In light of the public health situation, Parliament Buildings is closed to the public.

No public tours, events or visitor activities will take place, until further notice. 

Assembly business continues, check the business diary for information on Plenary and Committee meetings.

Official Report: Tuesday 03 November 2020


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

Executive Committee Business

Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill: First Stage

Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice): I beg to introduce the Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill, which is a Bill to amend the law relating to committal for trial.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Ministerial Statement

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister for Communities that she wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in light of social distancing being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members still have to make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called, but they can do that by rising in their place, as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions.

Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister for Communities): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, and thank you for the opportunity to make this statement to the Assembly, in which I intend to outline my plans to address some of the most significant challenges facing our housing system. These are challenges that I will not shy away from, and I am asking today for Members' support in progressing this ambitious programme of work. Everything that I do will be focused on ensuring equality, addressing the highest need and fundamental transformation.

Members will know that the number of households in housing stress means the number of households on the social housing waiting list with an acute need for a home. At the end of 2002-03, the number of such households was 13,042. At September 2020, the number was 29,539. Successive Executives have invested in increased social housing supply, and I commend them for that. However, in that 18-year period, housing stress increased by 17,000. The Executive have invested £2·3 billion to build 30,000 new social houses and, in the last seven years, we have, on average, started the construction of nearly 1,550 new social homes each year. However, housing stress has risen by an average of 1,000 in each of those years, and we see the human face of that every day in our constituency offices.

Our population is changing. The number of households is projected to increase as we are living longer. The broader housing market has also changed dramatically over the past few decades. A generation whose parents are homeowners or who live in social housing is now renting privately. There are far more families with children living in the private rented sector than in social housing, with all the insecurity of tenure and the high cost that comes with that. The demographic and economic forces that are pushing increasing numbers of households into housing stress are too great to be countered by our current efforts to increase supply. We must do more social housing development, but upscaling current action will not be enough, and we have to face that. We need to do more, but we also need change. We need to secure the future of the social houses that we have. We need to increase the rate at which we add to them. We need to build and allocate more social homes to meet growing need. We need housing sectors beyond social housing to provide affordable and suitable homes. That was reflected in New Decade, New Approach (NDNA), which, amongst a range of vital housing priorities, committed to the inclusion of a housing outcome in the next Programme for Government. That was a recognition that a good home is the foundation of social, physical and mental well-being and is central to addressing our most pressing societal challenges, including poverty and inequality.

Today, I wish to specify how I plan to deliver against those challenges in the current mandate. This will include proposals for legislative and structural change. My ambition in delivering that programme of work is, ultimately, to ensure that every household has access to a good-quality, affordable and sustainable home that is appropriate to its needs. First, I will revitalise the Housing Executive. The huge investment challenge facing the Housing Executive is a long-standing issue that has previously been communicated to the Assembly. New Decade, New Approach committed the Executive to tackling that challenge. I have, therefore, recently written a letter to my Executive colleagues setting out my plans, and I may now share those with the Assembly.

Many of you will be aware of the current set-up of the Housing Executive. It comprises two areas: the landlord piece and the overarching regional housing authority. The housing authority side is responsible for vital and sensitive housing functions such as assessment of need, the management of the common waiting list and the geographical distribution of new social build. The landlord side is focused on 85,000 homes. A 2018 analysis found that the landlord side needed to invest around £7·1 billion in those 85,000 homes over the next 30 years if they are to remain decent homes for households and families. Of that investment, £3 billion is required over the next 11 years, but the Housing Executive can only afford about half of that requirement. The Executive could fund this by allocating about £100 million from capital DEL each year to the landlord maintenance requirement, but where should we take that from? Should we take it from hospitals or schools, or from all the money that my Department currently invests in building social homes? That would be the choice were the Executive to fund the Housing Executive’s investment requirement. Our choice would be to lose either 40,000 of our old social homes or the next 11 years of new social development. Either option would propel housing stress faster and higher. Neither option is acceptable to me or, without doubt, to the Assembly. We are seeking an alternative that will enable the Housing Executive, as a landlord, to borrow. While the Housing Executive remains classified as a quasi-public corporation, as a landlord it cannot borrow.

If we can change that classification, the Housing Executive as a landlord will secure the freedom to borrow and have the ability to invest in its own homes.

I plan to change the classification of the Housing Executive landlord to a mutual or cooperative designation so that it may borrow and secure a sustainable future for all of its 85,000 homes and provide security for current tenants and future generations. To change the classification of the Housing Executive landlord in the manner that I propose will mean its separation from the regional part of the Housing Executive. The Housing Executive regional authority will remain accountable to a publicly appointed board and will continue to remain under the oversight of an Executive Minister, meeting objective housing need in an equality and human rights context.

The current rental structure does not work. An important part of these plans therefore will be a comprehensive rental review, leading to financial sustainability, in line with the commitments agreed in New Decade, New Approach. Social rents must be affordable to tenants, and they will be. The Housing Executive currently has the lowest social rents in these islands. I will ensure that they remain the lowest.

An important contribution to my plans for revitalisation may also be made by exempting the Housing Executive from corporation tax liabilities and by finding better options to remove its historical debts. My officials are actively exploring those issues with colleagues in the Department of Finance and the British Government, as those were commitments made in New Decade, New Approach.

More work needs to be done on the proposal briefly outlined here, and two years have passed since the most recent analysis of the scale of the investment challenge. The current situation is most certainly worse, and the scale of the investment needed is even greater. The new investment requirements have materialised since 2018, as a consequence of the Grenfell Tower disaster and the ambition to reach a position of carbon neutralisation in our homes by 2050.

I have set out to my Executive colleagues that I will focus consideration on options that promise to retain what is valuable about our Housing Executive model. I am interested in options that will see part of the Housing Executive revitalised as a cooperative, or as a mutual. We can learn from models of best practice. We can avoid the pitfalls that other models have experienced. Ultimately, we can build a model that is effective and that meets the needs of our tenants. I have asked officials to commence the work, and I anticipate that I will return to the Executive before the end of 2021-22.

The revitalisation of the Housing Executive is also about the other ways in which we need to protect social housing stock and about the imperative on the Department to reduce housing stress. Although the Department has invested well over £100 million of capital in building about 1,800 new social homes, we have sold, on average, 483 social homes under the right-to-buy scheme. We have sold those social homes at a discount of up to £24,000: a discount that the public have funded. Clearly, we have one policy that is in direct conflict with another. I will make sure that we have a suite of options to secure community stability and enable everyone to buy a home if they so wish. That must not reduce the social housing supply that we are striving to increase, however.

In June of this year, the Assembly passed legislation that will end the house sales scheme for housing associations in August 2022. At that time, I committed to bringing forward a consultation on the future of the Housing Executive's sales scheme. I will do that this month, and I aim to make changes before the end of this electoral mandate. That will address the need to protect social housing stock and deal with the inequality in social housing.

We have never achieved more than 2,200 social new-build starts in one year. I want to change that as soon as possible. I have already told the Assembly that the targets for social housing are far too low. I am looking at assigning significant budget and policy changes to increase the capacity of the social housing development programme. I need to ensure that areas such as north and west Belfast and Derry city, and all other areas with acute housing need, are prioritised. I therefore intend to reintroduce ring-fencing.

We need mechanisms that mean that houses are built where they are needed. I have asked the Housing Executive to identify those mechanisms, and I am confident that it will provide them.


10.45 am

I am also working with housing associations and have been encouraging them to identify land that is available for social housing. I am conducting, on behalf of our Executive, an exercise to identify surplus public land that can be used for social housing. My officials and Housing Executive officials have been engaging with a range of public bodies to explore the delivery of increased social housing. Some of the initiatives can be implemented in the immediate to short term; others are more strategic measures to be explored in the longer term.

The revitalisation of the Housing Executive is also about how it allocates social housing. Ensuring an effective and fair social housing allocations system is fundamental to easing housing stress and making sure that allocations to social housing are based on objective need. That is why I have been actively considering how I wish to progress the outcomes of the 2017 consultation, 'A Fundamental Review of Social Housing Allocations'. I have committed to Executive colleagues that, later this autumn, I will publish a report of that consultation and an action plan for implementing changes.

Two of the 20 proposals need more work. The first is regarding intimidation points. I do not intend to proceed with the proposal to remove intimidation points. People in danger in their own home need prioritisation under the selection scheme. The manner of that prioritisation needs to be tightly focused on such people, including victims of domestic violence. Consistent with that, the mechanisms for such prioritisation need to prevent abuse and provide robust verification. They need to ensure that the manner in which the scheme responds to cases of intimidation does not distort the list. Officials are investigating options for an alternative proposal, including consideration of a statutory body to independently manage the verification process. I will be able to update the Assembly further on that in due course. The second proposal that I will not proceed with as per the consultation is the removal of interim or temporary accommodation points. I believe that people who find themselves in any form of temporary accommodation should be awarded points to recognise the additional stress associated with being insecurely housed in whatever form that takes, whether in hostel accommodation or sofa surfing with friends or family. That would involve extending interim points to a wider range of people who are homeless. The new proposal will require further analysis, and, again, I will update the House on that in due course.

As the plan will make clear, I will implement the other 18 of the 20 changes proposed in the 2017 consultation. The changes will make our selection scheme fairer and better at responding to objective need. We will also consider what support before and after allocation can facilitate a successful and sustainable tenancy.

There are other areas of challenge. I know that there are long-standing issues with adaptations. We have affected some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Issues with procurement have led to some of the problems that have been experienced. The Housing Executive's pilot scheme in its southern region has shown that it is possible to reduce the time taken for that work by an average of 43 weeks. I will ensure that the Housing Executive continues to prioritise that work.

I will revitalise our social housing. I will make it work better, and I will make sure that there is a lot more of it.

I also want to talk about another group of people who struggle with their housing: our private renters. The private rented sector is now similar in size to our social sector. It houses an increasingly diverse range of households, including a growing number of households with children. There are twice as many families with children in private rentals than in social housing. They can be asked to leave within four weeks. Just imagine the stress if that happened to you. The private rented sector was one of our most urgent areas of intervention as the coronavirus crisis developed. An emergency Bill was drafted from a blank piece of paper and passed by the Assembly in less than five weeks. That was a remarkable achievement, and I thank you all for your help. It has ensured that around 140,000 private-rented households will not have to leave their home during the crisis. For me, the Bill focused our attention on the tens of thousands of families and hundreds of thousands of people who live in private rentals and highlighted just how vulnerable they are. For some, it is a suitable option, but, for many others, it is their only choice. We have not built enough social housing, and therefore a generation has been excluded from having a secure home. I will provide a suite of options to help people get a family home and secure community stability.

I will develop new ways to help people into homeownership if that is their choice. We have supported shared ownership schemes such as the Co-ownership, which has helped more than 30,000 families into homeownership. The Co-ownership scheme is currently helping over 1,000 people a year to buy their first home, whether that be a new build or an existing home, but we need to deliver more.

As well as increasing the supply of social housing, I will expand the rental options available by introducing intermediate rent here. That will provide an additional supply of good, well-managed and maintained homes that are affordable for lower-income people and families. Intermediate rent homes can be a stepping stone for some into low-cost homeownership or can provide a better, more affordable rental solution for others. My officials are working closely with the sector and exploring options to develop a type of intermediate rent that works here.

I will ensure that there is no need to choose between social housing investment and affordable intermediate housing by maximising the potential of newer funding streams, such as financial transactions capital (FTC) loan funding, to deliver on the additional housing options.

I will develop a fundamental housing supply strategy. The strategy will have mixed tenure at its heart, ensuring stable, secure communities for everyone. I will work with Executive colleagues and councils through the local development plans.

About 40% of housing benefit is paid to private landlords. More than half of private tenants get housing benefit. It is right that we make sure that, when hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money is paid to private landlords, it is not paying for low-quality, overpriced housing.

I will bring forward legislation to the Assembly that will improve the safety, security and quality of the private rented sector. Four weeks is too short a time for anyone to be asked to leave their home, find a suitable new house that they can afford, maybe find a new school and childcare for their kids and pack up their belongings. It is just not enough. My Department previously consulted on extending notice to quit to eight weeks. That would be a start, but my view is that it should be a lot longer, more like six months. I will see what is possible, given the limits of our legislation, and bring proposals to the Assembly.

Rented homes should have safe electrics, and tenants should be safe from the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning. This is all fundamental stuff, and I am sure that no Member of the Assembly will disagree with any of it. Part of my work will be to consider an enhanced role for our councils in registration and enforcement.

I talked earlier about making sure that social rents were fair. My work on that will extend to rents in the private rented sector. Tenants in that sector face the highest rents and often get least for their money. I accept that landlords run a business, but I will not let them exploit tenants, especially given that so much of the rent they receive comes straight from taxpayers. It does not matter if you rent a social home or rent from a private landlord: I will bring forward proposals to ensure that your rent is fair and secures you a good home.

I am not stopping there. There are other things that we need to look at over a longer timescale, including letting agent regulation, the introduction of grounds for eviction and fitness standards. We will start work on those as well. I am calling time on bad landlords and rogue letting agents. Houses are homes. Everything that we do must be based on that fundamental principle. It is a basic human right for individuals and families to have a safe and secure home.

On average, 1,500 people present as homeless here every month. In parallel with all the work to protect and enhance our social housing and to improve the situation for those in the private rented sector, I will prioritise action to improve our response to homelessness. Our future homelessness policy will build on lessons learned from how we dealt with the COVID-19 crisis. That will include informing the roll-out of an interdepartmental homelessness action plan, as well as our work in continuing to support the Housing Executive to deliver on its statutory responsibility for responding to homelessness.

I know that I can rely on your support in this work. I have covered a lot of ground in the statement and set out a way forward on a number of important issues. Some of those are deep, underlying issues that have been there for some years. If it sounds like a lot of work, that is because we can no longer afford to talk as housing stress spirals out of control. We need to get on with it. We need to build more social homes, to sort out the long-term future of the Housing Executive and to make sure that it can repair its homes, regenerate its estates and start building again. We need to get the Housing Executive building again. We need to make sure that our social housing system works better and that it is fair and helps the people and families who need it most. We need to help people and families in the private rented sector. If homeownership is right for them, we need to help them. If it is not, we need to help them. If the private rented sector is their only option, we need to make sure that people and families pay a fair rent for a decent, secure home. We need to change our approach to homelessness to focus on prevention rather than management and to make sure that homelessness occurs as seldom as possible. If it occurs, we need to make that time of homelessness as short as possible. We need to make sure that people do not fall back into homelessness.

I look forward to your questions and comments, but, before I sit down, I remind you all of our human rights obligation. Equality and rights are the basis of my approach, and you cannot get more basic than the right to housing. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises that right. Everyone has the right to a house adequate for their health and well-being. We have work to do. We all agreed in NDNA that we would do it. I look forward to your help and a busy two years.

Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): I thank the Minister for today's extremely comprehensive statement. I also thank her for meeting me and the Committee Clerk yesterday, giving us advance notice and getting a copy to all the members early. We have had so much doom and gloom in the Chamber over recent months that it is good at this stage to get a statement that is positive, visionary and very much welcome.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I want to ask a couple of questions, if that is OK. The first is on our constituency of North Belfast. The Minister and I represent a constituency that has major housing stress. On top of that, we have a tower block strategy, and we have the most tower blocks in Northern Ireland. How does that displacement of people fit into the already overburdened housing list?

Secondly, as MLAs, we represent not just one section of the community but everybody. That includes all those young people who would not naturally want social housing. They are first-time buyers and young professionals. The Minister mentioned having some sort of scheme to allow them to buy and to get into the housing market, but some of them want to rent. How do you see that fitting into the model, when they will not have housing points?

Lastly, I want to ask about the Minister's timeline. We want to see this through as quickly as possible, with the right scrutiny from the Committee, of course. What are your priorities? Will you prioritise the points system or something else?

Mr Speaker: You got four questions in there. It is up to the Minister to determine how many she answers.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I will answer them all. I have to look after the Committee Chair.

The Chair is right about our constituency. Fair play for getting that in first pot, Paula. North Belfast has the most tower blocks, and that is where the challenge lies. For anyone to be decanted from those tower blocks, the Housing Executive needs to get land. Until now, land has been very scarce. We are trawling to look at what land is there in the social and even private sectors. We will work out how we can purchase it to enable decanting.


11.00 am

The Member asked about intermediate rents. I chatted to representatives from the Housing Executive yesterday and asked them for timelines, which might tie in with some of the Member's other questions. I have not prioritised my priorities; I want a timeline for all of them. I want to know what can be done in the short to medium term and in the medium to long term. All of it needs to be completed in this mandate.

The Member asked for information on the rent-to-buy co-ownership scheme. I also want that to be more accessible to young people or, for that matter, anyone else. It is a scheme for affordable home ownership, if that is what people choose, but among the feedback that I have received recently is that people have to pay six months' rent in advance. For one person, that is almost £15,000. That is not accessible. At the end of this item of business, I will gather all the questions, share them with Members and keep the Committee informed as we progress.

Ms Anderson: I am blown away by the statement. It is the most important housing statement that I have heard in years. The Minister is delivering not only on a strategic level but on the ground. I got her response in relation to the Triangle area in the Waterside, and I am pleased to see that that is moving forward. I would love to take this opportunity to ask a number of questions, but I know that I will not be allowed. I will stick to one. Paragraph 23 of the statement mentions the Minister's intention to reintroduce ring-fencing and states:

"We need mechanisms that mean houses are built where houses are needed."

Will robust monitoring be put in place in order to ensure that that policy is delivered, given its importance in addressing persistent and chronic inequality in housing in Derry and in north and west Belfast?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question and sentiments. Míle buíochas. They are much appreciated. All the priorities will be monitored by the Minister for Communities. I have made the statement on behalf of not only the Department but the Executive. I assure the Member that we will bring in protections for the areas that have not only faced the most housing stress but have done so consistently and suffered the greatest increase in housing stress for decades. We will ensure — I will ensure, for as long as I am here — that that will happen. Since our meeting yesterday, the Housing Executive knows what it needs to do. Its officials and my officials will be sitting down this morning and over the following days to work through what some of the priorities mean, and the Committee will have first sight. I assure the Member that all the priorities will be closely monitored by the Minister for Communities.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister and very much welcome her statement. It outlines her ambition and approach to tackling our housing crisis. However, as legislators, we will be judged on what we do, not on what we want to do. I look forward to working with the Minister and colleagues to realise these much-needed and desirable changes.

It is difficult to find something that is not in the statement, but I have managed it. As the Minister outlined, prevention must play a part in the homelessness strategy, but the statement does not mention how we can support people or prevent them from falling into homelessness. I am thinking particularly of those people who are struggling now to pay their mortgage and those who will struggle greatly to do so in the future. Previously, we had a mortgage support scheme. Will the Minister commit, with her Executive colleagues, to looking at the possible reintroduction of such a scheme, given the high likelihood if not inevitability that a lot of people will fall into difficulty?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I asked for information on support for mortgages. As the Member will know, the British Government ended that support some time ago, much to the dismay of many of the devolved institutions, but more so to the people who found themselves in hard times. That was well before the COVID-19 crisis. I commit to exploring again any opportunity to support people who are in mortgage distress. Since the emergence of COVID, the Executive have gone above and beyond in trying to support people as best they can. I am acutely aware of not only the financial but the emotional turmoil, stress and shame caused by losing your home. I want to ensure that we try to help people as best we can. I do not have that information yet. When and if I get that information, I will share it with you and the rest of the Committee.

Mr Nesbitt: I welcome the Minister's statement. The Ulster Unionist Party is broadly supportive of this in principle, although obviously we would like to scrutinise the detail. On the detail, will the Minister tell us a little bit more about the governance arrangements for the proposed new body that will be the landlord? As I understand it, it will have to sit outside the public sector in order to secure borrowing powers, so will it have access to financial transactions capital (FTC), for example? What happens if a tenant comes to one of our constituency offices to complain about this new body? Where is the control mechanism?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his questions. He can be assured that Andy Allen will definitely scrutinise the detail in his absence.

I will deal with your last question first. Any service, product or support delivered by the Housing Executive, regardless of how it is configured, will be accountable to tenants and, indeed, to the Department. I give the Member that assurance. I am looking at a mutual or a cooperative in designation, because the Housing Executive as it is currently configured cannot borrow money. In order to do that and to protect the 85,000 homes, let alone look at our maintenance budget and our much-needed adaptations, we need to give it the freedom and flexibility to be able to borrow money, including FTC. We also need to do that to make the Housing Executive exempt from corporation tax and to try to get its historical debt written off. There will be no threat to any public accountability. People will not even notice any difference. In my opinion, this also protects for the future the jobs of Housing Executive staff who currently work on the landlord side. This is what we need to do. We need to protect our public services, but, even more so, we need to protect our social housing stock, which 85,000 tenants live in.

Ms Armstrong: Thank you very much to the Minister for a very ambitious housing plan that has come to the House today. At the start of your statement, you asked us for support. The Alliance Party will not be found wanting in that, because this is well needed across Northern Ireland. I noticed that, in paragraph 38, you talk about mixed tenure being at the heart of this. Does that mixed tenure extend to shared housing? The Executive's commitment to shared housing has been very welcome over the years. I want to make sure that, when you talk about mixed tenure, that extends to the people who live in those houses and shared housing.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her sentiments and, indeed, for her party's support. Shared housing is there, and it will be there. Under the local development plans that local government is taking forward, mixed tenure for me means that if a private developer says, "I want to build 100 homes", 20 of those need to be social housing and they need to be on the same site as the development and tenure blind. That is what we need to do. This is not just about social clauses or developers' section 76 obligations. This is about them being part of the security of tenure for a lot of people. I have learnt many lessons from bad examples of this on these islands. I went to a place in Dublin where the social tenants were moved three miles out of the private development. That will not happen here.

Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for her statement on what promises to be the biggest shake-up in housing ever. It is all very exciting.

In my constituency, there are over 1,700 people on the housing list. Can the Minister guarantee that different types of housing will be looked at in order to address the different social needs and deal with adaptations, which there is a chronic shortage of?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. Adaptations to homes is one of the issues that I get questioned on constantly here. Our population is living longer, and that is a brilliant thing. We need to look after our ageing population and ensure that their homes are fit for purpose. Part of this, on the landlord side, will make sure that there are additional budgets to look at those adaptations.

In looking at the different needs of the populations in our constituencies, we need to take a needs-based approach. I do not want to see families growing up in a one-bedroom flat anywhere. I do not want to see people who really need a stairlift or a downstairs bathroom going up and down the stairs on their backside. We know loads of people like that. That is inhumane, so we want to make sure that all that is changed and that we try to get the best mix, not just to deal with our population now but to try to future-proof it for generations to come.

Ms Ennis: I concur with my colleague Martina Anderson: this is an absolute game changer. I welcome the reclassification as the catalyst for the transformative changes in the Housing Executive, which are long overdue, but how realistic is this without the removal of historic debt and the continuation of being taxed as a corporation?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. As I said to, I think, Mike Nesbitt, the Executive will not be able to make the Housing Executive exempt from corporation tax or, indeed, tackle its historic debt unless we go for this reclassification. My instinct is to go for a mutual or a cooperative that is non-profit and almost with a charity basis, that has its own board that will be as public and accountable as the Housing Executive board is now. I am in no doubt — I have exhausted this inside out — that this is the only way that we can secure the homes that we have and bring forward the additional capital that we need to invest in our homes and, indeed, as I said to Alex, for the adaptations and all the maintenance that we need. This, for me, and, indeed, for the Executive, is something that we have to do to get over some of the most fundamental barriers that have stopped us from increasing housing supply.

Mr Buckley: I welcome the Minister's statement and support the transformation of the Housing Executive, but she will remember from my time on the Committee and from my comments in the House that I was critical and sceptical of the removal and closure of the right-to-buy scheme, which she mentioned. At the time, the Minister of the day and Department officials said that they would bring forward practical alternatives to that scheme, because I believed that it was crucial to allow working families to fulfil the aspiration of home ownership. Can the Minister elaborate on those potential alternatives? We know that land availability is a serious issue. A number of months ago, the House passed a Living over the Shop scheme. Has the Minister had any further consideration of a potential scheme to meet that need?

Ms Ní Chuilín: My memory is that we did not pass the Living over the Shop scheme, but maybe we did. I certainly did not support it.

The Member is on the record in the Committee, to be fair to him, about looking at alternatives to the right to buy. That is why co-ownership needs to provide better models. The right to buy was introduced in 1979. We have sold over 483 social homes under right to buy, and we have sold those homes at a discount of £24,000, which is all public money. The conflict that we have between increasing social housing and the right to buy is one that we cannot continue with, because, under right to buy, the stock was never replaced, and that is one of the reasons why we are in the position that we are in. If people want to own their homes, I am trying to help them as well. As I said to the Chair, I am happy to look at other ways in which co-ownership can be made easier for people who want to enter into home ownership at an affordable rate. It will certainly not be as affordable as we enjoyed under right to buy, but it does need to be affordable and they need to have access.

Mr Lynch: Minister, here in the North, the private rented sector is the most unregulated across these islands, and the tenants within it are the least protected. What is the Department's plan to address that issue?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member will have heard that this is all about intention. This is a statement of intentionality, but we certainly need to prevent tenants from being placed in homes that are not safe in the private rented sector and being subject to the whims of a landlord or letting agent if it does not suit them any more. We also need to make sure that the public investment in the private rented sector gets a return. We need to protect residents in the private rented sector as much as we possibly can.

As I said in the statement, I will bring forward proposals to ensure that their rent is fair, but, more importantly, I will bring forward proposals to ensure that they are protected. We also need to ensure that the systems, intermediate rent homes and mediation that we need are in place so that people are clear about what is available to them and what support they have.


11.15 am

Mr O'Toole: Like others, I welcome much of the statement. There is definitely a lot of ambition in it. I am glad that the Minister has made the statement, but we will need to see delivery on it. She mentioned reclassification and the broader powers around borrowing but specifically mentioned financial transactions capital loan funding. If I am right, in the October monitoring round statement, which we got not orally but in written form last week, there is a £39·3 million allocation of FTC. Is the Minister confident that her Department can spend that this year? What will it be going to, and will it be spent in-year, as in by the end of the financial year?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Co-Ownership has given my Department the assurance that it can spend every bit of that FTC. I do not want any FTC ever being returned. Since COVID started in March, it has been more difficult, particularly for the construction industry, and that put pressure on the ability to spend the FTC budget.

The allocation will cover this year and, indeed, next year, so it is better to overcommit to that budget, and it is better for Co-Ownership to be overambitious about being able to spend that budget. As the Member said, with the landlord side having a new designation, that will hopefully mean that never again will this Department return any FTC underspend.

Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for her statement. I spent a very brief period on the Committee for Communities with you previously. Although there is much to applaud you for, Minister, one thing that jumps out at me is the piece in and around intimidation points. I understand that the sentiment to protect people who are under threat is well made. As has been spoken about many times, however, the scheme is also abused, and we see people in housing stress being jumped over and overlooked. Will you outline what steps you will take, perhaps in conjunction with the Justice Minister, to ensure that the process is as fair and appropriate as possible?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I have not discussed this with the Justice Minister, and it is a good idea to do so, but the responsibility is mine, so I am not passing the buck to anyone.

Most of us will remember a debate that we had in the Chamber on a motion on intimidation points that, I think, Fra McCann brought forward. Every party agreed with the sentiment that the scheme was necessary but that it was widely abused and misused. As sure as the day is Tuesday, if a new housing scheme were released, allegations of intimidation would increase. That meant that the very people whom I spoke about in the statement — the people who are homeless, living in hostels or sofa-surfing — were effectively being queue-jumped by others. I want that situation to end, but, in my opinion, the difficulty with the scheme was that verification needed to be stronger to prevent that happening. I want to bring on board a statutory body or some other body to make sure that the need for such verification is in place. The PSNI will be involved.

I also want to make sure that people who have to leave their home as a result of domestic violence are now considered to have been intimidated. I want to make sure that asylum seekers and refugees who have come through the worst possible experiences and have made our place their home are also included on any intimidation lists, because currently they are not.

Mr Stalford: Like me, the Minister is from inner-city Belfast, and she knows that an insidious combination of private landlordism and overdevelopment is destroying the character of many of the communities in the inner city. Specifically in my constituency, I think of places such as the Woodstock Road, the Ravenhill Road, the Holylands, the Market, Sandy Row and Donegall Pass. Private landlordism is destroying the character of those communities, and, on the other side of that, they are being eaten away by overdevelopment and by the promotion of developments that local people simply cannot afford to live in. How can the Minister assure those communities that this policy statement will address those issues?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Deirdre Hargey would be delighted that you referred to her area in her constituency as "the Market", so fair play.

Mr Stalford: No "s".

Mr Stalford: No "s".

Ms Ní Chuilín: Yes, absolutely; BT7 all the way.

I have seen what has happened in the Village and Donegall Pass. As a Member, I have also seen and pointed out what has happened in the Market. On the one hand, you have a community where people are literally living on top of one another, while, on the other hand, you have tall, shiny buildings going up, but the people who would like to live in them cannot get access to them. That is the most hateful position to be in. They really are on the outside looking in. If people want to live in those buildings, we need to make it easy for them. That is the bottom line. Belfast will go through massive regeneration. As the Member will know, local development plans are the first to be put out by local government, and in them is a guarantee that there will be an eye to social and public housing along with private housing.

However, we need to ensure that the Housing Executive, in particular, uses the vesting powers that it has so that, if there is an opportunity to develop family homes in those communities, it ensures that it has that land. I have spoken to Conor Murphy on several occasions. As well as looking at the market rate measurement, he is also considering looking at the social-value measurement in order to make it easy to buy land in our constituencies to ensure that there is better housing supply. We do not need skyscrapers all over the place instead of social housing. What we need are good-quality homes to sustain our communities. Frankly, our communities have sustained us through thick and thin, and we need to look after them.

Ms Flynn: I thank the Minister for her statement. Since different parts of Belfast have been referenced, I want to highlight that, in areas of west and north Belfast, rents are increasing through a market demand that is coming from lower-income families that are struggling to access social housing. Will the Department consider looking at rent caps or creating rent-pressure zones in such areas?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I think that everybody has mentioned their constituency, so well done. That is what we are here for. At the minute, the local housing allowance almost puts a cap on what can be charged. However, it is too fragile and too volatile, particularly when the market rate goes up and landlords or businesses put the rent up. That leaves people having to choose between their rent or their rations, as we used to call them — or food, for all you young people below the age of 30. The purpose of my looking at intermediate rents is to ensure that anyone caught in that cycle is protected. The position is also that the Housing Executive — fair play to it; I want to put that on the record — has done its best, as have this and previous Executives, to ensure that Housing Executive rents remain affordable. However, housing association rents are becoming unaffordable. Some are charging £125 a week, as opposed to the less than £70 a week being charged by the Housing Executive. That is a problem. We need to look at bringing that into the intermediate rent as well, because the last thing that we want is for tenancies not to be sustained even before an allocation is made, because they certainly should be sustained as part of anyone's experience of growing up in social or public housing.

Mr Speaker: I call Paula Bradshaw. You might want to mention Lenadoon and Tullymore while you are at it. [Laughter.]

Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for her impressive statement. I thank my colleague Christopher Stalford, who stole my question. However, I have another one. The Minister mentioned human rights and the right to family life. I work with constituents, and with one in particular whose child is on delayed discharge in the Iveagh Centre in west Belfast because there is no suitable accommodation to which to bring that child home. We have seen what has happened at Muckamore and other places, where beloved family members with complex needs have languished. Can the Minister tell me where she is collaborating with the Department of Health to start to introduce housing that would fit the needs of people who require a live-in carer or live-in nurse? Where is that mentioned in the statement?

Ms Ní Chuilín: It is covered by the part of the statement that talks about reclassifying the Housing Executive as a landlord in order to allow it to build homes, and also the adaptations. I have been here long enough to remember the Bamford strategy. We are still waiting on much of its implementation. That is not good enough. Families that are forced to separate, particularly ageing families looking after ageing children, need as much support as possible. This strategy will ensure that the Housing Executive will have the capital that it needs to look at adaptations, to purchase and develop homes, and to look at the maintenance issues that will really improve the quality of life for all tenants and citizens. That is the intention of this statement.

That is one of the issues that I will be talking to the Minister of Health about. I will also be talking to other ministerial colleagues about how their Departments and mine can work together on the proposals in the statement.

Mr Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat, Minister. It will be no surprise that I will mention Fermanagh and South Tyrone, parts of which have huge housing stress. I welcome the statement. This is truly a once-in-a-generation shakeup of housing here and is long overdue.

Minister, I know that you recognise the problem of homelessness and that not all homelessness is necessarily rough sleeping. However, at the start of the pandemic, your Department's efforts in relation to homelessness were second to none. What work is being done now to ensure that the tackling homelessness strategy is not just successful but sustainable?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I recently had a meeting with the Chartered Institute of Housing. An issue that it majors on, which makes not only a lot of sense but articulates and encapsulates the concern that we have had in the Assembly, is sustainable tenancies.

If people are homeless, particularly if they are vulnerable and have mental health or addiction issues, we need to help them, work with them and support them when their tenancy is allocated and then support them throughout their tenancy. We need to give hope to the youngsters and families who are sleeping on people's living room sofas or on two sets of bunk beds in a tiny room that that is going to end and will not to be the way that they are going to rear their kids, be that in Lenadoon, the Markets, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Upper Bann, North Belfast or wherever. That is what we need to do.

We need to give people hope, but not just for the sake of it. They need to know that they have somebody in this Department who is working on behalf of all — not just my constituents or yours, but for us all. We are here to serve everyone, and that is what we will do.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister for her statement. I know that the Minister is passionate about social housing, which is going to be an enormous ask given the opportunities around publicly owned land.

How does the strategy intend to address the issue of empty homes, of which there are many, and what plans do the Minister and her Department have for working alongside local authorities, which also are huge land owners, and for showing greater aggressiveness in vesting land for social housing?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. She will know, like many of us, and going back years, that one of the biggest issues in your constituency office is that of homes. It is awful to have a family, or anyone, coming to you for a home and pointing out three houses that are steeled up, particularly in the social housing sector. That applies to the Housing Executive more than to housing associations because housing association properties are more modern. However, if homes are empty and beyond repair, we need to condemn them and regenerate that area.

I intend to be more aggressive on behalf of everyone on the housing waiting list, particularly those in stress, in ensuring that landbanking does not continue as the norm, and to get into sensible and mature conversations with developers about what we can do to buy that land off them. For me, land is key to increasing housing supply.

Mr McGrath: I thank the Minister for the comprehensive statement. I want to ask about the housing allocation scheme, to which I have referred before, and any scope in the statement for covering that.

We have a large development in Downpatrick of over 100 social houses. There is the usual concern that local people will not get access to those homes. At the same time, we have to recognise that the whole of the North is one unit, therefore people have to be offered those houses.

Is there a way in which we can give comfort to local people by enabling them to get access to those houses, so that they and their families and friends can remain in the communities in which they grew up?


11.30 am

Ms Ní Chuilín: To be honest, I cannot give any guarantee. You are right: it is seen as one unit. When someone is allocated their points and puts their preference down, that is what they are entitled to. What I can give the Member an assurance on is that, when it comes to people claiming or alleging to have been intimidated, as we have seen across each of our constituencies, we will be very robust in verifying their claim and getting down to the nitty-gritty of it. As I said in response to, I think, Christopher Stalford, when new schemes come on board, the level of intimidation claims literally goes through the roof. I do not want that to happen in your constituency or, indeed, anyone else's.

Miss Woods: I thank the Minister for bringing this ambitious statement to the House today. I have a number of questions, including some about landlord function and unaffordable rents in the private rented sector. I look forward to engaging with the Minister in the future, if she will meet me, to discuss the issues, especially those in North Down — I had to get that in there.

I hope that the changes will come with an uplift for Supporting People. I note that there is an intention to implement all bar two aspects of the 2017 consultation. Does that include the discharge of the homeless duty to the private rented sector? In order to qualify for the discharge, a secure tenancy must be one that lasts for a year only. Does she intend for the homelessness duty to be discharged to tenancies that last only for a year? Why can it not be two?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. I am looking at that, because, for a lot of people — in fact, for everyone — a year is too short. To be fair to those working in Supporting People, particularly on homelessness, they have consistently raised that with us.

As I mentioned before, the other aspect is that, before someone is allocated a house or before they even go into the private rented sector, for example, I want to ensure that their application for a home is supported throughout the duration of their tenancy. Most of the Supporting People providers have told us that their level of engagement with people goes well beyond what they are statutorily obligated to do. Those people are doing the front-line work on our behalf, particularly during the pandemic, and we need to support them. I assure the Member that I am looking at that as well.

Mr Carroll: Thanks to the Minister for her statement. She mentioned the private rented sector and how it has been impacted and how support systems are needed for it. I refer to the Loughran v Piney Rentals judgement that deemed letting fees to be unlawful and a joint ministerial communiqué from her Department — I think that this was before she was in the Department — and the Finance Minister earlier this year that provided further confirmation on the issue. It appears, however, that some letting agents openly continue to charge letting fees and are sometimes rebranding them. What are the Minister and her Department doing to challenge letting agents who charge those fees, and what is being done to support renters who are in a situation in which they feel powerless?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I will certainly pick that up. The Loughran judgement had a significant impact, given the changes and protections that it brought for private renters. Under company law, companies cannot change their title and status to suit their circumstances and expect public money and a difference in approach. I guarantee the Member that I will certainly look at that. I do not support any divergence from what was cited in the Loughran judgement. If anything, it should be the floor rather than the ceiling of protection for private renters.

Mr Lunn: There is so much to welcome in the statement that I almost feel like a party pooper for even asking a question about it. It is a very good statement.

I want to ask the Minister to develop her answer to Robbie Butler's question about intimidation points. I do not have a problem with their existence, but I have had a constant problem with their allocation. I note the proposal to bring together a statutory body. Can we take it that that statutory body, perhaps unlike some other statutory bodies in the past, will not contain members who may have a connection with organisations that may have intimidated people out of their property to start with?

Ms Ní Chuilín: You are so eloquent in your diplomacy, Trevor. Fair play to you. That is one of the reasons why I want to change the verification process. We should just call it for what it is: people can buy intimidation at one door and walk out with their points to another. That is ending. We are calling a quit to that and putting a halt to it. The PSNI needs to be more involved in the verification of intimidation. We also need to ensure that people who are genuinely intimidated are given the support that they need while showing the door to those who are not.

Ms Sugden: I thank the Minister for her statement. It is a comprehensive piece of work that, no doubt, started with Minister Hargey, and I hope that she continues to recover from her illness.

Minister, I appreciate that, because of population, we will tend to focus on cities like Belfast and Derry. However, I want to point to my constituency of East Londonderry, which is a predominantly rural area. I would like to hear more about your plans for how we can provide housing in rural areas. I would also like to know how we will provide specific housing, because sometimes it is not possible to build houses for everyone, be they larger families, people with specific needs or people who want to live in the country away from bigger developments because of mental health issues. How will you address that in your plans moving forward?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. I assure her that this is not just an urban regeneration plan for housing; we need to sustain and support rural communities as well. I have been talking to councils, particularly during the pandemic, about additional support, and I have asked them to look at their plans. Many councils are up for it, particularly with regard to sustaining rural families and looking at the needs of rural communities. They want to get into a position in which they are offering public land for public housing. They want to do that, and I want to do that. I recognise that there is need in every constituency, and I have to ensure that I address that need as best I can. I give that commitment to the Member.

Mr O'Dowd: I welcome the Minister's statement and the radical opportunity to change the failings in our housing system. The Minister will recall that she and I, along with a large delegation of Sinn Féin representatives, met the Housing Executive several years ago. During that meeting, it was revealed that 500 social houses had been built in the most affluent constituency in the North, while I and other representatives of the Woodville and Drumnamoe wards in north Lurgan, which are some of the most deprived wards in the North, saw only a small number of houses — 10 or 12 — built there in the last 10 years. Will the Minister assure us that housing will be built in areas of need and distributed fairly and equitably?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question and congratulate him for getting in not only his constituency but areas in his constituency. I am sure that they will be delighted to be namechecked. I remember that meeting well, and I know that the Housing Executive remembers that meeting well. It is not that any constituency is not entitled to housing, but building more houses in areas that did not have the level of need of others was certainly questionable. I want to ensure that, in areas of highest demand and, indeed, in all areas of demand, land is available to deliver much-needed homes. Never again should we go into a meeting with any public body and look at fewer than 20 houses being built in an area that is busting at the seams while there are hundreds of houses for which people can just put down their name and get one with fewer than 40 points, with people in other constituencies sitting with over 200 points and no hope of getting a house. That will change.

Mr Allister: I want to follow on from Ms Sudgen's point about rural areas. In the north of my constituency, there is a string of five villages: Armoy, Bushmills, Dervock, Mosside and Stranocum. The Minister told me yesterday in answer that there are plans for nine new social housing units in Armoy. The problem is, Minister, that there is no sewage capacity left in Armoy. In all the other villages that I named, there are no plans for social housing, and none of them, apart from Bushmills, has sewage capacity. Where is the joined-up delivery? It is all very well to say that there is a commitment to provide extra houses in certain villages, but, if there is no sewage capacity, there will be no houses.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question and for getting five villages in his constituency namechecked. The Member is right: there needs to be the infrastructure for those houses to be developed. I will be talking to the Minister for Infrastructure, who quite rightly has been banging on about the issue since she came into her Department. There is a lot that we can do. We cannot build houses without that infrastructure, but nor can we leave areas like Armoy and Dervock without any hope of getting homes built to meet the needs of a growing population. Is the task that is in front of us a mighty one? It absolutely is, but we will tackle it as best we can to bring change to people and give them hope of having a home in their community.

Mr Speaker: That concludes questions on the statement. I ask Members to take their ease for a few minutes, please.

Executive Committee Business

That the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 (Coronavirus) (Amendment of Relevant Period for Meetings of Registered Societies and Credit Unions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate.

Mrs Dodds: I seek the Assembly's approval of the statutory rule, which was made on 28 September and came into operation on 1 October. The regulations are made under powers set out in the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020, which was made at Westminster on 25 June 2020. The Act is a piece of emergency legislation that extends to the whole of the United Kingdom following a legislative consent motion passed by the Assembly on 2 June 2020. The Act contains provisions to help companies and mutual societies, cooperatives, community benefit societies and credit unions to deal with the serious economic consequences resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and includes corporate insolvency and governance measures.

In relation to the regulations, the Act includes a temporary relaxation of the manner in which meetings of mutual societies can be held. As some mutuals are bound by their constitution to hold meetings in a physical location, the Act sets aside requirements to hold physical meetings so that those organisations can continue to operate throughout the period of public health restrictions. The measure allows flexibility in how a meeting can be held; for example, an organisation may make use of technology and hold a virtual meeting or postal votes could be used instead of the usual show of hands at a meeting. That temporary measure was originally to expire on 30 September 2020; however, the Act allows my Department to extend the temporary measures for mutuals in Northern Ireland if it is considered necessary.

Meetings, especially annual general meetings (AGMs), are required to progress corporate governance in mutuals, and crucial decisions can be made only following a vote by members. Trade representatives have detailed how corporate governance and oversight is likely to be affected or, indeed, suspended, if flexibility in how they hold their statutory meetings cannot be extended.

Credit union representatives specifically explained how planned annual general meetings must be held in the coming months so that decisions can be taken about dividends. Many of their members are financially excluded and rely on annual dividends and interest rebate payments as part of their financial planning.


11.45 am

The coronavirus pandemic has not been the isolated and short-term event that was envisaged when the Act was passed earlier this year. I consider that it is now prudent to extend the measure to provide continued support to local mutual organisations. The Act allows my Department to extend the measure by up to three months at a time, so this statutory rule extends the temporary period by three months until 30 December 2020. Following consultation with sector representatives, it is appropriate to extend this measure from 1 October 2020 to allow cooperatives to hold their annual general meetings.

The regulations that the House is being asked to approve have been agreed with the Department's Committee, and the Executive were advised prior to their being made. The measure has the support of sector representatives. The extension of this measure and the date to which it will be extended correspond with what is being done in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is imperative that mutual societies in Northern Ireland can avail themselves of the same easing of requirements as their counterparts in Great Britain. However, I am aware that many credit unions hold their AGMs in January and February, and my officials are working on a subsequent statutory rule to further extend the period to ensure that none of our hard-working mutuals are disadvantaged. I have written to the Committee and the Executive to inform them of this further extension of support to the sector.

In conclusion, the extension of this temporary measure will provide continuing support and assistance to local mutuals and their members. Therefore, I move that the Assembly should now approve these regulations. Thank you.

Dr Archibald (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy): I rise to speak, briefly, on behalf of the Committee and to support the motion on its behalf.

As the Minister has indicated, the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 (Coronavirus) (Amendment of Relevant Period for Meetings of Registered Societies and Credit Unions) Regulations (NI) 2020 amend the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 by extending the temporary relevant period for mutual societies to hold meetings in a flexible manner. The regulation replaces the end date of 30 September with the new date of 30 December 2020.

The Committee considered the SL1 for the regulations at its meeting on 23 September 2020, and members were content with the policy direction. The Committee agreed to the statutory rule for the regulations at its meeting on 7 October, subject to the report of the Examiner of Statutory Rules. The rule came into operation in September 2020. The Examiner of Statutory Rules has raised no issues with the rule. I support the motion to affirm the statutory rule on the Committee's behalf.

I also support the motion in my role as Sinn Fein's economy spokesperson. I had been contacted in September by some credit unions that were concerned about the expiration of the previous regulations, as the Minister has outlined, and the need to hold AGMs. This regulation extends the relevant period until the end of December and allows credit unions to conduct their business and continue to operate, either virtually or by other means.

It is important that we support businesses and other organisations during the exceptional circumstances that we continue to face. I welcome the fact that the Minister has outlined a further extension of support, if necessary, to support our local mutual organisations. This is a very difficult time for businesses and individuals, and it is important that these mitigating measures are put in place to allow business to continue.

Mr Stalford: I support the statutory rule that the Minister has brought forward. This represents just the latest example of the suite of measures that her Department has undertaken to support credit unions and mutual organisations during this difficult time. I declare an interest, as I am a member of a credit union. Those of us who know the credit union movement know the valuable and very important work that it undertakes in our communities. For many people, it is the credit union movement that provides access to the credit that they would not get through banks or other lenders. I am pleased that the Minister has moved to protect the credit union sector throughout the pandemic.

This is a positive measure, allowing credit unions and other organisations to undertake their important work and further protecting them during these difficult times. I say on behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party that we support the measures.

Mrs Dodds: I thank colleagues across the Chamber for their support for this very important issue. It is incredibly important that our mutual societies and credit unions can operate efficiently and function on behalf of their members in very difficult circumstances. I am content that the regulations will meet that need.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 (Coronavirus) (Amendment of Relevant Period for Meetings of Registered Societies and Credit Unions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

Mr Speaker: I ask Members to take their ease for a few minutes.

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

That the Second Stage of the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill [NIA Bill 10/17-22] be agreed.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated any time limit to the debate.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I think that everyone in the Chamber will welcome the Bill, particularly the measures that will support the hospitality sector when we reach a time — hopefully in the near future — that society can operate under more normal circumstances. The majority of the measures in the Bill mirror those that were brought to the Assembly during the previous mandate, with some notable amendments and additions. The aim of the measures remains the same: to contribute to a reduction in alcohol-related harm while providing some much-needed assistance to the hospitality sector as it supports our tourist offering.

The Bill contains 36 clauses, which are divided into provisions that affect licensed premises — pubs, restaurants, hotels and the like — and will amend the Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 and provisions that affect registered private member clubs and will amend the Registration of Clubs (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. There are two schedules to the Bill. One details minor and consequential amendments and the other details repeals. Many of the provisions affect both licensed premises and registered clubs. Although they are provided for separately in the Bill, the policy is ultimately the same.

I now turn to the detailed provisions. I am removing all additional restrictions on licensed premises and registered clubs over the Easter weekend.

That will mean that, for licensed premises and registered clubs, the Easter weekend will be treated like any other weekend throughout the year. The period of drinking-up time at the end of a licensed premises' and registered club's permitted hours will be extended by 30 minutes to one hour. That will discourage customers from stockpiling drinks during last orders and drinking too quickly and will allow for a more gradual dispersal of people onto the streets, allowing staff more time to clear the premises in an orderly fashion. It will reduce the impact on communities at closing time, in particular allowing people to remain inside while waiting for a taxi. The Bill also includes a power to revert to 30 minutes by regulation should there be difficulties with the new arrangements.

The Department will have a power to designate an event as a major event. This is intended only for prestigious events, such as last year's Open golf championship in Portrush or the MTV European music awards. Once an event has been designated as a major event, the Department will be allowed to vary the permitted hours for it.

Licensed premises and registered clubs will no longer be required to obtain a children's certificate; however, all current conditions must be met if children are to be permitted on the premises. Young people will be allowed to attend functions in certain licensed premises and registered clubs, provided that a number of conditions are met. That will ensure that young people have a safe environment in which to hold events, such as school formals, where adequate safeguards are in place and no opportunity exists for young people to obtain alcoholic drinks. Young people will also be allowed to stay with their parent or guardian in certain premises to celebrate a special occasion together, provided that a number of conditions are met.

The sale and supply of alcohol by self-service and vending machines will be prohibited. That will ensure that the sale of alcoholic drinks is always supervised, allowing trained staff in a regulated environment the opportunity to monitor alcohol consumption and to refuse the sale of alcoholic drinks if necessary.

The Department will be able to approve a code of practice for the licensed trade. Courts will then need to be satisfied, either at grant or renewal, that the licence holder is aware of their responsibilities under the code and has been complying with those responsibilities.

Those pubs and hotels that are already permitted additional hours to 1.00 am will be permitted to apply for an additional hour up to 2.00 am up to 104 times a year. That would, in effect, allow later opening every weekend, but, equally, late openings could be saved for special occasions, such as New Year's Eve if it occurs during the working week. Liquor licences and entertainment licences will be aligned so that the entertainment cannot continue after the end of drinking-up time. That will ensure that there is no opportunity for illegal sales of alcoholic drinks and ensures a level playing field for all licensed premises.

Smaller pubs that do not provide food or entertainment will be allowed to apply to the police for late opening to 1.00 am on up to 85 occasions. That is an increase from the current 20 and in line with the number of late nights permitted for registered clubs. Larger pubs that have late opening granted by the courts will also be allowed to apply to the police for ad hoc late nights up to 20 times a year. That will mean that they can react to late-notice events that are on days not included in those allowed by the courts.

Licensed racetracks will be permitted to sell alcoholic drinks on a Sunday. That will be restricted to 30 minutes before and up to 30 minutes after the entertainment and only between the hours of 12.30 pm and 10:00 pm.

Local producers of ciders, beers and spirits will be permitted to apply to the court for a liquor licence that will permit three things: local producers to sell their own product from their own premises for consumption off the premises. That will, by default, include online sales. It will allow local producers to sell their own products from certain other licensed premises for consumption off the premises, and it will also allow local producers to sell their own products from unlicensed premises for consumption off the premises. In all three scenarios, samples can be provided for consumption on the premises, but the size of those samples will be prescribed in regulations.


12.00 noon

Over the past number of years, there has been an increase in the use of websites and apps for buying off-sales. Where a sale takes place in any way other than face to face, the place of dispatch must be licensed. There will also be a requirement placed on delivery drivers collecting alcoholic drinks on behalf of the customer to carry a receipt from the sale with the purchase and to deliver without unreasonable delay.

The law in respect of children will be strengthened to ensure that young people can no longer accept a delivery of intoxicating liquor at the home address of the purchaser. Delivery drivers will be required to record in a logbook the occasions on which they requested identification and detail the form of identification provided.

Licensed restaurants will be required to display a notice detailing the conditions under which alcohol may be sold on the premises. This will provide clarity to the restaurants by openly showing the conditions they are bound by. That will address growing concerns in relation to licensed restaurants that are operating more like pubs but without the associated overheads of a pub.

Off-sales premises, including supermarkets, will be permitted to advertise alcoholic drinks only within the licensed area of their premises, the area where drink is displayed for sale. That is intended to reduce instances of impulse buys of alcoholic drinks, particularly in supermarkets. They will also be prohibited from advertising alcohol promotions within 200 metres of their premises.

All licensed premises will be prohibited from awarding or redeeming loyalty or bonus points for the purchase of alcoholic drinks. That will reinforce the message that the sale of alcoholic drinks is regulated because they are not a normal commodity such as groceries.

Courts will be able to impose conditions on an occasional licence, and, if conditions are not complied with, there will be repercussions for the licence holder. Body corporate licence holders will be required to notify the courts and the police of any change in directorship within 28 days.

Angostura bitters — I hope I said that right — will no longer be exempt from the definition of "intoxicating liquor" and, as such, may only be sold in licensed premises. That brings the duty of licensing regimes into line, following the repeal of the excise duty exemption that previously applied to Angostura bitters.

A sporting club will be able to apply on six occasions per year to extend the area of its premises licensed to supply alcohol, provided certain conditions are met. That will allow sporting clubs to take advantage of events at their clubs, such as Captain's Day, which attracts large numbers of members and guests, by extending the area where they can supply alcohol to the club grounds.

Young people will be allowed to remain in the bar area of a registered club until 11.00 pm during the summer months, from 1 June to 31 August, or to attend an award ceremony on one occasion in the calendar year. That will allow young people to avail themselves of the full range of sporting activities open to them during the summer months, which often extend into the evening. The award ceremony allows sporting clubs to celebrate the success of young people who have participated in the sporting activities offered by the club.

A registered club will be allowed to advertise any function outside club premises where the advertisement clearly states that only members of the club and their guests may attend. Currently, members of the general public are permitted to attend functions where the proceeds are devoted to a charitable or benevolent purpose. However, the law prohibits a registered club from publicly advertising the function. This provision will ensure that there are no restrictions on the advertising of such events.

Many people would like the licensing regime to be more flexible and allow licensees the freedom to open and close when they like. On the other hand, many people, concerned about the harm caused to our society by the misuse of alcohol, wish to see greater restrictions on the advertising and sale of drink. I believe that the Bill strikes the right balance between offering a level of support to the hospitality sector, which we all agree is much needed, and protecting our communities by ensuring that the sale of alcoholic drinks is controlled.

It is clear from discussions with stakeholders and many other parties that there is significant support for these balanced proposals. On that basis, I hope that Members can support the Bill's Second Stage.

Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): On behalf of the Committee for Communities, I welcome the Second Stage of the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill. The Minister introduced the Bill on 19 October. That marked the start of the process to bring about these important and long-awaited changes to the liquor licensing laws in Northern Ireland. I say "long-awaited" because, as Members will know, the current legislation relating to the sale of alcoholic drinks in Northern Ireland dates back to 1996. It is helpful to remind the House of the recent history in that regard, which has led to the Bill that is before us.

A review of liquor licensing laws in Northern Ireland was launched in 2011, and, over the past nine years, there have been a number of attempts to get such a Bill over the line. That finally resulted in the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill in 2016, which was introduced in the Assembly in September of that year but subsequently fell in January 2017. Some amendments have been made over the years, namely the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 and the Licensing of Pavement Cafés Act (Northern Ireland) 2014, and, in 2016, a private Member's Bill successfully added outdoor stadia as a category of premises that may be granted a liquor licence.

The Committee was briefed most recently by departmental officials at its meeting on 8 October, when we heard that the aims of the new Bill mirror and expand on the 2016 Bill to modernise liquor licensing laws by way of a balanced package of measures that are aimed at providing vital support for hospitality and tourism but which will also tackle alcohol misuse and promote responsible alcohol consumption.

The 2016 Bill was thought by some at the time to be too modest in its ambitions for the modernisation of licensing laws and to fail to recognise that patterns of alcohol consumption were changing, with people drinking less in pubs and more in their homes. On 8 October, the Department advised the Committee that the Bill has now taken account of many of the issues and concerns that arose during the evidence sessions for the 2016 Bill. That is to be welcomed and may make the Committee's scrutiny task somewhat clearer.

However, we are here today to debate the main principles of the Bill. The detailed work for the Committee lies ahead. The principles are relatively straightforward to agree on, as they relate to bringing forward measures that seek to tackle alcohol misuse, to promote responsible consumption and to support the hospitality and tourism sectors. However, during the Committee Stage, we will seek to establish whether the Bill strikes the appropriate balance between those apparently competing objectives.

Alcohol has never been more affordable or available. In our support for the hospitality and tourism sectors, the Committee will not lose sight of the fact that alcohol misuse is a significant public health and social issue in Northern Ireland. It is estimated that we spend around £700 million annually to address alcohol misuse. That includes costs to healthcare, policing, prison services, social services and workplaces through absenteeism.

According to a departmental health inequalities report from 2018, almost a quarter of children in Northern Ireland aged between 11 and 16 are drinking alcohol, sometimes on a daily basis. All of us will have personal views on alcohol, based on experience or, perhaps, moral or religious beliefs. However, we are here to legislate for all of society. It will, therefore, be the job of the Committee to consider all evidence and arguments that are presented and to advise the House accordingly.

I do not intend to highlight all the clauses, but I will highlight a number of key areas. The Committee is sure that the hospitality and tourism sectors will welcome the range of proposals relating to increased opening hours. They will welcome not only the proposed removal of restrictions over the Easter weekend but the extension to drinking-up time and the increase in the number of days on which certain licensed premises and small pubs can open for longer. Small pubs are often a social hub in local communities. The Committee is pleased to see the proposals to align alcohol and entertainment licences to help to offset the issues associated with problem premises.

The Bill proposes to legislate for major events to allow the Department to designate an event as a special or major event, and to vary the permitted hours and allow certain off-sales at that event. In support of small producers of alcoholic drinks and in recognition of their contribution to food and drink culture and tourism, the Bill proposes a new category of premises for local breweries, cideries and distilleries. The Committee is looking forward to engaging with that sector. The Committee envisages that sporting clubs will welcome the proposals to allow them to extend the area of their premises within which they can lawfully supply alcoholic drinks on a limited number of occasions a year. We look forward to engaging with all the sectors that I mentioned in the coming weeks to determine the positive or other impacts of the Bill's proposals.

The Committee will also closely scrutinise the range of measures that impact on children and young people. These include allowing young people under 18 to be in the bar area of licensed premises and registered clubs after 9.00 pm and permitting young people under 18 to attend an awards ceremony in a sporting club one night per calendar year and remain on those premises until 11.00 pm. We know that licence holders, particularly in the current economic climate, are keen to allow their function rooms to be used for functions attended by young people. The Bill also proposes that young people may remain on licensed premises beyond 9.00 pm to attend a private function such as a wedding or anniversary, provided they are accompanied by a parent or guardian and the main meal is being served at the table. The Committee is pleased to see that it is proposed to strengthen the current law to prevent young people under 18 receiving a delivery of alcoholic drinks to the home.

The Committee is keen to ensure that the Bill contains sufficient measures to tackle excessive alcohol consumption. It is known that drinking at home has increased in recent years. Therefore, the proposed restrictions on the advertising of alcoholic drinks in supermarkets and other off-sale premises are to be welcomed to encourage shoppers to make a conscious decision about whether or not they purchase alcohol. In order to encourage a reduction in alcohol consumption, there is a proposal to amend the law to prohibit the practice whereby many retailers allow loyalty points to be gained from the purchase of alcoholic drinks or exchanged for the same. The Committee will be keen to explore with relevant stakeholders the proposals to amend the law to allow statutory approval for voluntary industry-led codes of practice in relation to the sale and promotion of alcoholic drinks.

The Committee fully appreciates that we are working our way through the COVID crisis and recognises that it is causing particularly huge difficulties for the hospitality and tourism sector. Given the history of attempts to change law in this area and the challenges facing many in this sector and those on whom it impacts, the Committee will make all efforts to ensure that there is no unnecessary delay in the passage of the Bill. However, it must carry out thorough scrutiny and remain mindful of the fact that the scope of this Bill is considerably wider than that of the 2016 Bill.

We are also scrutinising the Bill with a view to changing licensing laws on a number of fronts, potentially for many years to come, and not just to assist a number of sectors to cope in the present pandemic and its immediate aftermath. That said, I am confident that a more flexible licensing framework with appropriate safeguards will not only assist those sectors to rebuild following the COVID crisis, when our society can again operate under more normal circumstances, but ensure that protections are in place to help to tackle alcohol-related harm. The Committee is supportive of the principles of the Bill and looks forward to considering it in much greater detail.

Mr Allister: I am much obliged to the Chair for giving way. The Minister declined and, therefore, I will pose the question to the Committee Chair. I am seeking some information and hope that she might be willing to give it.

Paragraphs 26 and 27 of the explanatory document refer to the PSNI being asked to provide estimates of the additional policing costs arising from the extra hours of opening and the extra administrative tasks. Paragraph 27 says that the PSNI undertook to provide those figures but they were not finalised at the time of publication. Now that we come to debate the Bill, have they yet been finalised? Can the House be told what, the PSNI says, are the extra costs of the proposals?


12.15 pm

Ms P Bradley: I thank the Member for his intervention. I imagine that that is an answer that needs to come from the Minister and not from me, but we will certainly consider that as part of our Committee deliberations.

I have come to the end of outlining the Committee stance on this, and I want to make a few comments as a DUP MLA and a constituency MLA. I very much welcome the Bill. As I said, it has been a long time coming. I think that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, sat on the Committee for Social Development during that 2011-16 mandate, when we looked at liquor licensing and many people came to brief us. As a member of the Committee — other Members will be aware of this — I know that we are being lobbied heavily by all sections of the community: those that will benefit from this and those that will not benefit from it. They are lobbying us hard at this time.

As a member of the Committee and a member of my party, I will take all that evidence on board. As a Committee, we need to listen to that evidence. None of us should go into the Committee with preconceived ideas of how we will change or amend this, because the evidence needs to be listened to. We all need to be mindful of that. I know that, for many, the Bill will have gone too far and that, for many, the Bill will not have gone far enough. Some will be happy, and some will not. I advise my fellow Committee members to keep an open mind at this stage and to base their decisions only on evidence and nothing else.

Ms Ennis: I fully take on board the Chair's last few comments.

I thank the Minister for bringing this positive legislation through the Assembly. I know that Minister Hargey was keen to progress the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill and, indeed, launched the most recent consultation on our outdated liquor licensing laws in the North in 2019, so it is great to finally debate the Second Stage of the Bill today.

As the Chair said, there have been a few amendments to the original 1996 Order in recent years, such as amendments relating to closure powers for police and proof-of-age requirements in 2011 and the introduction of the Licensing of Pavement Cafés Act in 2014, the benefits of which we have seen come to fruition during the pandemic, as the hospitality sector has had to use every avenue available to it to continue trading in some form. All those amendments were made with the aim of striking a balance between facilitating the sale of alcohol, public safety and the public interest, and the same can be said for the most recent incarnation of the Bill, which the Minister has brought to us today.

I will not go into great detail on the Bill today. As the Chair said, we are still carrying out our scrutiny function through the Committee and very much look forward to getting on with that task, but it is important to talk about some of the headlines in it. The Committee considered the findings of the 2019 consultation, which revealed that there was a consensus amongst those who responded that legislative change was necessary. A large number who responded suggested that opening hours for public houses and other on-sales premises should be increased. Health organisations were in favour of placing advertising restrictions on off-sales, restricting access for deliveries of alcoholic drinks for young people and prohibiting the sale of alcoholic drinks by self-service. It is abundantly clear that change is wanted and needed in order to modernise our liquor licensing laws. We need fit-for-purpose, 21st-century-proofed legislation to help make the hospitality industry more sustainable and to grow and build our tourism product. We need to do that while developing a more balanced relationship between responsible drinking and the economic realities of the sector.

The removal of additional restrictions at Easter, which the Bill proposes, will no doubt be most welcomed by the hospitality and tourism sectors, particularly at this time, when the economic impact of COVID is being acutely felt by the industry. That, accompanied by the authorisation of additional hours from 20 days to 85 days, will be a huge boost, and I sincerely hope that the Bill passes to allow the changes to take effect by 2021.

Perhaps the part of the Bill that I am most excited about is the proposal to create a new licence for local producers. In my part of South Down, we have a growing number of excellent local craft breweries. I can say that they are excellent because I have probably tried most of them. We have Whitewater Brewery, Killowen Distillery and Mourne Mountains Brewery, to name but a few. I remember visiting Mourne Mountains Brewery a number of years ago, and I was disheartened and saddened to hear that, recently, a group of American tourists pulled up outside the brewery fully expecting, as you would in any other part of the world, to get a tour and have a sample but, unfortunately, the CEO of Mourne Mountains Brewery had to turn them away.

Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. She will know my interest in the topic, given the vast number of microbreweries in my constituency and the cider producers in the orchard county. Will she agree with me that it is a sad reality that, to date, a lot of the microbreweries and craft distillers have been unable to sell their products even within the current pub/restaurant set-up, given the control element that large corporations have on those taps in bars and restaurants?

Ms Ennis: I agree. The Member makes a good point. That is another issue that we can get into in Committee, and I am sure that it will come up: the hold that the huge conglomerates have over our local pubs and our local hospitality sector. It is crippling for local producers if they are unable to get their products into those bars and restaurants. That is an issue.

From a constituency point of view, the changes proposed for local producers, such as offering samples during tours and selling their products for consumption off-site will give craft breweries in South Down and other places the chance to operate fairly and to become economically viable. That, in turn, will help to grow our tourism product.

Sinn Féin submitted a detailed response to the 2019 consultation. We believed that change was needed, and that change is reflected in the modern and sensible legislation that we have before us. As with most things in life, it will be impossible to please everyone, and I am sure that there will be some who think that the Bill does not go far enough. I believe that we have realistic, workable and fair proposals before us. I encourage Members to support the Bill, and I look forward to engaging with all relevant stakeholders as our Committee continues its scrutiny of the Bill over the coming weeks.

Mr Durkan: First, I declare an interest, as my family owns licensed premises.

The demands for the changes that the Bill will make were being made long before its previous incarnation in 2016. It is certainly long-awaited legislation, and our licensing laws are very much in need of an update. That said, our scrutiny of the Bill has to take account of the circumstances that the hospitality industry is operating in or, rather, sadly, not operating in at the moment. What the hospitality industry and, indeed, all of us would not give to be subject to the old system rather than the current restrictions that we now face as a result of the pandemic.

Pubs and the wider hospitality industry face a fight for survival, and many of them will struggle to open their doors again. They will need support to enable them to contribute once again to our job market, our tourism industry and our social lives. The measures in the Bill will play a role in that by laying the groundwork for their return and make the changes to modernise licensing even more pressing than they have been. We were initially told in Committee that the Bill would allow the removal of Easter weekend restrictions to come into force in time for Easter 2021, but I notice on the BBC today that it is Easter 2022. I would like the Minister to clarify that in her concluding remarks. Obviously, we do not know what lies ahead of us, but we all hope that enough progress will have been made by then for businesses and patrons to have the benefit of that change as soon as possible.

The Committee will undertake line-by-line scrutiny of the Bill, but there are three main points that I wish to raise now. I will save the painstaking detail until later in the legislative process. The first is suggestions from local breweries and independent pubs regarding clause 8. I suppose you could call them "draught proposals" [Laughter.]

The clause makes no provision for on-site sales of their beer, which is allowed in Britain and increasingly in other regions across the world. I have met representatives of the industry. Everyone in the House will have been lobbied by its representatives. I fully expect that that will be a major point for the Committee to consider. We will have to look carefully at the detail around opening hours and products and the sort of licence that Ms Ennis mentioned, but there is real potential here for the economy and for tourism. I understand that there are reservations, but a balance can be struck. It should be possible to allow home-grown brewery businesses to sell their wares on their premises without creating a situation that would have people sitting in them drinking all day and all night, and many would question our ability to organise such an event even if we wanted to do so [Laughter.]

If we do not deal with that issue in the Bill and take a holistic view of the whole industry, it is highly likely that we will have to return to the issue, sooner rather than later. I hope that we can come to some sort of consensus across the House on the issue during the Bill's passage.

Secondly, it is within the scope of the Bill for the Committee and the House to look at the system of awarding licences, specifically their distribution as well as the total number available. The Bill is an opportunity to consider the provision of licences in rural areas in particular and the impact that the loss of one of the few local pubs, if not the only one, can have on a small town or village.

Thirdly and finally, much as the focus of the Bill is on the relaxation of licensing laws, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are always trying to strike the right balance between having a vibrant hospitality industry and responsible drinking. For example, the Bill does not introduce minimum alcohol unit pricing, which our party supports. I recognise that that is not in the Minister's remit, but perhaps she can let us know whether the Executive have discussed the issue and whether anything will come forward from the Health Minister in that regard.

Moreover, extending opening hours has a knock-on effect on policing, as Mr Allister mentioned, and enforcement. In turn, it creates the need for more awareness of and around problem drinking. The Bill also makes changes to regulating the presence of under-18s in licensed establishments. That also has to be considered in the context of safeguarding and preventing any normalisation of unhealthy alcohol consumption. I look forward to hearing from the Minister and stakeholders about how the balance between economic and social activity and public health can be struck.

I will draw my remarks to a close by saying that I welcome the introduction of the Bill and the work that we as a Committee will do to scrutinise and improve it. It will be a welcome change to get our teeth into some proper legislative work that is not retrospective approval or a legislative consent motion (LCM) to give powers to Westminster. I hope that stakeholders engage with the Committee Stage and that the Bill can be an example of the Assembly legislating effectively, as opposed to another news headline about a crisis at Stormont. Not only is that important for the businesses and consumers affected by the Bill but it sends a wider message about devolution, these institutions and our efforts to restore public confidence in them.

Mr Butler: I do not think that I will have the Chamber in as much mirth as Mr Durkan did. I speak on the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party in the absence of our communities spokesperson, Andy Allen, who is self-isolating. You could say that I am a poor man's Andy Allen. I thank the Minister for her kind remarks about Andy. He is self-isolating, but I have relayed to him the fact that you pointed out that he would be scrutinising the housing statement. I am sure that he will apply that same scrutiny to the Bill.

As a party, we support the introduction of the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill. It is the second attempt at legislating, owing to the previous Bill having fallen on the collapse of the Assembly. I know that a lot of hard work went into the previous Bill, some of which is reflected in the Bill before us. When dealing with licensing and registration of clubs, it is vital that we strike a balance in supporting the sector. The Minister has already mentioned that and used those words.

It is vital to help the sector and local industries to grow and support them in creating employment whilst implementing appropriate safeguards. The Chair of the Committee spoke about that at length, and I thank her for that.


12.30 pm

It is estimated that the hospitality sector generates £1·2 billion per year for the local economy and is a significant driver in the tourism industry. As we know, however, and as Mr Durkan pointed out, COVID-19 and the restrictions have had a devastating impact not just in Northern Ireland but across the world. In recent months, the hospitality industry has struggled perhaps more than others in these challenging times. Stakeholders have highlighted the fact that the growth of the industry in Northern Ireland has been curtailed significantly by restrictive legislation, which has inhibited the growth of the hospitality sector and, potentially, cost our economy millions of pounds. Modernisation of the antiquated licensing laws is long overdue. Given the difficulties facing the sector in Northern Ireland, it could be a welcome boost to the sector, and to the local economy, when we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Modern licensing laws, intelligently implemented, could alleviate problems, as well as revive the night-time economy of our provincial towns and villages. My colleague from Lagan Valley will speak in the debate with passion and vigour. I am sure that he will refer to Lagan Valley and bring his experience to that.

When considering changes to licensing regulations, it is important to acknowledge that alcohol misuse has been identified as a significant public health and social issue in Northern Ireland over many years. On average, 2,500 people are treated each year for alcohol abuse, with one in six admissions to A&E being as a result of alcohol misuse. The Bill covers a broad range of areas, from Easter opening to the introduction of a producer's licence. No doubt, many who wish to input to the Bill, or who wish to see amendments to it, will take part in the consultation. We invite them to lobby and to keep our in-boxes full and speak to the Committee.

It is vital that we get it right in alleviating the problems and that we implement the safeguards while supporting the industry. We support the Bill's progression to Committee Stage, and the Minister is correct to say that we need to strike the right balance.

Ms Armstrong: I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill to the House, and I confirm that the Alliance Party, of course, supports it.

I would like to thank Hospitality Ulster for some of these figures. The hospitality sector sustains 60,000 jobs, 40,000 of which are in tourism alone. Tourism delivers £750 million to the Northern Ireland economy, and food and drink accounts for more than 30% of visitor spend.

While the Assembly had targets to grow tourism income and the number of the jobs in the sector annually, unfortunately COVID-19 has caused catastrophe in the industry. Without the financial support provided through the furlough scheme, rates relief and other measures, many pubs and clubs would have closed, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs across Northern Ireland. However, although we are in the grip of an economic crisis, we have to set aside the immediate concerns and create legislation fit for the future.

There is a lot to be grateful for in this legislation; there is a lot going forward and aiming for the future. The Alliance Party supports the increase in the number of late licences for pubs and clubs. We are delighted to see the changes to Easter opening times, which we have supported for some time. We welcome the clarification that school formals can remain on premises after 9.00 pm as long as alcohol is not served. I expect that there may be further debate about extended drinking-up time, given that it will mean people coming out of pubs and clubs as late as 3.00 am.

However, there are other aspects of the Bill that we will consider, and I look forward to doing so during the Committee Stage. For instance, one issue that has already been raised is the producer's licence. That licence does not allow local producers to sell produce from their own premises. Our current model inhibits the growth of local producers due to the fact that a licence on the private market can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. That leaves publicans with no choice but to sign contracts with multi-national brands in exchange for financial incentives, cutting local producers out of the market and sending money out of the economy.

There is wide public support for local-producer taprooms, and we have all been approached by many people who would like to see them. Given that they are not currently legislated for, the only legal way for breweries to operate taprooms is by using occasional licences. Breweries acknowledge that that is not what occasional licences are designed for. That is the specific reason they are asking for the ability to obtain a producers' licence, and I am sure that they will come to the Committee to seek that. By using an occasional licence, a brewery can operate a taproom selling whatever drinks it likes and have the same closing time as pubs. I can certainly understand why pubs would be concerned about that. However, breweries are willing to compromise by selling only their own products and limiting their closing time to 11.00 pm.

Until 2016, national stadiums such as Windsor Park and the then Ravenhill rugby ground had to use an occasional licence for every fixture held at their ground. Hospitality Ulster argued that, because there was public demand for alcohol to be served at matches and occasional licences were not designed to be used in that way, a new category of licence should be created to allow national stadiums to serve alcohol at matches. That argument was successful, and a new category of licence was created. That is not dissimilar to what the breweries are seeking.

In Northern Ireland, 99% of beer sold is produced elsewhere. Building local brands will encourage more pubs to begin selling local beer on draught, keeping money and jobs in the local economy and increasing HMRC tax revenues. Local breweries already export the majority of their products. They cannot sell it on site, so they export. With Brexit looming, which may impact their export sales, they need a strong local market to enable them to invest in their employees and equipment in order to facilitate exports.

The nature of taprooms is that they are ancillary to the main purpose of breweries. It has been proven that breweries become less financially dependent on a taproom once they have established their brand in the local market, which the taproom allows them to do. We will look at that issue when it comes forward for further scrutiny.

One of the issues that has come up, and I have received an awful lot of communication about this, is the cost of buying a licence. I appreciate that that is not in the Bill. Private trade means that, while court costs for a licence remain within a few hundred pounds, the licence can be privately traded for five- or six-figure sums. That happens because of the number of licences available here. If anybody wants to buy a licence to open a new pub, they have to wait until someone else surrenders theirs. However, that person will have to compete with supermarkets or convenience stores to purchase that licence. While I support competition, what has happened in Northern Ireland is that there has been the loss of local community pubs and an increase in off-sales.

Sixty-five per cent of alcohol may be drunk at home, and that may appear to suggest that selling alcohol through off-sales is the way to go. However, as has been raised here before by others, that means that the regulated, controlled environment of the pub is not there to protect and manage drinking. My colleague Paula Bradshaw MLA has said — indeed, Mark Durkan brought this up today — that we need to manage alcohol, and, indeed, we support minimum unit pricing of alcohol. We also support responsible drinking, as does the hospitality sector.

I am delighted to say that we support the Bill's Second Stage. The legislation is long overdue and is good. We look forward to its scrutiny. If amendments happen to come along, be they from the Minister, the Committee or whomever, we will look at those. I encourage the Department to consider the licence-surrender principle, if it is not in this legislation, because it is very concerning that we are losing our local community pubs to supermarkets and shops.

Thank you very much, Minister, for bringing forward the Bill. We are aiming for Easter, and, hopefully, with you, we will get the legislation through for Easter.

Mr Easton: The Bill has been brought forward because a similar Bill fell when the Assembly was dissolved in 2017. I will give some context to the Bill's introduction. A review of licensing legislation began in 2012, and it revealed that the problem of alcohol misuse in Northern Ireland was growing. The number of deaths related to alcohol consumption in recent years has been over 15% higher than that which was recorded just over a decade ago. That comes at a considerable cost to our economy and brings with it many social problems.

The hospitality industry has also raised concerns about licensing laws and feels that more could be done to support the sector. COVID-19 has obviously had a serious impact on the hospitality sector in recent times. Businesses have been forced to close, allowed to reopen and then asked to close again. Even when those businesses were allowed to open, they had to operate with a lower capacity to allow for social-distancing measures.

Whilst government support has been put in place for the sector, it is clear that that loss of revenue and the ongoing restrictions are causing many businesses to struggle.

The end of last year saw a follow-up consultation on licensing laws. The Department for Communities met interested groups, and there was general agreement among all the groups that there needed to be legislative changes on these issues. Given the ongoing pandemic, it is particularly important that the concerns of the hospitality sector be taken into account as we begin our economic recovery.

As a former member of the Health Committee, it is on those issues that I will focus most of my remarks. The Bill has significant implications for the health of our population. The interested health organisations that responded to the consultation expressed concern about prevalent excess drinking in the home. COVID-19 will have only exacerbated that problem and the potential harms that it can bring, including domestic violence, cases of which, as we know, have risen during the pandemic.

The Bill aims to reduce the amount of alcohol that people purchase in supermarkets and off-licences. Clause 16 restricts the advertising of promotions and sales of alcoholic drinks to specific areas of the supermarket in which they are being sold. The clause seeks to deter individuals from purchasing more alcohol on a shopping trip than they had originally intended. For any company in breach of the new regulations, the Bill creates a fine of up to £1,000.

Clause 17 prohibits loyalty schemes and bonus points related to the sale of alcohol for all licensed premises. That will be punishable by a larger fine of up to £5,000. That should further serve to deter customers from purchasing excess alcohol, as they will receive no economic benefit from doing so.

Clause 15 concerns further policing access to alcohol. It states that self-service and vending machine options should be prohibited from selling alcohol, with some specific exemptions for vending machines in the likes of hotels that meet certain conditions. Self-service and vending machine options also allow easier access to alcohol for those under the age of 18, and the clause will ensure that a member of staff must have direct supervision of any sales that take place. Those measures may go some way to assisting the problem of excess alcohol consumption at home, which currently costs our economy around £900 million per year. However, that is clearly a complex issue, many of the solutions to which are beyond the scope of the Bill.

Health organisations also expressed concerns during the consultation about underage young people drinking. The Bill, therefore, seeks to restrict their access to alcohol in a number of ways. Clause 10 requires businesses that provide meals and sell alcohol to ensure that young people are accompanied by an adult and sit away from the bar. It also requires young people to leave premises by 9.00 pm or 9.30 pm depending on whether a meal is ordered.

Clause 11 establishes a fine for bars that host underage functions and fail to meet certain requirements, such as preventing access to the area of the premises that sells alcohol, or selling alcohol to an adult in the designated area of the underage function. The clause also inserts an amendment into the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements Order to prevent gambling machines from being used in the area in which underage functions are taking place.

As for private functions in licensed premises, clause 12 provides that children must be accompanied by a parent, a meal must be served away from the bar area and no member of the public should have access to the private function area.

With the rise of online shopping, which has been further boosted by COVID-19, clause 13 introduces a fine of up to £5,000 and potential imprisonment of up to six months for licence holders or their staff who deliver alcohol to someone under the age of 18 at their home.

Part 2 of the Bill largely replicates the clauses from Part 1 of the Bill and applies them to sporting clubs. I would highlight that the lifting of advertising restrictions on private sporting club functions will help them to finance the activities that they provide to their local communities and that would otherwise be unavailable. Those clubs clearly provide health and social benefits to local people and should be supported in recovering from COVID-19.


12.45 pm

In closing my remarks, I will touch briefly on the hospitality and small business sectors. The Bill allows for extended opening hours for the hospitality sector, which will also benefit the tourism industry as travel begins to open up in the aftermath of the pandemic. Additional revenue can also be gained from hosting underage functions under the strict conditions that are outlined in the Bill. That will be welcomed by a sector that has been badly hit by global events this year.

The Bill also provides for the introduction of producer licences for breweries and distilleries to allow them to sell their alcoholic products on their premises. That measure has received a great deal of support, and it will be a boost for those small businesses, particularly as they attempt to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr O'Dowd: I welcome the Second Stage of the Bill, when we speak broadly about its clauses. I wish the Committee all the best in its deliberations. I am sure that it will, quite rightly, be inundated with representations from a variety of sectors that are affected by the legislation.

Our society has a very difficult relationship with alcohol, dating back many centuries. Alcoholism has caused huge problems in family homes, in society and, as others mentioned, for the health service, and it has ruined many lives. The abuse of alcohol is something that we, as legislators, and society have to recognise. Nevertheless, we also have to say, in measured terms, how we will ensure that we create a responsible relationship with alcohol, and the Bill goes some way towards doing that.

We have to recognise that our society and the way in which people socialise and celebrate events in the calendar is changing. Easter, in particular, has changed over the past 20 or 25 years. I have reflected on a number of occasions in the Chamber that I used to work as a chef, and I also did many an hour behind a bar as a barman. That type of work gives you an interesting insight into human behaviour and the human mindset because you see the best and the worst in people.

In my socialising and in my work in the hotel and bar trade over many years, I have recognised one thing: a well-run bar, club or hotel is much more than simply a place where people go to consume alcohol. It is like a community within a community. When you have good bar staff and good owners of premises, people feel as if they are part of a community, particularly those who are elderly or lonely. People go round to their local for a bottle of stout or a whisky once a day, and that is their social event. That is where they go to socialise.

Much more importantly, however, a responsible bar owner and good bar staff listen and engage and become friends with their customers. They know their customers; they know when something is not right, and they offer a helping hand. That is why the proposals, whereby we have a responsible approach to alcohol and we have responsible bar owners, should allow us to push the boat out and extend our opening hours and the opportunities for venues to open longer, particularly on Easter Sunday.

The way in which families and individuals react to different events has changed. When I was working as a chef 20 or 25 years ago — maybe longer — you could take Easter Sunday off because it was a very quiet day. People did not go out as much to eat or maybe have a drink. I know that you cannot get Easter Sunday off nowadays because it is such a busy day in the hotel and restaurant trade. It is only right, then, that we have proper opening hours to reflect that and allow people to enjoy themselves and consume alcohol responsibly.

Mr O'Toole: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Like him, I spent a large part of my life behind bars and some of it in front of them as well. I completely agree with what he said about the social benefit of pubs being incalculable. Does he agree that the structure of our licensing system is killing that in many ways? The structure of our system is creating incentives for small pubs to transfer licences to big supermarkets. That may not be for this Bill, but we need to look at it in the long term.

Mr O'Dowd: Yes, I was going to move on to that. I am deeply concerned about the changing trends in the growth of the off-licence sector and home drinking for a variety of reasons, but particularly because of the socialisation that happens in bars. When you are in a bar, your drinking habits are regulated. If you drink too much in a bar, the barman — trust me on this, because I was a barman — will put up with only so much before it is time for you to go home. However, in the house people may be drinking measures such as shorts, and they will tell you, for example, "I had three Bacardis last night", but they do not realise that the three Bacardis were actually triple measures. The drinks are not being measured using an optic. That is deeply worrying.

While this is not the responsibility of the Executive yet, I favour a method of having higher taxation on off-licences and perhaps lowering the taxation on bars in order to shift that trend.

Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. My intervention is in the same vein. I am glad that you mentioned in detail the societal harms of alcohol consumption. With two thirds of all alcohol sold being consumed in the home, it is, indeed, worrying that that is an unregulated environment. Clause 16 limits supermarket advertising, and, like me, I am sure that the Member welcomes that measure. Will you agree that, worryingly, the failure to regulate and limit digital advertising is a missed opportunity and is something that the Committee could take hold of? In the day and age in which we live, a lot of the information consumed by people is via Facebook, social media interactions and digital communication, and if we are trying to solve the advertising problem in supermarkets, we must also regulate advertising in the digital market.

Mr O'Dowd: That is something that the Committee should look at; we have to look at all modern forms of advertising.

I want to draw my remarks to a close before the 1.00 pm break. I will move on through them quickly. I welcome that automatic and self-service dispensers are going to be made illegal. They are an abomination that go against the principles that we talked about, such as good bar staff, good bar owners and socialisation. Self-service tills should also be removed from shops, in my opinion, because they do away with jobs and with that socialisation.

I also welcome the relaxation for the microbreweries and producers of alcohol. In a previous intervention, my colleague from Upper Bann mentioned cider and beer producers in the constituency, and that will be a welcome development. I know that there will be further discussions about how far that measure should go and what the other elements will be. However, that is a very welcome recognition of an industry with growth and tourism potential, and it will be of benefit to our economy moving forward.

The other thing that I want to mention before I end is that the staff who work on these premises are usually low-paid and are sometimes, but not always, on zero-hours contracts. That is not the responsibility of the Minister. However, the industry has to recognise that, if the Assembly passes the legislation and gives it more opening hours and better opportunities to promote businesses, it has to look after the staff. The industry has to look after the bar staff, waiters, waitresses and all the other people who are required to run it. The industry has to ensure that the staff are properly paid and looked after, particularly if they are working into the early hours. That has to be recognised, and the industry has to take that on board. I will draw my remarks to a close on that point.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, the Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I, therefore, propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Questions to the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. The debate will resume after Question Time, and the next Member scheduled to speak is Matthew O'Toole.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.54 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

Mr Speaker: Questions 1 and 3 have been withdrawn.

Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I am currently finalising a discussion document consultation on a future Northern Ireland climate change Bill that I will publish in the next number of weeks. A climate change Bill for Northern Ireland must be given proper thought and consultation to ensure that the measures that we take are appropriate and will deliver benefits and that we allow business time to adjust to a new way of working and, where necessary, provide financial support.

I have written to the independent expert UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) for advice on what would be our equitable contribution to the UK's net zero emissions target. I want to consider that information to ensure that our emissions reduction targets are credible and evidence-based. Unfortunately, the CCC will not be in a position to respond to my request until after it has provided advice on the UK's sixth carbon budget, which will be published in December 2020.

I will consider the responses from the discussion document consultation on a future Northern Ireland climate change Bill along with the advice provided by the CCC and then present my findings to the Northern Ireland Executive to agree a way forward.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for his response. What is the Environment Minister's timescale for the enactment of a climate change Act? Would it not be better for him to add his support to the passage of the cross-party climate change private Member's Bill?

Mr Poots: The lifetime of this Assembly.

No, it would not be, because rushed legislation is not normally good legislation, as the Member well knows. We are going about the process correctly. There will be a public consultation, which you normally do before you introduce legislation. Legislating without consultation is not good practice. It does not give the respect to the public that should be given. I will bring forward legislation that has been appropriately and correctly carried out, as opposed to the rushed legislation that he appears to back.

Mr McGuigan: The North is the only jurisdiction in these islands that does not have a climate Bill. Given that you, Minister, said in the Assembly two months ago that your officials would begin work to scope out the options for climate change legislation, surely you are in a position to give a definitive time frame to the Assembly.

Mr Poots: The time frame is that we are close to having a consultation document ready and we will then go to public consultation. You take a decision after you publicly consult, not before. That gives the public some credibility. We will consult with the intention of proceeding with a climate change Act, but let us consult the public on it and do the thing appropriately, as opposed to ignoring what the public have to say.

Ms Hunter: Does the Minister agree that it is crucial that environmental targets are given a strong legal underpinning and that it is vital that we do all that we can to prevent coastal erosion in areas such as the north coast?

Mr Poots: Coastal erosion is a significant issue. It is probably an issue of even greater significance in County Down than County Antrim, but nonetheless we have a beautiful coastline that needs to be protected. That is a course of work that we are currently doing, and we will continue to support other organisations and provide our own qualitative work.

In terms of underpinning, we need to set targets that are reasonable and achievable and that will make a difference. We do not have to wait for a climate change Act to do some of that. For example, we are looking at targets at the moment of 65% recycling, which would be an increase on the 50% that we have achieved ahead of schedule. I would like to push that to 70%. The UK position is 65%. We have already overstepped our target on renewable energy. We were to produce 20% by 2020, but we are well over 40%; I think that it is around 45%.

I want to see that percentage go upwards still. We could be setting a target of 70% for renewable energy.

Those are all things that are achievable and will make a real difference, and that is what is important. An Act in and of itself is fine. I have no issues with having an Act, but an Act alone will not achieve those things unless we set ourselves targets that we fulfil. History tells us that we have been fulfilling targets, and we will set targets that we will fulfil going forward as well.

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for his question. The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act relates to a range of policy areas — gating orders, vehicles, litter, graffiti, dogs, noise and statutory nuisances — relevant to both clean neighbourhoods and the environment. Those policy areas are the responsibility of a number of Departments, including my Department and the Department for Infrastructure.

I can confirm that, although my Department has no plans to undertake a formal review of its sections of the Act in the foreseeable future, the issues of litter and dog fouling will be considered in DAERA's forthcoming draft environmental strategy for Northern Ireland. The strategy will consider options for tackling those ongoing problems in the future and include the outcome of the current review of fixed penalty notices for litter and dog-fouling offences.

Part 7 of the Act relates to statutory nuisances. Sections 63 and 65 give district councils the power to deal with noise from premises, including land, that they consider to be prejudicial to health or amounts to a statutory nuisance. Where a council is satisfied that a nuisance exists, sections 63 and 65 require the district council to serve an abatement notice. There are no plans to amend the legislation at present. My officials, however, are in communication with the Department of Justice following its earlier consultation on antisocial behaviour. The Department for Infrastructure has confirmed that it has no current plans to review any legislation linked to the Act.

Mr Hilditch: I welcome the Minister's answer. I understand, of course, that enforcement of such a wide-ranging Act falls to local government. That is where I believe that things fall down, however, so I would welcome anything coming forward by way of any new Act. Is there any way in which the Minister can see better working happening with councils, which are the enforcers? Their record on enforcement over the past couple of years has been very poor.

Mr Poots: I am very keen that the legislation be properly and well enforced. I brought it forward when I was Environment Minister. We therefore want to see benefits arising from it. We will look at certain issues around fixed penalty notices for litter and dog fouling in the environmental strategy, and potentially in a new environment Bill. Hopefully, we can strengthen any legislation that needs strengthened in that form.

Ms Mullan: Minister, dog fouling is a blight on our neighbourhoods. In an area of my constituency, we have particular issues with rodents, which apparently feed off it. Are you considering making it mandatory for dog owners, of which I am one, to carry litter bags or appliances for removing foul when out walking their dog?

Mr Poots: I have not given that thought at this time, but, as part of the environment strategy, we will certainly consult on how we can further strengthen issues around dog fouling. Dogs are the most wonderful pets, and those of us who have them are very privileged to have them. Having a dog comes with a responsibility, however, and people have a responsibility to ensure that they clean up after their dog. It is as simple as that.

Mr Catney: Minister, I hope that you will agree with me that an independent environmental protection agency would be the most appropriate body to monitor the implementation of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act.

Mr Poots: I am not sure whether you have informed local councils that you intend to take powers away from them and whether your local councillors will accept that. If the SDLP wishes to accept that as its policy, I will be happy to hear about it in due course.

Mr Beggs: One area that the Minister mentioned as being covered by the Act is abandoned vehicles, and vehicles being worked on in the street etc. In a number of locations in my constituency, that is problematic. Local neighbourhoods are blighted by such businesses working on footpaths and on the street, leaving oil and abandoned vehicles that cause difficulties for other resident who want to park. The current legislation is not working, and I ask the Minister to review that particular aspect of it.

Mr Poots: I am happy to look at it. However, the legislation was brought out, in the first instance, to give councils the powers to deal with those issues. If there is a weakness in the legislation, that is one thing. If there is a weakness in the implementation, that is another thing. We need to identify which it is: the legislation or the implementation of it.

Mr Poots: At the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) environment sectoral meeting on 21 October, I made a commitment to work with my counterpart, Minister Ryan, within the NSMC structures to address environmental issues to our mutual benefit. We agreed that our Departments would continue to cooperate to deliver tangible environmental improvements in Northern Ireland and Ireland, both now and after the end of the transition period.

Cross border cooperation will continue, following the end of the transition period, on a wide range of environmental issues, including water quality, international river basin management, bathing water status, blue flag beaches, marine strategy, waste crime, air quality and EU funding.

Subject to the approval of the Assembly, the environment Bill will establish the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) in Northern Ireland to perform the environmental oversight role currently undertaken by the European Commission. The OEP will be permitted to share information, where appropriate or necessary, with certain bodies outside the UK that have functions in connection with the protection of the natural environment. This will enable it to share information with, for example, the European Commission on transboundary issues. Any arrangements will take account of current North/South governance.

Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for the information provided on North/South cooperation. Can I ask about east-west cooperation? What action is being undertaken by the Department to ensure that Northern Ireland is included fully in UK Government consideration of post-transition period planning? I ask that because it became clear recently, as the Minister is aware, that Northern Ireland has not been included in impact assessments carried out for emissions trading schemes for the future.

Mr Poots: We are having a debate later on emissions trading schemes. I have concerns about significant issues in relation to the current emissions trading scheme. We will have two emissions trading schemes, one UK, the other EU. So, because we are still in the single electricity market, the generators, which account for 82% of carbon trading, will probably be in the European scheme, whilst other industries will be in the UK scheme.

The issue that I have is that, in 2018, Northern Ireland paid £65 million of carbon tax into the scheme. We have been paying those sorts of sums for many years but have not been able to draw down funding from that source because only three schemes in a country can benefit. The UK had three larger schemes, which were the beneficiaries of it. We pay all this carbon tax, but we get no support from that scheme to reduce our carbon emissions. The scheme is flawed in that sense. However, I will request that Northern Ireland be deemed a country, once the UK leaves the European Union, because we are still contributing to the scheme. It may work to our advantage if we can have three significant schemes to bid for at that point.

Ms Sheerin: I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. Given that we live on an island that has its own environmental landscape and unique characteristics, none of which is affected by the boundary on the island, does the Minister agree that all-island cooperation and coordination on environmental issues is vital?

Mr Poots: I do not get too hung up on politics when it comes to these types of things. Whether as Health Minister, or previously as Environment Minister, I have always worked well with colleagues from south of the border on interests that align mutually to both parties. Other people sometimes want to play politics with the North/South stuff; I just get on with it.

Mr O'Toole: I am glad to hear that the Minister is getting on with it, and, hopefully, we can all get on with a deal and implementation of the protocol.

In relation to that, dairy producers here say that, if the UK crashes out of the transition period without a deal, we will not be able to process at least 35% — possibly more — of the milk produced in Northern Ireland. What is the Minister doing to prevent that cataclysmic set of circumstances for our dairy farmers?


2.15 pm

Mr Poots: I have been asked by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister to produce papers that they will take significant account of in their negotiations, and we are doing that around a potential means of dealing with the problems that have arisen from the protocol. It is incredibly important that we achieve that and that the European Union recognises that Northern Ireland could be damaged as a consequence of the protocol. There is a trading scheme that we could have for the dairy sector. Worryingly, the red meat sector imports around £250 million of beef each year for further processing. That supports around 1,000 jobs here, particularly in mid-Ulster. Because of the protocol, that business has the potential to be lost.

I have been working closely with the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), for example, and other organisations in devising a means to overcome those issues, but we need the European Union to work with the people of Northern Ireland to ensure that Northern Ireland plc, jobs and consumers are not damaged. Nonsense such as every supermarket having to put export health certificates on each item in a lorry will lead to thousands of pounds or, in some instances, tens of thousands being added to a lorryload of goods that will end up in the like of Iceland, Asda, Sainsbury's or Tesco. The consequence of that is that we will likely lose some of those businesses from Northern Ireland, and there will be the consequent job losses and a potential loss of goods that people want to buy from the shelves. A lot of businesses in GB are talking about pulling out of the Northern Ireland market because of the protocol. As it stands, the protocol is extremely damaging, but it can be remedied if the European Union cooperates with us to do so.

Mr Poots: Northern Ireland farmers are receiving their full direct payments in one lump sum this year. Payments began to issue on Friday, 16 October 2020, with 94% of payments totalling £265·7million going out on the first day. By the end of the first week, payments had increased to 97% — £275·5 million. Payment letters are being issued by post but can also be viewed online at DAERA online services. My officials are continuing to verify the remaining claims and issue payments as a matter of urgency. In addition, they have developed a new online claim tracking service so that farmers can track the progress of their direct payments.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Minister for his response. Will the Minister indicate whether farmers are entitled to a reimbursement of the financial discipline deducted from the 2019 scheme? If so, when will that reimbursement be made to farmers?

Mr Poots: We can, and we will. That happened last year, and we hope to be in a position to do it by the end of this year. The reimbursement of the financial discipline deducted from the 2019 scheme year payments will be done as a separate payment. We do not know the exact date, but we managed to do it for December last year, and we hope to achieve that this year.

Mr McCrossan: What financial commitments has the Minister sought from the British Government to maintain the current level of support for farmers after the transition period?

Mr Poots: I have sought those commitments verbally and in writing, and I raised them yesterday with George Eustice at the inter-ministerial group (IMG) meeting. We will continue to argue to ensure that Northern Ireland's envelope remains the same as it has been.

Mr McAleer: I commend the Minister and the Department for getting 94% of the payments out through the door on 16 October. That is a great result. It will be welcomed by the farming and rural community. When does the Minister envisage any changes being made to the basic payment regime following the transition period?

Mr Poots: There will be modest changes next year such as the greening requirement no longer being applied. I am also looking at offering some sort of support for the growing of protein crops. Protein crops can divert the requirement to import protein from countries where environmental practice may not be quite as good as ours happens to be. Protein crops can also contribute to taking nitrogen out of the atmosphere and reduce nitrogen deposition going into our peatlands. However, I would like to do something more comprehensive in the following year. That will be based on ensuring that production is supported and that high environmental standards are applied, so that we can ensure that agriculture plays its part in reducing damage to the environment. There is work that can be done there. That will provide support to people who are taking significant environmental steps. It will be beneficial, particularly in the hill areas. I will be interested to hear the views of the Member and colleagues on that. I have no doubt that there will be significant change, but I think that the change will be measured towards what we actually want to achieve. What we want to achieve is continued growth in agriculture and continued reduction of the impact of agriculture on the environment.

Mr Poots: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take questions 7 and 10 together.

I have been advised by officials from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) that 13 additional gas extraction wells have been installed in the active area of the landfill. The work was completed on 16 October 2020. The additional wells have now been connected to the gas extraction system. The site gas engineer is currently working on-site to optimise gas extraction from the new wells. It may take a few weeks to fully optimise the gas extraction system, as it is important to prevent the ingress of oxygen to the landfill gas management system. NIEA inspectors will continue to check the site and to monitor for odours in the Colin area regularly to assess the effectiveness of the additional gas extraction.

Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for his answer. I am happy to be corrected, but my understanding is that the NIEA has not been on-site to investigate concerns. I am happy for him to elaborate on that. Given that 104 concerns about the Mullaghglass site have been raised by residents this year already, which is a fivefold increase from 2018, and given the health concerns raised repeatedly by residents in Lagmore, Mount Eagles and west Belfast more generally, what assurances can the Minister give them that their health is not at risk from potential pollution or noxious gases coming from the site?

Mr Poots: The Mullaghglass landfill site is currently assessed as being non-compliant with the pollution prevention and control permit. The NIEA has directed the operator to take action and to implement new measures to address the odour nuisance. The planned installation of the additional gas extraction wells in the active area of the site was brought forward from November to September. Site works to install the new gas wells were completed on 16 October, and, as I said, it may take a few weeks for that to be optimised. On completion of the current site works, NIEA will require the landfill operator to review its odour management plan and to plan the installation of future gas wells to minimise the risk of further odour nuisance in the Colin area. Since August 2020, NIEA has conducted 14 site inspections and odour checks in the Colin area in response to the complaints from local residents.

Ms Flynn: We have held meetings with the NIEA on the issue over the past number of months, so I am aware that it has been doing work with the Mullaghglass site. I know that the site is not expected to close until December 2021. Apart from the gas wells and the work that is being done around those, are there any long-term plans in place to deal with the odours? I speak not just as the MLA for the area but as a resident of the Colin. The odours are extremely unpleasant to live with. I know that work is being done, and we are due to meet the NIEA again in December. However, aside from the gas wells, are there any plans that you can put in place?

Mr Poots: NIEA has been looking at a number of odour sources and reports of different types of smells across the Colin area, and the inspectors for the regulated sites in the area have initiated joint inspections to further establish what odours are affecting different parts of the Colin area. They have also been sharing information closely with the relevant environmental health officers in Belfast City Council and Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council. I know that they met you and Councillor Magennis earlier, and they will continue to cooperate with you and with all other public representatives who have concerns about the issue.

Mr Catney: My question is to do with the Mullaghglass site, Minister. Do you have any plans to prosecute those who are responsible? There may well be historic sites there, but there must also be some dumping going on that is creating those odours.

Mr Poots: Unfortunately, fly-tipping takes place in the Belfast hills, and that is hugely unfortunate because it is a beautiful part of the world. We need to ensure that councils offer services, and it is important that council sites are open to take the materials. Ensuring that councils can collect heavy goods, such as settees and so forth, from people's houses is important, because people sometimes pay somebody else to do it, and those individuals then unscrupulously dump the materials. Some companies are not engaging correctly, and we need to ensure that we pursue those people. We will need to ensure that companies work with us to eliminate the problems, and that work is being done.

Mr Poots: On 3 April 2020, I announced a temporary support package for the sea fisheries sector that was geared to cover 50% of a fishing vessel's costs for three months from March to May 2020, provided genuine losses had accrued as a direct result of the pandemic. The aim of the scheme was to get support on the ground as soon as possible as a result of the total loss of markets. In total, £1·32 million has been paid out through the scheme to 171 fishing vessel owners. Approximately £1·02 million has been provided to over-10-metre vessels and £300,000 to vessels of 10 metres and under.

On 26 May, I announced a support scheme for Northern Ireland aquaculture undertakings that had incurred financial losses through lost markets from March to May inclusive. Up to £360,000 was made available to the sector. In total, 19 aquaculture businesses were invited to apply for support, the level of which was based on the income forgone as a result of COVID-19 from 1 March to 31 May. Fifteen applications were received, and 15 offers of financial assistance were made, with 14 accepted. To date, £83,600 has been paid to 13 eligible applicants, and a further £13,000 of support is being processed for the remaining two applicants. The initial level of support that was anticipated to have been required was overestimated, as the figures supplied by business owners were not, in many cases, as large as originally indicated.

More recently, on 5 October, I announced a further £1·7 million financial support package for the sea fisheries catching sector, which continues to be impacted by lost markets as a result of COVID-19. The support package is to deliver a £1·31 million temporary cessation scheme under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund for trawlers and dredgers and is currently open to applications. Invitation letters were issued to owners of 111 vessels, and, to date, 76 applications have been received to the value of £956,000. A £390,000 fixed cost scheme for static fishers will be open to applications in early November 2020. Under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, I am also working with my officials to provide a £336,000 support package to the Lough Neagh fishermen.

Miss McIlveen: I welcome the Minister's response. We can all agree that this is a challenging time for the fishing industry. Can the Minister outline how the support compares with that in other regions, and, in addition to that, can he detail the steps that he is taking to ensure that any Brexit dividend in respect of additional landings is proportionately distributed across the United Kingdom and that the Portavogie fishermen get their fair share?


2.30 pm

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for the question. First, that was the quickest and most generous of the packages that was offered anywhere on these islands. Secondly, in thinking about how we go forward, we need to ensure that we get our share of the additional fishing. It is great that we have the opportunity to bid for it. We have been restricted for so many years in the number of fish that we can catch whilst others have utilised our waters and the fish in them, so I want to ensure that people in Portavogie, Ardglass, Kilkeel and all others in Northern Ireland get their fair crack of the whip after so many years of not having it.

Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We will now move to 15 minutes of topical questions. Question 4 has been withdrawn.

T1. Ms Anderson asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, following his recent answer to her question about checks at border control posts, in which he confirmed that such checks would be performed by EU Commission experts, for an update on that, given that we are only 58 days from the end of the transition period. (AQT 601/17-22)

Mr Poots: I am glad to say that the people who will check at the points of entry are vets and environmental health officers from Northern Ireland who are provided by our Department and by local authorities.

Ms Anderson: Minister, I remind you that your Department will be making arrangements to comply with official control regulations in order to ensure that controls can be performed by Commission experts in accordance with article 116 of the Irish protocol. Minister, do you not agree or even understand that some people feel that you are behaving more like a Brexiteer than a Minister?

Mr Poots: I assure the Member that I am a Brexiteer and that I am also a Minister. There are others who will oppose Brexit and will be Ministers, and they are perfectly entitled to do that. The reality for the Member is that we are leaving the European Union. That is done and dusted. On 31 December 2021, the implementation period will be over.

I oppose the points of entry. I always have. The protocol brings huge problems to us. Nonetheless, it is an imposition that has been placed upon us. We will provide the appropriate personnel and will seek to reduce any invasion whatsoever by the number of inspections that need to take place and minimise those as much as possible in order to retain normal business relations with key customers and suppliers. I see absolutely no point in creating barriers between us and our key markets and, indeed, our key suppliers. All that that will do is cause job losses in Northern Ireland and cost consumers more money. If the Member wishes to have that, stand up and say it. I do not.

T2. Ms Bailey asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, after thanking him for an answer that she received to a priority question for written answer, in which he confirmed that anaerobic digester (AD) plants that treat agricultural waste must have planning permission in place before his Department will issue a waste management licence, to state whether any waste management licences have been issued retrospectively and whether any AD plants that treat agri-waste are operating without planning permission. (AQT 602/17-22)

Mr Poots: The answer to that question is quite clear. If you establish an anaerobic digester prior to having planning permission, you will not get your waste management licence. If you get your planning permission retrospectively, you can apply for your waste management licence.

Ms Bailey: I thank the Minister for not answering the question. Further to that, we know from your stats, Minister, that in some of our special areas of conservation, ammonia levels breach our current regulations by up to 350%, year-on-year. That is exacerbated by those AD plants at times. What enforcement or regulation powers does his Department have to take action?

Mr Poots: It is interesting that the Member is against green energy from taking materials like animal waste and slurry and turning that into gas, which can then be used for electricity in people's homes and businesses. It is an interesting line that the Green Party is opposed to green energy in that instance.

We can go down blind alleys with ammonia, or we can actually tackle the problem. We have an ammonia strategy that will be ready to launch in the very near future, and we will be able to reduce ammonia levels significantly. Nobody has done that up until now. That has not happened up to this point. However, it will happen under this Minister.

T3. Mr McAleer asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, given that he will be aware of recent correspondence from the Finance Minister to the Chair of the Finance Committee, which was shared with the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, that highlighted concerns with how replacement funding will be calculated, in that it could result in a cut in funding for rural communities, to state whether his Department has assessed that and the impact that it might have on local areas. (AQT 603/17-22)

Mr Poots: Yes. The Treasury has indicated that it thinks it can take £34 million that was previously identified for us. We are contesting that. The figure is slightly less in Scotland per head of population, and significantly greater in Wales. As I understand, it is happening in England as well. We all need to oppose that. Scottish and Welsh colleagues and I have written to the appropriate Ministers at Westminster. We are seeking a meeting with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to ensure that this money is actually paid.

Mr McAleer: I thank the Minister for his answer. Recently, we also learned that there has been little or no progress on the shared prosperity fund. Has the Minister any assessment of that? What is his general assessment of the British Government's commitment to replacing the EU funding that will be lost here as a result of leaving the EU?

Mr Poots: There is no indication from any other source that there is a problem. That is money that had not been spent, but would have been spent by 2023. My Department would argue that it has acted prudently in the distribution of that funding and is being punished as a consequence. As I indicated, Wales is suffering even worse as a result. We will continue to argue strongly for that particular funding. However, there is no indication of a problem elsewhere.

T5. Mr K Buchanan asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs how the recently announced farm business investment scheme will continue to reduce emissions and increase the nutrient uptake. (AQT 605/17-22)

Mr Poots: One element of the new farm business investment scheme is that we will give additional points to people who are covering tanks or buying equipment that has low emission spreading applied to it. That in itself will help with the ammonia problem that Ms Bailey raised earlier. We intend to run that course over the next number of years — not just that; we will add to it going forward. A consequence of that is that more nutrients will get to the area where they need to go, fewer will go into the atmosphere, and, in conjunction with a course of work on soil sampling that we intend to introduce at a later point, farmers will have a better knowledge of what exactly their fields need. That should bring about a further reduction in emissions and, indeed, savings for farmers in reducing the amount of inorganic fertilisers that they acquire to augment the nutrients that they have on farm.

Mr K Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his answer. He indicated that the Department intends to roll that out in future years. Does he envisage that there will be more of a financial increase per year? Obviously, a lot of the equipment on farms is tired — I will use that terminology — and not up to modern standards. Therefore, does he see that figure increasing yearly?

Mr Poots: We could always do with a bit more money, so I will be looking to colleagues in the Department of Finance to assist us. We want to make Northern Ireland carbon-neutral by 2050. Agriculture needs to make its contribution. It will therefore need support in order to arrive at that point. The agriculture industry is involved in carbon sequestration, and that is an important element of it. On the one hand, we reduce and lower emissions. On the other, we increase carbon sequestration on farms. In that way, we can make a real impact on the environment for the good.

T6. Mr Allister asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to state whether he can yet lift the veil of secrecy and update the House on the infrastructure for an Irish Sea border that his Department is providing at our ports and to outline where and when that documentation can be inspected. (AQT 606/17-22)

Mr Poots: I believe that we have permissions back on two sites and will have the third one back this week. As soon as they receive that, I have instructed officials to make them available to any Member who may wish to have them.

Mr Allister: To date, there has been a refusal to release them at council and departmental level. It will be good to see them in due course. Can the Minister tell us, as he builds the gallows for the Union at Larne, whether he has the support of the Member of Parliament for East Antrim?

Mr Poots: The Member of Parliament for East Antrim and I take the same position. We do not want to see those facilities. We do not desire those facilities. It is an imposition that has been applied to us through a negotiation between the Prime Minister and the European Union that introduced the Northern Ireland protocol. We are totally opposed to the Northern Ireland protocol, because it has significant potential to damage Northern Ireland. The Member of Parliament for East Antrim and I share that view.

T7. Ms Sheerin asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on what was discussed when she met with him in the summer about the situation with Lough Neagh and its fishing community and, subsequently, the response to a question for written answer that she received in September, in which he said that he was committed to providing a package of support for the Lough Neagh fishermen and fisherwomen. (AQT 607/17-22)

Mr Poots: We had to take legal advice on the distribution of funding. That advice has been received, and we are now in a position to move forward. I hope that, over the next number of weeks, we will be able to indicate to the fishermen on the ground what is available to them.

Ms Sheerin: Thank you, Minister. That is welcome news. Can you confirm what engagement you have had with the fishing community at Lough Neagh?

Mr Poots: I received a lot of communication from them, and we responded to it. I have not met them personally, but I am happy to meet people if they require it. We have the funding set aside, however, and I hope that my fisheries division, which has been engaging closely with the community, will be in a position to move forward, with my authority.

Mr Speaker: The next named Members on the list are not in their seats. That therefore concludes topical questions to the Minister. I ask Members to take their ease while we prepare the Chamber for questions to the Minister for Communities.


2.45 pm

Communities

Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister for Communities): I thank the Member for his question. I recognise that the latest health regulations, which came into operation on 16 October, have had a significant impact across all sports at a time when they already face significant challenges. I understand that sports governing bodies, and their clubs, find themselves facing serious financial pressures and that they now have to contend with the latest restrictions, which have had an impact.

When I met senior representatives from the governing bodies and sporting organisations last week, I recognised the need for the new restrictions to curb the escalating transmission rates and the impact that they will have on sports. As a result, I made a bid to the Executive for a significant financial package, which was immediately supported. I was able to announce last week that the bid was approved by the Executive, as part of the October monitoring round, and that work has started on putting together a scheme to ensure that the £15 million that I have secured is distributed quickly across the sector to sustain the governing bodies and their clubs.

Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for her answer. With regard to the financial hardship being experienced by GAA clubs across this island, does the Minister think that it is unfair and inappropriate to ask the GAA to pay more than its legal obligation of £15 million towards Casement Park and to do so on a television programme? Was that a party position, an agreed Executive position, or a solo run?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member should know that any funding arrangement with my Department and the GAA will be an ongoing discussion. It is not the first time that that has been said in public, so I am surprised that the Member is surprised. I assure him and, indeed, members across the GAA family, that Casement Park will be built. It took an awful long time for planning to come through, and it has been awarded. I hope that it succeeds to the point where I can present a final business case to my Executive colleagues, but mainly the Minister of Finance, and that we get all the money needed to deliver Casement Park. It is unacceptable that Gaelic games do not have a home that is fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Mr Buckley: I welcome the support packages that have been provided to clubs and, now that planning permission has been approved for Casement Park, attention now rightly turns to funding. With a shortfall of £33 million, I am delighted that the Minister has accepted the reality that additional contributions must come from the GAA to fulfil that commitment. Will the Minister please outline the discussion that she has had with the GAA, and the potential funding allocation that she will require to progress the stadium?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The bulk of the money will come from the Executive; I give the Member that assurance. The GAA and the redevelopment of Casement Park were held back for a number of reasons, mainly planning. There is a massive shortfall. We do not know what that is yet, but we need to meet it. For the Executive to meet that shortfall, I need to bring proposals forward. They are being discussed, developed and worked on as we speak.

Mr Lyttle: Minister, what evidence is her Department and the Executive considering with regard to the impact of grassroots youth sports on the transmission of COVID-19?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I have asked for an update from Sport NI on that. I spoke to the governing bodies last week — there were more than 70 of them. It was not a detailed discussion, as such, but it is clear that our sporting and governing bodies are doing everything that they can to ensure that young people can play and train safely. If that means that we need to bring in further supports for those bodies to allow training in a safe environment, that is what we will do. That is part of the £15 million investment into sports clubs. I have asked for something similar, but I will include the Member's question on the list to Sport NI and bring that back to him.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. In line with the commitment set out in the New Decade, New Approach deal, I can confirm that I intend to introduce new primary legislation that will allow for an extension of welfare mitigation payments to those people affected by the bedroom tax. A draft Bill on the matter has been shared with Executive colleagues, and it remains my intention to secure agreement to proceed with that as soon as possible. New regulations to extend other mitigation schemes have been prepared, and I hope to bring those before the Assembly shortly after the Bill is introduced.

I would like to use this opportunity to highlight that mitigation payments continue to be made to those who are eligible under the sole authority of the Budget (No. 2) Act, as agreed with the Department of Finance. Those contingency arrangements are being kept under review, and, if required, I can extend them.

Mr Catney: Thank you for your answer, Minister. We need to try to help as best as we possibly can through our constituency offices. The Minister indicated at a hearing with the Committee for Communities on 30 September that dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has understandably meant that other policy areas have received less attention. However, I hope that the Minister recognises that the 89,000 additional claimants for universal credit are largely related to the pandemic and that getting the new mitigations agreed and legislated for should be the Executive's priority. Hopefully, that will happen before Christmas.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. By way of an update, my Department is, as we speak, recruiting hundreds of staff to support the increase in claimants that we have already seen. That increase happened even before the furlough scheme was due to end and before it was extended. It is not that this proposal has not received the attention that it is due, but there have been other things, such as the statement on housing policy, which took us quite some time to bring forward. However, this is one of those issues that we deal with on a daily basis, and I just want to give the Member that assurance.

Mr Sheehan: Can the Minister advise the House whether the new mitigations legislation will provide much-needed protections for those who lost out as a result of moving to universal credit?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The new legislation will look at all the welfare mitigation schemes and will include changes to the so-called bedroom tax. I am looking at the benefit cap mitigation schemes that are currently available to people on universal credit. I am also looking at providing additional investment in the contingency fund. As well as that, I have added more money into the discretionary payment fund. There was a lot of talk about the British Government's COVID isolation scheme. We already have that here; Deirdre Hargey brought it in in March. Unlike the British Government's scheme, ours is not limited to £250 a week and it is not time-bound.

Ms Armstrong: I want to ask the Minister whether her mitigations will include payments or give people fast-track access to PIP in advance of DWP taking that forward at Westminster.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am currently looking at that, particularly given the debate that we had about the special rules for terminal illness (SRTI). So, I am looking at it. As you know, once you go on to SRTI, you get fast tracked anyway. Deirdre Hargey's intention was to bring PIP and Capita into DFC. The outcome of that, hopefully, will be the provision of a completely seamless process. Anybody relying on those benefits is already vulnerable and needs our support. What they do not need is us, as a Government and an Administration, making them go through additional hoops that set them back. No one wants that, so I am currently looking at what can be done.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Thank you for the question. As I have said before, so-called conversion therapy is an abhorrent and inhuman practice that aims to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. It is widely opposed by many, including the United Nations, human rights experts and health professionals, on the basis that it is, in their words, a form of torture.

In September this year, I met Ministers Long and Swann to share my commitment to ensuring that those harmful practices stop. As it is a cross-cutting matter, it will be taken forward in the development of the sexual orientation strategy that was outlined in NDNA. I also announced a timetable for the development of the social inclusion strategies. In support of those strategies, my officials met the Government Equalities Office in October to discuss the available data on conversion therapy, progress to date and timescales for a ban.

Ms Rogan: Will the Minister provide an update on the development of the sexual orientation strategy?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The sexual orientation strategy, along with the other strategies, will be published in December 2021, subject to Executive approval. I have been really heartened and energised by the commitment of people in the sector, who are going to engage with departmental officials and others. They will bring the strategies forward, and I will consider them before presenting them to my colleagues. However, I am not waiting for the strategy to ban conversion therapy, and I will look to see what I can do in the interim. I will look to other legislators and other devolved institutions and Governments to see what they have done, and I will try to bring that forward as soon as possible.

Mr McGrath: Has the Minister had any discussions with the Charity Commission about the charitable status of certain registered charities in Northern Ireland that support and offer conversion therapy? If she has not had any such discussions with the Charity Commission, will she undertake to do so?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I have not had any discussions with the Charity Commission, but I certainly will do so. If the Member has examples of charities that do that, I would be happy to receive them because that needs to end.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I have met people across the local music industry, and I understand the impact that the current restrictions are having on those who are trying to make their living through music. That is why I was pleased to use the first £3 million of the £29 million funding package to build up the pot for the individuals emergency resilience programme that is operated by the Arts Council on my behalf. I also want to acknowledge the financial contribution that was made to the fund by Future Screens NI. The funding meant that the programme could make grants of up to £3·85 million to 1,089 people whose creativity, effort and hard work make such a big contribution to our lives and to the economy. Nevertheless, I know that the best support for local musicians will be the return of local live music. I look forward to getting back to live gigs myself as soon as possible.

Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for her answer and for the funding scheme, which was timely. She is quite right: we all look forward to getting back to enjoying those artists and musicians again. Will she undertake to forward-proof the scheme, so that, in the event of further lockdowns, funding will be readily available and that money will be found? In addition, with the lessons learned from other Departments, will she ensure that nobody is excluded from the scheme and, if there is, that we can find a way to fill those gaps?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member knows that a lot of the individuals who applied for the grant had no access to public funds anywhere else. The £3 million was just to cover the oversubscription to previous moneys that were announced by my Department and which were operated by the Arts Council. I am also waiting for the outcome of the latest applications so that we can see where the gaps are, if they are not already covered by that fund. I have held back a few million quid to try to help people, and I hope — as we all do — that the current restrictions will work. I also hope that, when we go back, it will be on a phased return so that we do not end up back here again and that people who make their living from music will be free to do so. They need our support, and I am committed to doing what I can.

Mr Lyttle: The Department for Communities' individuals emergency resilience programme requires musicians to use that aid on a project basis rather than as income replacement to account for all profit. The Department reserves the right to retrieve all or part of the aid on this basis. How does this approach compare with other Executive grant aid for employees? Is it fair to place those conditions on musicians who have lost all sources of income as a result of COVID-19?


3.00 pm

Ms Ní Chuilín: To be frank, other Departments are looking at their governance arrangements as we speak. I will not be in that position. Many of our musicians are working and volunteering in our communities. They are diversifying and working with schools. I want to make sure that musicians are supported and rewarded for doing that. The only criteria are that musicians must prove that they are involved in the arts and have a bank account, and the Arts Council will monitor and evaluate the grant aid. I do not want to impose any further restrictions. It is ridiculous that smaller groups that are receiving a few thousand pounds should be subject to the same regulation as larger groups that may receive millions of pounds over decades. I am not saying that that is what you mean.

Ms Mullan: Thank you, Minister, for engaging with musicians. In my area, musicians appreciate the grant funding. What will the remaining £26 million be spent on?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her supplementary question. The Arts Council is opening applications for grants. The Department is looking at some of our theatres, galleries, museums, libraries, heritage sites, languages and culture and heritage to try to make interventions, because everyone has been financially impacted by COVID and COVID restrictions. They all need our support. They are all viable businesses and products that provide viable events. Some have received public money over the years, but their ability to generate income through event ticket sales has been removed. We need to make sure that those businesses remain viable at the other end of the pandemic.

Our libraries, museums and heritage products also need support. I am very conscious of the fact that there will not be enough money for everyone. However, the Department needs to get emergency support out to ensure that those organisations are not only viable now and are able to retain their staff and skills but are viable at the other end of the pandemic.

Ms P Bradley: Minister, you will be aware that many musicians had only a short window after lockdown when they were back playing in our pubs and clubs. They were playing safely behind Perspex screens, and safety was put first and foremost. However, that was taken away very quickly. Musicians lost their income long before the hospitality industry closed. When we reopen our bars and restaurants, will you fight for musicians at the Executive to allow them to get back to work? Musicians want to get back to work rather than receive handouts from various Ministries.

Ms Ní Chuilín: The short answer is that I absolutely will. The people who entertain us when we are having a drink or enjoying a meal are also taxpayers and ratepayers. People need to remember that. More restrictions have been placed on individuals and smaller businesses than on big business. That is not fair.

I want to mention DJs, as they have felt left out. I can assure DJs that they will not be left out. This situation has demonstrated to me that not many people are aware of what is available through the Arts Council. We need to change that. I will give an assurance to DJs, because they are trying to make a living, and the public restrictions that have been placed on people are stopping them from making a living. As soon as it is safe to do so, we need to ensure that DJs, musicians and, indeed, the hospitality sector return to their livelihoods. Hopefully, people will recognise and appreciate that.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for her actions thus far. Will she detail what support is or will be available for non-musicians such as sound technicians and event organisers employed in the music industry?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member will be aware that the original short grant programme that I put through the Arts Council was oversubscribed, so £3 million from the £29 million was used directly to look after the oversubscription.

The level of oversubscription was just below £3 million in order to allow a few more to try to get supported. You just heard my answer to a question from Paula Bradley. There were only 20 DJs. There are 20 DJs in the New Lodge, never mind across the North. I am very proud of our local DJs. We need to try to give those people support too, because their livelihood has been impacted.

I want to see what people have done with the latest funding application to the Arts Council. If there continue to be gaps, particularly for our freelancers, sound engineers and technicians, who rely on events, we need to look after those people. That is my commitment.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. I have made the commitment that citizen and community engagement, co-design and co-production will be embedded from the outset in the development of an anti-poverty strategy. I assure the Member that the anti-poverty strategy will be evidence-based, will take account of lived experience and will meaningfully tackle inequalities and obstacles that directly affect the everyday life of people as a result of living in poverty. To that end, I have appointed an expert panel to make recommendations on the key themes and priorities that the strategy should address. Those recommendations will inform the work of a co-design group that will be made up of a cross section of the community and voluntary sector, including neighbourhood renewal partnerships and others. That co-design group will be pivotal in shaping the development and content of the strategy and its supporting action plan. The publication of the strategy will, hopefully, happen by December 2021.

Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for her answer. The announcement of the development of an anti-poverty strategy is very welcome. I know of the great work that the neighbourhood renewal groups do. We have nine groups in my area in Newry, so it is really good to hear that they will be a key part of that.

Will the Minister provide an update on her plans to deal with the long-term future of neighbourhood renewal?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Like the Member, lots of Members have neighbourhood renewal groups or groups that work in places that are at risk right across their constituency. I put on record again that the work that those groups did at the start of the pandemic was second to none. They were the first responders. We need to ensure that that work is not only recognised but valued. Neighbourhood renewal was part of an anti-poverty strategy some 15 or 20 years ago, and we need to ensure that the work of neighbourhood renewal groups is seen in a new anti-poverty strategy so that they work towards targets that are more realistic than those that they are currently trying to work to, which are at least 15 years old.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister. Will you confirm that it is November 2021 by which you hope to publish the final strategy? In what way will the working poor be taken account of? I think that more and more people fall into that bracket given the lower-wage economy that we have and zero-hours contracts.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Dolores, if I said November, I was wrong; it is December 2021.

You are 100% right. You were here when we were talking about housing and the working poor. We need intermediate actions. A lot of people in our hospitality and tourism sector rely on zero-hours contracts, which I do not support at all. We need to make sure that, as part of anti-poverty, we look at where people are so that it is relative to their financial status. Low-to-medium- and low-income families have been with us for too long. They need to be reflected and included in the outcomes of the strategy.

Ms Armstrong: Minister, the work of neighbourhood renewal projects is to be celebrated, but one of the areas of the anti-poverty strategy that cannot be forgotten is rural areas that do not have neighbourhood renewal projects. You have already worked with the AERA Minister on rural projects, so is there any update on how those will be included in the anti-poverty strategy?

Ms Ní Chuilín: You will be aware of tackling rural poverty and social isolation (TRPSI), the Rural Needs Act and rural-proofing. This is not just an urban experience; it has to be for all citizens. The question was about neighbourhood renewal projects, but it goes right across the piece. If you look at the way in which people have not been able to access support, you will see that their experience of poverty and isolation would be much greater if their local community had not helped them out. We need to ensure that the strategy is rural-proofed.

Mr Frew: Following on from some of the questions that have been asked already about people just managing and people with poor incomes, there are certainly specific deprived areas within affluent areas that have not been able to avail themselves of any of this money. Is the Minister sure that the super output areas, or the geographical spread and definition of these areas, are the correct ones going forward?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I will tell you what is not correct. We are not doing, "One for you and one for me", because it is in your constituency or in mine. We are not doing equity; we are doing equality. That is really important. Wherever people experience poverty and however they experience it, we need to take that into consideration. I do recognise that there are pockets of deprived communities within what is seen as an affluent area. Christopher Stalford is not here, but South Belfast is an example of that. The issue for us is that, unless we capture those people and ensure that they are part of an anti-poverty strategy, not only will they feel resentful, but their experience of poverty will increase. We need to work with people where they are at, so I think that it is important that not just neighbourhood renewal partnerships but any partnership, community structure or consortium that they are involved in respond to the strategy when it goes out for consultation. We do not want to leave anybody behind.

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Housing (Amendment) Act 2020 received Royal Assent on 28 August 2020. This Act will end the house sales scheme for housing association tenants after a transition period of two years. The transition period will enable current housing association tenants who meet the eligibility criteria to purchase their homes. As part of the statement that I made today, I intend to set out the matter for Housing Executive house sales schemes also, using the same lead-in period for them as well, so that people who have applications in can have those processed.

Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for that. That question was put back from a previous Question Time, when the Minister could not attend, and she did spend an hour this morning virtually answering that question. Mr Speaker, I will give her a bye-ball and sit down again.

Mr Speaker: Thank you very much, Mr Lunn.

Mr Gildernew: What other options is the Minister considering to assist tenants into home ownership?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I am sure that he was in the Chamber earlier. We are certainly looking at ways to make co-ownership more accessible, if that is someone's choice. At the minute, it is not as affordable as we all originally thought it would be. Some people are being asked to pay up to £12,000 — six months' rent — in advance to access a home for home ownership. That is not acceptable. Despite that, there have been good opportunities through co-ownership for almost 1,000 people a year to buy their own home. In my opinion, we need to look at additional options for people who cannot afford to pay that much money up front.

Miss Woods: I appreciate that the Minister answered a number of questions on her statement this morning in relation to this, so I will be cheeky and get in another one that I wanted to ask. The splitting of the landlord function of the Housing Executive will mean that it will have freedom to borrow and invest, but how will this be facilitated without raising the rents?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The rents are capped at the minute under Westminster legislation, and our Executive have agreed to that. In NDNA, we have also agreed to the way in which we need to ensure not only that the rent is affordable but that, as I outlined in my statement, the rents, particularly in the Housing Executive, are some of the lowest in these islands. It is really important that, whatever powers or designation we give, we do it on the basis of conditionality — that the Housing Executive does the right thing, that there is more of an increase in social housing and that there are better outcomes for people who are in housing stress. At the end of the day, that is at the bottom of all of this, and that is what it is about.

Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We will now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions. Topical question 8 has been withdrawn.


3.15 pm

T1. Mr Buckley asked the Minister for Communities, after welcoming her warm words of support for the Northern Ireland football team's Euro play-off final next week against Slovakia and the much-needed morale boost that it could bring to the country in bleak times, whether she will commit to working with Belfast City Council, the Irish Football Association (IFA), the supporters' association and Executive colleagues to ensure that the maximum number of fans can safely attend our national stadium at Windsor Park to cheer on our wee country. (AQT 611/17-22)

Ms Ní Chuilín: I have spoken to the IFA and am waiting for Belfast City Council, which is the licensing authority. I want to make the game as stress-free as possible, not only for the team but for all their supporters. I will do what I can to ensure that the maximum number of supporters, under the current restrictions, are able to go to Windsor Park.

Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister for her response. The stadium has a capacity of 18,000 supporters, who will be outdoors and have considerable space for social distancing. Can the Minister elaborate on what numbers are under consideration?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am well aware of what Windsor Park holds, because I built it. I do not want to get into speculation, because I want to respect the IFA and Belfast City Council and their work with Sport NI and my Department. I assure the Member that we want the game to be as stress-free as possible and to have a number of spectators there with safe social distancing and within the guidelines. I will do what I can to make that happen for them.

Mr Speaker: Sinéad Bradley is not in her place. I move on to Gerry Kelly.

T3. Mr G Kelly asked the Minister for Communities, after thanking her for her earlier statement, which pleased almost everybody, and in reference to the fact that, in North Belfast, housing stress is a huge problem, what interventions she will use to reduce the huge numbers in that area. (AQT 613/17-22)

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. He will have heard in the statement that we are going to reintroduce ring-fencing for north Belfast, west Belfast and Derry city, simply because they are the three areas with the most persistent high demand and growing numbers of families and people on the housing waiting list and living in acute housing stress. As I said this morning, my officials are working with the Housing Executive to bring forward a scheme to have ring-fencing reintroduced as soon as possible.

Mr G Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for her answer so far. She may have answered what I was going to ask, which is this: will the Minister and the Department lead on ring-fencing to meet objective need? I add that the Housing Executive has the power of vesting, which is seldom used. There are times when it needs to be used, especially for land banking. Will the Minister comment on that?

Ms Ní Chuilín: We are looking at everything. This morning, at least one Member asked about land availability. It has, for years, been one of the biggest obstacles if not the biggest obstacle, next to budget, for the Housing Executive and, in particular, for housing associations in building homes, as has the availability of land in the areas of highest demand. My ambition is that, in ring-fencing, we look not only at numbers but at ways in which we can deliver for the numbers of people who live in housing stress.

T4. Mr Robinson asked the Minister for Communities, knowing that she will be glad to hear that it is another football question, whether she can confirm that her Department will provide financial support to Irish League football clubs, such as Coleraine and Limavady United, which, because of the pandemic, are suffering great financial hardship, with fewer supporters being allowed into their grounds. (AQT 614/17-22)

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member will be aware that the £15 million sports hardship fund is available to all the clubs in his constituency, so fair play to him. The fund will be open for applications fairly soon, and funding will be available to clubs. The Member is right: a lot of the clubs have been hit really hard since the start of the pandemic.

Mr Robinson: Does the Minister agree that, because of the present virus situation, some of those clubs could go out of existence without government support?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I agree, and I put on record my appreciation and thanks, on behalf of us all, for the work that those clubs have done on the ground from the start of the pandemic.

It is not a football club, but, in my constituency, Ardoyne GAA, along with people from a community food bank, were up to all hours of the morning delivering food parcels for kids in deprived areas, and I know that Crusaders and Cliftonville football clubs, which are also in my constituency, have done the same. I know that that is replicated right across, so I want to give clubs as much support as possible.

T5. Dr Archibald asked the Minister for Communities, after thanking her for her earlier statement, which is the start of a really important transformation in housing, and warning that her question concerns sport as well, to clarify whether grassroots sporting clubs will be able to apply to the very welcome and recently announced hardship fund in their own right or will the applications be completed by the governing bodies. (AQT 615/17-22)

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her important question; I have been asked it a few times. To be fair to governing bodies, they need to apply for it in their own right, as do the grassroots groups. I do not imagine that any governing body will want to take responsibility for dealing with applications from loads of clubs in their sector. Anyone, be that a small group or a large governing body, can apply to the hardship fund in their own right.

Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for the response. How long will it be until the money hits the communities?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I will get an update from Sport NI, but I was encouraged to hear its chief executive, Antoinette McKeown, make it clear that, because of the nature of the fund and the hardship that groups in the sporting family have endured throughout the pandemic, she wants to get the funding open and available to them as soon as possible, as do I.

T6. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister for Communities, after welcoming her commitment to support Northern Ireland’s preparations for the upcoming European Championship qualification play-off final, for an update on the subregional stadia programme for soccer. (AQT 616/17-22)

Ms Ní Chuilín: I am looking at the final business case for the subregional football programme. It has been a long time in the making. There had been variations to consultations and plans. They have been reworked and amended, but, hopefully, the final business case will be completed in the coming months. I hope to announce that as soon as I get everything else sorted.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for her update. Will the Minister seek to increase the budget for the subregional football stadia fund in line with any increase to the regional stadia fund? Will she give her assurance that the subregional football stadia funding will be allocated to clubs before the end of this mandate?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I want to make something clear: the fact that Casement Park has overrun in cost does not mean that that overrun will transfer to the subregional programme. That would be completely unrealistic. Does the subregional fund need more money? It does. When the final business case is done, I will see what money I have left to allocate from that fund, as well as any potential for additional money.

T7. Miss Woods asked the Minister for Communities to confirm the value of maintenance contracts that have been awarded in this financial year, given that she will be aware of the negative impact that the pandemic has had on the maintenance of social housing and the urgent need to address that, with roughly £450 million of maintenance contracts awarded by the Housing Executive and a further £90 million expected to go to tender in the next 12 months. (AQT 617/17-22)

Ms Ní Chuilín: I will get the exact figure for the Member, because it has changed. It has changed because, as we mentioned earlier, there have been procurement challenges in some areas that have put back maintenance contracts. The threshold for challenging procurement contracts is so low that anyone with 250 quid can go into a court to object to millions of pounds of procurement to alleviate some of the worst conditions that people are living in. That is a disgrace. As I say, I will get the Member the exact figure.

The Housing Executive has brought forward a pilot scheme in its southern region that has brought the procurement list down by 40-odd weeks. I am willing to learn lessons from that and bring them forward. I know that the Member knows this, but the restriction to emergency repairs has created a wider gap in the maintenance programme. I will get a response to the Member, because I am also keen to find out exactly what the figure is.

Miss Woods: I thank the Minister for her answer. In the light of the severe levels of condensation and rising damp that pose a health risk to many Housing Executive tenants, which is an issue in my constituency, can the Minister confirm whether any contracts currently out for tender include urgent work on ventilation and the installation of replacement damp-proof courses, specifically for Northern Ireland Housing Executive tenants in North Down?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I will get the Member that information and detail. Unfairly, some families are being reared in houses where they have been impacted by respiratory conditions resulting from the conditions that they live in. That is a disgrace. I know that the Housing Executive is completely uncomfortable with that as well. I will get the detail and the information that she has asked for.

Mr Speaker: The Members who were due to ask topical questions 9 and 10 are not in their seats. Therefore, that brings Question Time to an end. I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two.

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

Executive Committee Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That the Second Stage of the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill [NIA Bill 10/17-22] be agreed. — [Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister for Communities).]

Mr O'Toole: I thank the Department and the Minister for bringing the legislation before us today.

The earliest archeological evidence of beer making comes from around 8000 BC in what is now Turkey. It sometimes seems that Northern Ireland's licensing laws date from around the same period. The rules that govern how we sell alcohol are of a very old vintage. Sadly, unlike an oak cask of Bushmills laid down for decades, they have not always got better with age. Not only have they failed to keep up with modern tastes and habits, they have failed to properly support the licensed trade and, most importantly, to maximise the public good.

In supporting many of the broad intentions of the Bill, including removing the remaining restrictions on Easter opening, I want to say that the Bill is good in those respects but still falls significantly short of the reform that our licensing system needs. However, given that this is Second Stage, I hope that we can work together on the Bill to improve it and highlight the areas where there is consensus that we need further reform. That is particularly true when we consider the dire situation that our hospitality sector will face in the months to come. Our hospitality sector and our pubs, which mean so much to our way of life on this island, face perhaps their most dire situation.

I will deal first with some of the areas where the Bill introduces welcome reform. The removal of the remaining restrictions on Easter opening hours is very welcome. I will not rehearse all the arguments for why it is years, if not decades, overdue. Suffice it to say that the preferences and perspectives of some in society should not restrict the choices of other people.

It is welcome that those changes are finally being made. Likewise, it is welcome that the Bill seeks to ensure that rules on underage people in licensed premises do not penalise, for example, young people attending awards events. I also welcome the extension of late opening opportunities for pubs with entertainment licences and smaller local pubs without an entertainment licence. Those changes are very welcome.


3.30 pm

However, I am afraid that, in one area, the Bill is just not ambitious enough. As currently drafted, it may even be counterproductive. That is in the area of local producers. It is critical in the debate that we base our understanding of licensing and our broader drinks trade in the distinct history of that trade in Ireland. That relates to the production of beer and spirits and to the licensing or pub trade.

Relative to England and Scotland, the entire island of Ireland saw an enormous consolidation of our brewing and distilling businesses in the 20th century. Unlike in Scotland, Ireland lost a huge number of small local distillers, dozens of them in the North. Those distilleries included Coleraine, Comber, Dunville's — which has, wonderfully, reopened and is starting to produce whisky again in the Member for Strangford's constituency — and Watt's, which was based in Derry. My colleague the Member for Foyle and the other Member for Foyle will know about that. Derry was once one of the world's biggest centres of whisky production. All those closed during the 20th century, leading to a point at which, until a little over a decade ago, there was only one operational distillery in Northern Ireland, which was, of course, in Bushmills. Bushmills is critical to understanding some of the issues that we are discussing today. It is not just a global whisky brand. It is a high-value craft product that people want to try when they visit local pubs on holiday. It is also a tourist attraction.

In Ireland, local beer production was never as diverse as, for example, in England, where small breweries have always been a part of the scene and are completely entwined with local pubs. Purely based on anecdotal experience, those of us who have been in pubs on the island of Ireland and in England will know that. Over the decades, there have been many fewer local beer producers on this island. However, something remarkable has happened in Northern Ireland, across Ireland and beyond in recent years. Small brewers and distillers have emerged that are producing a remarkable range of local products and are creating not just terrific local produce but jobs, skills and local brands. The truth is that they have done that in spite of rather than because of our licensing rules. It is normal, in other jurisdictions, for small breweries to have taprooms, which usually open for reduced hours, often in fairly basic surroundings, to familiarise customers with the brewery's offerings. They are then able to go to pubs or off-sales to buy the products. Unfortunately, we have a broader challenge in getting those products into our pubs and off-sales.

The Bill creates a producer's licence, but it limits it to, effectively, a single drink as part of a tour. I am afraid that that is not ambitious enough. We have some wonderful small producers here, but we are doing very little via the licensing system to support them. In my constituency, there is Bullhouse Brew Co in the Boucher area; just down the road in east Belfast, there is Boundary Brewing; Derry has the Walled City Brewery; Warrenpoint has the Mourne Mountains Brewery; and there are others across Northern Ireland that are doing wonderful things and producing wonderful products. I should have declared an interest at the beginning, which is that I am a very enthusiastic purchaser of those products and would love to be able to buy them in more premises.

Some of those breweries have taprooms, but those currently apply only where a local pub is willing to extend its licence to another premises via an occasional licence for usually around a dozen occasions a year. We need proper reform of that, and it would be good to work — I am sure that the Committee will look at it — to see if we could get a producer's licence that allows people to have a proper licence for a taproom that would allow them to maximise their offering. We need to do that because, frankly, we do not know where our pub and hospitality sector will be in a few months. We should not stand in the way of sustainable local businesses that want to create jobs —.

Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. I am supportive of the concept that he has talked about and, in particular, the restrictions that have been placed on microbreweries etc. Is it not a sad shame — I am sure that the Member will agree with me — that some of those brands are much more popular internationally than locally given the restrictions that are in place?

Mr O'Toole: I could not agree more with the Member. The hard truth is that, for too long, in our pubs and some off-sales premises in Northern Ireland and across these islands, we have had to put up with not-very-good beer. That is changing. We are producing great beer in Northern Ireland, and we should do everything that we possibly can to get it into the hands of people who want to buy it. That is good for jobs and good for local production. It is a wonderful virtuous circle, and we should be doing everything we can to support it.

As I said, some of those breweries have taprooms, but they only have taprooms whereas a local pub or other premises are able to extend their licence on an occasional basis. I would like to see more ambition in licensing those small producers to sell their products to take away but also in taprooms, and I will support amendments to that effect. Yes, it is true that careful consideration is needed on how that works, but the broad intention should be not to limit how taprooms and local breweries operate but to be as ambitious as we possibly can.

Some Members raised the issue that local breweries might in some way be competing with more traditional licensed premises. The blunt truth is that most of those craft breweries — I have been to one, and the Member for South Down mentioned the Mourne Mountains Brewery, which is basically on an industrial estate on the edge of Warrenpoint — are not in the middle of towns or cities but on industrial or semi-industrial premises on the edge of towns and cities, so it is not as if they are in competition with more traditional pubs and licensed premises. I want to see more ambition in that area.

The core reason that we need to show that ambition is, to me, about the purpose of our licensing regime. It should be about protecting the public good, and I am strongly of the view that our amazing craft brewers and the distillers that have sprung up, particularly in the last decade, are, more often than not, creating good. The point of the licensing system should be to maximise the public good from the sale of alcohol while mitigating the real risk of harm from alcohol, and I will go on to talk about how we manage and mitigate that harm. Members, including the Chair of the Communities Committee, rightly acknowledged it, and it is critical to how the licensing system works.

That brings me on to my next thought on the licensing system. Others have talked about it today, and it is completely fundamental. It is not covered by the Bill. It may be that it is too ambitious and too big a task to endeavour to address it in the Bill, but we should look at it and I want to get the Minister's thoughts on it.

If we are serious about maximising the public good, we need to think hard about how long we can simply leave unreformed what is known as the "surrender principle" in our licensing system. When the Bill was introduced, the Department's press release stated that Northern Ireland's liquor-licensing laws are largely based on the Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. Indeed, the Committee Chair mentioned that today. I am afraid that that is not completely true. I am not accusing the Department or the Committee Chair of misleading the House, because it is, in one sense, the case that the 1996 Licensing Order created much of our legislation, but our licensing laws are still fundamentally based on the pre-partition Licensing (Ireland) Act 1902, which, in key parts, remains on the statute book on both sides of the border. It was born out of a 19th-century belief that Ireland had far too many licensed premises for the size of its population. That may have been true in the late 19th century, and so it created a rule that still abides to this day. It is known as the surrender principle, which means that no new licences — basically, no new pub licences for either on- or off-sales — are granted.

On the face of it, the surrender principle is very hard to defend. It has led to the remarkable situation in which there is political consensus on the need to protect pubs, particularly small rural pubs, but our licensing laws incentivise the closure of those pubs. Let us all pause and think about that. We all agree, whatever our views of licensing laws — John O'Dowd put it very well earlier — that small rural pubs are at the heart of communities. They provide not only an economic function but a vital social and community function. They perform a mental health function for many isolated and often vulnerable people, but our licensing system has created this extraordinary perverse incentive that drives those rural pubs towards closure. How long can the Assembly leave that rule unchanged?

The surrender principle favours large supermarkets and convenience stores, which are buying licences to integrate off-sales into their premises. There is even an entire legal and brokerage support industry geared towards the transfer of licences. In preparation for today's debate, I found a website with case studies from a local liquor licensing broker. It reported how it helped to sell licences for two small local pubs — one was in Limavady and the other was in Cookstown — onwards to retailers. Those people are not doing anything illegal or immoral. That is the system in which they are operating, but is it really a defensible system? Those local pubs in Limavady and Cookstown are now gone. They have been lost permanently to those small towns.

While there is an iron rule that no new pub licences can ever be created in Northern Ireland, and indeed, generally speaking, across the island, there is no limit at all to the price that can be paid for a licence. That is why we see a constant exodus of pub licences to big supermarkets and convenience stores, or, in the case of Belfast, usually to the very largest hospitality businesses.

As an aside, but an important aside, that halts the development not necessarily of pubs and hospitality businesses but of retail premises, including some in my constituency. Large GB-based retailers, perhaps, acquire a site for development and then there is a halt to them getting hold of a liquor licence, so the development does not go ahead. I can think of one example in my constituency where the development simply has not gone ahead because there was a hold-up acquiring a liquor licence. There has not been a pub to buy it off, or there has been some delay or other in it going through.

If a small publican decides to retire and sell their business on, as is entirely their right, it is often the licence that is the most valuable part of that business. That is because of the scarcity created by the 1902 Act. It also means that any small operator without a great deal of financing faces a very large uphill task in acquiring a licence to simply run a local pub. That is the hard truth. If you are going to buy a local pub outside a city or town centre, in all probability you will have to secure a great deal of financing in order to buy a licence in a place where, with the greatest will in the world and with the greatest marketing effort known to mankind, there will always be a limit in the turnover that you can generate in a small rural area. I am sure that many colleagues will know pubs in rural areas that fit that bill — I used to work in one — and here is the thing: we need pubs. We need more people drinking in pubs relative to drinking in the uncontrolled environment of their own home. That is the point about harm. I speak as someone who grew up working in the pub trade and who has family still working in it. As an old boss of mine said, "There are no last orders in your own front room". Yet, despite everything that we know about the economic and community benefits of pubs, our licensing system is slowly killing them off.

I accept that the big outstanding question here will be on the value of existing licences, which is why we cannot rush into reform. I accept that it may be too soon to do anything significant in that regard through the Bill, but let us explore it. To be clear, we need reform, so I ask the Minister today to, at a minimum, commit her Department to studying the long-term consequences of this aspect of our licensing laws — that is, the so-called surrender principle — and report back to the Assembly on possible reform. I am sure that the Committee for Communities specifically would be interested in that. That reform should also, of course, take into account the perspective and interests of the broad range of existing licensees.

Our licensing laws are archaic. The Bill takes some modest but very welcome steps forward, but we need to take more. We need to celebrate and support our amazing craft breweries rather than the global drinks brands that have dominated the policy agenda and the beer pumps in this place for far too long.

Mr Stewart: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is good to be back. I thank you and the Speaker and everyone who sent me messages over the last couple of weeks when I was off ill. It is nice to be back on my feet and in the Chamber and back to work.

I want to say at the outset that this has been a really worthwhile discussion and debate. It is nice to see us being able to debate legislation. I know that there will be many more rounds to go and that the Committee will play its role in bringing that forward.

It is also important to recognise the great role that the hospitality industry plays and the responsibility that it has, especially in the current climate, in promoting responsible drinking and providing key aspects to our tourism offering and to our communities.

I want to touch on a few aspects of the Bill and then ask a few questions. Lots of what I planned to say has been discussed, but it is important to get it on the record. It is important to end and update the archaic licensing laws around the Easter holidays. That is long overdue and will be welcomed.

It is unfortunate. I think back to 2019, when I was coming back on a flight at Easter and there was a stag party arriving in for the weekend. Unbeknown to them, they were not going to have much fun. They were planning to go out and enjoy the sights and sounds of Belfast, not realising that the place would be locked down for most of the weekend. That is unfortunate. The Bill will bring us into line with the rest of the UK and Ireland.


3.45 pm

I will declare an interest at this stage, not only as a member of the Campaign for Real Ale, fan of real ale and former bar person who spent nine years behind a bar and collecting glasses while at university, but as a committee member of a sports and social club. Therefore, I have a fair idea about how some of this works. Many bar staff will welcome the extension of drinking-up time. Any of us who did it knows the real effort that it takes to get people to do their talking while they are walking at the end of the night. It was always a burden. That half hour usually involved people grabbing three or four pints and trying to neck them to get out within that tight time frame. A one-hour period will give flexibility and an easier offering to taxis. Anyone who has tried to get a taxi at last orders knows that you have half an hour to get one, you cannot get one, and people are standing outside and congregating. It is just a mess. That flexibility and that offering are sensible. It will provide a lot less, as I say, bingeing and a lot more ease of access to amenities at the end of the night. There will also not be that rush out the door in city centres, towns and urban locations when everybody is out at the same time. There can be a phased end to the evening. That is much more sensible and pragmatic. It looks as though the offer is there to end that if it does not seem to work out. It is unlikely that that will be the case, but there is that backup in play.

Again, the extension of late licences is good. Many nightclubs already have those in place. However, many of the social clubs and sports clubs that can avail themselves of those already use their 52 per year. Therefore, they will have that option in the bag, especially as they try to come back from the devastation of COVID. In a post-COVID society, they will have the added flexibility to try to provide as many entertainment nights and put as many more pounds in the coffers as possible. I welcome the streamlining of the process and the application process as well.

Perhaps the Minister can get back to me about an anomaly with regard to sports and social clubs. Many have massive pitches. My cricket club in Carrickfergus has a huge cricket pitch, obviously. That is hardly surprising. We want to have a real ale festival every year, and others want to do the same. However, the licence, as it currently exists, prohibits selling anything outside. You have to apply for a temporary licence, which could come in for checks and balances and a whole range of difficulties. Perhaps that can be looked into; if that facility were there, they could extend their wares outside, even temporarily. That would give much more flexibility.

I totally understand where clause 17 on loyalty schemes is coming from. I do not think that any of would us want to see a scheme whereby people were being encouraged to binge drink or buy more. However, many sports clubs and social clubs have a card facility, whereby you join as a member and the card gets you a reduced rate or member privileges. I would not like to think that members' clubs will be hit by that rule. I do not think that anyone wants to see points schemes in which you collect points, points mean prizes and the prizes are free pints. The schemes that exist in many sports and social clubs do not encourage that. Members are able to save money on the drinks that they buy and benefit from membership. It is important that people know who is in their club, so that they can have control over their members. Therefore, I will be concerned if the clause impacts on them as well.

I will turn to an issue that has been discussed by many — Matthew O'Toole, in particular, mentioned it a great deal — which is craft brewers. We have some fantastic ones here. I am a fan. We have the Hercules Brewing Company; Farmageddon Brewing; the Hilden Brewery; McCracken's Real Ale, which stocks our local club in Carrickfergus; Boundary Brewing; the Norn Iron Brewing Company; the Whitewater Brewery; and the Mourne Mountains Brewery to name but a few. They have got to where they are despite the regulations and legislation that are in place now; against all the odds, compared with their competitors in the rest of the UK and Ireland. It is testament to the entrepreneurial spirit and determination of those companies and the people who have given up other jobs to take up positions in the microbrewing industry that they have got to where they are. Up to now, and until this has even been discussed, they have not been able to sell online, at trade fairs or markets, or when they go to the Titanic market or the Christmas market. They cannot sell the stuff to you when you go to taste it in their premises. That seems completely out of kilter with our strategy to try to encourage entrepreneurial spirit and give companies a level playing field. Many are very responsible in what they do. They have a community ethos. They sponsor local organisations and work with communities. It is so important to grow that work. It is essential that we look at offering the taprooms' offerings, as happens in England, Scotland and Wales.

A company such as BrewDog in Scotland has gone off the scale in its ability to sell worldwide. The Tiny Rebel company in Wales, where I went to university, has done the same thing. They were given support and nurtured. That is exactly what we want to do, because can you imagine where they could get to if we were to give the 10 or 12 that we already have and that I have just named that level playing field or even promote them above it? The possibilities are endless. These are responsible organisations using local products and producing stuff that, because of their offerings, could go anywhere around the world. There is potential in the growing Chinese market and in the Japanese market, and in America, where craft beer sales are going through the roof. Twenty years ago, you could not have given a gin and tonic or pint of real ale to anybody, but now everybody wants one.

This is just the beginning, and Northern Ireland could set itself up as a bastion of craft beer, craft ale, whiskey and gin. There is no reason that that cannot be the case if we give them all the support that they need. I would love to see that in the legislation. I welcome the stuff around the online aspects and the ability to offer tastings, but we really need to look at taprooms.

I get the concern from some in the sector that it might have an impact on them, but it is a completely different experience. The menu has a limited range. It is an experience that you might have before you go out. People need to understand that. As Matthew O'Toole said, a lot of the taprooms are not in the most desirable of areas. You are not going to go to an industrial estate for a night out, but you may well get a lift there with a couple of friends, where you can try a few and support the company. The company needs to get money in. That is the only way in which it is going to grow, especially in the current climate, so I would love to see that be the case. As Kellie Armstrong said, 99% of the products that we consume here are imported. If we could support our local industries, that would have such a positive impact on the community.

Again as Mr O'Toole said, we have a concern about the way in which our entire system is set up. It is not just here but across the rest of the UK and Ireland. Our community pubs are closing on a weekly basis. That was happening before COVID, and I can only imagine how many are not going to come out the other side of COVID, given its impact on them. We need to look at a different way for when they reopen. The current system, although working for some, is not working for everybody. It would be a real shame if many of those pubs close down and do not reopen. They not only are key economic drivers but are key to our tourism offering and to our community.

Many Members touched on the impact of household drinking, which, again, was rising pre-COVID and is now off the scale. You just have to look at the record figures for off-sales trade. People will say, "Fair play to them", but there is no control, no regulation and no social aspect to it, and there is no one to challenge them.

When I worked in the pub industry, I was always on the lookout. John O'Dowd touched on that. If you saw somebody come in who seemed to be a bit down or was drinking more than normal, there was that interaction. There is a danger that people lose that and disappear into the house and consume much more alcohol than they ever would, because their measures are not controlled, they are not concerned about the final bell, people are not challenging them or their friends are not saying, "Man, you've had one too many". Household drinking was growing before, and it is undoubtedly growing now. My fear is that, if we see a lack of pubs open and more pubs closing, we are going to see more and more people drinking at home. That can hopefully be addressed in the legislation, because there is no way of controlling that at present.

Those are a couple of issues that you may be able to come back to me on, Minister, although perhaps not today.

Mr Dickson: I thank the Minister for bringing forward the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill. I seriously hope that the Bill will progress into legislation during the lifetime of this Assembly.

The legislation builds on previous legislation that was brought forward by my former Assembly colleague Judith Cochrane, when she introduced a private Member's Bill permitting the sale of alcohol in large stadia. Many of the things that you are moving on to in this Bill are things that she had hoped to incorporate in that Bill, but time was against her.

I support various parts of the Bill, and I want to ask the Minister whether she will consider amending it to enable local producers to sell their products on their own premises. The Alliance Party is very supportive of an amendment to allow a producer's licence to be added to the legislation. Those changes would be very welcome in our towns and cities, with the addition of microbreweries and similar clear opportunities for tourism, as is the case in many parts of the rest of the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and other parts of the world.

Allowing breweries or distilleries to sell their own products does not constitute a quasi-pub. Taprooms are the norm across the world where visitors to breweries can relax and build a connection with the brand, without having to limit their stay to a small sample after a tour. Given that local breweries only wish to sell their own products, this is not competing with the pub that can sell a wide range of products. Large breweries are, generally, located in industrial estates and are primarily manufacturing companies. That certainly is the case in Northern Ireland. The experience is completely different from sitting in the comfort of a village, town or city pub where the beer might even be brewed on the premises. That is the concept that we are trying to get over: the comfort of being able to do in-house brewing for people to sit in the premises where the beer or other products are produced.

Mr O'Toole: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I wish to touch on something that I forgot to mention in my remarks. Does the Member agree that the biggest tourist attraction, by volume and revenue, on this island is the Guinness taphouse in Dublin? Clearly, that is a very well established brand, but that taphouse has a licence downstairs. There is a bit upstairs where you cannot buy drink, but you can buy the product downstairs. That does not jeopardise the revenue of any of the pubs around Dublin that seem to sell quite a lot of Guinness, despite the presence of the Guinness Storehouse.

Mr Dickson: I totally agree. What we are trying to achieve, Minister, is to allow publicans, other businesses and those who are dedicated just to the sale of their individual product to be able to do that and boost the tourism and business offering in our small towns and villages across Northern Ireland. Large-scale breweries require infrastructure that would make it very difficult for them to open in our towns or cities. The planning processes designed to allow them tend to be in industrial estates. What we are trying to achieve, by a change in the legislation and a change in direction of the legislation, is to allow small microbreweries to develop in their own right and, indeed, publicans to develop them inside their own businesses. The shop window might have all the stainless steel and brewing equipment and, perhaps, the smell of the product coming into the street, just like a bakery. That may very well encourage people to come inside and partake of the offer.

Alliance agrees with many pubs and clubs that the situation where taprooms can use occasional licences is not ideal, and that needs to change. That is why we believe that local producers need their own licence to ensure that all the regulations and requirements for selling alcoholic produce can be monitored and measured. We very much appreciate the need to control the sale of alcohol, but this is just doing it for another group of people who want to sell their product in a different way. There has been opposition from some in the hospitality sector, who see the legislation as promoting competition against their businesses. Minister, I disagree with that. There is potential for us to expand the tourism sector, promote Northern Ireland as a place to visit, particularly for its microbreweries, and enhance our towns and villages. Others in the Chamber today have told us the names, and, indeed, the location, of many of those breweries, but other alcoholic beverages can equally be produced and sold at source.

The Bill will not deal with trading in public house licences, and other Members referred to that. Alliance is very clearly in favour of changing the dynamic to support pubs being retained in our communities and to stop many of those limited licences being sold on to the supermarket trade.

Others have made a very clear point that, in the atmosphere of a public house, there is substantially more control, and we should not lose sight of the health and other concerns about the consumption of alcohol.


4.00 pm

Alliance supports the increase in the number of late licences for pubs and clubs, and we are delighted to see the changes to Easter opening times, which are long overdue and which we have supported for a long time.

We also welcome the clarification on school formals. My goodness, that is stuck in the middle of all this, but it is important. Young people should be able to enjoy themselves at an event and should not be constrained by the time because the premises happen to be licensed. Where licensed goods are not to be made available on those premises, there should not be any reason why young people cannot stay after 9.00 pm for school formals and similar events.

We expect that there will be a great deal more debate about extending drinking-up time, which will mean people coming out of pubs and clubs at 3.00 am. That will change the dynamic for many, including taxi and other businesses.

The debate on the licensing and registration of clubs will continue in the Chamber and in the Committee for many months. We support your aim, Minister, to have the legislation passed in time for Easter next year.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I now call Pat Catney to speak on his specialist subject [Laughter.]

Mr Catney: You can call time on me any time you like, Mr Deputy Speaker.

To start with, my family has been involved in the business for, as far as I can trace it back, about 100 years. We were involved with a little pub in Lisburn called the County Down Arms. In fact, that is where my mother first worked for her uncle when she came up from County Cavan. There have been many, many changes in the industry. We all know that change happens, and sometimes change is for the best. I have said before that at an early age — I was 15 — I was able to go to a great publican called Paddy Swale in Moira, where I worked in The Four Trees. It is great to see that the Hughes family, whom I went to see in Lisburn, are now manufacturing the RubyBlue spirit in Moira.

Again, there have been many changes. When I was young, every pub bottled its own Guinness. Bottled Guinness was the real ale; that which came in draught form later was not. I just want to give you the history. Pubs specialised in how they kept their Guinness at room temperature. That has all changed now, because the market, since the introduction of pasteurised beer, deems that it must be chilled and cold. I remember draught beers coming in. I remember trying to sell the single X that was on the counter. Again, there was a specialised knack to pulling that. I was very lucky, as I say. It was all about your time served then, when I started out; it was an apprenticeship. We had to cut back our spirits, our rum and our sherries, and we did our own bottling. That has all moved on, and, hopefully, it has moved on for the best.

A family member is still involved in pubs, but I think that it is worth mentioning that my friend Terry Cross is building a state-of-the-art distillery on the outskirts of Lagan Valley. What he has brought out of the ground is an absolute credit to him. I recommend that everyone try to see that. Minister, I extend the invitation to you. It is worth seeing. He has three pot stills: the largest one is called Donard after the largest mountain in the Mournes; there is the middle one; and the little one is called Binnian. It is worth going to see. There is a gin still there as well. That is new and fresh out of the ground, and it is there on our doorstep, on the outskirts of Belfast. It involved quite a lot of money, but he would not have spent that money if there was not a market for it.

From that, I go to where I live in Hilden. Across the road from my house is the Scullion's brewery. Ann and Seamus left and went to England, but they came back with their young family and bought the manager's house, as it was then, that was part of the thread factory at Hilden, which was one of the biggest factories in the world, employing 5,000 people. They opened their brewery, and I stocked their beer from the start. They gave their different beers local names such as Hilden Halt and Hilden Ale, and they named their Belfast Bap beer Barney's Brew after the baker, Barney Hughes. That ties into all that history.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask the Member to connect his remarks to the legislation.

Mr Catney: I am sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will get to it now because it is all connected.

The Hilden brewery had great difficulty in getting its product into licensed premises. The two big brewers at that time were Guinness and Bass Charrington, which operated out of west Belfast. They had a monopoly because of the cost of licences for public houses and they bought up the franchises so that publicans could buy beer only from them. The Hilden brewery had to work as best it could with independent public houses in order to stock its product.

Nothing much has really changed. The situation is the same and is detrimental to the growth of those businesses. That little brewery in Lisburn can probably sell more beer in the South of Ireland market, but it cannot sell in the public marketplace here. You can go for a tour at Hilden and, at the end, you are allowed a small sample. The brewery should have the right to sell its products on its premises. That is what I want to say to the Minister. That would make such a great difference.

I want to turn to the growth of the real ale business and how it progressed in Belfast. I organised the first real ale that we had in the old Kitchen Bar, as John said, with CAMRA. I remember trying to find some different beers, and there was a brewery in England that named its beers after Second World War planes. One of them was called 'Spitfire', which was about 3·9% — believe me, it is all related, Mr Deputy Speaker — and it was a social drinking beer. They had a stronger beer named 'Hercules' after the transport plane that was used in the Second World War. Their winter warmer was a special beer of 8·9%, which was called 'Over and Out'. [Laughter.]

The point is that they tried to relate to where they are. That was my general point in that regard.

Mr Newton: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Which clause is the Member speaking to?

Mr Catney: I am coming to it now. [Laughter.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): He is very engaging, but I encourage the Member to relate his comments to the Bill.

Mr Catney: I welcome any movement in the licensing laws for Easter. My income went out the door when I had to close on Good Friday. That said, any such movement will not be enough without a complete change to the licensing system. There will not be many bars left to take advantage of extended opening hours. In fact, the only industry that seems to do well as a result of the surrender principle are the supermarket off-licences because they buy the bulk of those licences.

I bought two extended licences in County Tyrone and brought them to Belfast where I opened the Laurel Glen Bar and the Portside Inn with them. So, at least I bought a licence and brought it back and was able to use it again in a public house. As a bar owner once put it to me, a supermarket off-licence is a tombstone for a recently deceased, independently owned bar. COVID has hit bar owners hard. If we do not want to see more tombstones popping up, we need to change the surrender principle now.

Our licensing laws do not work for bars, but they also do very little to curb excessive drinking. In the bar, excessive drinking was bad for trade. For every one dangerously drunk person in your bar, 10 people can see that person and will not cross your door again. Bar owners do not strive for excessive drinking; the vast majority actively work to prevent excessive drinking. We have already heard recent statistics about the 65% of people who are drinking at home. Drinking occurs at home, but it is wrong to blame bar owners for that.

I spoke to someone the other day after the bars had closed, and he was an active pub drinker. He has not touched a drink since the bars closed. I believe that the public house sector can sell alcohol in a controlled atmosphere. The proposed reform will allow for off-sales and occasional licences, which is important and useful for getting access to sales. However, Hospitality Ulster's opinion that only a single pint should be allowed after a tour is outdated and fails to recognise where craft beers fit into the market. I say that as an ex-member and ex-chair of the Belfast and Ulster Licensed Vintners' Association, which became Hospitality Ulster, as was my brother.

Any kind of substantive access for Northern Ireland trade is stymied by the actions of the big multinational brewers. Hilden Brewery, our oldest independent brewery, has found that out to its cost. Craft brewers believe that their indigenous industry can grow if they are given the right tools by the Assembly. The public and, importantly, tourists must be able to drink a brewer's own beer on-site without restrictive clauses. With greater exposure, it will be harder for the big brewers to deny entry to craft brewers to the market as they do now. Small craft breweries selling their beer on-site was never intended as a replacement for the pub, but it is something that Northern Ireland is missing that the rest of the UK has. Indeed, many countries support their small entrepreneurial craft brewers.

I have often spoken about the incredible craft distilleries and breweries that have sprung up in the last number of years. They are creating and producing a world-renowned product, and they are worldwide winners. They are also energising the industry in areas such as sustainability and are bringing back the heritage of our industry. Without the backing of the big companies that are meant to support them, pubs face an uncertain future with Brexit. However, we are attacking them with ridiculous laws that stop them from giving their products to visitors in their distilleries or breweries. That is not a health issue: no binge drinker is going to the local independent brewer to pay a premium for a local product. We love to talk about tourism opportunities in the Chamber, but here is a world-renowned industry that is capable of bringing visitors from all over the world, and we are holding it back with our odd off-days and useless laws.

Hampering local entrepreneurs does not boost the economy. Sales are an important source of revenue, which prevents them having to sell to the distributors, and that is where the problem lies. Small breweries find that they cannot go to market because the pubs have contractual clauses that mean they can buy only from the big brewers such as Guinness and Heineken. When consumers cannot get their local craft beer, they head to the supermarket or off-licence to buy a global brand with no connection to our people or economy.

As a bar owner, I have seen the devastation that alcoholism can cause. I have worked to try to help people who have been affected by alcoholism and, unfortunately, I have had to attend some of their funerals. It is right that we do all that we can to prevent alcoholism and to help those who have that terrible disease. Our current licensing laws do not give that protection: they are bad for the industry, bad for our economy and have little impact on the people whom they are supposed to protect. The licensing laws must be reformed, and we must take this opportunity to do so.

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for indulging me. I wanted to go down memory lane as everyone else seemed to be taking their time.

Mr Nesbitt: Earlier, Mr Durkan seemed to invite Members to see how many beer-related puns they could slip into their remarks. I have to say to Mr Durkan that I am not rising to that challenge. I am going to bottle it.

I welcome the focus that the Minister is placing on these issues, which is not to say that I am in accord with the legislation as drafted. I will touch on that in a moment.

As this is Second Stage, I will stick to the Bill's principles. The principle through which we need to test the legislation is whether what we are doing is fair and equitable, particularly for that sector of the economy. COVID-19 has impacted very badly and harshly on the hospitality sector, as many Members have said. I am sure that we have all met owners and operators of bars who feel badly done by, having invested in recalibrating their space to