Official Report: Monday 01 June 2020
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Gerry Carroll has been given leave to make a statement on the death of George Floyd that fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called to speak, they should stand in their place and continue to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes in which to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has been concluded.
Mr Carroll: First, I express my sympathy to the family of George Floyd on the death of their loved one. The footage of a police officer putting his knee on the neck of George Floyd, suffocating and killing him while he shouted, "I can't breathe", shines a brutal light onto the reality of racism and police violence in the United States today. That racism, unfortunately, has been emboldened by the words and actions of Donald Trump, who gave the green light to continue shooting people down in cold blood in America, after this brutal killing. Trump, of course, is a man who has done nothing about the continual violence of white supremacists and racist organisations whilst giving them a nod and a wink along the way. It is a cruel irony, is it not, and a true reflection of life in the United States today that a black man can be murdered after being accused of forging documents, while wealthy whites, through tax evasion and other schemes, forge their way to billionaire and trillionaire status, exploiting the labour of black people along the way?
Today, we express our sorrow and anger at the murder of George Floyd, but unfortunately that has been a common theme in recent years, and we also have to remember Eric Garner, Michael Brown and all those killed in cold blood. Unfortunately and tragically, there are too many names to mention them today.
Since the brutal killing of George Floyd, we have witnessed protests across the United States. People have been bravely standing up to and defying the brutal, militarised police state of the United States. On behalf of all socialists, all progressives and all radicals in Ireland, I extend solidarity and support to all the people out on the streets demonstrating against the racist, murdering machine in the United States. In the 1960s, the black civil rights struggle directly inspired the struggle for change here, and people here are still inspired by the ongoing fight for equality, dignity, rights and justice for black and minority communities in the United States. One world: one struggle. Black lives matter.
Mr O'Toole: I thank Gerry Carroll for raising this Matter of the Day. Over the weekend, we will all have seen the images from the United States that began with the horrific murder of George Floyd, a black man who came to his death with the knee of a police officer across his neck. It is shocking and appalling and it matters to us here. It matters to us all, because, as Gerry Carroll said, black lives matter. They matter in the United States. I feel quite a profound connection to the United States because I have spent some time there. It is true that there is an endemic and deep strain of racism that has affected the American republic since the state was founded and we cannot forget about that. As a jurisdiction here, and as an island that is deeply and intimately linked with the United States, we cannot turn a blind eye to the reality of deep and endemic racism there.
During the Irish famine, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass paid a visit to Ireland. He lectured all over this island, including in what is now Northern Ireland, in Holywood, Bangor and Lisburn. He said that while the Irish had been among the worst perpetrators of prejudice against people of colour in North America, they themselves had also experienced prejudice and injustice. Mr Carroll mentioned the links between the civil rights movement in North America and the civil rights movement here in Northern Ireland. The reason why Frederick Douglass's words resonate still today is that responsibility falls on all of us, not just in North America but across the globe, to ensure that we do everything to root out racism, which is a cancer, not just in the United States but across societies everywhere. It is incumbent on all of us to do everything that we can to ensure that people of colour are treated properly and that the centuries-old injustice that has afflicted them, certainly in North America and elsewhere, is properly addressed.
What has happened in North America this weekend is profoundly important all over the world, and I am glad that, today, the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is profoundly connected to North America and to the United States, will issue a strong call in solidarity with the people who are protesting there today.
Mr Givan: I offer my condolences to the family of George Floyd; a father to daughters who are grieving and his loss will be felt most keenly by them. I have been reading up on George, and he was known as a gentle giant. He was six foot six; this was a big man. He had a glittering career in football and basketball at Jack Yates High School and led them to championship finals. It is important that we also remember George for the man. He can, and is being used for political statements to attack institutions. Rightly, people need to point out where there are failings. What happened to George was appalling; everyone can see that. The way that he was treated was appalling. The officer responsible has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Due process now, I hope, takes its course and executes justice very speedily, and it is vital that that happens, but what is not right is the mass destruction that has taken place. The destruction of property and the encouragement of that kind of protest is something that I would not want to be party to. I would not want the Assembly to send that message out.
I condemn what has happened to George but I also condemn the way in which the protests have now turned into a violent mob and are being used to attack institutions and the President of the United States and so on. Let us remember George, because it is important that we give a flavour of who we are talking about and not just use him to talk about other things. I read that George did a lot of work in Houston. He worked in the projects, as they are called in the United States, in deprived areas. He was known as a person of peace, and as a mentor to a generation of young men. His pastor in the Resurrection Church in Houston's Cuney, known as "the Bricks", paid a tribute to him. He said:
"George Floyd was a person of peace sent from the Lord that helped the gospel go forward in a place that I never lived in."
He brought the Church to the people. There is a story that George pushed the baptism tank into the projects on the understanding that people there would make a decision of faith and be baptised where they lived without needing to go to the church.
George is to be remembered for the contribution that he made as a Christian, as someone who tackled disadvantage and as someone who brought the Church to the people. We need to see justice for the terrible way in which his life was ended.
Ms Sheerin: I echo some of the comments that have been made around the Chamber. We need to be careful about how the narrative of what happened has been portrayed. George Floyd's death is not the first to be captured on a smartphone and beamed around the world through social media. Such events in themselves are tragedies. Systemic racism, not just one bad apple in an institution, caused his death. Systemic racism, like any form of discrimination, is the disease that hurts not only those who feel the blatant and explicit brutality, but those who have to suffer the comments, jokes and narrative that are made and legitimised by action such as that which happened to George Floyd.
In the North of Ireland, where our freedom fighters and civil rights organisations were inspired by the demonstrations by the American civil rights movement of the '60s, we stand in solidarity with those whose struggle for equality is ongoing. As a child of the '90s, I am lucky that the freedoms that were fought for here in the '60s and '70s have allowed me to live a life without harassment, but it is deeply unsettling to see that, in America, where freedom riders and marchers staged sit-ins and took the same brave stand, their children's children are not afforded the same luxuries. Ar dheis Dé go raibh sé.
Mr Beattie: The images beamed around the world of George Floyd being restrained by a Minnesota policeman — pleading with that policeman to take his knee off his neck, fighting for breath and, ultimately, dying — are truly horrific. The police officer who perpetrated that was, rightly, arrested and has, rightly, been charged with murder. He will go through due process because he shamed his office on that day. However, it is more disturbing that three of his colleagues stood and watched while it happened. They are as much to blame as the officer who pressed his knee on the neck of the man who was lying helpless on the floor.
George Floyd was a man of colour. He was a black man in a racially charged US where black men are more likely to die in this way, but I did not see a colour; I saw a man — a helpless man murdered on our screens. I cannot stand here and support the violence that happened afterwards: I cannot, and I will not. All such violence does is create more dead, more devastation, more injured, more victims. We need to remember George, if we are going to support the people who want justice for him.
Ms Armstrong: I rise with a lot of sorrow. On behalf of myself and the Alliance Party, I pass on our condolences to George's family and his community. As others have said, the use of police force and the eight minutes and 46 seconds that that knee was on the neck of a person — the last three of which when George was unresponsive —are shocking to see, read about and hear about. We have absolute empathy with those who have felt anger. However, I draw everyone to what George's brother has said. George's brother Terrence Floyd has condemned the violence that is happening.
He has condemned the protests and has said that his brother stood for peace. He has asked everyone to channel anger elsewhere, and that anger should be focused on the lack of leadership that is current in the United States and in so many other places across the world, where things like racism are taking hold meaning that people are not treated equally.
Instead of having a president in America who is calm, courageous, principled and has great leadership, we have a person who fans the flames of division, racism and bigotry. There are a lot of things that America could do better and one of them would be channelling that anger in a different way. There is a lot of difference between a protest and looting, raiding and violence for violence's sake. We absolutely condemn the violence that is taking place.
It is time that we take the attention back to what happened. This is not a police versus community issue. It shows that there has to be transparency and accountability. We know full well here in this place that our past has shown where police got things wrong. Now, thank goodness, we have professionalism and a force that has improved and that has learned from mistakes.
I know that the officer has been arrested and charged, but it is time that the whole police force in the Minnesota area and other parts of America take a cold, hard look at the type of force that they use against people. As Mr Beattie said, we did not see colour, we saw a man dying in the street with the knee of another person on his neck. That has to stop. That is not right. George Floyd lived until he was 46. His family is now grieving, and we are very sorry for that.
Mr Allister: Anyone who watched the footage could not only be aghast but outraged at what they saw: the deliberate actions leading to the death, nay the murder, of George Floyd. It is right and appropriate, and I am glad of it, that the perpetrator has been charged with offences, and others look to me as if they likewise should be charged. However, what we then witnessed is the exploitation of that incident to unleash, by forces of anarchy, sheer terror on the streets of the United States.
I was very disappointed that the Member who raised this matter did not have one word of condemnation for that anarchy, which is not honouring the memory of George Floyd or anyone else but is seeking to exploit the situation for the advantage of anarchists and the far left, with no regard to the memory or the life or the testimony of George Floyd. Instead of condemning that, Mr Carroll told us that he was in solidarity with those bravely standing up to and defying the forces in the United States. He told us that that inspired things here. Sadly, it probably did.
One of the things, of course, that we will remember the United States for most in terms of own Troubles is the dollars that funded the weapons that armed vile terrorists. Ms Sheerin, they were not freedom fighters. They were vile terrorists of the lowest order, who inflicted the most horrendous killings in this community. Indeed, I have to say that I have no recollection of the United States Congress or any other congress in any state very often raising issues in defence of the innocent in Northern Ireland. I do not recall condemnation of the bloodthirsty murder of the corporals in Northern Ireland echoing around the legislatures of the United States. Today, however, we, as human beings, do condemn the murder of George.
I only wish that that condemnation had been reciprocated when we were the victims of horrendous terrorism.
Miss Woods: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I had risen at the start.
I thank my colleague for bringing the matter to the Chamber today. Racism thrives in the company of silence. The tragedy of the death of George Floyd, who suffered after a police officer kneeled on his neck for seven minutes, in spite of his pleas to stop, has rightly caused anger and protest in Minneapolis and across the world. I stood on the same streets that people are protesting on not nine months ago, as part of the global climate strike outside Saint Paul City Hall. I visited many of the shops that have been looted. People whom I keep in touch with who live in the city tell me that the protests are generally supported and understandable, touched off by some things that had been brewing for a while. What Minnesota has never seen before, however, is the level of violence.
We in the Green Party stand in solidarity with all those, including the Black Lives Matter movement, who campaign against endemic institutional racism, fascism and police brutality. We have seen images of police in the US using cars as weapons, firing tear gas, beating protesters and targeting journalists. That is all the result of systemic racism, inequality and a populist, neo-fascist regime in the form of the Trump Administration. A friend in Minneapolis emailed me on Saturday night, stating:
"If police stopped tweeting racist things to fan the flames, we'd be getting on even better."
He said that to see those tweets coming through in the middle of the night, with the police station and the city burning, was reproachable.
We call for justice for George Floyd and justice for all who have been wronged by those who were sworn to protect them, as this is not the first time that this has happened. We must honour his memory and that of others by continuing to work harder than ever to end racism, tackle inequalities and build a better future for all.
I wish to mention some of the last words recorded from Mr Floyd:
"It's my face, man. I didn't do nothing serious, man. Please, please, please, I can't breathe. I cannot breathe, officer. Don't kill me."
We have a choice. We can raise our voices and join against the systemic and institutionalised racism across the world and push for those in power to do the same.
Moved. — [Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance).]
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No amendments have been tabled to the Bill. I propose therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to group its four clauses for the Question on stand part, followed by the two schedules and the long title.
Question, That clauses 1 to 4 stand part of the Bill, put and agreed to.
Clauses 1 to 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Question, That schedules 1 and 2 be agreed, put and agreed to.
Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to.
Question, That the long title be agreed, put and agreed to.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker. Amendments for Further Consideration Stage of the Bill may be submitted to the Bill Office up until 9.30 am tomorrow.
That the Housing (Amendment) Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate. I call the Minister for Communities to open the debate on the motion.
Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): Thank you, and I thank everyone in the Chamber. I welcome the opportunity to address the Assembly on the motion. There are compelling grounds for the use of accelerated passage for the legislation. It is, obviously, not a decision that I take lightly, but it is necessary.
The Bill is necessary, following the 2016 decision by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to classify registered housing associations locally to the public sector for the purposes of government accounting. Similar decisions were made by ONS on housing associations in the other jurisdictions. On the day that the decision was announced, the Executive agreed that the Department for Communities should bring forward proposals to achieve a reversal of the ONS decision.
As required under Standing Order 42(4), I wish to explain why I am seeking accelerated passage and the consequences, if it is not granted. I ask for accelerated passage for the Bill because of the financial implications if we cannot achieve a timely reversal of the ONS decision. The ONS decision means that the borrowing of registered housing associations counts as public sector borrowing, and the Department must provide cover for that borrowing. However, doing so for registered housing associations would impact adversely on our current approach to building social homes, in which the associations match fund the capital grant made by the Department through their borrowing in the private sector. The loss of that approach would see the volume of social homes built each year reduced by almost 50%.
The British Treasury has allowed a derogation in relation to the accounting impacts of the ONS decision, but that is contingent on our doing what is necessary as quickly as possible to facilitate a reversal of the ONS decision. The derogation has already lasted a year longer here than in Scotland and Wales. Whilst it has been renewed for 2020-21, it is highly unlikely that the Treasury will extend it any further. More urgently, with the classification to the public sector, registered housing associations lost their eligibility to access financial transactions capital (FTC). That government loan scheme has been used in the last few years to support increased homeownership through affordable housing programmes. The co-ownership scheme has supported over 2,000 households into homeownership in the last two years. However, without FTC, the scheme will be forced to close to new applicants unless an alternative source of funding can be found. Over the last two years, the Department has been able to find that funding with significant support from the Department of Finance. However, the uncertain funding picture is not beneficial to co-ownership. My officials have estimated that to maintain the co-ownership scheme at its current level will require an additional capital funding of £3 million per month. This issue is unaffected by the derogation, which is purely about accounting practice. Without accelerated passage there is a risk that the derogation will not be renewed in 2021-22, and the cost of maintaining the co-ownership scheme for the current financial year will have been met by my Department at an additional cost of £36 million. Even with accelerated passage, we will need to find £3 million per month to maintain the co-ownership scheme until the ONS decision can be reversed.
Of course, the situation we find ourselves in brings added urgency to the pressures of the Bill. The additional funding will prove much more difficult to find as a result of the COVID-19 public health emergency. Of course, the economic benefits of the reclassification of housing associations here will be of huge importance due to the need for recovery vehicles once we begin to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. We need those benefits as soon as possible.
In accordance with Standing Order 42(3), I appeared before the Committee for Communities on 13 May to explain the need for accelerated passage for the Bill and to outline the consequences of it not being granted. I thank the Chair and the Committee for their recognition of the need to move the Bill as quickly as possible and for their support in seeking Assembly approval for accelerated passage. Members will have the opportunity to raise issues in detail at the Second Stage of the Bill, and I look forward to the engagement.
Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): As the Minister said, she briefed the Committee on 13 May on the reasons why the Bill is required to proceed under accelerated passage. Members recognise the urgent need for legislation, so that the ONS will reverse its decision to classify registered housing associations as public sector. This classification has an effect on how money is borrowed and, without the current derogation, it would be classified as public-sector borrowing. That would then impact on the budget for building social houses, something that we can ill afford at this time, when our housing waiting lists are so high.
We also heard from the Minister and her officials that, whilst the Treasury extended the derogation from the ONS decision until March next year, it was dependent on legislation being brought forward as quickly as possible to reverse the ONS decision. The Minister made the Committee aware that the Treasury has informed the Department that it is highly unlikely that another derogation will be granted. The Committee agreed that it is therefore imperative that we get this legislation through as quickly as possible.
Another factor to be taken into account is the potential impact on the successful co-ownership scheme. The ONS classification meant that housing associations are no longer eligible to access financial transactions capital, which is a Government loan scheme. As a result, the Department has been spending £3 million per month to maintain the scheme. Whilst we all welcome the support from the Department for co-ownership, that £3 million per month could be used to meet the many other challenging priorities.
As I indicated, the Committee is supportive of the Bill being granted accelerated passage. However, Committee members had questions about the Bill and, with your approval, I will address those at Second Stage. It is imperative that the Bill progresses quickly through the House, particularly as, even after Royal Assent, it will take time for the ONS to reverse its decision. The Committee was told that, with a fair wind, the decision could be taken by September. At the Committee meeting, the Minister acknowledged that this is not her preferred way of handling legislation, and although most Committee members would prefer the opportunity to scrutinise the Bill in greater detail, members are supportive of the motion to allow accelerated passage.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call the next Member to speak, I remind Members that if they wish to participate, they should rise in their place or indicate that to me in some other way: try to catch my eye.
Ms Ennis: I agree with the comments from the Minister and the Chair of the Committee on the need for accelerated passage for the Bill. I know that it is not the Minister's preferred vehicle, but it has to be noted that the Committee for Communities accepted the need for accelerated passage to reverse the ONS decision to classify housing associations as public bodies. We know that failure to grant accelerated passage will have consequences, not least financial implications. As the Chair said, it will draw a cost of £3 million per month to keep the co-ownership scheme open to new applications while the Bill progresses.
I welcome the Minister's determination on this issue because, as the Chair said, it is very unlikely that the British Treasury will extend the current derogation for another year. It is, therefore, imperative that the Bill passes through the Assembly by accelerated passage. We support that.
Mr Durkan: As social justice spokesperson for the SDLP, a party whose very raison d'être is the pursuit of social justice, I cannot let today pass without commenting on recent and ongoing events across the Atlantic Ocean. I apologise that I missed the Matter of the Day, but give me a wee bit of latitude, please, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.
The murder of George Floyd, an unarmed and innocent black man, by Minneapolis police officers has shone a light once more on the injustice and intolerance that is still rife in the world. We, sadly, are no strangers to that, in this wee corner of it. We do not condone the rioting or looting that many cities now suffer, but we condemn 100% the institutional racism that has given rise to it.
We stand in sympathy with George's family and friends, and in solidarity with all those across the world who strive for a fair, just and equal society. We are motivated to do all we can, as leaders, to eradicate injustice in our community.
One area where injustice remains is in housing. In 2020, thousands of families and individuals suffer homelessness and housing stress. We have a statutory and moral duty to provide homes for those people. The Housing (Amendment) Bill is an essential tool to enable us, through housing associations, to build and provide more social homes. Therefore, I want to put it firmly on the record that we support the essence of the Bill.
When the Minister came to the Committee to outline her intention to use accelerated passage to get the legislation through as quickly as possible, I, like other Committee members, expressed regret that we would not be able to scrutinise fully such an important piece of legislation. Ultimately, we acquiesced to the Minister's request, but over the weekend I have given the matter a bit more thought. In order to ensure that the ONS reclassification of housing associations is reversed and to realise the huge social benefits that it will bring, as well as the significant financial benefit to the Executive, the legislation needs to be in place by 31 March 2021. That is 31 March 2021. Are we saying that it is beyond our ability — that it is even beyond our ambition — to get the Bill through the normal legislative process by then?
Consultation has been done previously on the right-to-buy element of the Bill, but then apparently disregarded. As a Committee, we have received a briefing from the Minister and her officials over the phone, which is no fault of the Minister, her officials or the Committee, but we have not had a chance to get evidence from or question the sector. We have not even received an opinion from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
The Minister and Executive have a job to legislate. As Committee members and MLAs, we have a job to scrutinise. The Bill has aspects that certainly warrant further examination and consideration. We will touch on them as the debate moves to Second Stage. We need to get it right in order to maximise its benefit to the people whom we are paid to represent.
I do not want us to take the time to unpick the Bill, but to improve it. I apologise to the Chair and fellow Committee members, and to the Minister, for not making the case more strongly at Committee, but I do not think that we can use the COVID-19 crisis as cover for merely rubber-stamping far from perfect legislation. For three years, we were not here doing our job. Let us do it properly now. My party will not support accelerated passage.
Mr Allen: The Minister and, indeed, Committee colleagues have outlined the rationale and reason for accelerated passage. I will not rehearse those arguments. Social housing is, indeed, essential for many people across Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, many are unable to access it. Any detrimental impact on the ability to build social housing would be catastrophic. With that and, indeed, the mitigating circumstances — I believe that the COVID-19 crisis is a huge factor in taking the Bill back to ONS and going through the various stages — my party will support accelerated passage.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No other Member has indicated that they wish to speak at this stage. Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.
I also remind Members that we continue to uphold social distancing, and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come to the Chamber.
The Assembly divided:
Ayes 68; Noes 15
Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin
Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Beggs, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stewart, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir
Ms Armstrong, Mr Blair, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Dickson, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle, Mr Muir
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Buckley, Mr Gildernew
Ms S Bradley, Mr Catney, Mr Durkan, Ms Hunter, Mrs D Kelly, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Mr O'Toole
Ms Bailey, Mr Carroll, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Durkan, Ms McLaughlin
|Total Votes||83||Total Ayes||68||[81.9%]|
|Nationalist Votes||37||Nationalist Ayes||26||[70.3%]|
|Unionist Votes||36||Unionist Ayes||35||[97.2%]|
|Other Votes||10||Other Ayes||7||[70.0%]|
The following Members’ votes were cast by their notified proxy in this Division:
Ms Armstrong voted for Mr Blair, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Dickson, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle and Mr Muir.
Mr K Buchanan voted for Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley [Teller, Ayes], Ms Bunting, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Storey and Mr Weir.
Mr Butler voted for Mr Swann.
Mr McGrath voted for Ms S Bradley, Mr Catney, Mr Durkan [Teller, Noes], Ms Hunter, Mrs D Kelly, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Ms McLaughlin [Teller, Noes], Mr McNulty and Mr O’Toole.
Mr O’Dowd voted for Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew [Teller, Ayes], Ms Hargey, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan and Ms Sheerin.
Miss Woods voted for Ms Bailey.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That the Housing (Amendment) Bill (Northern Ireland) 2020 proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I ask Members to take their ease for a few seconds while we change the personnel at the Table and give the Minister time to come into the Chamber.
During the Division, a Member raised an issue with me, and it is appropriate that we put something on the record about it before I call the Minister.
When a Member is speaking, it is considered a discourtesy to that Member to walk in front of them. There were a couple of instances of that happening in the earlier debate. I appreciate that we are all a bit rusty and that this is a new experience for a lot of people, but it is considered a discourtesy to a Member, if they are addressing the Assembly, for another Member to walk in front of them. It can be very distracting.
That the Second Stage of the Housing (Amendment) Bill [NIA 6/17-22] be agreed.
Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): Thank you, Members. To go back over what was previously said, the ONS published its decision on 29 September 2016 to change the classification of registered housing associations from the private sector to the public sector. Obviously, at that time, the Executive started work to facilitate the reversal. The Executive effectively repeated that commitment in New Decade, New Approach, and that committed us to bring forward legislation, which is urgently needed, to reclassify housing associations as external to the public sector to ensure the continuation of the co-ownership housing scheme and the building of new social housing.
The Executive decided to seek the reversal of the classification to its development of new social homes through housing associations. A private sector classification has long enabled housing associations to complement, with their borrowings, the capital that the Executive have allocated to the development of new social homes. Those borrowings did not score as public borrowing due to housing associations' private sector classification, but they would under a public-sector classification.
Under the Treasury's borrowing rules, DFC would need to retain in its capital allocation a sum equivalent to an association's annual borrowing while it is classified to the public sector. That would entirely remove the advantage to the Government and the social housing sector of an association's ability to fund new social builds. The building of all new social homes would need to be entirely funded by the Executive. Since the ONS decision, the British Government have prevented its having that effect on the Executive's Budget by applying a derogation. The Treasury terms for that derogation require that the Executive must, in the meantime, expedite legislation that would reform the relationship between it and the associations so as to permit ONS to return registered housing associations to a private sector classification.
The derogation expires on 31 March 2021, and it is unlikely that there will be a further extension to that classification. To put that in context, if 2019-2020 had been negatively affected in that way, the £146 million of capital that my Department allocated to new social housing builds could not have been matched by similar sums of borrowing by housing associations. Instead of supporting a target of 1,850 new build starts, about half of that number of builds would have been affordable. At a time when the waiting list for social homes continues to increase, that is clearly an unacceptable situation. Since 2016, it has become clear that the ONS classification of registered housing associations to the public sector has made them ineligible to access financial transactions capital or FTC loan funding.
The access to FTC has supported housing tenures other than social rented tenures — the most significant of which is the co-ownership scheme. In the last two years, the scheme has supported over 2,000 households into home ownership, and, from April 2015, the scheme has utilised a FTC loan to do that. However, from November 2018, my Department maintained the delivery of intermediate shared ownership houses at those levels by securing an additional £49 million of capital DEL grants, with approximately £15 million in 2018-19 and a further £34 million in 2019-2020. The alternative would have been a closure of the scheme for new applications.
Unless a private sector classification is returned to housing associations, the only options for 2020-21 and beyond are closure or still further pressure on capital DEL. Social and economic benefits are at the heart of the reclassification in this legislation. The economic benefits, the use of capital DEL to leverage inward commercial investment and the financial transactions capital that can once again be drawn down will take on additional relevance insofar as they will add to the economic recovery from COVID-19.
It may be helpful to spend a few minutes to go through the details of the scope of the Bill. ONS determined that housing associations should be classified to the public sector because it observed the level of control of housing associations, by the Executive through my Department, not to be consistent with a private sector classification.
That is why the sole focus of the draft Bill is to remove or amend those provisions in current housing legislation that provide for that control.
As England, Scotland and Wales have also had the same reclassification decision made by ONS, there was regular liaison between officials here and those three other areas. That forum allowed the Department to learn from others' experience and to gain an insight into the legislative amendments that ONS considered to be acceptable for reversing its decision.
The issue of the house sales scheme was unique, as we are the only jurisdiction or local authority with a compulsory scheme for registered housing associations.
The draft Bill that this work has produced has eight substantive clauses and three technical clauses. There is also a short schedule. The explanatory and financial memorandum published alongside the Bill provide a detailed explanation of it, and I will briefly outline the Bill's main impacts.
First, the current consent process for a number of functions carried out by housing associations will be replaced by a notifications process. Secondly, the circumstances in which the housing regulator may launch an inquiry into the activities of an association are more clearly framed and based in failure or suspected failure to comply with legislation. Thirdly, the Bill removes the power of the Department to petition for the winding-up of an association, a power that has never been used. Creditor bodies could still do that.
Finally, the Bill proposes to end the statutory house sales scheme for housing associations, and it introduces a power to enable the Department to support a voluntary house sales scheme should the associations develop a substitute one.
The Bill will not decrease the regulatory authority exercised by the housing regulator and does not diminish the relationship between the tenant and the association nor the tenant's ability to engage with the regulator. The approach in the legislation has been based on the direction from the Executive as far back as September 2016 and does only that which is necessary to achieve the reversal of the ONS decision. That is why the Bill proposes changes to the current compulsory house sales scheme for registered housing associations, but not for the Housing Executive.
I will, in due course, consult on methods of entry to affordable home ownership, both on extending existing schemes and introducing new alternative options, particularly for social tenants who wish to become homeowners. That consultation will be brought forward in the coming months and will include consideration of how best to protect the social housing stock and the future of the Housing Executive's house sales scheme.
I am happy to deal with any points of principle from Members.
Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): The Committee for Communities welcomes this Bill. Indeed, given the important issues that this Bill addresses, we anticipated that we would have already considered it, given that it was a key priority at the start of this Assembly.
In September, it will be four years since the Office for National Statistics took the decision to reclassify registered housing associations to the public sector and designate them as public, non-financial corporations. It is important to recognise that, on one level, that was a decision taken in order to align with technical accounting rules, but it has had a significant impact on the housing sector.
The key purpose of the Bill is, of course, to make the required changes to ensure that the ONS will reverse that decision and return housing associations to the private sector. As noted in the debate on the previous motion, the Committee was briefed by the Minister on 13 May. During that briefing, the Minister noted a number of reasons why accelerated passage was required, and those issues are also pertinent to this Second Stage debate.
Housing associations normally raise money through the private sector in order to match fund the housing grant from the Department. If the decision is not reversed, housing associations will not be able to do that and the number of social housing starts will significantly reduce by as much as 50%.
In addition, housing associations will lose eligibility to access financial transactions capital — a government loan scheme that is primarily used to support the co-ownership scheme.
Despite the derogation from the Treasury, housing associations have not been able to access that scheme. The Committee was advised that it costs the Department £3 million per month to maintain the co-ownership scheme. That is not sustainable, and, in these uncertain times, that money could be used to fund other priorities.
At the heart of the ONS decision lay the degree of control that the Department exercises over housing associations. The greater the control, the more likely it was that ONS would not reverse its decision. Of course, the Committee was concerned that the Department should still be able to exercise sufficient regulatory control over housing associations, particularly given the large amount of public money that that sector receives. The Department advised the Committee that the ONS had looked at the current regulatory system, proposed changes to it and were content with what the Department was proposing, so the Committee was reassured that regulation will continue broadly in the same way as it does now.
A key issue for members was the decision to abolish the right-to-buy scheme in relation to housing association homes. That was covered in clause 7. Some members saw it as a popular scheme that gave people a foot on the property ladder. Others said that it contributed to the reduction in our social housing stock. Arguably, both of those positions are true, but the Committee was advised that, if that provision was not included, ONS would not reverse its September 2016 decision. It is also worth noting that between 20 and 60 housing association properties are sold annually, whereas between 200 and 400 Housing Executive properties are sold. That is important because the ending of the right-to-buy scheme will apply only to tenants in the housing association sector and not to tenants in Housing Executive accommodation. That runs the risk of there being inequality if it is not addressed soon, and the Minister has given her assurances that it will be. However, for the main purpose of the Bill, the Committee was told that that is not required.
I should also point out that, for those who are considering buying a housing association house, there is a two-year transitional period in which tenants can register an interest to purchase. It is not the case that contracts have to be exchanged within that two-year time frame. Registered housing associations will, however, be able to operate a voluntary right-to-buy scheme, and clause 8 will allow the Department to pay a grant in support of a voluntary housing scheme. The Committee welcomes that.
Housing is a multifaceted issue that, in normal circumstances, would be a key priority for the Committee. COVID-19 has temporarily put paid to that, but the Committee looks forward to engaging with the Department and stakeholders on housing over the rest of the Assembly mandate. That is something on which, the Minister has advised, she also wants to make progress. However, the Committee supports the Bill at its Second Stage.
Ms Ennis: I find the intervention by my colleague on the Committee for Communities a bit bizarre. He gave a long preamble about housing being an equality issue, yet he attempted to jeopardise the accelerated passage of the Bill. If that were to happen, approximately £20 million would be taken out of the social housing budget. Considering that he did not mention any of his concerns when we spoke about it in Committee, I find it a bit bizarre.
Ms Ennis: I am sure that the Member will explain it in his contribution, so I will leave that to him.
I thank the Minister for her fast and decisive action in providing the utmost support for our housing providers and those who struggle to obtain a home, either through homeownership or social housing. The Bill is about maintaining the supply of new homes that is necessary to help struggling families and our most vulnerable to access housing and have the security and dignity of a home. If classified as public bodies, housing associations would lose the ability to borrow financial transactions capital, as all borrowing would have to count as public sector borrowing. In real terms, that would reduce the number of social homes by approximately 50% each year and would dramatically reduce funding for the co-ownership scheme.
Every year, 60 housing association homes and 30 Housing Executive homes are sold, and that stock is never replaced. How many families are already struggling to obtain their own home while living in unfair conditions of overcrowding? How many young families are still being penalised for the housing crash over a decade ago? The Assembly must ensure the maximum delivery of social and affordable homes for our citizens in what will undoubtedly be a tough and uncertain period ahead.
Mr Durkan: In the previous debate, I acknowledged the importance of the Bill and the hugely significant role that it would play in enabling us to build more houses and provide more homes. We all know people who have spent years on the list waiting for a home: families who, without the security of somewhere that they can call their own, have run the gauntlet of the private rented sector and others living in overcrowded conditions with their extended families and friends. We are failing those people. Any measure that can and will help us to help them is to be supported.
In the previous debate, I also acknowledged that the Bill was far from perfect. I am not the only one with questions about it. Some Members will have received the same correspondence as I have from Housing Rights, which shares many of the concerns raised by Committee members. The primary concerns seem to focus on clause 7, which deals with the abolition of the mandatory right-to-buy scheme in housing associations — sorry, the move to make it voluntary. The right-to-buy scheme has been popular, and members touched on that in Committee. It has allowed people to get on to the housing market affordably, and most of us will know many people who have availed themselves of and benefited from the scheme. However, in my book, the right to buy is trumped every time by the right to a roof over your head. We cannot afford to continue to sell off social housing stock while need increases and we are not able to build anywhere near enough homes to meet that need.
Given that there has been extensive consultation, it is difficult to understand why the Minister has not taken the opportunity that the Bill presents to make the scheme voluntary for all social landlords. By excluding the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and retaining the mandatory right to buy for NIHE tenants, you create an inequality in access to social housing and ownership. It could very likely also have implications for the administration of the social housing allocation system. Might some people reject what, to all intents and purposes, is a reasonable offer of a housing association property while they wait for the offer of a Housing Executive home that they can ultimately own?
As things stand, about 10 times as many Northern Ireland Housing Executive properties as housing association properties are sold every year. In Committee, I sought and received an assurance from the Minister that she would address the Housing Executive situation in the near future. We need to hear more detail on that, and we need to hear it soon. Does the Minister intend or envisage an ultimate reclassification of the Housing Executive to take it out of public sector borrowing requirements and a remodelling that would allow it to borrow and build much-needed homes and communities, as it does so well? An update on the social housing reform programme would be welcome from the Minister today.
I am conscious that I might be coming across a bit curmudgeonly. That is not my intention, believe me, but it is important that the weaknesses in any legislation are flagged up as it is debated in the House. Clause 8 appears to allow the Department to compensate housing associations that continue to operate a voluntary right-to-buy scheme. How will that work? What measures will exist to prevent associations picking what homes they want to sell solely on the basis of profitability, selling off better homes while happily retaining homes of a lower standard for social housing tenants?
Despite the fact that we will now not have a Committee Stage, I am and we are happy to work with any and every Member and the Minister to consider how the Bill may be strengthened. That should not detract from my support of the Bill's aim to reverse the ONS reclassification. We need to empower our housing providers to build more, and we need to use every legislative tool at our disposal to do so.
We support the work of housing associations and co-ownership.
We have heard the cost, which is £3 million per month, of not doing this. However, for how many months have we been paying that £3 million? This legislation, like so much important legislation, has been delayed because we had no Assembly. In response to Ms Ennis, I say that I did ask officials about the financial cost of the delay and was given a rough estimate of £40 million thus far. As for social cost, one of the Minister's officials computed that 700 social homes had not been built as a direct consequence of the pyrrhic political stand-off between Sinn Féin and the DUP that left the people of the North without an Assembly. However, we have moved on, I hope, and now we must focus on making things right. The Minister and Chair outlined the Bill's benefits, and there are many. We and our constituents cannot afford for the Bill not to pass, and we support it.
Mr Allen: First, before I go into the Bill's detail, I place on record that I understand and fully appreciate the position taken by the Member across the way. Under normal circumstances, we would not like to see the Bill progress with accelerated passage. I understand where the Member is coming from, but I take a slightly different position in the current circumstances.
I welcome the Bill. It is good to see its introduction, nearly four years on from the original decision made by the ONS. We were promised it on numerous occasions throughout the previous mandate. Regrettably, we were not here for three years, when we should have been dealing with these topics and important measures.
We are all cognisant of the various and profound issues that the Minister, Committee Chair and my Committee colleague across the way highlighted, including the impact that the failure to achieve reversal of the reclassification will have on many of our constituents across Northern Ireland, the impact on financial transactions capital and the impact for the many tens of thousands of individuals and families on social housing waiting lists across Northern Ireland. We feel that the Bill and the majority of its substantive clauses are necessary, proportionate and measured. We welcome the fact that we will still see regulatory oversight of housing associations. The majority of housing associations operate in a good manner. I have had very good dealings with housing associations when engaging with them on behalf of constituents. Thankfully, to date, I have not had a negative experience, and they have always been proactive and willing to engage to resolve any issues.
My party and I are on record about our position on the right-to-buy scheme. We recognise that the right to buy was not perfect. It was not a utopia. There were problems with that system, and no one is denying that, but it provided those who wished to get on the housing ladder with an opportunity to do so. However, we fully understand and appreciate the necessity, in the Bill, to abolish the right-to-buy scheme, and we reluctantly support that. In turn, we welcome the voluntary scheme. As my colleague across the way pointed out, some further detail would be good. I raised that point at the Committee with the Minister and officials, who said that they would come back with that information. It would be helpful to know how that scheme will be administered. What will the grants look like, and what form will they take? As the Member across the way pointed out, how will it be decided what housing stock will be sold etc?
We support the Bill, and I am happy to work with any Member who wants to strengthen it.
Ms Armstrong: The Housing (Amendment) Bill takes forward change to the way in which housing associations are designated. As other Members mentioned, it has been some time in coming, and I thank the Minister for bringing it forward. I appreciate that accelerated passage is not the way to go, and I have said that before, but, in this instance, it is. This will allow social housing to continue to receive funding and will enable co-ownership to continue to help people to buy their home.
One issue of note, today, which others mentioned, is clause 7: the statutory house sale scheme will be abolished. The right to buy may continue if the social housing association chooses to take forward a voluntary scheme. The Alliance Party recognises that many people have availed themselves of the system but also that the lack of replacement builds meant a 42·5% increase in social housing stress waiting lists from 2009 to 2019. The Housing Executive still will be able to sell off its homes. We need to align social housing and the Housing Executive right to buy, and I encourage the Minister to complete the review of the Housing Executive as soon as is practical.
I also want to highlight the fact that the 'New Decade, New Approach' document included an agreement for a housing outcome to be added to the Programme for Government. I appreciate that while we are going through the pandemic, work still needs to be done to ensure that housing is treated as a priority and will appear in the updated Programme for Government. As mentioned by others, I would like the Minister to work with social housing to ensure that any future voluntary scheme for a right to buy includes a requirement to deliver inclusive and cohesive communities by ensuring that mixed tenure is maintained.
I absolutely welcome what is coming with the Bill, because it means that our construction industry can see that the market is there, that there is work for them to do and that we will be able to provide the funding for them. It is a difficult one to take forward as an urgent case, but it makes sense. We need to deal with the ONS reclassification and we need to do it as quickly as possible. I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill forward.
Mr Buckley: I support the legislation to reverse the ONS decision to reclassify registered housing associations to the public sector and designate them as public non-financial corporations. In doing so, I support the Bill's purpose as there is clearly a need for us to be able to invest for the future in our social housing stock. We know about the housing stress that exists at present.
However, given the way that the Bill has been progressed by accelerated passage, I support it with considerable regret that we have had to go down that avenue. I have some considerable agreement with my colleague the Member for Foyle Mr Durkan in relation to the lack of scrutiny that we have been able to have in relation to this crucial piece of legislation. We have already heard that it is needed and we know that it has done the rounds for many years now in this place. People like me, who are new to the Committee, have not had the ability to scrutinise that housing sector in the way in which, I believe, we should.
It has to be said that we cannot continue to scrutinise important pieces of legislation via telephone conferences. I understand that that is happening at the moment because of COVID-19, but this is too important. Our eyes must be over the legislation in its entirety. We had a briefing from the Minister on 13 May, which we appreciated. It was an opportunity for Members to put on record their concerns and, despite what Ms Ennis said, there was concern from Committee members as to the purpose and intention of the different elements and clauses of the Bill. The point is that for it to go forward as the Minister has recommended, the reason why we can support accelerated passage is because of the points that she mentioned, namely that £3 million a month is being wasted while the decision has not been overturned, and because of the potential threat of derogation being withheld.
I am on record in the Committee as saying that one particular clause in the Bill causes me considerable regret. It is in relation to the proposed abolition of the right-to-buy scheme. For many, it was a contentious scheme but I saw it as a very popular policy, which enjoyed widespread support from those who could only once have dreamed of getting their foot on the property ladder. The right-to-buy policy enabled them not only to get on the housing ladder, but have an asset that they could leave to future generations of their family. It is something that many of them had worked towards all their lives. It also provided them with the financial security of home ownership, and we all know the importance of the ability to own an asset such as a home that can, potentially, be used to move people away from the care of the state towards private asset ownership.
It is also important to bear witness to the fact that it has been noted that those who own an asset such as a home have a sense of ownership and care and attention. Roots were laid in communities across Northern Ireland because of the policy that allowed individuals to own their homes.
I have a concern about clause 8. Clause 8 is included to allow the Department to pay grants to support voluntary schemes, but very little detail is provided in the Bill and the explanatory note, or has been given to the Committee, on what sort of schemes will be going forward. I would like clarity on that from the Department and the Minister, because if we are moving towards a situation in which the right-to-buy scheme is to be abolished under the Bill, because the ONS classifies that as overarching control, it is that decision that will probably be key to moving it towards reversing its decision. However, the Committee has had no viewing of what potential schemes or otherwise people might be able to avail themselves of in the future. While I recognise that the right to buy will not be abolished for, I think, two years, it gives people some security to get on the scheme. It is future generations and their right and ability to own their own homes that I think about. I would appreciate it if the Minister could give further clarity on clause 8 and its meaning.
Obviously, as this applies to the registered housing associations, there will be further discussion in the House and at Committee in relation to the Housing Executive. I hope that the House will not be going towards accelerated passage again and not have the opportunity to examine carefully every facet of proposed legislation to ensure that we give people the ability to eventually own their home through these schemes which have been so popular.
Ms Sheerin: I support the Bill. As a rural representative in an area in which young people, in particular, struggle to get their feet on the property ladder, I support the Bill's intention to avoid the halving of the social housing programme. We have had over 10 years of austerity. Prices keep rising; wages do not. More and more people are finding that their grown-up children are still living with them as they approach their thirties and, indeed, in their thirties. I know, because I am one of them.
In rural areas, a lack of building in small towns and villages means that most people have only two options: move to where there is affordable housing or wait it out. Housing lists in small rural villages are not always a true depiction or reflection of reality, because when people are applying for housing and told that there is none available in their locality, they pick somewhere five, six or 10 miles down the road.
If you are not lucky enough to inherit a site, have a site for which you can get planning permission or to have the thousands that are required to build a home, you have to stick it out. That is unfair. We have discussed the lack of housing. The reclassification would leave the Executive funding the entire new build programme, which potentially reduces the number of new builds from over 1,800 to 900. In rural areas, we need more building, not less. For that reason, I support the Bill.
Mr McGrath: I begin by acknowledging the remarks already made regarding the death of George Floyd. In this place, we know the importance of civil rights and the implementation of them. The scenes from America are harrowing and a throwback to a time that we all hoped we had moved from.
The core of the Bill is the ability to deliver new social homes, of which there is already a distinct shortage in our community. How many of us are regularly contacted by people asking if there are social houses available, how they can get their name down for a development or when a new development in the area will commence? We also all know of the sterling work that is being undertaken on the streets of our towns and cities to manage homelessness, and we know of the many hundreds, if not thousands, more who sofa surf because of the lack of a home. The need for new homes is present in our community, and we must deliver on that need and remove barriers that are preventing the building of new homes. The Bill aims to address that.
The Bill has some imperfections, and the nature of it being accelerated concerns us. The Bill is not needed until 31 March next year. More time to have better scrutinised it would have been beneficial, if only to draw on the expertise amongst the housing sector that could have helped inform us and helped us make sure that the Bill was watertight and as good as it could be.
The reclassification proposed in the Bill allows registered housing associations to borrow money. It is something that they have always done in the past, and the Bill aims to reverse a bad decision that was taken a few years ago that was more to do with what was happening elsewhere rather than here. That decision could have massive ramifications. For example, in 2019-2020, £146 million was borrowed by housing associations, and, with the change to rules implemented going forward, that would have resulted in a massive real terms hit to the budgets of housing associations. More importantly, it would have resulted in them not being able to build new homes and reach the target that the Executive have set for new build.
Much of the previous money borrowed was FTC, and we know what the perception is of that money being handed back. Last year, £150 million was handed back. Imagine if we could have directed that to our housing sector. Much of that which was borrowed funded co-ownership, which in the past two years has delivered 2,145 houses. What would our future be if we cannot deliver that level of housing? Over 2,000 families would be stuck in older housing, maybe in unfit properties and maybe not where they want to be.
Surely our measure as a society is our ability to deliver on housing. Without change, which the Bill proposes, we will be unable to get the much-needed finance into our housing system, and this will mean that we will be miss our target of 1,850 new-build properties a year. In fact, the SDLP wants to see a stronger and higher target, and we also want to see the inclusion of the housing indicator in the Programme for Government, so we have not finished on that ask yet either. Such an indicator would be a clear indication from the Executive that they are serious about housing provision, and that that will be underpinned by the need for the all-essential cash.
There is real housing stress in our communities, and, as I have said, there is hardly one of us in his Chamber who is not contacted daily about housing. We are contacted about the need for a house, the need for an upgrade to a house or maybe the wish to move out of a particular area because it is bad for people's health, maybe bad for their mental health. We hear also, through processes like Bengoa, that the type of upbringing that children have can dictate their future health needs. One core element of how children are brought up is the roof over their head and the fact that it is a good, modern, high-quality home in a nice community that is well laid out and looked after. That will certainly give children a much better start in their life.
The quality of the existing stock is diminishing, too. Many of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive houses are getting old, and they are not able to build new homes. This means that the cost of repairs is increasing, and that is zapping up the budget of the Housing Executive. Also, many of the developments that the Housing Executive has reflect the old North, the Northern Ireland of the past, and are in segregated areas that do not look to the future that we want to see in the North. Only new developments away from contentious areas, away from flashpoints and peace walls, can embrace the new Ireland that we would like to seek. These new communities can live side by side with emerging communities, too. Again, all of that is underpinned by the capacity and ability of housing associations to be able to build new houses, new developments and new communities and create that future. The Housing (Amendment) Bill may not sound glamorous, but this is a Bill that unleashes the potential of the North, and, therefore, we support it.
Ms Anderson: Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an Bhille seo. I want to speak in favour of the Bill, but, as I stand here this afternoon, I also want to send my deepest sympathy to the family and friends of George Floyd. I say to those who are on the streets protesting that black lives matter.
Across the island of Ireland, we are in the midst of a housing crisis, but, in the North of Ireland, if we reflect back to 2002, we will see that over 13,000 people were in housing stress. By 2019, that had skyrocketed to over 26,000 people.
Without this Bill, the reclassification of registered housing associations by the British Government would deepen the housing crisis and halve the annual amount of council housing that is built in the North. My constituents — our constituents — in Derry would absolutely understand the need for accelerated passage. No one likes accelerated passage. We all like the opportunity to scrutinise, and to scrutinise properly, but they would understand it, because people do not want there to be the opportunity for the co-ownership scheme to close. Some £21 million, we are hearing, would have to come out of the social housing development programme otherwise. In the context of COVID-19, that is a lot of money. It is money that is needed for the social housing development programme in places such as Derry and north Belfast.
Furthermore, it is appropriate to say, given the objections that have been raised, that previous SDLP Ministers — in fact, former SDLP Social Development Ministers — used the accelerated passage mechanism, and did so was when there was no COVID-19. I therefore acknowledge the clause —.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for giving way. In this debate, I referred to the need to use every legislative tool at our disposal to help our constituents, so many of whom — you gave a figure, Ms Anderson, of 26,000 — are in housing need. Of course we must, and the accelerated passage procedure is a legislative tool. Yes, it is one that other Ministers, from every party, will have used at different stages in the lifetime of the Assembly. Will the Member not concur with me, however, that it is vital that we get legislation right? What we are talking about here is not a huge delay but merely time to afford Committee members and MLAs who are not on the Committee an opportunity to scrutinise the Bill fully and hear evidence from the sector, experts in the field and even the Housing Executive on the legislation's implications for the wider housing sector.
Ms Anderson: I hope that this is not a dialogue of the deaf, because I did say that, as MLAs, we do want to scrutinise. We all want to be involved in proper scrutiny and to make sure that legislation goes through in a way that affords us the opportunity to engage with people, but no one wants to see an opportunity for co-ownership to be lost or for the scheme to close, and we do not want to see up to £21 million come out of the social housing development programme if the Bill does not pass.
I acknowledge clause 7, which will abolish the compulsory right-to-buy scheme for registered housing associations. That policy was introduced by Margaret Thatcher and has helped to grind down the supply of social housing in the North. Although, as has been said, the scheme is good and has given people the chance to buy their social home at a discount, it, in practice, has facilitated private companies to siphon off public access in order to make a profit. Homeownership is without doubt a good thing, but I have been dealing with constituents, as, I am sure, other MLAs have, and I have found that many people who wanted to own their own home but who could not afford to do so were enticed by the private sector with conditional loans, which enabled them to live in their house until they died. Afterwards, the house was transferred to the private sector. That is housing stock that has never really been replaced.
The policy was never really about homeownership on its own. It was an attempt to turn some aspects of social housing into what I would describe as something like the wild west of unbridled capitalism, where greed trumps need.
Ms Anderson: No. You have had enough time.
Minister, I am glad that the Bill will put an end to two policies that threaten the provision of social housing. I am aware, and I am sure that you will agree, that much more needs to be done. That is something of which, crucially, all MLAs are conscious. We need to increase our social housing stock, because access to adequate housing is a human right. It is a human right that everyone in the Chamber would support and concur with.
In 2019, in my Derry constituency, there were 4,510 people on the housing waiting list. In the same year, only 1,231 people were housed. Derry has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the North, and one of the lowest rates of approval for new plans to build additional social housing. In fact, due to nearly a decade of Tory austerity and its impact in slashing things such the budget for NI Water, even when social housing is planned in Derry, building is stalled. I am sure that it is not just in Derry, but it is certainly the case in my constituency because there is simply not the sewerage capacity to build the new houses.
Minister, I believe that the Bill is a good step towards ensuring the maximum delivery of social and affordable housing for our citizens. However, it is clear that we also need to address the housing shortage, particularly in areas such as Derry and north Belfast that have suffered from persistent and chronic housing inequality. Minister, you know that further decisive interventions, like that before us today, will be required to resolve this crisis. In that vein, I ask that, in addition to this legislation, you consider reintroducing the policy of ring-fencing new-build allocations with robust monitoring to ensure that social housing is delivered as a priority in areas that are most in need such as Derry and north Belfast. On that, I want to mention one of my colleagues who cannot be here, Carál Ní Chuilín, who has raised issues about north Belfast on a number of occasions.
The policy should never have been removed. However, unfortunately and shamefully, in my opinion, it was removed by not one but two SDLP Ministers. First, Margaret Ritchie started it and Alex Atwood, shamefully, ended it. Hence, I asked you, Minister, to consider reinstating the ring-fencing policy with a robust monitoring mechanism to ensure that further social housing is built where it is most needed.
Ms McLaughlin: I, too, add my condolences to the family of George Floyd. The civil rights movement in Derry started because of a housing issue: an inequality. What we are speaking about now is an inequality. Housing is a right, and we should support it. I just wanted to say that before I look at the Bill.
This may look like a technical Bill, but it is a very important one. It unlocks opportunities for economic growth as we emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown. The suspension of the Assembly for three years caused serious and specific difficulties for the social housing sector in Northern Ireland. The lack of an Assembly meant that we were unable to process the legal changes that have been undertaken in Great Britain. In turn, this has restricted the ability of our housing associations to borrow.
We have a housing crisis in Northern Ireland. We have very long waiting lists for social housing. Around 38,000 households are on the waiting list, with about 26,000 of our households in housing stress and 12,000 recognised as homeless. Yet, we are building fewer than 1,000 new social homes per year. At the current rate of progress, it will take several decades to clear the social housing waiting list. That is unacceptable.
According to the House of Common's library, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK in which the private rental housing sector is larger than the social housing sector.
That is a serious problem, because parts of the private rental sector are of very poor quality, while also being more expensive than social housing.
We need housing associations to build large numbers of housing units to meet the massive need for new homes. That will create substantial numbers of desperately needed jobs. It should also come with an accredited training scheme, helping to strengthen our skills base.
My party's hope is that the Bill will do more than enable housing associations to build additional homes, create jobs and training places. We hope it will also open up greater use of financial transaction capital. It is obscene that Northern Ireland underspent its allocation of financial transaction capital by £150 million last year. That was a golden opportunity to spend more money here.
We want our housing associations to be dynamic organisations, borrowing to invest, building social and affordable homes that are clean and efficient, creating places for people to live, strengthening our communities and providing jobs.
My party also wants housing associations to be full and committed participants in the green new deal, cutting carbon emissions and creating a cleaner economy. Those opportunities stand before us today. Had we been here sooner in the Assembly, we would have created more homes earlier, easing our chronic housing problem. The Bill would not have had to go through an accelerated process, because we would have already dealt with it. We are in this housing crisis because we were not here in the House. It is because the DUP and Sinn Féin walked out the door. That is why we are here. However, we agree now that we are in the right place, and we will move on. We support the Bill.
Miss Woods: Whilst I appreciate the need for the reclassification, and what this means for the future of social housing in Northern Ireland within our current system, we need to get back on target and provide stimulus for at least 2000 new social homes per year. I hope that this Bill does everything that it says on the tin, and that it forms a part of what we need to do to get out of the housing crisis that we have been in for years.
I would like to raise a few concerns and bring them to the attention of the Minister, if she would not mind addressing them later.
There is an issue with the potential to create inequality in access to social housing and home ownership, as has been mentioned by some in the Chamber. Many tenants in social homes aspire to home ownership, and the right to buy is often their only hope of fulfilling that aspiration. However, administering the social housing allocation system is difficult. Could this change allow a route to home ownership for some tenants, and not for others, depending on the landlord? Will it contribute to some tenants consciously turning down a reasonable offer of accommodation, when there is no possibility of future home ownership? If that proves to be the case, it will not reduce housing stress or the housing list.
The right-to-buy scheme has been much discussed and debated previously in the Chamber. It has been abolished in every other part of the UK, and rightly so. Because of it, we have seen the privatisation of social housing. Over 100,000 social homes were lost to private ownership, and they have not been replaced. As of March 2019, more than 123,000 homes have been removed from the social housing stock since 1979. Social housing does not exist to provide private homes.
There is a reference to the right to buy scheme in clause 7 of the Bill. I ask the Minister whether she is minded to bring additional legislation to the House in order to extend the cessation, or voluntary nature of it, to NIHE properties, bearing in mind that there is no voluntary scheme in Scotland or Wales. If so —.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for giving way, where a previous Member would not. Following Ms Anderson's scathing critique of the right-to-buy scheme, does the Member concur with me that it is frankly bizarre that she was entirely dismissive of remarks raised by me and others, that the scheme should be extended, or the — I have lost it now — should be extended to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive as well, who sell 10 times more homes per year than housing associations?
Miss Woods: I think that the Member has made his point. We will leave it at that.
When does the Minister envisage this will be? The matter was consulted on in June 2018. Does she think there is need for another public consultation?
Clause 8 allows a housing association offering a voluntary scheme to receive compensation from the Department in the form of a grant. As Mr Allen has asked, will the Minister outline how this will work and what it will look like?
Does the Minister consider that that could incentivise housing associations to continue to operate a right-to-buy scheme by a different route, which would increase the pressure on social housing? Where is the oversight? Does she agree that that may reduce the number of homes that are available to meet housing demand for people who need it? It is quite unclear as to why that condition is necessary or appropriate in the context of the well-documented pressures on social housing supply. Perhaps, the Minister will address that. Is that a requirement from ONS?
Furthermore, has any consideration been given to the removal of clause 8? Would the conditions that are required for the reclassification of housing associations be met now? If so, could it be considered for future legislation alongside repeal of the statutory house sales scheme with regard to Northern Ireland Housing Executive properties?
Clauses 1 and 2 change the relationship with regard to regulation between the Department and housing associations. Whilst I understand that that is a required part of the reclassification requirements with the ONS, I would like to get assurances that that reclassification would not result in the deregulation or regression of departmental oversight. Also, does the Minister support calls for an independent housing regulator to be set up here, similar to that which exists in the rest of the UK? Whilst I understand that the establishment of one is not within the scope of the Bill, safeguards are needed not only for the tenant but for the public interest in housing associations and to ensure that there is a regulator that is separate from public policy responsibilities and located outside government. That would follow best practice in the field, as has been established in Scotland. I hope that the Minister considers that seriously and implements it at a later date.
Additionally, a new housing strategy has been discussed and was part of the Executive's commitments in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document. Suitable homes need to be provided for people who need them, as well as bringing the existing stock up to standard through deep retrofitting, tackling fuel poverty, providing green energy sources, and looking at and acting on the conditions of properties. I am sure that many Members have experienced living in homes that are not up to standard or have been contacted about constituents who have to live with, say, serious damp problems, which can cause health issues for them and their young families, only to be told that they need to keep their windows open longer or put on a dehumidifier, when, without serious work, the conditions of the house will never be good enough. That has to be done with the underlying principle of keeping people in their homes. I would be interested to hear of any progress in the development of a new housing strategy and whether any of the issues that I have raised will be addressed in it, perhaps as part of a rolling programme of legislation.
The housing waiting list is at an unacceptable level. As of March 2019, nearly 38,000 households were on it. The people who need to be housed are not being housed. Homelessness figures are rising. It is not just about the people who sleep on the streets, for whom it has taken a global pandemic for people to act, but for people who are in temporary accommodation and who do not have secure permanent housing.
The social housing stock has been reduced significantly. In the 1970s, there were 155,000 Housing Executive homes. In 2016, there were around 88,000, plus the 40,000 housing association houses. In 2019, just over 85,000 homes were managed by NIHE, with much of that stock being in need of significant maintenance or, indeed, replacement. That is not to say that that reduction is down solely to the right to buy, but that has been a major part of it. Therefore, further opportunity exists here. As we look to the governance of housing associations and the changes that are proposed, we can, again, look at the governance of the Housing Executive and the possibility of building new homes.
Mr Carroll: The Bill seeks to reverse the 2016 decision of the ONS to loosen controls, deregulate and devolve right-to-buy powers to individual housing associations, as others have said. The proposals that are contained in the Bill follow a similar pattern to those of other jurisdictions in Britain, which all faced the same reclassification issue and have already returned housing associations to the private sector. People Before Profit opposes the main thrust of the Bill because it seeks to privatise and deregulate housing associations while, at the same time, maintaining and possibly increasing the public funding that they receive.
Clauses 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 all restrict the Department's powers. For example, clauses 1 and 6 change the Department's power to give consent for the disposal of land or merging of housing associations to a requirement for a housing association just to:
"notify the Department of the action."
That could bring about an increase in the ability of housing associations to dispose of more land while merely informing the Department along the way. That means, of course, that there would be even less accountability and oversight.
Land equals wealth, so we need to have a system in place in which the sale or transfer of land is tightly monitored, scrutinised and focused on. We know the power and wealth that developers have; we cannot see a situation in which that increases. Aspects of the Bill could lead to that. It is worth remembering that, not too long ago, we witnessed and discussed the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) transfer and the scandal associated with it: the £1·2 billion transfer of property — the biggest public transfer in the history of the state.
When we talk about the transfer of land, we need maximum accountability: the Bill proposes to do the exact opposite. The proposers of the Bill justify it — some Members have already justified it — on the basis that housing associations, when they are private bodies, can borrow funds that do not count towards overall public borrowing. That means, in theory, that the social housing grant given to housing associations to build new homes should be leveraged to build more houses than if the Northern Ireland Housing Executive alone was left to build houses.
The reality is very different. Since 1995-96, the Housing Executive has been banned from borrowing and building homes. In that year, the Housing Executive built 1,360 homes; the housing associations built only 1,040. On only two occasions since, in 2001 and 2012-13, has the housing-association sector built more than the 1996 NIHE benchmark.
The memorandum attached to the Housing (Amendment) Bill claims that, in 2019-2020, the housing association sector has a target of 1,850 new home starts. That target is simply not credible, as the new start level actually achieved in the previous year was just 980. The sector has never achieved such a level of new starts, the highest being 1,440 in 2011-12. The memorandum also states that the Department has allocated the housing association sector £146 million for new homes in 2019-2020. However, just imagine what the Housing Executive could do with £146 million of extra funding, especially if it were actually allowed to build houses.
The policy of funding housing associations while not funding the NIHE to build new public housing has been a failure over the past 25 years. It needs to stop. We should see the Housing Executive as the main provider of housing here and resist all attempts to run it down, privatise it, or reduce its funding.
We reject the reprivatisation of housing associations. Therefore I cannot support the Bill as it stands. Housing associations should remain public bodies and, ultimately, be integrated into the Housing Executive, becoming subject to full, comprehensive public accountability for the hundreds of millions of public money that they get every year. If housing associations want to return to the private sector, surely they should not be receiving such vast amounts of public funding.
I have mentioned the fundamental problems with the Bill, and, for those reasons, I cannot support it. If the Housing (Amendment) Bill does progress, and it is likely to, through its Second Stage, we will explore all options to amend it and raise concerns about it. As I say, we wish to see social housing provision balanced more fully towards public spending and to the Housing Executive playing a key role in that. We will challenge the idea that the market knows best and that the market should provide housing generally.
It is worth mentioning that, as the Member from Foyle said, housing association rents are, on the whole, cheaper than the Housing Executive's. The Housing Executive is more accountable. Whilst myself, and other Members, I am sure, have regular contact with the Housing Executive through raising concerns and challenging it, it is a better provider of public housing in general.
It is worth mentioning that, in 2017, the Housing Executive had 1,000 empty properties. Surely, more could be done to help people on the property waiting list by fixing up those properties and allocating them to those who need them.
In conclusion, we have heard comments about a new normal in regard to coronavirus, but I do not think that the provisions of the Bill reflect that or reflect the growing appetite of people to see stronger public housing and a stronger role for the Housing Executive in that. So, for those reasons, I will be opposing the Bill's Second Stage.
Ms Hargey: I thank all the Members who contributed to the debate. On the face of it, I know, the Bill looks very technical, but at the heart of it is access to homes for those in our communities who need it most. It is only with the reclassification that we are able to deliver more social and affordable homes to our people in the coming years. All Members, I hope, will accept that we urgently need to enhance what we deliver, particularly in the context of the New Decade, New Approach commitments. The legislation, if passed, will facilitate the reversal of the classification of housing associations and see them once again classified to the private sector, ensuring that they can continue to be our partners in developing social homes for people. Associations will continue to have discretion over their borrowing. The Executive will not be constrained by having to provide cover for that borrowing, and much-needed Executive funds will not be required to support co-ownership.
I will just comment on some of the issues that were raised in the debate. I feel like I keep getting up in the Chamber and saying that accelerated passage is not the way that I want to do business, yet nearly everything I have brought has gone through by accelerated passage. It is just because of the nature of the issues that I have been dealing with that there has been the urgency with which I had to bring things forward, and that is particularly the case because of the pandemic, which started probably fewer than six weeks after I took up the post of Minister for Communities. I make no apologies for bringing it this time, because there is a financial consequence that means that there would be a consequence for the number of social houses that could be built and a consequence for co-ownership houses. I know that some Members touched on the fact that there was a delay on that in 2016, so why try to delay it until 2020-21? Why try to delay it for up to another year when we can move on it now and make those changes to ensure that that £21 million, which would otherwise be diverted, goes back into the social housing development programme?
I know that there has been a lot of talk about the right to buy —.
Ms Hargey: No, you are OK. You have had your say.
I know that there has been a lot of talk about ending the right to buy, and there have been concerns about that. The clause abolishing it is in ours as it is a compulsory scheme based in legislation. In short, it evidences the sort of controls that ONS based its decision on. There is a key difference here from what happens in the other three jurisdictions in that our scheme is set out in law, which is not the case elsewhere. There are particular reasons for the scheme here and what ONS was uniquely saying about the right-to-buy scheme here at this time.
That said, I want to bring forward — I said this in my opening speech — as soon as possible and in the coming period considerations looking at the right to buy for Housing Executive properties as well. As someone who grew up in a Housing Executive property and still lives in a working-class estate in the Market area in south Belfast, I see the impact of that right to buy, where over 50% of the housing in that community has been sold off. Ultimately, when those houses get sold, it seems like a good idea at the time for people to have ownership, but, when they are sold on, that creates a waiting list in that community and people are living in hostels for five or six years and cannot get homes. We need a wider plan. The reclassification will not fix everything, and I said that it was my intention to bring forward a wider plan that looks at housing going forward.
I have been in post since January, folks. We have been hit with the biggest pandemic that we have seen in our lifetime, so this will take a bit longer for those reasons. I am committed to bringing that forward as quickly as possible, looking not only at issues like affordable housing for people who want it and increasing the availability of social housing to ensure that those who need it most get access to it and other things like cooperative development housing, which would also use private-sector entity for borrowing — that is an important point — just like social enterprise.
I know that some touched on rights in housing, and I agree that it should be a priority in the Programme for Government. Those discussions are still ongoing, and, again, the COVID pandemic means that we are getting back into everyday business and to where we were in January. However, I will obviously make strong representations at the Executive, because I clearly see housing rights as human rights and human rights as housing rights. I am very clear on that. Obviously, the role of housing in building sustainable communities is something that I really value as well in terms of building the vibrancy of communities but at the same time ensuring that we have a housing system that provides for those who need it most and makes sure that there are protections for those who need them most as well.
There was some talk around clause 8 and the grant payments. Obviously, that is only for housing associations in respect of discount to a tenant in a social home. The terms and conditions for it are still being developed; they are not there yet. I will work with housing associations and others, because, even in the devising of this, we have been working with housing associations, the housing policy forum and others, and I will continue to do that. I know that Members have raised these issues specifically, and our officials will keep an eye on who raised them and will ensure that we update Members, as well as the Committee, as we go along.
In terms of regulation, these are technical changes. I know that they change things slightly, but some of the issues were around oversight and regulations that the Department has never had to invoke on housing associations up to this point. The key part is that the regulator will continue to have powers to make an intervention, and that engagement will be critical in the time ahead.
Members raised homelessness and said that this was only being done in the midst of a pandemic. I acted on street-based homelessness within six weeks of coming into office to ensure that people were not out on the street and that there was temporary accommodation for them. I want to build on that in the time ahead. That said, street-based homelessness does not reflect the even bigger homelessness issue of those who sofa-surf, are in overcrowded accommodation or have been in hostels for far too long, particularly in areas of highest and greatest need. North Belfast and Derry were mentioned; there are other areas as well. The issue of urban and rural is something that I am seriously considering, because the housing development programme has to be primarily targeted at those areas of greatest need as well. They have to see delivery. Someone waiting eight, nine and 10 years for a home is basically unacceptable, and we need to put interventions in place to ensure that that does not happen.
There has been a lot of talk about housing being a critical issue. It is a human rights issue, and I know that some have talked about civil rights. Obviously, we see on our screens the impact of America — the issue of National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) land and regeneration. As a Minister, I am from a working-class community, as I said. I grew up in a Housing Executive estate, and I am proud of my class identity and the community that I have come from. I am a community activist, and I come from parents who were civil rights activists. They helped, as early as the late ’50s, going into the ’60s, in the the initial civil rights campaigns. That was around the housing in west Belfast at that time and the surveys that were carried out. I do that now in the community that I live in. We have taken on NAMA developers. I have gone to court to challenge NAMA developers. I have protested on the streets about NAMA development and the impact that it has. I have been an activist on these issues as well, and, of course, I am attuned to all to them. Land — public land, particularly — has to be used for the greater public use and should not be sold off just for private development. I am in tune with all of the issues, and I have said before that I am keen to engage with any Member who has recommendations or suggestions, not just on this — I hope that people can understand the reasons why I have to bring this legislation — but on the wider housing development programme. We have to get it right. We have to set a direction of travel to ensure that we deal with the issues that have been raised around underinvestment, restructuring, the revitalisation of the Housing Executive, looking at the mixture of housing and tenures and ensuring that those who are in critical need have a roof over their head.
I appreciate all the questions, points of clarity and points of view that Members have raised. My officials are taking a report, and, where we need to, we will write separately to Members who raised specific issues that, maybe, I have not particularly answered in the summing up. I remind Members that the key elements of the Bill are the introduction of a notification process, replacing the current consent process; the more specific framing of the circumstances in which an inquiry may be launched; and the ending of the statutory house sales scheme for housing associations. My purpose in bringing forward the legislation is to ensure that housing associations can be returned to private sector classification and, with that, provide protection for social housing development and affordable housing programmes.
I thank Members for their engagement and support until now, and I thank the Committee for its deliberations. I commend the Bill to the Assembly for its approval.
Question put a second time and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Housing (Amendment) Bill [NIA 6/17-22] be agreed.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, the next two motions are to approve statutory rules relating to child support. There will be a single debate on both motions. I will ask the Clerk to read the first motion, and then I will call on the Minister to move it. The Minister will then commence the debate on both motions. When all who wish to speak have done so, I shall put the Question on the first motion. The second motion will then be read into the record, and I will call the Minister to move it. The Question will then be put on that motion. If that is clear, we shall proceed.
That the Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments No. 3) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2019 be approved.
The following motion stood in the Order Paper:
That the Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments No. 4) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2019 be approved. — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Thank you, Minister. The Business Committee has agreed that there will be no time limit on the debate. I call the Minister to open the debate on both motions.
Ms Hargey: The regulations have enabled my Department to amend the child maintenance legislation to deliver the child maintenance compliance and arrears strategy. I will begin by setting out the background to that strategy, and then I shall detail the regulations.
In November 2017, my Department was included in a consultation by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on the proposed child maintenance compliance and arrears strategy, which also included England, Scotland and Wales The approach taken has been to ensure that people are treated equally across those areas. The objectives of the strategy were to continue to prioritise resources to benefit the children of today; to continue to encourage parents to collaborate over their child maintenance arrangements where they can and where that is in the best interests of their children; to continue to minimise the child maintenance arrears being incurred; to further improve compliance through changes to child maintenance calculations; to strengthen collection powers across the child maintenance schemes; and to address the historic arrears that have built up under the former child maintenance legacy schemes and avoid government funding of high-cost attempts to recover historic arrears, which would, in fact result in no additional money going to children.
Following the conclusion of the consultation and an analysis of the responses received, work began on taking forward the required legislative changes to successfully implement the compliance and arrears strategy. There are two packages of regulations, which I will outline separately.
The first package is the Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments No. 3) Regulations, and these introduce a number of changes to child maintenance legislation. Changes include improving the way in which child maintenance liabilities are calculated, increasing the range of collection and enforcement powers to help collect more money for children and addressing historic arrears that built up under the 1993 and 2003 child support legacy schemes. These changes will also help to prevent non-resident parents with complex financial arrangements from artificially lowering their child maintenance liability.
The regulations also close existing loopholes by introducing new provisions for orders. The orders enable regular or lump sum deductions to be made from joint, sole trader and unlimited partnership accounts. Powers are introduced to allow the arrears that occurred under the 1993 and 2003 legacy schemes to be written off in certain circumstances. These powers allow my Department to give certainty over its approach to the arrears.
On the child maintenance calculation and amendments, the regulations introduce a power for child maintenance service to determine a notional income from assets held by a non-resident parent. This helps to ensure that child maintenance calculations result in non-resident parents paying an amount that more accurately reflects their means. The notional income shall be calculated at 8% of a confirmed asset's total value where the asset value exceeds £31,250. You may wish to note that protections have been included to ensure that the use of these powers is proportionate. That would include certain circumstances, such as when the asset is used for business purposes or is the primary home of the parent or a child.
The regulations extend existing powers to apply regular and lump sum deduction orders to joint and unlimited partnership bank accounts and use lump sum deduction orders on sole traders' accounts. Again, my Department has ensured that the adequate safeguards are in place to protect the interests of other account holders.
With regard to historic arrears from 1993 to 2003, the regulations extend my Department's write-off powers to enable the arrears of up to £57·9 million that had built up under the 1993 to 2003 legacy schemes to be addressed and set out the circumstances under which these powers can be exercised. Members may wish to note that the arrears relate to legacy child maintenance scheme cases that could be more than 20 years old and where the children are now adults. It is also likely that the arrears balance was inaccurate due to the penalty assessments and inaccurate or out-of-date calculations at that time. A high proportion of the arrears are now deemed to be uncollectible, and attempting to collect the arrears is now deemed not to be cost-effective.
It should also be noted that it was estimated that more than 50% of the arrears were due to the Department and, therefore, would not benefit families. Where the arrears value is £65, the regulations enable the arrears to be written off without notice to either parent. This is in line with the current threshold used in my Department for debts owed to government.
If a case has debts subject to Scottish insolvency, the regulations will enable the debt to be written off when that expires. A parent with care will be able to make representation to my Department if they would like an attempt to collect the arrears where the case started on or before 1 November 2008 and the arrears are more than £1,000; the case started after 1 November 2008 and the arrears are more than £500; or the arrears occurred under the 1993 to 2003 legacy schemes case, which was transferred to the 2012 child maintenance system, and the debt is more than £500. Where no representations are received or collection of the arrears is not possible, my Department may exercise the power to write off the debt.
The regulations enable legacy child maintenance arrears to be written off without seeking representations from parents with care where there has not been a payment in the past three months; the case started on or before November 2008 and the arrears are less than or equal to £1,000; the case started after 1 November and the arrears are less than or equal to £500; or the arrears occurred under the 1993 to 2003 schemes that have transferred to the child maintenance system and the debt arrears are less than or equal to £500.
Those amounts were selected as it was deemed not to be cost-effective to attempt the collection of individual arrears of less than £500 or of less than £1,000 where the case is more than 10 years old. It would, on average, cost between £500 and £1,000 to investigate such cases and take further action. Given the background and historical aspect of the legacy cases, it was deemed to be highly unlikely that the arrears would ever be recovered. To date, my Department has addressed almost 10,000 cases with an arrears value of £27 million through the process that I have outlined.
The second package of regulations are the Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments No. 4) Regulations. The purpose of these regulations is to introduce changes to legislation, introducing remaining compliance powers: namely broadening the range of benefits from which arrears of child maintenance can be deducted; expanding the list of persons from whom relevant information can be requested by my Department; write-off powers to extinguish debt where a protected trust deed has been granted to a parent and has expired; and making a minor and technical change to the child maintenance calculation and fees regulations.
These regulations increase the amount of maintenance that can be deducted from benefits towards arrears to £8·40, that is £7 and a £1·40 collection fee. That is 20% of the overall amount. That now aligns with the amount that my Department can already deduct from benefits for ongoing maintenance. Extended deductions for arrears from all benefits from which my Department can deduct for ongoing maintenance prevent arrears from being deducted at the same time as deductions towards ongoing maintenance.
The maximum that can be deducted at any one time is always £8·40 to enable deductions for ongoing maintenance and arrears from universal credit where the non-resident parent has earnings and meets the criteria for the flat-rate maintenance calculation. My Department could already deduct for ongoing maintenance from universal credit where the non-resident parent had no earnings and met the criteria for the flat-rate maintenance calculation.
On protected trust deeds, the regulations extend the write-off powers to enable the Department to write-off related to the Scottish protected trust deed, which is legally uncollectible as a result of this process.
These regulations extend the list of organisations that must provide information to my Department to include mortgage lenders and occupational pension providers. Previously, those organisations had to comply with such a request but it had to be carried out by an inspector visiting the premises.
The regulations make further technical amendments to change the way that the Department will calculate child maintenance liabilities for a parent who is claiming expenses. They also change the wording of the Child Support Fees Regulations (NI) 2014 to clarify and maintain the policy intent and they go on to state that any arrears that occurred on collect-and-pay or direct pay, which will be moved into the collect-and-pay service, will include the collection of fees, and that those fees are enforceable.
The two packages of regulations build on previous work to widen enforcement powers and close down loopholes. They also commit to the Department tackling the historic arrears that represent the child maintenance legacy schemes in a way that best balances the interests of parents and public funding.
The Department will further develop collection measures and information-gathering powers. These measures will help to make child maintenance fairer for all parents and ensure that we fully deliver on the commitments of the compliance and arrears strategy.
Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): The Committee considered these regulations at its meeting on 6 February. The Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendment No. 3) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2019 will revoke and re-enact the provisions of the Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2018.
The regulations provide for the powers which were introduced in December 2018 to continue in force. Their main purpose is to improve how child maintenance liabilities are calculated, to increase the range of collection and enforcement powers, to help collect more money for children and to address historical arrears that have built-up under the legacy schemes.
I am glad to see this issue being brought forward as I understand that, for many parents, arrears in child maintenance can be damaging to relationships between resident and non-resident parents, which then has a knock-on effect on their children.
The Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendment No. 4) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2019 introduce a number of changes to child maintenance legislation. They will change the range of benefits from which arrears of child maintenance can be taken, and they expand the list of persons to whom the Department can write to request that information be provided.
The regulations also provide for child maintenance debt that was subject to a protected trust deed and that has expired without being converted to bankruptcy, and make minor and technical changes to the child maintenance calculation and fees regulations.
The Committee recommends that both the regulations be approved by the Assembly.
Ms Armstrong: I absolutely agree with the Chair of the Committee, which has already seen and considered part of the regulations. I have absolutely no problem with arrears being dealt with in this way — it looks like common sense because arrears can create emotional difficulties between partners who are no longer together and can lead to years of problems.
Just for clarification, when we look at regulation No. 3 about the joint and unlimited partnership accounts, I have a slight concern about how the amount is calculated. Is any consideration given to the non-resident partner's own children and whether the deductions that are being taken from that non-resident partner's future or other children that they have, in a way that does not leave them living in poverty? I completely appreciate ensuring that the children of parents who are no longer together must have child maintenance payments made, but I have always been concerned about the second family, and whether that family is taken into consideration when the calculations are worked out.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): No other Members have indicated that they wish to speak, so I call the Minister to conclude and wind up the debate on the motion.
Ms Hargey: I thank the Chair of the Committee for her words. Also, just to respond to Ms Armstrong, when those deductions are being looked at, those are considered. This is about dealing with legacy debt that is over 20 years old. As I said, part of the calculations were based on estimates, so they do not really reflect what the true income was at that time, and most of those will probably be written off.
Again, I thank Members for their consideration of this. I know that the regulations are quite technical and long and that they are dealing with legacy issues and debt. I commend them to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments No. 3) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2019 be approved.
That the Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments No. 4) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2019 be approved. — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]
That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension of the provisions of the Pension Schemes Bill dealing with collective money purchase benefits, the Pensions Regulator, pensions dashboards and further provision relating to pension schemes as contained in clauses 52 to 102, 117, 120 and 128 of, and schedules 4 to 6, 8, 9 and 11 to, the Bill as introduced in the House of Lords, to Northern Ireland.
Ms Hargey: I apologise that this is a long speech because it is technical, and I want to make sure that I do not leave anything out.
Although pensions are a devolved matter, in general, pension policy and legislation here operate in line with corresponding pension provision in England, Scotland and Wales and in line with section 87 of the NI Act 1998. In addition, the Pensions Regulator, the ombudsman and the pensions protection fund all operate here and in those other three jurisdictions.
Here in the North, provisions that mirror those made for Britain elsewhere in the Bill were included in the Bill in the absence of the Executive and functioning Assembly in order to ensure that the pensions system can continue to function properly with members' interests at its heart.
As with schemes operating here and across those other areas, it is highly desirable that the same regulatory framework is in place here and within the same time frame as in Britain to ensure that the people involved in those schemes are still protected and to facilitate compliance, planning and enforcement.
The Bill aims to help people plan for the future and to protect people's pensions by giving the Pensions Regulator greater powers to tackle irresponsible management of pension schemes, including actions by employers that could compromise the viability of a pension scheme. I, personally, very much support the principle that members' interests should be at the core of everything that we are doing.
The Bill makes provision for collective money purchase schemes, also known as collective defined contribution schemes (CDCs), where contributions into a scheme are pooled and invested to deliver an aspired benefit level. That builds upon and facilitates the initiative by Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union, which have concluded that the CDC scheme would offer better outcomes for the workforce than a traditional money purchase scheme.
It strengthens protections for scheme members to give the Pensions Regulator stronger powers so that savers can be confident that their pensions are protected and that the regulator is better able to take action if pensions are put at risk.
Members will be aware of several recent high-profile insolvency cases where employers have failed to give the proper weight to their responsibilities to their defined benefit pension schemes. The Bill seeks to address that in range of ways: for example, a requirement on those responsible for corporate transactions to set out how they will mitigate against any adverse impact on the pension scheme and by enhancing regulatory information-gathering powers and powers to ensure that those responsible for schemes comply with pensions legislation.
There will also be new sanctions on those who wilfully or recklessly harm their pension scheme, including a maximum seven-year prison sentence and a civil penalty of up to £1 million.
The Bill increases transparency about individuals' pensions savings by producing a framework for pensions dashboards — a consumer-friendly digital interface to improve information for savers so that they can prepare for their retirement.
It delivers clearer scheme funding standards and defined benefit schemes and strengthens the regulator's enforcement of the improved system. That is particularly important in the changing defined benefit landscape, with many schemes closed to new members or future accruals. The aim of that is to help trustees to improve their scheme funding, invest in decisions and manage potential risk.
The Bill introduces new powers to protect pension savings to help scheme trustees ensure that transfers of pension savings are made to safe and non-fraudulent schemes. It ensures that the Pension Protection Fund can continue to administer the compensation appropriately and amends the definition of administration charges to make it clear which costs are covered by the definition.
Importantly, under the Bill, the power to make subordinate legislation and commence provisions relating to devolved matters will rest with the Department for Communities. Likewise, the powers of control over the subordinate legislation will rest with the Assembly.
The proposed changes are largely beneficial to scheme members. Pension dashboards will provide clarity regarding pension saving, while there will be the introduction of an important safeguard and deterrents against those who seek to avoid their responsibilities relating to pension schemes. Pension reform in recent years has meant that more people make provision for their retirement through saving into a workplace pension, while individuals have more flexibility over their pension at retirement. At the completion of the roll-out across the jurisdictions, over 10 million people were either newly saving or saving more into a pension as a result of automatic enrolment.
Although most private sector defined pension schemes are closed to new members and/or new accruals, the sector remains an integral part of the pensions system with around 10·4 million members relying on them. In addition, roughly 14,000 employers support defined benefit pension schemes, and around £1·5 trillion in assets are held by those schemes. The defined benefit sector is of crucial importance to the economy.
The Bill ensures that the pension system is fit for the future by strengthening it and introducing important safeguards and deterrents against those who seek to avoid their responsibilities. The provisions here were omitted from the Westminster Bill. It should be necessary to table a further Assembly Bill to ensure that pension systems continue to function and that scheme members are not put at a disadvantage compared with those in Britain. As the Westminster Bill has not yet completed its passage through the House of Lords and has yet to be considered by the House of Commons, it is doubtful that a corresponding Assembly Bill could be introduced before the autumn at the earliest. The Assembly would be unlikely to complete that work before spring next year, assuming that a slot in the legislative programme could be obtained. I am also aware that there will be significant demands across Departments for Bills to be progressed through the Assembly before the end of the current mandate. Including the provisions for here in the Westminster Bill allows those important provisions to be enacted at the same time as they are in the other three jurisdictions. That provides legal certainty for schemes and employers to allow preparatory work; for example, for the introduction of collective money purchase benefits and pensions dashboards to proceed in tandem.
The use of the legislative consent motion in this case should not be seen as a precedent or an indication of how I intend to proceed further. I am aware of the Assembly's role in considering legislation, particularly the value of Committee scrutiny. I therefore anticipate, subject to the necessary approval, shortly bringing a Bill before the Assembly for the regulation of master trusts.
Again, I am grateful for the support from the Committee and request that Assembly agrees to the extension of the NI provisions in the Westminster pensions Bill.
Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): The Committee thanks the Minister for tabling the motion. Pensions, in general, are not often given the consideration that they deserve, and few of us tend to think years ahead — maybe not too many years for me — to a time when we will no longer work and will have to live off the state pension and whatever work-based pensions we have accumulated. Planning and preparing for retirement is, however, extremely important, and the provisions in the LCM will make that process more transparent and understandable.
Of course, in a devolved institution, we would all have liked to be here today considering an Assembly pensions Bill that dealt with the issues contained in the LCM. However, the Committee was advised that it was unlikely that such a Bill would be introduced until September at the earliest and would not achieve Royal Assent until spring 2021. In the meantime, pension protections for people in Northern Ireland would fall behind those in GB. In addition, officials noted that the working assumption was that an Assembly Bill would mirror the provisions in the current Bill. That reflects the fact that, while pensions are a devolved matter, to all intents and purposes in the UK there is essentially one system of pensions that includes numerous pension schemes in Northern Ireland. The Pensions Regulator, the Pensions Ombudsman and the Pension Protection Fund all operate on a UK-wide basis. Taking all that together, the Committee acknowledged that including the NI provisions in the Westminster Bill provided legal certainty for pension schemes and members. It will ensure that they will be enacted at the same time here as in the rest of the United Kingdom and allow the industry to begin any necessary preparatory work. The Committee was also assured that the power to make subordinate legislation on the Bill will rest with the Department for Communities and that the powers of control over the subordinate legislation will rest with the Assembly.
Part 2 of the Bill establishes collective defined contribution schemes. Those schemes offer a target income at retirement, rather than a specified income. If the scheme is underfunded or overfunded, the level of member benefits can be adjusted. That will ensure that the assets of the collective fund are equal to the liabilities relating to the target incomes. The main advantage of that is that investment risk is spread across all members so that, potentially, there is greater certainty over retirement income. There is wide support for that type of scheme and, in fact, as the Minister said, the Communication Workers’ Union and Royal Mail advocated it.
The Committee recognises that consumer protection is at the heart of the Bill. Part 3, in particular, gives stronger powers to the Pensions Regulator so that pensions can be better protected. For example, there will be greater sanctions for those who wilfully or recklessly harm their company pension schemes, including a maximum seven-year prison sentence and a civil penalty of up to £1 million.
Part 4 introduces pension dashboards. As I mentioned, having greater transparency allows people to better plan for their pensions. Gone are the days when a person would begin and end their career with one employer; indeed, the Government have estimated that an individual will have around 11 different jobs in their lifetime. That means many pension pots, which will make it difficult to work out just how much money you will have when you stop working. A pension dashboard is a digital interface that will present all your pension information from all sources in one place and, therefore, help you to better plan for your retirement. I understand that the dashboards were due to be launched in 2019, but, perhaps, the Minister could update us on when they will be operational.
Part 5 of the Bill, specifically clause 128, introduces schedule 11 and helps strengthen the regulator’s enforcement of defined benefit schemes. The Committee welcomes the new powers, which, among other things, will help scheme trustees to ensure that transfers of pension savings are made to safe and not fraudulent schemes.
The Committee accepts that it is advantageous that any changes to the regulation of pensions as a result of legislation are made across all jurisdictions at the same time to ensure compliance and enforcement. We acknowledge that the Bill will strengthen pensions schemes by introducing certain safeguards and enhanced sanctions For those reasons, the Committee supports the legislative consent motion.
Ms Ennis: I thank the Minister for outlining the proposed changes to the Pension Schemes Bill and for providing the rationale for bringing the legislative consent motion to the House.
As the Chair of the Committee said, ultimately, it would have been preferable to have additional time for scrutiny and to bring in legislation via the Assembly, but I recognise that timing is a key factor. As the changes seek to provide additional protections, safeguards and options for members of schemes, any delay would be to the detriment of people here.
I concur with the Committee Chair's remarks about planning for retirement and the fact that it is never too early to do that. It is crucial that those pensions have the greatest possible security.
The Bill will return to the Committee before it comes into effect around September, and I look forward to the opportunity to debate it further there.
Mr Durkan: Initially, when I saw this item coming to the Committee, it is fair to say that I winced. We had major concerns that not only were we asking another legislature to do our job for us, never mind what or who that legislature is, but we have been bitten badly by a legislative consent motion in the not too distant past, when the Minister's party and others gave consent to Westminster to legislate for us on welfare, and they ended up throwing in the ultra-draconian two-child rule and the barbaric rape clause for good measure.
While this Act relates to protections and benefits for our citizens, and we must ensure that people here do not miss out on their entitlements, there was a genuine fear, shared by many Committee members, that the goalposts might move and we could end up with a different piece of legislation that was much less positive and be powerless to do anything about it. We were very pleased to receive assurances, which the Minister reiterated today, that any changes will come back to us for scrutiny and approval. We support this on that basis. Every Member who has spoken so far has said the same: going down the LCM route is bad practice when dealing with devolved matters, but we recognise the need to do so here. It is yet another symptom of the three-year hiatus hangover, but we support it.
Ms Hargey: I thank Members for their contributions. I thank the Committee members and Chair for their words and their support for the LCM and understanding of the reasons for it.
The pensions dashboard has not been fully developed yet. There is no firm date, at this point, for that. The focus is on ensuring that the right type of dashboard is developed, without necessarily rushing for a timescale. Staff continue to engage on that, and, once we have further information, we will update the Committee as soon as possible.
I thank other Members. People were concerned, and we do not hold our own financial levers. People will remember that, in 2015, financial sanctions were placed on the Assembly and on the block grant that we get because we cannot raise our own finances. If people are really sincere about calling out those who are responsible for policies such as welfare change, that is the British Government. As for the impact of all these changes, if you are looking more at issues of partition and its impact here, I think that the fact that we do not hold our own fiscal levers would be a more genuine debate to be had.
That said, I am keen to see the LCM go through for the reasons that I set out. It brings protections. We have a system that works across the jurisdictions, and the LCM ensures that people here, living in the North, are not left behind when we bring forward the necessary changes, which are about protecting their pension funds and how those pension funds can be used. I thank Members for their contributions and, again, give the commitment that I will bring back any further changes to the House for scrutiny. I commend the motion.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension of the provisions of the Pension Schemes Bill dealing with collective money purchase benefits, the Pensions Regulator, pensions dashboards and further provision relating to pension schemes as contained in clauses 52 to 102, 117, 120 and 128 of, and schedules 4 to 6, 8, 9 and 11 to, the Bill as introduced in the House of Lords, to Northern Ireland.
That this Assembly recognises the unprecedented impact the COVID-19 global pandemic is having on our society and economy; commends the invaluable contribution made by our front-line workers who have provided vital service, selflessly, throughout this pandemic; believes that a fair and just economic recovery strategy is required in the aftermath of this crisis; agrees that an economic recovery strategy must not only recognise but also demonstrate that we value our front-line workers and want to protect them, and the most vulnerable, through any impending recession; understands that workers' rights, and public services must be protected; and commits to existing economic challenges being tackled by a just transition to a more high-skilled, regionally balanced and sustainable economy that works for workers, their families, and businesses; and calls on the Executive to ensure that these principles underpin an economic and society-wide recovery.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have ten minutes to propose and a further 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List.
Dr Archibald: Over the past few weeks, many people have expressed sentiments about how we need to do things differently in future, about learning the lessons of the pandemic and about valuing the key workers who have stepped up in the most difficult circumstances and have done more than just their jobs to serve wider society. However, if we want things to be different, we have to take action to make them different. We cannot simply rebuild what was there and return to business as usual. We must, here and now, plan for the economic and societal recovery that we want to see and put a strategy in place to action it.
COVID-19 has had a huge impact on our society and economy. Our Budget was already under pressure prior to the unprecedented crisis and our public services were struggling after a decade of austerity. Those challenges remain and we must all, collectively, continue to make the argument for investment in our public services. The outworking of the crisis must not be further austerity measures from the British Government to pay for it, and we should all be making the argument for economic stimulus. Otherwise, the interventions to date will have been in vain and we will see escalating unemployment, economic stagnation and greater inequalities. Frankly, business as usual will not be good enough. It would be a return to an economy that is based on inequality where the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, with ingrained structural barriers across all facets of society. We must break down those barriers so that everyone has the opportunity to achieve and prosper in life.
The pandemic has changed things. For many, it has changed how we value and appreciate the small things that we may have taken for granted — seeing our families, going for a drink with friends or training with our teams. It has changed things on a bigger scale too, such as how we work, transport choices or supply chain decisions. There is, of course, much still to be worked out about how things will operate as we reopen our economy and society. Our strategy for recovery must not just be about making things better for the economy but for society as a whole and for our planet.
I previously said that our economic and societal recovery should be based on some core principles. Those principles, in my view, should be a just transition to a net zero carbon society, supporting workers and families and supporting businesses to create and sustain employment. We are all well aware at this stage of the need to rapidly decarbonise to limit global warming to less than 1·5° in order to prevent further climate breakdown. A green recovery has huge potential to create high-skilled, well-paid employment through green skills development and infrastructure investment. There have been increasing calls over recent weeks from across the world, as well as locally last week when 40 organisations wrote to the joint First Ministers to prioritise a green recovery. At the weekend, the director general of the WHO urged us to:
"combat climate change and environmental destruction with the same seriousness with which we are now fighting COVID-19".
I am, therefore, calling for the establishment of a just transition commission to bring together all the relevant partners to plan for how we achieve our climate targets and ambitions as a society. A green new deal was a commitment in New Decade, New Approach, which needs to be implemented as part of the recovery plan. A green new deal can stimulate economic activity by, among other things, rapidly switching to green energy, growing the green economy, building modern public transport infrastructure and retrofitting homes to conserve energy.
To support workers and families, we must address the longstanding issues in the local labour market, particularly the scourge of low pay and low productivity. Low pay causes in-work poverty and leaves families in danger of deprivation. Commitments in New Decade, New Approach provide a basis to tackle that. Powers to set minimum wage levels should be made a devolved matter, and we must strive to replace precarious work with high-skilled, secure, unionised employment. That will go some way to addressing longstanding low productivity levels. Strengthening collective bargaining through the recognition of unions in the workplace is also important in empowering workers.
Our communities have played a huge role throughout the crisis in supporting each other and the vulnerable. Other business models, such as social enterprises and cooperatives, bring important benefits, including investment, to communities. We should seek to build on the community solidarity that has been shown over recent weeks.
While we will always look outwards to achieve globally, we must also support our indigenous SMEs and microbusinesses to create and sustain employment. There is a need to review the remit of Invest NI to support the development and diversification of local and all-island supply chains, empower microbusinesses and entrepreneurs and realise the potential of the digital and green economies.
Mr Storey: I have listened to the Member. A recurring question has come to me during all that she has said: who is going to pay for all of this? She talks about an "economic stimulus". Those are great words. The party opposite cannot even support the North/South interconnector, which has benefits — and it is strange that I, from a unionist perspective, have support for that. When it comes to a beneficial connection between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland however, the party opposite cannot support it. Words are fine, but who is going to pay for the wish list that the Member is setting before us this afternoon?
Dr Archibald: I thank the Member for his intervention. To be fair to him, that is an issue that Governments across the world are grappling with at this time. We all have to look at how we are going to do it in the future. Collectively, there is a need to address that.
A strategy of supporting our indigenous businesses should develop high-skilled employment in sectors that will help us to achieve our economic potential, fulfil our climate obligations and shield the economy against further COVID-type shocks. Crucially, we must also invest in apprenticeships and further and higher education to ensure that people have accessible opportunities to reskill and seize emerging opportunities.
Despite efforts to limit economic damage through such interventions as the job retention scheme and business support grants, there is a recognition that unemployment figures will likely soar in the weeks and months ahead. We must have a collaborative approach to responding to that, with the involvement of government, industry, education and the community and voluntary sector. The engagement forum, which was established by the Executive in response to the COVID-19 crisis, is the model of engagement and partnership that must be encouraged to continue. The involvement of wider civic society as not only stakeholders but partners will enable policy to be shaped to best respond to the needs of society.
The Executive will need tools to aid the type of economic recovery to which we aspire. My party colleague the Finance Minister has spoken about establishing a commission to evaluate the devolution of fiscal powers. That should be taken forward as part of the recovery planning, and we must look at what type of borrowing powers we can deploy. Economic and societal recovery post-COVID-19 must seek to address the fundamental underlying problems of the Northern economy. We must address the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, confront the severe economic threat of climate breakdown and prepare for the significant challenges posed by Brexit. In doing so, we must seek to advance the objectives of social and economic equality, sustainable economic development, regional balance and the protection of workers' rights and incomes.
I quote the director general of the WHO, again. He said:
"Decisions made in the coming months and implemented ... can lock in economic development patterns that will do permanent and escalating damage.
Or, if wisely taken, can promote a healthier, fairer, and greener world."
I urge Members to support the motion. We will support the amendment put forward by the Alliance Party.
Mr Muir: I beg to move the following amendment:
Leave out all after "fair" and insert:
", just and green economic recovery strategy is required in the aftermath of this crisis; agrees that an economic recovery strategy must not only recognise but also demonstrate that we value our front-line workers and want to protect them, and the most vulnerable, through any impending recession; understands that workers' rights and public services must be protected; commits to existing economic challenges being tackled by a just and green transition to a more high-skilled, regionally balanced and sustainable economy that works for workers, their families, and businesses; and calls on the Executive to ensure that these principles underpin an economic and society-wide recovery guided by a social partnership approach involving government, trade unions, businesses and the third sector."
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): You will have 10 minutes to propose the amendment and a further five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. Unfortunately, I will not be able to call everyone who has indicated that they wish to speak, given the limitation on our time.
Mr Muir: I welcome the opportunity to thank our front-line workers and to speak on how specifically we can build a more inclusive, just and prosperous future out of the crisis that we currently face. To that end, I think that our proposed amendment enhances the motion, and I hope that Members will agree to support it today. I thank Dr Archibald for the support given.
I think that 2020 will be one of those iconic years etched into our memories as well as the history books. It is the end of one era and the beginning of a new one, which is perhaps why January feels such a long time ago. Economic orthodoxy has been turned on its head, and the necessity of protecting our people, health service and economy has required all of us to make sacrifices unknown in peacetime. Our front-line workers have helped keep our society running, from the doctors and nurses in our hospitals to carers in the community and supermarket workers keeping the shelves stacked. It falls to everyone to ensure that they are valued and cared for.
Sadly, I think that most will agree that a recession, perhaps a severe one, is impending. Although it may be somewhat inevitable, its full impact is not. People are facing uncertain times, and we must ensure that we protect the most vulnerable. We cannot allow the weight of the economic troubles to fall upon them. The cost of this must be shared out fairly through progressive taxation, ensuring that nobody is able to avoid their obligations by sending profits overseas. Right now, we are at a pivot point in history, and we should be looking to our future aspirations for both our economy and society. In doing so, we must ensure that development is both green and sustainable, as well as structurally inclusive and fair, which our amendment seeks to do.
The COVID-19 pandemic has, understandably, been at the forefront of our minds in the past few months. We must not forget the ongoing global and existential crisis of climate change and environmental pollution. The monumental increases in air quality and falls in CO2 emissions that we have seen as a result of lockdown have only drawn greater attention to the remarkable health impacts of pollution. Indeed, it is estimated that, across Europe, around 11,000 lives have been saved by the reductions in nitrogen dioxide in the air. We have also seen a boom in active travel. I have never seen so many people in my life out on bicycles and walking and doing all sorts of things over the past number of months. That, again, not only represents environmental gains, because private cars are no longer clogging our streets, but serious health benefits. More than ever, people are recognising that a green economy is not only necessary to meet the demands of the future, but that it means a better quality of life.
However, change will not happen on its own. It requires us to act. The time has come for a green new deal to invest in skills, green energy and infrastructure as well as our telecoms network and support a just transition to the industries of tomorrow. I do welcome the announcement today that almost 200 companies are calling for the Prime Minister to launch a green recovery. It is businesses leading in these calls.
The risk of scarring life opportunities during economic change is serious, as we have seen in the late 2000s, particularly amongst young people. Signs so far suggest that young people are much more likely to be impacted by the shutdown and tend to be employed in seriously restricted sectors such as hospitality, tourism and retail. We must ensure that our young people have the skills required for the jobs of the future. Therefore, the Executive need to urgently consider targeted support to assist young people into training or to secure employment. The youth employment scheme, introduced by the former Employment and Learning Minister and my Alliance colleague, Dr Stephen Farry MP, is a good example of this. So, inclusiveness and engagement must be central in pursuing a just economic recovery.
That brings me to the concept of a social partnership introduced by our proposed amendment. The social partnership approach has been the norm in many European countries for decades. It brings together government, businesses, workers, unions and the third sector to provide input and make decisions on key economic and social issues. In regard to the model, the International Labour Organization has noted that:
"Engaging in dialogue, the social partners also fortify democratic governance, building vigorous and resilient labour market institutions that contribute to long-term social and economic stability and peace."
However, in the UK, industrial relations between workers, businesses and government have been more adversarial in tone than in the rest of Europe and decision-making has been more centralised. People have been continually told that work is the route out of poverty, yet wage growth in recent times has failed to keep up with increases to the cost of living. That has left many feeling powerless and forgotten in our economic system.
In recent times, Wales, which has historically been scarred by industrial strife and economic decline, has taken steps towards introducing a statutory basis for social partnership. That includes placing a duty on public bodies to work in social partnership and to promote fair work, as well as make fair work central in public procurement. This could provide a good model for change. Therefore, I hope that the Executive will seriously consider such a structural approach to rebuilding a fair and inclusive economy, safeguarding workers' rights and, indeed, restoring trust in government. I commend the Minister and her officials for the work done so far in relation to the Northern Ireland engagement forum on COVID-19. That has provided a good template for progress, and I hope that we can continue with that.
Before closing, I want to note another huge structural issue facing the future of our economy on which there has been a worrying lack of local input. It is the eternal elephant in the room: Brexit. With the additional damage of COVID-19 and the need to respond to the health crisis, an extension to the Brexit transition period is clearly required. It is difficult to see how the capacity exists to prepare to implement the protocol in the time period given and also respond to COVID-19. The last thing we need, as we try to chart a recovery, is more barriers and disruption.
In closing, I thank the relevant Members for bringing the debate today. This crisis has helped us see more clearly than ever the economic and social issues that face our society, and it provides a juncture for a rethink. Going forward, given our limited resources in Northern Ireland, we also press for a UK-wide commitment to rebuilding a comprehensive welfare system and to maintaining good public services, not threadbare ones. This means, for example, a health service that has money and staffing to see routine patients in weeks, not years, and it also means a social care system that values individuals and their rights, as well as providing care workers with a fair living wage and fair conditions.
Just as there was a post-war consensus, I hope that we can build a post-COVID consensus to properly engage people, businesses and others in the social and economic decisions that affect them; invest in our public services and in social security; and build a fairer, greener economy. I am happy to support the motion, but I encourage Members to support the amendment, which we believe puts a more specific focus on building an inclusive, just and green recovery.
Ms McLaughlin (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy): I rise to speak on behalf of the Committee for the Economy. This is a timely motion, as the Committee received a briefing on this issue from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) at last week's meeting.
While the Committee has not had an opportunity to agree a view on the motion and, therefore, I will not be able to support the motion on the Committee's behalf, nonetheless, members are on record expressing the Committee's thanks and admiration for the contribution made by our front-line workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. It would be remiss of me not to use this opportunity to put on record again the Committee's deep gratitude for the Herculean efforts that those heroes have made to benefit us all. I am sure that all Members will echo that sentiment.
As I indicated at the outset, the Committee was briefed by ICTU and the Nevin Economic Research Institute last Wednesday about their vision for our economic recovery from the crisis. They, too, used the word "just". Like the Committee and all the other groups represented on it, the ICTU warmly welcomed the Economy Minister's establishment of the Labour Relations Agency engagement forum. That forum represents a unique approach to bringing together the public, private and trade union sectors to advise the Executive on their handling of the COVID-19 crisis, as well as offering suggestions for the recovery and rebuilding phase that we are now entering into and to which the motion refers. It brings together groups to advise the Executive.
Like the ICTU, the Committee believes that the forum has a role to play after the crisis as an advisory body to inform the Executive on the recovery and rebuilding of the economy. Indeed, the ICTU suggested that the forum could perform a useful function by advising the Executive on the Programme for Government, for example, and provide a place for social dialogue to consider solutions to problems facing the Executive and wider society. The ICTU suggested that its focus should be on the future of work, innovation, skills and productivity and on a revision of our investment in the economic development model.
The Committee has discussed the recovery and rebuilding phase that we now entering into, and members agreed that this tragedy offers us an opportunity to build in a way that recognises the mistakes of the past and does not repeat them, as well as an opportunity to horizon-scan for the skills and industries that will allow us to create greater prosperity for our people.
The Committee agrees with the view that the current job retention scheme, or furloughing, should taper off in a way that allows employers to bring back workers on a phased or part-time basis initially. The Committee believes that the recovery period is a time in which we could look to ensure that workers, particularly young people emerging into the workforce for the first time, are properly skilled. They need skills that will give them opportunities to engage with the jobs that will be created and the sectors that will be established in the months and years to come. Our young people in particular must leave school, training and further education with skills that are relevant to future jobs and industries. That requires a partnership among employers, schools, further education colleges and higher education institutions, as well as other training providers and, of course, the Executive as a whole. Such industries will include those involved in decarbonisation and in the development of a green new deal sector and jobs in it.
The Committee heard from the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) and the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) last week. Members agreed with their analysis that, to have economic prosperity going forward, we must prioritise the revival of our village, town and city centres. As we build skills for the future, we must ensure that we begin to get our economy moving again and to fund the issues raised in the motion. The Executive need to provide for our centres to reopen while abiding by social distancing and other guidance. Such a revival needs to be supported by greater animation of those centres, as well by as marketing and promotion around shopping locally and using local services. That stimulation of localised growth is essential for a balanced regional recovery and, in the Committee's view, makes sense as part of a collaborative regional rebuilding plan.
Small businesses and microbusinesses, along with social enterprises and start-ups, have been the hardest hit by the lockdown. They are the backbone of our local economy and therefore need direct financial support from the Executive. Businesses in those sectors are generally not Invest NI client companies. They must be prioritised, however.
The Committee agreed with SOLACE and NILGA that we need to provide incentives for people to acquire digital skills. Key to the working of that in future crises are reskilling and upskilling, through which we are more likely to develop a more sustainable —
Ms McLaughlin: — and reactive skills base.
Councils have suggested to the Committee that that effort should be supported by skills academies and the creation of innovative hubs. Those will require a partnership with further and higher education and training providers and better and clearer —
Mr Middleton: As we look to the recovery, it is fair and right that, first and foremost, we think of all those who have lost their lives during this crisis. It is not easy to look towards the recovery stage when we are still trying to deal with keeping people safe. Nonetheless, we need to work to try to get our economy back up and running. To fit in with the message of the Northern Ireland Executive about staying home and saving lives, people need to work safely and save lives.
The number of deaths is now over 500, which is tragic. We thank our NHS staff and our other front-line workers for the work that they have done to keep that number down. The motion talks about our essential and key workers. Some of those workers never before would have felt that they were key: our shop workers; our delivery drivers; our cleaners; our postmen and postwomen; our bin collectors; our lorry, bus and train drivers; and our pharmacy workers. There are many more of them out there, and we need to reflect on how we better value their work. There would be no greater honour for them than if we were to review how we support them in order to ensure that they are very much part of the recovery phase as well.
Our community and voluntary sector workers and providers have also worked tirelessly to ensure that our most vulnerable are protected. Again, they very much need to be part of the recovery phase. I would not like to think that they will be seen as an easy target when savings need to be made. We need to look at the best way to utilise them, going forward, to ensure that we can get our economy back on track.
The context of this discussion is, indeed, very worrying. In Northern Ireland, we know that our unemployment figures rose by almost 90% in April. Indeed, figures released today by Ulster University about the economic impact are very startling. Ulster University refers to the economic impact, with 250,000 furloughed and laid-off employees in Northern Ireland, which is a significant number. Within my constituency, it talks about almost 16,000. Those are staggering figures, and we know that the Minister is doing all that she can to try and address the situation. However, she will need support, not only within her own Department, where people are doing a fantastic job, but from every Department. We need to put politics aside and ensure that we get our economy back up and running.
We very much welcome all of the assistance. We know that the grants of £280 million have ensured that businesses have been able to oversee this difficult period. The furloughing scheme has been a vital support. As we move into August, the part-time furlough scheme will be essential to ensuring that our hotels and industries have the support to meet their overheads as they start to reopen.
The Committee has taken evidence from NILGA and SOLACE in recent weeks, and we need to ensure that we work with them and our council chief executives. Again, they are on the front line and are vital to our economic recovery. In recent years, our councils have felt that they are merely consultees. We now need to see our councils as partners. Some of the fantastic initiatives announced by the Executive, such as our city deals, are going to be more important than ever to get our economy back up and running.
I want to put on record our thanks to the Minister and the Department for all their work. It has not been easy. There has not been a blueprint or a manual to try and get our economy back up and running. However, I am confident that if we all work together on this, we can get to a point where our economy thrives again.
In closing, I welcome the Minister's commitment to further indicative timings for our hotels. As a party, we have been at the forefront of fighting for businesses. We want to give clarity, but we must always be mindful of the fact that we are not yet out of this crisis. We need to listen to the medical advice and trust that the decisions will be taken as soon as possible and practical.
Mr Stewart: I thank the Chair of the Committee for the Economy for tabling the motion. Naturally, all of us will agree with its sentiments. It is the socio-economic equivalent of the moon on a stick, which is perfection for everyone — our workers, families and businesses — with everyone getting what they want. Sadly, sometimes, that is not always possible. However, it is what we should always desire to achieve.
For many of the businesses listening to the debate, if they are listening, they will hear that much of it is in the medium to long term and is about aspirations on how we change things and how things will look in the future. If I am the owner of a small business and I cannot afford to feed my family or pay my staff, I am worried about yesterday, today and tomorrow. Sadly, while it is desirable, I do not see it as essential, but we can get to that.
On the motion, I want to place on record the Ulster Unionist Party's heartfelt thanks to the front-line workers who have continued to keep our health service going and functioning over the last two and a half fairly horrendous months. Also, I thank the farmers, hauliers, food retailers, care workers, council employees and the many other service providers who have not stopped for a single minute throughout the pandemic.
It is, as has often been said, the biggest health crisis of our lives and, certainly, it is for the NHS. It is the biggest worldwide pandemic since the Spanish flu of 1918. Much of the global economy has been put into cold storage and is waiting to come back out of that. There is little doubt that despite the unprecedented interventions by the British Government since March, in particular the Chancellor of the Exchequer's job intervention scheme and the self-employment scheme, there have been widespread redundancies. The big Government interventions and mechanisms such as the furlough scheme will end later in the summer.
Those on the Economy Committee know that I have spoken at length, both there and in the Ad Hoc Committee, to say that the economic recovery plan should have begun immediately. While it was a health crisis, it was quickly becoming the biggest economic crisis that we have ever faced. It is disappointing that we are now nine or 10 weeks on, and we are still, just about, bringing this to the Chamber. We are only looking into the medium and long term. It would have been much better to have been discussing it from the beginning. However, we are where we are. Whatever strategy the Executive bring forward, it needs to be radically redrawn from where it was.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree with me that the Executive could learn a lot by looking at the Welsh model?
Mr Stewart: I thank the Member for his intervention. I agree absolutely. Those who have heard me speak before on this know that I have highlighted that from the start. Back at the end of March, the Welsh Government intervened with over £100 million, to give support to businesses that, perhaps, were not reached by the support that we have given.
I accept the point Mr Middleton made about the interventions that have been made already by the Executive, but out of 100,000-plus businesses in Northern Ireland, the overwhelming majority have still received very little support, aside from the furloughing scheme, which has been hugely beneficial. There are grants in there of up to £100,000, which would be massive for some of our companies. To a single business owner, £10,000 can be quite a lot but, if you are employing 15 staff, it is a week's wages. There are things that we could do in the here and now.
The Member is right — he has left now — to ask how we pay for this. That is so important. We need a complete reprioritisation of our Budget and what we spend. That will require difficult decisions from Ministers and Departments to end pet projects and schemes that were desirable three months ago. They are no longer desirable — yes, they are — but they are not essential. Business survival is essential. Families having jobs, putting bread on the table: these are essential. That means a complete reprioritisation about what we do and the money we spend, funnelling that money into companies, giving them the opportunity to expand, grow and create the jobs that we need to make our economy grow.
Ms Bailey: I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member agree that the economic crisis that has been brought about by the COVID-19 will be surpassed if we do not address the climate crisis that is creeping up on us as well? The economic upheaval, and the change to our systems, lifestyles and businesses, will be even more drastic than those we are currently experiencing due to COVID?
Mr Stewart: I thank the Member for her intervention. I absolutely agree. We all spoke in the Chamber — it feels like months ago now — when we discussed the climate emergency and the need to reprioritise our economy. Northern Ireland can lead the way in the drive towards zero emissions, without a doubt. That has to inform any part of our medium- to long-term economic strategy. However, it goes back to my original point: families and companies are about to go under. While, yes, that should be taken into consideration, those companies and families need impetus and support now. It is a combination of short-term interventions and looking at a medium- to long-term strategy.
While this is a health crisis, the economy is everything. Without taxation, a buoyant stable economy and creating the money to pump into our vital NHS and other public services, we have absolutely nothing. Governments do not create jobs, businesses do. We might create the conditions whereby these companies can create the jobs but, ultimately, it is down to businesses to create these jobs and further them. Workers want better wages and conditions, but Northern Ireland companies, en masse, look after their employees and workers a lot better than I see in other countries. We should be proud of the companies that we have here.
Mr Stewart: We should do absolutely everything we can.
There is so much to say about this but, ultimately, I would like to see a Northern Ireland-first approach to public-sector procurement, channelling as much money as possible from our public-sector procurement scheme into giving a lifeline to companies that are here now.
Mr Dunne: The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone across Northern Ireland. These few months have undoubtedly been very challenging and difficult for the economy. It is important to recognise and pay tribute to all the key front-line workers, alongside the National Health Service heroes. They have continued to work through the pandemic, taking personal risks and sacrifices, providing essential services. They include people within the food supply chain, transport workers, pharmacists, carers, farmers, fishermen, essential retail staff, waste collection operators, emergency service personnel, postmen and postwomen, teachers and funeral directors, amongst many others. They all deserve fair play and fair pay.
The Economy Minister has recognised the significant challenges that are faced by local businesses, employers and employees, and has helped to deliver various support measures that have been a real lifeline, with over £280 million being allocated through the £10,000 and £25,000 grant schemes in recent weeks. With those measures, alongside the various income support and furlough schemes from the UK Government, we have benefited from one of the best economic rescue packages in the world. For many people, being part of the United Kingdom has been crucial to short-term survival.
With the challenges that have been faced, now is the time for action to rebuild the economy. I very much welcome the Economy Minister's commitment to restarting and rebuilding the economy, as announced on Friday with the publication of 'Charting a Course for the Economy — Our First Steps'. The Chancellor's announcement on Friday of tailored adjustments to the UK Government's support measures also backed the reopening and kick-starting of our economy. While we must continue to be guided by medical and scientific advice, there is a desire for clarity on the various phases of recovery. I welcome the latest announcements on the reopening of non-food retail and believe that there are further opportunities for other businesses to reopen in a safe and controlled way, including those on high streets, which will need support as they reopen their doors on a phased basis. Estate agents are an example. That sector is keen to get going as interest builds in the housing market. That includes interest in the handover of new homes where construction work has progressed, especially among first-time buyers who are keen to get their new homes.
Buying from and supporting local businesses will be crucial for recovery and for the economy to rebuild and gain confidence again in towns, cities and villages. As has already been mentioned, councils must also step up and work in partnership with businesses and central government. The hospitality, retail, leisure and tourism sectors will also need continued support on the road to recovery. There are real opportunities for those sectors, including for the local tourism product as it rebuilds and taps into the desire for domestic holidays at home, which are trendily named "staycations". Today's announcement by the Minister to reopen hotels, guesthouses and caravan parks from 20 July is a welcome step forward. The focus on a regionally balanced economy in the motion is constructive, but we also have a responsibility to grow Northern Ireland's national and global competitiveness. We must build on its reputation for world-class and advanced technologies, skills and manufacturing. We have seen recent investment in cybersecurity. I believe that there are further exciting opportunities to grow those sectors in partnership with our universities and regional colleges through innovation and development of new skills.
Real opportunities are ahead. We must all play our part in supporting the recovery as Northern Ireland reopens.
Ms Mullan: I speak in favour of the motion and commend its sentiments. However, just to pass a motion in the Assembly is not sufficient; we must convert its sentiments into practical strategy and implement that strategy in full. Therefore, I call on the Minister for the Economy to instruct her officials to begin immediately the process of planning for a just recovery from both the health crisis that we are experiencing now and the economic challenges that we face at the other side of the pandemic.
It is not sufficient to join in the weekly Thursday night clap for NHS workers if we do not commit to ensuring that their pay and conditions equal the care and diligence that we demand of the health service. No more should we feel that we can refer to certain grades of workers as "low-skilled"; low-paid, yes, certainly, but low-skilled, no. Those workers, be they home-care workers, delivery drivers, shelf stackers, counter assistants or any of the multitude of workers who have earned the description "essential" over the past number of months, must never be left behind again.
They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, which must include the receipt of a living wage and proper, protected working conditions. We must also strive to support and promote our small and medium-sized enterprise and hospitality sectors, which, in many cases, have taken a major hit to their viability. They are the backbone of our local economies, and we must devise imaginative ways to ensure that they not only survive but thrive.
Finally, I believe that we all accept that the pandemic has changed the manner in which we will conduct almost every aspect of our lives. It would be remiss of me, as Deputy Chair of the Education Committee, not to recognise the challenges ahead for our educators. Therefore, I call on the Minister of Education to re-evaluate the education model now in practice and to devise and prepare new, sensitive ways of progressing our children through the different stages of primary and secondary education. The old way of doing education will not be compatible with the new conditions and requirements that will be expected from educators or students. We need to get this right. Remember the old saying: fail to prepare, prepare to fail. We cannot afford to fail our future generation of essential workers, leaders and educators.
Mr Stalford: In moving his amendment, Mr Muir referred to economic orthodoxy being turned on its head. I think that it was Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven who said that pennies did not fall from heaven; they have to be earned here on Earth. It is important, in the debate, that we are cognisant of that fact. As my colleague from East Antrim said, the economy is everything. It pays for our public services. It pays for our education, speaking of which I put on record my thanks to Miss Bannister, Mr Hay and Mr Jennings, the three schoolteachers who have a role in the education of my children. They make a valiant contribution, along with all public workers and key front-line staff.
Nearly nine weeks into this situation, we have to be aware of the massive damage that our economy is sustaining. The scale of the interventions that have been made is unheard of in peacetime. The fact that such interventions can be made at all is proof of how much better off we are as part of the United Kingdom. We have a Government who can make such interventions and spend such money protecting businesses and the economy. However, we also need to be honest. I mentioned my children. My children will spend a significant portion of their working life paying off the debt that these measures accrue. The longer the economy continues in lockdown, the more of their working life all our children will spend paying this money back. Pennies do not fall from heaven; they have to be earned. That is why I welcome the actions that the Economy Minister has been engaging in during the crisis. She has behaved responsibly and in a statesmanlike manner. She has balanced the need to protect public health, insofar as is possible, with the need to ensure that the economy can function again when the present restrictive measures are lifted.
The £280 million worth of grants and the furlough scheme were mentioned. I hope that Mr Muir will not think that I am picking on him, but he also mentioned the post-war consensus that obtained between 1945 and 1979. I remind him gently that Keynesian economics made the UK an economic basket case. Not for nothing were we referred to as the "sick man of Europe" during that period. However, I leave that for historians to argue.
We cannot keep the productive element of our economy, which pays for everything around us, in lockdown for a second longer than it needs to be. I therefore welcome the recent announcements that the Minister has made, particularly about retail.
I think that other Members are right — I said this at the most recent meeting of the Economy Committee — that one of the things that have changed as a consequence of the crisis is that our perception of what is and is not important work has changed. My wife works in B&M on the Cregagh Road, and I dare say that, for the last nine weeks, people have thought that she is more important that I am. Of course, I always think that [Laughter.]
That is why I am putting it in Hansard for her to read later. People's perception of what is and is not priority employment has changed, and that can only be welcomed as a good thing.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister in more detail the plans that the Executive have to lead us out of lockdown and to get the engine of our economy ticking again.
Mr McAleer: I take the opportunity to pay tribute, in my role as the Sinn Féin spokesperson on agriculture and rural affairs, to all our farmers as front-line workers for producing our food throughout the pandemic. We have around 25,000 farms in the North, and they support the employment of 48,000 people across the food and drink industry. It is a huge contributor to our economy, with a £4·5 billion turnover last year. As well as having a huge impact on the economy, farming is a way of life, and those of us who represent rural constituencies know that it is a way of life for many people and supports many others. It is a key employer here.
Agriculture is under pressure. There are poor profit margins, the cost of production exceeds farm-gate prices and there are rising input costs every year. When we were gathering evidence on the Agriculture Bill recently, researchers from Queen's University told us that, without the direct payments, 30% of farms would immediately collapse. No doubt, since the COVID pandemic started, that figure will probably increase. The single farm payment accounts for over 80% of income for farmers, and farmers' incomes, even before the COVID pandemic, was decreasing year-on-year. Last year, we saw a 26% decrease in their incomes. That is very stark in some sectors. If we take the farmers in the areas of natural constraint (ANC) scheme, which covers the beef and sheep farmers, we see that their predicted income for this year is £10,000, and that is if they are lucky. I understand that, according to NISRA, the weekly wage here is £535. The beef and sheep farmers in the North get less than the average weekly wage. It is very stark, and they are the producers of our food.
The other point I want to make about moving into an economic recovery is that it is so vital that the farming sector is protected. It also needs to be looked at across the island. Any future economic recovery has to look at agriculture and food production across the island. For example, we export about half a million sheep to the South, and they export about half a million pigs to the North. About 75% of our beef is exported across the water to Britain. Unfettered access north, south, east and west is very important to us.
Brexit, of course, has thrown a bit of a spanner in the works, because the British market is so crucial to here. We export 87% of our agri-food to it. The British market is so crucial, but the failure of the British Government to incorporate minimum food standards in their Bill has opened the door to Britain importing cheap, low-standard food, which will more than likely destroy the market for farmers here. We need to look throughout the rest of Ireland and beyond to the EU and other places to find new markets.
he future of agriculture and a future recovery require us to look at our indigenous food security, and we can see the importance of that with COVID and the volatility of the world stage. Things can change on a global basis, which underlines the importance of having our own secure food supply here.
Before I conclude, I want to say that isolation is an absolutely huge issue in rural communities. On a regional basis — I am surrounded by a couple of north-west MLAs — the likes of the A5 and rural broadband are hugely important in connecting and reconnecting isolated communities at this time. On the funding stuff and what we want to see in the future coming out of this, we want to see our Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation (TRPSI) budget given legal protection in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, and, of course, we want to see the lost funding from the rural development programme. We are losing £80 million from priority 6 of the rural development programme as a result of Brexit. We need to see the UK shared prosperity fund matching or replacing that lost EU funding, because those projects are so crucial for community hubs, community support and village renewal. We have seen how important that network has been in the response to the crisis.
In conclusion, I commend the motion. I tabled it, so I obviously support it. Looking into the future, unfettered access east-west and North/South —
Mr Allister: I can readily join in saluting our front-line workers, who have been magnificent throughout this matter across our Province, but I have to say that, when it comes to the motion as a road map to get us back on the path to economic prosperity, I despair. It is like any other socialist manifesto that I have read. It is all about promises and hope but has no answers. Look at the motion. When it comes to restarting our economy, what does it say? Nothing. When it comes to support for business, what does it say? Nothing. When it comes to recognising that wealth creation is key to job creation, what does it say? Nothing. When it comes to talking about economic prosperity, what does it say? Nothing. When it comes to speaking about global competitiveness, nothing. When it comes to saying that we must move our economy from its superdependence on the public sector, nothing. When it comes to the issue of competitiveness, nothing to say. And, of course, when it comes to who will pay, nothing to say. It is a motion that, frankly, might be verbose in proclaiming virtuous things but provides nothing in terms of taking us forward. It is not much help that the only amendment to it that has been permitted is one that simply adds a green flavour. There was another amendment that did, at least, talk about the urgent need to restart economic activity, but it did not merit attention on the Order Paper. We are left with this wish list of a socialist nature, which does not really take us very far.
I want to say this to the Minister: if she wants to do something green that is based not in sentiment but in manufacturing reality, I direct her attention to supporting Wrightbus. Wrightbus in Ballymena is moving forward as a world leader in hydrogen-driven buses and vehicles. If she really wants to create a hub in Northern Ireland for green, clean, safe energy and its use across our transportation sector, as opposed to those who pontificate about the sentiment of the green economy, there is a reality of the green economy that could and should be tapped into.
Nothing would please me better than to see my constituency become a hydrogen hub built around Wrightbus, so that we could see the progression and so that Translink could be supplied with hydrogen buses and all those things could be advanced.
A little economic forethought and a little economic reality would be a lot preferable to the sentiment that floats around in the motion and the amendment.
Mr O'Toole: I will be concise. I support the motion and the amendment, although, at the risk of sounding like I agree too much with the previous speaker, which would not do at all —.
Mr O'Toole: Well, it is difficult to find much to disagree with in the motion or the amendment. Nevertheless, I and my party support them. The urgent thing is that we move on from the sentiment in a motion such as this to hard, practical policy.
The COVID crisis has illustrated to us an enormous number of things that were probably known before but have become starkly obvious in the last three months. Lots of people have talked about the importance of key workers. That is absolutely true — Mr Stalford put it very well when he talked about his wife's job — but the absolute harsh reality is that, in the next few months, the COVID crisis will underline long-term structural weaknesses that have afflicted this economy not just for months but for years and generations. I am afraid that it is no good parties from different parts of the House who have presided over the repetition of the same polices, lamenting the continuation of those structural challenges. We need hard action and practical policy to change them. The year 1848, which, I am sure, historians among us will know as the year of multiple revolutions in Europe, was described famously as the turning point in history when history failed to turn. Let is hope that 2020 is not the turning point when history fails to turn, at least in Northern Ireland.
I talked about the long-term structural challenges that our economy faces. Well, what are they? We have been for a long time the most unproductive part of these islands. We have the most unproductive economy. I respect unionist Members talking about the role that the UK Exchequer has played in helping businesses and do not deny that. My God, who could? Businesses that have been in receipt of Treasury funding are, of course, grateful for not having gone out of business. I would say, however, that, as a long-term economic strategy, sheer supplication and saying that all we can do is rely on money from the UK Exchequer is not sensible. That is why I agree with Caoimhe Archibald and why I have been urging her colleague the Finance Minister to progress ideas for a long-term fiscal commission to look at how we raise revenue here to pay for public services. I say that as some who is proudly a member of a social democratic, centre-left party. We need to raise revenue in Northern Ireland, and we need to direct that revenue towards the urgent priorities that we all can agree on. We can all agree that we have long-term underinvestment in our infrastructure. We can all agree that we need to transition to a greener, lower-carbon economy. It would be much better for us if we were able to raise the revenue and decide on those priorities ourselves here, but we have yet to have, I am afraid, a short- or long-term economic recovery strategy for the Executive and an agreed, updated set of Programme for Government targets.
What do we need? We need a serious set of long-term, joined-up economic and fiscal policies. We do not need, with respect, pop-up policies, such as the announcement around hotels being able to open but without a date for taking bookings. I do not mean to pick on one issue, but it highlights a problem that has been endemic to governance in this place for the last number of years: unrelated, pop-up policy and things that do not make a lost of sense as part of a joined-up picture but kind of work because a particular lobby group has asked for them.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I rapidly approach the end of my four minutes. I could go on and on. The motion and the amendment are drawn widely, and it is hard to agree or disagree with them. While I will support them, by far the most important thing to say is that we move urgently and rapidly to agree priorities that allow us to deliver the just economic recovery and lower-carbon economy that we clearly all want.
Events moved a lot quicker in the Chamber today than I had anticipated, so my apologies.
COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on our economy and society, and I listened with interest to Members' contributions today. I reassure the Member for East Antrim that, although this is the first time that we have had the opportunity to debate this in the Chamber, my Department has been working on this from the start.
Of course, today, our thoughts are with the families and communities of those who have suffered pain and loss, and it is right that we recognise those who have been on the front line during this time. This cuts across the public and private sectors. As well as the heroic work of those in the NHS, we would not have been able to cope without the work of hauliers, retail workers and other key, front-line staff. This crisis has shown how essential their work is.
The motion calls on us to protect the vulnerable through any impending recession. I want to be clear. Economists will define what is or is not a recession, but those who have already lost their job will not need an economist to tell them about the state of the economy.
Some six years of progress on jobs was lost when the Northern Ireland claimant count increased by 26,500 people in a single month. Unfortunately, we can expect unemployment to increase again. The Bank of England has forecast a UK-wide increase in the unemployment rate of around five percentage points for the second quarter of 2020 when compared to the unemployment rate just before the outbreak. For Northern Ireland, that could mean an increase of around 50,000 — around double the rise seen in the latest claimant count figures.
Supporting the vulnerable, those on low incomes and those who have already lost their job is not future work; it is for the here and now. The first step in protecting the most vulnerable is in safely reopening our economy so that those who have lost jobs can seek new employment and we limit the number who become unemployed. Construction, manufacturing and retail are opening. Today's approach to hotels, bed and breakfasts, caravans and self-catering accommodation is a further step, but we must move safely, in line with the medical and scientific advice. I have been impressed by those sectors and how they have adapted. Significant changes have been made to make sure that workers are safe at work.
We must also move beyond the reopening of our economy to planning for the future of our economy. A strong economy benefits everyone in society. I value economic growth because I am aware of the alternative. We have lived through recessions, have seen how unemployment affects physical and mental health and have seen closed shops and factories in local towns. No one wants to return to that.
There are significant challenges in building a stronger economy. The world has changed rapidly. We cannot say with any authority what it will look like in a year's time. As an economy, we rely on consumer spending. If people have limited opportunities to spend money in their local shops and restaurants, that will limit the ability of retail and hospitality here to continue to operate.
The tourism sector has been, perhaps, the hardest hit by the present crisis and by the long-term impact on travel. While many businesses in that sector have adapted, it is likely that growth will be difficult to achieve, even in the medium term.
The motion calls for a just transition to an economy centred on more people working in higher-paying jobs. To achieve that, we will need to focus on sectors that can deliver higher-paying jobs. Looking to the future, I think that there is likely to be potential for growth in life and health sciences. Similarly, the digital sector is likely to continue to grow. As my colleague from north Down indicated, the recent good news on cybersecurity jobs in Belfast shows that not only is Northern Ireland out in front in training and education in those sectors, but it is competitive on a global scale. Our advanced manufacturing sector also has strong potential, and tourism has been one of our success stories over recent years, and one that I am determined to support as it gets back on its feet.
Mr O'Toole: I thank the Minister for giving way. I know that she is working on a tourism recovery plan. Can she say more about the short-term for the tourism sector? It would appear very unlikely that this year, and possibly next, that we will be anywhere close to the kinds of markets that we had access to. Which markets for this summer, and, indeed, the rest of the year, is Tourism NI prioritising?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his intervention. We are working, with our steering group, with all aspects of that sector. It is clear to us that in the immediate future the domestic market within the British Isles will provide us with much of our tourism activity. I spoke to North American tour operators last week who indicated that there is still a strong desire to visit Northern Ireland. Many of the groups that they had booked for this year have rebooked for the next season. I think that we will have to rely on the market at home, but we are, and will continue to be, attractive to other markets, particularly the North American market.
We live in a society where inequality and poverty are persistent problems. This crisis has so far impacted most on those on low incomes and young people. The opportunities that are likely to come in the years ahead will be disproportionately in sectors where specific skills are required, so we must ensure that those who lose jobs in other sectors are given the support that they need to upskill in areas where there is demand.
I have been struck over the past number of months by the changes in our environment: fewer people driving to work, more people out cycling or walking. Those are positive changes and many people have reflected on how this could reshape how we appreciate our environment and protect against climate change.
The proposer of the motion advocates a new deal, but economic recovery, I stress, must be sustainable and provide growth opportunities for the private sector. In Northern Ireland, we have already been meeting some of our energy targets. We have led the way in developing renewable electricity to meet the Executive's 40% target. That success has helped to develop a low-carbon and renewable energy economy of 3,500 businesses, 5,500 jobs and £269 million worth of exports. We need to further develop that part of the economy.
Mr Stalford: I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. For some Members, the idea of a command economy might be appealing. The truth of the matter is that only through having a free economy that is generating wealth can any of the aims in this motion, lofty as they are, be achieved. Would the Minister agree?
Mrs Dodds: We need our economy to function in order to provide for our public services and to help us to protect the most vulnerable, so I am absolutely behind businesses that seek to create wealth and opportunity for people. That is an appropriate way for this House to go.
I reassure the Member for North Antrim that I have already been speaking to Wrightbus. This week, I will convene a meeting between Wrightbus, my Department's officials and Invest Northern Ireland to investigate how Northern Ireland can benefit from greater job opportunities using the technology and research that is available in the north Antrim area to promote the hydrogen project. I hope that we will be able to make progress on that.
As the Minister for the Economy since the crisis first struck, I have been aware that, while it was primarily a health crisis, it was always going to become a grave economic crisis. Throughout, I have ensured that my Department and its arm's-length bodies are working to support business in any way that we can. As some colleagues have referenced, that has included a social partnership with the engagement forum, which was asked to do two specific tasks: to look at the essential worker's list and to give safety advice.
To the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy, I should say that, in the Programme for Government, it is the responsibility of the First and deputy First Minister not just to reference something like the engagement forum, but to consult far and wide on this particular and very important piece of programming.
The Department also moved to bring unprecedented levels of support to businesses across Northern Ireland. The business grant schemes were designed to protect jobs, prevent business closures and to promote economic recovery. I welcome the uptake of those schemes. To date, we have issued over 22,000 payments through the £10,000 grant scheme, which represents over £220 million in support. There have been 2,600 payments made through the £25,000 grant scheme, which represents £65 million of support to businesses in retail, hospitality, tourism and leisure.
The extension of the rates relief to those sectors for the year, and to everyone for the first four months of the rates year, is of enormous value to businesses as they try to plot a way forward.
A Member: Will the Minister give way?
Mrs Dodds: No, I am not going to give way because I am rapidly running out of time and there are other things that I need to get through.
Along with those supports, there have been those at a national level: the job retention scheme, the self-employment scheme and the access to finance schemes. Those have been vital in keeping businesses going.
On tourism, I have established the tourism recovery steering group, which brings together the private and public sectors to plan for recovery. That group, which is supported by Tourism NI, will play a key role as government and industry work together to help our tourism and hospitality sector find its way back to full potential.
There has been some discussion about the need to invest in infrastructure to rebuild our economy. The past few months have shown us that broadband infrastructure is a vital part of our economy. We will not be able to build a regionally balanced economy without investment in broadband. Project Stratum seeks to use the £165 million of funding that is available from the confidence and supply deal to increase and improve broadband services, and that is primarily across rural areas of Northern Ireland. The target intervention area consists of 79,000 premises, 97% of which are rural. The contract award is expected in September 2020, with a full deployment in March. That is the type of long-term infrastructure project that we will need to ensure that businesses can prosper anywhere in Northern Ireland.
I have introduced legislation to ensure that workers who are prevented from taking their annual leave because of the pandemic can carry over some of that leave into the next two years. In conjunction with the Minister for Communities, I have introduced legislation to ensure that furloughed workers who are entitled to statutory family-related payments will not lose out. That goes together with my wider plans for ensuring that our employment legislation gives people the support that they need. For example, I recently announced my intention to consult on proposals to put in place provisions for parental bereavement leave and pay.
This has been an unprecedented few months. We have responded —
Mrs Dodds: — as quickly as possible and have delivered things that would have been thought of as impossible in normal times, but there is more to do. I look forward to setting out a long-term economic strategy and working with the House to ensure that families and jobs in Northern Ireland are our highest and utmost priority.
Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for her statement and thank the proposers of the original motion for accepting our amendment. I thought originally that I was coming to respond to the amendment only, but I should be able to make some comments in response to remarks made. Before I do so, I will make some comments of my own.
I will start by adding to the thanks paid to our front-line workers. I am hopeful that the debate today and the sentiments expressed will offer them some reassurance that we are looking to safeguard the services that those people provide for the future as we begin to look for recovery and the necessary societal change.
There will be many lessons learned, and some have been referenced already today, from the COVID period. We will, I am sure, reflect for some time on the human loss, the changes in our methods of governance and, of course, the time when our interaction with others was seemingly stopped completely. However, there are positives, even in these darkest of times, to be taken from what we have learned thus far. I want to mention in particular the collaborative working that is taking place in government and in Departments. Hopefully, the Minister will take back to her officials, as I have said here with regard to other issues, our sincere thanks for the work done in an ever-changing environment.
It would be remiss of me not to mention also the most outstanding community reaction that there has been to assist those most in need. We have seen that in every locality. I want to draw down two examples that relate to how we can better facilitate a just and economic recovery, which is the focus of the motion. First, the collaborative approach, which I mentioned and which has been beneficial at this time of crisis, should become the working model for the future. It is essential that government — regional, national and local — work together with communities to ensure mutual understanding of challenges and to shape solutions. That, in itself, might help to embrace the community spirit demonstrated so that those people who have made that huge effort in recent times can feed in to the near future, the medium future and the longer-term future.
Also, the green new deal, which has been spoken about today, is not merely aspirational; it is a commitment in a document called, 'New Decade, New Approach', which made it more attractive for some of us to be part of the Government. That is about making sure that we make and meet a commitment and nothing more than that. I will now turn to —.
Mr O'Toole: Will the Member agree with me that the commitments outlined in the European Commission to building an EU-wide green new deal approach offer some opportunity for the Northern Ireland institutions to look at how we could be a part of that, specifically in relation to the protocol?
Mr Blair: I agree totally. It is a matter that should be considered going forward by all of us but, specifically, by the Northern Ireland Executive. That green new deal would bring with it economic benefits to exploring and developing that circular economy. It will require new expertise. It will present opportunities for new learning experiences, and, in addition, it will bring opportunities to allow individuals to develop their own skills as well as new skills to help to provide this greener, cleaner future.
I will turn now to the comments made in the Chamber. I am very pleased that most of them, with one notable exception, were wholly supportive of the proposal and the amendment. Sinead McLaughlin mentioned the need for social dialogue, which I referenced a moment ago. Gary Middleton spoke very clearly about our need to protect the vulnerable. John Stewart referenced to some extent small businesses and the challenges that will exist around that going forward. Gordon Dunne mentioned the rescue packages that are already in place. Christopher Stalford paid tribute to government for the measures that are there and did not rule out that we have to look at exploring new measures as well. Declan McAleer, who is no longer in the Chamber, mentioned the agriculture sector challenge, and I will explore that with Declan and others through the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. Matthew O'Toole, in his closing remarks, mentioned support for the motion, which is very welcome.
In reference to Mr Allister's comments, I really want to stress that I am not averse at all to exploring opportunities at Wrightbus or anywhere else because some of us are not afraid of referencing aspiration at the same time as trying to deal with desperation or deprivation. Those things are not mutually exclusive. It is perfectly doable to work on all those matters at one time. All of that can be done —.
Miss Woods: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that we need to build back better and that the time is now for the Executive to bring forward a green new deal for Northern Ireland to decarbonise, reboot our economy, create jobs, improve our health, protect our environment and, ultimately, save our planet? Not in the future, but now.
Mr Blair: I do agree. That would meet the commitment that I mentioned a moment ago that is in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document.
Mr Carroll: I thank the Member for giving way. I think that 90% of his amendment is perfectly fine. Does he share my concern, and that of many trade unionists, that the social partnership approach, in the South of Ireland in particular, has led to increased inequality, particularly in relation to the wealth gap?
Mr Blair: That makes it all the more important that we examine that pathway at all levels of government — national, regional and local.
Mr Blair: All of the sentiments that have been expressed — certainly those in support of the motion and the amendment — can be done in the spirit of the motion; involving, providing for and protecting our people.
Mr Gildernew: I want to start by touching on where we started this morning: a debate about the murder of George Floyd and the racism that was inherent in that. I also want to point out that it is not just racism that people who suffer disadvantage to that level are struggling with. It is often rooted in inequality: inequality of circumstance, inequality of opportunity and inequality of outcome right across the system. That inequality bleeds into economic systems across the world; it curtails them and stops them from building balanced economies, as we have heard today.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, those who in the past were referred to as "low-skilled" or "non-essential" workers are on the front line in our response. Caithfimid luach na n-oibrithe a aithint. Ní leor torann seanchaite; is gá cóir agus coinníollacha oibre a chosaint. Ní mór dó seo bheith mar chuid de aon phlean téarnaimh. In any economic strategy, their value must be recognised, not through platitudes but by paying them decent wages and protecting their working conditions.
Ms McLaughlin: Does the Member believe in an equal society and does he believe that we need a subregional balance in our economy as we emerge from lockdown? Derry and the north-west have the highest levels of unemployment of any region in the United Kingdom and we consistently attract the lowest number of jobs related to Invest NI. What are the Member's thoughts on that?
Mr Gildernew: I agree with the Member on that and will address that very issue in my remarks.
The economic strategy must include equality in infrastructure, particularly in the provision of broadband in rural communities, and I welcome the Minister's news on that. I have a slight concern because the figure of 79,000 homes or premises was. I have been involved in meetings and my understanding was that the figure would be 100,000 premises. I fear that some of the premises with the worst provision will still fall through the net. However, that is work for a future day with the Minister.
Project Stratum must proceed as soon possible so that students, farmers, businesses and entrepreneurs in the far reaches of Fermanagh, Tyrone and mid-Ulster have the same opportunities to grow and succeed. Their success is vital to us sustaining our rural communities in a balanced way. Tá fáilte le cur roimh na cinntí faoin scoil leighis i gColáiste Mhig Aoidh agus roimh na city deals leis an mhaoiniú i réigiún an iarthuaiscirt a chur ina cheart. Caithfidh an plean straitéiseach geilleagrach leanstan ar an dóigh seo le go mbeidh cothromaíocht thíreolaíoch agus réigiúnach i gcroílár cheapadh polasaí. The decisions on the medical school at Magee and the city deal are welcome first steps in redressing the historic underinvestment in the north-west region and west of the Bann generally. The economic strategy must continue along those lines, with geographical and regional balance at the core of all policy decisions.
I declare an interest in that for most of my life I have been very much involved in either running or owning a small business. Small businesses employ huge amounts of our population.
They are responsible for huge amounts of innovation and, in the mid-Ulster and Tyrone areas, in particular, engineering and food processing companies are the economic drivers of prosperity. Those businesses must be assisted with financial and other support if they are to survive in the expected economic downturn, and those were certainly worrying figures that the Minister shared with us today. For example, small and social enterprises must be supported in their efforts to access public contracts. We should also look at encouraging social value clauses in public procurement to support regional development and those smaller businesses. The 2019 report on rebalancing the economy revealed that only 4% of the North's social enterprises were located in Fermanagh and Tyrone. Given that the social economy has a track record of delivering social value and sustainable jobs, it is important that we see that sector delivering more of those benefits in Fermanagh, Tyrone and all areas west of the Bann.
We also need to look at some of the other inequalities in the North. We need to look at other areas, but particularly the North. In the North, Women make up 51% of the population, yet only 30% of them are self-employed. Women represent 82% of part-time workers, and 52% of women are unemployed. Women still face gender gaps in pay, higher levels of part-time work and a concentration of employment in lower-paying sectors such as caring, cleaning and hospitality. Rural women are even worse off due to the centralisation of services and opportunities, and, with only 3% of government funding for womens' group going to rural women, they are underserved and neglected.
To build a balanced and sustainable economy, we need to look at the issue of working carers. Strong economies have come to realise the value of supporting carers in their workforce. Germany recently brought in laws to promote the rights of workers to take time off for caring responsibilities and protect their career progression and promotion. We need to look at that sector of our economy.
As the Chair of the Health Committee, I understand the pressures that our health and social care sector faces. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded across our communities, we saw the consequences of 10 years of Tory austerity, with a lack of even the most basic protection equipment available for those front-line workers. Many Members who spoke in the debate referenced that and rightly so.
In the aftermath of the crisis, it is expected that areas of high deprivation across the North will have suffered disproportionately. According to the Office for National Statistics, patterns of death from COVID-19 correspond with patterns of deprivation, with deaths in more deprived communities more than double those in the least deprived. Members, that is a scandal. In the aftermath of the emergency and crisis, we will need to examine that to see how we can prevent that ever occurring again.
Health inequalities in the North need to be addressed. We must urgently address the inequality that causes the life expectancy of a child born in the North in 2017 to be 1·6 years lower than a child born in the South. We must try to understand why suicide rates are three and half times higher in areas of high deprivation and why drug-related and alcohol-specific mortality is four times higher in our more deprived communities. We need to begin to tackle those stark inequalities, not only because they are an injustice in themselves but to build a sustainable economy.
Austerity is not the way forward. It has caused enough unnecessary suffering to so many. Our economic recovery strategy must be one that invests in our public sector and all our communities and all our people.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member for giving way. I note and accept that he can give a valid opinion on austerity, but I do not accept that it is the sole reason why the health service is in crisis. Does he accept that a previous Minister of Health who sits on his Benches was warned at one point to stock up on personal protective equipment (PPE) and did not take that advice?
Mr Gildernew: Does the Member accept that, not long ago, in the Chamber, his Minister of Health stated that the health system had been underinvested in for 10 years, which corresponds almost exactly with Tory austerity? That is why we have seen a year-on-year reduction in real-terms spending in that sector. Those issues must be addressed going forward.
Caithfidh ár straitéis eacnamaíochta aghaidh a thabhairt ar an bhochtaineacht agus ar an neamhionannas, go háirithe ar an éagothroime sláinte. Caithfidh infheistíocht san oideachas agus scileanna, i dtithíocht agus i gcruthú fostaíochta bheith mar chuid den straitéis. Our economic recovery strategy must begin to earnestly tackle deprivation and inequality, particularly inequalities in health. The strategy must include investment in health, education and skills, housing and job creation. It is my belief that we need to recognise that many people out there are trying to play against a rigged deck. A few years ago, in a large housing estate in Dungannon, not one child passed the 11-plus. No one in the House can convince me that not a single child in a massive housing estate is intelligent enough. That is about structural oppression and disadvantage in the system, and we need to tackle that to ensure that we have a better way of going forward.
We have heard a lot of talk recently about returning to normality or about the new normal.
Mr Gildernew: We need to start to work together to see how we make and create a better normal. I support the motion and reiterate our support for the amendment.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly recognises the unprecedented impact the COVID-19 global pandemic is having on our society and economy; commends the invaluable contribution made by our front-line workers who have provided vital service, selflessly, throughout this pandemic; believes that a fair, just and green economic recovery strategy is required in the aftermath of this crisis; agrees that an economic recovery strategy must not only recognise but also demonstrate that we value our front-line workers and want to protect them, and the most vulnerable, through any impending recession; understands that workers' rights and public services must be protected; commits to existing economic challenges being tackled by a just and green transition to a more high-skilled, regionally balanced and sustainable economy that works for workers, their families, and businesses; and calls on the Executive to ensure that these principles underpin an economic and society-wide recovery guided by a social partnership approach involving government, trade unions, businesses and the third sector.