Official Report: Tuesday 22 November 2016
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Allister: Mr Speaker, I wish to raise a point of order about the viability of a portion of our business next Monday. I apologise that the issue is quite complex and, therefore, ask for some forbearance. I will deal with the point as succinctly as I can.
On Monday, we are due to discuss a legislative consent motion pertaining to the Policing and Crime Bill. One of the components of the Policing and Crime Bill that that consent motion seeks approval for is that referred to as pardons for obsolete criminal offences. Our Standing Order 42A has a very prescribed process for how you get to the point of a legislative consent motion. It requires the laying of a memorandum, but that memorandum can only be triggered by the event which imports into the Bill that portion that you wish to apply by legislative consent motion.
It is my understanding that the aspect of the Policing and Crime Bill which imports, in respect of Northern Ireland, pardons for former criminal offences, only became part of the Bill on 9 November by amendment in the House of Lords, yet the legislative consent motion memorandum was issued and is dated and was laid on 7 November and, therefore, I respectfully submit, is void in that respect because you cannot prejudge or presume the content until it is part of the Bill. Since the legislative consent motion then triggers the referral to the Committee — and if the memorandum which triggers that is itself void — then the reference is void, and the timeline, whereby, within five days of that report, you can debate it, is voided. So, I respectfully suggest that that aspect of the legislative consent motion is not compatible with the very prescribed and specific procedure in Standing Order 42A.
I ask you to rule that it will not therefore be possible on Monday to debate that aspect of the legislative consent motion.
Mr Speaker: I thank the Member for raising that. It is important that the Assembly take its decisions to hand authority to Westminster for devolved matters seriously, and that is why I thank you for raising the point. For that particular legislative consent motion, I will consider the issue that you have raised.
Mr Speaker: Ms Clare Bailey has sought leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22. The Member will have up to three minutes to speak.
Ms Bailey: I am handing in this petition from Amnesty International to the Minister of Justice. It is signed by 45,400 people and calls for abortion law reform in Northern Ireland. Amnesty International, academics and many others have carried out extensive research into Northern Ireland's abortion laws, and we have repeatedly been found not to be compliant with the Human Rights Act, to which we are signatories. Even our courts have ruled on the issue, and again we have been found to be in breach of the human rights that we claim to uphold.
Since Marie Stopes opened its doors in Belfast city centre in 2012, people have begun to understand that abortion is not always illegal here and have started to question the issue as a whole, and our laws in particular. Amnesty International's public petition sets out a few facts. Northern Ireland's abortion laws are among the harshest in Europe and violate the basic human rights of women and girls. Abortion is illegal even in pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or where the foetus has no chance of surviving. Only in extremely restrictive cases in which a woman's health or life is in serious danger can she choose to access a termination. Instead of accessing the free, safe and legal healthcare that they need and would get on the NHS anywhere else in the UK, women here are forced by state law to carry the pregnancy to term or to travel elsewhere, with no regard to the psychological or physical impact on them or their family.
Midwives and doctors also face the great threat in our law of life imprisonment for involvement in any termination. Even every stillbirth in Northern Ireland is legally required to undergo a pathologist's post-mortem, and, if the parents refuse that, they face a public hearing with a coroner's autopsy, for which no consent is required. There is nowhere else in the world where that happens.
The petition from Amnesty, which 45,400 people have signed, calls on us to bring existing law into line with international human rights laws and standards, to make abortion available in cases of rape, incest or severe and fatal foetal impairment and to stop the criminalisation of women and girls who access abortion services. The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland trust women to make these decisions in their best interests, and it is time that the House did the same.
Ms Bailey moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.
Mr Speaker: I will forward a copy of the petition to the Minister of Justice and the Committee for Justice.
Mr McGuinness (The deputy First Minister): In compliance with section 52C(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, we wish to make the following statement on the twenty-third meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in plenary format, which was held in Armagh on Friday 18 November 2016. The Executive Ministers who attended the meeting have agreed that we can make this report on their behalf.
Our delegation was led by the First Minister, Arlene Foster MLA, and me. The following Executive Ministers were also in attendance: Minister Givan, Minister Hamilton, Minister Hazzard, Minister McIlveen, Minister Ó Muilleoir, Minister Sugden, Minister Weir, junior Minister Fearon and junior Minister Ross. The Irish Government delegation was led by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD.
At the start of the meeting, the Council noted that the bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup had been formally launched earlier in the week. Both Governments reaffirmed their commitment to work closely together to deliver a world-class proposal for hosting the tournament.
We had a discussion on the performance of the economy in each jurisdiction. Both Governments remain committed to growing their economy, and Ministers spoke about the initiatives under way in each jurisdiction to support economic growth.
The Council had an in-depth discussion on the implications of the result of the referendum on membership of the EU. It was noted that full sectoral audits had been carried out by Departments of the Executive and the Irish Government to identify impacts, risks, opportunities and contingencies that may arise following the UK's intended withdrawal from the EU. Ministers will continue their discussions at NSMC sectoral level in the coming months, and bilateral discussions will continue, as required, between relevant Ministers and officials.
The Council was advised that the Executive will continue their bilateral discussions with the British Government, and, with the other devolved Administrations, will continue the internal discussions with the British Government in the joint ministerial council. The Irish Government will continue their regular bilateral engagement with the British Government, EU institutions and fellow EU member states.
Ministers noted that senior officials from the Executive Office, the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will continue to meet regularly on a bilateral basis to review developments, serving as a high-level working group on Brexit issues. The Council was advised that, in taking forward their discussions, both Governments will be guided by some common principles.
The Council received an update on the progress being made on the implementation of the various commitments under section E of the Fresh Start Agreement. Ministers noted that a public inquiry into the A5 scheme was under way and that the inspector's report was expected around May 2017. Subject to the successful completion of statutory procedures, a decision can then be made regarding progression to the construction stage, which remains programmed for late 2017.
The Council welcomed the meeting in October between officials and key stakeholders about the possible options for the Narrow Water bridge project and noted that further discussions would be held in January 2017. It was noted that phase 1 of the reopening of the Ulster canal from Lough Erne to Castle Saunderson is progressing and that the tender for the final stage of phase 1 is expected to issue shortly, with a planned site commencement in the spring of 2017. The establishment of the Ulster canal advisory forum of key stakeholders, which held its first meeting in September, was welcomed.
The Council was advised that Derry City and Strabane District Council and Donegal County Council had agreed a formal partnership agreement that outlines the governance, financial management and administrative arrangements for the €5 million north-west development fund.
Ministers agreed that a further update on the Fresh Start E commitments would be brought to the next NSMC plenary meeting.
The next item on the agenda was the north-west gateway initiative. The Council welcomed that Donegal County Council and Derry City and Strabane District Council are working to fully implement the arrangements outlined in their north-west strategic growth plan. The Council noted the Irish Government's allocation of €2·5 million to the north-west development fund and that our Executive are finalising their match allocation. The Council was advised that formal governance, financial management and administrative arrangements for oversight and delivery of the north-west strategic growth plan and the associated north-west development fund have been agreed by the two councils. Ministers welcomed the establishment of the north-west strategic growth partnership and that, in accordance with the July plenary decision, senior officials from relevant Departments in both jurisdictions would meet Donegal County Council and Derry City and Strabane District Council in December as part of the north-west strategic growth partnership.
The Council was advised that officials are working to identify a suitable date for a meeting of relevant Ministers in the north-west.
Finally, the Council approved a schedule of NSMC meetings proposed by the joint secretariat, which includes the next NSMC plenary meeting in the first quarter of 2017.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister for his statement. As a sports fan, I particularly welcome the bid for the Rugby World Cup. I understand that the last event added over £1 billion directly to the UK's GDP. I understand that, to secure the next event, Japan paid a fee of something like £90 million to the Rugby World Cup organisers. Will the Minister detail the costs and potential benefits to Northern Ireland should the 2023 event come our way?
Mr McGuinness: I was delighted to be in Dublin last week with our Economy Minister Simon Hamilton, and all of us are very excited that what is effectively an all-island bid to host the Rugby World Cup 2023 has successfully passed the application phase, with South Africa and France also through to the candidate phase, which commenced on 1 November. As the Member will know, details of the Ireland bid were successfully launched on 15 November at the Aviva Stadium, and we will provide stiff competition for the other contenders. I am convinced that we have a strong, compelling bid, with a great team of people who are now working on the final stage, including the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and its consultants.
The oversight board led by Dick Spring and the interdepartmental group set up in both jurisdictions have worked hard to get us to this stage, and I can give assurances that our Executive will continue to give their support to ensure that we deliver the best bid possible. Our passion for rugby, our visitor welcome and our professional service provide an ideal recipe for the delivery of a successful event.
The previous examples of cost given by the Member are in the ballpark of where we need to be but one thing is absolutely certain: we believe that we can recover that many, many times over as a result of the unique offer that is our all-island approach. We are very confident that the Administrations North and South will be able to put a compelling bid before those who will have to decide. Dick Spring, who is leading it all, exudes considerable confidence that many rugby associations throughout the world will be very attracted to the island of Ireland for the Rugby World Cup 2023. The video that was launched, with Liam Neeson narrating, was very powerful and will help in the bid.
The ballpark figures are in and around what the Member suggested, but it is very difficult to be accurate about the exact cost at this stage. Whatever the cost is, we are absolutely confident that we can recover it many times over.
Mr Stalford: I thank the deputy First Minister for the statement. His colleagues in the Republic have given assurances of continued cooperation for the mutual benefit of the people who live in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Will he assure the House that this will continue once the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, as he outlined in the case of the north-west?
Mr McGuinness: The big decision that was taken by both Administrations at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting — by the Executive Office, the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs — was to put a high-level working group of civil servants in place to deal with the challenges that clearly lie ahead.
As I said in the Assembly yesterday, given some of the confusion emanating from London at this time, everything is on the table. It is very hard to know, very difficult to put your hand on your heart and say that you know exactly what the outcome is going to be, because the debate moves from a soft Brexit to a hard Brexit. Many people fear the prospect of a hard Brexit and its implications for economic prospects here in the North, and in England, Scotland and Wales. It is still early days. The First Minister and I are very focused on our responsibilities so that we can contribute to the processes that we are now clearly involved in, with the British Government and the Irish Government, to ensure that the outcome is about protecting the best interests of the people whom we represent.
Mr McGuigan: I welcome the Minister's statement and the positivity that emanated from the meeting and has continued since, particularly with regard to the discussions on the EU referendum result. The deputy First Minister said in response to the previous question that the ongoing work between the Executive and the Southern Government will be guided by common principles. Perhaps he could elaborate on those common principles.
Mr McGuinness: We all acknowledge that there must be recognition that the situation that we have to deal with is unique. It has to be recognised that we have a land border with another EU member state and that there have been difficult issues relating to that border throughout our history and, indeed, the peace process.
We have to ensure that our businesses retain their competitiveness and do not incur additional cost, which is a very real danger. As we go forward, we also need to ensure that our access to labour, skilled and unskilled, is really important to us, given, as I said yesterday, that Wrightbus, for example, sells its buses to London, Singapore and Hong Kong, and something like 20% of its workforce comes from other EU countries.
Our agri-food industry is totally dependent on people from other EU countries for its success, and, of course, we have very ambitious targets to reach in the development of that aspect of our economy. We also need to take into account the nature of our economy. As I said, agri-food, for example, is vital, and anything that would impact on that sector has to be considered very carefully.
Energy is also a key priority for us, and we have to ensure that it is given adequate recognition throughout the negotiating process.
Of course, the common travel area is extremely important, not just to us but to the Irish Government, and that must also be recognised.
Mr Eastwood: I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. Was there any discussion at the NSMC last week about potential future membership for Northern Ireland of the EEA or EFTA?
Mr McGuinness: No, there were no detailed conversations about any of that. Obviously, the overarching discussion was about what we need to do in the immediate future and about charging officials from our office, the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs with the responsibility of looking at all these matters and how they might impact on our circumstances.
The Taoiseach described the North/South Ministerial Council meeting that we attended last Friday as the most important meeting that he has ever attended. Certainly, the significance of the Brexit circumstances that we are all faced with is absolutely massive for the island of Ireland, North and South, and the work that is going on in Departments in Dublin and here is extensive. The audit has taken place. All areas are being covered and looked at very carefully with a view to ensuring that, when the officials complete their work under the guidance of the Taoiseach, the First Minister and me, we are best placed to go forward. Hopefully, we can go forward with a common position to put to the British Government and the European Union that is about, in our case, protecting the interests of the people whom we represent.
Dr Farry: I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. Will he comment on the reports in this week's 'Sunday Independent', and the subtext at the last meeting of the all-island forum on civic dialogue, that there is a frustration in the Irish Government that, while there is a lot of cooperation on scoping out the practical issues, there has, to date, been no clear ask from the Northern Ireland Government on what special status would look like going forward and that, if we do not have a clear ask in the very near future, we are in danger of missing the opportunity to sort out Northern Ireland's interests?
Mr McGuinness: That is a challenge for all of us. It is not unreasonable against the backdrop of uncertainty and confusion that appears to emanate from London on their objectives in any negotiations with the European Union. Of course, the British Government have not disclosed their hand on the basis that they think that it would weaken their position in the negotiations, which inevitably puts the devolved institutions at a disadvantage.
I do not speak for Wales or Scotland; I speak, along with the First Minister, for the situation that we have to deal with. We have a responsibility to ensure that, as we go forward, there is an ask that best protects the interests of the people whom we represent. That is why the wise decision was made at the NSMC to put in place a high-level working group of the most senior civil servants in both Administrations, under the stewardship of the Taoiseach, the First Minister and me, to chart a way forward.
In the Opposition in the Assembly, there are different opinions, and that is quite legitimate. Even in our Administration, there are different opinions. We have to reconcile all that and, hopefully, come to a position that can find favour with the vast majority of MLAs. I said, during the all-island discussions in Dublin — the offer is still open — that I am willing to engage with the Alliance Party, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists, because we would be very foolish to think that we should do all this on our own and exclude other parties that have made important contributions over the last 20 years in negotiations that have propelled our society forward.
Mr Lynch: The Minister will know that the Ulster canal is an important project in my constituency. Does he see it as an Executive priority?
Mr McGuinness: I clearly indicated during my initial contribution that it is a priority. Phase 1 of the reopening of the 2·5 kilometre stretch of the Ulster canal from Upper Lough Erne to the International Scout Centre at Castle Saunderson is ongoing. The work commenced in August 2015, and site investigation works, followed by the dredging of the River Finn and the removal of the dredged material, are now complete. Preparation of tender documentation for the next stage — the construction of the Derrykerrib Bridge in the canal section — is now being finalised. It is planned to issue a tender shortly with a view to work commencing in spring 2017 after any floodwaters have receded, with an estimated contract period of 18 months.
We welcome the establishment by Minister Heather Humphreys and Minister Chris Hazzard of an Ulster canal advisory forum, which met for the first time on 23 September 2016. That will look at the options for advancing the Ulster canal project and examine potential funding mechanisms, including existing funding streams and a leveraging of funding from other sources.
Waterways Ireland, as the lead organisation, in collaboration with local councils and other stakeholders, is progressing the development of the Ulster canal greenway. An application for INTERREG IVa funding for a 22-kilometre section of the greenway between Smithborough, County Monaghan, and Middletown, County Armagh, was successful, and a letter of offer is expected to issue in the near future. We are moving forward decisively on the Ulster canal.
Mr Kennedy: I am interested in the replies thus far from the deputy First Minister. Will he explain why he accepts the democratic will of the people of the United States in a presidential election, when the victor did not win the popular vote, but not the verdict of the people of the United Kingdom in the EU referendum?
Mr McGuinness: From our perspective, the decision made in the EU referendum has very profound consequences for us in the North of Ireland, particularly given that the majority of people in the North voted to remain. Quite clearly, that could not have been achieved if it had not been a cross-community vote, which, in my view, was supported by nationalists, republicans and unionists.
Now, whatever about the vote in the United States, the people have spoken, and the outcome is that Donald Trump is their President-elect. We, as a responsible Administration, have to deal with that, as we have done with changes that have happened in other Administrations, whether that be in Dublin or London, as we have seen over the course of the last 20 years. From my perspective, as a responsible politician, working with the First Minister, I have to recognise that we are faced with a situation in which the British Prime Minister has declared that she will trigger article 50 of the Lisbon treaty by the end of March. As someone who has been at the heart of probably some of the most important, historic negotiations that this island has seen over the last 20 years, I have to deal with that reality. Along with the First Minister, and hopefully supported by the majority of MLAs in the Assembly, I have to try to forge a way forward which protects the interests of the people whom we represent. It is no secret where the First Minister is coming from, and it is no secret where I am coming from, but we have to deal with the reality of the situation which is before us. The top priority for us has to be to protect the political and social interaction and economic interest of the people whom we represent.
Mr Boylan: Agus gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I welcome the Minister's statement. I am delighted that he was able to take all the Ministers down to the beautiful city of Armagh. I just want to touch on the issue of the UK referendum. Were there any discussions on the INTERREG programme and the threat that withdrawal of that money will pose to border corridor groups like East Border Region and the work that they have done over the last number of years? Apparently they will be under severe threat now from the process of leaving Europe.
Mr McGuinness: The First Minister and I addressed that issue when we wrote to the British Prime Minister. The good news is that we are pleased that almost €120 million has already been approved for INTERREG IVa. We expect the INTERREG programme to be fully committed before the end of the year. Obviously, the longer term is a scenario that we will have to deal with in the course of any upcoming negotiations.
Mr McPhillips: I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement and answers so far. It will come as no massive shock that I will be asking about the implications of Brexit as well. The deputy First Minister notes in his statement that all Departments have conducted internal audits on the possible impacts that Brexit will have. Can he outline whether he will publish these documents? Can he also update the House on what discussions he has had with the Southern Government concerning the future of the border?
Mr McGuinness: Well, at the last NSMC plenary meeting on 4 July 2016, it was agreed that a full audit would be undertaken in all sectors to identify the possible impacts, risks, opportunities and contingencies arising in the phases preceding and following the UK's withdrawal from the EU; that this work will, in turn, be submitted to ministerial sectoral meetings for consideration as to the strategic and cross-cutting issues arising; and that final priorities will be agreed by the next NSMC plenary for both pre-negotiation and negotiation phases.
I think that the Member will understand that, given the nature of the NSMC, involving our Administration and the Irish Government, a lot of these documents are confidential. We could not release any of this information without the express agreement of the Irish Government. That is something that has never been previously asked. It is interesting that the Member has chosen to call for that. From our perspective, we will have a discussion. I will discuss that with the First Minister, with a view to making an assessment as to whether it is sensible to see the outworking of processes that civil servants have been involved in put into the public domain. As I reiterate, that cannot be done without the express agreement of the Irish Government.
The First Minister and I addressed the issue of the border in our letter to the British Prime Minister. We have made it absolutely clear that we do not want a border. We want people to be able to travel as they have done in the past. That is also the Irish Government's position. It came up during the North/South Ministerial Council meeting. I think that everybody is focused on ensuring that we go forward with the normality that we have been used to over the course of recent times, with people being able to drive, for example, from the centre of Belfast to the centre of Dublin in just over an hour and a half. Free travel back and forward is absolutely crucial.
Mr Lunn: I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. On economic matters, are we now satisfied that the Industrial Development Agency Ireland and Invest Northern Ireland will operate in a fair and equitable manner, that any problems caused by the previous accusation that IDA Ireland is attempting to poach our industrial opportunities have been dealt with and that we can move on?
Mr McGuinness: As Members will be aware, the First Minister met the Taoiseach and had a very good meeting in Dublin last week. That is all that needs to be said about it. I think that we are satisfied. The First Minister and I travel extensively throughout the world. We have always had tremendous support from our diplomatic service and the Irish Government diplomats everywhere we go. During the engagements at the North/South Ministerial Council, the Taoiseach reiterated that the Irish diplomatic services will be available to the First Minister and me on our shortly-to-be-undertaken visit to China.
Mr Durkan: I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement and answers thus far. My question is with regard to the north-west gateway initiative. I hope that the Executive can move swiftly to finalise their allocation to the north-west development fund, regardless of the reason for the delay. It is important that we continue to explore interventions that will alleviate hardship in the north-west area. Does the Minister consider a city deal for Derry with a cross-border dimension to be a possible means of doing so?
Mr McGuinness: I assure the Member that the issue of our balance of the €5 million is administrative more than anything else. In terms of alleviating hardship in the north-west, I was delighted yesterday to be, along with our Health Minister, at the new radiotherapy centre at Altnagelvin hospital. The Ulster Unionists tried to stop that radiotherapy centre during their stewardship of the Health Department.
Mr McGuinness: It is absolutely correct. Of course, when Edwin Poots became the Minister, Peter Robinson and I took the decision to go ahead. Something like 1,500 people will be treated there each year. It is a tremendous boost to people in Derry, Strabane, Limavady, Coleraine and County Donegal to have that facility. We also have —
Mr Speaker: Let me take the point of order at the end of questions to the statement.
Mr McGuinness: We also have 220 people now employed at that centre. They are people of the highest specialisms imaginable in medicine. The dedication that they have to that centre is absolutely amazing. I pay tribute to everybody— and other political parties, including the Member's — who was involved from the very beginning and right down the line: people like Bairbre de Brún and, of course, the Health Minister now, for progressing something that will bring enormous health benefits to a region that has, unfortunately, had to see people from Donegal travelling to Galway and people from Derry travelling to Belfast. That is now ending. It is a great news story that argues very strongly for how important all-island cooperation is, particularly in the region of people's health.
A city deal is presently under consideration. I know that people were advocating one for Belfast. We are very keen to ensure that any advantage gained by that is also under consideration by us for Derry.
Mr Attwood: The deputy First Minister, in reply to a question, referred to a common position to put to the British Government. In the statement, he also referred to being guided by some common principles. Usefully, he has put some on the record today in reply to Mr McGuigan's question — namely, business competitiveness, energy, common travel and access to labour. Will the deputy First Minister and the First Minister lodge a statement in the Library outlining what all the principles might be that would inform the discussions and confirming that the principles will include no loss of funding to the Northern Ireland finances, guarantees on the four freedoms, access to further EU funding and no diminution of any of the standards that we have benefited from because of EU membership and membership of the wider European project, including those relating to environment, labour and human rights?
Mr McGuinness: That clearly strengthens the case that I made earlier in the conversation that it would be useful if other political parties who are not in the Government were to make a contribution to the discussion as we go forward. That is why I made the offer of discussions with the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and whoever else — even the smaller parties in the Assembly — to have a conversation about where all of this needs to go. The First Minister and I have already outlined a number of vital issues in our letter to the British Prime Minister, and, of course, in our conversations at the North/South Ministerial Council, we have dealt with a number of principles. They are not exclusive of where we need to go on what will probably be the most important negotiation that any of us has undertaken in 20 years.
Mr Allister: Whatever the hyperbole coming from the talking shop in Armagh, it is clear that the Executive is a house divided on the most seminal issue of our day. The First Minister accepts and supports the reality of Brexit: the deputy First Minister grasps at every straw to try to thwart the will of the people and seeks to talk up the nonsense of special status. I ask the deputy First Minister again the question that he did not answer yesterday, so that we know who is chasing their tail: has he any support from his partner in government for the notion that, post Brexit, there will be a status for Northern Ireland that dilutes our leaving vis-à-vis the rest of the United Kingdom?
Mr McGuinness: That is probably one of the few questions ever asked by the Member that did not mention the IRA. Obviously, as we go forward, we are very focused on the responsibilities that we have as First Minister and deputy First Minister. We are all experienced politicians. We understand that we are in the preliminary stages of what will be a momentous negotiation that will affect our futures. There is a very clear indication from the outcome of the North/South Ministerial Council meeting and the formation of a high-level working group under the stewardship of the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the South, the First Minister and me that these are all issues that we will have conversations — even negotiations — about over the coming period.
Obviously, we want to be ready for any triggering of article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, so that we are in a position to make an argument that is really about protecting the interests of all the people we represent. What the Member highlights, obviously, is the different positions that the DUP and Sinn Féin had, with others, in the run-in to the referendum debate. The referendum is over, and there are fairly unique circumstances before us. We are more dramatically affected by this than other regions. We will have to have that conversation, and, in conjunction with the British and Irish Governments and the European Union, we will have to chart a way forward that protects the interests of our people.
Mr Speaker: I will now take Mr Kennedy's point of order.
Mr Kennedy: Thank you for allowing a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for the deputy First Minister wilfully to mislead the House and misrepresent the facts of a situation? When Michael McGimpsey was on the Executive as Ulster Unionist Health Minister, he supported and lobbied for the facilities at Altnagelvin Hospital but was, rightly, concerned about resource funding for that centre. In fact, his predictions that the health service was drastically and seriously underfunded have come true, and we still live with those consequences today.
Mr Speaker: Let me deal with the first point of order. The Speaker has no role in adjudicating on the remarks of a Member or a Minister, but the Member has put his concerns on record.
Mr Stalford: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, you have just said that the Member has used a point of order to put his concerns on the record. Is there an issue about the deliberate abuse of points of order by Members who, after they have spoken and had their say, deploy them to get a second bite of the cherry, including, not least, a Deputy Speaker of the House?
Mr Speaker: I am concerned that, over the past number of weeks, there have been a large number of points of order that have not been adjudged to be points of order. It is something that I intend to address in the coming weeks and months.
That concludes questions on the Minister's statement.
Mr Ó Muilleoir (The Minister of Finance): Thank you for giving me the opportunity, a Cheann Comhairle, to make a statement on a rates rethink, spurring economic growth. Inniu, tá pacáiste beart á mholadh agam a bhfuil sé mar aidhm aige nuachóiriú a dhéanamh ar eilimintí intíre agus ar eilimintí tráchtála an chóras rátála, d’fhonn spreagadh a dhéanamh ar an ngeilleagar mar bhunús ar shochaí roinnte agus rathúil. Is iad seo mo mholtaí mar Aire Airgeadais agus tá mé ag súil le dul i gcomhairle fúthu leis an Choiste Airgeadais, le mo chomhghleacaithe san Fheidhmeannas, agus leis an phobal i gcoitinne.
Today, I propose a groundbreaking package of measures aimed at modernising the domestic and commercial elements of the rating system in order to stimulate the economy as the foundation of a shared and prosperous society. These are my proposals as Finance Minister, and I look forward to consulting on them with the Finance Committee, of course, with my colleagues on the Executive and with the wider public. Taken together, the measures constitute the biggest shake-up in rating policy in a generation and signal my commitment to a tax system that is fair and supports prosperity.
Rates are a vital source of public revenue. Money raised through rates funds our schools, our hospitals and other essential services. My aim in setting out these proposals therefore is ultimately to arrive at a refreshed, fit-for-purpose rating system in which citizens and commercial ratepayers contribute according to their ability to funding the building of a modern, inclusive and exemplary society. I also intend to ensure that rates act more as an economic spur. The rates system should encourage regeneration, investment and entrepreneurship and at the same time discourage dereliction and decline.
I will begin with the non-domestic rates proposals. I want to replace the existing small business rate relief scheme with a £22 million investment in small retail and hospitality businesses. That move aligns with the findings of the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre's evaluation, which recommended a more targeted approach. In 2010, the small business rate relief (SBRR) scheme was introduced to provide small businesses with temporary respite from the recession. The Ulster University evaluation found that the scheme had served its limited purpose, helping with cash flow at a particularly difficult time.
It also found that the scheme contributed little to economic growth and the £18m that it cost would not provide value for money in the long term. It therefore recommended replacing the SBRR with a more targeted initiative.
I want to target support under the new scheme at the sectors that are key to the survival of our town and city centres. The statistics show that town centre retail spending is down 10% since the beginning of the century. I would like this new initiative to be easily accessible to small businesses, subject to some simple tests around business investment in the form of, for example, new equipment, skills training or the employment of additional staff. In the time ahead, I would also like to enable companies to access this rates relief by accrediting with the Living Wage Foundation.
I also wish to bring forward a business empowerment zone pilot targeted at small-scale regeneration areas and developed in tandem with other Departments and initiatives. I propose to start in Belfast with two pilots, on the Falls and Newtownards Roads, both areas in need of a greater peace dividend. The west Belfast zone, with special rates relief to encourage business and investment, is likely to stretch from Castle Street through the Gaeltacht Quarter to the bottom of the Whiterock Road. The east Belfast zone is likely to stretch from the bottom of the Newtownards Road through the area now the focus for the EastSide Arts renaissance — CS Lewis Square opens tonight, Mr Speaker — to the Holywood Arches. Those will be confirmed in due course. Having had the pleasure of working extensively in both areas, I know that the will is there to transform those key arterial roads and that a small investment now can reap dividends for years to come.
Another way of revitalising town centres is to make them vibrant living spaces. Therefore, I would also like to take forward a new scheme to incentivise conversion from commercial to residential occupation, by providing a rates incentive for the first occupiers of newly converted premises in our town and city centres. A scheme to encourage people to live in those areas will help to stimulate the night-time economy and assist with issues around footfall that were raised during the consultation.
Another issue concerns the treatment of charity shops. This is a matter where we are striving to get the balance right. Charity shops help to bring people into our high streets or small towns, in particular when times are tough, so we need to make sure that we do not upset the healthy retail mix that exists in many areas. I am all in favour of continuing to single out charity shops on the high street for favourable treatment, but there is a case for limiting their growth. We cannot have our high streets just made up of charity shops. In England, Scotland and Wales, most are charged 20% rates, and local authorities in the South can charge charity shops on the high street. If, for example, we reduced support for charity shops on the high street from 100 per cent to 90 per cent — they pay one tenth of their rates bill — that would represent only a small revenue gain for the Executive. However, it would move us towards the balance principle that everyone on the high street should start to pay something. That was the strong view reflected in the small business rate relief evaluation. I agree with that direction of travel, with the caveat that I would like any future income from charity shops on the high street to go towards supporting entrepreneurship in the social enterprise sector. I look forward to consulting further on the issue.
I would like to address the issue of empty property. Currently, an empty property pays zero rates for three months and 50% thereafter. I want to increase the empty property rate from 50% to 75% of the occupied rate. That remains substantially below what is charged in Scotland, for example, where owners are charged 90% on empty properties, and recognises that our local property market is less buoyant than there. I would also like to remove the initial exemption period of three months. I do not think it necessary, it does not apply to the domestic sector, and it leads to complications in administering it. It is my view that this will encourage the letting of empty properties and increase economic activity. It will, of course, provide additional revenue for the Executive, although, more importantly, it will act as a stimulus for landlords holding empty property to sell up or to offer lower rents and get properties occupied by businesses.
Aligned with that objective, I propose to introduce the rating of empty factories, a class of property that has never been subject to rates. As well as bringing in extra money — up to £2·2 million a year — into the Executive’s finances and the public purse, it will encourage owners to subdivide or let empty factories. It will also remove any doubt about what is a warehouse and what is a factory. Coupled with both changes, I will move forward with proposals for anti-avoidance measures, making landlords liable for rates when they let their premises out to charities on short-term agreements.
At a cost of £58 million, industrial derating is a very generous support to the manufacturing sector. However, manufacturing is a vital part of our economy, providing well-paid jobs often in locations where employment opportunities are lacking, and is highly export-orientated. Given that and the challenging economic circumstances faced, I intend to maintain industrial derating.
A measure that I would like to remove is the new mines seven-year exemption that has been in place since 1852. I see no good reason for retaining the new mines exemption.
I also wish to remove the university halls of residence exemption that was put in place by direct rule Ministers in 2007. This step has already been consulted on, and it will ensure consistency of treatment between those that are managed privately and those that are managed by universities. Indeed, all other students living away from home pay some rates, so this is only fair. Furthermore, I do not believe that it will inhibit the viability of new purpose-built halls of residence, given that student demand is outstripping supply, as the appearance of so many privately run halls testifies. If evidence emerges that university halls of residence need an additional incentive, I will be happy to return to the issue and look at it again.
We are moving towards a system that widens the tax base and shares the load. However, many businesses find themselves in serious hardship due to matters completely outside their control and beyond normal business risk. Victims of flooding are one example. I do not want to see those who find themselves in hardship in such circumstances being closed down because they simply cannot pay their rates bill. The legislative apparatus already exists for hardship relief, but few businesses benefit from it. I have therefore asked my officials to review the operation of the scheme to ensure that it provides help for more of those who are in need.
My intention to commence a new non-domestic revaluation exercise to take effect in 2019 is a clear response to the calls from the business sector. Coming only four years after the revaluation in 2015, it will make our non-domestic rating system more responsive to changes in the wider world, allow it to flex with economic conditions and help to avoid the shocks that occurred last time round. As before, the process will be revenue-neutral. The objective of the measure and, indeed, the whole package is about balancing the tax base, balancing the rates burden and balancing the books after a hard time for business and government finances. I would also like to reassure businesses by enshrining in law revaluations every four years. That happens in many advanced economies throughout the world.
As for the level of the regional rate that will be set as part of the Budget and in recognition of the new era for local government, I would like to give councils the choice of striking their own non-domestic district rate, thereby breaking the historic link that exists with the domestic district rate. Such a move could help councils to attract new businesses and retain old ones.
Fairness underpins much of what I am presenting today, and that extends to the domestic rating system. When the capital value system was being designed, it was designed on the basis that you paid in direct proportion to the value of your home. However, the application of the £400,000 cap means that those in houses with a higher value pay proportionately less than those in middle- or lower-value homes. To me, that is inherently unfair. Take Bill Gates's house — I know that many people would like to take the house of Bill Gates — he pays $1 million a year in property tax on his $100 million Washington state home. If he lived here, the rates on that home would be less than $5,000 a year.
Significant measures are already in place to safeguard elderly pensioners who are asset-rich but income-poor and remain in a high-value family home. We have a generous low-income rate relief scheme that was put in place before the cap came along. In a phased introduction, I wish to charge a regional rate levy of approximately 55% of the rates due on a property to the full value of a home in order to raise an additional £4 million in revenue.
The first thing that I would like to do with domestic rates is to reduce and then remove the early payment discount. I will reduce the allowance to 2% in the context of the Budget settlement and then consult on the proposal for the removal of the provision altogether. The £6 million that the measure costs the public purse cannot be justified in these difficult financial times.
As with the business rates system, I want the domestic rating system to incentivise good behaviour. I have asked my officials to consider reopening the low-carbon new homes scheme and refashioning it as an energy efficiency incentive by providing an extended domestic rates holiday for the first occupants of new houses that meet the required standard, thus also helping our construction sector. That will need more research into standards and value for money, but that work is under way.
Finally but not insignificantly, I want to advance proposals to significantly reduce the landlord allowance paid to all landlords in the public and private sectors. It was the subject of consultation, and I intend to reduce it to 5%.
Today, I have outlined the immediate challenges. Beyond those, research is well under way into developing a levy on derelict properties. With the help of the councils, we have identified 1,800 problem propert