Official Report: Tuesday 24 January 2017
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: Members, today is our last sitting ahead of the election in March. In the circumstances that this Assembly has not completed the full expected term, the normal conventions at the end of a mandate do not seem to be appropriate. However, as Speaker, the one tradition that I want to ensure is maintained at this last sitting is to place on record our thanks to the staff of the Assembly.
It is important to acknowledge that it has fallen to Assembly staff to deal with the wide range of pressures since last May. I also want us to recognise that, in these recent times, when there are increased political tensions, that has an unintended impact on the atmosphere in which the Assembly officials work. However, I want to express our thanks to all the staff working in this Building through all of that, no matter their role, for their efforts and professionalism. I know that they have an unwavering commitment to wanting to see a strong and active Assembly and that they will be ready to assist every single Member following the election, regardless of the outcome.
Let me also express thanks on behalf of all of us to those others, including staff working for Members and parties in the Building or, indeed, in their constituency offices. Their role also deserves recognition, as every Member relies upon them to fulfil their Assembly duties.
To every Member who has declared that they are not seeking to return, I want to acknowledge their public service on behalf of the House. While it brings privileges, the House also involves sacrifices, and we want to thank you all for your commitment. There may be difficult times ahead, but I wish every Member well, whether seeking re-election or not, whatever their future might bring.
Mr Speaker: Can you just let me get through some of the procedural business, and then we will take the point of order?
Mr Speaker: I wish to inform the House that I have received the resignation of Mr Robin Swann as Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee with effect from 11.58 pm on Wednesday 25 January 2017.
Mr Nesbitt: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I want to put on record my thanks to the staff on this estate — every single one of them — for their unfailing professionalism and courtesy, and to express regret for any disruption to their professional lives that may be caused by the current political impasse. Thank you for your indulgence.
Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. First of all, I join in thanking the staff, as you properly did, and associate myself with those remarks.
However, on a point of order, as Members of this House we are, as I understand it, under an obligation to declare all relevant interests. As Speaker, you, too, have oversight of the Committees of this House. What are the ramifications of Ms Carla Lockhart, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, failing to declare a family link to the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme at a time when that same Committee was investigating the RHI scheme?
Mr Speaker: I thank Mr Allister. That is not a matter for the Speaker to deal with; it is a matter for a Member to declare his or her interests on the appropriate register.
Mr Swann: Further to that point of order, the PAC still meets tomorrow afternoon, so there will be an opportunity to clarify that matter.
Mr Dickson: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Just very briefly, I also wish, on behalf of the Alliance Party, to be associated with your words of thanks for the dedication of staff in this Assembly.
Mr Speaker: The first item on the further revised Order Paper is a motion regarding Assembly Commission membership. As with similar motions, it will be treated as a business motion and there will be no debate.
Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that in accordance with Standing Order 79(3), this motion requires cross-community support.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That, in accordance with Standing Order 79(4), Mr Robin Swann be appointed to fill a vacancy on the Assembly Commission as of 11.59 pm on 25 January 2017. — [Mrs Overend.]
Mr Speaker: The next item on the further revised Order Paper is a motion to appoint a member of the board of trustees of the Assembly Members' pension scheme. It will also be treated as a business motion, so there will be no debate.
That Mr Roy Beggs be appointed to the board of trustees of the Assembly Members' pension scheme. — [Mr Swann.]
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Communities to hold the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to account for its failure to address the lack of, or poor quality of, cavity insulation within many Housing Executive properties; and calls on the Housing Executive to formulate a plan of action to ensure that all its properties have adequate and proper cavity insulation.
I ask Members to indulge me for a few moments to explain why I have proposed the motion and the reason for its wording. Cavity wall insulation has been raised many times in the last few years by nearly all of us in the Chamber in some form or other, and it has been debated recently in the Assembly, lastly in November 2013. Sadly, little has changed since then.
Roy Beggs, Andy Allen, Pat Sheehan, Patsy McGlone and Steven Agnew have all expressed interest with Assembly questions, have met the industry and various residents, and have had the seriousness of the issue explained to them. I hope that I will have cross-community support for the motion.
It is acknowledged that there are UK-wide issues with regard to the deterioration of certain insulation materials, such as fibre, over time, exposure to water, and the quality of workmanship. That is a problem not only for the Housing Executive, but across the total housing stock. In the mid-1980s, the Housing Executive carried out an extensive programme of insulating cavity walls across a housing stock that was twice what it is today. In many ways, that programme was ahead of its time, but nearly 30 years have passed and many problems are now coming to light.
In November 2013, I tabled a similar motion in the Assembly on the topic. After a lively debate, the motion received all-party support. The debate covered many of the issues around fuel poverty, the health issues from living in cold, damp homes, and the opportunity to create jobs and reduce consumer bills. Therefore, I wish to focus on what actions have occurred since the motion was passed and update Members on my views of progress to date.
Following the motion, several Members enquired about progress, including the current Minister. We were all referred to a study that had been commissioned by the Housing Executive: the South Eastern Regional College (SERC) report. We were told that the report would determine the condition of the insulation in cavities and that the Housing Executive would:
"carry out an evaluation of the results to determine whether there is substandard insulation in its properties and will develop whatever action plan is indicated with new strategies and policies."
We were further told that the project would provide an evidence base to underpin a programme of remedial work if required. It all sounds good so far.
The study was commissioned and a report duly completed. Two hundred and six properties were thoroughly investigated, and the report was completed in March 2014. It found that 39% of cavity walls were in severe and critical need, 26% were unsatisfactory with grave needs, 11% were in significant need, 14% had specific needs, and only 9% were fit for purpose.
The report was then suppressed by the Housing Executive and published only after questions in the Assembly. It was finally released with two important provisos and its publication included a letter from the then director of regional services for the Housing Executive. It stated that:
"As a result of the findings contained in the report, a much larger survey is being commissioned as part of the stock condition survey of Northern Ireland Housing Executive properties commencing in the autumn of 2014. This will inform the future strategy and programmes required to address the issues in the report."
The letter refers to the report as "small", yet the 206 sample houses had all been included in the 2011 house condition survey (HCS) and were noted as being in good condition. The HCS provided robust data to inform on fuel poverty, energy efficiency, quality of housing stock and state of repair. It is quoted extensively throughout government, yet the sample that was used in it was only 0·18%. In comparison, the SERC sample was 0·31%, which is nearly double the size. It also appears that we were misinformed as to the purpose of the study, as it has now become a small-scale exploratory research study aimed at providing an initial indication.
The director of regional services added:
"As a result of the findings contained in this report, a much larger survey is being commissioned as part of a stock condition survey".
So, the SERC report was condemned to the dustbin, but at least a bigger survey would be done. The larger survey is commonly known as the Savills report and, thanks to questions from other parties, we now know that it cost £4 million.
It was a holistic, detailed, formidable body of work. Over 22,000 houses were examined for thermal efficiency and other issues, and over 22,000 lofts were examined.
Mr Easton: Not at the moment.
Amazingly, not one single cavity wall was inspected or borescoped. So a much bigger, more expensive study was completed. Yet, for some reason, the Housing Executive chose to ignore the findings of the SERC report and not to investigate further.
In reply to questions about cavity wall insulation over the last year or longer, the Housing Executive has now put forward a consistent response regarding the issue, namely, that it intends to investigate further through its external cyclical maintenance (ECM) schemes, to carry out samples with borescopes when deciding a programme of works and to deal with individual houses on a response basis. The ECM programme that the Housing Executive has referred to includes roofs, walls, fences etc. It is my understanding that the specifications for this work have already required inspections of walls, but I am glad to hear that the Housing Executive is now saying that it is committed to carrying out these inspections.
This answer is a reasonable approach, which has some merit, until you dig in further and ask what is actually happening. In October of last year, Roy Beggs asked how many cavity walls had been surveyed under the ECM programme. He was told that:
"as this intrusive inspection approach has only commenced recently, the Housing Executive is unable to provide the information requested."
Would the Member like in now?
Mr Beggs: I find it quite astonishing that the answer could not be given. What I also find quite astonishing is that, having known from the report on the smaller sample that there were major defects in cavity wall insulation, Savills was not required to carry out any further investigation or commissioned to ensure that would happen.
Mr Easton: I totally agree with the Member: it should have included that.
So, it appears that they still have not started this yet. Likewise, the claim to deal with individual houses on a response basis seems hollow. The SERC report identified 135 houses across other constituencies that had serious deficiencies with their wall installation. In answer to questions from the Minister, the Housing Executive has stated that two houses have had remedial work carried out over the last three-and-a-half years. Not very responsive by any definition.
In 2005, I asked, via the Minister, how many claims have been made against the Housing Executive for substantial cavity wall insulation problems. I was told that the information was not available under that classification but was included under dampness and that over 200 claims have been dealt with. The Housing Executive often use the term "lifestyle issues" to explain damp on walls. In many cases, it is much more likely to be a lack of, or poor, cavity wall insulation. As such, in December 2006 I asked another question through the Minister. This time I asked how many cases of damp had been reported to the Housing Executive over the last four years. The answer horrified me: 25,000 cases.
In my constituency I see this repeated time and time again, but I am totally frustrated by the approach of the Housing Executive. I have been involved in trying to resolve a complaint for a tenant in the last few months, and it highlighted the approach adopted by the Housing Executive. The usual excuses were lifestyle choices, condensation and not using heating properly and airing the house. The real reason was that there was no cavity wall insulation in the property. I will read out an excerpt from a letter written by a lady after the Housing Executive had fixed her problem. She told me:
"Until you live in a house with insulation problems, you will never know how much stress and worry I had. I am trying to keep a nice home, only for it to be eaten up by black, dangerous mould. I have had to constantly strip back wallpaper, wash walls with antifungal and redecorate."
She then went on to say, once the Housing Executive had actually bothered to resolve the situation:
"I feel like a weight has been lifted off me, as I will no longer have to worry about the mould making us sick and will no longer have to redecorate."
In closing, I understand that the Housing Executive has financial restraints and must prioritise its budget, but having a warm home, free from damp, is at the top of everybody's wish list. From my experience and that of my constituents, the plan is not apparent, and very little progress appears to have been made on the motion agreed in the Assembly over three years ago. That is why I believe that the Minister needs to ensure that this is remedied, progress monitored and the Housing Executive held to account. A plan has to be developed and not a quick fix; it may take a decade. We need a plan, and it needs to be delivered.
Mr F McCann: I understand that a lot of this stuff is based on Savills, but, if my memory serves me right, back in 2007 or 2008, Savills came in again and was heavily critical of the Housing Executive for what it called over-maintaining homes. It brought them up to the decent homes standard-plus. After that, there was a reduction in the level of maintenance that it carried out in homes. The issue has its genesis back in 2008. I always thought that that was a foolish decision that was made at the same time. We cannot over-maintain our houses; the better they are, the better for the tenants who live there.
Cavity insulation, and all insulation, is crucial to maintaining the fabric of any home and the well-being of those who live there. Although I support the motion, I am sorry that it does not include the thousands of people who own their home but, because of their financial circumstances, cannot afford to insulate or upgrade it.
I understand that, some years ago, when the SDLP had the Ministry, it removed a number of grant options that allowed grants for people to renovate and upgrade their properties, which would have included heating, new windows and the upgrade of the fabric of their homes. That ill-thought-out decision by the SDLP Minister at that time has ensured that people, some of whom are the most vulnerable in our community at present, see their homes continuing to deteriorate. It is quite likely that they will be the slums of the future, thus costing more to put right in the end.
In recent times, people living in relatively new homes are suffering the consequences of poor insulation. I think of people who live in Lagmore, where contractors did not adequately insulate the homes. There is an onus on the Housing Executive, which had those homes constructed, to pursue those who made the mess. If that is not possible, there is a duty on the housing provider to put right that problem.
Insulation is non-existent in many tower blocks. People in the flats are living in freezing and damp conditions. The only advice that they are given, as you said, is to leave their windows open. Several months ago, the Minister for Communities visited Divis Tower. He saw the flats for himself. They are well-kept by the tenants, but the complaints are the same: the lack of insulation makes them a cold house to live in. It is a place where tenants sit wearing heavy coats while watching TV. Of course, those are not the only flats that suffer those problems; I am sure that many in the House see the same conditions in their own areas. The Minister looked at those conditions and spoke to tenants. I thank him for his visit. I believe that he had a great deal of sympathy for the plight of tenants.
The Housing Executive board, which met several weeks later, had on its agenda for that meeting a decision on the strategy for the future of all tower blocks, which included options that would see the demolition of those that it wanted rid of. Also included was investment in those blocks of flats that needed immediate investment. I understand that Divis Tower was included. What did the board do? It fudged the matter by putting any decision back a number of months. Tenants in tower blocks were waiting on good news at Christmas. Instead, they got a slap in the face.
The board is looking at removing all tower blocks over a period of time because it says that they are not financially viable and so should be demolished. It has missed the fact that we are dealing with people and their living conditions, not a strategy. Any demolition could take over 25 years to unfold. It would take that length of time before they get to Divis Tower. It did not look at the chronic problems faced by tenants. It did not discuss how tenants felt or whether it would be in a position to house people from Divis or any other tower block. In fact, people are happy living in Divis —
Mr Sheehan: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree with me that residents in Divis flats have had problems from the day and hour that that tower block was built?
Mr F McCann: There were a number of attempts in the past; the repairs carried out at that time did nothing to remedy the problems that exist. It is poor heating, no insulation and a serious problem with dampness.
If people looked into the flats and decided they were surplus to requirements, where would they put the tenants? West Belfast has the longest waiting list in the North, with over 4,000 people looking to be housed. What would they do with the tenants in the other blocks who wished to remain in their locality, which is often the case? Have they properties to move them to? The decision taken by the Housing Executive board to not proceed with investment in Divis Tower has condemned tenants to live in a never-ending nightmare. The replacement of windows and heating systems along with proper insulation could transform those flats and the life of those who live there.
Ms Gildernew: Does the Member agree with me that, while the situation in the tower blocks is dire, many homes in rural areas are solid wall with no cavity wall insulation — indeed, no insulation at all — and that something needs to be done to rectify that, especially given that COPD, asthma and other respiratory conditions can result from it?
Mr F McCann: The Housing Executive sits today with roughly 88,000 houses in its stock. Many of those are 20 years old, and some are far older. The point is well made by the Member; often, when we speak about housing, we forget about the serious problems in rural areas.
Mr Allen: I take this opportunity to thank the Members responsible for bringing this important motion before the House, and I thank the Minister for coming today to listen to the concerns of Members from across the House.
If we look at the Department for Communities's statutory minimum fitness standard for housing, we see it outlines that one of the criteria is that a home should be:
"free from dampness prejudicial to the health of the occupants".
"Under the fitness standard a dwelling is fit for human habitation unless, in the opinion of the relevant authority, it fails to meet one or more of the above requirements."
Further on, under the heading, "Reasonable degree of thermal comfort", it states:
"Associations should take the opportunity to improve the energy efficiency and install insulation that meets current NI Building Regulations standards. Providing a reasonable degree of thermal comfort requires efficient heating and effective insulation."
The Northern Ireland energy strategy, which was updated on 18 January 2017, states that one of its goals is:
"To achieve substantial progress towards a 34% improvement in the energy efficiency of the housing stock in Northern Ireland over a ten year period."
There is no doubt that energy efficiency is the best way to tackle fuel poverty.
We are told in the Programme for Government that there is a major desire to tackle fuel poverty, and one of the key ways of doing that is to address the lack or poor quality of cavity wall insulation in Housing Executive homes. At the time many of the homes we are talking about were built, often the highest industry standard was used, but, as the years have progressed, those standards have improved and the materials used then have become not fit for purpose.
We have, on many occasions in the House, discussed the need for new social housing; indeed, we point to the 40,000-plus people on the social housing waiting list and demand that the Minister does more. Although the House is coming down and the Minister leaves office on 1 March, I welcome that he committed to building 9,600 new social starts and to funding 3,750 co-ownership homes. It is important we build new homes and invest in new homes for people, but it is also vital that we invest in our current stock to bring it up to a standard where they are fit for purpose and habitation.
Mr Speaker, I have attended many constituents' homes —
Mr F McCann: I am glad you raised the point about the 9,600 houses, which are essential to try to deal with the long waiting list, but we need to be adventurous in what we look at in housing and houses that are being built. Recently, I saw an item on TV about a number of factories opening in England that make pre-packed houses that have the highest energy standards, are well built and put together and could provide an alternative at half the price of a normal house.
Mr Allen: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Member for his intervention. Whilst I realise the Minister said that building 9,600 homes is an ambitious target, I would like to see it go beyond that. Indeed, if we look at the housing growth indicators in the regional development strategy, we see it points to 6,000-plus units per year being needed to address the housing shortage. I believe the 9,600 target is ambitious, and I commend the Minister for setting it, but I do not think it goes go far enough. I believe we need to challenge ourselves to set those targets higher.
As I was saying before the Member's intervention, we hear often in the House about the need to improve our current housing stock to ensure that it is fit for habitation. Indeed, I have attended many constituents' homes and have seen pictures of homes of a shocking standard.
Is the Member looking to come in there? No? Sorry, my poor eyesight means that I could not tell whether you wanted in.
Quite often, constituents are being informed by Housing Executive staff, who are often operating under severe financial constraints, but that is not an excuse. We cannot afford to take our eye off the ball and allow constituents to live in houses that are not up to the fitness standard. I have seen walls and ceilings that are completely covered in black moss, and, as Mr Easton rightly pointed out, people are often told that that is down to lifestyle choices, the lack of heating, too much heating, a lack of ventilation or condensation developing. In many cases, it is a result of the lack of cavity wall insulation. It is important to recognise that having poor housing was often not the intention. No one set out to provide poor housing, and no one set out to provide housing with a lack of cavity wall insulation or housing made with poor materials that would deteriorate over years. Housing was provided to the best standards of the time, but we have progressed, moved on and advanced. It is important that we adapt and overcome the difficulties in front of us.
There is no denying that, over the next 20 years, as stated in the Savills report, the Housing Executive will face severe financial constraints in maintaining and bringing its level of housing stock up to a fit-for-purpose standard. It is important that we as Members do all that we can to challenge the Minister, and it is also important that we constructively add to the debate and the argument and that we support the Minister on Statutory Committees and in the House through coming up with alternative ideas and options that can be taken forward to maintain our housing stock.
In finishing, I share with the House a recent constituent enquiry that I came across. It concerns the affordable warmth —
Mr Allen: Will the Minister give a commitment to meet me to discuss an issue that I have discovered with the affordable warmth grant scheme, where a constituent on low income is being penalised because —
Ms Mallon: I support the motion. My view on the critical importance of housing and the intrinsic role that it plays in successfully tackling disadvantage, driving economic growth and job creation and creating a better environment and a healthier, more equal shared society is well-documented, and I have articulated it several times in the House. It is also well known that I believe that there are five human rights. People have the right to food, to healthcare, to education, to work and to a home, and access to a secure, affordable and good-quality home is the anchor. It is the glue that holds other aspects of an individual's and a family's life together.
We know the extent of the problem that the motion is trying to address. We see it every day in our constituency. In North Belfast, the vast bulk of my constituency work is housing-related. I do that almost daily, and I see daily the intrinsic connection between health and housing, which is perhaps most starkly laid bare in the motion before us and the issues that we are debating today. The extent of the problem, and its prevalence in social housing and in the private-rented and homeowner sectors, has been well-documented by other Members, so I do not intend to repeat the statistics. Like many Members, I could paint the walls of the Chamber with photographs of the homes of my constituents that are black with mould and damp, where, in little children's bedrooms, the corners are completely black, where parents are spending a fortune trying to clean the walls and decorate over the mould, and where their children are suffering a series of respiratory conditions as a result.
Like many Members, I can share my story of the bureaucratic battle that we have on a daily basis. When a constituent comes to us for help, we contact the environmental health team in the respective council area and then engage in a protracted debate with the Housing Executive over what is at the root of the problem. The case continuously put forward by the Housing Executive is that it is, in fact, a ventilation or condensation issue and that the solution lies in simply opening the window.
I want to make it clear that I am not using this opportunity to level universal criticism at the Housing Executive or at the many good people who work and deal with me and with many of us in the Chamber. I believe, though, that there is reluctance to accept the real reason for this issue, which is one of resources. They simply do not have the resources to deal with the problem and therefore there is a reluctance to acknowledge it in the first instance. As a result, the cost is paid by the individuals and families who live in these homes. They pay that cost through their health and when they try to clean and redecorate, and they pay it through fuel and through the warmth that is lost from their homes. The cost to these families is unacceptable.
It brings me on to my second point on the issue of fuel poverty, and a number of Members have touched on this. We have the highest rates of fuel poverty on these islands and we urgently need a more effective and coordinated fuel poverty strategy that properly deals with the issue; it should be a critical strand of it. It will not only try to address our fuel poverty crisis but will create employment opportunities and opportunities in the construction sector that could benefit our economy across the North.
I am very frustrated that, on the final day of the Assembly, we are debating an issue that impacts on so many homes across Northern Ireland. I am really frustrated that we have a housing crisis. I am really frustrated that we are not able to move forward on reform of the common selection scheme.
Mrs Palmer: I thank the Member for giving way. Does she agree that competing priorities and the lack of funding to address the issue of cavity wall insulation are factors? The cost to the public purse would be around £140 million, which does not seem to be money that is readily available in the current circumstances.
Ms Mallon: I agree with the Member. It is regrettable that it seems that money can be found quite easily by this Executive for other things and maybe not so easily when it comes to issues that impact on homes and are detrimental to children's health.
We have a housing crisis and we need to stop tinkering around the edges. We need to actually deal with the problems, we need to be creative and we need to be courageous. We do not need to be stuck in political paralysis. A price is being paid by our constituents who are living in homes that just are not fit for purpose.
Mr Dickson: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion today and I thank Mr Easton for raising the matter. For the last number of years — quite rightly so — the impact on the poor and the people who live in Housing Executive houses has been manifest and is being clearly demonstrated by others in the debate this morning.
Housing has been and remains a sector that moves from one crisis to another in Northern Ireland. Over the last number of months, we have debated the need for improvement in the housing selection scheme, the recent reclassification of housing associations by the Office for National Statistics and the need to protect the vulnerable from unscrupulous landlords in the private sector. Today, we return to the issue of the lack of, or poor quality, cavity wall insulation in Housing Executive properties. On the surface, this might seem to be a fairly innocuous issue, but when you look at Northern Ireland's context of having — as others have said — the highest rate of fuel poverty in the United Kingdom, at 42%, and rising excesses of winter deaths at 11%, we see the positive role that effective insulation can play in protecting the vulnerable in our population.
Over 30 years ago, I was elected to Carrickfergus Borough Council on the back of many local campaigns. I can proudly state that I was a tenant of two Housing Executive properties in my early married life. I know exactly, at first hand, what it was like — probably over 40 years ago — to live in Housing Executive properties that suffered from that type of damp.
I also saw kids chase the plastic beads down the street many years ago when the first cavity wall insulation schemes were introduced. This is an issue that I have known about for virtually every single day of my political career, both as a councillor and as an MLA. People have come to me, and I understand at first hand the serious problems of health and of the damage that the failure to be able to live in a decent, warm home can create for many people in our communities.
This issue, as I have said, is nothing new. Many properties that were built between the 1940s and the early 1990s are no longer fit for purpose because people struggle to heat them. The statistics reinforce this —
Mrs Palmer: I thank the Member for giving way. Will the Member agree with me that, in trying to address the fuel poverty situation for our families in their homes, a project was put before the Department from the Housing Executive to fit photovoltaic panelling, which would have allowed our homes to have been heated at a lesser cost, and that would have gone a long way towards eradicating fuel poverty, but, unfortunately, the Department kicked it out?
Mr Dickson: I thank the Member. What she has raised is an important issue. There are many creative and innovative ways in which we can deal with the problems around fuel poverty and the serious issue that the lack of cavity wall insulation or failed cavity wall insulation, as is quite often the problem today, causes for many.
This is not just about bashing the Housing Executive here today, because I am a staunch supporter of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I believe that it has done an amazing job with its hands tied behind its back by many politicians, some of whom are represented in this Chamber today. As stated in the motion, it is not just appropriate to hold the Housing Executive to account. This issue is well known to previous Social Development Ministers — Lord Morrow, Nelson McCausland and the Minister today. I wish the DUP was as consistent in its approach to heating homes as it is to heating sheds.
It is important to remember that the Housing Executive carries out a vital role in dealing with properties on behalf of tenants. Recent figures have stated that the Housing Executive requires somewhere in the region of £6·7 billion over the next 30 years to address maintenance issues and raise its properties to an acceptable standard. Moreover, the reclassification of housing associations has added more debt on the Housing Executive and placed it in an unhelpful situation.
I am clearly someone who supports the work of the Housing Executive, and I believe that where we have headed over many recent years has been away from support for the Housing Executive. I value the work that housing associations have done, but what should be core to providing safe, good-quality public housing in Northern Ireland should be the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I do not agree that it should be prevented from building more homes in Northern Ireland. That may sound controversial, but I believe that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive should be given the opportunity to build more homes. Today, we need to see environmental health officers, building control officers, the Housing Executive and the Department coming together to help us build homes fit not just for the future but for today.
Mr Beggs: I support the motion as far as it goes. It highlights the failure to date to address the defects and poor quality of cavity wall insulation, but there is a need to go further. The Department for Social Development and its Minister and, indeed, the Department for Communities and the draft Programme for Government have a key role in enabling the Housing Executive, through resourcing, to address the failings. What did previous Social Development Ministers McCausland and Storey, and the current Minister with responsibility, Paul Givan MLA, do about it? Very little, it seems.
Fuel poverty is identified when more than 10% of a household's income is spent providing heat for the home. Northern Ireland has one of the highest rates throughout the United Kingdom, at some 42%.
Fuel poverty is influenced by household income, the cost of energy and the domestic energy efficiency of the home. The only one of those issues directly under the responsibility of the Minister and the Housing Executive is energy efficiency. There is a responsibility to address that issue when there are difficulties.
Walls form the largest surface area of any home and have the greatest potential to radiate or lose heat from the house. To date, the major defects in cavity wall insulation have not been addressed. Since the publication in March 2014 of the cavity wall inspection report produced by the South Eastern Regional College in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, it has been known authoritatively that there are major defects with cavity wall insulation in Northern Ireland Housing Executive homes and indeed many private sector homes that may originally have been Housing Executive homes. The issue of cavity wall insulation was not examined in detail by the housing conditions survey. In answer to Assembly question AQW 9010/16-21, the Minister acknowledged that, despite the millions of pounds' worth of work spent on the Savills housing survey, the current quality of cavity wall insulation was unknown.
The cavity wall inspection report advised that some 206 homes throughout Northern Ireland that had previously been surveyed in housing condition surveys in 2009 and 2011 were examined in detail using physical investigative methods. Holes were drilled and borescope cameras inserted to see exactly what was inside the walls. What were the results? Thirty-nine per cent had severe and critical needs; 26% were unsatisfactory with grave needs; and 11% had significant needs. Major problems were identified.
The report also highlighted that BuildDesk software analysis of blown-fibre insulation questioned its use in Northern Ireland. This is a private sector analysis of methods of insulation provision in homes. We have a damp, wet climate in Northern Ireland, and it is widely known that blown fibre can present difficulties in such climates. Unfortunately, a very high proportion of Northern Ireland Housing Executive homes has blown fibre that was installed in the 1980s; it may be as high as 60% or 70%. We have a very high risk of difficulties in those areas.
It is also widely known that, originally, poor techniques were used in installing such fibre and that there were voids and poor quality control. Add to that the damp that can occur and, instead of the insulation's providing a warm home, it acts as a thermal bridge and conducts the heat from the homes of many of those who are suffering from fuel poverty to the outside world, so they end up living in cold, damp homes. Indeed, I have visited the homes of constituents in Carrickfergus where damp has been highlighted as a problem. Constituents have assured me that they regularly keep their windows open for circulation —
Mr Beggs: — but officers and landlords frequently blame tenants' lifestyles for the damp, whereas the real cause may be damp blown-fibre insulation. That is why we need a detailed survey. We need to use modern technology, thermal imaging and borescopes —
Mr Beggs: We need funding from the Department to deal with it, which regrettably is not what has happened to date.
Ms Armstrong: I will not speak too long on this because many people before me have confirmed what we already know: that, unfortunately, Housing Executive homes that are of quite an age are in such poor repair that we are letting down our community. Poor insulation causes health issues; it creates social stigma and leaves people angry and alone, often coming to us politicians as a last-chance option.
I was fortunate to go along to a beautiful development in Comber where I saw at first hand the type of energy-efficient home that I would love our community to live in. The energy-efficient solutions that were put into those homes meant that those people would be able to heat them for as little as £5 a month. How much money do the people living in Housing Executive homes with cavity wall insulation problems pay per month to try to heat their homes? It is definitely not £5.
Housing Executive stock has homes that are substandard. There is mould and poor insulation. As many have said here, I have been in homes, across my constituency, where wee white insulation balls blow through the wall vents into the homes. They are not insulating the homes, they are being chased around floors with brushes and vacuum cleaners and being hoovered up out of the way.
Maintenance is not good enough. I completely appreciate that the Housing Executive maintenance teams are under terrible pressures, but that does not forgive the attitude of poor customer service. That is what we tend to forget: the people who live in these homes are customers. It is perceived that they have no choice and they will simply put up with mould, draughty homes, disgusting condensation and children living in bedrooms that you would not put animals in. The attitudes shown to some of my customers leave them sitting in my office in tears and leave them wondering whether they are going to heat the house or eat. Many of the people we hear about who are forced to choose whether to eat or heat live in the Housing Executive homes that we are talking about today.
Perhaps today the Minister could be very clear on what plans he has actually taken forward to make sure that the Housing Executive maintenance has enough money and actually have a good enough plan to stop this happening across our countryside?
Mr E McCann: Every single Member so far has mentioned the financial constraints on the Housing Executive. Does the Member agree with me that there are ways out of this problem of a lack of resources to deal with cavity wall insulation, damp and mould, which affects houses in every constituency? One obvious way forward, which is not being explored, is to give the Housing Executive the power to borrow money on the markets — it has never been cheaper to borrow — and also to stop the madness of lowering corporation tax and give the money, probably £300 million, according to some estimates, to the Housing Executive to finance a crash programme of building social housing. Can we also stop the gradual, surreptitious privatisation of the Housing Executive and its stock, which is changing the housing market for the worse?
Mr Speaker: I remind the Member that it should be a brief intervention. The Member has an extra minute.
Ms Armstrong: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I thank the Member for bringing this up. My very next point is about this. Fresh Start had £500 million set aside for integrated education, shared education and shared housing. How much of that money has been spent on shared housing? Our people do need these new homes with better insulation, better heating options and which are more energy efficient. How much was spent? Of course, the Minister does not believe that shared housing is important.
I support the motion before the House today, and I thank Mr Easton for bringing it forward. It is unfortunate that it comes on a day when the Chamber is empty, because I am sure every single politician in this Building worth their salt actually has Housing Executive tenants who are complaining.
Mr Beggs: Is the Member aware that virtually the same motion came forward almost four years ago, and what has happened since then?
Ms Armstrong: Absolutely nothing, as I can see from my tenants, because their complaints have been going on for, not four years, not five years but maybe ten years. It is very disappointing to find it back in front of this House with an almost empty Chamber today.
I do support the motion. I acknowledge the difficulties facing the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and I call on it to formulate a plan of action to address the issues so this Assembly can get to work on making it a reality. I hope that, after the election, we will actually have someone who will take it forward.
Mr Carroll: As people have already said, this is a very important issue. Everybody knows that people are living in homes that are not warm enough. We know that people have to pay a fortune on their gas and electricity bills just to heat their homes. We know that people think twice about turning the heating on. Fra McCann mentioned people putting on coats and extra jumpers indoors because they are watching the meter. They are literally watching their meter. Tragically, we know that people have died in their homes because they are unable to heat them. This is the reality in 2017.
We also know that 35% of heat in a home is lost if there is no cavity wall insulation installed in the house. If you put £200 of oil in an oil tank, you lose £70 right away because there is no cavity wall insulation.
That needs to be publicised and emphasised more, because it is a colossal waste of money and it is hitting people, who cannot afford it, in the pocket. Contrast that with taxpayers' money going to funnel heat into empty sheds with seven or eight heaters on full blast. It seems to me that there is one rule if you have connections in Stormont and another for everybody else.
This is a very serious issue. We have to ensure that people have heating and are warm and comfortable in their homes. We also have to ensure that people are not robbed blind by spiralling energy costs because their homes do not have cavity wall insulation. I sincerely hope that that is the intention of the motion, and it is not, as Mr McCann alluded to, an underhand attempt to further undermine the Housing Executive. In the past, we have witnessed attempts to undermine the Housing Executive to try to delegitimise it and break it up with stock transfers of housing from the Housing Executive to private associations. Definitely not on our watch.
I really hope that this motion is about providing support to tenants, and to get the Housing Executive to do what is expected of it as a public body and provide cavity wall insulation to tenants who badly need it.
As well as that, we have to state that the Housing Executive should be allowed to borrow money and should have the capacity to bring all its homes up to standard. Over the next 30 years, it needs around £5 billion to do that. It should be allowed to do that and all the barriers that currently exist and prevent it from doing so should be removed. It is a clear point; it is an investment in housing for the future and also will ensure that present housing is adequate for tenants.
Obviously, the motion is about Housing Executive tenants, and there should be no delay in ensuring that cavity wall insulation is implemented for Housing Executive tenants. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention tenants in private housing associations. They have been referred to already. People living in housing association properties also struggle to afford to heat their homes. They have to pay higher rents on average, compared with those in Housing Executive accommodation. Provision for cavity wall insulation should be extended to people in private housing associations as well.
Mr Dickson: The Member and others around the Chamber have made a number of references to cavity wall insulation. This perhaps takes the debate in a further direction. Who should install that cavity wall insulation? Does the Member agree with me that this is an ideal opportunity both to return to and to continue to allow social enterprise organisations to take the lead when it comes to the delivery of cavity wall insulation?
Mr Carroll: It could; but it could also use the expertise of the Housing Executive to do that.
It should also be mentioned that, last week, in my constituency, in the Riverdale area, the tenants of Victoria Housing held a meeting organised by a resident to hold the housing association to account. For decades, minimal maintenance work and upgrade was done. In most cases, the tenants themselves were forced to pay for work to be done on the properties, on top of rent increases year-on-year. Despite the organisation claiming to be a charity, the tenants were forced to pay through the teeth for rent, and they included pensioners and young families. The lesson there — the reason I mention it — is that they have shown what to do. If you are not getting maintenance done, or work is not being done by the House Executive or the housing associations, you have to get yourselves organised and fight and campaign until demands are met.
I also pay tribute to residents of Conars Court in Derry. Having been denied essential health and safety installation work for years, they organised and held an occupation of the office of the housing association. They demanded to meet the chief executive. Initially, he refused to meet them, but the residents said that they would not leave until he met them. Eventually, the chief executive came down, and the work on residents' properties has since been completed.
Mr Carroll: That shows that occupations and sit-ins work, and we need more of them.
Mr Givan (The Minister for Communities): I welcome the motion, and I thank my colleague Mr Easton for bringing it forward. It gives me the opportunity to discuss not just cavity wall insulation but the long overdue investment in Housing Executive stock.
Defective cavity wall insulation is not a problem limited to social housing; it can affect all tenures. The issue is complex, and a full understanding of the issues is only beginning to emerge. Addressing it may require substantial funding. I make the point up front that the Housing Executive has a substantial maintenance and investment backlog. Before taking remedial action, it will have to consider cavity wall insulation in the context of all the other priorities identified by the stock condition survey, which was part of the DSD/Housing Executive joint asset commission. All these other priorities, including rewiring, kitchens, roofs and bathrooms, need to be addressed as part of the Housing Executive's asset management strategy. The Housing Executive has an investment requirement over the next 30 years of around £6·7 billion. That cannot be covered by rents alone, and the Housing Executive, therefore, has an investment backlog that is large and getting larger. Indeed, the Housing Executive ideally needs to double the amount it is investing in its stock for the next 10 years to get back on track. So, when Members are talking about everything they ideally want the Housing Executive to do, it is worth bearing in mind the responsibility of the Assembly to enable it to meet that investment requirement.
The stock condition survey involved a comprehensive survey of over 25% of the Housing Executive stock, which is around 22,500 properties. It has given the Housing Executive a holistic understanding of its long-term investment needs. As I said, that stands at £6·7 billion over the next 30 years. The survey allows the Housing Executive to plan and prioritise investment over the long term. Again, I would not be so brave as to tell the Housing Executive to ignore its professional advice and thorough and comprehensive survey data and to instead take an entirely different approach to investment planning. The planning of investment is an operational matter for the Housing Executive, and, as housing Minister, it is not my place to ask it to push one scheme or type of work ahead of another.
Mr E McCann: Given what the Minister just said, does he agree that all the problems in housebuilding and maintenance would be eased and ameliorated if the Housing Executive were given the right power to borrow money on the market to fund the work we all know needs to be done urgently? Does he agree that should be done? If he does not agree, why not?
Mr Givan: The point is well made about the resources required to meet the demands the Housing Executive presents. That is a decision that, ultimately, the Assembly takes when budgets are allocated by the Executive and subsequently voted through in the House. That is something that, obviously, Members need to always be cognisant of whenever these decisions are made. The Housing Executive has the legal power to build, but, of course, we know that, because it cannot borrow on the markets, that is not a financially attractive option, given that housing associations are able to do that. For the Housing Executive to be put into the same position as housing associations, a change to the Housing Executive would be required, and that is something that, ultimately, Members will need to consider in the future. They will need to consider what framework they want the Housing Executive to sit within. It also ties into the reclassification issue the Assembly is having to deal with. That is an issue that is going to have to be grappled with, and, ultimately, Members will need to take decisions about where they believe the Housing Executive should sit and the type of functions it should be delivering upon. That is a decision now and an issue that will need to be grappled with by the next Assembly, obviously. But the Member raises very valid points.
Mr Attwood: I thank the Minister for giving way. When I was housing Minister in 2010-11, I conducted a fundamental review of the Housing Executive. It was based upon a number of principles, including protecting the institution of the Housing Executive, its legacy and name. One of the intentions behind that fundamental review was to prepare the ground to enable the Housing Executive to borrow from the market. That review concluded in March 2011. It was shared with the then Finance Minister in March 2011. It is now approaching March 2017. Given the preparatory work that was done, which is guarded against the DUP doing damage to the Housing Executive, can you explain why the issue Mr McCann raised repeatedly today about borrowing against Housing Executive assets not been resolved?
Mr Givan: I do not know the detail of what went on in 2011, but let me make it clear that no one is interested in damaging the Housing Executive. I have the greatest admiration for the work that I see done day in, day out by the Housing Executive. I have responded to Members when they have raised issues about the way in which points are allocated. There was a motion to do with intimidation points. A review was announced of how we can go about seeking to ensure that we have a selection scheme that is fit for purpose.
As for the question about 2011, I am not in a position to give the answer. What I can say is that, since I have come into post, I have recognised the challenge for the Housing Executive. Ultimately, the challenge is that we have to provide the homes that our people need and find the best way to go about doing that. The Assembly will have to grapple with that in the next mandate.
As I said, the Housing Executive has a substantial stock investment backlog to deal with, and there are many other investment requirements. Some of those may be a higher priority than replacing cavity wall insulation, for example, and, on foot of that, I will make one key point. It must be remembered that the Housing Executive owns around 10,000 properties of non-traditional construction with solid walls. It also owns perhaps another 5,000 other solid wall properties, such as rural cottages and older terraced properties. The thermal performance of those properties is poor, and the vast majority have not benefited from any improvements to their wall insulation at all. The insulation of those properties is the worst in the Housing Executive portfolio, and they are an obvious priority when it comes to improving the stock.
On the topic of cavity wall insulation, the Housing Executive has acknowledged that some of the cavity fill carried out in the 1980s and 1990s could now be improved on. Some of the insulation has degraded through time, some of it was badly installed, and some of it might have been put into unsuitable cavities. No surveying of Housing Executive stock has been carried out that properly determines how that affects different types of stock. Different types of cavity filled in different ways with different materials at different times will have aged differently. The first step that the Housing Executive will take is to understand how much of a problem there is.
Going forward, the Housing Executive proposes to commission an independent, comprehensive research project based on a survey of 1,000 cavity wall insulated properties. That will determine the impact that degraded or inconsistent cavity wall insulation presents for thermal efficiency and potential health issues.
Mr Beggs: The Minister talks about remedial action and how to improve things. I have a pensioner constituent — an ex-serviceman, as it happens — who complained about his cold house. The Housing Executive acknowledged prior to September that there was no cavity wall insulation in it, so why is he having to wait right through the winter until after April before his home is insulated as part of a scheme? Where such a problem is identified, the work should be carried out much more expeditiously.
Mr Givan: If the Member wants to give me the details, I will be happy to follow up on that to provide him with an answer that he can then provide to his constituent. Again, maintenance is an operational decision taken by the Housing Executive, but I am more than happy to follow that up for the Member.
Mr Beggs: I have already written to the Minister on the issue.
Mr Givan: We will get a response to you.
The research will also consider the suitability of properties for cavity wall insulation on the basis of location and construction type. The data will help to develop a robust methodology to deal with the problem in the long term. In the meantime, I am sure, we will all know of cases where cavity wall insulation has failed and the issues are urgent. Cavity wall insulation can fail to such an extent that it causes problems for the householder, such as damp or mould, and, in some cases, could affect their health. The Housing Executive has undertaken to address such problems immediately and without delay. Over 200 houses have had their cavity wall insulation replaced this way over the past two years. It will be done either through response maintenance or, if relevant and sensible, through ongoing planned maintenance schemes over the next few years.
The Housing Executive is committed to addressing both the energy efficiency of its properties and fuel poverty affecting its tenants. The Housing Executive will carry out a survey of the cavity wall insulation in its stock and use that to develop a longer-term strategy to address any systematic issues found in its stock. In the meantime, serious issues that emerge will be dealt with through response or planned maintenance. Any major programme to remove and reinstall cavity wall insulation broadly across the Housing Executive's stock would require substantial investment. It would have to be considered against other investment requirements, including the 15,000 homes without any wall insulation whatever.
Mr Attwood: I thank the Minister for giving way again. Do you acknowledge that, if we ever get to the point where the Housing Executive can borrow against its stock, the fact that there are now issues and that borrowing from the European Investment Bank will become problematic because of the Brexit decision will impede the Housing Executive's capacity in future to borrow at cheap rates to do the work that you have just referred to?
Mr Givan: That is certainly an issue that I have raised directly with London in respect of the negotiations that will take place around Brexit about any impact on potential investment through the European Investment Bank. That has been raised.
Mr Stalford: I appreciate the Minister giving way briefly. He will be aware that the way in which the European Investment Bank is constructed allows it to invest not only in European Union countries but in countries that are on the periphery of the European Union. Once Brexit happens, the United Kingdom will be on the periphery of the European Union but still eligible for funding from the European Investment Bank.
Mr Givan: No. I am sure that the Brexit debate will be played out over the next six weeks. In fairness, I have been pretty generous to everyone who has asked me to give way.
I thank Members for the contributions they have made. During the period in which I have been the Minister responsible for housing, I have met a number of MLAs. Fra McCann brought me to Divis tower — somewhere that I did not ever necessarily anticipate getting to visit. I have to say that the people there are the salt of the earth, and I could see at first hand the situation that they have to live in. I met Nichola Mallon, and she brought a family to see me to talk about their serious housing need. I have engaged with other MLAs on housing issues, issues on which we can all find common ground.
Yes, we will debate and, at times, disagree on the best way to meet those needs, but we all, ultimately, want to achieve the same objective, which is to provide housing that people want to live in. There is excellent housing in Northern Ireland provided by our housing associations and the Housing Executive. It is maintained to an excellent standard, but there are people who are in houses that are, frankly, deplorable. I have been in them, and I have witnessed at first hand the mould on the walls and the consequences of that for the individuals' mental health and physical health.
Mr Givan: In all these things, it is vital that we collectively recognise the issues. I hope that, in the next Assembly, we will identify all the things on which we have common ground. Yes, there will be things that we will disagree with and differ on. We need to work through them and tackle those obstacles whenever they arise. When it comes to housing, however, it is about meeting the need that exists and providing the best possible standards that the people expect us, as politicians, to provide.
Mervyn asked me to give way; I will do that and then I will finish.
Mr Storey: I thank the Minister for giving way. As a former Minister for housing, I concur with his comments on the issue. Comments have been made today about lost opportunities. As the Assembly comes to an end, let us face reality: it is most likely that we will not be back in this institution in the way that it was formed and the way that it is. Let us all bear the responsibility for what has happened over the last number of weeks. There was one lost opportunity — the Members on the opposite Benches know about it — when I endeavoured to ensure that we found a solution to housing. If there is one thing that we need to sort in Northern Ireland it is to give our people good homes. I concur with the Minister's comments, and I look forward to a day when the people of Northern Ireland, across the piece, will share the benefit of good homes.
Mr Speaker: I remind the Member that interventions should be short. Can I check that the Minister has now finished?
Mr Lyons: Some in the Chamber have alluded to the reasoning behind having this debate being to have a go at, or in some way discredit, the Housing Executive. That is certainly not the intention behind this motion. As a constituency representative, I am in contact with the Housing Executive daily, and I very much appreciate the work that it does and how responsive it is when we raise issues or queries.
Mr Allen: Will the Member not agree, then, that they should perhaps have reflected on the wording of the motion, because it certainly comes across as pointing to a failure on the Housing Executive's part?
Mr Lyons: No, I do not. I think that I can praise and appreciate the work of the Housing Executive while, as a public representative, wanting to hold them to account and highlight where there are problems. That is our job as public representatives in this place. Yes, it is to support the work of our public services wherever they may be, but we also have a duty to hold them to account in the same way as we have a duty to hold our Ministers to account, but I want to make it clear that this is not an attack on the Housing Executive.
I thank the proposer of the motion, Mr Easton. He has certainly been consistent and persistent on this issue. He and I have met different people in relation to this. We have met previous Social Development Ministers including, most recently, Lord Morrow when he was in post. This is an issue that Mr Easton and indeed all Members clearly care about. The tone of today's debate has been largely positive, because there has been agreement amongst Members and we understand that there is an issue here that needs to be dealt with and that party politics should be pushed to the side.
The South Eastern Regional College report was clear. Over two thirds of Housing Executive properties that it surveyed have either critical or severe needs, and only 9% are fit for purpose. We all have personal experience of going into constituents' houses and seeing the problems that there are with damp and cold. We all have constituents who tell us that they never really feel the warmth in their homes. That should be of concern to all of us.
To go back to Mr Allen's point, I want to hold the Housing Executive to account when it repeatedly tells my constituents that the reason that their homes are damp or that they have problems is because of lifestyle issues and that they do not air out their homes. Another reason why some of my constituents find it so hard to heat their homes is because they have to keep windows open in order to get rid of the smell of damp. This is an issue that needs to be addressed. We should be saying to the Housing Executive, "Action needs to be taken here". I do not think that anybody is under any illusions as regards the scale and cost of the work that needs to be carried out, but that does not mean that we should not press on this issue and seek to ensure that it is addressed.
There are a number of reasons why we need to tackle the issue of cavity wall insulation, or the lack thereof. The first is the fuel poverty that is experienced in this country. I know that it is an old figure, but 42% of people in Northern Ireland are classified as being in fuel poverty, which is far higher than in the rest of the UK. It is estimated that almost 290,000 people here are living in fuel poverty. If we can take some action to address that by improving insulation in homes, surely we should be doing it.
As other Members have already said, this can also cut costs in the long term. If our homes are properly insulated, people will have to spend less money on heating and will have more money to spend on other things. Of course, keeping people warm also prevents health problems. I have seen children in my own constituency who are suffering as a result of the conditions in which they are living. We need an assessment of Housing Executive properties and of the ways in which that can be tackled.
The Energy Saving Trust said that:
"Cavity wall insulation is the single most cost-effective, low risk energy efficiency measure available for the existing housing stock, after loft insulation."
Here we have a real ability to help our constituents. Indeed, in addition to that, it has been estimated by the Energy Saving Trust that the cost of these insulation measures can be paid back in as short a time as two or three years, so it is an area in which we should, of course, take action.
I do not want to spend time going over all the points that Members raised, one of the reasons being that they were repeated again and again. I think, however, that, time and time again, we realised the scale of the problem and that action needs to be taken.
Nichola Mallon and Andy Allen raised the issue of housing being a human right. Not only should we provide and make sure that people have homes but the homes that we provide should be of the right standard, as Mr Allen outlined.
Mr Dickson's contribution was largely positive. He lowered the tone slightly at one point, but we will move beyond that. He showed his age by telling us how long he has been married and how long ago he was elected to Carrickfergus Borough Council. He raised the point that cavity wall insulation has consistently been an issue over many years.
I thank the Minister for —
Mr Dickson: I take it as a compliment that the Member acknowledged the length of time that I have been a locally elected representative. Does he agree with me that it is a terrible shame that we have had to wait — indeed, continue to wait — that length of time to see any genuine action? That is the sad reality of what we are talking about today: very little action and a great deal of annoyance caused to people whose property suffers in this way.
Mr Lyons: Well of course that is why we tabled the motion and that is why we are calling for action to be taken. I agree with the Member that we would love this to have been addressed a long time ago. He had the same issue 40 years ago when he was first elected, and it continues to be an issue today.
I thank the Minister for his comments. He brought to the debate, as Ministers need to do, a realism about the financial constraints, and we recognise the constraints that he is working under. However, we have already mentioned the opportunity to create long-term savings by investing in this way, and that is not —
Mr Lyons: Just one second. That is not limited to the Housing Executive; it extends to other savings that can be made across public services, including, of course, health. I welcome the fact that the Minister said that we need a longer-term strategy, and, in response to that, planned maintenance. If substantial investment is required, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that it can be found so that our people can live in homes that are fit for them and not detrimental to their health.
Mr Lyons: I just want to say one more thing before I finish. Mr Storey has already mentioned that we are in the last hours of this Assembly and will soon —
Mr Lyons: No. I want to finish my point. We will soon vacate this place as we head to an election and do not know what will come next. I have been in the House for about 17 or 18 months, and we have had numerous debates in that time. However, a debate such as this one today shows, in my opinion, the importance of having devolved government and not direct rule. As locally elected Assembly Members, we can come into this place, raise our concerns and impress upon the Minister the issues that our constituents bring to us. If we do not have a devolved Government in this place, we will be worse off for that. I welcome the fact —
Mr Speaker: Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?
Mr Lyons: — that we have been able to bring the motion to the House and am pleased with the response. I hope that all Members will support it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Communities to hold the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to account for its failure to address the lack of, or poor quality of, cavity insulation within many Housing Executive properties; and calls on the Housing Executive to formulate a plan of action to ensure that all its properties have adequate and proper cavity insulation.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
Members, before I call Mr Beattie to move the motion, I am sure that you are all aware that there are active legal proceedings in relation to a man suspected of involvement in the murder of prison officer David Black who has failed to answer bail. I do not want to inhibit the discussion on the operation of bail policy in cases of terrorism and murder, which is a matter of public interest, but, in accordance with my responsibilities under Standing Order 73, I caution Members to be particularly careful that they say nothing in their contributions in today's debate that might in future prejudice the outcome of proceedings relating to Mr Black's murder. Members who deliberately flout the sub judice rule will be asked to resume their seats.
Members should also recognise that anything they say that contributes to a substantial risk of serious prejudice to these criminal proceedings may be a contempt of court at common law, to which privilege in the House affords no defence.
That this Assembly notes the recent failures in the criminal justice system to ensure that a man suspected of involvement in the murder of prison officer David Black abided by bail conditions; expresses concern at the granting of bail in this case, the low level of sureties required and the length of time taken by the PSNI to realise that this individual had absconded; believes that terrorist suspects should remain in custody for as long as necessary to allow judicial proceedings to be completed; calls on the Minister of Justice to ensure that steps are taken to see that the suspect is returned to custody; and further calls on the Minister of Justice to take urgent steps to review bail policy in Northern Ireland, with particular regard to cases involving murder and terrorism.
I will attempt to keep in lane, keep my lurgy inside and not cough over the Justice Minister, who might want to stay back.
Northern Ireland has been scourged by terrorism for far too long. Yes, it has diminished since 1998, and we had a good debate on the Belfast Agreement yesterday, but it is still here. It is beginning to feel like part of the fabric of this country, and that is extremely sad. We have, of course, tried to minimise the effects of terrorism and have changed the words: we use the terms "paramilitary activity" or "dissidents", but it is terrorism and they are terrorists. They terrorise all our communities, and west Belfast has suffered far more than most. They force their will on others through threats of violence, and they shoot, maim and kill our elderly, our children — anybody in society. It is the worst of crimes because it undermines the state. It attempts to promote a cause — any cause — through terror. It must be stopped, and it must be seen to be stopped. Therefore, we must have robust structures for dealing with those linked to terrorism or, indeed, those charged with terrorist offences, including strict bail conditions or stopping bail if we believe somebody is involved in terrorism. We need our independent and impartial justice system to have a look at its processes.
Recently, we have seen a case of a suspect from Lurgan — a suspect — who was possibly involved in a terrorist offence, being given leave this year to go on holiday to Spain. A suspect in the murder of prison officer Black — I fully accept what you said, Mr Speaker — due to face court this year has had his bail conditions varied and his electronic tag removed. He previously had to report seven days a week but that has been reduced to just five days a week. Last year, he was given leave to change his bail so that he could go on a three-day spa holiday. That same individual has now not been seen since 18 November, and I will touch on that slightly later. Can you imagine how the Black family feels at this moment in time? Completely let down by the justice system. I will put this in unashamedly and I mentioned it yesterday. I will do it because it is important to me. You have to contrast those two examples that I have just given you with that of a 75-year-old veteran who has been investigated twice already. He has now been charged and, at 75, has been classed as a flight risk and has not been allowed to vary his bail conditions. You can see that there is a perception to many that our impartial justice system needs rebalanced.
The Chief Constable is under pressure on many fronts. He and his force are doing a sterling and fantastic job, but they are concerned about the imposition of bail conditions. The Chief Constable said so yesterday. Their job is to gather evidence and present the evidence, and it is for the justice system to take the lead thereafter. If the justice system allows bail, it is up to the PSNI to impose those bail conditions. The PSNI has questions to answer. Why did it take them so long to realise that a suspect in a murder who was on bail had done a runner and that they had not seen him since 18 November? They did not realise until 23 December. It is embarrassing to say the least, and the PSNI needs to look at its structures.
Our justice system must realise as well that, if it disregards what the PSNI is saying to it, it undermines the duty of the state to protect those living in it. What do I mean by that? If the PSNI opposes a terrorist suspect going on bail and the justice system says, "Nah, not listening to you. We are sending him on bail", then it is undermining the PSNI and undermining the state.
Detective Chief Superintendent Murray said only this month:
"In terms of the ability of police to keep track of offenders according to bail conditions it can be very, very difficult."
Mr Allister: I understand entirely the point that is being made about the courts' attitude to bail undermining the PSNI, but is there also not, sadly, in the instant case, an indication that the PSNI undermined itself by not checking for over a month why someone who was meant to be signing five days a week had not signed and where they were? Is there not a big burden on the PSNI, when there are bail terms, to make sure that they are imposed?
Mr Beattie: I thank the Member for his intervention. You are absolutely right, and I said as much. The police have questions to answer because it is an embarrassing failure for the PSNI not to have noticed that that individual had absconded and that they had not seen him for over five weeks. You are absolutely right. I do not think that any of us should shirk from pointing the finger at the police and saying, "You must have a look at your structures". I am certainly in favour of that.
The motion asks that we address the safeguarding of our society. The moment we have a suspect in a terrorist case — we talked about terrorism at the very start — and release him on bail without strict bail conditions, we are putting society at risk. Suspect terrorists should remain in custody when the evidence supports the allegation or for as long as possible to allow the justice proceedings to be completed. For me, that makes absolute sense. If the evidence is there, keep him in jail and let justice run its course.
For those who say the speed of justice is far too slow in Northern Ireland, that is a completely different issue, and I ask the Justice Minister to look at and address that speed. But that does not counter the fact that we are releasing out into the country somebody who is potentially dangerous. If he was a danger to children — if he was a paedophile — we would not think twice about not releasing him back into society. We would hold him until justice had dealt with him. I have to say that I view them as virtually one and the same.
We must review bail conditions in cases of murder or terrorist offences. Bail must be an exception. They must give the reason why they are going to give them bail. I ask everybody to think about how we need more stick than carrot sometimes here in Northern Ireland.
Mrs Hale: I thank the Member for giving way. Would the Member agree with me that the burden of proof should be on the judicial system to say why it would forgo the PSNI and intelligence to let these people go free on bail?
Mr Beattie: I thank the Member for her intervention. You are absolutely right, and you probably put that far better than I could have. I totally agree with you.
We stood here yesterday and condemned the attack on a police officer in north Belfast. We all condemned the attack and stood united, and I was happy to stand with everybody in the House to condemn that. Those responsible, if caught, should not get bail. If you believe that is the case, you must support the motion.
Mr K Buchanan: I support the motion. David Black, a member of my constituency, left his home, like we all did this morning, on 1 November and drove to his work. I worked with David many times in the voluntary sector back in the late 1990s. He was a true gentleman, father and public servant.
There are concerns among many in our community, especially in mid-Ulster, about the criminal justice system, in particular the case of the man accused of involvement in the murder of David Black. That was a brutal ambush, planned and carried out by terrorists and cowards who targeted and shot a family man who had for over 30 years served Her Majesty's Government in the Prison Service. Many believe bail should never have been an option for someone accused of such a serious offence.
Following the recent disclosure of the breach of bail conditions by the individual charged with offences in connection with the murder of Mr Black, I and my Policing Board colleague Nelson McCausland sought a meeting with the Chief Constable back on 13 January. Mr McCausland and I met the Chief Constable, Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin and Detective Chief Superintendent Raymond Murray, head of the serious crime branch, and we were able to ask direct questions about this issue. This was the second time the bail conditions for the man accused of this offence had been questioned. In August last year, his bail conditions were relaxed to allow him to reside in a luxury hotel from 7 August until Tuesday 9 August.
During that time, he was photographed with a convicted republican terrorist at a city centre parade. It has been reported that McLaughlin volunteered as a steward at a dissident republican march in Coalisland on Easter Sunday. Kyle Black, son of David Black, said in August 2016 that he wished his father still had his basic human right of living, never mind being able to go away on a luxury weekend break. On too many occasions, the human rights of the accused are considered. We must keep in mind the human right —
Mr Humphrey: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Given the point that was made about the attempted murder of the policemen in north Belfast, who, I am pleased to say, is making good progress, will the Member agree with me that stories such as the one that he has outlined to the House completely undermine public confidence in the judicial system? Frankly, that confidence is eroded daily when people hear that convicted criminals are treated in such a way by this state.
Mr K Buchanan: I thank the Member for his intervention. I agree 100% with that. The criminal justice system does not give confidence to the community. When people are involved in an attack, such as the one the other night in north Belfast, justice has to be served, and that signal has to be sent out.
David Black lost his human rights that November. They were taken away by a coward who drove up alongside the man on his way to his work. That is not the only case in which bail conditions have been breached by those charged with serious terrorist offices. The person who has been charged with the murder of Adrian Ismay has breached his bail conditions no fewer than five times. Five times. Those cases must be reviewed, and we need assurances from the judiciary that those failings will be investigated and addressed.
It must be stated that the police are forced to deal with the bail conditions granted by the judiciary. It must not be forgotten that suspects across the rest of the United Kingdom who are accused of such serious crimes would not be granted bail. The granting of bail would simply not be considered in equivalent cases in Great Britain, but, despite repeated breaches, that is still happening in Northern Ireland. Although we recognise the difficulties that the police face, questions remain about why action was not taken more quickly when it became clear that Mr McLaughlin had not reported to a police station. I was pleased to hear that efforts had been made to track down that individual, and particularly that there had been cooperation with other police forces across Europe. It is important that the issue is being investigated by the Police Ombudsman.
Mr Butler: I thank the Member for giving way. Will he agree with me that, when you look at that instance and the continued segregation of dissident republicans, the judicial system is potentially weighted in favour of that section of the community?
Mr K Buchanan: I agree with the Member. That section of the community seems to get more lenient trials and sentences. There is absolutely no doubt about that.
The fact that the Chief Constable stated that the Police Ombudsman had started an investigation without a complaint being made underlines the seriousness of the case. Although the investigation will not impact on the root cause of the problem — whether bail is granted — it will identify any failures in how the police have handled the case. The Member who spoke previously referred to the five- to six-week delay in the police investigating the breach of bail conditions.
Having raised serious concerns regarding bail conditions with the Justice Minister in September, I have also written to the Lord Chief Justice on the issue. In her response to my correspondence on 12 October 2016, the Minister of Justice stressed that the judiciary is independent of government and that the monitoring of bail conditions is the matter for the PSNI, which, again, has complete operational autonomy for the day-to-day running of individual cases and operational decisions. I will continue to press the police and the judiciary about their actions. The public and, in particular, the families of those who have suffered at the hands of terrorists —
Mr K Buchanan: — deserve to know that proper action is being taken to bring those who are responsible for such serious crimes to justice. The police and judiciary should keep them where they belong until they stand trial, and, if they are convicted, they should serve a time that is relevant to the crime.
Mr Kearney: Beidh Sinn Féin ag caint in éadán an rúin seo inniu. Sinn Féin opposes the motion. It is now just shy of seven years since we had the transfer of policing and justice powers to the North. That is an ongoing work in progress to ensure that our justice system is democratically reformed, is made transparent, acts in the interests of all sections of society and, most importantly, is predicated on a human rights framework. Unfortunately —
Mr Kearney: I have only started. Unfortunately, the motion from the UUP pushes back on that work. We are not opposed to a review of bail policy, but we are opposed on human rights grounds to the proposed blanket ban that emerges from the motion for anyone charged with scheduled offences or the offence of murder.
I want to set out briefly the context or basis of bail law. What must be paramount in all our minds and in the House is that for all citizens there is a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Bail law in this place is governed by article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right of liberty and security of the person. No one should be deprived of their liberty in an arbitrary fashion, and a blanket ban throws up that connotation. Every individual application for bail should be judged on its own merits and should not be subject to any type of blanket ban. A prisoner on remand should be tried within a reasonable period and every prisoner on remand has a qualified right to release pending a trial.
The difficulty is that many prisoners have experienced inordinate and unacceptable delays while on remand in custody awaiting trial. This has been highlighted by numerous judicial figures and civil liberties organisations here in Ireland and abroad in recent years. It has created the perception of a form of legalised internment by remand or — under another description — by some form of administrative detention. The difficulty with that perception is that it directly and explicitly undermines the profile of our justice system in the North.
It is rather ironic that the motion has been tabled by the UUP, the very party that introduced internment without trial in 1971.
Mr Butler: Thank you for giving way. At the start, you mentioned our seven-year journey. I am 44 years old. I have been on a journey in this country for 44 years. We have seen no peace and no real stability in this country for 44 years. Can you tell me, as spokesman for your party, how long this journey will take? I do not find seven years acceptable, never mind 44 years.
Mr Kearney: Thanks for the intervention. The key, Robbie, is that we build the peace and we build the peace together and collectively by restoring public confidence in these institutions, working together to ensure that we entrench democratic reform on the journey of change that we are all on and ensuring that every citizen in this society enjoys justice before the law and that the rights of all citizens are protected under the law and with due regard to human rights.
The logic of the UUP position, if considered, and I go back to what Doug said in his opening remarks in relation to the —
Mr Wells: On a point of order, I understand that the honourable Member for South Antrim is new to this Chamber, but could he please refrain from referring to Members as "Doug" or "Robbie"? He should address them either by their proper title — the Member for whatever constituency — or their full name.
Mr Speaker: I agree with the Member who raised the point of order. We should refer to Members by their position or their proper title.
Mr Kearney: Thanks for that unhelpful intervention from the Member on the other side of the House.
The point I was making was that the logic of the UUP position is that bail should not have been granted to the British army veteran charged in connection with the fatal shooting of John Pat Cunningham in Benburb in 1974. That is the difficulty when we begin to take an arbitrary or piecemeal approach to these issues.
There are, of course, conditions and circumstances in which bail can and should be denied, but the court must be satisfied that there were and are reasonable grounds for continued detention before a denial of bail can be justified. There are potential grounds for the denial of bail, such as a danger that the defendant might fail to attend for trial, interfere with evidence or interfere with witnesses, and so on. Let the court decide the terms of bail with judicial impartiality and not through direct political interference.
The police, who have responsibility for the monitoring and governance of bail conditions, have been rightly criticised in relation to the case mentioned in the motion today. The difficulty with police monitoring of bail conditions extends way beyond this case and relates to their failure in their duty of care to monitor defendants on bail, ranging from alleged death drivers to those charged with murder. That is a real source of anger in working-class communities that suffer the worst antisocial behaviour.
Mr Kearney: In conclusion, the motion has been badly framed. It undermines the core assumptions underpinning bail law. If its corollary is followed, its effect would be to hollow out —
Mr Kearney: — the human rights framework of our justice system.
Mr Speaker: I remind Members who wish to use examples in their contribution that sub judice rules apply to active criminal proceedings in which there has been an arrest.
Mr Attwood: Mr Speaker, on the very last point that you raised, I do not intend to cross any lines in respect of due process and the rule of law at any time, including in relation to the ongoing proceedings arising from the murder of David Black. I say that for all the reasons of principle but also reasons of humanity. Like other Members in the Chamber, I attended the home of the Black family and the funeral of that prison officer. When you travel down the M1 heading south and west, you pass the place where that murder took place. Given that experience, I certainly will not cross lines in respect of the rule of law and due process, so as to maximise the opportunities for a successful prosecution in that case for anybody who may be involved.
There is a danger — we have heard it in one or two comments that have been made in the debate — that, whatever the criticisms may be of the police and the criminal justice system in this case and others, we do extravagant damage to policing and criminal justice. In earlier interventions, there was an exchange that included the phrase that the case completely undermines confidence in the administration of justice. In a separate exchange in the debate earlier, there was a claim that the criminal justice system is weighted in favour of one community over another when it comes to sentencing and bail policy. Those are extravagant claims that are not justified based on the evidence. Whilst this case is a bad one and a hard one, and whilst there may be others like it, we should not draw conclusions about the character of the police —
Mr Attwood: I will shortly.
— and criminal justice systems in the way that some of the extravagant language has suggested today.
Mr Humphrey: I thank the Member for giving way. I made the assertion to the House that some of the decisions in terms of bail being relaxed undermine confidence. I stand by that comment. My colleague from Mid Ulster pointed out that there are criminals released on bail who have that bail relaxed so that they can stay in luxury hotels or attend and help to organise dissident rallies, or indeed speak at those rallies and inflame people who attend them. Surely that is proof that that sort of thing can happen. I was not making any assertions or sweeping statements across the community about one community being given preference over another, but clearly such actions undermine confidence. When people come through your constituency doors or contact your office, you see that that undermines confidence.
Mr Attwood: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Yes, there will be cases, in all our experience and in all our communities, that undermine confidence. However, to assert, on the far side of that, that that completely undermines confidence and that the criminal justice system code sees one section of the community getting more lenient trials than the other — that is not based on fact, and we must base our assessments on fact. I agree that there is upset and exasperation around this case, but I do not agree with the extravagance of some people.
In my view, the most enduring change since the Good Friday Agreement has been what was achieved in relation to policing and criminal justice. The policing change has slowed down since 2007 — the big great work of policing reform was done between 2002 and 2007 — and I want to see more radical reform when it comes to the criminal justice system, but I do not take away from what has been achieved in both regards.
I certainly do not take away from the contribution being made by the judiciary in Northern Ireland to framing a society that upholds the right principles and applies human rights standards across the board without fear or favour.
There are two issues with bail. One is police bail, which nobody has commented on so far. There is a sense that, when somebody is apprehended, they are given police bail too quickly. You can go into parts of west Belfast where the experience of the police and police bail in certain cases has led to a sense in the community that the state does not work on behalf of them or to their benefit. The police have to tighten their processes on police bail in appropriate cases.
I am sure that the judiciary can hear this debate, and I am sure that they have heard the criticism. I have no doubt that the Lord Chief Justice will act on legitimate public concern, but that is what we should allow to happen: a response to legitimate public concern. However, we should not invert the rule of law and bail procedure, as per the part of the motion that says:
"terrorist suspects should remain in custody for as long as necessary to allow judicial proceedings to be completed".
That means that a suspect in custody for a lesser offence —
Mr Attwood: — will not be granted bail. That is disproportionate.
Mr Lunn: I support the motion, even though we have some minor issues with the wording. For instance, it calls on the Minister of Justice to:
"ensure that steps are taken to see that the suspect is returned to custody".
That places an onus on the Minister that she will not be able to fulfil. I do not know what steps the sponsors of the motion have in mind beyond the obvious.
The motion also states:
"terrorist suspects should remain in custody for as long as necessary to allow judicial proceedings to be completed".
There has to be a measure of discretion allowed to the judiciary to allow cases not to be put back ad infinitum without the threat that the accused may have to be released from custody if the case is not brought forward. I am not going to defend Mr McLaughlin in any way, but I note that his original bail was set in May 2014. I cannot help thinking that, if he had been remanded in custody, we would be having a different debate. I would query keeping someone in custody pending trial for almost three years. He has obviously breached generous bail conditions, which allowed him to take holidays, and it seems to have taken the PSNI far too long to realise that he had disappeared. As we speak, he is still at large. So, with the caveat that I mentioned, the question is this: "Why should a terrorist murder suspect have been given bail in the first place?". What message does it send to the family — in this case, the family of David Black — that someone accused of complicity in the murder of their loved one should be allowed to move freely, to take holidays, to put up minimal surety, to have their tag removed, to have their conditions of reporting to the police varied in their favour and then to abscond? What message does that send to a family?
This is not the first time, as others have mentioned. In the case of the murder of Adrian Ismay, the suspect — Christopher Robinson — did not have his bail revoked despite numerous breaches. In my opinion, there were two breaches, but Mr Buchanan said that there were five. It was only finally revoked because he put something inappropriate on social media.
As somebody else said, this would not be tolerated across the water. People over there do not understand why a terrorist suspect over here would ever be released on bail; it just would not happen in the rest of the UK. We are talking about different types of terrorist, but it just would not happen there.
Going back to the recent case of Damien McLaughlin, he apparently disappeared on 18 November, and it was not noticed, it appears, until 23 December — five weeks later. A further two weeks elapsed before it was brought to the attention of the court. How many times was he supposed to check in during that period? All that reinforces the thrust of the motion, which is that terrorist suspects should not be granted bail initially and a full review of bail policy — something that, I understand, the Minister has said she has instigated — should be thorough and meaningful.
I look forward to the Ulster Unionist Member winding up the motion and the Minister's response, and I think the main objective of the motion, subject to the caveats that I have expressed, is to err on the side of caution in terrorist-related situations. The motion is well made and is worthy of support. I hear the comments from Sinn Féin about human rights and the European Convention and so on. In the real world, frankly, it makes no sense to release terrorist suspects into the community, but I express the cautionary note that, frankly, you cannot keep them there for ever if the case is not coming forward. In this case, we go back to the fact that, if Damien McLaughlin were on remand in custody now, we would be having a different debate. Three years to bring a case to court is too long, and that goes back to the slowness of justice that Mr Beattie mentioned.
Ms Armstrong: I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member agree that it is disappointing that we have come to this stage in the Assembly? Obviously, we are where we are, and the Minister is still in post until 2 March. Does he agree that this review needs to be done as soon as possible to give those family members and victims confidence that the review will actually go forward?
Mr Lunn: I will leave it to the Minister to give us an update on the progress of whatever review she has instigated, but I agree with the point. There is a question of reassurance here for victims, survivors and bereaved family members, and I do not think that our history on this has been one of dealing with it well. We have to err on the side of caution but with proper safeguards. We will support the motion.
Mr Douglas: I rise as a member of the Justice Committee to speak in the debate, and I thank Douglas Beattie and his colleagues for bringing the motion to the House. I am here to support the motion.
I was first elected to the Assembly in 2011, and, during this time, it has been a roller-coaster experience for me with the good, the bad and the ugly. Unfortunately, there have been too many times when it was been the bad and, at other times, the ugly. One of the most traumatic and saddest experiences that I experienced was visiting the home of Adrian Ismay, the prison officer who died after a cowardly booby-trap bomb attack last March — I think that it was 4 March. He died later of his injuries — I think it was on 15 March. It was claimed by the so-called Real IRA, and, as my colleague mentioned, the accused has broken bail conditions on five occasions.
There has been talk in the debate about human rights. I support human rights, but what about the human rights of the families who hear that someone who has been accused across the board in a number of incidents of murder or attempted murder has been dealt with leniently by the court in setting their bail conditions. There have been serious incidents linked mainly to dissident republicans during my time as a Member of the Assembly. Concerns have been raised across the community that bail is often granted despite police objections. The police have objected on a number of occasions.
Mrs Hale: I thank the Member for giving way. Will the Member agree with me that those who operate outside the law and feel that they are above the law should feel the full force of the law?
Mr Douglas: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I certainly agree with my colleague about the full rigour of the law. The Assembly should be tough on crime and tough on the reasons behind crime.
After the cowardly gun attack in north Belfast last weekend in which a community officer suffered gunshot wounds to his arm, the Chief Constable, George Hamilton, said:
"the criminal justice system needs to be linked up".
He raised the whole issue of bail policy and concerns; this is the Chief Constable, as well as us today. He went on to say:
"Our job is to gather the evidence, to present that evidence to the prosecutor for the prosecutor to take that through the courts and for the courts to decide on things like bail and sentencing and so on."
Certainly, in the midst of his comments, there is a frustration. That frustration has been there for many years, not just recently. I agree with the Chief Constable. My experience, during my time as an MLA, is that often the courts will go ahead and grant bail to people who have ended up in court on serious charges despite police objections. That happens even in my area of east Belfast.
Someone quoted Gandhi the other day — I think that it was Mike Nesbitt or somebody. I want to quote the Apostle Paul, who said:
"Abstain from all appearance of evil".
Avoid the appearance of wrongdoing. There is a sense out there that what is happening, over the last number of years, is wrong. The courts are too lenient and even the PPS is too lenient. William Humphrey said earlier that it undermines the criminal justice system. I agree with William.
In closing, I want to say that I have been here for five and a bit years and this is my last debate; I am stepping down from the Assembly. I want to thank the Justice Minister for being here. I want to thank you, Mr Speaker, and your officials. I also want to thank the cleaners, the Committee staff, the people in the canteen and the security men. I would like to see, in the future, a debate on how good the staff across the Assembly are. They do not get the recognition that they deserve.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Lord Morrow: We, as a party, will be supporting the motion before the House today. I welcome this debate; it is very right and timely that it should happen. Damien McLaughlin is charged with aiding and abetting Mr Black's murder, having a car for use in terrorism, preparing a terrorist act and belonging to a proscribed organisation, namely the IRA. However, it seems that this is still not serious enough for him to be denied bail. I have spoken and lobbied vociferously on this issue and raised serious concerns in the past over persons charged with serious offences and their bail terms. The absconding defendant has been a sharp wake-up call to all agencies involved in the judicial system.
The Minister is aware that I have submitted a number of questions, perhaps more than any other MLA, on this particular issue. I have also written to the Chief Constable to ask the following questions: on what date was a bail breach first noted; why was a bench warrant not sought immediately when a bail breach was realised; what attempts were made to speak with the defendant's legal team to ascertain if they knew of his whereabouts; why was action not taken to have the matter made known to the first available court sitting, as opposed to waiting until the next scheduled court hearing pending trial; why was a statement not released earlier to the media and indeed at the first opportunity upon a bail breach being known and unsuccessful efforts made to locate the defendant; which agencies were advised of the position and on what dates; and, in addition, on what dates were ports, airports and the Garda Síochána alerted to this case. To date, I have received an acknowledgement, but I have received no details to any of those questions.
In reference to the list of court appearances, the defendant was first charged on 20 December 2012 — imagine, we are going back to 2012 when he was initially remanded in custody. Just think about the date: 20 December 2012. That is over four years ago, pushing on to the fifth year. The previous Minister contended that significant moves were under way towards speeding up justice, but that does not fit in this and many other cases that I have taken an interest in.
Due to the inordinate length of time the case was taking, by May 2014 McLaughlin had successfully applied for release at the High Court citing human rights legislation on the grounds that he had been held in custody for too long. The judge in question was required to consider bail favourably and, indeed, did so. On 18 December 2014, the defendant successfully applied for a trial variation. Three months later, on 30 March 2015, a further variation was granted. All in all, the judge clearly looked at the defendant's appearing to be conforming with bail terms, and each variation relaxed the very safeguards designed to protect the due process.
Then, it appears that carelessness set in, and compliance was exploited. None of us, including the victim's family, who are the most important people here and who have been treated absolutely shamefully, have been given any cogent explanation.
Two factors, in my view, contributed greatly to this. The first is the ridiculous length of time getting to trial, often delayed in part by the utilisation of preliminary investigations at the behest of the defence. This is not the first time I have raised those. They are something I have been lobbying long to be abolished as this is the only part of the United Kingdom I am aware of that continues to use them. The second factor is that bail under human rights legislation appears to be granted.
Lord Morrow: There is not much regard given to the Black family's rights. Furthermore, when I challenged Sinn Féin on where it stood on the issue, what was its response?
Lord Morrow: It said, "That is a police matter; we do not comment on those things". Not half, it does not.
Mrs Overend: On this, the last day the Assembly will meet in this place, I thank my colleague Mr Doug Beattie for proposing this important motion. I express my deep concern and share the anger of many people from my constituency of Mid Ulster at the management of the bail conditions for the man who was charged with offences linked to the terrorist murder of my constituent prison officer David Black.
I was shocked to learn through media reports that the accused in this case has not been seen by the police since November. It is absolutely disgraceful that this man was allowed to disappear while on bail. Indeed, as we previously heard, this is a man who already made headlines when the authorities previously allowed him to attend a spa break in Fermanagh.
The facts of the case have been rehearsed. It emerged that, having failed to sign in with police on 18 November, it was not until 23 December when police called at his bail address that they found the flat had been cleared out, and, in fact, evidence suggested he had been gone a few weeks by that stage. The accused was supposed to check in at a police station five times a week, yet he had not been seen by police in seven weeks.
Over time, judges cut the number of days per week the accused had to sign in with the police from seven to five and ordered that his electronic tag be removed. It goes without saying that he must be returned to custody immediately. Unfortunately, those responsible for this inexcusable situation have demonstrated a total lack of respect towards the family of the late David Black.
I am regularly in contact with the Black family, and I know they feel, as Kyle Black said publicly:
"Let down, hurt and betrayed by the justice system."
My thoughts are with the Black family, who have been put into the public eye once again due to the failings of the judicial system, the very system in which David served so faithfully.
The appalling failings in this case have understandably caused much anger across mid-Ulster, an area that has suffered more than most at the hands of terrorism. Faith in the justice system has been damaged, particularly amongst victims.
Unfortunately, this case is not the only example of a man charged in connection with a terrorist murder being allowed to breach his bail conditions. Christopher Robinson, the man charged with the murder of prison officer Adrian Ismay, was granted bail in May 2016 but was subsequently rearrested a number of times for allegedly failing to comply with terms set by the court.
Again, that should not have been allowed to happen. Our thoughts must also be with the Ismay family because of the hurt that has been caused to them by those failures.
To allow this type of situation to occur once could be seen as being careless. For it to happen twice in the same year is clear evidence of a culture that needs to change and of a policy that needs to change. Bail is seemingly too easily given out and not stringently enough managed. There does not seem to be any understanding of the sensitivities of cases involving murder and terrorism. There needs to be a strong deterrent to breaching bail conditions. The public should not be put in danger as a result of the lax supervision of suspects. The rights of the accused appear to take precedence over the rights of the families of the victims in these cases. Of course, that causes people to question just whose side the justice system is on.
There is an argument that suspects have an entitlement to bail due to the length of time that they spend on remand. However, the answer to that must be to speed up the process of administering justice and not to grant bail in such cases. It is my firm belief that terrorist suspects should remain in custody for as long as is necessary to allow judicial proceedings to be completed.
I find myself astounded at the events that have been referred to today. Terrorist suspects and anyone who is involved in a murder case should not be granted bail unless there are exceptional circumstances. Recent events have had a very negative effect on trust and confidence in both the police and the criminal justice system. The system is not working and needs to be changed. I refer to today's 'News Letter' article about bail policy concern, in which the Chief Constable, in reference to the dissident threat —
Mrs Overend: Members will be able to read that for themselves. I join my colleagues in calling for the Justice Minister to reflect on the failings that have clearly been identified and to review policy urgently —
Mr Frew: I support the motion on what is a very serious matter and one of concern out there for the public. It is one of those really burning issues in the community at present. People want to know why things have gone wrong and are broken.
I have been the Chairperson of the Committee for Justice since the election. I must say that I have learnt a lot in that time. Having previously been on the Committee, I feel that I have learnt more as Chair and from meeting more people in one-to-one situations. I have the utmost respect for the Justice Minister in that time, Claire Sugden, and also for the Lord Chief Justice, the judiciary, and all its organisations and functions. However, we are public representatives. We speak on behalf of the public. At present, this is a massive issue in our communities. There is absolutely no doubt about that.
I hear what Members have said. I do not believe that our debating the issue will damage in any way the criminal justice system or confidence in policing. It would do an injustice to those bodies if we did not debate a matter that is very topical out there. We have to try to fix this. As politicians, we surely have a role to play in trying to fix the system. It is not good enough to say that we should not talk about it because those people are independent of political interference. That is correct. It something that I will uphold as long as I am a politician, but we also set law in the House and ask the judiciary to implement that law. It is only right that we look at policies around bail. It is quite satisfactory that we do that. I am sure that the Lord Chief Justice would welcome that and any other investigation, inquiries or prospective laws that we bring to the House. That is our function.
I must say that it really annoys me when republicans and nationalists talk with forked tongue about moving on a journey, making it right and having maximum confidence in the police. They say all those good things to entice unionists into thinking that a united Ireland would be some sort of utopia — a great place in which to live — when we all realise that it would not.
Then, the very next day, they will stand side by side with hardliners with placards outside Knock HQ demanding the release of a prisoner. People who have been charged need to be very carefully managed. It is true to say that people are concerned about the low level of surety required for bail and the length of time taken for the PSNI to realise that someone has absconded.
The question I put to Sinn Féin is this: why have you been quiet on this issue? What if Mr McLaughlin has disappeared — "disappeared", does that not concern Sinn Féin? We have had a past history of disappearance. I am putting that out there.
Mr Douglas: Does the Member agree with me that the issues debated today and yesterday are major issues that are going to be left to the side? There is an onus on all the MLAs who will be coming back here to sit down, crack a few heads and get this resolved. We are going into a black hole and I doubt whether we will ever come back again to the Assembly.
Mr Frew: I agree with my colleague Sammy Douglas on that point. We are not coming back here any time soon. We have seen a massive sea change in the attitude and demeanour of Sinn Féin Members even in the last couple of weeks, even in the corridors and even in the canteen. We have seen it. We are not coming back here any time soon. Do you know something? I do not want to come back to a place where one party can walk away and hold the institutions of this country to ransom. We are not coming back to that. Let me tell you that now.
What happens when a terrorist absconds? They go on the run. Is it not sexy for a terrorist to be on the run? Throughout the years, have we not seen how folklore has developed when terrorists go on the run? I do not see anything sexy about lying in a cattle shed on a concrete slab or in the attic of a sympathiser's house. To me, that is not at all sexy; but it is how these people think. Then, in a couple of years' time, we will realise that they are in Colombia, America or Cork, and then they will be lauded in a public meeting in west Belfast or Dublin, and people will cheer and fists will be raised in pumps. I do not want to live in that sort of society.
Mr Frew: That is not the sort of society I want my children to live in. I ask Sinn Féin and the republican movement to wise up.
Mr E McCann: Mr Frew has just referred to people campaigning with placards demanding the release of this one and that one. He characterised it as standing side by side with extremists. It is not standing side by side with extremists to call for the release of anybody — certainly not.
I hereby repeat my call for the release of Tony Taylor. Tony Taylor is a republican from Derry who was released under the Good Friday Agreement but was arrested again early last year. He is presently in Maghaberry prison. He was arrested because the then Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, signed a document saying that she believed that he was involved in activities which made it proper and acceptable to send him back to prison. When asked what these activities were — "I am not telling you."; "Who gave you to believe that he was involved in these activities?"; "The security services"; "Did they give you the information?"; "Yes, they did"; "Will you tell us?"; "No, we will not tell you".
What am I to say — what is anybody to say — to Lorraine Taylor, Tony Taylor's wife? She does not know how long he is going to be in as it is open-ended. Will it be a year, two years or three years? His wife and family have not been told why.
Mr Speaker, this cannot be right. It cannot be right that citizens are detained by the state without them, or anyone else, being given a reason why. Due process has to mean something. Let us look back to the occasion in our recent history, in the last half-century, when the denial of liberty to citizens without charge or trial resulted in a booster shot to violence in Northern Ireland such as we have had from no other particular incident.
I refer, of course, to internment in 1971. Occasionally, here and outside, we refer to the major atrocities that have taken place. I include, just for the sake of the record and in case anybody suggests I would think otherwise, Enniskillen, Teebane and the dreadful, unjustified and unjustifiable atrocity in Birmingham in December 1974, when innocent people were blown to bits. When we talk about atrocities visited on citizens, I am not being exclusive about it; I am saying that our horror at such things, our empathy with the grief of those left behind, must not spill over into saying that any measure is acceptable to deal with this sort of thing and stop it. Actually, it does not stop this sort of thing.
The main conclusion that we could draw from the introduction of internment without trial all those years ago is that it did not stop any deaths or terrorism, however you define it. On the contrary, it gave a boost to it. Think of the atrocities that I mentioned before. What I have in mind is Ballymurphy, which happened on 10 and 11 August 1971, in the immediate aftermath of internment. Think of Bloody Sunday. The Bloody Sunday march was a march against internment and for due process. People had placards saying, "We want somebody to be charged and tried before being put in jail. We cannot have it on the basis of a Government in Stormont, Westminster or anywhere else saying, 'We think this is a dangerous person and they should be put into prison'."
I am struck by the fact that none of those who have spoken in favour of this motion have even admitted that this might be a difficulty. When you say that those responsible, if they are caught, should not be given bail, how do you know that those are the people responsible if they have not been taken to court and the evidence produced against them? I am sorry that nobody supporting the motion has admitted that there is a grave difficulty involved, not from a left-wing or republican point of view, but simply from that of ordinary, common or garden justice. There is a problem here. We can argue about what the solution to the problem is, but it simply was not acknowledged. That says something ominous about the attitudes we have towards people —
Mr Carroll: The Member is concerned that the tone of the debate suggests that the justice system is balanced against one community. Does he agree that this ignores the reality that stop-and-search happens predominantly in what are perceived to be nationalist communities, particularly in north and west Belfast?
Mr E McCann: That certainly is the perception, and of course —
Mr E McCann: Thank you very much. When there is such a perception, and it is based on material reality, that is a real problem for law and order in any society.
Yesterday, we voted for the motion in relation to the attempted killing on the Crumlin Road. We did that because we are against the strategy of "armed struggle", as republicans call it. We are not against it since the Good Friday Agreement; we say that it was always wrong and futile and was never going to deliver anything commensurate with the investment of pain — pain inflicted as well as endured. It was never going to deliver a return commensurate with that. We were against it from day one, and we are still against it. The remarks that I make today in standing up for civil liberties and —
Mr E McCann: — bail conditions do not associate me with armed struggle or anything else, but with the basic principles of justice.
Mr Speaker: Before Mr Jim Allister speaks, I have to inform him that he has four minutes.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)
Mr Allister: There patently is a systemic problem in the administration of bail, and I think that there are proper criticisms to be made arising from the case that most recently evidenced that problem, the McLaughlin case. However, we have to recognise where the source of this problem is. The source is the European Convention on Human Rights. Under article 5, the European convention creates a presumption in favour of bail. The prosecution has then to displace that presumption by proving that one of five matters is a good reason to deny bail — that is, that the accused may abscond, reoffend, interfere with witnesses etc. It is that tilting of the balance in favour of the person accused and against the police that has created the situation that has evolved. Our judges have to work with that.
I have a criticism of our judges. Judges in Northern Ireland are more timid and more generous in their attitude to the European Convention and, therefore, more generous in their granting of bail, I perceive, when contrasted with those elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The Justice Minister could do a useful piece of work by having a study conducted to compare and contrast the attitude to bail, which operates under the same European Convention, in Northern Ireland as opposed to GB. The journalist Ben Lowry has done some good, insightful work on this that indicates that there is a problem. The Justice Minister could have a good piece of work done on that.
We have to go to the source to recognise that, not for the first time, the European Convention on Human Rights has got its balance wrong. If the United Kingdom Government reviewed the Human Rights Act, that would be one fruitful area in which they could and should review its operation.
Mr Allister: I am told that I have no extra time, so, not on this occasion. Sorry about that.
Yes, we need to scrutinise carefully what our judges are doing, as I think that they are too generous in their interpretation. We also have to ensure that when bail is granted it is properly policed. One of the most scandalous things about the subject case is the indifferent attitude to the policing of that bail and how that person was able to be out of the jurisdiction, we presume, for a month before anyone realised. What was the point in asking him to sign, five days a week, if no one was following up on the fact that he had not signed? That is a scandalous dereliction of duty.
The other contributor to too much free bail —
Mr Allister: — is the delays in criminal trials, which accentuate the burden on the judiciary to give bail.
Ms Sugden (The Minister of Justice): I welcome today's motion and debate. I thank the Ulster Unionist Party for bringing it to the House. Generally, I understand, appreciate and, certainly, sympathise with the ethos of the debate, but there are a number of aspects that make it difficult for me to support it. That said, coming from the premise of the victims, which is something that I have always championed as Justice Minister, I am sympathetic to the motion.
The motion is concerned with bail issues, which is an important aspect of the justice system, but it is also important that the Assembly send crystal-clear messages to our justice family and to the community that it serves. Whilst this might seem out of context, Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask you to allow me to reiterate some of the points that I made yesterday. Spraying a garage forecourt with automatic fire is sickening; shooting at young officers in a public place is nothing short of repulsive; putting the public at risk, and a community in fear, is not in the furtherance of a political cause — it is an act of wanton aggression.
I want to send two very clear messages to our justice colleagues and to our community. To our justice colleagues, I say this: we support you in your work; we welcome what you do to keep us safe, and we are grateful and indebted. To our police officers who are keeping people safe, to our prison officers who are working hard to rehabilitate offenders, and to our probation officers, court staff and everyone in the justice sector I say this: thank you. The Assembly, I hope, wants you to know that you have our support. To the officer injured on Sunday night, to his colleague who was with him, to the first responders and to the officers investigating this crime, again, we send our heartfelt best wishes and, indeed, thanks for the work that you do to protect our community from harm.
Mr Douglas: Minister, you alluded to north Belfast. Have you looked at the statements by the Chief Constable, who has questioned the linkages that may be undermining the whole criminal justice system in situations like that?
Also, I want to pay tribute to you. I think that you have been a great Minister. You have had all this dumped on your young shoulders, and I think that you have done an excellent job. Thank you very much.
Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his intervention and his kind wishes; he is going to have me welling up.
I have very much acknowledged what the Chief Constable has said about the events that happened in north Belfast on Sunday. I have never shied away from the fact that the criminal justice system needs to be looked at. We need to revaluate what we need to do to better serve the public in Northern Ireland. I will get on to some of the areas that I, as Justice Minister, was keen to try to progress, albeit I have been limited in the time that I have, but we can see what happens in the next mandate. Certainly, I appreciate the Member's comments.
I just want to tie up my comments about Sunday. I thank the community as well for the support that it expressed for the officer, his family and his colleagues. We need to send out a united message in the Assembly and across Northern Ireland that we reject those who want to take us back to the past. They need to realise that it is over. It is over, and no one wants the activity that they are trying to bring forward. I am sickened not only by the injuries inflicted on the officer but by what might have happened in a public place, with citizens going about their business, in a garage, on a main road. It is beyond any rational explanation. There is no possible logical narrative that justifies what happened on Sunday night.
I will return to the detail of the motion because it raises some important issues that absolutely resonate with the current situation and what has happened in the past couple of days, which is why I saw fit to relay my concerns about that. The motion has been tabled following the disappearance of an individual who was on bail and was charged with a serious offence. The public is concerned about the case, and rightly so. The Assembly is concerned and so am I as Justice Minister. I have therefore written to the Lord Chief Justice, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Chief Constable about the issue.
As I said, we are right to be concerned. This case is connected to the murder of prison officer David Black, a public servant murdered in the line of duty. His family, friends and community have lost their loved one; the Prison Service has lost a colleague. I welcome the fact that today's debate has given us an opportunity to extend again our heartfelt sympathies to the family of David Black not only for their loss but for the ongoing hurt that they feel and, indeed, for the hurt that they will feel because we are debating this and talking about their loved one today.
The only person charged in connection with David Black's dreadful murder can now not be found. He was due to be tried in accordance with his rights, but, as of today, the justice system cannot produce him for trial. There are reviews under way. The PSNI and the Police Ombudsman are looking into the issues, and I welcome that because that is, indeed, necessary.
There will, I am sure, be lessons to be learned — I almost hate using that phrase because I think that we need more than that. There are broader issues for the justice system to reflect on, too. It is entirely right to ask whether it is focusing on delivering for victims and, indeed, defendants, communities and citizens. It is legitimate to reflect on whether it has the right structures and priorities and a meaningful connection with the people whom it serves, and I was, indeed, giving that much thought.
I had already announced a review of the courts, which I referred to as Courts 2020. I had made progress on areas of responsibility under the Executive's Fresh Start action plan, and I had made tackling domestic violence and abuse my top priority. This motion focuses on bail, however, and it is my strong view that improvement to the operation of the bail system cannot be made without wider systemic improvements to the criminal justice system as a whole. That is why my Department's work under the speeding up justice programme, which touches on bail-related issues, is so vital.
Speeding up justice is delivered alongside justice partners. It incorporates legislative reform, as well as operational improvements consisting of administrative and procedural reforms. Those reforms are crucial, and the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 is integral to delivering them across a number of priority areas to help speed up justice. We are now, thankfully, finalising plans to implement those major provisions.
Changes initiated by the introduction of sections 88 and 93 of the Act, which deal with early guilty pleas and PPS summons respectively, have already come into operation and have been effective since 1 April 2016. The PPS summons changes, in particular, will help to streamline procedures and reduce the time taken to issue and serve summonses, contributing to the overall measure to speed up justice.
Work is also ongoing to finalise regulations to enable the provisions on statutory case management, with implementation scheduled to be in place by September 2017. The regulations will impose duties on the prosecution, the defence and the court in the management of criminal cases with a view to ensuring that cases are progressed in the most effective way possible, whilst maintaining a focus on the paramount need to secure justice. Subsequent regulations will impose a general duty on anyone involved in criminal proceedings to reach a just outcome as swiftly as possible. This approach couples a statutory change in working practice with a requirement to work towards speedy and just outcomes. I believe that this will have a positive impact on the whole justice system including bail, which can be affected by case delays.
In my programme since becoming Justice Minister, I had a focus on people: on women and on young people in the justice system; on the harm and vulnerabilities that we see in the justice system, whether that be offenders, victims, or indeed justice practitioners; on mental health issues; on older people and their fear of crime; and on those who live in our rural communities. This has been my focus, and I had planned to speak in more detail about these issues today. I had started to think about the performance of the overall system in the context of today’s citizens’ expectations. I had started to think about confidence and about harnessing the invaluable efforts that are made by all those who work so hard in law enforcement and in the justice system every day. I wanted to make a deeper connection with the problems faced by citizens through the Programme for Government, and I wanted to start a process whereby outcomes and confidence would be central and valued above processes, practices and structures through my problem-solving justice initiatives, but these are issues, regrettably, for another day.
I would also like to say something for the record about the bail regime and it is important to outline how it currently works. It is, indeed, as Mr Allister described it. The operation of the bail framework is underpinned primarily by article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights — the right to liberty and security. Article 5 requires that a person charged with an offence must be released pending trial unless there are relevant and sufficient reasons to justify continued detention. The starting point for all pretrial remand decisions is the presumption of innocence. This is a fundamental tenet of and protection in the law and it is consistent with the principle of the right to a fair trial.
Bail can only be refused if one or more of five broad conditions have been met. I am quite happy to outline these conditions. They include the risk that the accused will fail to appear for trial if they are released on bail; that the accused will interfere with the course of justice while on bail; that they will commit further offences while on bail; that they would be at risk of harm against which they would be inadequately protected if released on bail; or that they pose a risk to the preservation of public order if the accused is released on bail. Mr Allister is entirely right that one of those five conditions has to be satisfied in order to refuse bail — that would be at the time of their first being granted bail or not. The grounds for refusal do not include that the accused has been charged with a serious offence, although, naturally, the seriousness of the offence may be a factor in determining whether one of the five grounds for refusing bail exists.
Mr Allister: Is one of the concerns in the implementation of that regime that it appears, as time goes on and someone is longer in custody, that the courts become easier satisfied on the granting of bail? They may have refused it on the basis that the person might interfere with witnesses or not turn up, and then suddenly, a year down the line, they release that very person whom, hitherto, they had made those findings against because they had been longer in custody. Is it not a concern that it seems to dilute the requirements as time goes on?
Ms Sugden: I thank the Member for his intervention. I am concerned that the longer people are in custody, the more difficult it is to satisfy certain conditions. Indeed, there are issues around remand, which Mr McCann alluded to. Essentially, we need to speed up justice, but we also have to look at how bail conditions are applied. I am quite happy to take up Mr Allister's suggestion of doing a comparative model to see whether there are differences between what is happening in Northern Ireland and what is happening in GB.
I have been clear that it is not my role as Justice Minister to comment on the availability or conditions of bail in the specific case that has prompted this debate. These are, essentially, matters for the courts. Every application for bail is unique and depends on the relevant factors relating to the individual circumstances of the offence and of the accused.
That is why it is right that it is for the independent and impartial judiciary to make decisions on the granting of bail.
I do, however, recognise that there is a perception that bail may be more readily available in Northern Ireland than in other jurisdictions in the United Kingdom, which is why I am quite happy to take forward Mr Allister's suggestion on doing a comparative model so that we can be fully informed should this issue be raised in the next Assembly. The panel recommended a review to determine the facts and, if required, bring forward measures to improve the situation. As I said to the Assembly before, that review is under way. It will establish facts about bail decisions in Northern Ireland. It is an important review. I do not want to speculate on or pre-empt its outcome, but I hope we will find a conclusion to it in the coming weeks. It is vital that Northern Ireland has an effective framework for bail that appropriately balances the needs of defendants, victims and the wider public. I have asked my officials to do all they can to complete this work as soon as possible, as I said, in the coming weeks. Where concerns or areas for improvement are identified, a second phase of work will be taken forward to address them.
As I said, I welcome today's debate on the substantive issues raised in the motion, but I also recognise and welcome that the Assembly has been concerned with other matters too. We are concerned about our justice colleagues and the community they serve. That is the vital message we should send out. When the next Assembly resumes — hopefully, that will be sooner rather than later — I encourage all Members to focus on the issues that matter to people on the ground. This motion has captured the interest of the public because it concerns their safety and the safety of their loved ones. I think that is what we should be putting our focus on today, so it has been my pleasure to respond to the debate.
Mr Beggs: There is widespread concern about our criminal justice system in Northern Ireland, the bail conditions and some of the sentences that have been given to those who have been involved in violent and terrorist activity. It is important that everybody appreciates that because, if we are to retain public confidence in our justice system, they must have a feeling that it is fair, proportionate and doing everything reasonable to protect them. Whether it is violent dissident republicans or the south-east Antrim UDA, which is involved in a feud within my constituency, we need the same standards of justice to be delivered to everybody. We are not asking it to be picked out for one group or another, but the public need to be protected.
The Fresh Start Agreement set up a three-person panel to report on the disbandment of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. That panel produced a report dated May 2016, some seven months ago. There are two relevant paragraphs within it I want to highlight, as they have not been mentioned to date. Paragraph 4.19 states:
"the Department of Justice, the Courts Service and the Public Prosecution Service should implement the case management improvements throughout Northern Ireland, particularly in respect of those offences linked to terrorism or organised crime groups (Recommendation A12)."
That is an issue that has been mentioned by my colleague Sandra Overend and by Lord Morrow, Trevor Lunn and even the Minister, but what has been the progress on it?
There is another paragraph relevant to bail conditions. Paragraph 4.52 advises:
"The UK Government, the Executive and law enforcement agencies, working with their partners in Ireland, should ensure that tackling organised criminal activity is an integral part of their efforts to deal with Northern Ireland related terrorism".
We need to ensure we are working consistently.
I acknowledge that some of the issues have been highlighted, but it appears we are going forward very, very slowly. I know the wheels of justice can be slow, but the wheels of the review of justice seem to be even slower. Because of that and my disappointment at the lack of progress, I put down a number of Assembly questions for written answer. I have to say that the answers, which came in just this month, were even more disappointing. When I asked the Minister what meetings have been held in connection with when to offer bail or give guidance, she advised:
"I have not had meetings about offering bail or guidance for setting bail conditions in specific cases."
I was not asking about specific cases; I was just asking for general conditions. We were also advised:
"A workshop is arranged for 15 February 2017."
Remember, however, that the report came out in May 2016. We are moving far too slowly.
I also asked a question about differences in bail conditions, which is another issue that Members highlighted in the debate. The Minister's response states:
"Bail law in Northern Ireland is a mix of common law and statute, whilst other jurisdictions have in place consolidated bail legislation."
Northern Ireland therefore lacks a single bail Act. The Minister's response also states:
"England and Wales however, have a reverse presumption, that is that bail will ordinarily not be granted in some where a defendant has been charged with an offence of murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, rape or a serious sexual offence, if he or she has a previous conviction for the same offence; or where a defendant has been charged with an indictable offence".
We all seem to be operating under the European Court. However, the legislation deemed to be satisfying it in England and Wales deals severely with those involved in violence in order to try to protect the public — not so in Northern Ireland. We need that to change.
I turn now to the comments of Members who addressed today's debate. I thank Doug Beattie for tabling the motion. He pointed out that terrorism continues and that we need to be consistent in our message that we are against it. He highlighted the case of David Black, which was very poignant, given the violent attack on police officers in north Belfast just this week. We need to think about how we deal with those who, hopefully, will be charged with that murder and brought to court through the criminal justice system. Will we treat that case with the seriousness that it deserves? I agree with the Member that we need to question why bail is given in such situations. Where bail is given, there is a clear need for very strict bail conditions and for them to be rigorously implemented.
Doug Beattie contrasted the offer of bail conditions to someone accused of the murder of prison officer David Black with not allowing a 75-year-old veteran to vary his bail conditions to go on holiday. You would not think that there was a high risk of a 75-year-old veteran absconding to another jurisdiction. The public are concerned at the inconsistency in our criminal justice system, and a single bail Act might help the situation.
In connection with the same case, a major review of the role of the police was needed. I welcome the fact that it has happened, and we will wish to hear a more definite outcome, to ensure that, when someone breaches his bail conditions on 18 November, it will not take until 23 December for that to be spotted. If someone is required to sign in at a police station and fails to do so, on that same day, it should be reported as a breach of a bail condition.
Keith Buchanan highlighted the case of someone charged in connection with the murder of Adrian Ismay. He breached his bail conditions five times before bail was revoked.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member for giving way. I am sure that everybody will agree that the signatories to the 1998 agreement brought forward an amazingly inclusive political process, and, 19 years on, the attempted murder of police officers this week proves that there are those who will never accept inclusion and choose to exclude themselves. I hope that the Member will agree that that proves that the public deserve maximum protection. They demand actions, not words, that ensure that we give primacy to the human right to life, above those who try to deny it. If that means tightening up bail, so be it. It was the choice of those who committed the criminal acts.
Mr Beggs: I thank the Member for his intervention, which moves me on nicely to the next contributor to the debate, Declan Kearney. He said that you could not tighten up bail conditions because of the Human Rights Act. Let us remember that human rights are balanced: rights and responsibilities. We must protect the rights of the ordinary citizens who will be exposed to risks from the release of those accused of being involved in terrorist activities, particularly if they are released on very flimsy bail conditions that they ignore.
Alex Attwood visited the family of prison officer Black and shared his sympathy with them. He highlighted the fact that damage is being done to the criminal justice system but pointed out that it has to be balanced.
Trevor Lunn indicated his support for the motion, for which I thank him. He also highlighted the excessively long time that it is taking to bring this case to court, which is a valid concern. Our Court Service and our justice system must get that sorted out, because it may have contributed to this case. As I said, this was highlighted in May last year, and what has happened? Very little, it would appear. We need to move forward and make sure that we do not get into a situation where those accused of serious offences are granted bail.
Lord Morrow highlighted the unusually long time taken before cases come forward, which, again, is very valid.