected them are disenfranchised in cross-community votes. It is time to normalise the process by using qualified majority voting and setting a threshold of around 60% for it. I am open to people wanting to increase that limit, but I think that 60% would have to be the minimum. That is a key point.
Mr Allister is not in for this part of the discussion, but I have issues with two things that Mr Allister suggested at the end of last week. One was the Westminster Government taking back Executive power and the Assembly becoming just a sort of scrutinising body. That might be fine on a very short, temporary basis, but all that it would do is move every single Member of the Chamber into permanent opposition. The one thing that we would unite around is that old saying of, "Ulster says no." We would be saying no to everything. We would say no to just about every proposal or cut that involved any level of pain. We would be saying yes to more money. That is the only thing that we would be saying yes to. Actually, that would let each and every one of us off the hook. I could go back to South Down and say, "Oh, yes. I spoke out against that. I did not support that. I did not want to bring in prescription charges. I was against water charging. I was against welfare reform." It would let us off all the hook. We would never have any difficult decisions to make.
Mr Allister's second point was on moving to a permanent state of weighted majority voting. That would build in permanently the idea that we are not normal. I only want to see weighted majority voting used in exceptional circumstances. It is also only about excluding one party. As I said before, I say to Sinn Féin, I respect your mandate. I would love to lead a party that has 29 seats in the Assembly. I respect it. I get your right to be in government with that size of a mandate. It is right and proper that you should be there.
Those are fundamental changes proposed in the Bill.
I will go through the various clauses very quickly. The Bill opens with the formation of an opposition, how an opposition is formed and the timing of creating it. I stress that, in clause 2, the definition of "qualifying party" needs a slight amendment, but I am working on that so that every party that is above the 5% threshold of six Members, but is not in government and does not have a ministerial seat, qualifies to be in opposition. It also deals with the size of party. We then create the legal mechanism on which to hang the rights that those parties are entitled to. The Bill clearly sets out the membership of the opposition. It also excludes you, Mr Speaker, from being in opposition or in government in order to maintain the neutrality of your role. It sets out that the opposition would fall if the Executive fell.
The next clause relates to creating the leader and deputy leader of the opposition. Under the current numbers, the leader of the largest party in opposition, Mr Nesbitt, would qualify to be leader of the opposition. The deputy leader would have to come from another group. If the six of us could agree, one of us could be deputy Leader. Who knows? Mr Nesbitt might be leader of the opposition, and I might be deputy leader — it will be just like old times.
Mr McCallister: Mr Kennedy is keen to put some distance between him and me.
The next clause deals with topical questions from the leader and deputy leader of the opposition to the Office of the First Ministers, as it would be then known, and would give them each the first two topical questions. There was concern that that would eat into too much of topical Question Time, but I remind Members that the First Ministers are up for questioning twice as often as Ministers of every other Department. Also built into that is that the Chairs of Committees would get the first topical question at their departmental Question Time.
The next clause deals with enhanced speaking rights for the opposition. In clause 8(2), I have built in an entitlement of a minimum of 15 days. That is more as a safety mechanism for a situation in which we had a very active Executive with a very active legislative programme. I am not sure whether any of us are anticipating that, but that sets a minimum that would have to happen.
I will also table an amendment on speaking rights to make them more distinct. Our speaking rights here should be given out by d'Hondt on the basis of party strength. When the Government and the opposition are established, the speaking rights of opposition parties would be lifted by 20% above their d'Hondt calculation at the expense of the Government parties. That, too, is to enhance the level of scrutiny.
I talked earlier about the right of the opposition to hold the posts of Chair and Deputy Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, as is the case around the world.
The next clause is about membership of the Business Committee. It is right and proper that it should include members of the opposition and any technical groups represented in the Chamber.
The next clause covers financial assistance for political parties and asks the financial review panel to look at that and amend the Act to allow for an Assembly opposition to be included.
The clause, "Salary for office holders of the Opposition", covers the need to amend slightly the Assembly Members (Independent Financial Review and Standards) Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 to allow for different salaries and allowances to include not only those of Ministers but those of office holders in opposition.
The "Assembly and Executive Reform Motion" is the part where we have an opportunity to ask Westminster to make changes. As I said earlier, Westminster will not do that without the assent of this Chamber. Personally, I think it right and proper that we, in the Assembly, should determine the way forward and the changes that we want to see in our Assembly, and that Westminster should stand ready to make the changes. If, at the end of this Bill, the Assembly, the Assembly and Executive Review Committee and you, Mr Speaker, were to write and ask the Secretary of State to do that, the Secretary of State would know that, in this Assembly, all corners had given it support, lent their weight to it and said, by a majority, that they wanted to do it. In the Bill, we talk about the way that that motion should be tabled and call on AERC to give regular updates.
I have talked about "Formation of technical groups within the Opposition". I think it sensible and wise to set a threshold. Again, there should be topical questions from the Chairs of the Statutory Committees. All that adds up to a level of scrutiny that we might expect in other legislatures around the world. It adds to that sense when a Chair of a Committee can ask a question of the Health Minister, Employment Minister, Justice Minister or the First Ministers. All that is important.
The establishment of a Budget Committee would effectively, in my view, tie in nicely, if we complete the reform of the size and shape of government and the transfer of functions, with our Assembly Committee changing to mirror that. I accept that I need to amend it slightly, but the policy direction and intent that I have set out is very much about saying that we need to separate it from the Finance and Personnel Committee. We should keep with the Finance and Personnel Committee all the rating policy, the personnel matters, the voluntary exit scheme, and all the stuff that belongs there, but change the game of our Budget process. That is something that Mr Cree has long campaigned for. He has talked, in virtually every debate concerning the Budget, about the fact that we need to improve our Budget process. I know that the Scottish Parliament uses a Budget Committee to look at the explanatory and financial memorandum (EFM) of every piece of legislation that comes before it. That is the type of level that we need to get to. We need to be lifting our game, quite frankly, on all that information. Daniel Greenberg, who was at one of our Assembly training events, would be quite critical — I put it politely — of the standard of EFMs in this Building. We have a long way to go to catch up with our Scottish counterparts.
The Departments are to be a single legal entity. I am still waiting for some legal advice on this, and I hope to have it very soon. I anticipate making some amendments to this part of the Bill. However, the policy intent of this is to move away from the silo mentality of government to a single, collective government machine, where government and Ministers all put their shoulders to the wheel. That is the direction of travel, and every Minister and party in the Executive has signed up to it and must deliver on that policy intent.
That is what we have been so badly lacking in and served by, to the point where Mr Agnew has tabled a Bill, now heading for Further Consideration Stage, to get the Government to work together to deliver services for children. That is something that I want to see worked on. I want to see Government work on a collective policy and take collective Cabinet responsibility. It helps to get us away from the nonsense of one Minister taking another to court. We had that with the then Minister of Finance, Simon Hamilton, taking the Minister of Agriculture, Michelle O'Neill, to court over rural development payments, and with Minister Foster and Minister Durkan taking each other to court. That is something that we have to move away from. We have to get to a collective sense of responsibility. When one Minister speaks, they speak for the Government. If a Minister disagrees with Government policy, they resign from the Government. That has to be the reality.
I turn to the schedule to the Bill. This is the list that we want the Assembly not only to pass today but to look seriously at if the Bill is referred to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. Of course, Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage are both chances to amend; but I highlight, Mr Speaker, that this is a carefully balanced package that, I think, delivers for us all. Paragraph 3 provides that:
"The motion may request that the concept of community designation is removed from the Northern Ireland Act 1998."
I think that it is hugely important to remove that sectarian element.
Paragraph 4 calls for changes to the 1998 Act by replacing cross-community with weighted-majority voting. A weighted-majority vote may be triggered by 30 signatures from different political parties. The threshold in a weighted-majority vote is 60%. The safeguards are there.
Paragraph 7 provides for the Speaker to be elected by weighted majority in a secret ballot, following the example of the House of Commons. The Speaker would then be elected as, effectively, MLA for Stormont.
Paragraph 8 allows for the renaming of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Not only is there a single unitary Government, but collective ministerial responsibility is written into the ministerial code. As the earlier quotation from Eoin Daly puts it, it is passed down from Westminster. The 300-year old convention at Westminster is that if you disagree with Government policy, you leave the Government. It is also in the Irish constitution: if Sinn Féin was ever elected into the Government of the Irish Republic, it would be bound to act as a single unit by article 28 of the constitution. That is an important change. We have to get to the point where we look and act and sound like a Government of Northern Ireland by making those changes.
I will take paragraphs 10 and 11 together. Paragraph 10 sets out the threshold for the nomination of Ministers. It puts in a minimum of 16·6%. That is to future-proof it, Mr Speaker, for a smaller Assembly of 90 Members — or for a possible reduction to 90 Members. It also means that if we run d'Hondt as one piece, there is an incentive for the smaller parties, which instead of being entitled to pick a Minister get an extra chairmanship. They get a pick at a Chair or Deputy Chair. That will give a higher percentage of Chairs to smaller parties. It very much meets the inclusivity criterion by giving them a prominent role in the opposition, and in the political community, of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Paragraph 11 gives an extra incentive to do that. I have to say that, when you have the choice of one Minister and the impact that you can have, there are endless complaints that you are treated very badly. You would be much better in opposition, chairing Committees, preparing, scrutinising, and looking like an alternative Administration at some point in the future.
Paragraph 13 of the schedule is about lengthening the time taken to agree the Programme for Government. I think that the Stormont House Agreement stated that it should be two weeks; I have suggested four weeks to negotiate it. If you recall, in 2010 in the United Kingdom, it took the Lib Dems and the Tories four or five days to negotiate that. In the Republic of Ireland, Fine Gael and Labour took maybe two and a half to three weeks. It is vital to get a Programme for Government nailed down, meaningful and including what you want, and for the Government collectively to put their shoulder to the wheel to deliver on that agenda. We expect that when councils get together and consider their agendas for council mandates and we expect it in every other Government. This is what happens; parties fight elections, they bring their manifestos and they negotiate.
In the lead-up to the 2015 UK election, the entire Civil Service machinery was looking at manifesto commitments from different parties. When it looked as though there may have been a coalition Government, it looked at what the negotiations might be. Who might be in government? Who might provide confidence and supply? Those are a normal part of the democratic functions.
The functions of a Statutory Committee will change from:
"to advise and assist Ministers in the formulation of policy".
Their functions will instead become to scrutinise Ministers.
Paragraph 15 of the schedule refers to a simple majority vote for the Budget. Once we move to having that simple majority vote, we can start to say that we are normalising our politics here. That is us starting to say that we are normalising; we are ready and fit to take on the future and we are setting out a collective approach to government. I made the point earlier that this Bill and all the processes and thought behind it are a result of conversations with parties around this Chamber, in Westminster and in the Dáil about making effective government. If the Bill is approved today, I hope to present to the Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in Dáil Éireann in a few weeks.
This is not about excluding a party with a large mandate; it is about good, effective governance. I want, more than anything else, for my young children to see a future in Northern Ireland. I want a vibrant economy with a growing private sector and a much reduced dependence on the state. I do not want to become a parent whose best advice to my 18-year-old is to get out of here. I do not want to bring up my three kids with a view to them having to leave. I want them to be part of it.
To everyone in this Chamber, I say that this is at the heart of it: it is about putting a package together that works and that gives the balance of powers to government and to opposition. It will create a dynamic Government that can make decisions, can function and can deliver on Transforming Your Care without other Ministers out protesting. We can get an Executive that can bring forward their shared education agenda and move ahead with that, can get an economic strategy, and can, when they write that the economy is at the heart of this Government, look as if they mean it. That is an important change. Above all, I want a Northern Ireland Assembly that works, a Government that works and a Northern Ireland that works.
Regardless of your constitutional outlook, goodness knows that we vote at every election as if it were a referendum on the border, and we vote at every election as if the border were up for grabs, even though it is not; 1998 secured the consent principle. I was speaking to a friend who moved to Scotland 14 or 15 years ago and who is very much a unionist, believes in Scotland, voted no in the referendum but was happy to vote for the SNP because he thought that it was doing a decent job on agriculture. That is where we need to get to: where policy matters, where manifestos matter and making Northern Ireland work.
With regard to the constitutional agenda, if you believe, as I do passionately, that we are best served by being part of the United Kingdom, this is about making Northern Ireland work. For too long, we have looked like such a dysfunctional place — almost the basket-case corner of the UK. I want to see us working. The prize for us all is that, when we look round and see that the UK constitution is in a state of flux, we see more powers that we could devolve here to a functioning Assembly. There are many more tax-varying powers, not just corporation tax; there are changes to income tax and bands of income tax, possible changes that Scotland and the Welsh are looking at, and the Chancellor announced during his conference speech that he wants to give powers to local government — the whole idea of empowering English cities and the northern powerhouse. You can see throughout the agenda that the real driving force is to devolve power closer to the people, and that is something that we should encourage. However, for us to get that, we need to be fit for purpose. The Bill, I truly believe, delivers some of that.
If, Mr Speaker, like many colleagues in the House, your outlook is to be part of an all-Ireland republic, that is entirely fine and legitimate. I respect that right, and I respect your ability to make those arguments. I might fundamentally disagree, but if you are serious about ever making that argument, you have to make this place work, you have to look like you are a party of government, you have to look like you accept the responsibilities of being in government, and you have to rise to those challenges.
In moving the Second Stage of Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill, I end with the quote from John Fitzgerald Kennedy that I have used before:
"Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction."
The Bill gives the Executive a way of getting that purpose and direction. It is incumbent on the parties in that Executive to get purpose and direction to set the policies, develop their agenda and move on and get elected and set that agenda. Let us all move on and change Northern Ireland very much for the better, and let us make it work.
Mr Speaker: Before I call the next Member to speak, I remind Members that Question Time is at 2.00 pm and it may be necessary to suspend the debate until thereafter.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. First of all, in welcoming the Second Stage of the Bill, I appreciate the amount of work that the proposer of the Bill has put into it and the detail that he outlined today. I know that he had the good grace and the courtesy to consult other people, our party included. At the end of today's proceeding, we will allow the Bill to go to Committee Stage. I am a member of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, and already provision is being made, second-guessing the outcome of today's debate.
When the Member spoke about the need for this, he was aware that we said that we feel that many of the things that he has outlined today can be brought about without the need for legislation, but I am sure that that will be teased out as we take this forward. He quoted the stepped-aside-at-present First Minister, Mr Robinson, when he talked about this place being dysfunctional. He then made a reference to Seamus Heaney — I will paraphrase it as this: what is said then what is to be done.
That is fine, but, when people talk about the institutions being dysfunctional, they sometimes forget the reason why and the history of the place. Indeed, Seamus Heaney once said:
"At home in Ireland, there's a habit of avoidance".
When we talk about the dysfunctionality and the reason why the Good Friday Agreement came up with the structures that we have, we often try to avoid that reason. I am not saying that the proposer of the Bill is doing so; he has outlined on a number of occasions that he is a supporter of the Good Friday Agreement. He has shown that many times in the Assembly and by his actions, and I welcome that. He referred to 1929 and the change from proportional representation to first past the post. Whereas there may have been an intention to deal with the independent unionist voice — I do not doubt that — I think that most observers would say that, with first past the post, the level of nationalist representation fell dramatically and, as a result, discrimination was copper-fastened. Not only was it copper-fastened but the formal Opposition had many of the speaking rights that, as he outlined, are necessary in that type of system, and the history of opposition in that institution was far from impressive. I think that they were permitted to pass only one piece of legislation: the wildfowl Act.
At the core of any system is the intention of the people involved. When we come to talk about it, we will ensure that whatever legislation goes through the Assembly must be Good Friday Agreement-proofed. I make the serious but perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek point that we will be the gatekeepers and ensure that no rogues or renegades try to undermine the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. I do not include your good self in that definition. That is the position that we will take as the Bill is taken forward.
People say, "We respect Sinn Féin's mandate", as if in some way that is a concession. Mr McCallister said that the weighted majority was not designed to put Sinn Féin out of the Executive. Sometimes it is not intentional, but his tone and presentation suggest that we are somehow in a privileged position over and above all other elected representatives in the Assembly or elsewhere. We are here by virtue of the privilege that people voted for us, and we will certainly ensure that that happens.
Mr McCallister referred to the leader of the TUV and his presentation of options last week. I think that he described one in which English Ministers here would be scrutinised by the Assembly. He said rightly said that that would put everybody into opposition, but I think that it shows the intention: it would ensure that Sinn Féin was not in the Executive. Sometimes, people are prepared to cut off their nose to spite their face. I have also heard the said Member say, time out of number, that the democratic norm or principle is having to be in a position to vote a party in and out of government. Yet the British Labour Party does not stand here, the Liberal Democrats do not stand here and when the Conservative Party stands here it gets a derisory number of votes. He says that you must have the ability to vote somebody out of power, but he does not want to extend that to the people here in the North. That is why I made the point about intention: there are people who would be fairly comfortable with the idea of putting up any model as long as Sinn Féin was not in the Executive. We will protect the Good Friday Agreement, which allows the people to decide who is in the Executive.
The dysfunctionality is another issue that can be teased out, and we have no issue with trying to do so. As I said, under the terms agreed in the Stormont House Agreement, there is provision for an opposition. I am not saying that you accept that, Mr McCallister, but, in one of the clauses, you are broadly saying that Standing Orders "must make provision", which, in our opinion, should say that they could be amended to bring in many of your suggestions. We are not opposed to the idea of opposition, if people desire it —
Mr B McCrea: I am interested in the comment that there is provision to do these things. I have read the Stormont House Agreement: if his party is keen to implement many of these changes, why has he not brought them forward as a proposed change to Standing Orders?
Mr McCartney: One aspect is that we would not be in a position to do it on our own. When Mr McCallister was speaking, he made that point very well. When you are trying to change things, here in particular, you are better to have a consensus and a collective. There is an implementation group around the Stormont House Agreement, so, hopefully, coming out of the other end of that implementation group will be many aspects of the Stormont House Agreement that have been agreed and can be projected forward. One of those will be opposition. If we took a position to change Standing Orders, other parties could block it, so what would be the point? Is it not better that we all agree that there is a need for it and agree on the shape, content and form of it? We would then have more success. I do not mean this in a dismissive way: the easy thing to do sometimes in politics is to run to the microphone and get a sound bite. What you want to do here is get not a sound bite but something that will bite, so that we have some sort of position as we go forward.
I see the import and content of the schedule, but there are aspects that require good scrutiny, irrespective of what position you take. In our opinion, there are aspects that need to be Good Friday Agreement-proofed. Some of them hand too much power and responsibility to the British Secretary of State in terms of legislation. You might say — we would be opposed to this — to someone, "Bring in legislation", but, if you do not give them any boundaries within which to do that and they come back with something that you do not agree with, you could find that you cannot do too much about it.
In terms of the broad principles and the presentation that the Member made, we have no issue with giving it approval today. We certainly want to play our full part in the scrutiny at Committee Stage. However, the Member is well aware of our broad proviso: we feel that many aspects of this do not require legislation and can be brought about by changes in Standing Orders. Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
Mr Speaker: Go raibh míle maith agat. Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, as I mentioned, so I suggest that the House takes its ease until then. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Mr Seán Rogers.
The debate stood suspended.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair)
Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning): I have had ongoing discussions with Ulster University in relation to the possible implications of the budget reductions to the higher education sector, including proposed course closures and the potential impacts on staffing budgets. While my Department provides funding and sets the strategic direction for the higher education sector, universities are autonomous and responsible for their own course provision and staffing levels. During those discussions, I have highlighted the need to reflect the ambitions of the Executive and the objectives of my Department, including the protection of narrow STEM subjects.
To provide the university with some flexibility and to 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 has been undertaken to promote widening participation through outreach activities and support to less advantaged students.
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 over the current academic year and future years. The size of those cuts is a clear indication of the severity of the budget reductions that my Department, the university, and the higher education sector face.
Before making decisions regarding course provision and staffing levels, 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 that led Ulster University to close some courses and consolidate others.
Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he be more specific about the job losses involved and the placements that will be lost?
Dr Farry: The university has made announcements in that regard: it has published and announced the number of jobs, places and courses that will go. I can list all of them for the Member, but it would take a while, given that we are talking about a severe situation; however, they are freely available for his information.
Mr Dallat: The Minister said that universities have autonomy, but surely he, as Minister, has a greater responsibility to ensure that the equality issues and the economy of the areas where the universities exist are of paramount importance. Will he explain to the House — for goodness' sake — what the rationale is in bringing Project Kelvin in at Portrush, allegedly to create thousands of new jobs, when, at the same time, the department of business studies is virtually closing?
Dr Farry: There is not a lot of rationale for a lot of things that are happening. We are in a very poor state of affairs with our governance and the decisions that we have been taking, or rather not taking, on budgets. We are seeing the outworkings of that with what is happening, not just with the universities but further education, other skills interventions and, outside my Department, in a host of other public services.
It is worth stressing again that universities are autonomous. We can give guidance, and they are aware of the Executive's direction of travel in that regard, but we need to be very careful about micromanaging them. It would be very easy to say that they should protect courses and jobs on this or that campus or certain types of courses. However, we have to recognise that, very regrettably, we have had to pass on cuts to universities and they would quite rightly come back and ask, "If you do not think that we should be cutting in that area, where do you want us to cut?" We have to trust them to make decisions based on evidence and on the host of factors that I indicated in the initial answer to the question. In whatever way they do it, we will have a very unpalatable outcome.
Ms Sugden: I think that the university took that decision entirely in isolation. That is unacceptable, considering that a significant amount of the money that it receives comes from the public purse.
I also think that the decision to take the Ulster business school to Magee is quite ridiculous. The Executive have a responsibility to look at the decisions that are affecting my constituents and those of others represented in the House. Will the Minister consider reintroducing a higher education funding council for the future of Northern Ireland, as seen in other parts of the United Kingdom?
Dr Farry: To go down that line would add another layer of bureaucracy, divert scarce resources from the front line and make the situation even worse. There are funding councils in England and Scotland due to the scale of their societies and the number of universities that they have. We have three universities and six further education colleges in Northern Ireland engaged in higher education. Operating on that scale, there is not the same case to be made for the creation of a body such as the Higher Education Funding Council for England. In that regard, we need to have a sense of balance and perspective.
Dr Farry: Members will be aware that the two reports that I commissioned on initial teacher education infrastructure, the Grant Thornton study and 'Aspiring to Excellence', confirmed that the status quo is unsustainable from both a financial and qualitative perspective. For example, year-on-year, we continue to train too many teachers for jobs that do not exist, primarily to sustain the current institutional configuration. 'Aspiring to Excellence' has provided alternatives to the current structure that could enable initial teacher education to be delivered more cost-effectively and to a world-class standard.
In my view, the option that best achieves this is a single institution that will enable increased sharing and integration and provide a research-rich environment in line with best international practice, although I remain open to alternatives that are financially sustainable. Such an approach would include provision for the respective ethos of the university colleges to be not only accommodated but embraced, as has been achieved in other places such as Dublin and Glasgow. My officials and I are currently considering a number of options and will initiate further engagement with the providers and the wider education sector to find an agreed way forward. I hope to say more shortly in regard to our next steps.
Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for his response. In regard to available teacher training places, the Minister is on record as describing the current system of having the teacher demand model topped up by Education Ministers as politically motivated and a "racket". What progress has been made in ensuring that the ability of Sinn Féin Ministers to act in a blatantly sectarian manner is stopped?
Dr Farry: I certainly understand the point that the Member is making, although I perhaps might not express it in the terms that she has. However, the numbers remain a matter for the Minister of Education, and he will take his decisions based on a number of factors.
My views on the issue are already well known, and I do not think that it is a sustainable way forward. Frankly, it is a sad state of affairs that we are training too many teachers for our local economy when we know that the jobs are not there for them. That diverts incredibly scarce resources away from other areas of the economy; for example, the areas that we talked about in the previous set of questions. It is appropriate that we find some consensus in the Assembly for a much more sustainable way forward for our teacher education, which will serve not only the future needs of our education system but allow resources to be freed up to invest in other critical skills interventions. It is bizarre that we have a situation where it costs more in Northern Ireland to train a teacher — when, arguably, we have too many — than an engineer, which we have too few of. We have to get our priorities straight.
Mr Ramsey: The Committee was aware of the number of options that you had in going forward to try to get a resolution between Stranmillis and St Mary's. Can the Minister assure the House that he will compromise on his position to get a consensual way forward to ensure that the ethos and management of both colleges remain intact?
Dr Farry: At the moment, we do not see much overlap in the different views coming forward from the institutions. We have had three institutions say that they are in favour of the options under 'Aspiring to Excellence', including in particular option D. St Mary's, while open to cooperation — it is only right that I say that — has, however, rejected all of the options set out in the report.
Therefore we are, to a certain extent, at a bit of an impasse in this situation. However, the underlying issues are still there. We have a very costly and fragmented system; we are still training a large number of our teachers on a divided basis, which sends out a terrible signal to the future of our education system; and, while our provision is of good quality, it is not keeping up with the pace of international developments, which, in due course, will be felt by way of the quality of our education system.
Ms Lo: Given the Executive decision to protect the premia for teacher training colleges, what are the consequences of that for the education and training aspects in Northern Ireland?
Dr Farry: As the Assembly will know, I had proposed the removal of the specialist premia from the teacher training colleges. They are the only colleges in receipt of those very particular payments. The effect is to very much skew our provision of higher education. The decision that was taken by the Executive meant that what would have been a £14 million cut to the higher education sector became a £16 million cut. That will have had an effect on the number of places and the number of jobs that have had to go in our universities. If we had been able to do things differently, we would have had fewer job losses and fewer courses being dropped.
Dr Farry: During the Budget negotiations, I secured an additional £20 million to support skills development, which alleviated the budget reduction to further and higher education. The further education budget has been reduced by £12 million, which follows on from £4 million annual efficiencies that were required in recent years.
To help address the budget cuts, colleges have utilised the voluntary exit scheme, with the exit of over 400 college staff. I have tried to ensure that front-line services are protected as far as possible. Inevitably, the required cuts will have implications for the provision offered. Colleges are estimating that there will be approximately 20,000 fewer funded part-time enrolments. Approximately half of those are recreational courses. Colleges are increasing fees for recreational courses to mitigate the cuts.
Looking forward, the new strategy for further education extends and reaffirms the role of further education colleges as engines of the economy through skills.
The higher education institutions' budgets reduced by £16·1 million, and they have made savings over the past four years amounting to £37 million. I also released around £8 million in spending power over coming years to the universities by reducing the minimum level of reinvestment in widening participation programmes from 20% to 10% of additional student fee income.
The universities have acted to protect the narrow STEM subjects which are essential for our future economic growth and prosperity. However, they have had to reduce the number of undergraduate places and have launched early severance and voluntary exit schemes.
As higher education funding from government continues to decline, it is clear that our funding model is unsustainable. Therefore I have launched the Higher Education Big Conversation to involve as many people as possible in shaping our unique solution to supporting higher education going forward. Once complete, I will take stock of all options and present them to the Executive.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his response. Will he provide an update on his discussions with the university sector to explore ways of raising additional revenue without detrimentally affecting students?
Dr Farry: A lot of work is ongoing by way of business and community interaction. It is worth noting that our local universities perform extremely well in the UK context and, certainly, punch well above their weight in areas such as consultancy, knowledge-transfer issues, spin-out companies — those types of indicators.
There is, perhaps, greater scope for growth in relation to how we do from UK research council bids. The difficulty there is that we are battling a trend towards the consolidation of big-scale research projects into fewer and fewer universities, particularly as the scale of the project becomes an important consideration. As well as that, we have the issue of being on a different island from that on which things are often happening elsewhere in the UK. That makes the challenge of what we have to do almost double.
Nonetheless, this is an area where more work can be done. We also have the potential to access European funding, and great work is happening to put in bids for Horizon 2020. As the Member will be aware, we have a contact-point network in place across my Department and DETI with support from a number of other Departments, with people employed solely with a purpose of processing grant applications to the European Union. Beyond that, we also have North/South cooperation between DEL and the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and also the US-Ireland research alliance, all of which are other ways in which we can bring additional money into the higher education sector.
Mr Cree: Would the Minister's efforts to address the funding difficulties be made much easier if many of his Executive colleagues did not adopt a head-in-the-sand attitude, particularly in their approach to finance, including welfare reform? Does he now regret not voting for the current year's Budget?
Dr Farry: First of all, let me say that we have to press on with welfare reform. That is of primary importance. I also have to say to the Member that the situation would have been helped a little bit if the decision had not been taken by the Executive regarding the reallocation of the premia cuts that I had proposed to the teacher training colleges. His party was very much party to that decision.
Overall, my party did take the view that we were not in support of the Budget. We took that democratic decision because we did not feel that the Budget was sufficiently strategic. However, once that decision had been taken, we honourably followed through with decisions that have been taken to support the legislation around all that and to ensure that our Departments remain within the Budget envelope that has been allocated to us. Unfortunately, I do not think that those comments apply to the conduct of his own party when it was in office until fairly recently.
Mrs D Kelly: The Minister will be aware that a number of job losses are imminent next year, not least at B&Q in my constituency. What efforts are being made with his Big Conversation around colleges for those people who are somewhat later in life and find themselves out of work during that time? How will those training opportunities or services that people usually avail themselves of through the colleges be ring-fenced for the future for those people who need that type of upskilling?
Dr Farry: I have to say to the Member that it is very difficult to contemplate ring-fencing anything in the current climate, because real carnage is happening to budgets for skills in both the universities and the colleges. Let me stress that our colleges, in particular, are there to engage directly in the upskilling of the workforce. That is a service for all ages. They will work directly with companies to put together some very particular training programmes, as well as the more general provision that they offer. They are also the key delivery partners in our new strategy on apprenticeships.
Beyond what the colleges offer, we also have redundancy services where we can put together particular clinics. With particular reference to B&Q, the offer is there of direct assistance that we can provide to any individuals who are very sadly being made redundant in that context.
Mr Dickson: Can the Minister set out for the House his vision of the appropriate finances that are required to deliver the world-class further and higher education to which we all aspire?
Dr Farry: It is worth referencing where we currently sit in the context of finance. We have had a cut in the region of £16 million in the current financial year. That builds on top of what has been an emerging structural deficit for our universities approximating to £40 million. These are all per annum costs. That amounts to a difference in funding per place in Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the UK of between £1,000 and £2,500, which is a very significant difference. If it is not addressed, it will call into question the quality of our higher education product compared with that of others. There is very real danger there.
On top of that, we have quite understandable demands for the expansion of the higher education sector, particularly with reference to the Magee campus in Derry. If that were to go ahead, we would be talking about an additional commitment — again, per annum — from the Executive in the region of around £30 million. Very quickly, you see that we have a funding pressure for higher education in excess of £80 million per year.
We are not simply proposing that the system carries on in future as it did before. We need to rebalance and reprofile our higher education offer and we need to see a greater shift towards STEM subjects and engagement in the provision of employability skills. Our universities are also potential partners in our apprenticeships strategy, particularly around degree-level apprenticeships, which take into account part-time study alongside someone being in training on the job in that particular context. That is a very tall order, given the amount of money that we are talking about. However, it is achievable if we are prepared to do things differently across a whole range of aspects of how we conduct business in Northern Ireland, from addressing the costs of a divided society through to revenue raising and other reforms in key public services.
Dr Farry: With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I wish to group questions 4 and 10, and I request an additional minute for the answer.
Northern Ireland currently supports higher education through a roughly equal balance between public and private investment. In 2013-14, the higher education institutions’ two most significant sources of income came from annual grants paid through Departments amounting to 37% of their income and tuition fees paid by students, representing 30%. This year, in the context of severely constrained public resources, grant funding for higher education in Northern Ireland is reducing by over £16 million. Meanwhile, tuition fees have remained frozen, subject only to inflationary increases, since 2006. This stifling of investment has led to significant reductions in student places and staff posts. We are now the only region in the UK that is actively disinvesting in higher education. The model we currently use to support higher education is no longer sustainable.
That is why I have launched an innovative and experimental approach to engage with the people of Northern Ireland about this extremely important issue entitled the Higher Education Big Conversation. The first stage of the Big Conversation closed on Friday 2 October. It was designed to inform or remind people about why higher education is so important and how it is delivered and funded. It also explored the challenges that our higher education system is facing and drew on the ways in which higher education is delivered and funded elsewhere. Parents, organisations, employers, employees, former higher education students and current students tested their knowledge during the first stage of the process.
Stage 2, entitled "Have your say", closes on Friday 23 October and provides the people of Northern Ireland with the opportunity to help shape the future of higher education here. I will use the evidence gathered from this exercise to formulate an options paper, which I will present to my Executive colleagues, outlining the ways in which higher education could be sustained in future.
Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. When does the Minister expect to have conversations with representatives of political parties as part of these discussions?
Dr Farry: That stage will come formally through engagement with the Committee for Employment and Learning, on which all the parties in the Assembly are represented, and with members of the Executive. Ultimately, the Executive will be the key decision-maker in that regard. If any party wishes to have a separate meeting with me or my officials regarding these issues, we are more than happy to facilitate that directly in advance of those more formal discussions.
Mrs Dobson: The Minister will be aware that the funding gap between universities in Northern Ireland and universities in Great Britain is growing. Will he assure the House that the Big Conversation about higher education is not a device to put off making a decision while the funding gap continues to grow?
Dr Farry: It is certainly not designed to put anything off. It is designed to bring things to a head because the current situation is not sustainable and a decision has to be taken on the way forward. I am very keen to hear the views of the Ulster Unionist Party on what it believes is the way forward. Ultimately, this is a decision that will have to be taken by the Executive; it has to be a collective decision that all of us are able to stand over and which can be embedded for several generations. We cannot have a situation where our universities are facing unstable environment where they are living from pillar to post, from one year to another or from one spending round to another. This issue needs to be settled so that the universities can plan ahead for the future and so that future students have certainty in the decisions that they make about how they are going to approach their studies.
Ms Hanna: I thank the Minister for his answers. You have suggested that the current model is unsustainable. Has the Department identified the tipping point after which it thinks the model will be financially unworkable? At this stage, do you envisage a change in the number of Colleges NI campuses?
Dr Farry: At this stage, the situation is, clearly, already unsustainable. We are losing places and staff and going in the opposite direction from what is happening elsewhere on these islands. Until this point, we had been making progress — a gradual, incremental change — on the number of places in our universities. Over the lifetime of this Assembly, we have managed an increase of almost 1,300 or 1,400, which is a significant rate of progress, but we are now moving backwards.
On the Member's second point about Colleges NI and the number of FE colleges in Northern Ireland, the intention is that we will continue to have six. It is not on the agenda. Obviously, as we work through the capital programme for colleges, there may be decisions on the rationalisation of particular buildings, but we are committed to having six colleges in our FE network.
Dr Farry: An increase in National Insurance numbers issued does not necessarily lead to an increase in the number not in employment, education or training. A report commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions and authored by Portes, Lemos and Gilpin shows that there is no impact on the numbers not in employment, education or training related to the number of migrants registering for National Insurance numbers in the UK.
It should be noted that not all those issued with National Insurance numbers, outside the routine process when individuals are 16 years old, may be working. It should also be noted that some of those issued with National Insurance numbers, although not UK-born, will be UK citizens.
Northern Ireland Social Security Agency and Department for Work and Pensions statistics show that there were between 8,000 and 11,000 National Insurance numbers issued to non-UK nationals resident in Northern Ireland in each of the last four years. That is around half the annual level for the period from 2005 to 2008.
It would be unwise to assume a causal link between the claimant count and National Insurance number registrations. Migrants will leave or will not all have jobs at any one time, and some will be UK citizens even if not UK-born. It is, therefore, important not to draw conclusions about whether non-UK-born National Insurance number registrations increase or decrease the number of those not in employment, education or training.
Mr McNarry: I thank the Minister for his answer. I asked the question to inform opinion-makers. Will he tell me, as opposed to speculation, what sort of grip his Department has on the relationship between these high immigrant figures and the number of jobs available to local young people aged 16 to 24, some 32,000 of whom are not in employment, education or training?
Dr Farry: I certainly hope that the Member will inform the people of Northern Ireland as to what is really going on rather than engaging in scaremongering —
Dr Farry: — and scapegoating people coming into our society.
Dr Farry: I think that most people in this society are sick, sore and tired of the demagoguery that comes from UKIP when it is scapegoating the other for the problems that lie within our society.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Dr Farry: Let me state the facts as they stand: we have problems with unemployment and problems with low and no skills. Those are deep structural problems that existed in our society long before mass migration became an issue. The same applies to what people perceive as problems with school admissions and waiting lists. Those are nothing to do with the fact that people are coming to work and live in Northern Ireland. They relate to problems with our budgets and structural issues in our society that we have not yet got to grips with.
The fact remains that unemployment, including long-term unemployment, and economic inactivity persist regardless of the ups and downs of the economic cycle and the numbers coming into Northern Ireland. Those are the facts, and the statistics are there. I am more than happy to give those to Mr McNarry, particularly if he is committing himself to informing people about the facts, rather than confirming the perceptions and fears that people wish to stoke up for potential political gain.
Let us not scapegoat economic migrants. Let us welcome them into Northern Ireland and recognise that they are playing a major role in our society and are adding more to our society than they are taking out. For example, our National Health Service in Northern Ireland would not function if it —
Dr Farry: — was not for people who come to Northern Ireland from other parts of the world.
T1. Mr Somerville asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for an update on the disability employment strategy. (AQT 2961/11-16)
Dr Farry: I am more than happy to give the Member an update, though it is only two weeks since we launched the strategy and so the consultation is still under way. I am sure that the Member will be particularly pleased, given his political allegiance, that I was down at Croke Park this morning for the National Disability Authority conference on opportunities around employment. It is worth noting that what we have done in Northern Ireland has been mirrored in the employment strategy that was launched by the Taoiseach on 2 October. That was the same week that we launched our strategy in Northern Ireland.
Mr Somerville: Thank you, Minister, for that answer. Is there any timeline for the implementation of the Bill?
Dr Farry: The intention is to have the formal strategy in place early in 2016, once we have formally concluded the consultation process and collated all the responses. However, there are aspects of it that we can proceed with already, and the Member will probably be pleased to note that we have proceeded, through Disability Action, to begin recruiting the supported employment officers.
T2. Mrs Dobson asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for his assessment of the idea of grandparental leave for childcare. (AQT 2962/11-16)
Dr Farry: At this stage, it is very early days, given that it was only announced last week at the Conservative Party conference. In principle, it seems to be a positive idea. As the Member will know, only this year, we introduced shared parental leave. That has been in place since the beginning of April this year. It would take fresh legislation in the Assembly. However, if that is the view of the Member and other parties, I am sure that there would be a strong basis on which we could proceed to introduce legislation along similar lines to legislation that will be introduced for Great Britain.
Mrs Dobson: I am glad that the Minister is aware of the Chancellor's announcement at Westminster. Notwithstanding the need to recognise the primary childcare responsibilities of both fathers and mothers, will the Minister ensure that Northern Ireland keeps pace with the rest of the UK on this policy area?
Dr Farry: Yes, I am very much aware of the importance of ensuring that people in Northern Ireland get full advantage of such provision, and I would join the Member in stressing the importance of remembering that, when we talk about shared parental leave or potential shared grandparental leave, this is all about voluntary participation and enabling people. It is about recognising the different nature of the modern family. We often have two parents who are working or, indeed, single parents, in the case of the grandparent context, who may be working, and there may be a whole host of economic and social reasons why people wish to share the leave available to them in different ways. It is not about forcing people to move away from a more traditional model if that is what particular families prefer, but it is essentially widening choice. This also has a very strong economic rationale. It is about companies investing in their staff and ensuring that they are treating them with respect, and a productivity gain will come on the back of this to all employers who are required to go along with the new legal framework.
T3. Mr McAleer asked the Minister for Employment and Learning whether he accepts that the cuts to the tax credit system will result in fewer people being able to take up employment, if, indeed, they are fortunate enough to secure a position. (AQT 2963/11-16)
Dr Farry: Yes, I am opposed to what is happening with tax credits. However, as the Member will know, that is happening on a non-devolved basis through Westminster, and it is therefore incumbent on MPs who are there — that can potentially include the elected representatives from the Member's party — to stand up for the circumstances of Northern Ireland when decisions are being taken in that regard. The Member will also be aware that we have a talks process under way and that the issue of welfare is under consideration.
That point is being brought up by a number of sources. A lot of consideration is being given to steps that can be put in place to mitigate the effects of welfare reform by ensuring that we are investing in employability schemes and how we give people proper opportunities to engage with the world of work and sustain employment.
Mr McAleer: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he accept that, whilst the increase in the minimum wage will go some way to relieve the condition of people living in poverty, it does not go far enough to counter the negative impacts of the cuts in the tax credit system?
Dr Farry: The increases in the minimum wage and, in due course, the so-called living wage approach will, to an extent, mitigate those cuts, though not fully. There will be a differential impact for different people. We also have to factor in the potential implications for employment levels in Northern Ireland. While there is a clear national consensus on the way to go in additional support for those who are in work through what they are earning, we also need to be conscious of the potential impacts, particularly on SMEs, as we have a predominance of SMEs in our local economy.
T4. Ms Lo asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what form his participation took in the National Disability Authority conference in Dublin this morning. (AQT 2964/11-16)
Dr Farry: Like Northern Ireland, other parts of these islands are looking at the support that they provide to people with disabilities. That involves a range of public services and the infrastructure that we have. There is also an increased focus on employability.
I was at the conference to share our experiences in Northern Ireland over past years in how we have sought to support people with disabilities into the world of work and how we can help them to sustain employment. I also highlighted the strategy that we have just launched for consultation. I spoke alongside the Irish Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald. Other prominent speakers were there, too.
Ms Lo: How do we compare with other regions in these islands?
Dr Farry: Through a bizarre coincidence of timing — or maybe it was deliberate; who knows? — in the week that we launched our consultation exercise, an Taoiseach announced a disability employment strategy for the Republic of Ireland. We see, on a North/South basis, a coming together of the two jurisdictions in similar types of provision. While we will remain separate in the implementation of those respective strategies, where there is potential for commonality, learning lessons on a shared basis or exploring opportunities for placements or job opportunities on a North/South basis, we will take those up.
We are aware of developments in disability employment strategies elsewhere in the UK. While, on a piecemeal basis, we have seen elements that we are considering for Northern Ireland being introduced in other parts of the UK, they are not at the stage where they are encapsulating those as part of a formal strategy, although I am sure that they will seek to do so in the very near future.
T5. Ms Fearon asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for his assessment of how attractive it is for students from Newry and Armagh to attend college in Louth and throughout the border region. (AQT 2965/11-16)
Dr Farry: It depends on the level of study. At levels 2, 3 and 4, I imagine that the Southern Regional College has a massive advantage. We do not have huge evidence of a flow of students from Northern Ireland to the Republic for further education or its equivalent. However, we see a significant flow of students in the opposite direction. The bulk of that flow is in the Derry/north Donegal corridor, where we have well in excess of 2,500 students moving in that direction. The flow between Newry and County Louth would be much smaller than that.
Ms Fearon: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he outline what actions he intends to take in the near future around removing barriers to cross-border student mobility and exploring what barriers exist?
Dr Farry: There are probably two separate issues in that regard. There is the issue of what is happening in higher education, which has been the subject of quite a few questions in the Assembly recently. The main barrier to a flow from North to South in further education is a lack of equivalent provision in many parts of the Republic of Ireland. That is what we are seeing particularly in relation to the Derry/Donegal phenomenon, where there is a migration into North West Regional College because there is not any significant provision at that level in County Donegal. That area has been sadly neglected by the Irish Government over many years.
We in Northern Ireland bear a major cost of around £7·5 million every year; that is the effect of this. Obviously, that comes at the detriment of our ability to invest that money in other parts of further education. Let me be clear that I am not seeking to discourage students coming from the South. We have to have a natural flow in both directions to balance each other out. Once we have that, colleges will be able to specialise even more in provision, which stands to benefit us all, irrespective of which jurisdiction we are starting from.
T6. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what progress is being made in providing higher-level apprenticeships in Northern Ireland as part of the change fund. (AQT 2966/11-16)
Dr Farry: As the Member will appreciate, as part of the Northern Ireland apprenticeship strategy, we are committed to piloting the higher-level apprenticeships. We have secured a package of £7·5 million from the Executive for that and some piloting in relation to youth training. At this stage, we are looking at potentially around 450 higher-level apprenticeships across 10 different occupational areas starting in the current academic year. All six of our colleges, as well as our universities, have engaged in this process. Of a total of 30 applications that have been made, 27 have been approved by my Department. The list includes areas such as mechatronics engineering, insurance, food manufacturing and computing. A full list is available on the NI Direct website.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for his answer. I welcome the progress that is being made on the provision of higher-level apprenticeships. How important is improving the provision of higher-level apprenticeships to the transformation of the Northern Ireland economy?
Dr Farry: The key point here is that we have very clear evidence of the importance of higher-level skills and having a much greater footprint in those. However, we are not going to achieve that fully through the more traditional higher education academic route. While that will remain important, it is equally important that we seek to diversify the routes through which we provide those higher-level skills. The apprenticeship model provides a different alternative, one that combines people being in a job while learning both on the job and at a college or university. That type of hybrid study, particularly at the higher levels, will be very lucrative for employers in their having confidence that they are getting the qualified young people that they need for the future growth of their business, and for young people themselves in knowing that they have the employability skills that are very much prized by employers, in addition to the professional technical skills that employers need.
T7. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for his assessment of the need to train more doctors and nurses in Northern Ireland and to outline how he and his Department can encourage and assist with this. (AQT 2967/11-16)
Dr Farry: The Member will know that those workforce planning issues are matters for the Department of Health, rather than directly for my Department. I, like others, am very much aware of the pressures that are being experienced within the health service. I am sure that the Health Minister is very much seized of those issues.
Mr Dickson: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. In the discussion that preceded this, Mr McNarry was barracking from a sedentary position at the back. The Minister was giving a clear list of facts and figures, provided presumably by his Department, and they were described from a sedentary position as "your lies". I find that objectionable and inappropriate language, particularly when what was being delivered on the Floor was clearly a list of facts.
Mrs O'Neill (The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development): With your permission, a Cheann Comhairle, I will answer questions 1 and 10 together. I can advise that the estimated total cost for the relocation of my departmental headquarters to Ballykelly is £30·8 million capital and £14·3 million resource. The costs are currently being refined as part of the full business case process, which is due to be completed by November 2015.
I am confident that the wider rural area around the north-west will benefit significantly from the project in a number of ways. As well as the construction jobs, local businesses and suppliers in the area will benefit from a much larger customer base. The new headquarters will need to be serviced, with functions such as cleaning, catering and security services which will impact on employment in the area. Throughout the design process, my officials have ensured that the building and the site that it will occupy can be used for community purposes.
The relocation will open up employment and promotion opportunities for people living in the local area and enhance the potential for staff living in the north-west to further their careers in the Civil Service without having to move to, or commute to, the greater Belfast area. Relocation to Ballykelly emphasises that DARD is a Department that promotes regional economic rebalancing and is committed to the sustainability of rural communities.
Mrs Dobson: I thank the Minister for her answer. I am just sorry that Gregory Campbell is not in the Chamber to hear the answer, but anyway. The costs for the project have been spiralling, not least since the Minister's hopes to save £26 million by using the existing buildings on the site were later dismissed. Can she give a commitment that, in light of the ongoing absence of a business plan, as well as a possible alternative of utilising the empty Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) buildings in Coleraine, the project represents the best value for public money?
Mrs O'Neill: Yes, I am absolutely confident that it represents value for money. The Member's information about the costs spiralling is wrong. The costs have been outlined in the outline business case and, as I said, we are coming to the conclusion of the full business case. The benefits that the project will bring to the north-west and to the rural community as a whole will be that it will create public-sector jobs in the area, and there will be ongoing servicing of the building as well as the construction of the building. All those benefits speak for themselves. It is about time that we had all Departments looking towards the needs of rural communities and those people from rural communities who work in the greater Belfast area now to access employment.
The benefits for the project are second to none. The benefits for the rural community are second to none. I am committed to making sure that we deliver on my headquarters going to Ballykelly. Forest Service has now opened up an office in Fermanagh, Rivers Agency has gone to Down, and construction work started last week in the site in Loughry for the Rivers Agency. So, I am very committed to decentralisation. I am very committed to making sure that there are employment opportunities for rural people, as well as those who live in the greater Belfast area.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call Mr Ó hOisín for a supplementary question, since he is the Minister's Assembly private secretary, and in line with the protocol, I remind the Member that his question should relate specifically to a constituency matter in which he is directly involved.
Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Príomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Thank you for your advice. Indeed, it is about a constituency matter. I very much welcome the great, rapid work on the progress of the DARD headquarters in Ballykelly and the interest expressed by others in the site. Will the Minister outline the details of the transfer of her staff to the greater Derry area in advance of the construction work at Ballykelly being completed?
Mrs O'Neill: My officials have analysed the information received from the Civil Service staff who responded to the expressions of interest that they would be willing to join DARD to work in Ballykelly. The analysis of the home addresses of those staff has led to the decision to utilise current vacated accommodation in Coleraine and Derry. My officials intend to utilise, in total, somewhere in the region of 100 workstations in Coleraine and Derry in the period between now and when the new site at Ballykelly is ready for occupation in late 2017. My officials, in conjunction with colleagues in DFP, have ensured that the accommodation being considered is flexible to allow DARD to alter the numbers in the advance accommodation as appropriate.
The HR relocation team is also working with business areas on the practicalities of the approach, and staff handling plans are being developed for those units that will be part of the advance party. So, as we move towards the final project, there will be an opportunity for other staff to go forward and take up employment in Coleraine and Derry, which gives those staff even more time to adjust to the new move to Ballykelly.
Mr Ramsey: I thank the Minister for her response. She indicated in it that she hopes to have 100 officials relocated to Ballykelly in the north-west by 2017. Will the Minister outline to the House how many staff will ultimately be working for DARD in the north-west area once the plan is complete?
Mrs O'Neill: We are going to create a workstation which will accommodate up to 600 staff, but we will do it on a phased basis to allow for the transition. About 400 staff will be there before the end of 2017, then there will be an additional 200 until 2020. Obviously, with changes in the departmental structures and the new Department being created, there will be some adjustment for new numbers, and decisions will have to be taken on that. However, as I speak today, we are talking about 400 in the first phase and up to 600 in the second.
Mr McCarthy: Can the Minister give the Assembly a categorical assurance that there will be continuity of business and that no one will be affected by the move? Farmers, as we all know, are going through a dire situation at the minute, and they should not be affected by this move to Ballykelly.
Mrs O'Neill: I can give that assurance. We are very mindful of the fact that we are changing how we are going to do business and where we do business from. That is why we are taking it forward on a phased basis that will allow that transition to happen very smoothly. There will be no impact on front-line services.
Mrs O'Neill: On behalf of the Department, Rivers Agency undertakes a prioritised programme of flood alleviation schemes across the North to protect people and property from flooding. In terms of significant projects, the Beragh flood alleviation scheme was completed this summer, and construction of a multi-million pound scheme is ongoing in east Belfast in partnership with Belfast City Council. A considerable number of small-scale improvement works are also being undertaken. Further construction work is planned in south Belfast later this year, alongside the ongoing preparatory work to bring a number of schemes to construction stage. I am pleased to advise that 290 homes and businesses benefited from enhanced flood protection in the last financial year as a result of flood alleviation schemes delivered by my Department, and a further 156 properties are expected to benefit in the current financial year.
Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a freagra. Will the Minister tell us what her Department is doing to engage with communities which may be at flood risk?
Mrs O'Neill: Rivers Agency staff are very proactive in engaging with communities. Where it is not possible to undertake a scheme, or where it will be some time before a scheme can be undertaken, the Department takes the lead in working with other responders to improve the community's resilience to flooding. That involves helping communities to develop their own emergency response plans.
Ms Hanna: The Minister is aware of the predicament of many householders, particularly in my constituency of South Belfast, who live under constant threat of flooding. Can she give an update on the household protection scheme, and give some assurance to people that they might still be eligible for that scheme, even if an alleviation scheme is planned for their area? In many cases, alleviation schemes will not begin to take effect for several years and people will have the threat of flooding hanging over them. There is a worry that they will not be eligible for the protection grants in the interim.
Mrs O'Neill: Yes, and I am happy to discuss that further with the Member. I brought forward the scheme for the reasons that I have said: sometimes, it is not possible to provide a community scheme that benefits everybody. This will help individuals to protect their own property, with the majority of the funding coming from the Department. From Rivers Agency, there will be around 90% grant funding. That is going to be very helpful. We hope to be able to launch the scheme, and provide all the details that the Member seeks clarity on, in November. At that time, we will be able to provide a lot more detail.
I want to make sure that the scheme is as inclusive as possible and that we help people who need help, particularly people who are waiting for schemes which may be two, three or four years down the pipeline. I will provide the Member with a more detailed analysis of who the scheme can protect and how to go about achieving funding. It is important that Rivers Agency provides that information, so that everybody knows what is there and how they can access it.
Mr Allen: East Belfast has a large programme of flood-risk works being carried out, and I welcome the investment on the Knock, Loop and Connswater rivers. Can the Minister provide an update on the areas at risk from the tidal surge in January 2014 and how she believes that those areas have since been protected from future threats?
Mrs O'Neill: As I said in my original answer, we are working very hard. The east Belfast scheme has obviously been a very significant funding scheme for the Department. It is costing something in the region of £6 million. We are working in conjunction with Belfast City Council, which is in the lead on that project. So, work is ongoing. As I say, there has been a significant investment. Rivers Agency is very committed to making sure that it completes the scheme and protects all those people who are potentially at risk. As you said yourself, the threat that we had from tidal flooding was very significant and very scary for people who live in that area, so it is important that we get the scheme completed and that everybody is content with the protections that are put in place and afforded to all those people.
Mrs O'Neill: A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I am going to answer questions 3, 4 and 5 together.
I am pleased to have secured £5·1 million for the North as part of the EU farm aid package. I welcome the fact that the Commission and DEFRA have accepted the strong case that I made for differentiated aid for the North, to reflect the unique and extreme circumstances faced by our dairy industry here. As a result, we will receive almost 20% of the member state’s allocation, which includes an additional top-up for the North of Ireland.
I have decided to allocate the full funding to dairy farmers only, as the price falls we have seen in that sector are deeper and more prolonged than in any other farming sector. I wanted to ensure that we target those who are facing the greatest losses and cash-flow difficulties at this time. Payments will be based on a flat rate per litre of milk production, so they will vary from farmer to farmer. Legislation, known as a delegated regulation, is required at EU level to make these payments. The Commission is finalising this and hopes that it will come into effect soon. My officials are talking to DEFRA officials on an ongoing basis about the detailed practicalities of making the payments and the subordinate legislation that will also be required in this member state.
I am anxious that payments are made as quickly as possible, and, given that our farmers are in greatest need of support, I have told George Eustice that I want our farmers to receive their payments first. I have pressed him for the aid to be paid as early as possible by the Rural Payments Agency, and I expect that payments will be made in early December.
Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for her reply. The Minister said that it is a unique situation. I am sure that she would agree with me that it is a total disaster for many of our farmers. Do they really have to wait until January to get their money?
Mrs O'Neill: I agree that it is a really difficult time for the industry, which is why I have fought such a hard case. We have been somewhat successful in that we have obtained funding over and above what farmers got in Scotland, Wales and England. However, I am very keen that this money is paid out as quickly as possible. We are pushing DEFRA. We need the EU to put the legislation through, and then we can move forward. As I said, I have asked DEFRA to prioritise our farmers, given that we are unique and that we are in a slightly different, more severe situation. I think that all I can do is keep putting the pressure on. Certainly, my intention would be that the payments would be with farmers before their single farm payment.
Mr McKinney: I thank the Minister. What assurance can she give to the non-dairy sector, which is also experiencing cash-flow problems, that their problems are being dealt with by her and her Department?
Mrs O'Neill: I have been very active in all these issues. We have never seen a scenario where all sectors are struggling at the one time. Normally, it is an individual sector, such as the poultry sector or the dairy sector, but this year has been particularly bad for all sectors. For my part, there are the practical supports that we can provide through the Department and through the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE). There is the benchmarking and all that practical work that we can do. Alongside that, I have been meeting with the banks and engaging with them around providing flexibility to farmers. We are prioritising making sure that we get the maximum number of farmers paid, so that all farmers in all sectors are paid their single farm payment in December. As I said, we are also working practically on the ground. Those are the areas where we can work. This is a really difficult year for farming. We are looking to the future, where there are opportunities for growth and prospects for our industry. We have to try and help our sectors get through this difficult time, so that they are able to produce in the future.
Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her response. Will this payment to dairy farmers impact on the processing of the new basic payment scheme?
Mrs O'Neill: I can give an assurance that that will not happen. I have decided to pay out the EU aid by using the Rural Payments Agency, which is under the remit of DEFRA. That allows us to get these payments processed separately and does not disrupt any work that we are doing around trying to get the maximum number of farmers paid in December. In recognition of the difficulties that there are for all sectors, I have made sure that we are able to distribute this funding in a way that will not impact on the basic payments being made in December.
Mrs Overend: Funnily enough, my question has been answered, but I am thinking of another one. In relation to dairy farmers, whilst it was encouraging that Westminster has recognised Northern Ireland's unique problems through its share, can the Minister now explain how she is going to use this recognition to her advantage through further discussions with the Commission?
Mrs O'Neill: We were the only devolved area to actually achieve a meeting with the Commission. I led a delegation that went out to meet with the commissioner. We were able to impress upon him why we are different and why we are unique.
There was recognition of that in the aid package that we received.
We have made a lot of noise in Europe, and that has been recognised. I have said since the meeting on 7 September that I did not think that the Commission went far enough. I have continued to lobby the Commission, and I think that we need a review of intervention prices. I have written to Phil Hogan to express that view, and I have written again to DEFRA. DEFRA listened to the plight of our farmers, but I do not believe that it supported their need, in that it did not ask for a review of intervention prices. I think that DEFRA failed to recognise the uniqueness of our farmers here in the North of Ireland. It is a good job that we have locally elected MLAs and a locally elected Executive who can go out and fight their corner because, if it was left to DEFRA, we would not even be in the position that we are in today.
Mr Byrne: I welcome what the Minister has done in lobbying Brussels directly, but, given that the French have managed to provide extra co-opted funding along with their aid package from Brussels, can the Minister indicate whether her Department, through DEFRA, can give any extra assistance to farmers who have availed themselves of what is, so far, a less than wholesome package?
Mrs O'Neill: The Member pointed out that the Commission stated that member states may provide match funding for the EU targeted aid allocated to them, but DEFRA has no intention of putting any additional funding to that. Any match funding would have to be on the same basis as that under which the EU element of the aid is allocated within a member state. If, through the EU package, aid is paid only to dairy farmers in a member state, any match funding would also have to go only to dairy farmers. However, there is no flexibility in DARD's budget to provide any additional match funding. We need to ensure that we continue to drive home the message that we need this money paid out as quickly as possible, and that is my job of work over the next weeks. As I said, I have written to DEFRA and asked for our farmers to be prioritised, and I will continue in that vein until the money is paid out.
Mr Allister: Some of the farming press have indicated that the average payment to dairy farmers will be in the order of £2,000. Will the Minister comment on whether that is correct? If so, does she accept that that is but a relative drop in the ocean of the losses that are taking place?
In answer to Mr Byrne, the Minister seemed to say that there is no prospect of match funding. She has two possibilities: she can give match funding or she can give funding to all of the farming community under the de minimis rules. Is she saying no to both?
Mrs O'Neill: The payments are being calculated, as I said in my original answer, on the basis of a flat rate per litre of milk production, so they will vary from farmer to farmer. The very crude calculation that some of the papers are running with divides the block money by the number of farmers, so the average payment looks to be £2,000, but that will not be the case; it will be based on their production levels. However, a flat rate per litre will be paid out that way. As I said, my priority has been to make sure that we get the payments out as quickly as possible.
I agree with the Member about the aid package on the table. We welcome any support for the farming industry, but I do not believe that this is the way to tackle the problem. There is recognition that there is a cash-flow problem, so a bit of cash coming into the system will help, but I believe that, unless the intervention price is reviewed, we will have this conversation again next year, the year after and perhaps the year after that because of the volatility in the markets and how the markets work. We need to prioritise getting that money out, and I need to continue the battle with Europe, asking for a review of intervention prices. I have already committed publicly to doing so and I have taken action to that effect.
Mrs O'Neill: I fully recognise the commitment of the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster and the contribution that they make in the rural community through developing our young people and providing them with a voice to engage with industry, government and their community. Their presence at industry meetings in Brussels in recent weeks speaks volumes for their dedication to ensuring that the views and opinions of our existing and future young farmers are heard.
I was delighted that the young farmers exhibited in the DARD pavilion at the National Ploughing Championships in Portlaoise a few weeks ago. This gave them an excellent opportunity to network with their counterparts, Macra na Feírme, and build on that important youth relationship. I was also able to have meaningful discussions with them about their recent achievements and plans for the future of the organisation. Full consideration will be given to any proposal made by the Young Farmers’ Clubs for the further provision of grant aid in 2016-17. Assessment will be dependent on the achievement of targets specified in the current agreed programme of delivery and subject to budget availability, key competing departmental priorities and business case approval.
Mr Beggs: I thank the Minister for her response. The Department of Agriculture is keen to ensure good farming practice and improved profitability and the Department of Health is keen to address the issue of rural isolation. Does the Minister acknowledge that the Young Farmers' Clubs of Ulster, and the limited funds that help it to coordinate the activities of the various groups and young farmers' clubs, provides good value in reducing the dangers of rural isolation and in allowing young people to experience good farming practice?
Mrs O'Neill: Yes. As I said, I value the work that it does. It is very active on the ground working with young people right across the island. I welcome the fact that it came along recently to the ploughing championships and held some joint events with Macra na Feírme, its counterpart in the Twenty-six Counties. It is very positive work. The number of people that it engages with speaks for itself in the value that it brings to rural communities. I have worked very closely with it and attended many of its events, and I think that it plays a valuable role. When it comes to looking to the future, I am quite sure that we will be able to find a way of working together around valuing what it does and making sure that it delivers and helps the Department to deliver on its key strategic objectives.
Mrs O'Neill: I am pleased to confirm that, since 28 September 2015, the headquarters of the Forest Service have been relocated to Inishkeen House in Enniskillen. Along with the relocation of my fisheries division to Downpatrick in June, the relocation of Forest Service represents the second significant milestone in the programme to relocate my departmental headquarters to four different rural locations across the North.
Mr Flanagan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her update. It is welcome news to see the further decentralisation of jobs in the public sector to rural areas like Fermanagh. Will the Minister give us an indication of the advantages of having Forest Service located in Enniskillen?
Mrs O'Neill: The move aims to bring more public-sector employment to the county. It will also allow for closer on-the-ground experience, particularly for Forest Service in its role, of what is happening in timber processing and recreation in the forests in the west. It is very beneficial for that practical work. However, the overall benefits of relocation, whether that is Forest Service to Fermanagh or all the other relocations that I am taking forward, are about recognising and delivering on one of the recommendations in the independent review of policy on the location of public-sector jobs. It is about stimulating the local economy through increased local spending, the provision of high-quality and high-value public-sector jobs and, potentially, jobs associated with the construction and ongoing servicing of a new building. For me, it is very much about sharing the wealth across the economy and contributing to better-balanced economic growth by commencing to address the disparities in the distribution of public-sector jobs right across the North.
Mr Somerville: The Minister will be aware that my party has consistently asked for the relocation to Enniskillen, and I am delighted to hear that that has taken place. Will the Minister provide an update on how many posts will need to be filled, given the external recruitment freeze? Will the people across Fermanagh be able to apply for those posts?
Mrs O'Neill: I believe that about 70 posts in total are going to Forest Service. There is certainly workspace for up to 70 staff. Whilst your party may have asked for it, I certainly delivered it.
Mrs O'Neill: Under the Cattle Identification (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2012, keepers must report cattle that are lost or stolen in writing to DARD within seven days of the event being noticed. Information on stolen animals or animals reported as missing is kept on the Department's database, the animal and public health information system (APHIS). APHIS does not differentiate between missing/lost or stolen animals. Those two categories are recorded collectively on APHIS.
The number of cattle reported missing or stolen in the Armagh divisional veterinary office (DVO) area was 389 in 2012-13; 629 in 2013-14; and 666 in 2014-15. That totals 1,684 for the three years. The number of cattle reported missing or stolen in the Newry DVO area was 406 in 2012-13; 947 in 2013-14; and 497 in 2014-15. That totals 1,850 for the three years.
The PSNI actively investigates reports of stolen cattle. I encourage any keeper who suspects that an animal has been stolen to report it to the PSNI as soon as possible so that a full investigation can be carried out.
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Minister for her answer. Given that the Newry and Armagh DARD veterinary offices consistently report the highest numbers of stolen or missing cattle, the proximity of the border to each office is clearly not a coincidence. Would the Minister support a National Crime Agency investigation into those organised crime gangs?
Mrs O'Neill: I would support any action that helped to remove the criminality that is in our society. That is an issue that has been raised consistently; I have raised it at the North/South Ministerial Council. Whilst we have joined-up working between the PSNI and an Garda Síochána, there are opportunities for us to work more effectively together in dealing with any criminality, whether in relation to any type of rural crime or, in this instance, cattle theft.
Mrs O'Neill: On 9 September, we received the tremendous news that our application to the EU Commission for officially brucellosis-free (OBF) status had been approved by the Standing Committee on Plant, Animals, Food and Feed in Brussels. On 6 October this year, that decision was formally published in the 'Official Journal of the European Union'. That means that we are now formally recognised as an OBF region. That is excellent news for the industry and is a highly significant milestone in the history of disease eradication here.
Achieving formal OBF approval now allows us to introduce further progressive reductions to our control measures, such as an increase to the age at which animals are tested and further reductions in the frequency of routine surveillance testing. We also hope to make changes to brucellosis pre-export testing for movements of cattle to other member states in the coming weeks. That will greatly reduce the costs that those controls place on herdkeepers and taxpayers, which in recent years have cost taxpayers some £8 million per year and farmers around £7 million per year in compliance costs.
Those additional programme reductions will provide further benefits to the industry and will build on the changes that I had already introduced prior to formal publication. In June this year, I extended biennial testing to beef herds, which had previously been tested annually, and, on 28 September, I abolished pre-movement testing for internal cattle movements, which alone is likely to save the farming industry some £2 million a year.
Reaching that status is a remarkable achievement, considering the grip that brucellosis had on the farming industry just a few years ago. I am acutely aware of how devastating the disease can be, and I congratulate all those who have worked so hard to eradicate it finally.
Ms Ruane: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an bhfreagra sin. I thank the Minister for that answer. Will she outline how the brucellosis-testing measures will be completed from now on?
Mrs O'Neill: As a result, we can now begin to roll out further programme changes that will all come into operation over the coming weeks. On Monday 19 October, I will increase the age at which animals are subject to a routine test from 12 months to 24 months. On 2 November this year, the frequency with which dairy herds are tested will decrease to some 20% a year over the next five years. We have already introduced biennial testing for beef herds, which will continue for the next two years. Over the subsequent three years, testing will reduce again to approximately 33% a year. It is appropriate to carry out less frequent blood testing on dairy herds compared to beef herds because regular bulk milk testing provides an additional assurance about the disease status of the animals. Brucellosis pre-export testing to the South, to Britain and to other member states should also end in the near future.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the news that the Minister has given us today that we are now a brucellosis-free zone or have that status. The Minister will remember that, a number of years ago, there were incidents of brucellosis being spread deliberately. What action needs to be taken to ensure that we maintain our brucellosis-free status in the future?
Mrs O'Neill: Whilst we relaxed some controls — as I said, there is significant benefit to the farming industry, not only in financial terms but in the benefits of going through tests — if we maintain that level of vigilance, if farmers are aware and if they report any incidents or issues that they are concerned with, I think that we can hold on to our status. Our status gets us into new markets and really helps us to market our produce. There are tremendous benefits for the industry, but we always need to be vigilant and point out if there are any areas of concern. Any issues of people being involved in criminality by deliberately infecting animals with brucellosis or any other disease need to be condemned and fully investigated by the authorities.
T1. Mrs D Kelly asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development for an update on the success, or otherwise, of cross-border initiatives, particularly in the agrifood sector. (AQT 2971/11-16)
Mrs O'Neill: We have regular discussions at NSMC level with Minister Coveney, particularly around new markets. One of the areas that we have been able to firm up as an ongoing area of discussion is trade opportunities. We need to work together. The jurisdictions are both targeting new markets. There are opportunities for us to work together on that. We have very much firmed that up on the NSMC.
Alongside that, we have had a number of very significant INTERREG programmes that have been taken forward. There is a very successful European intervention in community projects and projects that have created employment right across the island. There is a significant body of work there also. There are also opportunities under our rural development programme to bring forward new initiatives. I am working up some initiatives. I am very keen to explore the whole area of rural childcare and whether there is something that we can do right across the island in relation to that. Quite a large body of North/South work is ongoing.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister for her answer. Will she indicate whether she has any budget lines for some of that work?
Mrs O'Neill: Yes. Obviously, the work that we do around looking for new trade and market opportunities is something that we can discuss at ministerial level. Alongside that, I have set aside £4 million under the new rural development programme to look at some sort of cross-border initiatives. That is where I am aiming to bring forward some interventions that will go alongside the childcare strategy of the Executive.
T2. Ms McCorley asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to outline the arrangements for the inaugural meeting of the supply chain forum. (AQT 2972/11-16)
Mrs O'Neill: The Agri-Food Strategy Board recognised in the 'Going for Growth' document the importance of working together in the industry and between industry and government. That is why I have tasked the industry with taking the lead in delivering that event. The first supply chain forum is going to take this place this Wednesday at the Loughry food innovation centre. It is going to bring together all the key players from across the agrifood sector to discuss the challenges being faced across the supply chain. I understand that over 80 individuals are expected, representing every element of the supply chain, including feed companies, producers and growers, farming representatives, processors and retailers, as well as representatives from the banking sector. They all recognise the importance of the industry and the need to get the supply chain working properly to ensure that all players share the costs, risks and profits of their labour.
Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat. What will be the benefits for farmers and primary producers through such an engagement?
Mrs O'Neill: We are going to hear from some guest speakers who will share their knowledge of the opportunities that exist for our local product, the building blocks for our future growth and their first-hand experience of working together with their supply chain partners. There is going to be an opportunity for those attending to share their thoughts, experiences and aspirations. I hope that we can get a real conversation going that will bring about real improvements to the supply chain.
Wednesday's supply chain forum will not resolve all the significant challenges that exist, but I want it to be the starting point for longer-term engagement along the supply chain. I want those involved to start talking to one another again to rebuild the relationships that may have fallen by the wayside, and I want those involved in the supply chain to be involved in strengthening it and to bring about the change that will help the industry to realise its ambitions.
T3. Mrs Overend asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development how she sees the agricultural sector changing in the forthcoming year, given that, according to the latest economic report from Danske Bank, while the Northern Ireland economy is set to grow at a moderate rate, the agricultural sector is, unfortunately, expected to contract by 1·4%. (AQT 2973/11-16)
Mrs O'Neill: I have always said — we are continually talking about it and being reminded of it because it is a real challenge — that all sectors are struggling at the minute. It is very hard to see any kind of future. I have read and absorbed the economic predictions. We need to look to the more medium to longer term. In the medium to longer term, the world population is growing, so there are new market opportunities for us. If we are proactive in getting into those markets, that will help us to protect ourselves against some of the volatility that, obviously, is posed to our local farming industry. We have a strategy and a vision. We have to keep that under review. We have to be mindful of market changes and changes in pricing and all the other volatilities. We certainly have a vision for growth. We need to make sure that we create the opportunities and assist our farming sectors to be able to take advantage of those opportunities when they arise in the future.
Mrs Overend: I thank the Minister for the response. Does she agree that the perception of the Assembly not delivering, its ongoing failures, and how that is seen not only in Northern Ireland but across the world, will affect Northern Ireland's economy and will ultimately mean that those in the agriculture sector could end up on welfare in the coming months?
Mrs O'Neill: We have an obligation to work with all sectors and help them grow. Over the last number of months, the focus has been very much on the dairy crisis, and hundreds of farmers came up to the steps of Stormont to show that they need the Executive to work and want us to work for them and assist them. The dairy crisis also pointed up the fact very clearly that DEFRA let local farmers down. So, if we did not have a locally elected Minister, nobody would be fighting the corner for our farmers and industry.
It is very clear to me why we need the Executive to work. We need them to deliver for the people who gave us a mandate.
T4. Ms Sugden asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development whether she is confident that local government can effectively facilitate the rural development fund. (AQT 2974/11-16)
Mrs O'Neill: Yes. We are working our way through the plans at the moments. The local action groups (LAGs) that have been established are working up their strategies. We hope to have those in the Department by the end of the year, but, if anybody can get out ahead of that, I would be delighted to receive them earlier. As soon as we can agree their strategies and put a contract in place, they can start the spend on the ground.
I have no reason to believe that there are any issues. The LAGS represent the local councils and have community sector involvement.
Ms Sugden: Thank you for the response. Unfortunately, I do not really share the Minister's confidence and do not think that local government is moving as quickly as possible. That money should have been on the ground a lot sooner and, with further moneys coming from Europe and through her Department in January, I am concerned that we are not spending that money in the way that we should, particularly as it is the only show in town. What is the Minister doing to put further mechanisms in place to ensure that we will get that money on the ground some time soon?
Mrs O'Neill: The Member should think back to the process that we have gone through. We presented our rural development plan to Europe and it only signed off on that over the last six to eight weeks. As soon as that has been signed off we will be out on the ground.
A lot of lessons have been learned this time around compared to the current programme, which took a couple of years to get spend. We will, perhaps, have spend within six months of getting formal sign off from Europe; so, I am very pleased with the progress that has been made. I expect to see spend very early in the new year, particularly on priority 6, which deals with village plans, helping rural businesses and tourism potential — all those things.
We have a really good opportunity to join things up. In their new structures, councils are developing their community plans and, alongside that, they have to develop their rural development programme. It is a really good opportunity for those things to be married up and dovetailed so that we get the maximum benefits and so that what councils and the rural development programme do can complement each other. We are in a very much improved situation than we were with the current programme. I am obviously very keen for us to start to spend that money as quickly as possible and to the best effect for rural communities.
T5. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail this year’s percentage target for issuing basic payments in December. (AQT 2975/11-16)
Mrs O'Neill: I think that the percentage target is 93%. I will confirm that with the Member. Suffice to say; I intend to try to make maximum payments in the first week in December.
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Minister for her response. I hope that the Department will be able to handle the issuing of this year's payments in a swift and timely manner. What action is she taking to ensure that the provision of top-ups, which many local farmers will receive, will not delay the overall payment schedule for the basic payments?
Mrs O'Neill: The Member will know that I have made year-on-year improvements on the target rates and in achieving that spend. We do not expect this year to be any different, and that is despite all the challenges we have had, particularly in bedding in the new common agricultural policy. I have prioritised that area of work and it is about working through all those issues, which have been very difficult and complicated, not just for the Department but for farmers individually in understanding the new CAP and what it means for them and their farm businesses. We are working our way steadily through all those things. My job and priority is to make sure that we maximise the number of payments and continue the good record of delivery that there has been over the last number of years.
T6. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development for an update on progress on the review of the Welfare of Animals Act. (AQT 2976/11-16)
Mrs O'Neill: The Member will be aware that we published the interim report some time ago. We are working our way through that. We have made some progress, in that the Minister of Justice has agreed one of the draft recommendations on maximum sentencing. That is very positive. While we are working our way towards the endgame, we have brought forward some changes that are going to be very positive.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister and welcome that update on progress on increasing the maximum sentence for animal cruelty offences. The interim report also recommended a single animal welfare website and a public information campaign to ensure that the public know who best to contact when concerned about animal welfare issues. Are there any updates on those recommendations?
Mrs O'Neill: We are working our way through all of them. I do not have exact details, but I am happy to provide those to the Member in writing. Suffice to say that we are working our way through all of the recommendations. The interim report pointed out a number of practical things that we can probably do very quickly, and that is certainly one of them.
T7. Mr Beggs asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development how confident she is that no home or business will be flooded as the result of defective infrastructure, given that, although we are experiencing a mild and dry autumn, during the winter period, we can expect intense rainfall and the associated increased risk of flooding. (AQT 2977/11-16)
Mrs O'Neill: I do not think that I can give any cast-iron guarantees, because I cannot control the weather, but we have taken forward quite a number of significant investment projects in trying to deal with flood alleviation. I mentioned some of those in my earlier answers. We have a full programme again this year, alongside the work that we are doing around trying to help individuals protect their own projects in their individual flood-protection plan. There is quite a large area of work. We are working closely with all the responders around how we collectively work together, because cross-departmental working is key in dealing with flooding that may be from rainfall, rivers or a combination of reasons. Therefore, it is important that we have that cross-departmental working.
Mr Beggs: The Minister mentioned large capital projects and flood alleviation schemes, and it is right that they should occur. However, can the Minister assure me that all necessary maintenance is being carried out on gratings, culverts and open waterways to ensure that there will be no flooding from lack of maintenance? Maintenance is also essential to reduce the risk of flooding affecting homes and businesses.
Mrs O'Neill: Yes. The Rivers Agency's remit is to look at any particular problems. It clears grilles and does all the practical work on the ground. It prioritises work based on its assessment of flood risks. That is a very important piece of the agency's work and is part of its ongoing day-to-day work, so there is no reason to doubt that it is not doing what it should be. Perhaps if a Regional Development Minister were in place, they would also be doing their role in inspecting the gullies and drains that they are responsible for.
T8. Mr Cochrane-Watson asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development for her assessment of the importance of the CAFRE colleges to the local agriculture industry, particularly the courses delivered at the Greenmount campus in his constituency. (AQT 2978/11-16)
Mrs O'Neill: The College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) is a great organisation that provides first-class education to young students coming forward — anybody with an interest in food and farming. The fact that it is oversubscribed every year shows that there is a demand for what it provides on the ground. Alongside that, it also does very practical work with farmers around benchmarking, good housekeeping and husbandry — all those things. I am very pleased with the work that CAFRE does, and I think that we can be proud of its work at all three of our campuses in Enniskillen, Loughry and Greenmount.
Mr Cochrane-Watson: I welcome the Minister's praise for Greenmount and the other campuses. Unfortunately, however, the experience of the past 12 months shows that the Minister is not following up her support with actions. For instance, the reduction of the veterinary nursing course earlier this year was disappointing. Can the Minister give a commitment that she will try to avoid such instances of courses being reduced in the future?
Mrs O'Neill: Yes. CAFRE take the operational decisions, and it looks towards what courses it can provide and what there is a demand for. It has taken some hard decisions, and you have to remember why. It is because the Tory Government keep cutting our block grant. That causes difficulties for all of our Departments and what we are delivering. You can shake your head and laugh all you want, but it is certainly a reality. CAFRE, as I said, does excellent work. It provides courses for thousands of students, and I very much value the work that it does. Unfortunately, CAFRE has had to prioritise, and the reason must not be forgotten — it is because the Tory Government keep cutting the block grant.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
Debate resumed on motion:
That the Second Stage of the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill [NIA 62/11-16] be agreed. — [Mr McCallister.]
Mr Rogers: I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Second Stage of Mr McCallister's Assembly and Executive Reform Bill. In his opening remarks, Mr McCallister said that this was a vision for genuine power-sharing. I do not think that anyone could disagree with that. If the Bill is part of a mechanism to build on the Good Friday Agreement and ensure better government, we will be supportive.
I want to challenge Mr McCallister on one point — his mathematics. I thought that an announcement was coming that some of the technical group had joined the Ulster Unionist Party again. I know that it is a hypothetical situation, but we would be the largest group in the opposition. Maybe an announcement is coming in south Down.
Mr McCallister: I am not sure whether he is about to announce that the Minister of the Environment is resigning.
Mr Rogers: We will wait and see at the next election.
The SDLP has been consistent on the nature of an opposition and our overall support for its implementation. If you allow me, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will reiterate, once more, our position on the general principles of the matter. We in the SDLP believe that an opposition should be built into the structures of the Assembly, but that opposition should remain optional. We have argued that there should be no mandatory opposition and that, if one should exist, there should be guarantees. I was glad to hear Mr McCallister say earlier that the d'Hondt entitlement would be guaranteed under power-sharing arrangements, if a party chose to claim that entitlement.
In previous discussions on opposition, the SDLP has argued that an official opposition should be open to parties that are entitled to take a seat in the Executive and choose not to. If more than one party makes that choice, we would, naturally, expect the two largest of them to form the official opposition. For an effective opposition, the SDLP believes that it is crucial that the privileges afforded to the parties forming an official opposition in the Assembly must seek to empower it to hold the Executive to account. An official opposition must be able to hold the Executive to the highest level of scrutiny in order to serve its role as a genuine alternative to the Government and, therefore, must be sufficiently funded in order to do so.
We welcome the Bill's provision that seeks to empower an official opposition. We welcome the proposal that, under clause 7, the first and second topical questions put to OFMDFM during Question Time would belong to the leaders of the opposition. We further welcome the enhanced speaking rights for the opposition, under clause 8, and the minimum guarantee of 15 days a year for opposition business.
In an Assembly with a functioning opposition, we would expect Assembly Committee memberships to be altered and appropriately weighted to reflect the opposition parties. We welcome clause 3, which would create the provision for the rights of the opposition to chair the Public Accounts Committee, as is the case in other jurisdictions.
If parties are given the practical recognition and sufficient funding, they will be enabled to scrutinise the Executive to provide a viable alternative to the Government. As agreed in the Stormont House Agreement, we believe that funding the party-appointed research and assistant posts is critical. Legislative scrutiny must also be vastly improved by Assembly-appointed legislative drafters to assist the opposition parties with the scrutiny of amendments to the drafting of Bills.
The SDLP would expect to see the reforms of the institutions proposed by Mr McCallister to remain faithful to the tenets of the Good Friday Agreement. The SDLP will not support anything that erodes or dilutes anything in the Good Friday Agreement. Bearing that in mind, the thresholds seem quite high at the moment. As previously recognised by the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014, opposition must be consistent with the principles of inclusivity and power-sharing that are central to the Belfast Agreement.
The Bill, as it stands and as it will be implemented, must reflect Northern Ireland's unique situation as a post-conflict society while further reflecting on the historical power-sharing nature of our institutions. Therefore, the SDLP welcomed Mr McCallister's previous recognition of the importance of review mechanisms built into strand one of the agreement and the ability of an official opposition and power-sharing to exist as complementary to each other.
To this effect, we had hoped that the opposition would not consist of two parties of the same denomination but be a compromise of two separate outlooks. When considering the historical and ongoing difficulties between Northern Ireland's main communities, we remain apprehensive about the call of schedule 1 to remove the current community designations. Still, we are prepared to engage on this aspect as the Bill moves forward. We also have reservations about the size of the technical group, which, with only five or six members, seems quite small.
Ultimately, the SDLP hopes that all provisions for an official opposition will be guided by power-sharing, reconciliation, equality, partnership, prosperity and, above all, accountability. These are the principles of good faith and good government in Northern Ireland. They are the standards that the people of Northern Ireland demand of their Government, and they are areas in which the current regime has failed. At this point, I would like to quote one the architects of the Good Friday Agreement and a good friend of ours Seamus Mallon, who said:
"Our primary responsibility is to be good ancestors who leave our descendants a society at peace with themselves and their neighbours and served by a political process which has integrity and vision."
"I said in 1999, and I say it again now, that 'The people in Northern Ireland belong to each other — that the wes and the theys will sink or swim together'."
The SDLP remains resolute in its commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and supports the principles of the Bill as it stands. We look forward to engaging on the Bill at Committee Stage.
Mr Kennedy: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this private Member's Bill. The Bill proposes the reform of a number of areas of the Assembly and the Executive, but it is true to say that it is probably the proposals for opposition structures that will receive the most attention during its passage.
Formal opposition structures are of course taken for granted in most democracies. Outside Northern Ireland, the power to vote a party in or out of government is taken for granted in other parts of the United Kingdom and in virtually any other democratic nation on the planet. However, we in Northern Ireland are still playing catch-up in the Assembly. Mandatory coalition and five-party government were required to get us over the initial hurdles of devolution, yet, 17 years on from the Belfast Agreement, the Assembly has not evolved at the pace of a society that clearly craves an official opposition here in the Chamber. We cannot continue to deny the population the right to remove a party from power or to vote one into government.
Sadly, the structures created to draw as many people as possible into the democratic process now seem to turn people off. Voters' frustration at being unable to send a message at the ballot box grows with each election. We have only to look at and study the turnout percentages to see that. My party has long called for opposition structures to be created in the Assembly. We recognise the important role that they play in holding the Government to account and offering voters an alternative. If we are really serious about transitioning from an institution that staggers along from one mandate to the next to one that delivers for the people of Northern Ireland, it is vital that we put in place a mechanism to ensure that a party or parties form an opposition.
Having a formally recognised opposition and everything that would come with it, such as enhanced speaking rights, supply days and Committee roles, could help to revitalise the Assembly, offering the opportunity for effective scrutiny of the Executive, rather than the Executive being left, largely, to scrutinise itself.
Mr McCallister referred to the efforts made by the Ulster Unionist Party in the form of Lord Empey of Shandon, who tabled amendments to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in another place to put measures in place for opposition structures. Our preferred option has also been to enshrine the right of the opposition in legislation because we believe that simply changing Standing Orders leaves the future existence of the opposition in the hands, potentially, of the largest parties in this or any future Assembly. Let us not forget that the Stormont House Agreement promised formal opposition structures by March 2015; here we are in October and still there are no opposition rights for parties that are not in the Executive.
I will turn briefly to the Bill itself. It raises questions for us, and we look forward to interrogating further a number of other areas at Committee Stage. I want to touch on a couple of areas of the Bill, but it has quite a way to go yet, and we will have the opportunity to scrutinise it and debate all aspects of the Bill further in the coming weeks and months. We will want to look in detail, for instance, at who qualifies for membership of the official opposition. We are largely of the view that there should be a threshold.
We have concerns at this stage about the proposals for technical groups and the potential that a mechanism designed to enhance democracy could end up working against that principle. We remain unconvinced about the need for official titles for those in the opposition. We would point to the example of the Scottish Parliament, where each party in the opposition has a leader and spokespersons without the need for formal titles. On the issue of salaries, it is our view that the opposition should be formed on a cost-neutral basis. We would, instead, encourage a look at restructuring how current resource is allocated. Again, I am sure that we can look at that in more detail during Committee Stage and Consideration Stage.
We have noted the fundamental proposal to rename OFMDFM. It is no secret that the Ulster Unionist Party remains unhappy with the changes that were made to the election of the First Minister and deputy First Minister at St Andrews. Those changes served only to promote sectarian headcounts.
To conclude, we remain totally committed to seeing the introduction of a mechanism to allow an opposition to be formed in the House. We also support the reform of the Assembly and the Executive and raising the level of accountability of elected Members. We look forward to contributing positively to the debate as the Bill proceeds through the House.
Mr Lunn: We welcome the Bill as far as it goes in its present form. It is like any other Bill; it is going to need some attention. I have a feeling that it may get more attention from particular directions than a Bill might normally expect to get, but we will see where it goes. Mr McCallister deserves congratulations as the person who finally brought this before the House, and not before time. He was good enough to consult other parties, including us, so we have some background as to what his thinking is. I also congratulate him on his presentation of the Bill today, which was excellent.
This is really a test of the Assembly's will. It is OK at a Bill's Second Stage because everybody says, "Yeah, we'll give it a fair wind", but it is when we get to the next couple of stages that we will really see what will happen. I cannot help thinking today that the elephant in the room is the absence of the DUP, because we do not know —. Sorry, Paula, I do not mean to refer to you in that way. The DUP is not here, so we will not know what its thinking is until perhaps some future stage.
Any Bill that wants to get rid of community designations or end the iniquitous system of petitions of concern and move to a weighted majority will not get much opposition from the Alliance Party because we are totally with you on that. In fact, Alliance Party thinking runs quite a long way through the Bill; there is not too much in it that we would disagree with. In fact, we are so much in tune, John, that you might think of coming to us to form an even bigger technical group.
Mr Lunn: That is all right. The offer is on the table.
Of course we are in favour of having a structured, official opposition, but we should not forget that the reason why we have this slightly contrived, wacky system here is that opposition did not work. So, whatever form of opposition hopefully comes out of this needs to be very carefully thought out and not just some kind of numbers game to manipulate a particular situation and particular party strengths in the Assembly.
The clause — I think that this is in the schedule, actually — that introduces a figure of 16·6% representation before you qualify for a Ministry is an interesting one, because that would bring us back, on the current strengths, to a two-party Government, which is pretty much what we have anyway. We, as well as the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, would need to do a bit of thinking about that. That is not to say that we would not relish an opposition role, and I am sure that the Ulster Unionists would probably say the same thing, because they have often demanded that. Let us put it this way: we have our reservations about it.
I will just look at one or two of the clauses. Clause 9 is about opposition rights to chair the Public Accounts Committee. That is universally accepted in most civilised legislatures. It was actually the case here. When I came here in 2007, the assumption was that the biggest party not in Government, namely us, would achieve the right to chair the Public Accounts Committee, but it went to Sinn Féin because the DUP and Sinn Féin agreed on that. I think that you are going to have to get over that kind of thing. If this works, and there is an assumption that the two biggest parties here will remain the two biggest parties, you are going to have to think about some of these things. Once you are in power, you can do pretty much what you like.
Clause 19 on the establishment of a Budget Committee sounds like a nice idea. However, we have a Finance Committee, and I have not been totally convinced yet as to why the Finance Committee should not continue to do its scrutiny of finance, which it was partly set up for. I make the point that, when we had the Ad Hoc Committee on welfare reform, Robin Swann and I went to Westminster to see the Chair of the relevant Committee there. Its Standing Ad Hoc Committee on that sort of thing scrutinises everything that goes through Westminster. So, there may be some compromise there, but we will see.
Paragraph 10 of the schedule is about the threshold for the nomination of a Minister, but I will not labour that one.
Paragraph 15 of the schedule states:
"The motion may request that any budget .. may be approved by a simple majority."
If important decisions require some measure of cross-community support, with or without designations, I would query whether a Budget should be allowed to go through on a simple majority. It does not sound right. Those are just random thoughts at the minute, because, like everybody else, we are going to have a good look at this.
Paragraph 7 of the schedule is about how the Speaker is elected and what happens to him at the end of the mandate. If I have read it right, it means that the Speaker will be elected by a secret ballot of the Assembly. Fair enough. Once we come to the end of the mandate, he will not be allowed to return to the Assembly as an ordinary Member. Correct me if I am wrong, John, but that is my reading of it. His only avenue back into the Assembly would be if he was reselected as Deputy Speaker or Speaker. It does not sound like a job for a young man, especially one with political ambition. It could be that people of my generation and that of others would be the most likely to obtain the rank of Speaker and then go off into the sunset. I am not totally happy about that. I am not quite sure how Westminster or anywhere else does it, but it sounds —
Mr Lunn: They cannot drag them out again.
Mr Kennedy: You would be willing to be dragged, would you not?
Mr Lunn: Beyond that, I do not have very much to say about this at this stage. Like everybody else, we will scrutinise it. It will go through the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, so I will have some input there. It is a challenge to the Assembly if we are going to finally start to mature and grow up. Mr McCartney said that it had to be Good Friday Agreement-proofed. That is fine. I support the broad principle of that, but the Good Friday Agreement does not have to be set in stone. If there are things that we can move away or move on from by agreement —
Mr D Bradley: I listened to what Mr Lunn said about the establishment of the Budget Committee. Indeed, the SDLP has called for that. Is there any point in establishing a Budget Committee when the financial process has not been reformed? The timescale that exists at the moment for the Budget is such that it is presented almost as a fait accompli and pushed through the Finance Committee by accelerated passage, and that will continue if we do not reform the financial process. Therefore, in order to have effective budgetary scrutiny, there must be a financial process that lends itself to that.
Mr Lunn: I do not disagree with any of that but, at the end of the day, a Committee has to scrutinise the Budget and so does the Assembly, whether it is done through a newly formed Budget Committee or under the present system. I agree with you that it always ends up as a bit of a rush, but that is because it has taken so long to sort out an agreement on the Budget. That is because of the system that we have, where it can be blocked by one side or the other. We need to get away from that and get into some sort of corporate system where we have a Programme for Government established and agreed before we choose our Ministers and so on. It is all there in John's Bill, and I think that he has some very good ideas. There is not much that we disagree with.
I have a feeling that the silent majority over to my left will probably have a lot more to say about it if they ever come back and the time comes. In the meantime, I will hope. I hear whispers that the DUP is not totally opposed to this; I am watching Mrs Bradley's face for any clue. Will the DUP come back to the Assembly and say that it is prepared to countenance, for instance, the end of petitions of concern and community designation? It is not that long ago that the AERC produced a report on petitions of concern and, indeed, you were part of it. It would be quantum leap for the DUP, and probably for Sinn Féin as well, to agree to end that iniquitous, business-blocking nuisance of a system, but we will see at the next stage. Maybe, by that time, we will be back in full cry again and will see what the DUP thinks. In the meantime, I thank Mr McCallister for bringing the Bill to the House. It is a good document and potentially good legislation. Hopefully, the bones and meat of it will survive the process and we will end up in a better place at the start of the next mandate than where we are now.
Mr Allister: Is it not quite staggering, in a system that takes onto itself the title of "democratic" in seeking to describe these institutions, that we even have to have a debate about whether we should have one of the most elementary components of a democratic Chamber; namely, an opposition?
It does beggar belief, and, indeed, presents as a most telling commentary on these institutions, that we even have to have this debate, this novelty of the idea that you just might allow, in the right circumstances, within these institutions, that strange and dangerous thing called an opposition. An opposition is fundamental to anything that passes properly as a democratic institution.
The very fact that these institutions ban opposition, and that they have existed — if that is even the word — for the last 16 to 17 years by suppressing the very right to have an opposition, speaks volumes for them. It really should be a no-brainer for anyone as to whether you have an opposition within governmental structures.
If you want to take onto yourself the assignation of being democratic, then there really is nothing to debate. Of course there should be an opposition, and shame on these institutions that for years they have sought to suppress and deny that basic democratic component of democracy. So, any Bill that has the temerity to talk about creating an opposition has to be one that is moving in the right direction.
Then we hear from some contributors, like Mr Rogers, "Well, as long as it doesn't depart from the Belfast Agreement". Of course, it is the Belfast Agreement that spawned the denial of opposition and built the very structures that suppress that fundamental democratic right. To hear the SDLP talk in those terms, demonstrating that they are shackled so mindlessly to the Belfast Agreement and hope that an opposition would not upset any of that; I say, take a look around. The Belfast Agreement has failed; it is not working. The very state of this House this afternoon is proof positive of its perpetual failure.
How many times have these structures had to be sticky plastered back together, propped up until they lurch to the next crisis? There are ongoing efforts yet again to produce another patch-up, until the next crisis. The reality needs to be faced at some point, and the penny needs to drop with some people, that the institutions created in the Belfast Agreement have had their day. They have not worked. They are not worth saving.
The only way to go forward is to embrace wholeheartedly the fundamental elements of democracy, which include acknowledging the right to have an opposition, the right to change your Government and the right to vote a party out of government.
Even someone as case-hardened as I am to the perversity of the institutions finds it staggering that we even have to debate whether we need an opposition. That, in itself, is commentary on the absurdity of what has been built in these institutions. Of course we need an opposition.
I wish that the Bill had gone much further. I wish that the Bill had addressed another central perversity of the Belfast Agreement: in some crazy way, you can have a mandate, as of right, to be in government. You cannot. We can all have a mandate to be in the House, but, short of a party commanding an overall majority in itself, which will not happen, no party in a democracy can have a mandate, as of right, to be in government. That, of course, is the fatal building block of this failed Executive. It is a building block that Mr McCallister's Bill chips at a bit but maintains as a cornerstone by saying that, provided you get 18 MLAs, you, as of right, are entitled to a place in government; you, as of right, cannot be voted out of government, whoever you are; you, as of right, have a mandate to be in government. That is nonsense. You cannot have a mandate, as of right, to be in government. That is why, in a democracy where no party is big enough to form a Government on its own, the proper path to being in government is the path of voluntary coalition, where those who can agree together what they are going to do about the key socio-economic issues and make the mathematics work — whoever they are — govern and those who cannot — whoever they are — form the opposition.
We must get away from the artificiality that has entrenched sectarianism in Northern Ireland. The one thing that the Belfast Agreement has done is entrench the idea of tribal politics — that you must have two large groups, one vetoing the other. Unless and until we dispense with that nonsensical, stultifying, sectarian approach and embrace the fundamental elements that denote democracy anywhere, this Stormont will not work. Therefore, I am disappointed that Mr McCallister only tinkers with that issue and maintains the absurd notion of being entitled, as of right, to a place in government. As-of-right places in government have no place in democratic institutions where no party is capable of governing on its own. A coalition of the willing is the only legitimate democratic path to tread. The Bill, in underscoring that facet of the failure of the institutions, is disappointing.
I return now to the question of the formation of an opposition. I apologise that I was not here during Mr McCallister's speech; I am told that he gave some recognition to the need to revisit clause 2 on the definition of a qualifying party. I was going to point out in the debate that, as the Bill currently reads, if you read it across the election results that are represented in the House today, it could not deliver you an opposition. There would be no qualifying parties if that were the route to delivery. The SDLP has 14; it would need 18. The Ulster Unionists have 13; they would need 18. The Alliance Party has eight; it would need 18. None of them, under the terms of the Bill as drafted, would be qualifying parties under clause 2, because they have not been in a position where they have rejected their entitlement to an Executive position.
Mr McCallister: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I know that he was otherwise detained with important stuff around air ambulance work that he is involved in.
Literally, the amendment that is to be finalised will read something along the lines of:
"leave all out after "Minister" and insert:
'and comprises more than five per cent of the total Members of the Assembly'."
Therefore, it would remove section 18(2) and those lines about being able to nominate Ministers and just make sure that the qualifying party had over 5% or six Members of the Assembly. Hopefully, that clarifies the point.
Mr Allister: Yes, it does. It radically improves clause 2 and makes the possibility of the creation of an opposition more viable. It seems to me fundamentally right that any party outside the Executive should be entitled to form and be part of an opposition, when formed. Therefore, I welcome what the sponsor has said in that regard. That is very important.
In relation to technical groups, I think there is a place for them. I was a member of the European Parliament for five years, and I sat on a technical group. It varied in number, but usually around 30 Members of the House were members of a technical group. It was a group in name only. It was made up of disparate individuals, but it gave those individuals a say and a reflective input in speaking rights, times and all of that. I think that is appropriate. One exists in Dáil Éireann in Dublin, and they exist in many European parliamentary institutions. There is certainly a role for them.
In my role in this House, as a member of the Procedures Committee, I attempted, not once but twice, to advance the cause of a technical group in the Procedures Committee and brought a proposal to that effect, only to see it roundly voted down by everyone else. So, unless there has been a sea change in attitude to the existence of a technical group — I hope there has been — it may, in this Bill, be more theoretical than realisable. However, I trust that favourable consideration will be given to that because it provides the opportunity to strengthen the contribution that individual Members have to make in the House.
There are other things in the Bill that are interesting. It is right to address the fact that, in law and in practice, we have joint First Ministers. That is what we have, and that is what we should say. It is to save some blushes that we do not have them called "joint First Ministers", but that is what they are. Why should the legislation live in denial of that fact? I do not see that it should.
There were suggestions about the election of the Speaker. I like the idea of the Speaker being elected by secret ballot. I am not so sure about the idea that Mr Lunn was talking about of putting him out to graze after his four- or five-year term.
However, it shows some inventive thinking and is worthy of consideration.
All in all, it is clear that for the first Part of the Bill, namely that which can be done by Standing Orders, to have bite and effect with the other changes requires the schedule to be passed, and that would require defeating the ever-present obstacle: the petition of concern. The vested interests of the few may well deny the desire of the many and not for the first time. I commend the Member for some of the ingenuity in the Bill and for introducing it. I know that presenting the legislation has been a tortuous path, but he has persevered and brought the Bill to this point. Deficient as it is in terms of my long-term ambitions, it is a start in the right direction and deserves a fair wind.
Mr Agnew: I also commend Mr McCallister for introducing the legislation. I know the difficulties involved in preparing a private Member's Bill, and, as the sponsor said, my Bill will soon have its Third Reading. Reforming the institutions is a difficult and large piece of work to take on. It is certainly ambitious and innovative. I suspect that when Mr McCallister put forward some of his proposals, he was told, "You cannot do that. It is not legislatively competent". I do not know who helped him with the Bill or how he got to this stage, but the mechanism of the Assembly and Executive reform motion is, to me, certainly a new way around that, and the Member is to be commended for bringing forward that element of it.
The failure of the Executive — the "Northern Ireland Government", as we would refer to it should we pass the Bill — is shown by the current dearth of legislation from the Executive and Departments. Rather, we are addressing private Members' Bills, such as John's, Mr Allister's and mine. Today, Mr McCallister seeks to create an opposition. On these Benches, despite the barriers of the structures, we are doing all in our power to create an effective opposition by tabling legislation in the absence of legislation from the Northern Ireland Government. It is an example of the failure of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee that, whilst there seems to be large support for some of the proposals, those who sit on that Committee could not agree to put forward similar proposals. Mr McCartney referred to the possibility that legislation might not be required for all elements of the Bill and said that, if there were other ways, we should explore them. However, it has taken an opposition Member to introduce a Bill that might act as the spur to make those changes happen.
One aspect of the Bill that I very much welcome is increased speaking rights for an opposition, not just from the point of view of self-interest. I like the sound of my own voice, but I do not think that it needs to be put in legislation that I should speak more. If you go back, for example, to when the Programme for Government was presented to the Assembly, not one Member outside the Executive parties got to question the First Minister or the deputy First Minister on the presentation of the Programme for Government.
Now it is fundamental to democracy that the opposition challenge the Programme for Government. Yet it was not within the Speaker's power to grant those on the opposition Benches speaking rights to question the First Minister and deputy First Minister on the programme they had outlined. Instead, we had the farce of prepared questions from Back-Benchers in the government parties asking, effectively, "Why is this such a great Programme for Government?". That is not democracy or evidence of a functioning Assembly. Speaking rights are necessary. People might ask, "What difference will a formal opposition make?". That is one of the differences: the right to challenge, the right to speak and the right to propose motions are essential.
If ever examples of why collective responsibility is important in any Government were needed, Northern Ireland could provide them. You have one Minister taking another Minister to court at the taxpayers' expense to play out disagreements that should be resolved and moved on from at the Executive table. Instead, our dirty linen is washed in the courts; party political squabbles are played out in the courts at the taxpayers' expense. Again, that is an example of failure and of where things need to change in Northern Ireland. Mr Allister is fond of saying that we have no opposition; I think sometimes that the problem is that everyone is in opposition. When one Minister makes a decision, another Minister or another party of the Executive challenges that publicly. That is why we have such problems even with the language necessary to hold Executive parties to account. No one knows who is in government and who is out of government, because every party, when it suits, acts as if it is in opposition. Collective responsibility is necessary to change that.
Another element of that is the oversight of the ministerial code. I sit on the Standards and Privileges Committee, and we have written to the First Minister and deputy First Minister seeking clarification of how we uphold the ministerial code. It is outside the remit of the Standards and Privileges Committee and of the Commissioner for Standards. There is no mechanism to complain about a Minister. You can complain about any Member in the House — we are all subject to the Commissioner for Standards and the Committee on Standards and Privileges in our MLA duties — but, if you want to complain about a Minister, you can write to the party leader, but there is no investigation mechanism or structures through which there can be accountability and transparency in holding Ministers to the standards set out in the ministerial code of conduct. That, unfortunately, is not in the Bill, and I ask the Member and, indeed, the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, to look at that. If we are to have collective responsibility, we also need ministerial accountability and a mechanism for that, and that is something that could and should be explored through the Committee and at Consideration Stage.
Whilst, like Mr Allister, I would welcome a move towards voluntary coalition and think that it is the next logical step, I perhaps will not be so harsh in my commentary on the Bill. While it is not the whole journey of normalising politics in Northern Ireland, it is a major step forward in that regard.
I very much welcome the proposal to end community designation. The Green Party was very supportive of the Good Friday Agreement, but our one consistent criticism of it was the enshrining of the sectarian nature of Northern Ireland politics in these institutions by requiring community designation on election for each MLA. That was regrettable. We know that the other element, the petition of concern, has very much deviated from its original purpose of protecting minority rights, and has, indeed, at times been used to try to prevent the extension of rights to minorities. At times, it has undermined the purpose that it sought to serve. We must move on from that and move away from community designation.
There is an inherently undemocratic nature to the petition of concern whereby we have two tiers of MLAs: those who choose to designate as unionist or nationalist, whose vote counts in normal votes and in cross-community votes; and we have the bizarre situation whereby, as the leader of a cross-community party, my vote does not count in a cross-community vote. The votes of my constituents are worth no less than those of any other Member. We cannot have a system of two-tier MLAs, and we cannot have a system of enshrined sectarianism. If we are to move away from the politics of "us and them", we have to stop designating as us and them.
We are 17 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, of which I was a wholehearted supporter. Indeed, I turned 18 approximately a month before the referendum, and my first ever vote was casting a yes vote then. It was a proud day and I was optimistic, but I think that the hope, the expectation and the potential have, to some extent, been wasted. Whilst we have moved from conflict to relative peace, we have yet to make the step towards good governance. I think that the Bill will help us to take the next step on that journey. I have consistently said, from the fifteenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, that, yes, we need to review it; yes, we need to reform the institutions; and, yes, we need to revitalise our peace process.
However, I have said all along that any major changes to what was agreed by the people of Northern Ireland through referendum should be put to the people of Northern Ireland to pass at a referendum. It is their agreement, it was the people's agreement, and it should not be changed without the people's consent. Much of this would require Westminster legislation, and I would call on the Secretary of State to ensure that the public's consent be sought before we would seek to radically reform the institutions created under the Good Friday Agreement.
We have seen a referendum in Scotland that re-energised politics. We have seen a public vote in the Republic of Ireland on the thorny issue of equal marriage, although I do not believe that it should be a thorny issue. For me, it is a no-brainer, but what could be seen as a divisive issue was tackled maturely when the public view was sought. We also have a forthcoming referendum on our position in the European Union. I do not believe that you can ever have too much democracy, but I believe that, in Northern Ireland, we risk having a democratic deficit each time we tinker with the Good Friday Agreement without going back to the people.
Unlike the SDLP, perhaps, I am not opposed to major reform. I think that it is needed. It was the right agreement and the right deal to get us to this stage, but we need change to get us to the next stage and to get us through the next phase of our peace process. However, we must bring the people with us in doing that. That said, we can never use the current structures as an excuse for poor governance, but it is clear that those structures make it more challenging. The structures allow for the dysfunction that is displayed when one Minister takes another to court and, in that regard, they need reform. There is no excuse for the poor record of this Executive. I think that we have an opportunity to improve the vehicle through which we provide governance in Northern Ireland. In that regard, I welcome the Bill, I commend the sponsor, Mr McCallister, and I look forward to it passing through its various stages in the Assembly.
Mr B McCrea: There was a time — I remember it well — when talking about opposition was radical, new, and something that everybody got quite excited about. In fact, I think it was the first time that I hit the public eye in 2007, when, just before a UUP conference, I said, "Having listened to a Budget debate, we might as well not have been in the Chamber. This is ridiculous. We ought to go into opposition." I have had a look through some of the papers since then, and there is a very interesting bit in 'The Irish News' where it says:
"the DUP moving firmly into the ascendancy, but the UUP annual conference ... still managed to highlight some significant issues."
It mentioned the fact that I thought we should go into opposition.
A few months later — this is when I am grateful that I have got my colleague Mr Allister here — he and I are quoted in December 2007 as saying that issues discussed included the sustainability of a mandatory coalition, and Jim Allister was clearly against it, though it says that he did not offer an alternative. That was the debate then: Mr McCrea repeating comments that he had previously made of the idea of the UUP going into opposition was also clearly on the record. You fast-forward a few years to 2010 and, just to show that we are covering the whole of these lands, the 'Derry Journal' ran with the headline, "Will UUP go into opposition?". The article says:
"Basil McCrea ... claimed the party's presence at the Executive ... was now no more than a fig leaf for the DUP, who were excluding the UUP from most of the key decisions."
I said it then, and I stand by it now. What was interesting about that document — it is a pity that Mr Lunn is not here with us — is that it went on to say:
"With David Ford's elevation to Justice Minister on Monday, the Alliance Party, which had previously described itself as the opposition, is now within the ... Executive".
Now, as time goes on, not only is it not the opposition but it has two Ministers in the Executive, which is why it was quite interesting to hear the overtures from Mr Lunn to Mr McCallister, "Would you not like to join us?". I am not sure whether Mr Lunn was making himself available to be Speaker but, certainly, there was a meeting of minds.
If we move on a little later to December 2010, when —
Mr B McCrea: Mr Deputy Speaker, this is an opposition Bill, and this is outlining what I was saying about opposition. I am at a loss as to what —
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Dallat): I have no doubt that the Member is not in any way challenging the Speaker. I will endeavour to give you all the flexibility that I believe you deserve. I am simply hinting that, at some stage, you might return to the Bill.
Mr B McCrea: Obviously, I was in no way challenging you. I was just seeking clarity on the matter. I do think it is worthwhile saying that the discussion about opposition has been ongoing for some considerable time.
Some Members have alluded to the fact that it is to Mr McCallister's credit that, at least, he has been able to bring this particular Bill to the Floor of the Assembly. I think that that is a reasonable position to state, but I want to go on and talk about some of the issues that might have been addressed. My point in all of this is that — and here, again, I agree with Mr Allister — it could have been a lot more radical and incisive. We could have tackled some of the outstanding issues.
I note from the Bill and from Mr McCallister's speech that he has decided not to deal with the thorny issue of d'Hondt, because apparently we are not able for it. Actually, I think that d'Hondt is a travesty. I know that other Members here agree. I also note that Mr Agnew, in his contribution, highlighted our problem in having no way of holding Ministers, whom we do not appoint, to account. In fact, if you look at the fundamentals of the Belfast Agreement, you might say that the decision to put all the Executive powers in Ministers, who are then unaccountable to this place, is actually at the root of our problems in trying to produce good government. Again, I think that this is a point that Mr Allister made.
If you look at some of the radical issues that need to be dealt with and that remain outstanding, when it comes to the Stormont House Agreement, item 73 states that:
"The participants in the talks are very conscious that the integrity and credibility of this agreement is dependent on its effective and expeditious implementation. Accordingly, progress in implementing the provisions of this Agreement must be actively reviewed and monitored."
I was at a meeting that Mr Lunn attended a few days ago, and it was put to him — and I think he was a little surprised by it; he can clarify if he wishes — that only the Alliance Party and, I think, Sinn Féin have ratified the Stormont House Agreement, and that nobody else has agreed to that agreement.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Member for giving way. The way it was put to me was that we were the only party that, through our internal party structures, formally ratified the agreement. Others appear to have ratified it without actually saying so, or to some measure, but we are the only ones who ratified it formally through a process within the party.
Mr B McCrea: Thank you for that, Mr Lunn. It brings me to the point in relation to the Bill about opposition arrangements. In response to an earlier question, I think Mr McCartney mentioned item 59 of the Stormont House Agreement, which states:
"Arrangements will be put in place by the Assembly by March 2015 to enable those parties which would be entitled to ministerial positions in the Executive, but choose not to take them up, to be recognised as an official opposition".
So, quite a lot of what we are talking about in the Bill is covered by the Stormont House Agreement. It also mentions — and again, it is mentioned in the Bill — the provision for financial and research assistance. They are trying to keep the costs neutral, but, actually, in this particular part of the Bill, the costs are to be additional.
There are some other questions that I would like to ask about how we might deal with something that is a little bit more radical. Many Members have long called for a civic forum. In fact, it was part of the Belfast Agreement — item 34. I would like to see a more radical approach to how we might bring in an opposition. Perhaps, if we were dealing with an opposition, we could look to Dublin and the Seanad. We could look to the way that they actually have another House, with people with different levels of responsibility and expertise. They would actually give some guidance to this place. My fear about an opposition is that it fundamentally comes down to numbers.
Simply saying to somebody that you are in opposition or that you are going to get a wee bit more money is not going to change the basic electoral mathematics. Unless you have a fundamental change in structure, you are not going to see any difference. I would like, when the Bill goes through its Committee Stage, to actually start to look at some really radical amendments, because you have to have a change of function.
While we are on the point that Mr Agnew mentioned, if we are going to have a fundamental review, should we not put it to the public? When I voted, I did not really read the agreement. I was not a member of a political party; I was not in politics. I looked at it and said, "I'd like to move forward. I'd like to put the past behind me. I'd like to do something different", but I did not look at any of the detail. I did not understand what it meant. There is a challenge, however: if you put any Bill to the public of Northern Ireland at the moment and said, "This is our plan for Stormont", I am not sure that you would get any votes for it from anybody, such is the state that we have got ourselves into. Maybe that is the point that Mr Agnew was making: that we need a form of radical engagement with the population. Politics is not something that you leave to people up here on the hill, which goes on here behind closed doors and which people ignore; it is something that we have to get people engaged in. That is one of the issues that I would like dealt with.
I also look at the Bill's point about smaller parties and how we might deal with some further representation. People have talked about technical groups and suchlike. I thought that it got a little bit confusing as to what you would be in a technical group for or why. If you are an independent — in the South, 18 Members are independents — what if you do not want to participate in a technical group? Why not just stand up and represent your own mandate?
I would also be more convinced by the arguments from around these Chambers if, when you look at the existing speaking rights for those of us on these Benches, you did not introduce rules in the Business Committee that prevented us from speaking. This is a decision not of the Westminster Parliament, the Secretary of State or somebody else; the Business Committee of this place makes it the case that Mr Allister is 35th, Mr Agnew is 36th and I am 37th, and that you cannot get to speak in a one-and-a-half-hour debate. It is an attempt to silence the people who have a dissenting view. Politics suffers because of that. Those of you who have votes on the Business Committee do not have to wait for this Bill. You do not have to search around; you only have to change your own rules and let proper democratic debate take place in the House.
I move on to the issue of financial support. Again, I am not sure whether the sponsor of the Bill has gone into the full detail of it. When he is talking about additional resources, does that include special advisers (SpAds)? Is the leader of the opposition going to have a SpAd? Is he going to be on band B, which is £92,000? Let us face it: if you are trying to hold to account the First Minister, who, I think, has four SpAds, or the deputy First Minister, who, I think, has four SpAds, we should have a SpAd for the leader of the opposition and the deputy leader of the opposition. Is that what we want? Do we really want to be putting more resources into those issues, or do we need a fundamental review of all that? The public will not wear it if we try to make changes in that manner.
If we are looking at reviewing things for an opposition, I like the fact that, in Westminster, they present to the public the names of every single SpAd and how much money they earn. That seems to be the open and democratic position that we want. Perhaps the Member will take that on board.
I want to come to what is perhaps the most interesting issue for me. That is the concept of cross-community designation. Those who follow these things will know that that issue vexed Mr McCallister and myself a few years ago. There was an issue, and we in NI21 decided that, all things considered, it would not change my position on the constitutional issue, but I dislike labels and do not want to be labelled by other people about who or what I am. Designation is a fundamental mistake in the democratic proceedings of the Assembly. I said it then, and I say it now.
I think the quote by Mr McCallister was that it would put us:
"right into no man's land with the Alliance Party."
Yet, we are now saying — I hear it collectively, I hear it around — that designation is a bad idea. Why do you need to have some stamp on you that says "unionist" or "nationalist"? Is it not obvious from what you say and do and the motions that you table? Do you really need that to happen? It enshrines some form of sectarian politics. We ought to do more about that, and we ought to do it now.
When the Bill goes through the Committee, and we have lauded the sponsor for having the foresight to table the Bill, I hope that we really deal with the technical issues that we have to look at. I want to see what an opposition really means and whether it can be done here when perhaps only six people would provide an opposition. Is it really the case that, if you get to be a Minister with untrammelled ministerial powers, you will give that up to be in opposition? I do not think so.
Debates are taking place elsewhere. If you look at the Chamber, which is, thankfully, a little fuller than it was earlier, you will realise that it is not the decision-making body. We can talk all we like in the Chamber, but it will not change anything. Unless we find some resolution, we will lose the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland. I agree with Steven Agnew that things have got so bad with the people's perception of this place that nothing short of a renegotiation and another referendum will restore the credibility of the institutions of Northern Ireland.
Ms Sugden: First, I congratulate Mr McCallister for tabling one of the most important Bills since the Good Friday Agreement. I am disappointed, although not surprised, that its gravity is not being acknowledged in the way that it should. On one side of the House, the largest political party has decided that its dirty, inconsistent mess is more important than moving Northern Ireland forward. Directly opposite, the second largest party is fearful of breaking the mould of the Good Friday Agreement because, perhaps, Northern Ireland might stand a chance.
We should break the mould of the Good Friday Agreement. I am reluctant to say that, because it has served its purpose in bringing an end to violence and, although we have come far, we still have a way to go in addressing our troubled past. Indeed, it is not my intention to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. It was necessary and was the only way at the time given the intractable differences of those involved. However, I hope that, in 17 years, we have grown and learned. Although the differences clearly remain the same, we are, thankfully, very different today than we were in 1998. That is why I think that we need to break the mould of the Good Friday Agreement. It has served its purpose, but it does not show where we can go from now.
The Good Friday Agreement had its failings. Of course it did. It was not perfect, but the political nonsense that is making fools of us all as Members of the House is the outworking of those failings. Ultimately, there is a lack of accountability. We made those concessions for peace and, rightly or wrongly, we now ultimately have peace, but now is the time to start making Northern Ireland work on a structural level.
Subsequent agreements cast in the Good Friday mould are not working. The latest — the Stormont House Agreement — has yet to be even removed from its box or wrapper. We need something different that puts the people of Northern Ireland first. I take Mr Agnew's point that perhaps we should take this to a referendum. The Good Friday Agreement was decided upon in a referendum, and maybe such a change now needs the substance of the people of Northern Ireland behind it, because the House certainly does not have the substance of the people of Northern Ireland behind it.
I am not saying that we should throw the Good Friday Agreement or any of the work that we have done until now into the bin. It should remain a very important part of our history, but now is the right time to create something new. Mr McCallister's Bill is a start. It is not perfect. There are aspects that I certainly disagree with, particularly in respect of the Speaker and how we elect him, but, one day, I will advocate that we break the mould that he is trying to put before us today to create something better in Northern Ireland, and that is what we should strive for. We should always be striving for something better. That does not mean changing what has passed; it means building on it, and I think that that is essentially what we are doing here. We need to be brave today and in the coming stages of the Bill.
The essence of the Bill is scrutiny. After representing the people, the role of a Member of the Legislative Assembly — that is an MLA, for those of you who do not know — is to scrutinise effectively the work of the Northern Ireland Government, the Executive, to ensure that they are making the right decisions on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. The House does not scrutinise the Northern Ireland Government effectively — it cannot. The most effective scrutiny that comes from the House is in this corner of the Chamber. Since becoming an MLA, I have asked more questions than any other MLA in Northern Ireland, which I am very proud of. Wee independent Claire from East Londonderry has done her job 100% more than any other Member of the House. Added to that, I have asked more questions than all the other MLAs of my constituency put together. We can do the job if we want to.
We have three private Member's Bills — a fourth when Mr Allister tables his next week — coming from this corner. What unites us? What is the success of this corner? It is because we are not in government. We have the integrity that we can challenge, without prejudice, and that is important in getting the truth for the people of Northern Ireland so that we can move forward and make things better. Even the Ulster Unionist Party has been more effective since coming out of government, and let us hope that it stays that way.
I will not go into detail on all aspects of the Bill because we will have the opportunity to do that at Consideration Stage. On the technical groups within the opposition, yes, I would quite happily work with most of the men in this corner — all of them. That is because, as an independent, I am always the last to speak on an issue. The debate will go back to John when I finish, so it has made things difficult for me. There are issues in my constituency that I have been unable to speak on because I am always the last to speak. I have been timed out long before the debate gets to me. That is not fair. The 3,003 first-preference voters entrusted to me by my predecessor deserve a voice, and I think that the current mechanism does not allow for that.
Mr B McCrea: Will the Member, just for the record, explain that, because constituents will ask why you are not speaking out on issues? I think that people need to understand that it is because you are prevented by Standing Orders from being able to speak. I think that you should make the point clear.
Ms Sugden: Thank you for that contribution. Yes, it is entirely true. People say to me, "Claire, I haven't seen you in Stormont today. What are you doing up there?", and I say, "Well, I am doing a lot more than one particular party in the Assembly". Truth be told, more often than not, I prepare speeches and contributions but am timed out. Sometimes, it is not even worth having an opinion, so I do it in other ways. I do it in questions. Just think what I could do if I had a realistic opportunity to table motions that I could get onto the Floor of the House. We would probably be here a lot longer than we are currently.
Speaking rights tie in with the technical groups: would being part of a technical group give us more opportunity? People will ask why I would I want to work with people who do not necessarily share my views. It is based on structure and on having a voice. If a technical group provides for that, I am quite happy to do that. I think that one of the biggest failures of Northern Ireland politics is that people think that challenging someone in your own party is seen as a failure. It is not; it should be a strength. If you can challenge someone from within your own party and move forward, it makes you stronger. I wish that other parties would see that, because we might start getting some truth out of here.
The Bill's proposal on the naming of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister is quite controversial. I agree that we should perhaps call it what it is. Martin McGuinness is as equally the First Minister as Peter Robinson, or Arlene Foster currently is. It may spare a few blushes next year, when Martin McGuinness is likely to be the leader of the largest party in Northern Ireland and take the First Minister's role. That is reality; it is where we are.
I agree with Mr Allister; I think that the Bill could go further. Indeed, I am looking into tabling amendments that will hold Ministers to account. Certainly, I look forward to working with Mr Agnew, if he wishes to table those amendments, so that we can hold to account Ministers who are currently perverting their Pledge of Office when they take on that role.
To conclude, I welcome the Bill. I think that it could go further, but we can do that later. It is certainly a start. I look forward to the Consideration Stage.
Mr McCallister: I am grateful to colleagues for participating in the debate. In opening the debate, I said that this, to my mind, was a carefully thought-out package. When you put it in as a whole, it works, because you have the collectiveness of a Government working together. You have an opposition, and you have a place that you can hang the rights for Members in opposition.
Mr McCartney talked about linking into d'Hondt, and he said that you could do some of this, or maybe most of it, by Standing Orders. That goes back to what he said in response to my point about the 1929 changes to the electoral system. It becomes much harder to change Standing Orders if they are based in primary legislation. Therefore we guarantee those rights of the Assembly and of any opposition that we create flowing from this. Mr Kennedy also mentioned those. Those are some of the changes that, I think, would be welcomed. I think that it is very important that they are based in primary legislation.
Mr McCartney and, I think, Mr Rogers talked about Good Friday Agreement-proofing the legislation. As a supporter of the Good Friday Agreement, I do not have a problem with that. I firmly believe that what I propose in this is based around the principles of inclusivity, but not only in government through the d'Hondt process. I accept that I want to set a threshold on that and give people enhanced rights in opposition, but that is inclusivity in the political process. That is vital. Therefore, I am confident that the Bill will meet the test he is setting.
One of his colleagues made a point to me about Sinn Féin's role as an opposition party in Dáil Éireann. During the recent debate about water, Sinn Féin ended up with an average of something like four seconds in which to address each amendment that its Members had tabled. That is when an Executive has too much power over the legislative branch. That should not happen, and it should not happen in this Chamber. Therefore, I think that the way in which Sinn Féin has been using opposition in the Dáil is a good example of holding a Government to account.
Mr Rogers very much welcomed the Bill. He welcomes the proposals on topical questions, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee and funding, and very much welcomes the policy on d'Hondt. Again, he mentioned the Good Friday Agreement and inclusivity. Without repeating what I have said, I think that it is as important to be included in the political community as it is to be included in government. He talked about being nervous about changes to community designation, but I think that he was open to that debate. I very much welcome his comments around that. Again, there was some nervousness around the size of technical groups. He used a quote from Seamus Mallon, a former deputy First Minister, about being at peace with ourselves and setting out integrity and vision. That is what the Bill is about. It is setting out a vision for how we address not just the bugbears that always come back to bite us, but all of the problems, be they around educational underachievement or economic reform — all of the things that we have to do, and do significantly better.
In welcoming the Bill, Mr Kennedy talked about the power to vote a party out of government. I agree with his point that the Assembly has not evolved at the speed or pace that society has in 17 years; we may even think that the Assembly is probably significantly behind society on many issues. Rather than bringing people in, the structures put people off. I agree with Mr Kennedy because not only do we put people off and voter engagement is low, but even those of us who are in our second term here and those who have served longer will know that engagement by lobby groups and charities is not nearly as significant as it was during my first term.
Mr Kennedy rightly made the point about revitalising the Assembly. He referred to Lord Empey's attempts in the House of Lords and about rights that are based in legislation. That is why the Bill is here: it bases those rights in legislation and makes it very difficult for a future Executive or Government to take them away, as indeed was Mr McCartney's worry. That is why it is good and useful to have that legislation. He mentioned technical groups in the opposition and looking at resources. He also mentioned the sectarian nature of the OFMDFM headcount but was supportive overall of reform of the Assembly and Executive. Indeed, as a Minister of almost five years' service, he is probably well placed to comment on it.
I turn now to Mr Lunn, who welcomed the Bill. I agree with him that it will test the Assembly. There are challenges in there around the petition of concern and community designation. He welcomed the opposition and questioned the need for a Government. I think that the point was well made by Mr Agnew that, sometimes, we do have a Government and an opposition; they just happen to be all the same people. That is the really disappointing thing and what gets us into such difficulty with making decisions: everyone is in government and in opposition. Those should be two very clear, distinct roles.
The Deputy Chair of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, Mr Bradley, in an intervention, talked about the Budget process. I have to say that I agree with Mr Lunn and with Mr Bradley's intervention. Mr Cree is in the Chamber. During my opening speech, I mentioned that the financial process has been a longstanding bugbear of his. We have to do everything and end up doing it by accelerated passage. We get information at the last minute. My hope, and why you would separate out the Budget process and have a Budget Committee and a Finance Committee, is that the Finance Committee could handle all the other stuff, such as rating policies, personnel and voluntary exit schemes, but the Budget Committee would focus on the Budget process. The Budget process changes that have been long talked about and championed by people like Mr Cree would come to some sort of fruition at this stage. Most people in the Chamber seem to agree that the Budget process is wholly inadequate now.
Mr Lunn also talked about getting maturity and growing up. Northern Ireland is coming close to 100 years old. I am not quite sure that we have really grown up. We still seem to look somewhat of the teens and early twenties; not long left for university, still have the apron strings fairly tied to them, and do not want to do much without somebody giving support or sending money. I am sure that some of you who have young people at university get the call every once in a while to send more money across. That, essentially, seems to be where we are stuck.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
We have never matured into the politics of grown-up government and actually dealing with the issues or, indeed, coming up with policy innovations that would tackle that. Our one policy agreement seems to be that London should send us more money; what we would do with it would be anybody's guess. It is time — the Bill presents the opportunity — for Northern Ireland to come of age, grow up, govern ourselves and meet the challenges of government.
Mr Allister, obviously, was somewhat surprised that we would need a debate on having an opposition. He said that of course there should be an opposition and at least the Bill is moving in the right direction. I could have comfortably predicted that the one area he would denounce me for would be staying wedded to d'Hondt. I sometimes wish that we were in a position to move away from it, but d'Hondt guarantees parties of a certain size their entry into government. It is then up to those parties to accept that responsibility. There is a responsibility in being in government. In certain ways, it is easier to be in opposition and always saying, "This is terrible", or, "That is no good", or whatever. Being in government carries a huge responsibility; being a Government Back-Bencher must be a terrible burden, with not many perks in the job and all the criticisms. That is why, if you use the d'Hondt system, parties must face up to the challenge, negotiate a Programme for Government and move on.
I very much welcome Mr Allister's support for moving away from the tribal nature of designation. He rightly pointed out that he was a member of a technical group in the European Parliament and that the Dáil has one. Newry, Mourne and Down District Council has a technical group which is the third-largest grouping in the council. There are no political affiliations among the members involved, but it includes an independent republican, the Alliance Party and a couple of other independents. They qualify for extra speaking time in the council, which is something to be welcomed.
If the six of us or any collection of six people wanted to do that and trigger extra rights and a seat on the Business Committee, it does not mean that we are signing up to agree with each other on anything. It is simply a mechanism to make sure that your opposition in a technical group is of a certain size so that it can access enhanced speaking rights and membership of the Business Committee. That is why it is welcome. It could certainly change the dynamic and it answers the points made by Ms Sugden and Mr McCrea in that it would guarantee Members in this corner a speaking slot in every debate. That changes things quite dramatically. On many occasions, Mr Deputy Speaker, you and your colleagues do your level best to include as many people and as wide a cross-section of views as possible but, on very many occasions, it is not possible to include anyone from this corner. Indeed, during a certain Budget debate, which was time-limited, because I tabled an amendment to it I was possibly the only one from these Benches who got to speak.
I am pleased that Mr Allister agrees with the renaming of OFMDFM. He made a point about giving real effect to this in getting a lot of the schedule passed. The things that we can do here are great for the opposition. The prize of getting so much of the schedule through is that we change how our Executive works; we challenge that and we build in collective Cabinet government.
We remove community designations, put in a threshold and change the dynamics of how this place works. I think that that is vital.
Mr Agnew was quite right when he opened and said that many people probably told me that I could not do this. You are right: I heard that quite a few times. They said, "You can't do it. How do you get round the competencies? We need Westminster". As I said when opening the debate, I think three different debates in the House of Lords nailed that firmly down. Baroness Randerson, speaking on behalf of the then coalition Government, and Lord McAvoy, speaking on behalf of the Labour Opposition, made it quite clear that they would not act without the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive being the initiator of that action. This Bill is the way to initiate that; it is the vehicle with which to do it.
On the legislation not being required for all, I think that when basing it on Standing Orders and in primary legislation, then that means that it is about much more than just the grace and favour of the Executive arm of government. It makes sure that the Government are listening.
Mr Agnew is in favour of collective responsibility. I think that you have only to look at many Government policies to quickly see that they read like a set of football results. That is why we have to move away from that. We have parties in the Government voting against the Budget. That would bring down Governments in other places, but parties can do that without taking any great responsibility because they know that the big two have enough to carry the Budget. That is not being a responsible party in a Government. That is why I think that a collective Cabinet and a change in culture are needed.
Too often in the House, when Members and Ministers get up to speak about the Government, they do so as though they are thinking about London or Dublin; they do not think that they are the Government of Northern Ireland. So, there needs to be a sea change. I agree with Mr Agnew, in that I am quite keen to hear it being referred to as the Government of Northern Ireland in future.
On the ministerial code and the issue of accountability, I think that Mr Agnew is well placed on the Standards and Privileges Committee to look at that. I certainly welcome anything like that. I think that Ms Sugden mentioned it as well. Anything like that is to the good.
Mr Agnew is right about petitions of concern. He knows that I have often said to him, "You do know that when you sign a petition of concern, Mr Agnew, your vote does not count?". Neither does Mr Lunn's vote count; and I think that this is inherently wrong. The votes of nine Members in the Chamber do not count at that point. We, therefore, need to move and change that.
I am not overly convinced about Mr Agnew's point on holding a referendum. I thought that 71·25% of the population voting yes in 1998 had settled the issue, with everybody turning round and saying, "The people have spoken. Isn't it great?". But, we have spent the 17 and a half years since the referendum fighting about it. So, I am never entirely convinced that it is entirely appropriate to have a referendum on, at times, quite technical changes. Ms Sugden brought that up as well. If somebody wants to hold a referendum and thinks that that is a good idea, I would not be opposed to it, but I am just not convinced, in a representative democracy, that this is the place to do that.
Turning to Mr McCrea's contribution, I gathered that he was wanting very much to say that he had invented opposition.
I will quote two things to him initially. This is from his launch speech for the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party in 2010:
"Pledge 1 – No ministry until party success assured
I intend to lead the party on the basis that the leader of the UUP will be the First Minister. Until this goal is achieved I will not accept any other ministry. I will review this commitment after the next Westminster elections. I am determined to turn this party around."
"Pledge 2 – The UUP will take the Education Ministry as first choice".
I am not sure that that is entirely consistent with what he said. He went on:
"The foundation of any value added economy is education and training."
That is fine, but those two points certainly nail the myth that Mr McCrea invented opposition.
Mr B McCrea: Will the Member inform the House that, when he tried to bring a private Member's Bill through on procurement, he came to me and asked if I would take it over so that he could bring forward this private Member's Bill?
Mr McCallister: I am happy to confirm that, and I look forward to an update on how he got on with his public procurement Bill.
Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way? Would the Member like an update?
Mr McCallister: You will get your chance.
Mr McCrea also made some comment about designation being important to me. I think that, if the record is checked, we will find that Mr McCrea is still designated as a unionist. It was obviously such a pressing thing to change in May 2014 that he could not even get that done.
Mr B McCrea: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Can you inform the House as to at what stages you are able to change designation in this place?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask the Member to seek advice outside the Chamber. I encourage all Members to come back to the Bill that is in front of us.
Mr McCallister: I am grateful, Deputy Speaker. On the issue of community designation in the Bill, I will quote from the Member's party website, which was up until the end of March or the start of April this year. It said:
"We have said repeatedly that as we are required to designate as 'unionist', 'nationalist' or 'other' in the assembly ... we will designate as unionist".
I do not know what changed his mind. I think that he well knows the issues that NI21 floundered on.
I am surprised that he is not as supportive of technical groups. It is not compulsory to be in a technical group. If he did not want to be part of that, he would not have to be. Indeed, if anyone did not want him to be part of it, he would not have to be either. He asked about financial support and a SpAd for the leader of the opposition. I think that financial support on these matters is best left to a review panel. I did say, when opening the debate, that if you were to move and wanted to keep it as cost-neutral to the Assembly as possible, you could quite easily move to the Departments paying all or a percentage of the ministerial salaries that they are responsible for, rather than the Assembly paying it all. That costs the Assembly £767,000 a year by the time you add in National Insurance contributions and pensions.
He also mentioned giving up ministerial office and power. That is why there is a threshold built in; d'Hondt is your way in. I am surprised at him talking about d'Hondt being such a travesty. I expected that from Mr Allister, but not from Mr McCrea. He will well know that we are not in a position to move away from d'Hondt. He will well know that I respect all the parties here and their mandate.
I expect that d'Hondt will be used for a considerable time to come as people's right to a place in the Government. I am not about trying to gang up on any one party to put them out of the Government. The challenge is to respond, be responsible and act like you are in the Government. Therefore, I will defend sticking with d'Hondt.
I have no great issues with the suggestion for a civic forum. This place has to be the supreme seat of representative democracy in Northern Ireland. Could a civic forum add value to it or some ideas? Absolutely, of course it could.
As for the point about renegotiating all, we have effectively been negotiating all my life, and not just my adult life. I was born in February 1972, and we have been negotiating for all of that period. We have been negotiating since Sunningdale, when I was a small boy, to constitutional conventions and rolling devolution in the 1980s, to the Hume/Adams talks here in the early 1990s, to the ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement. We have an agreement named after almost every country estate in the United Kingdom. We have the St Andrews Agreement, the agreement at Hillsborough, the Stormont House Agreement, Stormont Castle agreement — we have them all, and where are we at this point?
This Bill provides a vehicle and a timely way to vote yes or no at some point. We have to decide whether we want to reform this place or continue in the way we have been going. We have to decide. It is up to every one of us and our parties to decide whether we want to continue with what we have had over past years, with indecision and constant crisis, with one crisis here and another one there or whether the Assembly and Executive will survive until next week. We have to decide whether we have had enough of that brinkmanship. We have to decide whether we want to do government. Do we want to be responsible for ourselves and our own future and our children's future? The crux of this Bill is deciding whether we can have a future in which we work together, that demands partnership in government, scrutiny from an opposition and provides an alternative.
There is nothing in the Bill that says that opposition parties have to work together. There is nothing that says that the UUP as an opposition has to work with the SDLP, Alliance or any of us. However, the electoral advantage of starting to work together and look like an alternative to the Government changes the dynamics in here and the way that people think.
One reason that so many people predicted that we might have an election by now or in November or at any time is because so many people knew that nothing would change. An election would make not one jot of difference. It would be largely the same faces and same parties. A few seats might change here and there, but we would come back to face the same problems.
How do we deal with all these issues? This Bill provides a mechanism to do that. I accept that the Government may have to park some issues that cannot be dealt with, but get on and do the stuff that we can agree on, and do government, not endless peace process negotiation. What we have had for the last 18 years is government by peace process negotiation.
By next May, the peace process will have the first people casting their votes — if they can make it out to a polling station — who were born after the Good Friday Agreement and are of that era. So, the first truly post-conflict generation is coming of age to vote. This Bill is a chance, by the next Assembly term, to change the dynamic of our Northern Ireland Government and Assembly and make them fit for purpose.
Use the Bill as the vehicle to make that change happen and get on and give real purpose, direction and meaning to what a Government does, with the robust challenge and scrutiny that an opposition can bring.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill [NIA 62/11-16] be agreed.
That, as provided for in Standing Order 33(1), the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill [NIA Bill 62/11-16] stands referred to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. — [Mr Weir.]
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): 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 on the Marshalled List. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes to wind. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
That this Assembly notes the inequality of treatment that has arisen for staff in the PSNI, the Department of Justice and the Northern Ireland Office in terms of the equal pay settlement; recognises the genuine hurt and hardship that have been caused as a result; and calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the Minister of Justice to take urgent steps to recognise their moral obligation and to ensure that staff affected are not financially disadvantaged and receive the equivalent payments awarded to their colleagues in other Departments.
I am pleased to move the motion today in yet another attempt to resolve the inequality and unfairness of the situation with the equal pay settlement for police support staff in the PSNI and those seconded from the former Northern Ireland Office, now the Department of Justice. The matter has been dragging on since 2009 and was the subject of a debate in the House in June 2013. Many questions about the equal pay issue have been asked in the House, and it was the subject of a County Court judgement on 7 March 2013. The judgement held that there had been pay delegation in these cases and that the staff involved fell outside the equal pay settlement as the Department of Finance and Personnel was not responsible for their pay. That is the legal position, but there remains the issue of fairness and, I believe, the moral position. These people are entitled to the extra pay that their colleagues enjoy. We know that £26 million had been ring-fenced for that purpose within the PSNI alone. Some will say that the money was reserved just in case the judgement went the other way, but clearly a case had been made on the quantum.
I do not wish to apportion blame to anyone, but the fact remains that there are concerns about why adequate business cases were not provided and why the unions did not press their respective employers to ensure that all their members received equal pay for equal work. Back in 1996, there was some assurance about rights for the members of staff involved from the then head of the Civil Service, but the court decided that that was not contractually binding. However, whilst the judge found that there was no legal duty to pay, he had some sympathy with the moral issue, which was deemed to be for others to decide. The then Finance Minister, Mr Simon Hamilton, appeared to share that view and estimated that a figure of between £32·5 million and £50 million would need to be set aside. He stated that he would put a recommendation to Executive Ministers on that basis early last year and said:
"there is a need to recognise the very strong moral argument that has been put forward." — [Official Report, Bound Volume 96, p23, col 1].
I believe that the issue remains in the Executive with no decision made. There is a high moral argument to resolve the outstanding matter without further delay. I trust that the House will support the motion and that the Executive will make a decision without any more delay.
The Sinn Féin amendment attempts to lay the blame on the British Government, but, as the posts were devolved and had pay delegation, I cannot see the logic in the amendment and therefore do not accept it.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I beg to move the following amendment:
Leave out all after the first "Justice" and insert
", the Northern Ireland Office and a number of arm’s-length bodies in terms of the equal pay settlement; recognises the genuine hurt and hardship that have been caused as a result; and calls on the Executive to address any areas of responsibility that they have and to make representations to the British Government, who were the employer for many of those affected, urging them to recognise their moral obligation and to ensure that staff affected are not financially disadvantaged and receive the equivalent payments awarded to their colleagues in other Departments.".
At the outset, let me say that we have no real issues with the main motion. If Mr Cree had read the amendment, he would know that we are not apportioning blame to anyone. We are saying that the British Government were the employer at the time through the NIO and that representations should be made to see if they have anything to address in this issue. It is not about apportioning blame, so I hope that, in light of that and of some of the remarks that we will make, perhaps dividing the House will not be necessary because the composite motion will deal with the issue.
The issue has been dealt with in a number of ways in the last number of years. Indeed, on 4 June 2013, there was a debate here in the Assembly, and I stated on behalf of Sinn Féin that:
"For us, this issue is about equality of treatment and fairness." — [Official Report, Bound Volume 85, p364, col 2].
That remains our position. I said then that none of us could predict the outcome but it was an issue that was not going to go away until it was addressed. That has come to pass. Indeed, a quick look at the Research and Information Service's pack on the issue shows that it has been raised by all the parties. Something like 42 Members, across the variety of instruments open to us — plenary debates, the Committee for Finance and Personnel, the Justice Committee, Assembly questions and questions for oral answer to both Ministers — have ventilated all the issues, but there has been no resolution to this. Therefore, it remains unresolved and at its core is an issue around the equality of treatment of civil servants who were public service workers and have provided a service.
There is no doubt that a big rupture in the matter was the legal case, where it was ruled that there was no legal entitlement. In many ways, from that, the issue has proved very difficult to resolve. I agree with Leslie Cree in the wording of the motion. A legal judgement is binding, and nobody doubts its binding nature, but it leaves space. When the judge spoke at the judgement, he said that there was a sense of grievance and a lack of fairness, but he could rule only on the legal entitlement.
The issue has been brought in front of the Justice Committee, which I sit on, and, on a number of occasions, departmental officials have tried to explain the complexity. These were people who were once in employment. There was a pay delegation that they were treated separately when they were employees of the NIO and the old Police Authority. That aside, there is absolutely no doubt that, when the equal pay settlement was realised and accepted across a number of Departments and, indeed, across a range of civil servants, there was a group of people who were left outside. They still carry that sense that it was not addressed in a proper way.
I do not want to be unkind, but what we have seen since the Assembly debate in June 2013 is like a game of ping-pong, where responsibility is thrown from one Department to the other. In fairness to them, both Departments have said that this is an issue that can be addressed, but still there is no resolution. That is why we believe in some attempt to break the logjam. Our motion clearly does not bring it down to two particular Departments; we say that it is an issue for the Executive and remains so.
Mr Allister: You make it sound as though it is no one's fault. Is it not the situation — certainly, answers that I have suggest that it is — that a paper from the Finance Minister has been waiting in the in-tray of the Executive for 18 months and that Sinn Féin has blocked discussion of the issue at the Executive? Is that not the truth of the matter, and is it not why this matter has been blocked and there has been failure to reach a settlement on it?
Mr McCartney: No. I disagree. One of the reasons why there has been no settlement is because the two Departments have not taken responsibility for which of them is wholly responsible. I think that it is wrong to say that. As Mr Allister often does, he looks for the bogeyman, and Sinn Féin is the easy one. It is easy for him to play that out there. This is an issue that is broader than trying to put the blame on one particular party. This issue needs to be resolved in the interests of those who lost out on the equal pay claim; but there are issues for the Executive that the Executive need to address. As I say, this goes back to 1996, when the NIO took a decision that these civil servants would be in its remit and under its terms and conditions. The NIO has walked away from it.
Therefore, what we are doing in relation to the motion and the amendment is saying that the Executive should open up discussions with the British Government to see what their responsibilities are, and, if they have responsibilities — in our opinion, they do — it is up to them to address it. In times past and in other situations, in very generous settlements for other state agencies, the Government were not found wanting, with sums of a quantum far higher than these civil servants want.
Let me state it very clearly: I, personally, and Sinn Féin, believe that the British Government have a responsibility in this and, up to now, they have abdicated it. That is why we tabled the amendment. We realise that the Executive have a role to play and, in our opinion, they should not be found wanting, but the British Government cannot walk away from it either.
Mrs D Kelly: I and other members of my party have spoken about this clear inequality in the equal pay claim over the last number of years. Whilst I have a lot of empathy, and, indeed, sympathy, the fault lies with the failure of the British Government to honour not only the commitment to these people but many other commitments, not least to victims in the North. Indeed, where legacy cases are still outstanding, EU courts have found against the Government.
However, I look forward to what the Minister has to say about the proposals that are firmly on the table, as opposed to some that might well be in the ether. Having had discussions with some of the people impacted upon, I understand it to be the case that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. There is more certainty around a proposal that, I believe, is with the Executive and which has been held up for a considerable time, for whatever reason. Therefore, I see the proposal from the Ulster Unionist Party as something that falls far short of meeting the needs and aspirations of the people who are most impacted upon by this failure, but, as others have said, there is no legal obligation on the Executive. There is, however — I think that all of us are agreed — a moral obligation. However, we live in constrained times, and there is some proposal that will assist the majority of people who have made equal pay claims right away if the Executive agree the paper from the Finance Minister. That is my clear understanding, and discussion of it is something that I look forward to. I note that the Sinn Féin amendment goes further and talks about staff seconded from arm's-length bodies.
To the best of my knowledge, that is a new addition; it is something that I was not as aware of as of those civilian staff in the broad justice system. However, these people have been making the case for a very long time, and I am sure that many of them would very much prefer to have some certainty about what is on offer, even though it falls short of their expectations and what true justice would give them. Nonetheless, there is an offer on the table, and it is my understanding that people are prepared to accept something less than that to which they had aspired.
I look forward to hearing some clarity on the position from the Finance Minister. We are hearing two conflicting views in relation to why the hold-up has occurred. Perhaps the Minister could bring us some certainty around that and some information on staff who have been seconded to arm's-length bodies, the impact on numbers, what the budget might be and whether or not the Executive will consider the needs of those staff, in addition to putting something on the table for those staff who have an offer potentially within their grasp.
Mr Dickson: I have been a trade union official for most of my working life, and I have represented people in and dealt with many cases like this. I have also, as a Member of this Assembly, received a great number of letters from constituents who have been affected by this matter. The reality is, however, that, when their trade union went to court, it lost the case. In those circumstances, it became exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for Departments to make any ex gratia payments.
It is my understanding that the Treasury did set aside a sum of money for the eventuality of a win in the courts, but that money came off the table the moment the case was lost. Therefore, we are in a situation where people have a very strong sense of unfairness around the way in which they have been treated — of that there is no doubt — but there is no legal standing for unfairness. That leaves us in the situation where, effectively, we are asking the Minister of Finance to make an ex gratia payment by way of compensation in respect of these matters. Whether that will stand up to public scrutiny, and whether, ultimately, a Finance Minister who made that payment would be criticised by the Audit Office or others, remains to be seen.
I would also like the Finance Minister to comment on how she would propose to divide money between any claimants if she were to make an ex gratia payment by way of compensation for unfairness, rather than due to any court decision. Would it be an equal amount each? It is my understanding that, if she were to do that, some people would actually receive more than their entitlement if the court had found in their favour, and others substantially less.
The trade union has spent a great deal of time, money and effort fighting this valiantly on behalf of those it represents; that is its job, but I think the time has come for the Executive to deal with this matter finally and unequivocally. If the Minister can find and justify the resources, well and good. If she cannot, it is her duty to be open and honest with those people who may have a residual expectation of some form of payment.
Ms McGahan: Go raibh maith agat. I support the motion as amended, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Thank you for the opportunity to address the House on the issue of inequality of treatment that has arisen for staff in the PSNI, the Department of Justice and the NIO in terms of the equal pay settlement. Recognising, in the words of the motion before us, "the genuine hurt and hardship" caused as a result, I wish to acknowledge those very strong feelings among staff who have been affected disproportionately by the current equal pay settlement.
My party colleague Raymond McCartney has given a very comprehensive outline of our rationale for the amendment. As we have stated, this is a responsibility for the British Government. They need to step up to the plate as the employer of many of those affected to ensure that staff are not disproportionately affected. To conclude, approval must be given for a payment that would not be derogatory.
Mr Nesbitt: This debate is a bit more than one on the motion; it is also a debate about what we think characterises good government. Do we include values like fairness, openness and transparency? Do we value the ability to make tough decisions and stand over and justify the decisions that we make?
The history of this campaign by a section of our citizens for fair treatment is, I think, highly illustrative of the dysfunction of this round of devolution. This is about how we, as an Assembly and as an Executive Committee of that Assembly, do business on behalf of our people. I do not think that it is possible to sit with some of those affected by this issue and not leave the room determined to right a wrong. Earlier today, I heard of a woman with 40 years' public service who wanted to retire, whose health dictated that she should retire, but who could not bring herself to retire because she was afraid that, if she did so, she would lose out if there were a resolution to this dispute. It may not be judged as a wrong in strict legal terms, but it is a wrong.
How can you look people in the eye who, during the Troubles, ran the same risks as members of the security forces — people working in police stations; people working in courthouses; people who had to check under their cars for fears of terrorist attack; and people who had to consider themselves and their families at constant risk — and then deny them the same rights as former colleagues?
How well have we done? There is a hefty volume, as was pointed out by the Member for Foyle, of records of debates, Committee hearings and Assembly questions, oral and written. Here is just a flavour of that debate over the past number of years.
Two and a half years ago, the then Finance Minister Sammy Wilson said:
"The issue of the payment to those who work as administrative assistants in the PSNI has been one that I have received a lot of correspondence on. I have some sympathy with the arguments that people have put forward". — [Official Report, Bound Volume 85, p79, col 1].
Tea and sympathy, but without the tea. Skip forward a year, and his successor Simon Hamilton said that the issue:
"should be resolved as a matter of urgency, given the widespread support that there supposedly has been for a resolution".— [Official Report, Bound Volume 96, p22, col 2].
That was in June last year. He said "supposedly": was he pointing a finger at Sinn Féin? I doubt it, because Mr Flanagan of Sinn Féin acknowledged that:
"a large number of civil servants ... disgruntled that the settlement is a belated response for people who were discriminated against throughout their careers and who are still awaiting justice."— [Official Report, Bound Volume 96, p23, col 1].
From Sinn Féin's point of view, it is clearly core business. As recently as April of this year, the response to a written question to the First Minister and deputy First Minister asking the status of this plan as submitted by the Minister of Finance and Personnel, stated that:
"Executive business and all aspects of the Executive decision making process are confidential." — [Official Report, Bound Volume 103, WA171].
So, tea and sympathy, without the tea or the sympathy.
It that a flavour of an open, transparent Government? Does that give a taste of a Government that cares? I am well aware of the legal case and the judgement of His Honour Judge Babington in March 2013. We could debate that ruling all day: was the case well made? Was the ruling solid? However, whatever the legal niceties, there is no question that there is a moral obligation to step in here.
I have heard it said by some former Executive Ministers that they accept the moral obligation, irrespective of what the courts have had to say. I agree that there is a moral obligation. It is not my idea of government to wash your hands when things go wrong. As I see it, the facts are pretty simple. People made a decision about their future employment without the full knowledge of the implications of that decision and they should have been given the full knowledge of the implications. They should have had that information, and the lack of it gives rise to a moral obligation; an obligation on us to do the right thing. You cannot listen to those who spent a lifetime in public service only to feel betrayed by what has happened.
Mr Nesbitt: Mr Hamilton talks of a moral obligation. To me, a moral obligation is something that you talk about in terms of a full and final settlement, not a gesture. It is time for a full and final settlement for those people.
Mr Allister: The unedifying failure to resolve this long-standing grievance does not speak well of government. These were public servants who thought that they were doing the right thing, were assured that they were doing the right thing, were assured that they would be recompensed and took upon themselves the dangers, very often, that came with working in police stations, and now find themselves disadvantaged. That is a wrong that needs to be righted, and it should have been righted long since. The delay is quite unforgivable in many ways.
I would like the Minister to clarify a number of things for us, because I have listened to Sinn Féin in the debate suggesting that, really, it is no one's real fault what happened here. However, if I have followed the saga correctly — from the questions that I have asked the Finance Minister from time to time, I believe that I have, but I stand to be corrected — my understanding is that the Minister's predecessor, Mr Hamilton, drafted a paper of proposal to resolve this matter, for discussion by the Executive, 18 months ago. To this very day, that paper has never got before the Executive, because any paper to get to the Executive needs the imprimatur of both the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, and the deputy First Minister has refused to allow it onto the agenda. Can the Minister be emphatically clear: is that correct? If that is correct, then the finger is pointing back at Sinn Féin on the issue. Is its real problem the fact that many of those people dared to work in police stations? Is that its real difficulty in regard to this? Let us have some clarity on that issue. I look forward to the Minister making the situation very, very clear.
Will the Minister also clarify, for those long-waiting civil servants who have wanted to retire but have been fearful of retiring lest they lose out, and give a guarantee that they will not lose out, that that which has been accorded to them will continue and that they will be assured of payment?
Mr Dickson: I listened with interest to the Member's theories about the intervention of Sinn Féin. The Department of Justice wrote to the Justice Committee and, in correspondence, it said in responding on 8 August to Simon Hamilton, the newly appointed Finance Minister:
"The Minister has also noted the reference to ministerial direction which, although technically possible to be used, he would not be planning to do so in this case. DFP had no such plans."
That was in the event of the fact that he had no other legal route to make the payment. It may be blocked somewhere else, but the reality is that the Finance Minister himself, at the time, was simply not prepared to make a ministerial direction decision in respect of the matter.
Mr Allister: One is not talking about a ministerial direction decision; one is talking about an Executive decision. Whatever is in the Minister's paper, it obviously requires Executive approval, and it is frozen until it gets before the Executive and gets approval. I am clarifying with the Minister whether the reason why it has not got to the Executive is because of Sinn Féin's obstruction of it. I think that we need to hear that.
Then we hear from Sinn Féin all this talk about the British Government meeting their responsibilities. Again, I am sure that the Minister can correct me, but surely the obligation — moral, legal or quasi-both — falls on the fact that these were civil servants seconded from within devolved institutions to the PSNI etc, and therefore the obligation does not lie with the British Government; the obligation surely lies with those from whom they were seconded with the assurance that they would not be prejudiced in making the move. If those were civil servants who came from Northern Ireland Departments to go and work in NIO posts, the body that was underwriting the assurance that they would not be prejudiced was surely the devolved Department. Therefore, is it not the case that the primary obligation rests on this occasion not with the British Government but with the devolved Departments, and that is who should find the money for it?
Finally, I think it would be shameful if those deserving people were to become some sort of pawn in a tug of war with the British Government in any negotiations about money. There is a wrong to be righted. Let it be righted forthwith.
Mrs Foster (The Minister of Finance and Personnel): I welcome the opportunity to participate in today’s debate on the moral argument for payments to be made to civilian staff who have worked for the Police Service of Northern Ireland — or, as it used to be, the Police Authority — or who have worked in the Northern Ireland Office, in those sections that are now in the Department of Justice.
I know that colleagues have talked about the background of the case, but, just for the record, I think it would be helpful if I briefly explain why the Northern Ireland Civil Service equal pay settlement did not apply to those staff. NIPSA brought an equal pay claim against the NICS on the basis that the, predominately male, technical-grade staff enjoyed a pay lead over the corresponding, predominately female, administrative-grade staff. A settlement was negotiated for eligible staff in the affected grades, which included an increase in pay and a compensatory lump sum.
During the period covered by the settlement, there were pay delegations in place for both the Police Authority and the Northern Ireland Office. A pay delegation means that these bodies could settle their own pay arrangements. Because of the pay delegation, staff in both organisations were unable to use the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) staff as comparators. No internal equal pay liabilities for either the Police Service or the NIO similar to those upon which the NICS settlement was based were identified. Staff were therefore unable to bring equal pay claims.
However, as a result of the equal pay settlement, those groups did implement any corresponding increases in pay where they followed NICS pay rates. Indeed, as I understand it, the Police Service voluntarily followed the NICS pay upgrade, whilst the NIO and the Department of Justice implemented different scales.
NIPSA lodged a number of test cases in the County Court against the Northern Ireland Civil Service Departments, alleging a breach of contract caused by management not applying the complete terms of the settlement to those staff. As has been mentioned, those cases were dismissed by Judge Babington in March 2013. He found that the pay delegations were lawfully exercised and that there was therefore no legal entitlement for those staff to have access to the NICS equal pay settlement, except where they had service in the NICS.
So, the legal position is clear. I think that is accepted right across the House. Mr Cree mentioned the £26 million being ring-fenced in the PSNI budget, but, of course, once the legal case was lost, that money was no longer ring-fenced and the legal liability was no longer there, so, just to be clear, that money is not there any more.
The legal position is important, because the Northern Ireland Civil Service cannot pay out money to staff without a legal basis to do so. NIPSA, the union, despite having lost the legal argument, has continued to encourage staff to lobby MLAs for a payment on the basis of a moral argument. The moral argument put forward is that, if those organisations had not been given separate delegation powers and had fallen within DFP pay determination powers, the staff would have been included in the equal pay settlement.
I have listened to staff and met many of them. They have written to me and spoken to me. They have sometimes got to me by some unorthodox methods, which I will not go into today, and I have heard what they have had to say. Their representatives have written to me and, indeed, to my predecessor, and from right across the Chamber as well, so I understand very well the arguments that are made and the strength of feeling behind them.
Staff believe that they should not be subject to differences in financial outcome for having served in what have been very difficult areas at times right throughout the Troubles.
I place on record my thanks to all staff who worked in those areas during very difficult times for this country. The difficulty in finding a resolution to the issue is no reflection of the esteem in which those staff are held.
If the issue is to be dealt with in the way suggested by staff and their representatives, it is essential that the matter be considered by the Northern Ireland Executive. I hear what Mr Dickson said about an ex gratia payment based on a direction from the Minister of Finance and Personnel, but it is clear to me that this is a novel, contentious and cross-cutting issue. Therefore, it should come to the Executive, and that is what we propose to do. There would need to be legislation to provide a route for payment. Indeed, his colleague, the Minister of Justice, in response to the paper submitted to the Executive, made that very point: how would the payment be made? Would it be made through the Financial Assistance Act , or would we need other legislation? That point has been made. We need legislation if we are to go down that route, because Departments cannot pay out without the legal cover to do so. There would need to be legislation —
Mr Allister: Why can it not be paid through the Financial Assistance Act?
Mrs Foster: As I understand it, they have looked at the Financial Assistance Act. They believe that they do not have the legal vires to pay it through that and would need other legislation. I am not saying that that is a problem; I am just saying that we would probably need to put in place other legislation to make the payments. Most fundamentally —
Mr Cree: Thank you very much, Minister. I do not know whether you are aware of this, but the Social Security Agency had pay delegation as well, but it got the full terms of the settlement.
Mrs Foster: All I can say to you, Mr Cree, is that it must have been decided that its pay delegation would follow the NICS route. The Police Authority did not decide to go down that route, and neither did the NIO and, later, the DOJ.
Mr Hussey: Sorry, Minister. I am confused, but, as you know, that happens quite a lot. The delegation with the Policing Board was that it could have made a decision. The advice received from DFP on 22 February 2011 clearly affirmed the DOJ's understanding that:
"the pay and grading delegation that had been granted to the NIO in 1996 was to include the Northern Ireland Policing Board, formerly PANI, and that that pay delegation had not been rescinded."
Was the pay delegation still in the realm of the Policing Board?
Mrs Foster: The pay delegation remains with the PSNI. I think that some Members had a discussion about a business case coming to DFP through the Department of Justice. The pay delegation remains with the PSNI, so it will be with the Policing Board now.
Clearly, any agreement on the basis for the calculation of payments, setting out precisely who would be entitled to such a payment and where the money to make any payment would come from, has to be reached at the Executive table. All of you in the House will be very aware of the difficult budgetary situation facing Northern Ireland and the Executive. Therefore, we would need to agree together where money for this expenditure would come from in order to deal with the issues. It is no small issue, financially speaking. The full cost of paying staff amounts equivalent to the equal pay settlement would be over £30 million. The cost of including arm's-length bodies, which, of course, is in an amendment today, could mean a further £10 million. Those are not insubstantial sums, particularly in the difficult financial climate that we are experiencing.
Mr Allister asked about the Executive paper,and, of course, he deserves an answer. It is my understanding that Sinn Féin has prevented the matter getting on to the Executive agenda. Obviously, from a First Minister's point of view, it is a paper from a DUP Ministry, so we want to have the matter dealt with, but we have not been able to have that discussion around the table.
The amendment from Sinn Féin does not add anything to the original motion; in fact, it underlines some of the difficulties that I have mentioned with making a payment to PSNI and NIO staff. Including "a number of arm's-length bodies" widens the potential groups for consideration for payment. That, frankly, is not helpful to people who have been looking for the payment for a considerable time.
I could, of course, consider referring the matter to the Westminster Government, as was suggested. However, Westminster made money available for the original NICS equal pay settlement on the basis of clear legal advice on liability; not because they were responsible for what had happened but because the sum of money — £130 million at the time — was so huge that we needed to access money from Her Majesty's Treasury to meet the liability. It is not, unfortunately, the same for the staff in question; we have heard that there is no legal liability in relation to the matter.
The Executive need to move on the issue. You will all be aware that my predecessor, Simon Hamilton, wanted to find a way in which we could recognise the moral argument. He took the first step in getting the issue considered by circulating a paper outlining a recommendation that could, if agreed, achieve a resolution for the staff. The paper has been circulated; it has not been tabled for formal consideration, although a number of Executive colleagues have given their views on it. I referred to the Justice Minister's views on the paper, and the Ulster Unionist Regional Development Minister at the time said that he wanted very clear eligibility criteria to be set for budgetary matters. So, certain comments have been made about the paper.
It is a very complex issue, and a number of risks would need to be considered. There is a risk that a payment to that group of staff could undermine the original equal pay settlement if there was a differential in the amounts paid, which was Mr Dickson's point. There is also the risk of the potential repercussions for other groups, such as the arm's-length bodies, and how differences in pay rates between the NIO and the NICS would need to be taken into account in any payment. We have to consider all those issues in the round, or, frankly, we will end up in court being challenged by another group or whatever on the issue. The Executive will need to be very clear about any eligibility for the recognition of a moral argument and would need to consider any payment for that group of staff in relation to a range of issues, including budget, grades and the time period affected, to avoid an extension of the moral argument and associated costs to other groups of staff. I wish that I could come to the debate with a firm, positive answer for the staff, but, in the current political and financial climate, I am concerned that there is no immediate or, indeed, clear route to an outcome.
On Mr Allister's point that there are people who are fearful to retire in case they are not able to take up an offer if it were to come through, I can only say what I believe: ultimately, it will be for the Executive to decide on eligibility, but I would be very sympathetic to looking at the issue of those who retire now and miss out if a payment were to be made later. However, as I said, it is matter for the entire Executive.
I hope that the paper that Minister Hamilton circulated can reach the agenda of the Executive soon and that a resolution is found through cooperation and agreement. I will not mislead people. It will not be an easy issue, but they can be assured that they have my sympathy and, indeed, understanding as to why they should be considered for a payment.
Mr Lynch: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. One thing that the debate threw up was that a lot of people agreed on many things. One of the first things that was said was that it needed to be resolved and that it was an issue of equality and fairness. Everybody said that there was no legal route and that the judge had made the decision. They also said that there was a moral argument, and everybody was sympathetic.
As the Minister said, we have all received letters over a period of years about the issue. I take issue with Jim Allister, who said that we had difficulties with the issue: we have absolutely no difficulties with the issue. It is essentially an issue of equality.
Mr Lynch: No, I will not. I have only five minutes.
Mr Lynch: No.
I want to cover a number of issues that were outlined. Mr Cree moved the motion and talked about equality and fairness. He said that many questions had been asked over the years, including questions for written answer, and that there had been debates and representations made to the bodies. He said that the people were entitled to their payments and that the judge had ruled that it was a moral issue and more or less left it open for others to decide.
I disagree with him about our amendment, which states that it is clearly the responsibility of the British Government and the NIO. These people were originally employed by them; therefore they should pay. My colleague Raymond McCartney made that point: the British had employed these people and were therefore responsible for equality of treatment and fairness. What Sinn Féin has done about it in the past is on record. The issue is not going away; it has been about for a long time, and it has been raised by all parties.
I am on the Justice Committee, and officials came about a month after the judgement to outline the restraints that they faced. The issue had come to their table and they could not resolve it. I agree with the Minister that it is not easy; it is a complex issue. Nobody is saying any different. Raymond McCartney continued by saying that the debate was in 2013; it went to the Department, and there was a logjam. As our amendment states, this is an issue for the Executive to go back to and on which to lobby the British Government. I think that the Minister gave a figure of £30 million, which is a fair amount of money, wherever we get it from.
Dolores Kelly spoke about fairness and equality; she was interested in what the Minister would say and in getting some clarity. I do not know whether the Member got clarity. She said that there was a moral obligation.
Stewart Dickson dealt with similar issues, probably in a different role. I do not know whether that was in the Assembly or not. He said that the reality was that the case was lost in the courts. He questioned how the Finance Minister making a payment would work. I think that the Minister herself outlined that.
Bronwyn McGahan said that the hurt was to those who are affected. Mike Nesbitt asked how we do business on behalf of the people we represent. Jim Allister said that the delay is quite unforgivable. We agree in that sense for those who have been affected.
To conclude, I ask people to support our amendment.
Mr Hussey: My thoughts have been quite hazy this afternoon, listening to some of the comments made here. I begin by welcoming members of the Civil Service who are here to watch the debate and hear what is going on in the Chamber in support of them. I thank the Minister for coming to give us some answers, but I am disappointed that some of her party colleagues did not come to show support to the Northern Ireland civil servants who are affected by this.
We have had a debate where everybody has agreed that there is a moral argument. Moral arguments will not put money into the pockets of the civil servants concerned. In 2011, when I stood for election to this House, I met many people throughout the constituency who were concerned about this issue. It is sad to reflect that, so many years later, we still have not resolved it.
When is a civil servant not a civil servant? That is the sort of question that we should be asking here today. Who employed you in the first place? The point was made by several Members, including Mr Allister, that you were employed by the Department of Finance and Personnel and then allocated to a Department. I know that the Police Service of Northern Ireland put forward a business case for discussion in October 2010. This is where I get confused: the Police Service of Northern Ireland put forward a business case to the Department of Justice that was turned down by the DFP, because it then goes back to the delegation. Who had the delegated authority? Was it the Police Authority, the Policing Board or the Department of Finance and Personnel? That is an issue that will have to continue to be discussed.
Everybody agrees that this payment should be made in some way or another, but who should make it? I am sure that the civil servants concerned do not care where the money comes from; they want what everybody agrees is morally theirs. The sad reality is that we are playing ping-pong; the sad reality is that somebody is blocking this from getting to the Executive table.
The Minister has made it very clear that proposals were put forward by Simon Hamilton. Those proposals have not yet got to the Executive table. They are being blocked. If they are being blocked by Sinn Féin, shame on Sinn Féin. If they are being blocked by Sinn Féin, I suggest that you stop it, because you cannot sit in a corner and say that you support equal rights, you support the payment and you think they have a moral argument, and then say, "But it's the Brits who have to pay it." A moral argument is a moral argument, regardless of who has to pay.
Mr Hussey: No, I will not give way. If there is a moral argument that we all agree on, why, for once, can we not just say "OK"? Everybody agrees that this payment should be made. It is wrong to block it for any reason. Let the paper go to the Executive and discuss it, at least. If it is being blocked by Sinn Féin — I say "if" — remove that blockage and let it be discussed in the Executive. I will go no further than that, because I do not know what happens in the Executive. I doubt very much whether Mike Nesbitt will ever appoint me to be a Minister to find out, but, if you are sitting there, I suggest that you stop the blockage. There is a moral argument for this payment to be made. Everybody has agreed with it. There are no difficulties; it is an equality issue, but there is a feeling that it is everybody's fault but ours. If it is being blocked, remove the blockage and pay it.
There are civil servants sitting up there who have served this country loyally for 40 years and more; civil servants who worked in police stations when the terror threat against them was as high as it was against any police officer; civil servants who were locked into police stations because that station was under attack; civil servants who were attacked because they opened a courthouse. I could go on, because I have met these people. They have made representations to me, my party members and, indeed, Sinn Féin members. So, for once, let us get the nonsense out of the way. There is a moral argument here, and the moral is simply that we pay up. That is what I want to see happen. This evening, I call on Sinn Féin to remove any block that it has on this going to the Executive table. I support the motion.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Assembly divided:
Ayes 28; Noes 36
Ms Boyle, Mrs Cochrane, Mr Dickson, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Hazzard, Mr G Kelly, Ms Lo, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGlone, Mr McKay, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr Rogers, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Lynch, Ms McGahan
Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Ms P Bradley, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Humphrey, Mr Hussey, Mr Irwin, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mr Lyons, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mrs Overend, Mrs Pengelly, Mr G Robinson, Mr Somerville, Mr Storey, Ms Sugden, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Hussey, Mr Kennedy
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the inequality of treatment that has arisen for staff in the PSNI, the Department of Justice and the Northern Ireland Office in terms of the equal pay settlement; recognises the genuine hurt and hardship that have been caused as a result; and calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the Minister of Justice to take urgent steps to recognise their moral obligation and to ensure that staff affected are not financially disadvantaged and receive the equivalent payments awarded to their colleagues in other Departments.