Official Report: Tuesday 09 June 2020
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Here we go again: without debate, the House is about to, yet again, extend the strangulation of scrutiny in the House by, this time, prohibiting topical questions. I can think of no time when it is more appropriate for the asking of topical questions than the situation in which we presently exist, and, yet, they are to be banished.
According to the Speaker's latest letter, also to be banished are follow-up supplementary questions, when Ministers are here, by anyone other than the Member who tabled the question. Why are we diminishing scrutiny in the House? Why are we shielding Ministers in the manner that these proposals will do?
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I thank the Member for his point, and I have considerable sympathy with the concerns that he has raised. The Member will know that, at its meeting last week, the Business Committee reviewed its decisions on Assembly questions and agreed that, as lockdown restrictions ease, a first step towards resuming normal business is to allow Question Time to resume on 16 June. These are matters that are decided at the Business Committee, and I appreciate that if the Member has concerns, he is absolutely within his rights to raise them at the Business Committee.
Having given my view on that point of order, I will return to today's business.
The first item on the Order Paper is a motion to suspend Standing Order 20A. It will be treated as a business motion and there will be no debate on it.
That Standing Order 20A be suspended until 4 July 2020.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Order 20A be suspended until 4 July 2020.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Health that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that in the light of social distancing being observed by parties, I have relaxed the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they want to ask a question. Members still have to make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called, but they can do that by rising in their place, as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in their questions. This is not an opportunity for debate and long introductions. I call the Minister of Health, Mr Robin Swann.
Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, and thank you for the opportunity to update the House on my approach to the rebuilding of health and social care (HSC) services.
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our community, our way of life and on how our health and social care services are delivered. Things will not be the same again, and we need to carefully navigate the next phase of dealing with this terrible virus.
By complying with social distancing and other restrictions — measures that, only four months ago, would have sounded so far-fetched that no one could have envisaged them — the people of Northern Ireland have been instrumental in dramatically reducing the rate of infection. Sadly however, as of yesterday, 537 of our fellow citizens have passed away after testing positive for COVID-19. No matter how long the pandemic continues, we must never forget that behind every figure was a person who was loved and who is sorely missed. With so many families having experienced that grief, we all have an obligation to minimise the rate of infection and future loss of life. My sincere condolences go to the families and loved ones of those who have tragically passed away.
The actions that we took to control the virus meant that we had sufficient health service capacity to cope with the additional pressures exerted by COVID-19. Our nurses, doctors, paramedics, other allied health professionals, pharmacists, care workers, primary care and other front-line health and social care workers have bravely and tirelessly put themselves at risk to save the lives of others. Among them were those who volunteered to return to work or to temporarily leave training to provide much help and support. I cannot thank our workers enough for that. I know that I can rely upon continued commitment from all staff as we begin the task of rebuilding health and social care services as soon as possible.
With this being carers' week, it is incumbent on us to acknowledge the essential work of all our carers. Whilst carers have always been key pillars of the local HSC system, the pandemic has further highlighted their sheer contribution to families throughout the United Kingdom. Many new carers have come forward to look after friends or relatives who are elderly, sick or disabled. As Minister, I thank them wholeheartedly for everything that they have done, and continue to do. I appreciate that the efforts of our staff and carers have taken their toll. We must put their welfare, along with patient safety, at the heart of our efforts to rebuild services.
COVID-19 has presented our health and social care system with its biggest challenge since its inception, and that is in the context of the huge strategic challenges that were facing us prior to COVID-19, all of which are well known, and which were highlighted in the Bengoa review and the Delivering Together agenda. Those strategic challenges have not gone away. We need to continue to tackle issues such as the impact of an ageing population, increasing demand, long and growing waiting lists, workforce pressures, the emergence of new and expensive treatments and ongoing budget constraints.
The terrible events that have occurred in recent months, such as the loss of loved ones that has been suffered by many families, and the restrictions on our daily lives and access to employment and public services have only heightened my commitment to use the resources of my Department to better deliver health and life outcomes for all our people. My Department’s budgetary position continues to be hugely challenging. There have been significant additional funding requirements for our response to the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19. The Department has secured additional funding from the Executive to respond to COVID-19, and continues to liaise with the Department of Finance to secure the further required funding. Rebuilding health and social care services, whilst simultaneously dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, will require additional resource funding. However, let me be clear, as serious as the immediate impact of COVID-19 was, and still is, I remain equally as concerned about the detrimental impact that it has had on the delivery of a wide range of crucially important health and care activity.
Throughout the pandemic, HSC has continued to provide high priority and urgent services such as emergency care and many cancer treatments. However, despite that, a terrible consequence of this pandemic is that, for some people, conditions will have gone undetected or untreated for longer than they otherwise would have been. Many of us in the House have bitter experience from friends, families and colleagues of what a cruel disease cancer is and how it thrives in a vacuum. No one is more concerned about the impact of delays than our exceptional cancer clinicians themselves, and that is why we all want to see as many of the full services resumed as quickly as possible.
I am acutely aware that COVID-19 is not the only thing seriously impacting on the health of the local population. For some time, I have also been extremely concerned about the reduced numbers of people presenting to primary or secondary care with serious symptoms. COVID-19 has changed all our lives, but it has not stopped people experiencing chest pains or other unexplained signs. That is why my Department, along with the trusts, individual hospitals, GP practices and staff groups, has consistently urged people not to put off a medical intervention for whatever they suspect that they may require it. I absolutely want to send out that message again today. I am also worried about the impact of the pandemic and the lockdown on mental health, especially for the most vulnerable citizens in our society. That is what makes our recently published 'Mental Health Action Plan' even more important.
We have now reached the position where we must remain vigilant and plan for further outbreaks of the virus while starting the work to rebuild the delivery of health and social care services. I will now highlight key aspects of the strategic framework for rebuilding services that I am publishing today. I will cover the impact assessment that my Department has completed, highlight some of the innovations that have emerged in recent months and set out my strategic approach to rebuilding health and social care services as soon as possible. Finally, I will update the House on a new governance approach, to provide the direction and oversight that is needed to deliver all of this at pace.
As the pandemic took hold, it was necessary to protect all the highest priority health and social care services and create the capacity to treat COVID-19 patients. This meant that, as resources were re-directed, some health and social care services had to, unfortunately and unavoidably, be curtailed. Whilst that was the right thing to do, the consequence was that some health and social care services were adversely impacted. Most adult screening programmes were paused from the second week of March. This was needed to ensure not only that adequate healthcare and laboratory resources could be redirected to the pandemic response but to reduce the risk of infection by ensuring appropriate social distancing to safeguard patients. However, it is also important to note that some screening services have continued. These include higher-risk breast screening, diabetic eye screening for pregnant women, newborn blood spot screening, newborn hearing screening, antenatal infection screening in pregnancy and smear tests for non-routine cervical screening. Breast assessment and colposcopy follow-up clinics also continue to be held, where possible.
Elective care activity also had to be reduced during the pandemic, as medical staff were redeployed to treat COVID-19 patients.
As I have said, those waiting lists were unacceptable before COVID-19 and are even more horrendous now. For instance, outpatient activity is down by between 40% and 55%, and inpatient activity by between 34% and 67%, both compared with the similar period last year.
COVID-19 continues to have a significant impact on adult social care, which remains in the surge period of the pandemic. The impact on social care is evident in the presence of COVID-19 among care home residents and staff. A recent survey of providers indicates that 19% of those who responded were caring for residents who had tested positive. A slightly higher proportion — 23% of providers — had employees who had tested positive.
As I have highlighted, I am concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on mental health. Early anecdotal evidence suggests that there are a large number of mental health presentations previously not known to mental health services. Those may well be linked with the effects of a reduction of face-to-face contacts and stress related to the pandemic.
Important projects and programmes being delivered across the Department have also been affected. For example, only two of my Department’s 'New Decade, New Approach' priorities are now on target for delivery. Work on the other commitments will continue but, unfortunately, will be behind schedule.
Emerging research indicates that population health is, on balance, likely to be negatively affected by the wider impacts of COVID-19. Perhaps the greatest concern is that the most disadvantaged in our society are likely to be worst affected. We need to carefully monitor the impacts on population health and consider ways in which we can address them, especially for our most vulnerable citizens.
Clearly, COVID-19 has impacted extensively across all Health and Social Care services, projects and programmes. There is much more detail on these impacts in the strategic framework and, in particular, in the appendices published alongside it.
I leave the impact assessment and turn to the important issue of service innovations. I recognise that it may be difficult to find any positives in the situation that we find ourselves in, but we must recognise that the emergency response across primary, community and secondary care services has involved innovative service delivery approaches. Our health and social care providers have adopted the use of technology like never before. Virtual clinics and telephone triage are now widely embedded in primary and secondary care services. We cannot go back to the way we delivered services before COVID-19. There is now an opportunity to mainstream the recent innovations as normal services are resumed. I am determined that we take that opportunity. We also need to factor into our plans the ongoing Encompass programme, which is designed to facilitate greater digitalisation of our services. Of course, we must recognise that the use of technology will not be appropriate in all circumstances, and we must continue to offer face-to-face services where it makes sense for patients and staff alike.
We must also not forget the extensive transformation programme that had gathered pace prior to the pandemic. It will also inform the rebuilding of health and social care services. Our primary and secondary care providers have also stepped up to collaborate in ways not previously seen. That is best exemplified in the 11 COVID-19 centres established as a response to the crisis. We must now build on those experiences to further encourage that collaboration. I confirm to the House that innovation, transformation and collaboration will be at the very heart of my approach to rebuilding health and social care services. My plans for rebuilding health and social care will be integral to the overall strategic approach to recovery that the Executive will take forward. I will work closely with my Executive colleagues to ensure that the societal, economic and health and well-being impacts of the pandemic are addressed across government to ensure that the interests of all our citizens are secured.
I turn to the strategic approach that we will adopt to rebuild health and social care services as soon as possible. It will involve the development of service incremental plans in three-month cycles. I do not consider it feasible to plan beyond that three-month horizon, given the high degree of uncertainty that we face about potential further surges of the virus. Of course, this will be kept under review, and I will adopt a flexible approach to the rebuilding effort.
Service providers, including our health and social care trusts, will therefore be required to develop successive three-month service plans. The plans will detail how they will increase capacity to resume normal service provision as quickly as possible. It is critical that the plans be developed in a systematic and consistent way. We will therefore involve the wide range of existing managerial clinical networks, project boards, task and finish groups and any other suitable vehicles in the development of service-specific plans for their respective areas. That will ensure an integrated and coordinated regional approach.
I recognise the importance of engaging with civic society and stakeholders on the rebuilding of HSC services. My Department will therefore use its existing consultative structure to ensure that we take account of external stakeholders' views. A key aspect of that work will be a review of existing patient pathways in the light of the constraints and issues that COVID-19 presents. The first three-month plans will cover July, August and September. Further plans will be developed thereafter in three-month steps. I will ask trusts and other service providers to develop the incremental plans through taking account of the constraints imposed by COVID-19; recent service innovations; opportunities associated with the transformation programme; and digital innovation, such as the Encompass programme. The incremental service improvement plans will identify further funding requirements that I will bring to the Executive in the weeks and months ahead.
I recognise that it will take time to develop the first three-month plans and that immediate action is essential. Our trusts have therefore developed initial service delivery plans for the month of June. The plans will be published today by the trusts, and I urge Members to review them to see the specific services that are being recommenced in their area.
The trusts have made a number of key commitments that I very much welcome. They include the ongoing emphasis on high-priority cancer services and other urgent conditions. In addition, during June, trusts are increasing scheduled day-care cases and diagnostics, including endos— I will give that one a miss
; apologies. They will be doing that or determining the extent to which that will be possible in the near future. The individual trust plans, also published today, provide more detail on the immediate actions that they are taking.
I reassure Members that I have long made it known to my officials that, where services across the trusts could be turned on before then, I want to see them turned on. This is not the time to be getting caught up in process, especially as I remain acutely conscious that every day that our health service is not operating at full capacity, the longer and the harder it will be to repair the damage that has been and still is being done.
My overarching approach to rebuilding services as quickly as possible involves a strategic, regional approach. My immediate priority is to support services where further delay would seriously risk conditions worsening for patients. We need to deliver at pace, and I will now say more about how I intend to do that.
The scale of the challenge confronting the health and social care system is daunting. We need to maximise service activity in the context of managing the ongoing COVID-19 situation. At the same time, we need to embed innovation and transformation; incorporate the Encompass digital programme; prioritise services; develop contingencies; and plan for the future. Given the complexity and scale of those challenges, it is more important than ever that our health and social care system be given clear direction and that decisions be taken quickly in a fluid and changing environment. To facilitate that, I have established a new management board for rebuilding HSC services. It will give clear direction to the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB), the Public Health Agency (PHA), the health and social care trusts and the Business Services Organisation (BSO). The management board will consist of senior departmental officials, trust chief executives and senior officials from other key arm's-length bodies. It will be advised by a group of expert advisers who will be invited to provide input and advice to inform management board deliberations as and when required. I envisage that that arrangement will facilitate input from and engagement with a significant range of key stakeholders. The new governance arrangements will be facilitated through changes to the existing framework document, which sets out the roles and responsibilities of all Health and Social Care bodies. The revised governance arrangements will be reviewed on a six-monthly basis, but my intention is to have them in place for at least two years. The rebuilding of services will not happen overnight and will require a response that is both agile and adaptable to ensure that the system can respond to further potential COVID-19 surges.
As I have said before, my priority is to ensure that the services provided by Health and Social Care are safe and effective. I have no doubt that some will have wanted to see more outcomes and targets in the framework: that will be fully addressed in the three-monthly rebuilding plans that my Department will publish from July onwards. Above all, we will need to increase the available capacity in health and social care services to address the backlogs that have increased since the start of the emergency. That will require new recurrent investment alongside ensuring that the innovation that has emerged during the emergency finds its way into policy making. Above all, I want to see an acceptance and a willingness across the system to entertain new ideas and to accept change in the delivery of health and social care services.
I am in no doubt that we are confronted with a huge challenge. We must, as a system, try to rebuild services as quickly as possible; manage the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; embed innovation and transformation; and plan for the future — all at the same time. Above all, my wish is no different from that of Members in the Chamber and from that of the wider community: that, through good government, sound financial investment and partnership working, we will rebuild our health and social care services. I commit all the various parts of Health and Social Care to that task. I will bring to bear all the leadership and encouragement that I can offer, as we move through what will be a period of considerable testing and change for Health and Social Care. I commend the 'Rebuilding Health and Social Care Services' strategic framework to the House.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I thank the Minister for his statement. I remind Members that this is not a meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee, so I have no flexibility. Under Standing Orders, we have an hour, and, once the hour is up, the hour is up.
Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber to make this important statement. I wish to acknowledge every one of those 537 individual tragedies, as well as the huge amount of work that has been done across the Department in the response.
I welcome the part of the Minister's statement indicating that the approach will be one of innovation, transformation and, most importantly, collaboration. Given that the Minister has established a new management board for rebuilding health and social care services that will give clear direction to the Health and Social Care Board, the PHA and the trusts, will he chair the management board to ensure that rebuilding is a priority? How often will the board meet formally?
Mr Swann: The management board will be chaired by the permanent secretary. I can and will be in attendance as often as possible to make sure that it meets as frequently as is necessary in the beginning. A similar structure, although not a formal one, got us into place during the surge plans. It allowed a flexible approach, with the Department working with HSC, BSO and the trusts to enable us to look at a regional approach to COVID-19. As the Chairperson will be fully aware from the briefings that we have given him, as we were able to move, through various steps, to a COVID-19 surge plan — depending on how serious the surge was — this facility will take us back to establishing a functioning Health and Social Care service across Northern Ireland at a regional level.
On the consultation and the collaborative response, the document refers to — the Member will see it now that it is published — staff involvement, new ways of working and working along the lines of co-production to make sure that it is not solely the management board giving direction but that consideration is given to, and there is consultation with, all stakeholders and users as we take this forward. However, the first stage, what we are doing in June, is a quick reflex to make sure that we can get as many services up and running again as possible.
Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for his statement to the House. We are all aware, Minister, that, in the face of COVID-19, health services have been launched into even deeper crisis than they were in before. I note from the 'Rebuilding Health and Social Care Services Strategic Framework' that the New Decade, New Approach priorities are in disarray, with just two of the items showing with green lights for delivery; those are the 'Mental Health Action Plan' and the extra 900 nursing and midwifery undergraduate places over three years. Minister, when will we see healthcare that looks remotely like normal and where the urgent physical healthcare needs are being met?
Mr Swann: I thank the Deputy Chair for her point. On page 15 of the document, we have laid out all our New Decade, New Approach targets. She is right that there are only two that are green at this minute in time: our 'Mental Health Action Plan', which we published a couple of weeks ago, and the extra 900 nursing and midwifery undergraduate places. I want to put on record my thanks to all the nursing students, medical students and dental students who came forward to answer the call to support our health and social care services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Member asks when we will see health and social care services return to normal. I do not want to put a timeline on that. That is why we were looking at the three-month incremental steps. We cannot go back to the service that we left in January, because our waiting lists were getting longer and our nurses were on strike because of pay conditions and safe staffing conditions. It is about using the opportunity that we have in these three-monthly review steps to make sure that we have a health and social care system that supports the patients who need urgent care and routine care but also ensures that staff across our entire health and social care system are safe, confident and supported in the job that they do in supporting the people who need their help and care. So, while I am disappointed that we are not far advanced on our New Decade, New Approach targets, I hope that the Member and the House accept that, due to the exceptional circumstances that we are in, those targets were unachievable. However, they are still targets that are in New Decade, New Approach, so they are targets for the entire Executive. These are the ones that are specific to Health, and that is why we have detailed them in this document.
Mr McGrath: I begin by apologising to the Member for North Antrim, whom I walked in front of when he was making his point of order. When I entered the room, I did not see that he was doing that.
I welcome the Minister's reference to providing:
"high priority and urgent services such as emergency care and ... cancer treatments."
Only one emergency department in the whole of England, Scotland and Wales was closed as part of COVID yet we had three closed here, two of which are in and serve the constituency of South Down. Do you agree with me that reopening these services will help to get us back to normality, increasing and enhancing patient flow and enabling people to go to emergency departments and not clog up the other centres? If finance is an issue, would he consider scrapping the COVID centres, which the GP sector absolutely laments as a waste of time and money. Some of those centres see only three patients a day, yet they have cost hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds to maintain.
Mr Swann: I will start with the Member's second point on the COVID centres. I am aware of a small number of GPs who refer to them like that. The majority of GPs representative bodies that I talk to — and I have talked to a lot of them — see the benefits and positives of the COVID centres because they have taken COVID-postive patients out of normal practices. As we take our incremental and then further steps out of the lockdown in society, there is a risk, which the Executive and the Department of Health accept, that we could see an increase in COVID. That is where those COVID centres will come into their own again. They have served the people of Northern Ireland well. They have served health service provision well and have seen collaborative working across primary and secondary care that was previously unseen at such a level in Northern Ireland. I do not accept the Member's criticism of COVID-19 centres. I have seen some GPs who are of that mind, but the majority whom I talk to definitely have seen the benefit. It about looking at how we use them now and prioritising and further utilising what they could deliver.
The Member will see, when the trusts present their individual recovery plans, that there is reference to a number of emergency departments and when they may come back online. I do not see them coming back in this first stage in the month of June, but, further down the line in the three-month steps, they may be there, and that is as the trusts develop where they see the need and utilisation.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call the next Member, I gently remind Members that they may ask more than one question but the Minister is obliged to answer only one, and he gets to pick and choose. Let us try to keep it a bit more focused.
Mr Chambers: I thank the Minister for his statement and for his continuing work and that of his team to protect the public of Northern Ireland, which to date has been with their cooperation. I welcome the Minister's commitment in his statement to rebuilding our health services. Is the Minister confident that the Finance Minister will make available the funds to deliver his rebuilding plans?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. We have received financial support over the last number of months as and when we have needed it to respond to COVID-19. We have been fortunate that the Barnett consequentials that have come from Westminster have allowed us to do much of that work. In regards to the funding for the next steps and the transformation, New Decade, New Approach changes, the challenges to elective care and the support for our nurses' pay banding that resolved the strike issues were all Executive commitments. It is the commitment of the Executive and not just that of the Finance Minister that we will have to rely on to make sure that our health and social care system is funded to deliver for the entirety of Northern Ireland.
Ms Bradshaw: I thank the Minister for giving his statement today. My question is also about the COVID-19 centres. I have been contacted by GPs who also see low numbers coming through and are very keen to get back to their own surgeries to deal with the patient backlog. Given the large number of vacancies in the GP workforce, how does he plan to man those in the short to medium term as outlined in the strategic framework?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. We are reviewing current workforce provision in those centres, and it will be on an on-call basis going forward. As we still try to manage and prepare for a second surge, should it come, the COVID-19 centres have proved to be critical in our response. When we developed them, they were copied in other parts of the United Kingdom, as they saw them as a way of primary and secondary care working together to tackle COVID-19 and to keep it out of our normal GP surgeries. Part of the greatest concern that a lot of GPs had came from the fact that, if we were mixing COVID-positive and COVID-negative patients when they presented at GP surgeries, there was an opportunity for cross infection. The COVID-19 centres give an easier route for diagnosis, treatment and onward referral to hospital, if necessary. The COVID-19 centres prove useful at this time. As we start to step out of our challenge with and fight against COVID-19, and we move in our next monthly and three-monthly stages, we will look at how we can maybe utilise the centres in different ways, as well as making sure that the capacity and facility is still there to tackle any future surge.
Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome what he has said. In his statement, the Minister mentions looking for increased funding. Does he have any idea or a rough idea of how much funding will be needed? Can he give a guarantee that, as we ramp up outpatient appointments and operations, patients will be treated safely to ensure that they do not catch COVID-19?
Mr Swann: I will go to the Member's second question first with regard to how we make sure that those patients approaching normal service provision, should it be operations or diagnoses, are kept safe — and that the staff are kept safe as well. I know about the Member's sister, whom he has mentioned at the Health Committee, and wish her a speedy recovery. We need to make sure that we have a health service that can provide support to COVID and non-COVID patients, so we may look at changing the utilisation of some facilities. There may be COVID-positive centres only treating COVID patients or COVID-neutral centres where patients who do not have COVID are treated. We have to look at how we use the physical space, but also how we support the staff. We will see a complete change in how PPE is used across our healthcare sector in the months and even years ahead.
With regard to the Member's specific financial question, I think that there is a paper coming to the Health Committee in the next week or so that will detail that. I do not have it in front of me, but the Member, as a member of the Health Committee, will receive that briefing.
Mr Sheehan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis. I thank the Minister for his statement. I appreciate the difficulties that he is going to have in reestablishing normal services in our health system. I also acknowledge that he describes this as a "quick reflex". However, given that the membership of the management board is going to be made up almost exclusively of senior DOH managers and other senior managers within the health and social care system, with no involvement from trade union representative groups or patient bodies, does the Minister not think that he has missed an opportunity here? He mentioned partnership working and collaboration in his statement, but the essence of transformation is about co-design and co-production. Does he not consider that he has missed an opportunity here to involve everyone in rebuilding the health service and getting back to normal?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his point, which is well made. The quick reflex is something that we have to do immediately with regard to the surge plans. As we stepped services down and concentrated them in a number of areas, it was about how quickly we could get back to normality. When the Member gets a chance to refer to the document itself, he will find on page 27:
"Communication with Patients ... Staff Involvement ... Ensure you have a consistent approach to meaningful involvement of staff in developing solutions and in decisions which affect their working lives",
so it is about consultation. In addition, as each trust chief executive comes to that board, they will bring the input from their board members and stakeholders. There are a number of references throughout the document to the new ways of working, and that is to ensure that the principles of co-production are embedded in rebuilding HSC services going forward. Co-production is also referred to at paragraph 5.7, so it is actually embedded in the document.
On the management board itself, we do not have that representation. Previously within the Department, we had three structures. The transformation improvement group (TIG) was similar to the body that we have here, the transformation advisory board (TAB) included the stakeholders and union membership that the Member referred to and the ministerial advisory group (MAG) was a cross-cutting section of the same organisations that met directly with the Minister. That structure had been established by Minister O'Neill. One of the things that I did before COVID was to look at how we could join MAG and TAB into one organisation so that we had those stakeholders talking to and engaging with me directly, rather than sitting on a specific board. The direction towards co-production and engagement is there, although those bodies may not be represented on the management board.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister for his statement and for the strategic framework. The Minister has rightly outlined the severe impact that COVID-19 has had on a range of cancer services across the system in Northern Ireland, and this news today will come as some relief to some of those cancer patients. Potentially, we can move towards regularisation of the services provided.
Does he agree that we must adopt the same will and determination as we applied to COVID in the fight against cancer in Northern Ireland?
The Minister mentioned mental health: is there any update on the appointment of a mental health champion, as that will, hopefully, help many of those who are potentially suffering adverse mental health on the back of COVID-19?
Mr Swann: Cancer is a scourge across this society that, I would say, has affected everyone in the House, whether through family, friends or colleagues. Again, when the Member gets the opportunity to refer to the full document, he will see that the first thing that we talk about in the action list, in annex A, is cancer care. We lay out strategic and specific directions on what cancer care pathways used to look like, how we are adopting the innovation that we have seen over the past eight weeks and what the new pathways to accessing service look like now.
I will say this to Members, and, as a constituency MLA and public representative, I know that this is something that will be hard for many to take: while we go through the next steps in the next number of months, we may ask people to go outside their normal route to service or treatment. I would rather look at how we tackle waiting lists and how we stop measuring them in months or years but in weeks and days or even miles. Individuals may have to travel that bit further to gain a specialist service while we reconfigure the Department of Health so that we get people treated more quickly across Northern Ireland on a regional basis, rather than solely at their local hospital.
One of the discrepancies that we saw in the past was a postcode approach, where how quickly an individual might be seen and treated depended on which trust area they lived in. In the next months, we will look at a regional approach to getting on top of our waiting lists and starting to tackle those who have been seriously adversely impacted on in the past number of weeks.
Ms Flynn: I thank the Minister for his statement, particularly his comments that transformation will be at the heart of the approach to rebuilding health and social care services. We know that health transformation, when properly funded and based on partnership working with service users and all those in health and social care, is essential to building the future of our health and social care system. How will the Minister work with the transformation advisory board to progress the transformation? I am not sure from his response to Pat whether the new management board will supersede or replace the transformation advisory board.
Mr Swann: I apologise for the confusion. There is the ministerial advisory group, which is akin to the new management board and always was. The transformation advisory board (TAB) was there in the past, along with the ministerial advisory group. Therefore, there were two organisations that were made up of largely the same stakeholders doing roughly the same job. As I said to Pat, before COVID-19, I started work to bring those two groups together because they involved our trade union colleagues as well as service users. I wanted to bring them into one body that could advise me, as Minister, on how the outworkings of the recommendations that came from the management advisory group were working and changing the direction and what health service provision looks like. It is making sure that they are there to consult me, rather than being part of the board.
Mr Catney: I thank the Minister and his team for producing the strategy, and I completely agree with him that we have to address the wider impact of COVID-19 across the service. The strategy makes startling reading about the dire situation that the service is in. However, one thing that is clear is that there is no chance of progress and recovery without the hard work, adaptability and ingenuity of health service staff.
Minister, I welcome the establishment of the management board. My only concern is that it seems similar to existing groups such as the transformation implementation group and the transformation advisory board. Does the Minister agree that it is crucial that the board is outcomes-focused and that front-line staff who deliver care on the ground are fully engaged in its work?
Mr Swann: I refer the Member to my previous two answers. The management group looks like TIG — I cannot remember what it was called; it was the management board, anyway. TAB was the transformation advisory board, which was the stakeholders. This is about strategic direction and about management and direction of travel, so it is right that it comprises senior members of the Department along with BSO, the Health and Social Care Board and the trusts. The recommendation and the document put that into a more formalised structure rather than just an advisory structure to me as Minister.
Mr Nesbitt: Mental health and well-being has traditionally been regarded as a Cinderella service that is in need of massive investment. The Minister has made it clear today that COVID-19 will make a serious situation much, much worse. Is he confident that his Executive colleagues are aware of the scale of the investment that is necessary to tackle that and that they will make that support and resource available to him?
Mr Swann: I assure the Member that my Executive colleagues are aware of that, because I have made them aware of it. I have bids in with the Department of Finance for the future funding of the service. However, we are also aware that Westminster may be moving to support the mental health outcomes and support mechanisms of their health service and, hopefully, Barnett consequentials will come to Northern Ireland from that Westminster spend. My job as Minister of Health will be to make sure that those moneys are ring-fenced and used to support the mental health provision that has been so in need of central support in the past. The new Executive that came in on 11 January recognised that as a key priority in tackling mental health in Northern Ireland.
I apologise: I have just realised that I did not answer the question about the appointment of the mental health champion. The formal process for that appointment is well under way, and we hope to announce not just the process but possibly an interim mental health champion until the formal consultation on the appointment takes place.
Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for his statement. It is welcome that we now have a bit of a road map ahead of us for the restoration of services. I pay tribute to the pathfinder group in my constituency, which has done excellent work over the last three years to ensure the retention of the emergency department at Daisy Hill Hospital. The work of that group is a model that could be used in lots of other areas.
On that note, how will the Minister decide what services will reopen first? Will he ensure that we avoid a postcode lottery and that services in centralised sites will not be opened first on that basis to the detriment of other hospitals such as Daisy Hill? I have been engaging with the chief executive of the Southern Trust on that matter and was pleased to see its plan this morning as well. The reopening of the emergency department is, obviously, not part of that for this first phase, so I am keen to hear more about that.
Mr Swann: The Member has described the statement as a road map, and I have no doubts that there will be bumps in the road. As we look to open up services again, the work that has been done by each of the six trusts to bring forward their initial plans for June has been highly strategic. They are looking at what service provision they can restart as soon as possible without getting caught up in process or implementation. We need to get back to a place where we provide healthcare for the majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
As I said in an earlier answer, Members may see some of our healthcare being delivered differently, because we asked people to look at a regionalised and a Northern Ireland-wide service rather than simply going to their local one. If we start to look at that regionalised service, we will also start to look at regionalised waiting lists so that they are the same across the region. People on waiting lists will be triaged according to medical and surgical need, and that will be done by the professionals who have always delivered that service to make sure that those who are most in need are at the top of the regional waiting lists. That will, hopefully, deliberately remove the postcode lottery that we have seen, unfortunately, in some instances in the past.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for the statement, particularly the section on general dentistry, opticians and allied health professionals. I have been contacted by many people in that industry, and the role that they have and the services that they provide are invaluable. I know that as a runner, given the number of injuries that I have managed to incur that have made me revert to using physios.
One thing that they are really looking for is guidance on how to operate and on financial assistance going forward because of the public health requirements that will be put in place. What consideration will be given to giving that financial assistance so that those services can continue to be delivered for our community?
Mr Swann: I know that we have, as a Department, put financial support into dentistry provision to keep dentists operating during this difficult time. To get their services back, we have established recovery groups that comprise representatives from the Health and Social Care Board, the representative trade body and my officials, who are examining how non-urgent services can be resumed as well as developing operational guidance. Those groups are expected to report again in the coming weeks, and that will inform the decision on when routine dental care can start to return.
In the context of the recent announcements on the return to dentistry services in the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, the Chief Dental Officer has published outline plans for the return of dental services in Northern Ireland. The Minister for the Economy was looking at the financial support for the other allied health professionals rather than it being done through the Department of Health. Some of those service providers operate as individual businesses rather than providers for the Department, but support and guidance are available.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for his statement. The Minister and Members have spoken of the impact of the pandemic and the lockdown on people's mental health. It is fair enough to presume that there will be an ongoing increase in the need for support and services. The pandemic is also having a devastating impact on community mental health services, particularly community and voluntary organisations and charities, which have yet to receive any financial assistance. With demand increasing and important preventative and early intervention projects being severely depleted, it is also fair to assume that more people, sadly and inevitably, will reach crisis point. With that in mind, does the Minister concur that it would be extremely short-sighted — in fact, it would be scandalous — should the Executive choose not to fund the Community Crisis Intervention Service in my constituency?
Mr Swann: The Member has written to me and texted me. He has been in regular contact about the service that he talks about. I have asked my officials to look at it in regard to how we support the mental health action plan and the Protect Life 2 funding to see what opportunities there are. I know that the additional provision that has come from the council is also being challenged because of the financial situation it finds itself in.
The Member will be fully aware that the Minister for Communities has a support mechanism and funding for charities. I will check with her to see where that support is and how it is being given to the charities that need it at this minute in time.
Mr Beggs: I, too, thank the Minister his statement and put on record my appreciation of Health and Social Care and, indeed, the voluntary care staff and the volunteers who have assisted over the recent period.
In his statement, the Minister referred to the need to mainstream innovation that had been learnt recently, and he referred to the Encompass programme. Can the Minister give examples of recent innovation that can lead to improvements in healthcare for the wider community?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his point. Encompass is a digitalisation programme that was in place before COVID, but what we have seen in the past period, as we have dealt with COVID, is the utilisation of digitalisation and online and telephone triage that has worked and has been supportive, always bearing it in mind that there is a point in time where face-to-face consultation is the best way forward. It is those innovations that we have seen on telemedicine stuff, which had been talked about and supported in the past but had never been developed or adopted, and we are now seeing those advances being part of common practice. It is about how we embed that innovation into our day-to-day delivery and do not take a step back into those gains that have been lost. It is also support that we have seen between our GP practices and community pharmacies. We have seen far better collaboration between them.
It is about the general breaking down of what were perceived in the past as silo mentalities, which were not silo mentalities but were simply ways of working that had developed over time. We have seen those broken down and that mentality cracked over the past weeks. It is about how we take forward that work to make sure that all the good developments, all the relationships that have been built and all the working practices that have been developed and are working well are now embedded in the service.
Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for his statement and for his role in endeavouring to navigate these uncharted COVID-19 waters. I note that this morning Members from my constituency received by email a copy of the Southern Trust's rebuilding plan. The plan sets out phase 1, which runs to 30 June, and phase 2, which runs to 30 September. Minister, given the potential hidden consequences of the fear that people have of attending the health service during this pandemic, would you apply whatever pressure you can to ensure that the reopening of the Daisy Hill emergency department occurs as early as possible in phase 2 of the plan.
Mr Swann: As the Member said, he has already had the opportunity to read the entirety of the trust's plan. The trust is bringing forward those staged recommendations and, as I said in my statement, our first stage will be what we do in June and that is stage 1. We will then look at a three-month increment. It is always cognisant of where the service delivery is, but it is also cognisant of how we support our staff. Members must always be mindful that when we talk about service delivery and things going back to normal we are asking people who have put themselves through physical hell — excuse my language, Principal Deputy Speaker — over the past weeks.
At one point in January, they were standing on picket lines about their pay, conditions and safe working standards. They then stepped up to an intensity and a delivery of service that no one in this House could ever have imagined at that time. Each of those healthcare professionals, no matter where they are, or where they were, on the spectrum of delivery, delivered a service that has seen us record zero deaths for the past two days. That is because of what those people delivered.
When we talk about simply returning services, yes we want to get back to providing as many services as quickly as possible, but we must also be mindful that the people we are asking to get back into those places do need a wee bit of space to recuperate and recharge their batteries. We are just coming out of what was a terrible pandemic and I hope that we continue to take the trajectory that we have over the last few days.
Miss Woods: I thank the Minister for his statement on the rebuilding, reopening and transformation of the health and social care services. I welcome and echo his call that, if people suspect that they require medical intervention for whatever reason, they seek it. I am sure that most Members have had that matter raised by constituents. How will the Minister, alongside the trusts and as part of the rebuilding strategy, ensure that women have access to contraceptive services and early medical abortion services when required?
Mr Swann: I am aware that that provision was debated in the Chamber, I think last week or the week before. With regard to the delivery of abortion, that is a provision that this House should debate and decide on how it is delivered in Northern Ireland; it is not something that should be imposed on us by Westminster. At this minute in time, such provision has not been commissioned by my Department, but I am aware that it is being delivered by some trusts.
Mr Allister: As the Minister moves our service from the national COVID service back to the National Health Service, I express disappointment that in the Northern Trust's phase 1 there is no return of the maternity services to the Causeway Hospital. Will the Minister give us an indication when that will happen, and that it is not a service that has been stripped out, never to return?
In terms of the framework going forward, is there not a danger with new advisory boards, new management boards, three-monthly service plans, expert advisers to this and that, and has it not got the feel of a bureaucracy bonanza? Is there a danger that the whole thing could get caught up in ever-strangling red tape?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his questions and I am glad that I am not able to shield from them as he accused other Members and Ministers of doing earlier.
In regard to the bureaucracy that he referred to, this actually moves away from some of that and the ability of some boards and structures to hide behind bureaucracy and decision-making. The management board is comprised of senior executives in trusts and senior departmental officials answering to me as Minister. Our health service is not going to get caught up in bureaucracy or strangulation. I will be back in this House, and the Member is free to challenge at any time if he sees that as a direction that this structure is going in.
The three-monthly review allows us to make sure that we step back from, as he referred to it, the national COVID health service — because that is what we became for a number of weeks while we challenged the pandemic — to where we should be in the delivery of the services that we were delivering, always mindful that there may come a time when we need to step back into that COVID support.
The return of maternity services to the Causeway Hospital is within the Northern Health and Social Care Trust's stepped approach. They do not see that returning in June in the first phase of the plan, but I have seen correspondence that said that it is something they are planning. I have been assured that the service will return, but there is no timetable for that at the minute. From a constituency point of view, I know that the Member has championed and argued for that service to return to the Causeway Hospital so that it can deliver for the people of East Londonderry and North Antrim.
Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for his statement. The Minister mentioned mental health. There is a lot of concern about the likely increase in mental health problems after this pandemic, and in people presenting with those problems. That needs to be reflected in spending and the allocation of budgets by the Department.
Given the much-welcomed support, praise and clapping for NHS staff, including carers, what assurances can the Minister give that any transformation will not mean the whittling down or privatisation of existing health services? Can he assure us that there will not be a shock-doctrine approach to the NHS?
Mr Swann: I can answer the Member in one word: yes. I can give you that assurance. This is not about the privatisation of the health service.
One of the greatest things that has supported Northern Ireland through the COVID-19 pandemic is the fact that we have a National Health Service. We have a health service that is free at the point of use and free at the point of delivery, and I am proud of that. When we went out on a Thursday night and clapped, it was for the entirety of that National Health Service.
I utilised provision and support from the private sector in past weeks to make sure that we had capacity. If we now need to utilise that provision to get on top of and tackle some of our waiting lists, I will use it. I will give a commitment to the Member that I see no opportunity and will take no opportunity while I am Minister for further privatisation or any privatisation of our National Health Service.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Thank you, Minister. Because Members were concise, we have about 20 minutes left, so if any Member wants to ask an additional question of the Minister, if they rise in their place or catch my eye, I will call them.
Mr Gildernew: What plans are in place so that we rebuild in a way that addresses and tackles existing health inequalities?
Mr Swann: Again, I thank the Chair for his question. Taking a regional approach, managed by that board, should and will tackle discrepancies that we have seen in the past. I referred, maybe inadvertently, to the silo mentality. That is not a criticism of any of our trusts and the way that they have operated. It is just because of their day-to-day operations and the restrictions they have working in a geographical area that that is the way their service has been focussed. It is how we now utilise cross-region working and cross-sector working, should it be primary, secondary or community, to ensure that we all come together with the same focus: health delivery for the people of Northern Ireland.
Mr Buckley: Minister, one of the key, fundamental issues that we saw in the health service before COVID-19 was the abuse of A&E. Has the Minister given any consideration to that? Can we learn anything from COVID that will prevent the future abuse of A&E services across Northern Ireland? Such abuse puts a strain on the health workers whom we have rightly championed throughout this crisis.
Mr Swann: The Member is right to highlight that. When I came into post on 11 January, which seems a long, long time ago, two of the biggest factors that we were tackling were waiting lists and the time spent in emergency departments by people who were utilising them but did not need to be there. It was not that they were abusing the system, but there was better provision elsewhere within the health service from which they should have sought help. MDTs that can provide physiotherapy support and mental health support have been established. Maybe we can look at a different utilisation of the COVID centres currently used for those who are COVID positive. There might be an opportunity to ease the work of emergency departments.
A major piece of work to review emergency departments has already commenced in the Department and should come to fruition in the next number of weeks. It looks at how we could do things differently. One of the things that the review involved was the utilisation of telemedicine and telephone triaging, which are now well established in our health service and can be used to take pressure off the emergency departments.
I want to highlight one issue. In the past, we stood and clapped for our health workers and commended them. However, at the start of this week, I was disgusted to see that there had been 35 attacks on our ambulance crews. While we talk about the great work that our people are doing, there are still those in society who look to abuse not only the system but our staff — the people who have put themselves on the front line and at risk, and, with the COVID situation, even, at times, put their families at risk. I want to take this opportunity to condemn those who still see our health workers as an easy target. I think that, at some point, there should be a provision whereby an attack on any health service worker reveals the full force of the law.
Mr McGrath: Thank you very much, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, for the additional questions. We are like kids being told that we have an extra 20 minutes in a sweet shop.
My question follows on from your last remarks, Minister. You talked about the reviews that will take place within the trusts. Is the Ambulance Service trust included? As the sixth trust, it is almost forgotten at times. It found that there was some easing of demand at the start of the process because people were not attending A&E in the same numbers. However, those numbers are starting to increase, and we are starting to see the ambulance corridors in hospitals backing up. You will know, being from a rural constituency, as am I, that our ambulances end up getting trapped in the cities and unable to move. Yesterday, I met the chief executive of the Ambulance Service to discuss cases. On two or three occasions, people who were in dire need had to wait for 45 minutes for an ambulance. Will that form part of this review?
Mr Swann: If the Member looks back at my comments, he will see that I talk about "our six trusts", which include the Ambulance Service trust. It is always included because it is integral. It is one of the original trusts. It works across other departments as well.
We are conscious of the pressures that the Ambulance Service has been under, not just the attacks but as we start to see the need increase. During the pandemic, we had to step down our emergency helicopter service. Fortunately, it is up and running again and providing the critical service to rural constituencies that the Member referred to. Utilising that part of the health family is vital.
The Member talked about waiting times in EDs and the ambulance corridors. At the point when we were seeing less use of the emergency departments, those were not so much of a problem. However, that utilisation is starting to increase, and that, in addition to the social distancing required in emergency departments and waiting rooms, is putting additional weight on ambulance times. We are cognisant of that and are supporting the Ambulance Service while we work through the step-out plan. When the trust plans are published — I think that they already have been — they will include one for the Ambulance Service trust.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr McGrath referred to a sweet shop: please do not gorge yourself with 13 minutes left and six Members looking to get in.
Mr Nesbitt: Earlier, a couple of Members made reference to the call by some to wrap up the COVID-19 centres on the basis that they are not the most efficient use of resources and funding. Given that the second wave of coronavirus is still a distinct possibility, will the Minister agree that the expression "Better safe than sorry" trumps all other considerations?
Mr Swann: With regard to how our planning has been progressed over the past 10 weeks, that is one of the factors that we have always taken into consideration. It is about making some of these decisions, and, although it was hard at the time, I was always looking to the worst-case scenario that we could have seen ourselves in.
With regard to the COVID-19 centre and my answers to Members earlier, my robust defence of them is the fact that we have a number of GPs and GP representative organisations who speak highly of them and see them as a critical piece of the front-line service in how we were fit to manage COVID-19 by keeping those patients out of the normal GP surgeries and the normal run of the mill.
I am in no doubt that we will see an increase in COVID-19, because, as we allow people to come back out into their normal way of life, coming out of lockdown, accessing retail, leisure facilities, tourism, hotels and all the rest of it over the next few weeks and months, there will be increase of COVID-19 cases in Northern Ireland. We will still need the facilities and the structure to support those people when they need it. I think that the COVID-19 centres have proven beneficial in doing that.
Ms Bradshaw: I would appreciate it if people did not misrepresent my question: my question was about how we were going to manage the COVID-19 centres and get our GP surgeries back up and running with an overstretched GP workforce.
My second question relates to the community pharmacy services. In the Committee for Health, we put through the regs relating to the emergency supply service, which has obviously been very beneficial. Is the time right for a longer-term routine repeat prescription service to be made available between our community pharmacists and GPs, given how effectively they have worked together during the pandemic?
Mr Swann: Pharmacies working with GPs was one of the innovations that I spoke of. In the early stages of the pandemic, staff capacity fell below 70% and in recent weeks. It has improved to 80% in our community pharmacy. The new emergency supply service that was introduced provided access to prescriptions and medicines in the event that a patient had run out of their repeat medicine and could not access their GP, so that enhanced facility was in place. It has worked well. In collaboration with community pharmacy and our chief pharmacist, we are having that conversation about how we adopt the changes that were made.
Also, the delivery service in community pharmacy was mostly supported by volunteers who came forward to deliver. At the last count, the collaboration between the Health and Social Care Board and the Community Development and Health Network led to 120 community groups registering to deliver prescriptions. By one point last week, 33,000 prescriptions had been delivered safely by volunteers. Therefore, it is not just about the repeat proscriptions; it is about how the entire community pharmacy service is provided, going forward. They were a vital link over the past number of weeks while we combated COVID-19. Again, many family-run shops and services put themselves on the front line. At the very initial point, as I referred to earlier on, they took an awful lot of abuse and criticism from frustrated people who were going into the pharmacies. They stood up to a lot, they have adapted and they are in need of additional support from the Department of Health and the Executive. However, we need to make sure that we adapt any positive working collaborations that they have with GPs and that they are embedded into future service provision.
Mrs Cameron: I will also ask about the pharmacy issue, given that pharmacy has become the front line in the pandemic and has been there and has worked incredibly hard throughout. What additional support will the Minister give to the pharmacy sector, and what conversations is he having with it on the role that it can play in transformation in the midst of the pandemic?
Mr Swann: Last week or the week before, I met the board of Community Pharmacy Northern Ireland. We had a good engagement. In recent weeks, the Department, the HSC Board and Community Pharmacy Northern Ireland has completed extensive work to agree a new commissioning plan for community pharmacy services for the rest of 2020-21. That will build on lessons learned in the pandemic to date to ensure that pharmacies continue to provide the public with access to medicines, advice and treatment for common conditions and support for health and well-being. Pharmacists and pharmacy teams in trusts have adapted their working practices and introduced innovative solutions, working in intensive care units. Clinical pharmacists and clinical technicians have joined their colleagues in critical care teams. Pharmacists have used technology to hold virtual clinics to maintain contact with and support for patients taking specialist treatments. That has been a positive engagement between the Department, the Health and Social Care Board and Community Pharmacy Northern Ireland, and I hope that it will bear fruit in the next few weeks, if not days.
Mr Sheehan: The Minister referred in his statement to experts who will assist in the rebuilding strategy. Will he identify those experts? Will he also commit not only to transparency about their identity but to the public accessibility and visibility of that advice, contrary to the approach taken by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) in London, which has been very secretive?
Mr Swann: Certainly, I will give the Member that commitment. If we bring any in, we will make sure that they are named and that their advice is published.
Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for the opportunity to ask another question. As it is Carers' Week, it is important that we pay tribute to the thousands of unpaid carers who, throughout the pandemic, have very much held court, for want of a better word, with the closure of day centres and facilities that are a major lifeline to help them through very difficult times. Can the Minister update the House on the reopening of day centres and respite services? I know that the plan is to work towards that: can we ensure that it is a top priority? Many families feel that they have been very much left to their own devices. Can he ensure that support is available to them, going forward?
Mr Swann: The Member is right: it is Carers' Week, so it is right that their commitment is acknowledged. Over the past number of weeks, they have gone over and above what was ever expected of them in the support that they have given to their family members and loved ones without the additional support of respite centres, which have always been relied on for peace of mind as places of support for their loved ones. As I said, stage 1 gets us to the end of June. Then, each trust will look at a review every three months. I will ensure that respite and day centres are as far up those priorities as practically possible, while always taking into consideration the health and well-being not only of users but of staff.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: We have four minutes left, and three Members wish to ask questions. Can we have short questions and short answers, please?
Miss Woods: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, for the additional time to ask questions. I refer to my previous question and the Minister's answer. Can the Minister ensure that, as part of the reopening and rebuilding strategy, women will have access to contraceptive services when they require them, given that those services have not been available?
Mr Swann: I refer to my previous answer: those services are available through some trusts and are being delivered at trust level, not by a central, departmentally commissioned service.
Mr Allister: Can the Minister update the House on the health service's current level of reliance on the private sector and how he sees that evolving, going forward?
Mr Swann: I refer the Member to my answer to Gerry Carroll. We are using some independent services to ensure that we keep up to date with red-flag cancer services and a number of other procedures at a day-care level. In 'New Decade, New Approach', there was a bid for £50 million per year to tackle waiting lists. Some of that money would have gone to the independent sector, because it is the only way we could have got on top of and challenged those waiting lists. It is about making sure that we use the independent sector when it is available and when it is appropriate to do so, but we also have to make sure that, if there is additional money, it is invested in our National Health Service. The independent sector should be there as a supplement, not to be completely relied on.
Mr Givan: Can the Minister advise when, in restarting the health service, routine surgeries and theatres will be opened up for people who are waiting on vital appointments that they still have not got? Secondly, as we reopen our economy and every other aspect, the World Health Organization has said that its advice is for social distancing at one metre. When will we move from two metres to one metre in line with the World Health Organization? That will be critical in going forward into some kind of normal semblance of society.
Mr Swann: The re-engagement of service provision is what the plan is all about, including how we open up theatres to make sure that we can get back to delivering the service and the operations that people have been waiting for. People have been getting a six-week notification for procedures that they need, but we will cut that down. As we reopen, those notification times will be shorter, so, if people get a notification of access to the provision of healthcare and operations, I ask them to move as quickly as possible.
In regard to the question about two metres versus one metre, our scientific advisory group, which feeds into the Department of Health and the Executive, still very much takes the position that two metres is the right measurement at this minute in time. Members have to be cognisant of the fact that it is two metres for 15 minutes as an engagement of a positive case. If you reduce that measurement from two metres to one metre, you have to reduce the time that people interact to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. I recently got an estimate that, if we reduce our current advice — two metres for 15 minutes — to one metre, it could be as little as three minutes' interaction. When it comes to contact tracing and finding a positive case who could have transferred COVID-19, there are larger implications than simply accessing facilities or utilisation when it comes to the physical distance of two metres or one metre. It is also about the time of the interaction: that greatly reduces at the same measurement. That has to be taken into consideration. At this minute in time, our recommendation to the Executive is still two metres.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes questions to the Minister on his statement. I thank the Minister for coming to the House and taking an hour's worth of questions. I wish him all the best as he leads our health service during this time.
Members should take their ease for a moment before we move on to the next item of business. It will allow other Ministers to get into the Chamber. Thank you.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The next item of business is a motion to approve the draft Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Compensation (Amendment 2020) Scheme (2009).
That the draft Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Compensation (Amendment 2020) Scheme (2009) be approved.
Mrs Long: The purpose of this amendment to the Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme is to enable victims of a crime of violence, who were living as members of the same household as their assailant between 1 March 1969 and 30 June 1988, to apply for criminal injuries compensation. From 1 March 1969 until 30 June 1988, both the Criminal Injuries to Persons (Compensation) Act 1968 and the Criminal Injuries (Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 excluded claims for injuries inflicted on victims who were living as members of the same household as their assailant. That bar on eligibility was changed from July 1988, so same-household victims are only eligible to claim from that date under the 2009 scheme.
On 23 November 2018, the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland delivered a judgement on a judicial review, overturning the same-household rule, stating that it was incompatible with human rights. A similar ruling in GB relating to the same-household rule was also overturned by the Court of Appeal for England and Wales. The GB compensation scheme has been amended as a result of that ruling.
There is limited information on the volume of applications that could be received by my Department as a result of removing the same-household rule from the criminal injuries scheme. However, it is estimated that around 800 applications may be eligible within the period 1969 to 1988, at an estimated 10-year cost to the Department of somewhere between £9·7 million and £18·5 million. Amending the same-household provision will address the Court of Appeal decision and bring the Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme into line with the GB scheme in relation to treatment of victims of same-household abuse.
I thank the Justice Committee for its careful consideration of the draft amendment. It is with its support that I can bring this draft amendment to the scheme before you today, and I commend the draft amendment to the House.
Mr Givan (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): I am pleased to speak on behalf of the Committee for Justice in today's debate. Victims whose injuries were inflicted from 1 March 1969 to 30 June 1988 by assailants who were members of the same household are, as the Minister outlined, excluded from making claims for criminal injuries compensation. Under the Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme 2009, victims from 1 July 1988 can submit claims, but victims from before that date remain ineligible. The Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland concluded that the same-household bar was not justified in law in November 2018, and the amendment that we are considering today will, therefore, remove the same-household rule and allow victims of such a crime between 1 March 1969 and 30 June 1988 to apply for criminal injuries compensation.
The Committee first discussed the proposed removal of the same-household rule during an oral evidence session with Department of Justice officials on 23 January. At that time, the officials advised that the period covered by the amendment would be 1968 to 1988. Following that session, the Committee requested clarification on the position of cases pre-1968 and an indication of the number of cases that may be eligible between 1968 and 1988. In response, the Department advised that an impact assessment suggested, as the Minister outlined, that 800 people may be eligible to make a claim for that period.
The Committee was also advised that there was no criminal injuries compensation scheme in Northern Ireland prior to 11 June 1968, which is when the first scheme came into force and excluded injuries that were inflicted on victims who were members of the same household as their assailant. The Department later clarified that while the Criminal Injuries to Persons (Compensation) Act 1968 was made on 11 June 1968, it was not commenced until 1 March 1969. There was, therefore, no scheme in place until that date, and it is the date from which the amendment we are considering today will apply.
The Committee considered a written briefing from the Department on the proposed amendment to the scheme at the meeting on 14 May, as well as the details of the proposed amendment. The Committee noted that a similar amendment to the relevant scheme in England and Wales passed with wide support and came into force on 13 June 2019. This amendment will, therefore, ensure that victims of same-household abuse in Northern Ireland are not treated any less favourably than those in Great Britain.
The Department's briefing paper also detailed potential cost implications of between £9·7 million and £18·5 million over a 10-year period. The Committee will monitor that expenditure as part of its ongoing scrutiny of the Department of Justice budget.
Having considered the detailed briefing paper, the Committee agreed on 14 May that it was content with the proposed amendments to the scheme. At its meeting on 4 June, the Committee considered the papers for the draft Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Compensation (Amendment 2020) Scheme (2009), which were laid by the Department of Justice on 29 May and which confirmed that there have been no changes to the policy intent since the proposals were considered by the Committee. The Committee recommended that the amended scheme be approved by the Assembly. Therefore, I support the motion on behalf of the Committee for Justice.
Ms Dillon (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): I have very little to add to what the Chair has already outlined, other than to thank the Minister for bringing this forward. It is a very positive move. It is important that those who live in the same home as their assailant are treated the same as anybody who suffers outside of that circumstance. I think that is important, particularly given the context of some of the issues that we are dealing with moving forward around coercive control behaviour, domestic violence, stalking and all those other issues. It is extremely important that we address that, and I welcome it.
Mr O'Toole: I, too, will speak very briefly on behalf of my party simply to welcome this change that has been brought forward by the Department and to thank the Justice Committee for expediting this and doing it promptly. This equalisation in the rules is completely the right thing to do in relation to same-household victims from post-1988 and also equalisation of victims here versus those in Britain. So, I very much welcome that change.
As Linda Dillon said, it is part of a broader agenda around other legislation going through the Assembly around support for victims and broader things. So, I very much welcome that change. It is an example of what we can do in fast time for real change for people with the reformed Assembly and Executive.
Mr Beattie: I thank the Minister for bringing forward the motion. This is an incredibly important motion, and I hope that we all get a chance to look in and understand it. Mental, physical and sexual abuse by somebody within one's own household is an insidious crime, and those people from 1969 to 1988 who were abused like that have been largely forgotten. I have been engaging with a young man who was sexually abused by his mother between 1976 and 1984. She was brought to court on 15 counts of sexual abuse. This is real. This is live.
We have 800 people who have registered for this scheme, but what concerns me slightly — and I know that the Minister will take action with regard to this — is that the new legislation only gives them two years to claim. So, it is incredibly important that when the legislation is enacted, we do something to reach out to those people who were abused so that they know that they can claim over the next two years, because I would not want to see, one month past that two-year point, somebody coming up and saying, "I was abused", but they are outside the window. I really hope that our communication plan is in place for that, and I think that we have time to do that. I am in no doubt whatsoever that the Minister will be on top of that.
For the individuals affected, it is not just about getting money for the criminal damage that they suffered through the abuse. It is acknowledgement and recognition that they went through it; it is that young man who went through it in the '70s and '80s — in a time when he could not go out because his area was controlled by paramilitaries — being listened to. That is what was happening over that period. We sometimes forget what it was like between 1969 and 1998. We may have 800 victims registered, but there could be more. There will be a cost, and we will have to absorb that cost, but we definitely must ensure that our communication plan is in place.
Ms Armstrong: Thank you, Minister Long. As others have said, the motion is important as it corrects an unfair retrospective exemption for criminal compensation on the basis that the victim lived in the same household as the perpetrator. On behalf of the Alliance Party, I welcome the motion and commend the Minister for righting an issue that, as she has confirmed, was completely incompatible with human rights.
Amending the same-household provision will bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK. It means that victims who were injured when they were living in the same household as the perpetrator, and who were previously excluded, can apply for compensation. I appreciate that that is limited to victims between 1969 and 1988. I note from the comments of Mr Beattie MLA that there is a two-year period within which victims will be able to claim. Will the Minister confirm whether she is working with groups in preparation for that claims process, because the last thing that any of us want — we must recognise this — is those 800 individuals being retraumatised by the process. They will need not only the criminal justice system, but the support mechanisms that are available in the community.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As no other Member has indicated a wish to speak, I call the Minister to conclude and make a winding-up speech on the motion.
Mrs Long: I thank all Members who have participated in the debate. Sometimes, the things that go through the Chamber most quickly are some of those that are most impactful on the people affected. Therefore I thank Members. Whilst they did not labour, they raised some important issues.
The draft amendment to the scheme will enable people who were victims of a crime of violence between March 1969 and June 1988 to submit an application for compensation. It will also enable those victims whose applications for compensation were refused under the same-household rule to apply. It will address the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal's decision, and it will bring the Northern Ireland compensation scheme same-household rule into line with the GB scheme.
Members have rightly said that this is a sensitive issue, particularly given that we recognise that, often, people are subject to violent, coercive and sexually exploitative behaviour within their own household. It is, therefore, hugely important that as we recognise that, we also look to see how we can compensate those victims from the past.
Doug Beattie and Kellie Armstrong asked how we will ensure that victims are made aware of their entitlement to make an application. Unfortunately, the Department does not hold Compensation Services records of all claims that were previously denied under the same-household rule. However, we are continuing to work with victims' organisations to provide information to victims that they will be able to submit a fresh application for consideration by Compensation Services. We would welcome the support of MLAs, many of whom will have been approached over the years by people who had been excluded under this rule, were seeking their support and who have lobbied for this change.
There is a time limit of two years from the date that the amendment is passed for same-household applications. However, that time limit may be waived if the Department considers that there is a good reason for the delay, and it is in the interests of justice to do so. Although there is a two-year time limit, it is flexible. We will, therefore, be able to respond if, for any reason, someone with a justifiable case comes forward later.
I hope that the draft amendment will make a difference to victims who have previously and up until now felt ignored, and I am pleased that it brings the Assembly into line with good human rights practice.
I commend the draft amendment to the scheme for approval by the Assembly. Thank you.
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Northern Ireland Criminal Injuries Compensation (Amendment 2020) Scheme (2009) be approved.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is a legislative consent motion (LCM) for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill.
That this Assembly agrees to the extension to Northern Ireland of a number of provisions within the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill relating to the creation of a new offence that prohibits the unauthorised sale or resale of games tickets.
Mrs Long: The purpose of the Bill is to provide a number of temporary operational measures required to support the delivery of the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022. A number of the provisions contained in the Bill extend only to England and Wales. However, others extend to the whole of the UK. The provisions that extend to Northern Ireland relate to the creation of a new offence that prohibits the unauthorised sale or resale of games tickets.
The Bill was originally introduced to Parliament in autumn 2019, but fell prior to the general election. It was subsequently reintroduced in January 2020. The Bill has completed its passage through the House of Lords, and is due to have its Report Stage and Third Reading in the House of Commons in the coming weeks. At the outset, I can reassure you that members of the public will legitimately be able to sell spare tickets. This legislation is aimed at those seeking to obtain financial gain. Members may recall that similar provisions were introduced for the London Olympic Games in 2012 and for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014.
A person found guilty of this offence in Northern Ireland would be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £50,000. In Northern Ireland, the fines on summary conviction, which are triable in a Magistrates' Court, do not generally exceed £5,000. In this case, the level of fine is set as a deterrent, with the intention of preventing criminal activity such as money laundering. The offence carries the same penalty in Scotland. In England and Wales, the offence will be punishable by an unlimited fine. It is not possible to have unlimited fines on summary conviction in Northern Ireland, so the fine here must be defined.
The Department considered the following points when setting the level of the fine. First, this is a UK-wide offence, and there is a need to maintain alignment between the levels of fine in Scotland and Northern Ireland and, insofar as is possible, with England and Wales. Secondly, given their interest in sport, colleagues in the Department for Communities have agreed the need for parity. Thirdly, the level of fine is commensurate with the changing nature of the online-ticketing market. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has indicated that the expected number of prosecutions under this offence will be very low.
On whether or not this could be brought via the Assembly, Members will appreciate that I am normally of the view that we should bring legislation to the House and take it through the normal procedures here. However, Members will appreciate that we are somewhat out of step with the normal processes. Generally, Executive and Justice Committee approval should have been in place prior to the Bill's being introduced in Parliament at Westminster. In this case, my Department was unable to do so as the Assembly was not sitting at that time. However, permanent secretary agreement in principle was obtained. On the return of the Assembly, officials sought my views, and I subsequently wrote to the Chair of the Justice Committee at the earliest opportunity and sought approval from Executive colleagues. Approval was obtained on 2 March.
The Justice Committee agreed to provisions extending to Northern Ireland at its meeting on 14 May and to the laying of this LCM. I believe that, given the advanced stage of the Bill and the very tight timescales involved, it would not have been practically possible to legislate locally on this matter. Westminster colleagues are keen to have the request considered as soon as possible as the timescales are somewhat challenging. I am keen, therefore, to seek legislative consent today, but I am also keen to hear the views of Members of the Assembly. I look forward to the debate that will follow. Thank you.
Mr Givan (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): I am happy to speak on behalf of the Committee for Justice. The Department of Justice wrote to the Committee in March, advising of the proposed LCM for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill. That Bill introduces a number of temporary operational measures to support the delivery of the Commonwealth Games to be held in Birmingham, between 27 July and 7 August 2022.
The Bill will enable the Secretary of State to provide financial assistance to the organising committee, and includes provisions in relation to advertising, trading, transport and ticket touting. The majority of the Bill's provisions apply to England and Wales only, though a number extend to the whole of the United Kingdom and this includes the powers to provide financial assistance and reporting obligations for the organising committee. Although consent is not required for these provisions, due to their incidental nature on matters within the Assembly's competence, consent is, however, required for the creation of a new offence, prohibiting the unauthorised sale or resale of tickets, commonly known as "ticket touting". The Bill also provides for a fine of up to £50,000 for those found guilty of this offence on summary conviction in Northern Ireland. Currently, penalties for summary offences in Northern Ireland do not generally exceed £5,000.
In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Committee agreed that the LCM would be considered as a written briefing, in the first instance, and an oral briefing could be considered at a later stage, if it were felt necessary. Papers were, therefore, issued to members on 5 May for our consideration. It was noted at the time that the Department of Justice had engaged with the Department for the Economy and the Department for Communities on the proposed LCM, given their respective roles in enforcement and sporting matters. However, while the Department of Justice confirmed that DFC did not raise any issues, no indication of DFE's views was provided to the Committee. The Committee, therefore, sought clarification of that Department's position from the Department of Justice on 7 May, and the Department of Justice responded on 12 May to advise that the Department for the Economy had confirmed, with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, that it had no difficulty with the enforcement role and had not expressed any concerns with the proposed offences and penalties. The Committee was also advised that neither the Minister for the Economy nor the Minister for Communities had raised any concerns with the proposed LCM at Executive level.
The Committee agreed, at a meeting on 14 May, that it was content with the proposed LCM. The memorandum was subsequently laid by the Department of Justice on 15 May. The Committee was made aware that, in order to meet the Westminster legislative timetable, it would be necessary to schedule the debate for today's proceedings. To facilitate the passage of the LCM and to enable the requirements of the relevant Standing Order to be met, the memorandum was issued to Committee members via correspondence. The majority of members responded to confirm that they were content with the LCM.
While content with the LCM, the Committee requested further information from the Department of Justice on practical enforcement matters, on 20 May, including whether the Department had any role in enforcement, and how a member of the public may legitimately sell a spare ticket. In response, the Department advised that enforcement of provisions that extend to Northern Ireland will be the sole responsibility of the Trading Standards Service in the Department for the Economy. The Committee was also advised that a ticketing strategy is in development, and this is expected to include an authorised resale platform for ticket holders who find that they are no longer able to attend an event.
At its meeting on 28 May, the Committee for Justice formally agreed that it was content with the proposal to extend to Northern Ireland, by way of an LCM, a number of provisions in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill, relating to the creation of a new offence, which prohibits the unauthorised sale or resale of games tickets. I can confirm, as set out in the Committee report, that the Committee for Justice supports the Minister of Justice in seeking the Assembly's endorsement of the legislative consent motion and, therefore, I am happy to endorse the approach that has been taken.
Speaking as an individual member, very briefly, the Minister has outlined the approach that has been taken. That is entirely understandable. I agree with the comments that the Minister has made. Aside from the importance of how we manage the ticketing, I use this opportunity to say what a fantastic opportunity we have in 2022, that the Commonwealth Games will be held just across the water in Birmingham. I know that many of us who are keen sporting enthusiasts and those who will want to go and support our athletes will want to wish them all every success. This is an important piece of logistical preparation work, but at its heart will be a fantastic sporting experience, and I look forward to cheering on people.
I note that, in the Republic of Ireland, elite athletes have been able to start training again. We really need to be facilitating that in Northern Ireland so that our athletes can get back to training. I declare a slight interest, not that I am one of those elite athletes. [Laughter.]
I have family members who are involved in elite sport. I will leave it at that, but I have made the pitch.
Mr Catney: I thank the Minister for her statement. The LCM supports the creation of an offence that prohibits the unauthorised sale or resale of tickets for the Commonwealth Games that are due to take place in Birmingham in July and August 2022. The offence aims to safeguard the sale of tickets for the games from any money-laundering activity and to keep the tickets affordable. The Bill does not intend to prevent the legitimate resale of tickets. Ticket holders who can no longer attend will be able to pass on their tickets to family or friends, provided that that is not done in the course of business for profit or in a public place.
The Commonwealth Games delivery unit in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has advised that the organising committee's ticketing strategy is in development, with tickets not likely to be sold before summer 2021. It is anticipated that the strategy will include an authorised resale platform for those ticket holders who legitimately can no longer attend. The SDLP believes that it is important that ticket holders from Northern Ireland have an extra layer of protection to allow for the potential breakdown in travel planning. In the event of a flight or ferry crossing being unavailable or cancelled, all ticket holders should be enabled to retain their tickets while attempting to secure alternative travel. In the unfortunate event that travel cannot be secured, swift access to a last-minute authorised resale platform should be easily available, with information on the process to follow, printed clearly on the ticket.
We all hope to see ease of access to travel resume long before 2022, but we now live in a world where it does no harm to attempt to future-proof and mitigate possible disruptions. Like my colleague from Lagan Valley, I wish, on behalf of the SDLP, the organisers and the athletes every success. We will be supporting the LCM today.
Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for the information that she has brought to the House today and made us aware of. The LCM extends the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill to Northern Ireland. The Bill creates a new offence to stop the unauthorised sale or resale of tickets for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
On behalf of the Alliance Party, I welcome the Bill, particularly because it includes the opportunity for people who genuinely cannot use their tickets to be able to sell them for face value. That will stop the tickets touts, while taking reasonable steps to protect those who are unable to use their tickets because of illness, a family emergency or another justifiable reason. I am fully aware that the legislation will end the day after the games do. That was the case, I believe, for the Olympic Games in 2012 and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014. When the Minister responds, hopefully she can tell us a bit more about how the Bill will prevent ticket touts from accessing tickets and also, as was mentioned earlier, give us a bit more information about the level of fine that can be introduced if someone is found guilty of an offence.
Mrs Long: I thank Members for considering the motion and for their contributions.
I also want to put on record my thanks to the Justice Committee for its very thorough report and to the Executive for their consideration of the issues at hand at a time when we had many pressing issues to deal with.
A number of Members raised issues. I want, if I may push a little at the door opened by the Chairman, to say that this is a good opportunity for people who are genuinely interested in sport, and in such big-ticket events, to see, and to participate in, it live. It will come as no surprise to people that I am not a participant in sport, but I am often a spectator, and I do very much enjoy watching it. I know what a thrill it can be to see such sporting events take place live and to take part in them. Being part of the London Olympics, for example, was a memorable experience, and I hope that people will take this opportunity. However, tickets are often expensive. Therefore, it is critical that they are kept affordable, as Mr Catney correctly pointed out, by preventing other people from reselling tickets illegally for profit.
It is also important to remember that people who, for very genuine reasons, are unable to use tickets that they get — we know how complex ticketing systems can be — can still exchange or sell them on a not-for-profit basis so that they are not out of pocket and do not lose the money that they paid for the ticket or let the seat go unused. It is important that everyone can avail of tickets and use all the tickets sold.
The significance of the level of fine reflects the increasing value of the market for the secondary selling of tickets. To put that in context, I think that the figure for the secondary ticketing market is about £1 billion a year in the UK. Obviously, that will include some legitimate resellers — those who sell because they cannot attend. Anecdotally, however, we understand that the vast majority of people who put tickets up for sale are professional traders and touts.
To put in context just how valuable this trade can be, and the significant profit that criminals can make from it, it was reported that, in a recent court case in Leeds, two individuals had made about £3·5 million of net profit between them. They were sentenced to a total of six and a half years' imprisonment for it. You can see that, from an organised crime perspective, it can be quite a lucrative market for raising funds. Therefore, Mr Blair is correct that the fines introduced are commensurate with the potential seriousness of the offences committed.
I am pleased with the support that we have had today in the Chamber. It is sensible that these provisions be carried forward in a Westminster Bill. On this occasion, I ask the House to support the motion to ensure that everyone can enjoy the Commonwealth Games in an affordable, and legal, manner.
That this Assembly agrees to the extension to Northern Ireland of a number of provisions within the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill relating to the creation of a new offence that prohibits the unauthorised sale or resale of games tickets.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The next item of business is a motion on support for sheep and beef farms during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, I am mindful that, based on the indicative timings, most Members were expecting this item of business to commence at 2:00 pm. Therefore, in order to allow Members to come into the Chamber, we will take our ease for a few minutes.
The House took its ease from 12.33 pm to 12.38 pm.
That this Assembly notes the important role that sheep and beef farmers play in ensuring a safe and secure supply of food for the population; acknowledges that a significant portion of sheep and beef farmers, such as hill farmers, are situated in areas of natural constraint and severely disadvantaged areas and face considerable challenges in running their farms; recognises that COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the sheep and beef sector, with the closure of restaurants, hotels and the wider food services industry; further recognises that due to low incomes and the minimal support from other COVID-19-related schemes, sheep and beef farmers in areas of natural constraint have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to ensure that equality and fairness underpins the allocation of the £25 million agri-food sector market intervention fund and that sheep and beef farmers from areas of natural constraint receive the support that they need through the distribution of this funding.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
Mr McAleer: I commend the motion. The COVID pandemic has highlighted the importance of the agriculture and food sector in providing food security. COVID has brought a growing awareness of the value of local food producers. The agri-food sector has been negatively impacted by the crisis, and I want to commend the excellent work of our front-line farmers and food producers during the pandemic.
Committee members have received weekly updates on current issues affecting the agri-food sector, and I thank the departmental officials and Committee officials for providing them. Those weekly updates have consistently flagged up that, since the lockdown, the impact on markets and at farm level has been profound. Written correspondence that we received highlighted the fact that financial pressures are increasing rapidly on businesses across the supply chains, for example, through the loss of the food service markets and certain export markets, reduced productivity at processing plants and increases in some input costs, such as animal feed. All of that has converged to create a crisis for the farming and agri-food sector.
Industry has been consistently calling for financial support measures. Some of the measures — [Interruption.]
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Sorry, Mr McAleer. Oh, is it your phone? I was about to reprimand somebody else for interrupting you. Members should try to keep their phone away from the microphones. Thank you.
Mr McAleer: Some Government initiatives have been made available, such as the self-employment income support scheme (SEISS), through which self-employed people can receive a taxable grant worth up to 80% of their average trading profits in previous years, and that is paid by HMRC. However, the self-employment scheme is not enough to support our farmers during the COVID-19 crisis. That is particularly true for our beef and sheep sector farmers, whose average income is around half of the regional average wage at under £12,000 a year. When you apply the 80% and tax it, it is not enough to sustain them through the crisis. For that particular sector, the SEISS will have a negligible impact. It is pivotal that we keep the food supply moving and the food chain operational in the pandemic, and to do that the agriculture sector needs substantial support from us.
It is also of concern that some of the independent reports that we have seen show huge losses sustained by the beef and sheep sector, particularly as a result of rising input costs and the closure of the food service industry, which accounts for 35% to 40% of the beef and sheep red meats. We have seen losses in the region of £240 per head for cattle and £31 per head for sheep. That loss is substantial for small farmers.
The scale of the impact of COVID can be seen in the closure of the marts in March 2020 and the number of cattle being traded under the restrictions. We can look at the trading figures and have information from the animal and public health information system (APHIS). There was a substantial amount of farm-to-farm movement of cattle when the marts were closed: for example, 7,500 in the week beginning 26 April, and 7,000 in the week of 19 April. During those weeks, there was substantial movement of cattle from farm to farm. If we apply the average loss of £238 per head, we see that that is a huge loss to the beef sector, in particular. We are looking at a substantial figure.
According to the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC), on 29 March, just five cattle were transferred from farms to marts in the North, compared with 7,800 cattle having been traded last year. The closure of the marts during the COVID crisis has had a huge impact on our beef and sheep sector.
Another figure from the LMC shows that, during March 2020, a total of 30,320 cattle were moved from farms to marts or farms, as recorded in APHIS.
Again, if you apply the loss per head, it is a huge loss and again demonstrates the importance of the marts and the role that they play in the meat supply chain. It also demonstrates the scale of the impact. The Minister will be aware, certainly from Sinn Féin's perspective, that, given the scale of the loss and the fact that beef and sheep farmers represent 80% of farms here — they are the very primary producers at the beginning of our food chain — we have made a proposal that £15 million of the £25 million be allocated to the sector, given the impact that it is sustaining and the scale of the production that it provides. That is for that sector, notwithstanding the other sectors that have been impacted.
Sheep meat has also been affected very negatively by the closure of the marts, the restaurants and the food service sector. Incomes in those areas are extremely low, and that is compounded, of course, by the loss of the less-favoured area (LFA)/areas of natural constraint (ANC) payment, which farmers relied on around March to sustain them. We are concerned that the sheep sector has not been referenced for funding in the scheme that the Minister has announced. There is a huge impact on this sector as well, the evidence being a price of £31 per head for sheep. Add in the input costs: we are told by many assessments that fertiliser went up during the pandemic by about £15 per ton and feeds by about £25 per ton. That has all been sustained by the sector; indeed, information from the Department shows that there has been a decline in income. It went down by 26% last year, and the beef and sheep sector is at the lowest ebb of all the sectors and will be able to avail itself of less from the self-employed scheme or any other scheme to deal with the COVID crisis.
A recent research paper looks at agriculture support across the devolved regions. In Wales, for example, an extra £5·5 million was provided to the basic payment scheme. I should point out that, in the January monitoring round, DAERA surrendered £12 million to the Department of Finance that was not spent in the financial year. It is important, as we look towards future financial years, that we try to avoid that situation. We should, for example, look at using money that was not going to be spent to make a bid for something like an ANC scheme. That would compensate the hill and marsh areas where it is more inhospitable and challenging to farm. That is where 10,000 of our beef and sheep producers are. A return of the ANC scheme could help to mitigate the impact of COVID and the other pressures that they face. Before COVID, as I said, farm incomes had dropped significantly — 26% last year — and they have started to plummet again at £240 per head for cattle and £31 for sheep. The lockdown of the restaurants and all has greatly contributed to that.
We are all in this crisis together. I want to make it very clear that supporting the motion does not mean that you are not supporting the other sectors. We are just flagging up this sector —.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. He has outlined the wider factors and issues that face sheep and beef farmers across Northern Ireland. Particularly in relation to the money that has been secured by the Minister for COVID response, does the Member accept that it is only fair, reasonable and vital that, albeit that we will not have money to go around all — that has been accepted — in any of the relief schemes across the Departments, we target funding at those who are most particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? I realise that there was an element of impact across all sectors, but it is important that we focus to help farmers who are particularly affected by COVID-19.
Mr McAleer: I thank the Member for his intervention. It is worthwhile pointing out that all farmers and all sectors have been impacted. We have seen the independent per head evidence of that impact, and we have seen the number of movements that there have been from farm to farm after the collapse of the marts. I accept and we all need to accept that all farmers have been impacted by the rising input costs and the decreasing farmgate prices, particularly due to the COVID crisis.
I want to underline this point: supporting the motion does not negate support for, say, the dairy sector, the horticulture sector or any other sector. Members and the Committee have been lobbied heavily, particularly by the sheep sector and by beef producers in hill areas, that they have not been included in the response.
Folks, we are all in this together. We are not opposed to any other sector; we just want to take the opportunity today to highlight the importance of the beef and sheep sectors to our food production chain at this time in the middle of the COVID pandemic.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I thank Members for getting here on time. It was a bit difficult.
The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The sitting is, by leave, suspended until 2.00 pm, when we will have urgent questions, after which, we will return to the debate.
The debate stood suspended.
The sitting was suspended at 12.51 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair) —
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Paul Givan has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Justice. I remind Members that if they wish to ask a question, they should continue to indicate by rising in their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically for a supplementary question
Mr Givan asked the Minister of Justice for her assessment of the police enforcement powers related to the COVID-19 regulations, following the breach of regulation 6 in respect of the mass gathering that took place outside Belfast City Hall on 3 June 2020.
Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice): Before I answer the question, I want to preface my answer by setting out the context in which it has come about. I received very late notice of the question, through no fault of the questioner, who submitted it in good time, but because it was not passed to my officials by TEO last night as would normally be the case. By the time I was made aware of the question, at 12:20 pm today, it had already been accepted by the Speaker.
Under normal circumstances, I would not answer questions on operational matters in relation to policing in the Chamber. I am here as a courtesy to the Chair of the Justice Committee, who asked the question in good faith and in good time and, I believe, has a right to expect some answer, albeit, I would argue, not from me, and to the Assembly, because it would have been discourteous not to come when there was an expectation that an answer would be given. However, I want to put it on the record that no precedent should be taken from the fact that I am answering the question this afternoon.
The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 were made by the Health Department on 20 March in response to the serious and imminent threat to public health posed by coronavirus. Regulation 6 places restrictions on gatherings in a public place during the emergency period and provides the police with powers to take enforcement action where there has been a breach of the restrictions. Decisions on what enforcement action should be taken are a matter for the police, based on their operational assessment. Anyone who has complaints or concerns about operational policing decisions can have them addressed by contacting the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.
With respect to the powers that are available, no further powers for enforcement have been requested by the PSNI in any exchanges with me. Furthermore, at this point in the coronavirus pandemic when we are relaxing the restrictions on a progressive but cautious basis, as we give people more freedom we will also be delegating to them more responsibility. As I have said before we should not, therefore, rely on enforcement for our future protection.
Mr Givan: Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd has already said that regulation 5 is no longer being policed because there are so many exceptions to the rule that they are not enforcing it, unless there is a blatant disregard. Then, a mass gathering was facilitated by the Police Service on 3 June, with follow-up comments that it was proportionate. Any wonder there were, then, further protests on the Saturday in Londonderry and Belfast.
The credibility and integrity of regulations 5 and 6 have now been undermined as a result of the policing of the protests that have taken place and of police inaction. Does the Minister agree that the regulations that we are now asking the police to enforce are undermining the public's confidence in the police's position? Will she feed into the Executive the broad concern that exists that the regulations, by not being enforced and policed, have undermined the police's credibility, leaving the public to take decisions by exercising their own best judgement as the way forward in future?
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for his supplementary question but I do not accept his analysis of the policing of the situation. However, I reiterate that when it comes to issues that are about operational policing it is not for the House to question the Justice Minister. I am not the policing Minister; I am the Justice Minister, and it is not for Members to question me for my assessment of operational matters.
I have stated that, with respect to the powers that are available, no further powers have been requested. I am also not in a position to comment on what Alan Todd has or has not said in the public domain. However, Members can reach their own judgement about that.
I gently remind the Member, however, that many of the exceptions to which ACC Todd refers are those that were requested and, indeed, pre-emptively announced by his own colleague in Lagan Valley. Therefore, it would be fair to say that, having requested that people have more freedom to move, more freedom to travel and more exceptions to the reasons not to, it was always going to become more difficult for the police to enforce those regulations. If the Member chooses to liaise with his Executive colleagues, they will make him well aware that I raised those concerns at that time and that I have continued to raise them since.
Mr O'Dowd: Does the Minister agree that events and gatherings will arise that a multitude of sides in an argument may not agree with but that the key is this: we cannot expect the police to adopt one approach to a gathering or a funeral or to a procession that we disagree with and then to ignore another funeral, gathering or procession that we might have sympathy with? The key is that the police have to deal with this through a common approach and they have to be fair and transparent in what they are doing. It is not about who gathered — it is about the law being enforced impartially.
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for his point, and I think that it is an important one. It is important that the police are impartial. It is also important that they are seen to be impartial in their enforcement of the law. It is too easy at times to judge whether they acted in a proportionate and impartial manner based on partial information about situations, and I think that there is huge risk for all of us — there is a huge duty, effectively, on all of us to desist from doing that — in doing that because it can undermine the respect for the police.
With respect to how this is taken forward, I also agree that the police should have a consistent approach. They announced that there would be a four-stage approach; the four Es. They would first engage; then they would educate and explain; and they would then encourage. So, they would engage with people who were about to breach the regulations or who were breaching the regulations; they would explain why that was the case; they would then go forward and encourage people to move on; and the fourth E is that they would enforce. The final stage would be enforcement. It would not be the first option, but the final stage in recognition of the fact that these are health regulations and that, therefore, their role is a very delicate and sensitive one.
With respect to consistency, Members should also note that the Northern Ireland Policing Board has initiated a review of policing under the coronavirus regulations, led by its human rights adviser, to ensure that the police can give robust and clear feedback that would be useful should there be any further pandemic or a second wave.
Mr O'Toole: I thank the Minister for answering the question for urgent oral answer. I will ask her two questions, one specific and one broad. Can she shed some light on something that some groups have been concerned about, which is that there appears to have been — I do not know whether she will be able to give any clarification about this — a late change on Friday evening to the enforcement powers of regulation 6(a) in the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020? That seems to have been tabled by the Executive at 5.00 pm to come into force at 11.00 pm. Can she confirm whether that is correct?
I agree with John O'Dowd about the consistency in application and that, with a protest going ahead the next day, that is perhaps not ideal for people having clarity about enforcement. Does she secondly agree that, while again I agree that we should all be following social-distancing rules — that is absolutely clear — it is very important that we have proportionate policing in terms of the fines and penalties that are given and that people are —
Mr O'Toole: — allowed lawful protest as much as purchasing garden furniture.
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for his question. With respect to the changes to the coronavirus regulations, let me be clear. The coronavirus regulations changes were announced, I think, about 10 to 15 days prior to the changes being laid on that Friday evening. They were a relaxation, so anyone who breached the regulations, as stated, on Friday night, would have breached them by more than had they breached them unamended. It went from a maximum gathering of two, to a maximum gathering of six. No one was disadvantaged by the fact that the regulations were laid.
It took the Health Minister and the Health Department slightly longer in laying the regulations than was anticipated. I think it may have taken around 10 days to lay the regulations to match the announcement that had already been made, but it was clear that that was the direction of travel. Members will appreciate that Ministers are amending legislation in very short time frames, but it needs to be accurate, clear and concise. Therefore, there was a delay while that was being achieved, but there was no disadvantage to those who opted to protest. Their position would have been illegal before and after the regulations were altered.
With respect to the need for proportionate policing, I agree. Policing should be proportionate, transparent and, moreover, be accountable. Anyone who believes that policing on this or any other occasion was none of those things, or not all of those things, has recourse to the Police Ombudsman. That is the route that they should take with their complaint.
Mr Blair: Does the Minister agree with me that the basis of the question is wrong and that scrutiny and accountability for the operations of the police lie with the Northern Ireland Policing Board, on which Members are well represented and on which some of us are already raising these issues, as is on the public record?
Mrs Long: I thank my colleague for that helpful question. It is, of course, correct that it is the Policing Board first and foremost that should hold the Chief Constable to account for his actions and for the choices that are made in operational policing and other matters. That is the right forum for such questioning to take place: not in the Assembly, where we do not control policing. The structures in policing were very clearly divided between Justice and policing at the time of devolution and I am not going to impinge either on the Chief Constable's independence when it comes to operational issues, or to trample roughshod over the responsibilities of the Policing Board to hold him to account.
Mr Buckley: I am sure that the Minister will join me in condemning the attacks on police officers right across the United Kingdom as a result of ongoing protests. In light of the despicable attacks on war memorials and other memorials across the United Kingdom, will the Minister give us an assurance that that type of activity will not be tolerated in Northern Ireland, for if it had not been for their sacrifice, none of us would have the right to protest in this country?
Mrs Long: I have no reservations in condemning any form of violence or lawbreaking in our society.
Mrs D Kelly: As a member of the Policing Board, I welcome the Minister's very firm reassurance that it is the Policing Board that holds the Chief Constable to account in his operational decisions, and we will continue to do so. Does the Minister agree that the police are between a rock and a hard place? She has already said that the interpretation of the regulations and the issue of the time delay means that there is a lack of clarity, and the police have made that comment on more than one occasion. Will the Minister provide an update?
About three weeks ago, I asked the First Minister and the deputy First Minister about the issue of the designation of other officers in the public sector regarding enforcement, for example traffic wardens and environmental health officers. The police simply cannot police the health regulations in relation to social distancing etc and do their other work
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for her question. She will be aware that I have raised the issue of further designation of other bodies. I believe that the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) was consulted and that councils can now enforce these regulations.
It is very clear that, as we move out of this pandemic, those responsible and appropriate to make the judgements about whether or not regulations are being enforced, and indeed whether good practice is being implemented, will fall way beyond the powers and the locus of policing matters. It is hugely important that we encourage those with the right expertise, in whatever field that might be, to be party to the enforcement and encouragement of people to keep within the guidance.
We should not lose sight of the reason for the regulations. It is to protect life; it is not to deprive people of liberty.
Mr Frew: Does the Minister agree that draconian legislation that applies to every twist and turn of a person's life, even in their home, is impossible to police? It is impossible for the police to police and enforce that. In her answer to my colleague Mr Paul Givan, was the Minister suggesting to the House that she does not support the lifting of any of the restrictions to date?
Mrs Long: I assure the Member that, if that was what I had wanted to say, I would have said it clearly and unequivocally and no one would have gone out of the Chamber in any doubt that that was the message that I was sending. It is not. What I am saying very clearly is that, with the change in the regulations and with increasing responsibility being delegated to individuals, it is unreasonable to expect, as you rightly stated, that the police could police people's back gardens, living rooms and all their daily activities. We rely largely on people's sense of responsibility and community and respect for their own life, the lives of their families and the lives of those around them. We will do that increasingly, and it is right that we should do so. Again, that is why I have encouraged the Executive to share more information about the very balanced decisions that we often have to take so that people are fully informed not just of what the regulations state and the guidance says but of why we are making the changes. That will mean that, when people reach a dilemma — we cannot prescribe for every situation — they can apply their common sense and good judgement in a way that does not breach the spirit of the regulations and the spirit of the guidance.
Mr Durkan: Does the Minister concur with me that there certainly seems to be disproportionality and inconsistency in an approach that saw the issuing of 11 fines and community resolution notices in Belfast and 57 in Foyle, where attempts were made and adhered to by the vast majority of those in attendance to ensure social distancing and where masks, gloves and hand sanitiser were provided? Does the Minister share my view that it would not be in the public interest to pursue prosecutions?
Mrs Long: Most of the issues that the Member has raised are not matters on which I am willing to comment. I cannot judge the policing operations in Belfast and Derry. I cannot compare the two. I was present at neither. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on whether the policing was proportionate, because I do not know in detail the actions that they took on the ground on that day, what advice was issued, what guidance was given to organisers or what response they were met with. It would be completely inappropriate for me to comment on what are operational matters.
If the Member has genuine concerns about proportionality, I am sure that his colleague will take it up on his behalf with the Policing Board, or he could refer them to the Police Ombudsman for consideration. However, to be clear, people who do not pay fines break the law. It is incumbent on me, as Justice Minister, to uphold the law. Therefore, I say that those who have been fined have 28 days to appeal the notice and, if they are unsuccessful in their appeal, should pay the fine, because that is the law. I have no scope for flexibility in that regard.
I want to be clear on the wider issue and on whether people used hand sanitiser, masks and social distancing: all of those are supplementary to the regulations as guidance. They are not a replacement for the regulations and do not absolve any of us of our responsibilities to obey the law.
Mr Dunne: Does the Minister recognise the significant impact on the community of Northern Ireland of being denied the right to assemble at churches and at funerals, which I have raised previously in the House? Does she fully recognise the implications of that? Will she assure us that, in the future, the law will be applied equally to everyone in Northern Ireland?
Mrs Long: I have previously answered the Member with respect to my recognition that not to be able to hold a funeral is a massive sacrifice for any family to make at this time. It is evidence of a sense of public responsibility and a sense of generosity on the part of those who have abided by the regulations.
These are sensitive issues, but there has been criticism on both sides of the argument. Some feel that the police have not policed harshly enough; others that they have policed too harshly. Perhaps, somewhere in the middle lies the truth.
Miss Woods: I thank the Minister for coming here today. I agree with other Members about consistency of approach but the question is about protests held last week and regulation 6. Notwithstanding that, would the Minister agree that we must respond to the cause of campaigners and do everything that we can to address systemic racism in our society?
Mrs Long: I concur completely. I fully understand the strength of feeling that exists about what happened to George Floyd. It has been a powerful catalyst in reminding us all not just of our responsibilities internationally but, I would hope, of our responsibilities personally and individually when it comes to combating racism, both individual acts of racism and the wider and more systemic racism that exists in our society. It is important that people not only protest but take positive action to address those issues.
I am somebody to whom civil liberty matters a lot. I believe that people's right to protest is a fundamental part of living in a democratic society and that the right to peaceful protest is one that we should not give up easily. In the current circumstances, however, it is not appropriate for large numbers of people to gather. There are many ways that we can raise our voices in solidarity with the BAME community in Northern Ireland. I hope, going forward, that we will not only raise our voices but put our shoulder to the wheel and make a real difference.
Mr Allister: On the issue of proportionality, given that a headline demand of the Black Lives Matter movement is the de-funding of police, was it proportionate for the Minister to re-profile her Twitter page to extol Black Lives Matter, given that she has responsibility for funding the police? Likewise the Chief Constable, who used the hashtag.
Is she concerned that a sector of this community, namely the innocent victims, suffered great hurt from the spin-off of the events of the past weekend, when the Assembly Commission, in a duplicitous move, decided to light this Building for Black Lives Matter but refused to light this Building for innocent victims of terrorism? Does she share the concern for the hurt that that causes?
Mrs Long: It is unfortunate that, when events of such seriousness and weight take place in other countries and highlight systemic issues that are, perhaps, not our own, we always have to return to trying to make this about ourselves. Perhaps, one of the first things that we could do about institutionalised racism in this place is to have an informed conversation about racism that is not automatically overlaid with our own prejudices around sectarianism. I say that gently to the Member in respect of his question.
With respect to Black Lives Matter, it is not just a movement; it is a slogan, a phrase that, I think, typifies the emotions that all of us feel. To be clear, all lives will not matter until black lives matter. While any of us are not equal, none of us is equal. It should not be an affront to anyone in the Chamber for the Justice Minister to say so.
Mr Carroll: I am deeply concerned about the PSNI's actions at the Black Lives Matter protests in Belfast and Derry on Saturday. People were fined, intimidated and threatened with prosecution for attending a socially distanced and peaceful anti-racism protest. While groups like Amnesty International were speaking out against police actions —.
Mr Carroll: I appreciate that other Members had a bit of leeway.
Mr Carroll: The Minister, only hours after the protest, stated that the PSNI response was proportionate. I wonder how the Minister can stand over that, given that, as she has indicated, she was not at any of the demonstrations. Did she speak to any BME groups? Did she even examine the police evidence on the day? My main question is whether —
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. Members have to learn that this is an opportunity to ask the Minister a question. You have already asked a number of questions.
Mrs Long: I think that what I said at the time was that I believed that, overall, the police had behaved in a proportionate way in enforcing the regulation. I have at no time said that individual decisions were proportionate, nor would it be right for me to do so. As I said to other Members in the Chamber who raised specific issues and concerns, the way to raise those is through the Police Ombudsman. That is not to diminish your concerns, but it is not appropriate for me to be held to account for operational matters for the Chief Constable. He is not accountable to me for operational matters. I neither give him direction nor seek to do so. There is a clear divide here, unlike in the United States, between policing and politics. I happen to believe that that is important and that it needs to be sustained by going through the correct channels when we have complaints and want accountability in policing. I hope that you will feed your concerns directly into the review of policing under the coronavirus regulations that is being undertaken by the Policing Board. It is important that everyone's experiences of this are heard, including those of the black and minority ethnic communities in Northern Ireland.
The direct answer to your question is, "Yes". I did talk to black and minority ethnic people, including some who were at that protest. I understand that they were passionate about the issue. I understand that they wanted to make their voice heard. At any normal time, I would have been with them, but these are not normal times.
Ms Dillon: I thank the Minister for coming before the House, although the more appropriate place for operational matters is the Policing Board, as she has outlined. In the Assembly and in the Chamber, we need to focus on the fact that the accountability mechanism for the PSNI is the Policing Board, and that is where it must be held to account, not through the Justice Minister in the Chamber or Assembly. Those accountability mechanisms are helpful —
Mrs Long: The Member is, of course, correct that there are important structures that need to be respected. I also respect the fact that many people have made sacrifices, many of them voluntarily, by cancelling huge events that are important to them and by delaying protests and other things that they wished to hold. We know, for example, that the Pride organisers will not go ahead with their event in the current circumstance; the Orange Order has taken a very progressive stance in cancelling the large parades on 12 July; the St Patrick's Day events did not go ahead; and Easter Sunday commemorations in the republican community did not go ahead. Everyone has made a contribution. We need to focus on this: the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland are abiding by the regulations and are doing so not out of fear of police action but because of the desire to defeat a virus that puts our health service under pressure and has the ability to rob them and their family of their lives. I commend them for what they do in voluntarily complying with the regulations.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): John O'Dowd has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister for the Economy. Again, I remind Members to rise in their place to indicate that they wish to ask a supplementary question. Mr O'Dowd will be able automatically to ask a supplementary question at the start. All other Members should rise in their place.
Mr O'Dowd asked the Minister for the Economy what action her Department plans to take to help avoid the loss of 500 jobs at Thompson Aero Seating in Banbridge and Portadown.
Mrs Dodds (The Minister for the Economy): I thank the Member for a very important question at this very difficult time. First of all, our thoughts are with those in Thompson Aero Seating who face an uncertain future. I was in touch with the company again today, and I understand that conversations with the unions will progress this afternoon. These are very difficult times.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an immediate and unprecedented impact on the global aerospace industry; airlines and airports across the world have been severely impacted. The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a number of airlines cancelling aircraft contracts, and aircraft manufacturers Airbus and Boeing have reduced their build rates by 40%. Those are quite staggering figures in a very short period of time.
Unfortunately, those global conditions have resulted in Thompson Aero Seating having to reduce headcount. Invest NI has maintained regular contact with the company since February 2020 on the challenges that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. These job losses are deeply regrettable, and our thoughts remain with the workers who will lose their source of income.
Invest NI will work with the local council and the Department for Communities to establish redundancy clinics in conjunction with the company, and my Careers Service will provide support as appropriate. Our focus going forward remains on securing the long-term success of the business, and Invest NI are fully engaged with Thompson Aero Seating on a number of projects.
Generally, I am in touch with other aerospace companies. Indeed, this morning, I was talking to some of those companies, which are a very important part of the supply chain for our larger companies in Northern Ireland. These are very difficult and uncertain times for those companies.
This issue is very local for us, but there is a wider global and national context. I have weekly conversations with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Business Secretary to highlight the importance of the aerospace sector, locally and nationally, and the risks to the sector. Nationally, I think that it is acknowledged that that is a red flag issue and that the risks are very great to the sector. I will continue to ask for support at a national level, as well as working with companies on a local level. Thank you.
Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Minister for her answer. Although I have to express disappointment because the question asks:
"what actions her Department plans to take to help avoid the loss of 500 jobs at Thompson Aero Seating",
and I do not see any actions in her answer. The council will give careers advice and other advice. The trade union discussions are about 90-day statutory redundancy. What is the Department for the Economy doing? At the start of the crisis, we talked about ripping up the economic rule book, and it needs to be ripped up, not only to save these jobs but other jobs.
I hope that the Minister is engaging with the Chancellor about extending the furlough scheme because these jobs can be saved. If these jobs can be saved over the next number of months, there is a chance of more contracts for this factory. However, the fact of the matter is that the furlough scheme deadline is 10 June, which is tomorrow. If that can be extended, we can help save the 500 jobs —
Mr O'Dowd: — for when the economy returns. Will the Minister speak to the Chancellor about extending the furlough scheme to help save those 500 jobs?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. I understand the urgency and the passion.
I speak to and have fairly regular meetings with the other devolved Administrations and the Chancellor and the Business Secretary. We have already raised the issue of the furlough scheme. In fact, this morning, I raised the issue of the furlough scheme again with Thompson. The issue really surrounds the fact that the furlough scheme, as it is currently constituted, will be closed to new applications from 10 June. If there were to be an opportunity to save those jobs in that way, it would mean that amendments would have to be made to the scheme at a national level by the Chancellor. Of course, that request has gone to the Chancellor. I hope that he and the Business Secretary will respond positively. However, we must acknowledge the difficulties around that.
This morning, I spoke to the company about the longer term. Invest NI is engaging with it because we want to see it remain and the workforce maintained. We want to try to win as many jobs back for that industry as we possibly can. While the production line and order book are secure in the very immediate short term, there will, then, come a period for many such companies in the medium term, during the period when no new contracts or tenders are being sought, when life becomes increasingly difficult. That is why Invest NI is working with the company on its new R&D projects. That is why we want to see those projects brought to fruition; because that will stabilise the company in the long term and ensure that there is aerospace seating production build and capacity in Banbridge and Portadown.
Mr Buckley: With all politics being local, I am absolutely devastated about those job losses; up to 500 at a company that employs 1,300 people across my constituency. The Minister has outlined her ambition to write to the Chancellor. Furlough is essential to try to save those jobs. Does she agree that it is a gross irony to hear Mr O'Dowd criticise her and sympathise with those employees, given that, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, he, alongside his party leader Michelle O'Neill, called for major companies like Thompson and others to close their doors, knowing the pressures that existed because of orders that needed to be met?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. I will, of course, continue to be in touch with the Chancellor and the Business Secretary in London. Those are very important issues.
On the second part of his question, I pay tribute to those businesses that kept going, in the face of very challenging circumstances, right throughout the pandemic. Thompson Aero Seating was one of those companies in Portadown, along with Ulster Carpets, that kept going and are busy trying to fulfil their order books and stabilise the company to ensure that there is a future and jobs to support families in the local area. I will continue to support those companies and do what I can, both with the national Government and locally, to ensure that there is a future for the aerospace industry in Northern Ireland.
Mrs D Kelly: As another Member who shares the Minister's constituency, I, too, am devastated by the job losses. There is no doubt that they will not be the last that we hear about, given the recession into which we are facing. There are two strands to the issue. Obviously, there are the 500 potential job losses, and, then, sustaining jobs for the future. With regard to Invest NI's work with the company, will there be a skills audit and ongoing discussions with neighbouring manufacturing industries in the constituency and more broadly in order to match workers with available jobs? Where there is urgent retraining need, will measures be put in place quickly and will there be flexibility of approach by Invest NI and the Minister in responding to whatever opportunities may arise?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for her question. She raises a very important issue. Let me just tell the House that the unemployment figures for April, which included the new additions to the register in that month, completely wiped out six years of very hard work to reduce unemployment in Northern Ireland. That is a measure of the crisis that has been caused by COVID-19 and the impact that it will have on jobs and families in Northern Ireland. People on all sides of the House will be sympathetic to that and will understand how deeply impacted communities and families will be by that figure. That is part of where we are at and part of the ongoing crisis.
Invest NI is working with Thompson Aero Seating on its recovery plan, which it has called Project Phoenix, and that includes some R&D development on new seating products that the company can bring forward for the airline industry. There will be a recovery in aerospace in Northern Ireland because the skills that we have are absolutely fantastic, but the timing of that will depend on the global environment and on the new orders that are placed by the bigger companies. These are difficult times; I have not tried to sugar-coat that. We will work with companies in the best way that we can.
You raise another really important issue. We now need to look at how we can match skills with other companies and how we can help people to retrain and upskill. This morning, I had a conversation with all six of the principals from the further education colleges throughout Northern Ireland, and that is one of the issues that I want us to get grips with so that we are trying to match people with skills, trying to upskill people and are offering retraining throughout our working life and not just to the younger elements of our society, important as that is. We can all be challenged and we can all retrain and upskill at different times, and that is part of our work in progress.
Mr Beattie: I thank the Member for asking the question, which is really important to us in our constituency. I thank the Minister for her answers so far. It is all well and good talking about 500 possible job losses, but what on earth did we do about the 350 job losses at the same company two months ago, when non-contract workers and agency workers were dismissed? Nothing was done to support them. Did the Department not see this coming, Minister, when that happened?
Mrs Dodds: Thank you for your question. You are quite right when you say that this has come in two tranches. The first tranche was the redundancies in the early part of this year, which were largely agency workers.
Yes, my Department has been working with the aerospace sector and, in the next number of weeks, the work that we have been doing will become increasingly clear. We recognise that the global pandemic, the shutdown of air travel and the difficulties in people moving around globally has resulted in very difficult trading conditions for the aerospace sector. We will continue to work with the sector as a whole because we want to see the sector stabilised and we want it to be in a position where it can grow in Northern Ireland once again. As I said to my colleague, who is also from Upper Bann, we want to maintain the skills and build the skills base so that we do not lose those people for when we recover, and we will recover.
Mr Muir: I thank Mr O'Dowd for asking the question for urgent oral answer; it is very important. As Mrs Kelly said, this is probably — well, not probably, it is actually — not the last that we will hear of job losses and job-loss announcements that will come down the road.
People and workers are not looking for sympathy but for hope. They are looking for a clear, robust recovery strategy on how we will get through this and how we will safeguard jobs and livelihoods. When will we get that clear, robust recovery strategy? Thus far, I have not seen that, and that is what people are looking for.
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his comments. Of course, since the very start of the pandemic, we have been working on measures to try to contain and mitigate the impact of COVID-19. We have done that in a number of ways, and Members throughout the House will have been in touch with businesses that have been supported by the measures that we have brought in.
The best opportunity for recovery will come from letting business get on with doing business and starting to open the economy in a safe and sustained way to allow businesses in Northern Ireland, which are run by people with entrepreneurial skills who know how to create jobs that sustain families in our communities, to get on with doing what they do best. That is the pitch that I have been making to the Executive for some time.
I am glad that we have had some progress on that. I am glad that the retail sector is largely going to open up this week. I want to see people using common sense, practising social distancing and being sensible about what they do when they are out and about. Our retail sector can sustain that; we have seen our small shops operating throughout the pandemic with success and safety. So, the plan is to open up the economy and get on with where we are going and working.
I plan to bring forward some new ideas on parts of the economy that we will always support and other parts of the economy in which we will be able to grow our skills base and provide more and better jobs. I am talking about our skills in cybersecurity. Even in the depths of our pandemic experience, we welcomed a new company from the United States bringing 65 new jobs in cybersecurity. There are specific areas where our expertise and our work with our universities will help us to grow the economy in a sustained and successful way. I am also looking at the area of clean energy, where I see a lot of innovation. Over the next number of weeks, we will be bringing forward some ideas on all those things that can help, not just to support the sectors that we rely on that are our bedrock but to grow in other sectors as well.
Mr Dunne: Does the Minister recognise the impact that such job losses could have on the supply chain — subcontractors and other suppliers — and on the Northern Ireland aircraft support industry in general?
Mrs Dodds: I absolutely do. Just this morning, I was talking to a company from the Member's constituency on that issue. Northern Ireland has not only some very successful large aerospace companies, but a supply chain with many smaller companies that feed into the sector. There is danger for them too in the global crisis that the sector faces. I will shortly be talking to Invest NI on how we support the small suppliers that feed into the larger chain. That is really important in sustaining the economy, keeping skills and keeping people in jobs.
Ms Kimmins: As others have said, it is very sad to hear of job losses like this, and we will hear of many more. That brings me to my question, which, in the same vein, is about sole traders and how many of them will face similar challenges. Is the Minister considering providing financial support for sole traders? Many of them are still waiting on an update because they have been excluded from the supports that have been available to date.
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for her question. We have had the grants schemes that have been out in the public domain. On the question of sole traders, it is rather difficult to define when you come down to looking at particular sections and subsections of that, and many sole traders will be self-employed people who can refer to the self-employed scheme. I will continue to look at where we can provide further help for people and businesses in our community that have not received help so far. However, I know that the Member will have talked to her colleague the Minister of Finance and will be aware of the budgetary constraints around that, so it will be dependent on how we are able and how the Minister is able to identify the money that is available and, then, we can go ahead and look at other types of supports.
Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for coming here today and thank the Member for tabling the question. Whilst Portadown is not in my constituency, there are obvious links with Newry and Armagh, with the people and families affected, as well as the supply chain companies. We are in difficult times, and, unfortunately, there may be many more painful announcements to come in the months ahead, and we need to adopt a strategic approach to deal with the uncertainty and with the economic challenges that we face.
Given the economic uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic, some employers are hesitant about availing themselves of the additional months announced by the Chancellor for the furlough scheme. Can the Minister give clarity and reassure those companies that are unsure about availing themselves of the additional months furlough support that they will not be punished and will not be pursued to repay the additional payments, whatever the outcome for their business at this time of huge uncertainty?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question but remind him that the issue of these national schemes and how they are administered or how firms relate to them is a matter for Her Majesty's Treasury and not for the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, the Member raises important points in general about the furlough scheme. I am significantly worried. I thought at the start that the furlough scheme was not flexible enough so that companies that required specific skills could not have those skills on a particular set of days in the week without getting support for the other days, so I worried that it was not flexible, but some flexibility has been introduced to it.
Where I see the greatest difficulty at the moment with the furlough scheme is the fact that many companies, particularly small businesses in hospitality, retail and that kind of sector, have had no income for the past three months and are very worried about the contributions that they will be required to make to the furlough scheme at a later stage. That is a significant worry for us. That I why I say genuinely that, for all of us, opening our economy, letting business do business, helping business to thrive and families to have support in the labour market is the most important thing that we can do, and I hope that people respond responsibly and with everyone's safety in mind.
I also think that there is a case to be made to the Chancellor around furlough for a longer tail of support for some industries, and aerospace and possibly tourism and hospitality are two of those areas where that kind of longer tail of support might be required just to get us through the next six to nine months.
Mr Frew: Given that a disproportionate number of my constituents have been affected by Thompson, who had previously lost their jobs in Wrightbus, it proves that the manufacturing industry is, indeed, a regional industry. Will the Minister provide assurance to the House that manufacturing will be supported? Thompson and Wrightbus are innovative companies, with Wrightbus having the hydrogen bus innovation hub, and Thompson, with its cutting-edge technology. Will there be support to allow businesses to retract when they have to but to increase in size when they can?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. Of course, we should be there to support businesses not just when they are there and doing well but in the tougher times. Business thrives when it can reinvent itself and when it can produce new research and development to produce new products. Thompson is a good example of that as a company, as is Wrightbus. I met representatives from Wrightbus, last week, to discuss their ideas around their hydrogen project and how we might take that forward as part of our clean, green energy supply for the future.
Mr O'Toole: Thank you to the Minister for coming, and thanks to the Member who tabled the question. My sympathy, thoughts and solidarity are with the hundreds of Thompson workers who are uncertain about their future, and who worked very hard to make it a cutting-edge firm. Unfortunately, we will have many similar announcements in the weeks ahead.
I did not hear certainty from the Minister on when we will get an updated economic strategy from the Executive. Can we have that? Furthermore, what are her thoughts on the fact that foreign direct investment is, unfortunately, not going to be a reliable growth area for Invest NI to be focusing on in the future? We are in a changed world. Will the new economic strategy move us beyond what, I am afraid, has been a focus on foreign direct investment over the past few years, understanding that, in the changed post-COVID world, it is not going to be there in the volume that we would like it to be?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. We are trying to achieve balance. We need foreign direct investment, because it provides jobs. It has provided us with jobs in areas of specific expertise. It is, therefore, important that we achieve that balance. However, it is vital, and always will be, that we support our indigenous companies, give them time and space with their research and development and allow our universities to work with them.
I reflect, again, on the cybersecurity company that invested, recently, in Belfast. They told me that one of the reasons for their investment was the fact that our universities and industry work so closely together. I see that combination as a good basis for us to move forward on. In fact, later today, I will be talking to the Minister with responsibility for universities and research in London about a research strategy for the whole of the United Kingdom. I believe that investing in research and development is the way in which we will reinvent business and the economy and help us to be successful into the future.
Mr Allister: I agree with the Minister on the urgency of reopening our economy. It is a pity that some of those who were so gung-ho about closing it down, with no thought for tomorrow, had not been a bit more far-seeing. One need not be an economist to work out that the aero industry is going to be one of those with the toughest path into the future. With that in mind, and bearing in mind the assistance being given by Invest NI, etc, what scope is there, and how far is it being pursued, to discuss diversification with these firms? I ask that because it is hard to foresee the same volume of demand for aircraft seats in the immediate to medium future. Are there opportunities for diversification that could be explored? If so, are they being explored?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his comments on the economy. I agree with him: we need to let business do business and get on with things in a safe and sustained manner.
Yes, there is scope to look at diversification. It is particularly important when we look at the supply chain. I am always encouraged and, at times, surprised by parts of the supply chain into the aerospace industry, for example, which started off as small companies making agricultural tools. So, yes, reinventing ourselves is something that we have done, something that we will be able to do and, I hope, something that we will be able support in the future.
Mr Givan: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In the course of the remarks made by the Justice Minister, she challenged the Speaker and the decision-making process for granting questions for urgent oral answer. Is it in order for a Minister to challenge the ruling of a Speaker with comments designed to have a chilling effect on the Speaker and Members, like me, who are democratically mandated to hold to account those Ministers responsible, in this case, for regulations 5 and 6?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has made his point. I will refer the matter to the Speaker for further consideration, but his point is on the record.
Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly notes the important role that sheep and beef farmers play in ensuring a safe and secure supply of food for the population; acknowledges that a significant portion of sheep and beef farmers, such as hill farmers, are situated in areas of natural constraint and severely disadvantaged areas and face considerable challenges in running their farms; recognises that COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the sheep and beef sector, with the closure of restaurants, hotels and the wider food services industry; further recognises that due to low incomes and the minimal support from other COVID-19-related schemes, sheep and beef farmers in areas of natural constraint have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to ensure that equality and fairness underpins the allocation of the £25 million agri-food sector market intervention fund and that sheep and beef farmers from areas of natural constraint receive the support that they need through the distribution of this funding. — [Mr McAleer.]
Mr McNulty: I welcome the motion and opportunity to highlight the difficulties faced by our sheep and beef farmers in running their farms during the coronavirus pandemic.
Many will not know this, but, as a youngster, I was brought up on a farm. My uncle, who lived across the road from us, had no children so, essentially, we were the farm children. My farming background has given me enormous experience. I grew up milking and calving cows, tending to the beef and dairy herd, taking in the hay, the transition to silage and covering the silage pit. I have very many happy memories of my childhood and youth on the farm, so I completely identify with the demands on farmers.
From my youth, I also remember the langle on sheep. To a large extent, farmers feel they have been langled because they have no support. Thankfully, the practice of putting a langle on two legs of a sheep has now been abandoned, but I am sure farmers feel that they have a langle on four legs because they have been held back by a lack of support. Now, on top of that, we have the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2018, it was estimated that there are 19,800 cattle and sheep farms in the North, which is nearly 80% of all farms. The sector plays a significant role in our economy and supports the livelihoods of many people and families. Even before COVID-19 struck, the agri-food sector on this island was struggling with the uncertain future brought about by Brexit. There remains a lack of clarity about the new rules and regulations that farmers will have to deal with and the supply lines in and out of the EU.
The pandemic has made an already difficult situation potentially catastrophic for farmers and their families. As well as the social restrictions of lockdown that we are dealing with, sheep and beef farmers have businesses to run that cannot be shut down temporarily. Animal welfare and food security measures continue to require constant attention, and the nature of sheep and beef farming means that the overheads associated with running a farm do not stop even in the midst of a global pandemic.
Our farmers have also seen significant sections of their markets close down. While the temporary closure of local livestock marts may have had a short-term effect, the shutting down of hotels and restaurants in the hospitality sector, and the wider food-services industry across Europe, along with the ability of the sector to restore customer confidence and return to trading, are likely to have longer-lasting implications for farmers.
Farmers' ability to continue to operate and provide produce is, of course, vitally important in any crisis, but they also rely on the rest of the food supply chain to continue to function. The support provided to the haulage sector for imports and exports, as well as to the hospitality and retail sectors, is essential for the maintenance and security of that supply chain. However, many of our beef and sheep farmers, such as hill farmers in severely disadvantaged areas (SDA), have had to meet the full cost of continuing in business with the prospect of ever-lower market returns.
The initial Government support schemes, such as the COVID-19 self-employment income support scheme and the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, were not designed with agricultural businesses in mind. Therefore, the £25 million agriculture agri-food market intervention fund has been welcomed by farmers, and I also welcome it. It is crucially important that support will be, and is, directed to those in the sector who have sustained the heaviest losses. As the motion states, it is essential that fund allocation is underpinned by equality and fairness. The £25 million fund has a lot of ground to cover. Our sheep and beef farmers, particularly in areas of natural constraint (ANC), must receive the support they need through the agri-food sector market intervention fund distribution. I support the motion.
Mr Irwin: At the outset of my contribution, I declare an interest as a partner in a dairy farm.
The motion makes a very valid point, and one I have made repeatedly in the House in the past few months, and that is the importance of our food producers at all times, but especially so in a time of great crisis.
Farmers and farm families have worked tirelessly throughout this crisis to produce food for us all. Having security of food supply, and safety and traceability in that supply, is of the utmost importance and it is what sets our produce apart from other regions across the globe.
Our standards are very high, and people in Northern Ireland enjoy high-quality produce from hard-working farmers across the Province. Excellent welfare standards are the foundation. That is important, and it has been the case throughout this pandemic. Food standards have remained high, and that work stops in no circumstances. Rules still must be applied and adhered to, check and rechecked, and it is all for the safety of the consumer.
It is also clear and true that farmland productivity varies greatly throughout Northern Ireland. That is recognised in many ways by various schemes designed to assist farming in areas where the general activity of farming the land is a greater challenge due to hills, mountains or, indeed, water in low-lying land.
With all that in mind, we have had to deal with a pandemic in Northern Ireland, as have many other countries across the globe. Due to the lockdown, and the need to reduce interaction between people, the purchasing trends and eating habits of consumers have been massively altered. That, in turn, had a tremendously negative impact on the food and hospitality sectors, with hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants and cafes all closed. With those closures, the demand for meat and dairy products locally has been significantly diminished.
Consider that, in normal circumstances, a large fast-food operator in Northern Ireland accounted for 12% of beef used in the Province. Take, for instance, the hundreds of cafes across the Province, which all use liquid milk for coffees, desserts etc. It is clear how damaging such a significant drop in demand has been on farm incomes in some sectors across the Province.
In supporting the agricultural sector generally, this issue has been discussed on many occasions within the Committee over the past few weeks. As a Committee member, I am keen to see the maximum level of support provided to our farmers across the sectors, in order to help mitigate some of the economic issues caused by COVID-19.
A number of sectors have been practically unaffected by the coronavirus, but others have been badly affected. It is important that the assistance scheme recognises that. The fact that there has been a variance in the level of impact in different sectors, must be a key part of this debate. No one disagrees that the industry should be supported but, with limited funding available, the assistance already provided and the economic response to COVID-19 running into billions of pounds, we must be pragmatic as to how that can be done.
I welcome the self-employment scheme as an additional support and that it was open to farmers to apply.
Ms Sheerin: Does the Member agree with me that many farmers missed out on the self-employment scheme because they invested their income back into their farms, for example in buying farm machinery and doing necessary works to the farm, which then meant that they did not have enough profit to avail of the scheme?
Mr Irwin: I thank the Member for her intervention. That is open to interpretation but, yes, there may be some that did that. I know a lot of farmers who availed of the scheme, so I am not sure how many farmers were in that position. I am sure that, where farmers showed small profits, that is quite possible.
The reality of farming in normal times is harsh, as we all know. Therefore, we can understand the pressures now at play, given the pandemic and its associated impacts. The £25 million that has been made available is very welcome, and I thank Minister Edwin Poots and the Executive for their hard work in resourcing the scheme. The way in which the scheme is opened up and accessed will be important to ensuring that producers benefit from it in these difficult circumstances. The scheme's importance will be in ensuring that it recognises the different levels of impact suffered across the sectors. That will be difficult and is no doubt contributing to the delay in the releasing of the assistance. It is important, however, that the scheme recognise the financial losses incurred and reflect that in allocations.
We will, God willing, get through this crisis. On the other side of the pandemic, we will still heavily rely on our agri-food sector. When all the various consumer outlets reopen, demand will once again increase. It is vital, however, that we ensure that producers economically survive the current downturn in demand. This assistance will be of some help in that regard. I urge the Minister to push forward with releasing the funding as soon as is practicably possible.
Mrs Barton: I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate, particularly as the agriculture sector has been offered very limited support through the various COVID-19 pandemic schemes. Businesses in other sectors have received, or are going to receive, lump sums of financial assistance through the business support grant or the hospitality, tourism and retail grant, yet, throughout the whole crisis, the farming community has continued to produce its products and has managed to play its vital role in the food supply chain. That supply has been seamless in a situation in which the livestock marts were closed for a period. Beef and lamb prices tumbled. Milk prices are steadily reducing, and, to add insult to injury, we hear of processors bringing in Polish beef to supply a UK supermarket.
The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs' recent significant bid for £105 million from the Department of Finance for agriculture has, I assume, been rejected. A £25 million fund for farmers and the horticulture industry been allocated. That is just 24% of the original bid.
These are stressful times for all businesses, including agriculture businesses. They cannot and must not be the forgotten element of the coronavirus pandemic. They must receive due and reasonable support to ensure that there is a food supply beyond the crisis. Thankfully, in Northern Ireland, the family-based farming enterprises are a very important part of our community, unlike in other parts of the UK, in sections of the Republic of Ireland and Europe, and, indeed, throughout the world, where large factory-farming techniques have been established, which churn out agriculture products without the same consideration for or management of quality and without the same level of protection of the environment.
There has long been support for local hill farmers. For those who farm in what are termed severely disadvantaged areas, which were previously referred to as areas of natural constraint, the less-favoured area (LFA) compensatory allowance was in place. DAERA's own figures highlight the fact that SDA farms are well over £100 an acre worse off in income terms than lowland farms. With the removal of the areas of natural constraint payments, it is estimated that around 10,000 farms have been impacted on, with a very large of percentage of them in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. On hill farms, there are very limited options for crops, with grass being the only feasible option, and a wide range of livestock farming therefore takes place.
In considering my support or not for the motion, I note the line:
"to ensure that equality and fairness underpins the allocation of the £25 million agri-food sector market intervention fund and that sheep and beef farmers from areas of natural constraint receive the support that they need through the distribution of this funding."
I seek assurance from the sponsors of the motion that their plan is not just to provide support to these two sectors. I fully appreciate that those two sectors have suffered financially due to COVID-19, but I am also aware that sectors such as dairy farmers have also suffered a significant downturn in their market returns. Their return is probably now below the cost of production. Support should go wherever a need is demonstrated in the agriculture world. The Sinn Féin motion raises concerns about farming in ANC areas, but the payment to farmers in those areas was ended when a consultation in 2016 on the future of the ANC scheme was carried out. That consultation was ordered on the watch of a Sinn Féin Agriculture Minister and decided on by a DUP Agriculture Minister. I would be interested to know what weight the Executive and, in particular —
Mrs Barton: — the Finance Minister gave to the Rural Needs Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 when deciding on grants and financial support. Therefore, I hope that the £25 million of support for the agriculture industry —
Mrs Barton: — will be distributed in a fair and equitable manner.
Mr Blair: Mr Deputy Speaker, I apologise for not hearing you in the first instance.
Speaking on behalf of Alliance, I am happy to support the motion, which comes, as I understand it, as detail of the COVID-19 agriculture, horticulture and fisheries support is still subject to some fine-tuning and final decision-making in the Department. Not unlike the last Member to speak, Mrs Barton, I will probably refer, in the next few minutes, to the need, perhaps, to look a little wider than the strict confines of the motion. As I say, however, I generally support the motion and understand the rationale behind it. Hopefully, I can clarify where I am coming from as well.
The motion accurately reflects the negative impact of COVID-19 on the sectors listed in it, referring to the devastating blow caused by the abrupt halt to hospitality industry activity. We know also that it had a similar effect on the dairy sector and, in fact, many sectors of our economy. I am not sure whether the Minister has been updated on consideration by the AERA Committee at this stage of the overall COVID-19 financial support package and its potential remit. However, I am aware of the variety of responses to the Committee's request for feedback. That feedback demonstrates that the range of those in need might be greater than has been hitherto recognised.
The Minister may recall that, when he came to the Committee on 22 May to inform us of the funding, I asked about building in flexibilities for review as the issue progressed. The Minister's response on that occasion, pointing out that it was a finite resource, might not have been exactly the answer that I wanted at that time, but it was, of course, understandable, given the priority of getting the fund moving.
The motion gives us an opportunity for further consideration so that a wider range of those in need in our agriculture sector might be helped. For example, a pillar of funding could be retained for emerging need, or a contingency could be built in for similar purposes. Perhaps the Minister could reflect on the prospect for such flexibility.
Mr Harvey: As has already been acknowledged, COVID-19 continues to have a serious impact on our agri-food sector. Farming is a volatile industry at the best of times, and COVID-19 has brought additional challenges for local producers that were unimaginable at the start of 2020.
The motion refers to the challenges faced by those farming in areas of natural constraint during the COVID-19 crisis and calls on the Minister to ensure that equality and fairness underpin the allocation of the agri-food sector market intervention fund. Unfortunately, the impact of COVID-19 has been felt across the farming sector, regardless of farm location. It is therefore vital that, in the interests of equality and fairness, we do not deem farmers ineligible for support due to land location.
The £25 million intervention fund represents the most generous allocation made to the agriculture sector by any UK or EU Administration. It reflects the importance placed on the sector locally. The Minister was instrumental in lobbying Executive colleagues to ensure that a bespoke funding package was established, and I join the Ulster Farmers' Union and others in expressing my thanks to him on behalf of the farmers in my constituency.
There is no doubt that the challenges faced in farming are deep and complex. The closure of the food services sector, which accounts for 40% of beef sales, and the challenges faced in the procurement of inputs have affected the beef industry particularly. The implementation of new protocols regarding social distancing has also had an impact across the sector. I have been contacted by numerous sheep farmers in my constituency about the viability of their business in the weeks ahead, with lamb prices having remained low and likely to be volatile for some time to come. Concern has been expressed to me that, in the weeks ahead, there will be further pressure on prices as a large number of lambs become available for slaughter. There is also the additional vulnerability of sheep farmers given their reliance on the ROI market, with 45% of lamb flock being slaughtered in the Republic of Ireland.
The Department has focused its energy on the beef and dairy industries, given the immediate impacts of COVID-19 on them. However, as the situation evolves, others, such as sheep farmers, may require similar support. I ask the Department to bear that in mind. It is important that the intervention fund maintains flexibility in scope and reach to allow for that. It is essential that individual farm businesses can benefit from the intervention fund and that it focuses on meeting first the needs of the worst impacted, regardless of sector or locality. If we want to ensure that the fund is distributed as fairly and as equally as possible, it must be flexible in providing financial assistance to our farm businesses across Northern Ireland. Their viability is crucial to our wider economic recovery post COVID.
Ms Sheerin: As I have spoken about at length in the Chamber before, I have a particular interest in the sector, coming from a farming family. Just last week, my colleague Declan McAleer and I joined Sinn Féin TDs Claire Kerrane and Matt Carthy, from Roscommon and Monaghan respectively, in a Facebook Live session focusing on rural issues. We were inundated with questions from rural dwellers the length and breadth of the country, and, although the accents changed, the issues were the same. We heard from farmers who were worried about Brexit, people who asked what provisions would be made for beef and lamb producers in the wake of COVID-19 and poultry farmers who were concerned about avian flu. Those producers are united in their acknowledgement of government intervention in their livelihoods.
The statistics for the North reflect the dominance of agriculture in the rural economy here. There are nearly 25,000 farms in the North of Ireland supporting over 48,000 jobs. Agriculture here has an annual turnover of £4·5 billion and makes up 1·7% of the North's gross value added compared with just 0·5% across the UK as a whole. The industry accounts for 2·5% of employment in the North, more than double the UK-wide level of 1·1%. The North of Ireland is more reliant on agriculture and the agri-food industry than any other area in the UK. Within those statistics, we see that 90% of farms derive two thirds or more of their total standard output from grazing livestock, including 10% that are classified as dairy farms and 79% that are cattle and sheep farms. Approximately 20,000 farmers are classified as cattle and sheep producers. The 2018 figures show that they represented more than 25% of the gross output of farms. We also know that income has decreased substantially in less-favoured areas for hill farmers.
I want to reflect on a statement that my dad told me about at the weekend. It was reportedly quoted by a neighbour he had grown up with who had had to come home from America to look after the family farm even though his heart was not really in it. He said that at that time, which was years ago, "Farming is a curious practice. One can work for 12 months consecutively, show a considerable loss and still possess the will to continue". For me, that about sums it up. These people produce something that none of us could live without: food, the energy to live. Yet, rising costs and falling prices mean that farm income at the end of the year is non-existent, while the other sectors that support the farmer, such as the machinery agents, the feed producers and those selling the fuel, continue to turn a profit, and rightly so. The farmer should also see an income following his or her hard work.
Most hill, sheep and beef farmers did not avail themselves of the British Government's self-employed business interruption scheme, because, without subsidy, they barely break even each year, and 80% of nothing is still nothing. The UFU has highlighted the fact that, in the first three weeks of March, prime lamb deadweight price was £4·80 a kilo and that it dropped immediately to £4·15 a kilo, once the lockdown was announced. Of course, lockdown happened just as many farmers were in the middle of lambing or calving, something for which working from home is not an option.
The challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit have put unprecedented pressure on the agri-food sector. It is impossible to expect the sector or, indeed, any other organisation to deal with both challenges simultaneously. Recently, we saw the passing of the British Agriculture Bill, when the Tory Government rejected amendments to the Bill that would have ensured that food imported internationally had to meet the standards that farmers in the North are expected to maintain. The current context of COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of local food production and food security here at home, so the impending exit from the EU and what that means for food importation is a constant worry for local farmers and should be a worry for all of us.
Greater support for small farms has more environmental benefits than supporting large, intensive farming practices, particularly in the hills, where land management and biodiversity are important.
In a recent presentation to the Agriculture Committee here, the LMC highlighted the fact that the beef and sheep meat processing sector employs over 5,000 people in the North. In 2017, its annual turnover was in excess of £1·3 billion. Those figures highlight the importance of our farming industry as part of our wider economy and reiterate the need for support to keep farms viable. We need to see help being delivered fairly and equitably, so that everyone has the means to continue as we make our way out of the pandemic. In response to earlier comments, I say that it is Sinn Féin's view that no one be excluded, and we want to see everyone included.
Mr McAleer: Does the Member agree that, following on from Mrs Barton's comments, support for the motion does not mean that you do not support other sectors in the agri-food sector?
Ms Sheerin: Yes. That is exactly my point. We do not want to see anyone excluded, but we want to make sure that everyone is included, particularly those in the sheep and beef sector who have not been mentioned.
Mr McGrath: I welcome the debate and the opportunity to speak briefly to support the beef and sheep sector in the North and in rural communities such as mine in South Down.
The motion refers to the difficulty that hill farmers face, as their farms are often located in areas of natural constraint. I know of many farmers in the Mournes who face difficult conditions, with restrictions on their farming practices due to the additional tourism and natural beauty-related conditions. That makes their work more challenging and, indeed, more expensive.
The pandemic has seen a major impact on the supply chain for farmers and their product. Restaurants and cafes are closed, as are many takeaways, and opening hours are reduced, which means that the demand for their product is vastly reduced. That has caused major issues for the sector, and many face unbelievable hardship.
As mentioned, nearly 20,000 are involved in the sector, and they definitely need support and assistance. I welcome the help offered by the Minister thus far, but, of course, this is the long game and could continue for the next year or so. The difficulty with much of the help and support that has been offered so far is that it is short-term to get people through the worst of the pandemic. Obviously, the issues could be with us for much longer, so we need to see how we can help the sector in the months and up to a year ahead and beyond that. Farmers will face problems that could stretch well into next year and beyond. Of course, the sector is in major difficulty because of COVID, but then we could have the twin impact of Brexit added to that, which could create much uncertainty and difficulty for those in the sector, in another sense for a further short term, and give them more problems.
Cumulatively, these are massive problems for the sector, which does need assistance.
Additional support for the sector is needed. I ask the Minister to detail any approaches that he has made to the Finance Minister for additional funding, or indeed whether the Finance Minister has made any offers of additional funding, to see whether we can help the sector. I would be worried if no consideration had been given to additional funding, given that the motion comes from the party that holds the purse strings. I hope that there have been some of those conversations in the background. Otherwise, the motion will just be building up the hopes and expectations of the sector. If there is no finance to come in behind it, that will be quite unforgivable. I also ask the Minister to detail how the funding referred to in the motion will be distributed — I think it has been mentioned before — to see whether there is a possibility for payments to be weighted by the difficulties that individual farms face because of the constraints upon them.
In conclusion, the motion refers to the valuable work that beef and sheep farmers do in the agriculture sector and the wider agri-food sector in the North. Of course, I welcome and endorse that. I see day and daily in my constituency of South Down the hard work that takes place, but also the real hardship that is out there. These are unprecedented times, and I look forward to the help and assistance that will be given to the sector and to assistance in the long term.
Ms Dolan: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. While the motion is about support for beef and sheep farmers through the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to be mindful of the health and well-being of farmers. I want to highlight the work of Rural Support during these difficult times. Rural Support staff deal with calls to their helpline, which have steadily increased over the period of coronavirus. In a written update to the Agriculture Committee, Rural Support reported that the majority of callers to their helpline had concerns about some of the following issues: worries about benefits; concern about their mental health; farming-related matters, such as a possible slowdown in the supply chain, the movement of stock and the discontinuation of TB testing; older children moving back home; and fear of coronavirus and the impact that their death might have on the farm.
In the current climate, we should not underestimate the extreme pressures faced by our farming community. It is vital that the community, including our sheep farmers, gets financial support. The self-employed income support scheme has been helpful to those farms that are perceived to be profitable, but, where a farm is not deemed to be profitable, the farmer cannot draw down the money. We can only guess that large number of farms in areas of natural constraint will be impacted, as they are not making a full-time income from farming and therefore cannot avail themselves of the self-employed income support scheme.
I represent Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where almost 90% of land is in less-favoured areas. LFAs are restricted in their business choices, due to limitations of environment and climate. LFA farmers are at the end of the livestock production chain. They are vulnerable to price fluctuations. Hill farmers in particular have received extra support because they face additional challenges. An NFU report, 'Farming Delivers for the Hills and Uplands', states that the value of hill farming must be recognised if it is to shape the social and economic needs of people living in rural areas. Weather, rising costs and disease lead to hill farmers getting less for their produce while facing increasing production costs. There is a demand for traceable, quality products. Natural constraints increase production costs and reduce agricultural opportunities within those designated areas.
Some 70% of land in the North is in less-favoured areas. Sinn Féin has highlighted the plight of beef and sheep farmers. We do not feel that £2 million is sufficient to deal with the crisis faced by our beef and sheep farmers. In the North, COVID-19 impacted our beef and sheep industry before lockdown, due to global markets closing. Since lockdown in March, the closure of the food industry, the loss of product value and increasing costs — including fertiliser and feed concentrates, to name but two — brought further losses. Cattle and sheep farmers in less-favoured areas have generated substantial income losses. The loss of the ANC payment was a key contributing factor. Added to this, the HMRC scheme appears to be mostly accessible to businesses that are more profitable.
I commend the work of the Agriculture Committee in engaging with the agri-food sector to have its say and to shape and influence how this funding should be distributed. I am aware that a number of submissions have been made to the Committee in support of all farmers receiving direct support, including sheep farmers, who have not been included. This is an equality issue that needs to be addressed immediately.
Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): Mr Deputy Speaker, I apologise at the outset for not being in the Chamber for the Chairman's speech. I contacted my office to see what time the debate was likely to take place, and there was no indication that it would be earlier.
The House is the place to debate the motion but this is not the time to do it, given the wording of the motion, because the debate about funding is not about uplands or lowlands, it is about losses faced as a consequence of COVID-19. In the allocation of the funding by the Sinn Féin Minister, Mr Murphy, which I gladly received — although, as Mrs Barton pointed out, it falls well short of what was requested — he was very clear about how the money should be spent. I have the document here from the Department of Finance, and it states:
"The dairy sector has already seen an 8% fall in milk price from almost 26p a litre in February 2020 to 23p a litre in May for April milk, which is below the production cost in most farms",
"Further decreases are expected in June for May milk, and if prices remain below production cost for any sustained period of time or fall sharply to 20p a litre or below, dairy farmers would quickly go out of business. The cost to support the dairy sector for each penny per litre fall in the price of milk is projected to be £12·4 million from April to September."
That comes from the Department of Finance's economists.
"The beef sector has seen falls of 15p per kilo, around 4% since March although prices have stabilised as farmers take advantage of new grass and current prices to hold cattle off market. A further drop is expected later in the year, as the need to sell animals increases."
That is well based because there are 14,000 additional cattle in the system that would normally have been marketed by now but have not been.
"The cost of support for the beef sector for each 5% fall in animals' value is projected to be £9·5 million from April to September."
So, that is £22 million gone.
It then goes on to point out the requirements for the horticulture sector. Those are the people who grow products for garden centres. That support is to come out of this money as well.
"It is also estimated that 40% of the horticulture products, at a cost of £1·4 million are already unsaleable, and with garden centres and other outlets opening soon and plant sales resuming, the original projected loss of £3·5 million will be mitigated."
However, one can see that there is already a loss of at least £1·5 million. So, there is £23.5 million taken out of that money already.
Potato processors are coming forward to say that, because they were not selling to restaurants and hotels, people at that end of the market have been left with large quantities of potatoes in their cold stores. Many of them have started to sell them off at £30 a ton, instead of £170 a ton, and the consequence of that is substantial losses.
Broiler breeders have already come forward as well to indicate that there is a huge downturn in that market from Asia and the Middle East for eggs and, as a consequence, they are facing a probable £2 million loss.
So, one can see the demands, but what I noticed today was the absence of evidence from the Members who claim that uplands farmers have suffered more than others. I have to do this on the basis of evidence. I cannot just give money out willy-nilly to any group. It has to be done based on evidence alone. As regards the evidence base, some people suggest that the upland farmers are less likely to receive money from the self-employment scheme than others. The scheme is based on the last three years, and, in 2016-17, LFA farmers got £21,352 on average and lowland farmers got £16,578. In the following year, LFA farmers got £17,725 and lowland farmers got £16, 637. In the year after that, LFA farmers got £14,368 and the lowland farmers got £12,274. The evidence is very clear that the lowland beef and sheep farmers will get less from the self-employed scheme than the upland farmers but the motion is focused on the upland farmers.
I want to make it very clear that I see the motion as divisive. I say to Sinn Féin's agriculture representatives that their duty is to represent all of the farming community and not just one sector. In that respect, it is our duty, as public representatives, to help those who are battling to get through to the other side of COVID-19. Consequently, the focus should be on the beef farmers who took the cattle out and took the losses over the six weeks in the meat plants. The sheep farmers who took losses over two to three weeks are the ones who should be getting the compensation. Quite a few of the dairy farmers in the less-favoured areas deserve some compensation as a result of the price of their milk falling well below the cost of production. That is what this is about; it is not about upland versus lowland. That should not be the case.
It is a fact of life that when a beef finisher goes to buy cattle, he does not ask whether the calf came from an upland farm or a lowland farm. He asks whether it meets his standards and whether it is the quality of calf that he wants. He buys it at the best possible price for him and the seller sells it at the best possible price to enable that transaction to take place. The better the profitability is for the beef finisher, the better the price he pays to the breeder. The consequence of that is that the upland farmer does better when the lowland farmer does better. I do not see a great divide between upland and lowland farmers; I see one community that needs to be supported and brought through the crisis.
Mr McAleer: I hear what the Minister is saying. He seems to be focusing on the finishers and the dairy sector. What about the farmers who, during the pandemic, were selling their cattle between farms? According to his Department's statistics, under the integrated administration and control (IACS) formula there were around 7,000 movements a week during the pandemic. How does he propose to compensate those farmers? I am sure that he has read the 'Andersons Outlook 2020' report, which stated that cattle prices decreased by £240 a head and sheep by £31 a head. I do not know what figures he is quoting for the last number of years relating to income, because the figures that he mentioned at the Committee averaged out incomes at £12,000 a year for beef and sheep. I am not too sure which figures he is referring to today.
Mr Poots: The figures were produced by the Department's economists, so if he wants to query that, he can ask them. I have every confidence in the figures that I have quoted to the Member.
In March, there were 16,500 animal movements from farm to farm and there was a significant fall-off when the markets closed in April. There were 3,300 farm to market movements in April this year compared with 39,896 in April last year. Those movements recovered quite well in May: there were 34,901 movements last year compared with 32,267 in May this year. The price of store cattle in the markets has recovered very well and the market reflects that.
That is a distraction from the point that I have been making. This is not about one set of farmers against another. It is about who was impacted as a consequence of the pandemic.
Beef finishers were at the sharp end. They were hit with the low prices. It kicked off in January because the Chinese markets, where hides and other products dried up. For a short time the lambs were affected. This money has to be allocated on the basis of COVID-19. It has to be based on history. I cannot project forward and introduce, for example, a slaughter premium, because that would defy EU state aid rules, and I am still subservient to those. I am not at liberty to distribute to pet projects; I am constrained.
UFU, NIAPA, NIMEA and the Dairy Council have all been engaging with me — I am not sure whether they have been engaging with you or you have engaged with them — and the fundamental principle coming from all of them is that this should go to the people who took the hurt. It is not something that should be distributed to all farmers. The consequence is that that would be where the focus would go if that is the line that I choose to take.
I will give the House this undertaking: I am happy to come back later in the year, after we have had a period of sustained poor prices over the summer and autumn time, to approach the Finance Minister again on that basis. That will feed into the upland farmers who usually, and in the main, show their animals in the autumn time in the suckled calf sales, and, if it is demonstrated then that there has been a substantial hit, I will be very happy to go to Conor Murphy and say, "This has carried on right through. The consequences of what happened as a result of COVID in the early part of this year have carried on right through to the autumn time. It has hit the suckler farmers in particular", and I will be happy to push for funding.
In any event, there are beef finishers in the LFAs. The sheep that went at a loss in that period should be covered, and those farmers will be in lowland and LFA. There are dairy farmers in LFAs. All those people who have taken the hit should be given some recompense. It will not cover the loss, but it will help them to get through to the other side of COVID. It is important that the House does that.
There are some areas that are outside my Department but where I think some people have been failed, and we need to address those issues. However, within what is DAERA's responsibility, our focus must be on and our responsibility must be to the people who took the hit. This is not about widespread distribution so that everybody gets a little; this is about focusing the funding to where the hit and the loss took place. All ships will rise as a result of it, and there will be benefits because, by ensuring that those people can survive COVID, those buyers will be there in the autumn time to ensure that prices hold up. That is the aim and the goal, and unless things deteriorate further, I believe it is a goal that we can achieve to ensure that we can see a year in farming that could have been considerably worse mitigated greatly as a result of us receiving this additional £25 million.
I should say one other thing. If we really want to see an uplift in agri-food prices, getting normality back into the market is critical. I have worked very closely with the group of devolved Ministers on getting the food-to-go market back, for example. Mr Irwin said that one company accounts for 12% of beef sales. Another company accounts for 500,000 chickens per week. Other companies account for masses of litres of milk for the coffee houses and ice-cream parlours and so forth. It is important to get those businesses going again. It is important to get our hotels and restaurants going again, and to those parties who continue to hold back and say, "Not yet, not yet, not yet", whenever the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Medical Officer say, "There is a fair degree of latitude at the minute because the R figure is low and the number of people who have COVID-19 is low", I say this: let us get on with it. Let us get Northern Ireland back to business, and let us ensure that the markets out there get stronger once again for their product and that we do not come looking for public money to compensate people for their losses but ensure that people can do business in a profitable way. That would be the biggest success story that this Assembly could make.
Mr McGuigan: Tá mé sásta deis a bheith agam labhairt faoin ábhar thábhachtach seo inniu. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na feirmeoirí, agus le tionsal an bhia, as an iarracht s’acu i rith na pandéime. I, as others have done, commend our farmers and the wider agri-food industry in contributing to food security and the functioning of our food supply during this pandemic. As with other workers and sectors during the past few months, a spotlight has been well and truly shone on the importance and identification of key workers, and that certainly includes those who work on our farms and in our agri-food industry.
I include all sections of the farming community in these comments. Farmers are working in difficult circumstances, in many cases with reduced profits and, even worse, financial losses. Undoubtedly that includes those identified by the Minister, primarily in this package, who need financial support, but it also includes those unfortunately left out by the Minister in his initial proposal.
That became very clear when the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee opened its consultation in the agriculture sector on how the Minister would devise a scheme for distributing a financial support package. We received numerous responses from right across the board. I note that the Minister in his contribution talked about the sectors within agriculture and he pointed out that they were clear that it needed to go to those in need. I dispute who they said it needed to go to because, certainly in the Committee's consultations, there was a lot of frustration that it was a very closed section of the agricultural sector and lots were being forgotten about. That is why the motion is important. It gives a further voice to that frustration.
I also note that the Minister was not happy with the motion. I think he said that it was divisive. I fail to see how that is the case, given that at this point it seems to have the support of the SDLP, the Alliance Party and, potentially, the Ulster Unionist Party, so I do not think that he should bring divisive politics into this very important matter.
It is clear that the beef —.
A Member: Will the Member give way?
Mr McGuigan: I gave way in the last debate I spoke in and I ran out of time, so perhaps towards the end.
The beef and sheep sectors, for example, have been very vocal on this issue. Those two sectors make a major contribution to the economy here in the North and, as others have said, DAERA estimates that the gross turnover of the beef and sheep meat processing sector is just over £1·3 billion.
I welcome that the Minister has been given a £25 million package, courtesy of the Finance Minister. I note Mr McGrath's comments. I was a bit perturbed by them because we are not talking today about additional funds. Obviously, we would appreciate additional funding but the £25 million is a welcome package. I note that, at the beginning of this crisis, the Minister sought funding from Europe and Westminster and did not get it from either of those sources, but he did get it from the Finance Minister. What we need to talk about today is not wanting more, which we do, but how we spend this welcome package fairly, and those were also the Minister's words.
This package can and should help mitigate against some of the losses felt in the industry and I note what the Minister said about all the losses when he was totalling up the figures. There is no doubt that it will not alleviate all of that, but it will alleviate the worst excesses if it is distributed fairly and I note that that is the case. It needs to help across the whole agriculture industry. In addition, it needs to be distributed fairly and equitably, as others have said.
Lessons can and should be learned from other schemes in other Departments and the Minister alluded to that. I am sure that like me, from a constituency perspective away from agriculture, he is unfortunately receiving heartfelt pleas from individuals and business owners, sole traders etc who have not been able to access the various Government schemes, business support grants or self-employment payments because of certain stipulations. I emphasise totally with them and their predicaments, which, unfortunately, have put severe financial strains on many individuals, families and businesses, who, in some cases, will see their businesses cease to exist. Given the range of phone calls that I have received in the last number of weeks from across the agri-food industry and sectors and, most specifically, from sheep and beef farmers, I feel that it is imperative that the Minister devises a scheme that, as I and others have said, must be fair and equitable and reach as far across the industry as possible to help those farmers who have been affected by COVID-19.
As a bit of an aside, in the aftermath of COVID-19, when we are looking at how we can improve the agricultural sector, it is clear that we need more all-Ireland harmonisation. An all-Ireland agri-food task force would better coordinate supply chain issues and enable more joined-up thinking on development legislation alignment and so on. Sinn Féin has and will continue to call for that.
The agri-food industry here has flagged up the growing gap in financial support between North and South. That gap has not only been in the support provided for COVID but for Brexit. For example, the Irish Government gave a €100 million Brexit aid package to beef producers. Many of the Members who have contributed to the debate mentioned the impact of Brexit and COVID on our agri-food sector.
I now return to the motion, which deals with the impact of COVID-19 and calls for support for beef and sheep farmers. I repeat what others in my party have said in response to questions, namely that the support that we are asking for should not be to the detriment of the other sections of the agri-food industry that need support but are not mentioned in our motion. They all deserve support, but so does the beef and sheep sector. That sector is not exclusively made up of hill sheep farmers, but it is clear that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on beef and sheep farmers in areas of natural constraint.
In his contribution, I noted that the Minister talked about the need for evidence. I know that he was late to the debate, but I would ask him to read the Hansard report of the debate, because he will find plenty of evidence in that. I also ask him to read the consultation responses that came to the Committee from groups and individuals in the sector. There is ample evidence contained in all that.
A Member: Will the Member give way?
Mr McGuigan: I will give way towards the end of my contribution.
We know that, before COVID-19, beef and sheep farms were already experiencing severe profitability challenges. Farm-gate beef and sheep prices had moved downwards and input prices had increased, putting more pressure on our beef and sheep farmers.
There are 24,000 farms in the North, 17,000 of which are in less-favoured areas. Many people have also detailed the impact on severely disadvantaged farmers. There are 9,730 severely disadvantaged farmers across the North and, as the saying goes, we are all in this together. As has been stated, ANC farmers have experienced a loss in product value, including fertiliser and feed concentrates, to name but two. Farmers are going to market and losing money while, at the same time, are experiencing an increase in costs. My colleague mentioned the Andersons Centre report, and I would refer us all to the challenges posed by COVID-19 to the beef and lamb sector that are contained in it. Again, it details lots of evidence.
It is not acceptable that sheep farmers have been left out, or potentially left out, of any agri-fund support. They face the same challenges as other sectors, such as the closure of markets, a reduction in farm-gate prices and increasing costs, all of which are a result of COVID-19.
In conclusion, it is clear that COVID-19 control measures have had a very significant adverse impact on land-based livestock sectors, including lamb and beef. Those two sectors, along with others, must be included in any scheme by the Minister to support the industry.
To wrap up, I will detail some of the comments that Members have made. I will not go through them all, because I am short on time. It was clear that lots of the arguments were the same and detailed the impact across the agricultural sector, particularly on beef and sheep farms and those in the upland sectors. Most contributors talked about other schemes not being able to support and sustain the sector and said that they had lost out because of low profitability over the years.
Following an intervention by Mr Buckley, my colleague the Chair of the Committee highlighted the all farmers have been impacted by COVID-19. Justin McNulty talked about the impact of COVID-19 on farmers because of market closures. He also talked about Brexit and other schemes not being designed with farmers in mind.
William Irwin talked about the importance of food production and the impact of the hospitality food sector, as others did, but stated that some sectors had not been affected, which I would, obviously, disagree with.
Mr McGuigan: OK. Most people, with the exception of the DUP, highlighted their support for the motion and the need for support to be across the industry. I support the motion and commend it to the House.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I remind Members to uphold social distancing. Members who have proxy voting arrangements should not come into the Chamber.
Question put a second time.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before the Assembly divides, I remind you that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly has proxy voting arrangements. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. During any Division, social distancing in the Chamber should continue to be observed. In order to facilitate that, any Members in the Chamber not due to vote in person should consider leaving the Chamber until the Division is concluded. Members who wish to vote in the Lobby on the opposite side of the Chamber to that on which they are sitting should leave the Chamber by the nearest door and enter the relevant Lobby via the rotunda. The remaining Members sitting closest to the Lobby doors should enter the Lobbies first. Any Member who has voted may then wish to leave the Chamber until the Division has concluded. However, any Member who needs to vote in both Lobbies should not leave the Chamber. I remind Members of the need to be patient at all times, follow the instructions of the Lobby clerks and respect the need for social distancing.
Ayes 55; Noes 27
Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Carroll, Mr Catney, Mr Chambers, Mr Dickson, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Mr Muir, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Mr Nesbitt, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Mr Stewart, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McAleer, Mr McGuigan
Mr Allister, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, 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 Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Storey, Mr Weir
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Buckley, Mr Irwin
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, Noes], Ms Bunting, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin [Teller, Noes], Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Storey and Mr Weir.
Mr O’Toole voted for Ms S Bradley, Mr Catney, Mr Durkan, Ms Hunter, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Mallon, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty.
Mr O’Dowd voted for 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 [Teller, Ayes], Mr McCann, Mr McGuigan [Teller, Ayes], 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.
That this Assembly notes the important role that sheep and beef farmers play in ensuring a safe and secure supply of food for the population; acknowledges that a significant portion of sheep and beef farmers, such as hill farmers, are situated in areas of natural constraint and severely disadvantaged areas and face considerable challenges in running their farms; recognises that COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the sheep and beef sector, with the closure of restaurants, hotels and the wider food services industry; further recognises that due to low incomes and the minimal support from other COVID-19-related schemes, sheep and beef farmers in areas of natural constraint have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to ensure that equality and fairness underpins the allocation of the £25 million agri-food sector market intervention fund and that sheep and beef farmers from areas of natural constraint receive the support that they need through the distribution of this funding.
That this Assembly notes the stress experienced by members of the Northern Ireland Prison Service in the course of their duties; calls on the Minister of Finance to ensure that the Northern Ireland Civil Service human resources policy on inefficiency sickness absence management takes into account the stress experienced by Northern Ireland Prison Service staff; and further calls on the Minister to cease the issuing of written warnings to members of Northern Ireland Prison Service who are suffering from diagnosed mental health conditions and instead to manage the needs of those individuals through positive engagement and compassionate management that focuses on their needs.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and a further 10 minutes to wind. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Mr Beattie: I am in no doubt that every person sitting in the Assembly today, every Member who is not sitting here today and every party in the Assembly understands the impact of mental health on our society and on individuals. I am in no doubt that every person sitting here is a champion for mental health in all sections of our society. We shout about that often enough — I certainly do, and I know other Members do too — and we get our pictures taken talking about mental health and how we should do things better. Yet, here we are with our civil servants, for whom we are responsible, getting a written warning that lasts on their record for two years, if they are diagnosed with a mental health illness. That is absolutely obscene, and it affects the whole of the Civil Service. Somebody could have a mental health illness, have to go off sick and end up with a two-year written warning. The people whom it affects by far the most are those who work in our Prison Service. Those individuals' mental health issues stretch from anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are individuals who are in the most stressful Civil Service job in Northern Ireland.
Our Prison Service makes up about a third of the staff in the Department for Justice, and yet they get roughly two thirds of the written warnings. Of those written warnings, a quarter are for people who are suffering from a mental health illness. What are we saying? We are saying, "You have got a debilitating mental health illness, and we will give you a warning for inefficiency". Inefficiency? Scandalous.
Let me give, if I can, please, the Assembly an understanding of what I am talking about. Here is an example of a prison officer who went off sick with stress and anxiety. While sick, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a debilitating disease. He fought hard to get himself in a place where he could return to work, which he did. When he returned to work, he got his return-to-work interview, as you would expect, from the Northern Ireland Civil Service human resources department. They accepted that he had post-traumatic stress disorder and that he had done everything that he could to get back to work. Yet, they issued him with a warning, a warning for inefficiency. I am staggered that we do that. Is that really how we treat someone with a mental illness? It is an abject failure of leadership, a lack of understanding of the moral component and a laissez-faire attitude to our Prison Service.
Yet, we have structures in place to help individuals in the Prison Service who have mental health issues. We have the prisons' well-being programme. Each prison has a well-being officer who helps the officers. We have a welfare support service for our prison officers, occupational health and Inspire, which is somewhere that people can be sent to. We have the Police Rehabilitation and Retraining Trust (PRRT), where individuals can be sent to help them with mental illness. All of those things are in place.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)
You would think that, if all those things are in place, we would be helping that prison officer with a mental health illness to come to terms with his mental health and get him back to work. However, it does not work that way because, as we are doing that with the prison officer and sending him to jump through all those different hoops to help him with his mental health illness, the Northern Ireland Civil Service HR is going through its own routine of contacting him after 20 days to tell him that he has been absent for 20 days and that it is taking note of that, and, when he returns to work, he will be given a written warning, or, if he does not return to work, it will be dismissal. It is that twin approach that is the real problem, and, sometimes, we do not really get it until somebody spells out exactly what it means for that individual civil servant. Remember, Prison Service employees are civil servants.
I have another example. A female prison officer was diagnosed with a depressive illness and anxiety in October 2019. In November, occupational health diagnosed severe reactive symptoms stopping her ability to function effectively at home and work. She was referred to PRRT for treatment and assessment in December 2019, had a dismissal meeting on 18 February 2020 and was found unfit to work again by occupational health on 9 March. She finally got the PRRT consultation on 24 March but then was dismissed from the service on 3 April through inefficiency. If she could not do her job, why was she not dismissed on medical grounds? Why was it not medical discharge? Why inefficiency?
I will say this clear and loud, and, please, understand what I am saying, and I will say it again later: mental health illness is not inefficiency. It is not. It is a mental health illness. It is debilitating. It should be treated like any other injury, yet it is not, and I think that is shameful.
Some will argue that there must be some kind of management tool to reduce absenteeism, and I absolutely agree with that. There has to be, but when you put your prison officer through all those hoops to help them with their mental health and they are unfit to come back to work, they should be discharged on medical grounds not inefficiency grounds. I cannot fathom that. Mental health is not inefficiency.
The Northern Ireland Prison Service has the highest rate of absence than any other Department in the Civil Service, sitting at between 8% and 10% per day. We have argued many times in the Ulster Unionist Party that our Prison Service needs resilience to be able to absorb that because their job is by far the most stressful.
Many will say that the civil servants have stress all the time, but not like the Prison Service. Their job is like no other in the Civil Service. Not every day civil servants are threatened, not every day civil servants have urine thrown on them, not every day civil servants are assaulted, not every day civil servants encounter self-harm, not every day civil servants face abuse and threats of sexual violence, not every day civil servants face suicide, not every day civil servants go home with a personal protection weapon because they are fearful of terrorists and they are under threat — but our Prison Service do. That adds to the stress. That adds to the mental anguish. Yet, when they finally tip over the edge with a mental health illness, and they reach out for support, what do we say? "That is inefficiency". It is a scandal. I think that we can stop it. I ask people to stop it.
So, for anyone to say to me that they are just civil servants and they should be treated the same as any other civil servants, I think that is pretty dismissive. Prison officers face greater mental health strains than any other Civil Service Department, yet there is no allowance for them within the inefficiency sickness absence policy that uses a written warning to stop them presenting with mental health illness lest they lose their jobs. Let me tell you that that is what is happening. Prison officers are scared to go sick with mental health illness because they are afraid of losing their jobs, and we, in this Assembly, allow it.
I applaud the Health Minister who has pledged to bring forward a mental health champion. I applaud my colleague Mike Nesbitt who asked for a mental health champion a number of years ago. The then Health Minister said that she was the mental health champion. I also applaud Claire Sugden, who tried to sort it out when she was Justice Minister.
What am I asking you to do today? I am asking you to support the motion and our civil servants in the Prison Service. I am asking you to say that having a mental health illness is not an inefficiency. I am asking you to support a change in a policy where a written warning is not an appropriate management tool for those suffering from a mental health illness. I am asking you to say, "Mental health illness is not inefficiency". If I am saying that for the Prison Service, the reality is that I am saying it for all civil servants. Mental health illness is not inefficiency.
Mr Givan (The Chairperson of the Committee for Justice): I thank the Member for tabling the motion, and I commend him for his efforts and for the eloquent and passionate way in which he has spoken. I agree with everything that he has said.
The Prison Service is often the hidden service, because of the nature of the job. It is not as it is for police officers, who are visible, highly respected and commended by members of the public. Neither is it as it is for teachers, who are highly commended by parents and receive end-of-term gifts, and so on. Prison officers are not seen, because they work behind a wall. That is why we need to give them even more support than other Civil Service sectors. Their families cannot say, "My daddy's a prison officer". They have to keep it secret, because they live under threat. Others can be proud and tell their friends what their family does, but not the Prison Service family. They say, "My daddy works in an insurance company", or "Mummy works as a secretary". They have to keep it quiet for fear of the attack that comes.
Prison officers face incredible challenges outside the walls, but they also face incredible challenges inside the walls. What other public servant has to deal with such a disruptive environment at times? They want to help others, but, in return, get threatened by prisoners and told, at times in the most obscene way, what they are going to do to their partner or wife if they ever get out, or what they are going to do to their children if they ever get out. What other public servant has to put up with that type of abuse?
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member agree that the built form — the environment — in which they work, comprising blocks, small quarters and doors opening outwards, poses danger and risk?
Mr Givan: The physical environment in our prisons is outdated and does not lend itself to safety. We have seen improvements and a step forward with Davis House, but you are right: the environment is challenging.
The type of environment that our prison officers are living with today is the same as they lived with in the past. I know what it was like from my family circumstances. My father served for 33 years. He worked in the Provisional IRA wing and the loyalist wing, and both regarded him as a screw. Neither of them was respectful to him for the job that he carried out. We know too well what it is like to be in the Prison Service family. Other Members have served and will speak shortly.
When the support, or lack of it, gets put in place for prison officers, it is right that the Member brings forward the debate to the House. We look at the procedures that are being followed. The generic way in which the Civil Service code applies is not appropriate for prison officers. That was identified at UK-wide level. A review was carried out which identified that:
"some public sector roles, such as those in the Armed Forces, emergency services, social workers and prison officers carry a significant degree risk of developing or exacerbating mental health problems."
The review recommended that:
"public sector employers should identify employees at higher risk of stress or trauma and produce a national framework which coordinates support for these employees and establishes clear accountability for their mental health."
Where is that framework? Where is it when it comes to prison officers? The generic approach that has been taken has led to a much higher level of written warnings and disciplinary action than any other part of the Civil Service. Why is that? What is being done to address that?
In the past, I have sponsored numerous complaints to the ombudsman that have led to investigations of the processes being followed. Unfortunately, in a high level of cases, it was found that the Prison Service did not even follow their own guidance, and that is a very serious matter. What is even more serious is that the ability to refer cases to the Northern Ireland Ombudsman, for scrutiny of the processes followed by the Prison Service, no longer exists. So, we cannot tell those officers to go and get an independent decision from the ombudsman because they are not allowed to. In fact, when I raised issues on behalf of prison officers it was a breach of their employment contract to have asked an MLA to make representation on their behalf about their complaint. I know that because I got sight of private advice to the Minister. The Minister could have instructed that further discipline should be taken. Thankfully, the then Minister, David Ford, did not do that. He was much more reasonable than the advice offered to him by his advisers.
We need to have a system in place that recognises the stress and pressures that exist, and that has been flagged up by the Northern Ireland Audit Office, which produced a report into injuries on duty for police officers and prison officers that identified a lack of data for PTSD and stress. When a medical retirement takes place no record is made if it has been the result of stress. If we are not collecting the data, how are we going to address the problem? We do need to have a much better system in place that recognises the unique circumstances that our prison officers have to deal with and what they have to face.
I commend our prison officers, their families and the commitment that they give to the job because they go the extra mile to help people who need help. They are a uniformed organisation, but they are civil servants. They respect those in authority. However, the rank and file expect those that lead them to go the extra mile to protect and defend them. Very serious questions are being asked about what representation is being made at the highest levels to fight their corner. It should not just be Doug Beattie and Paul Givan. It should be those who are leading this Executive. It should be the Minister for Justice, and I hope that the Minister for Finance also hears the impassioned pleas made by Members in this Assembly today.
Ms Dillon: I support the intent of the motion and much of what has already been said. However, I do have some concerns. Specifically, the motion is narrow as it is only about prison officers and, potentially, has equality issues. I do not take away from what Mr Givan has just said about the fact that it needs to be looked at, and maybe it does, but that is not what the motion is asking us to do. We have to look at the motion that is in front of us, and, unfortunately, its wording makes it very difficult to support.
I have some concerns about whether the motion is actually compliant with employment law. In that vein, I find it difficult to support this motion. However, I want to outline the reasons why I support the intent of the motion and also the things that I think we should be doing.
First, I accept that there is a real issue with prison staff. I accept that the circumstances in which they work are very difficult and that the challenges in their workplace are very difficult. They are working with some of the most challenging people that we have living here in some of the most challenging circumstances. They are expected to care for those people and rehabilitate them, and that is where we need to focus.
We need to focus on how we support prison staff to care for those in prison and to rehabilitate them. I know that might not be a popular thing to say because people want prisoners to be punished and that is OK because it is one element of this. However, if we put people into prison and treat them badly or do not put in place good mechanisms for them, what are we getting on the other side? Those people will come out of prison, and we have to deal with them when they do. Therefore, we need to ensure that we have proper processes in place for the prisoners.
However, this is about the staff. If the prisoners have proper processes, then life will be easier for the staff. We have a responsibility to look after prison officers. I accept that responsibility, and I am sure that the Minister also accepts that, as should the Minister for Justice. We need to ensure that we put in place a proper, robust regime that looks after prison officers. We need an overarching strategy that involves the Department of Justice, the Prison Service, the Department of Finance and the Department of Health. We all have to work together to put something in place.
We cannot do by this working in silos, as has been done so often in the past. We have talked about this around mental health: the need for cross-departmental working. That has to happen in this instance also.
We need to look after prison officers and support them. If there is an issue that they are being treated in a harsher way than others in the Civil Service, it needs to be reviewed. I absolutely accept that other parts of the Civil Service and people working in this Building are not facing the issues that prison officers do. Those people are going into work and potentially dealing with really serious issues of self-harm. We have to ensure that, when things like that happen, they get proper support and are not expected to go home, deal with it and go back into work the next day and just get on with it as though nothing has happened.
This is the beginning of a conversation. We may not be able to support the motion, but it is absolutely only the beginning of a conversation about how we look after our prison staff, change the processes and circumstances under which they work and how we change things for prisoners. In all that, there needs to be a proper strategy, and we all need to work together. Doug is on the Committee with me, and Paul Givan is the Chair. We need to work together on the Committee to see what we can do, together with the other Departments — the Department of Finance and the Department of Health — and the Prison Service. What can we put in place that will make a real difference to these people's lives? It is not just about, "Don't give them a letter telling them that they are inefficient": we need to help them and fix the problem. We will need prison officers in the future. Will we ask people to join a Prison Service where we tell them, "We know that your mental health will suffer massively, but we will put nothing in place to deal with that strategically. We are just not going to send you a letter"? That is not good enough. It is not the way to move forward.
I cannot support the motion, but I absolutely support the intent of it. I support the prison staff in looking after their mental health and in trying to do the best job they can. We need to ensure that people who come into that role are carers and rehabilitators. It is the prison governor's job to look after security. The prison staff's job is to care for and rehabilitate those in prison, and we need to give them the tools with which to do that. In that, we will help them with their mental health.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As this is the maiden speech of Cara Hunter, Member for East Londonderry, I remind Members that maiden speeches are heard without interruption.
Ms Hunter: Before I speak on the motion, I first acknowledge the loss of a giant in our party and to the people of East Derry. I speak, of course, of my predecessor, the honourable John Dallat. John was a man who steadfastly served the constituency of East Derry for over 40 years. Living in East Derry, you know that John's legacy is as evident as it is poignant. He left an indelible mark on his constituency. We remember him, and, though we are grieved by his loss, we take comfort in his immense achievements. He was always the champion of the underdog. From becoming the first nationalist mayor of Coleraine to his unwavering commitment to the heartbreaking Inga Maria Hauser case, John always demonstrated the depth of his conviction and care. In a time of great political upheaval and distress, when it was far from easy to be an SDLP representative, John served with bravery, tenacity, dignity and diligence. I can only hope that I too might serve East Derry with the courage and conviction that guided him. We shall never see his like again.
I stand here as a proud Irish nationalist, and I am extremely proud to be an member of the SDLP, a party with a legacy of fighting for civil rights and built by peacemakers such as John Hume and Seamus Mallon. I was three years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Therefore, it would be untrue to suggest that I recall the sense of hope that it created. However, I know that that sense of hope has begun to fade for the ceasefire generation: my generation. As Brexit looms ever closer, we live in a time of great economic, social and political uncertainty. Every day, I am contacted by concerned constituents regarding the impact that Brexit will have on their farms and our local tourism. To add to that, we are in the middle of a global pandemic. COVID-19 has added greatly to that economic uncertainty. We must do everything in our power to ensure that our communities remain protected. I know the depths of East Derry's issues and worries and the obstacles facing its youth, but I also know of its hopes and its kind and welcoming people, its best qualities and the ambition of its youth for a better future.
Many have lost faith in all of us in Stormont. There are many challenges, but what I see is a generation of young people crying out for opportunity. We must work diligently to stop the exodus of our talented young people to other shores. We need investment in skills and education. We need apprenticeship opportunities, faster rural broadband and stronger transport links. Rural areas can no longer go isolated and underfunded. The forgotten communities in the north-west have been neglected for too long. Many feel that there is an undeniable regional imbalance, a postcode lottery. A child from Park or Drumsurn will not always have the same opportunities as a child from Belfast, owing to the continued lack of investment in the north-west. That must change. It is my obligation, along with everyone else in the Chamber, to build a place that our people can not only survive in but thrive in, a place of opportunity, of understanding and of growth.
Like many, I believe that your story is your power. I would not be standing here today if I were not one of many who have lost a dear friend to suicide. Like so many in Northern Ireland, I feel that mental health is an issue that rises above politics, for, as we all know, mental illness recognises not race, colour or creed. It is blind to income and deaf to religion. Growing up, I looked at the Assembly with everything ranging from disappointment to dire disillusionment. It was only when I lost my best friend at the start of its collapse in 2017 that I realised that I had to do something, and that is why I am here today.
I now move to the motion in hand and thank the Members who brought it forward. As the new MLA, I look forward to working with colleagues right across the House on mental health support. Historically, stress and psychological disorders have consistently been the main cause of long-term sickness absence in the Northern Ireland Prison Service. Statistics reveal that, in the past three years, there has been an increase in prison officers taking time off work because of stress, anxiety and depression. Of course, that reflects the extremely difficult environment in which they work. With Magilligan prison being in my constituency, I know that prison officers face many challenges. We must strive to support them and their emotional well-being. Today, we support the spirit of the motion and the good intent behind it. We have serious reservations, however, about the mechanism proposed to be deployed, as it could raise serious unintended inequalities for employees across the system. I hope that we can work together to find a resolution that supports all our citizens facing mental ill health in Northern Ireland.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Thank you. May I be the first to congratulate the Member on her maiden speech in the Chamber? I am sure that we will hear plenty more from her in the coming days and weeks.
Mr Lyttle: As a member of the Alliance Party, a party that has stood for the rule of law, peace and justice since its foundation, I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of our prison officers today. There are few roles in society of which we ask more. Prison officers play a vital role, and we say, "Thank you", to them for it. As the Prison Officers' Association has stated, prison officers have risen to the challenge of COVID-19. They are key workers who demonstrate their professional qualities by attending work in dangerous circumstances, and we recognise the work that they carry out on our behalf. They are brave men and women, rising not only to the challenges of COVID-19 but to all other challenges that we see in our prisons daily. I have met prison officers who have been harassed and threatened in the line of duty; intimidated with information gathered through terrorist surveillance of their loved ones; required to be first responders to serious self-harm, attempted suicide and actual suicide; assaulted; and trapped at knifepoint in cells. Today, I remember the prison officers who have been murdered in cowardly and brutal ways in Northern Ireland. None of what they do is in vain, and all of what they do is to keep us safe.
I have sat with serving and former male and female prison officers who are physically and mentally injured as a result of the trauma that they have endured on our behalf. They deserve our utmost respect and gratitude and the best, safest and most secure health and well-being provision that we can offer them. I welcome the work that the Justice Minister is undertaking to achieve that aim. Improved sickness absence procedures and, in particular, sickness absence communications are part of a wide range of matters that I have raised with the Department of Finance and the Department of Justice on behalf of prison officers. I do not believe, however, that ceasing issuing written warnings as part of sickness management procedures without having an alternative mechanism in place to manage sickness is a comprehensive or appropriate response to the matter at this stage.
Whilst improved sickness absence procedures are important, many other measures are needed to prevent prison officers experiencing physical and mental ill health in the first place. I welcome the Prisons WELL and Inspire health and well-being programmes. I look forward to meeting the Prison Service to seek an update on progress on a wide range of issues and reports such as that of the former Prison Service head of psychology, Dr Jackie Bates-Gaston, which made constructive recommendations on prison officer well-being provision.
It has been my privilege to work with prison officers towards improved health and well-being support over a number of years. I pay tribute to the prison officers who have been involved in that campaign. I worked for and particularly welcomed the extension of the excellent Rehabilitation and Retraining Trust's services to serving prison officers. I hope that the referral pathway and timescale for access to that safe, secure and bespoke service can be improved and eligibility for it extended to former prison officers. I am grateful for Justice Minister Naomi Long's decisive action to commission a review of support services for former prison officers. I ask that the UK Government and Northern Ireland Executive consider the acute Troubles-related trauma experienced by many former prison officers and their families and find a way to deliver funded access to the Rehabilitation and Retraining Trust for former prison officers as well as current prison officers as soon as possible.
It is right that we work to improve the health and well-being of prisoners. A healthier prison population will assist prison officers. However, we must do all that we can to protect the mental health and well-being of our prison officers in their performance of this challenging and vital role for our society.
Mr Frew: I support the motion very much. It is great that we have Private Members' Business back in the House. It should never have been left off the agenda in the first place. Private Members' Business is vital to get Members' points of view across. This debate illustrates why it is so important to have private Members' motions, and I commend Doug on it. I sit with him on the Justice Committee and respect him for the job that he does. It is great to see an individual MLA picking up an issue and really running with it and forcing it into the mindset of every other MLA. I commend him on this. I am sure that he will reciprocate and support me in my fight to try to get independence for the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI). These and all the other issues that we fight for on an individual basis are very important. Not every Member can fight on every issue, so it is important that MLAs pick something up and run with it and make a real difference. If every MLA does that, the world can be a better place.
Doug is absolutely right to bring the issue in the motion to our attention. He is absolutely right about the need for Prison Service staff to be treated with respect and dignity and to be treated differently from other Civil Service staff for the simple reason that they do a completely different and specific role. There is nowhere else in the Civil Service, albeit that there are some other very difficult roles and jobs, where, in the course of your day's work, you interface and interact with people who have massive issues, massive problems and are highly dangerous and then go home and still face the spectre of threats and intimidation. No other job in the Civil Service contains that. Not only that, when they go to work, as I said earlier, the built environment there is not conducive to safety, good mental health and well-being. We have made great strides, but let us face it: it is not.
I commend the Prison Service's leadership. Since I became an MLA 10 years ago, I have seen a vast improvement in the leadership of the Prison Service to get us to the point that we are at now. Much more can be done, but we have to give credit where credit is due.
The Member raised issues about the procedures that the Civil Service goes through to bring somebody back to work. If you are experiencing mental health problems or stress, are being told that you are not efficient and have received a warning that can stay on your record for two years, that is so impactful that it actually reinforces the mental illness. It will only make conditions worse; it will not make them any better. The stress and strains for that individual and the heap and weight that is being placed on them by colleagues and by their leadership is immense. Surely, that is wrong. Where is the strong arm of comfort here? Where is the wrap-around service? Where is the protection? Those people risk their lives for us.
Mr Givan: I appreciate the Member giving way. Does he agree that it will be viewed by many prison officers that people oppose the motion on the basis of technicalities and that that will send out a counterproductive message?
Mr Frew: Yes, I agree. If it is OK to protest and to fight for one sector of the world or a community, surely it is OK to be here today talking about a specific sector of our Civil Service. Absolutely. We see so much difference in the staff and what they have to endure and work through daily. I have been in the prisons and have seen the psychological effect that some prisoners place on Prison Service officials. I have seen the games played. I walked into the separated wings and, just because I was a suit that nobody knew, they wanted to know who I was and who gave the Prison Service the permission for me to be there. That is ridiculous.
The charade and the game that some prisoners play is ridiculous, but it is a very dangerous game, and it comes with so many risks for our Prison Service staff that they cannot rest when they are at home. It affects not only them as prison officers but their families. How many families and how many members of those families have been intimidated, physically and psychologically? How many have been seriously injured because a parent happens to work as a prison officer? What those families go through is horrendous, and the pressure that they go through is undeniable. Something needs to change, and we need to fix this for those people.
Ms Dolan: For the Prison Service to fulfil its aims in relation to the management and rehabilitation of offenders, we must provide appropriate care and support for the staff who carry out that challenging work. However, I am concerned that to cease the issuing of written warnings to members of the Prison Service who are suffering from diagnosed mental health conditions, as the motion suggests, may not be the most appropriate way to do that.
The mental health crisis that we find ourselves in is wider than the Prison Service. As the Sinn Féin spokesperson on workers' rights, I cannot support this for just one section of the public service. It would create a number of equality issues because Prison Service members would be treated differently from others in the public service, not to mention those in the private sector.
I am very sympathetic to the thrust of the motion, because, as we know, prison settings, as alluded to, can be highly stressful for prisoners, prison officers and other prison staff. For the prison officers, in particular, it can be a highly challenging environment to work in, with a lot of stressful responsibilities and pressures. I am under no illusion about them facing pressures and responsibilities that are unique to the Prison Service and that demands can leave a mental toll. It is imperative that adequate support mechanisms are in place to assist prison officers who may be struggling. That must be done by showing empathy and compassion. However, to cease the practice of issuing written warnings may have unintended consequences, far beyond the motion's intentions.
It is for those reasons that Sinn Féin submitted an amendment to broadly capture and support the motion's main thrust and sentiments but to target more specific and appropriate actions than those in the motion as it stands, but unfortunately the amendment was not accepted.
Every one of us, as an elected representative, has a role to play in breaking the stigma that is attached to mental health. One way to do that is to ensure that the Civil Service sickness absence policy is up to date and treats all public-sector workers, not just those in the Prison Service, with compassion and respect, and that positive engagement is used that focuses on their individual needs.
Mr Catney: I congratulate Cara Hunter; I thought that her speech was great. I am so proud that we have so many young people right across the Floor able to make such great speeches.
Mr Catney: I did not mean it that way; I meant it this way. You know who you are yourselves, anyway.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. The impact of this pandemic on mental health will be felt for many years to come. People of all ages will have been impacted by the fear and stress, and there is still the predicted recession, which will bring its own challenges. Whilst there will be few people left unscathed by the effects of the pandemic, I think we will all agree that front-line workers, especially those working on the COVID wards, will need support for their mental health and well-being.
This motion concentrates solely on the stress levels experienced by prison staff. As a Member privileged to serve the Lagan Valley constituency, which, as Members know, includes many people who work in Maghaberry prison, I am keen to see recognition of the unique challenges faced by prison officers and support staff. I myself am from Moira, and my wife is from Maghaberry. I remember the old aerodrome on which the prison was built, and I remember the building of it and how people's fortunes changed there.
The point I am making is that, while working in a small bar in Moira, and even though I am from the nationalist community, I also got to know quite a lot of prison officers of all ranks, all ages and both sexes. Living under stress and threat is not anything new to the staff there. Indeed, some have paid the ultimate price, and our thoughts today should also reflect the recent murders of David Black and Adrian Ismay. I take this opportunity to call for all threats against prison staff to be removed.
Any human resources policy on the management of sickness and absenteeism must include help and support for those suffering from mental ill health, but must also allow managers to take formal disciplinary action as and when necessary, in keeping with best practice and employment law and the needs of the service as a whole. Unfortunately, the latter part of this motion calls on the Finance Minister to cease the issuing of written warnings to members of the Northern Ireland Prison Service who are suffering from diagnosed mental health conditions and, instead, to manage the needs of those individuals through positive engagement and compassionate management that focuses on their needs. This represents a significant divergence from common practice, not only in the public sector but also in the private sector.
Mr Beattie: I thank the Member for giving way, and ask him a very pointed question. If a person is off sick with COVID-19, does he think it is right that, when they return to work, they are issued a written warning citing inefficiency? If he says that it is not right, then why is it right for mental health?
Mr Catney: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, and thank you, Doug, for your intervention. On a lot of what we are discussing here, we are in parallel. I am trying to be in agreement with you, but it is about the management of this and it is about best practice in work. It is for all of that and embracing civil servants, prison staff and anyone else who finds themselves under stress — and that related to COVID-19. There should be a mechanism, and that is what we are trying to do. We are trying to develop that, and that is the point I am trying to make. However, I am not sure that your motion fulfils that or gets us to where we want to be.
This represents a significant divergence from common practice, not only in the public sector but in the private sector. On reading the motion, it seems that, if accepted, it would create special treatment for Prison Service staff. I ask the proposers of the motion to clarify their intentions on that point. If it were to be agreed, what would be the repercussions for other public-sector workers suffering stress and mental ill health? Where would such a policy begin and end? In a way, that is me answering your question and putting it back to you.
Mr Butler: How could you follow that? I will try my best. I want to be the third Member to welcome our newest Member and her speech. I thought that she did exceptionally well.
I would also like to make the House aware, at the earliest point, of the passing of Billy Bell, a former Assembly Member. He passed away earlier this day. On behalf of my party, I pass on my condolences, and I look forward to the moment when we can pay our respects to his family.
Mr Catney: That is the first I have heard that Billy passed away, and I want to send my condolences to his family. I want to take you back 25 years, to when my house was petrol bombed one night with my children inside. First at my door was Billy Bell. May God bless him and may God rest him.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member will have additional time, and I will be a bit more flexible. Mike Nesbitt is looking at me sideways because I said I would be flexible. [Laughter.]
Mr Butler: Thank you Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Thank you for your words, Mr Catney. I am sure the family will be warmed by those words at this very difficult time.
I listened to the debate. I have no notes; I do not need notes for this, guys, because this will be one from the heart. There will probably be some stories, but they will not be told out of school because they pertain to the people whom I served with for a number of years.
I listened to some Members give reasons why, in essence, they might support this but, today, they cannot. Let us look at the report commissioned by the Prison Service a number of years ago, produced by Jackie Bates-Gaston, a Northern Ireland Prison Service psychologist. That report was shelved and hidden in the Library. It was not put into action because, do you know what, it recognised the very things that we are talking about today as problems from years ago. These problems have existed for decades in this country. I do not want to rehearse the old politics of blame and who was at fault for the stress that prison officers face.
Much has been made of the inequality that this policy might create. That does not stand, because prison officers are not civil servants. No matter what it says on the paper, they are not civil servants. They cannot be treated like ordinary civil servants. Civil servants give a great service to this country, but the threats, trouble and pain that operational prison officers go through is absolutely unique.
I joined the Prison Service in 1996, which was pre-ceasefire. There was talk of talks and much was going on, but at that time, when I signed up, I signed up knowing that my life was probably going to be under threat. In 2020, is it any different?
What does the daily routine of a prison officer look like? I will tell you what it looks and feels like. You wake up and go to work, concerned about your day. One of the first things that you have to do is check under your car. If you are taking a member of your family or putting a child in the car — in my day, I took my one-year-old daughter to a childminder — you understand that your family also carries the burden of risk that you took when you decided that you were going to serve. You journey to work. Unfortunately, as we have heard, officer Black, after checking under his car, did not make it to his place of employment. That was only a number of years ago. Do normal, everyday civil servants face that same threat? No. Absolutely not.
So, you get to work, and what are you thinking about your day? I will tell you what you are thinking about your day. You are wondering what is coming next. I can tell you that working in a prison is to be in a state of hyper-vigilance. It is not a normal routine. I worked in the Fire Service. I have worked in situations where you have to make life or death decisions for yourself, your crew, your teams and the people you are trying to rescue. I can tell you that that stress is not the same as the stress faced by prison officers.
I went from being a butcher, when I enjoyed being the chatty man across the counter who was not under threat, to being in a really obscene environment.
Mr Frew talked about going into the prison in a suit. If you ever get the chance to be an undercover prison officer, that is the only way that you will experience what it is like. The management and the officers are on their best behaviour when you are there and you are safe. Even the prisoners watch their P's and Q's to a certain extent. It is worth doing.
You are in an environment where you are not only concerned with your own safety and that of the prisoners — not all prisoners are bad or naughty; some are there because of circumstances — but the safety of your team. Over the years, the Prison Service has been faced with cuts. I am disappointed that the Justice Minister is not with us. I applaud the Finance Minister for being here and I thank him for that, but I would have liked the Justice Minister to hear about the staff who work under her tutelage. You are concerned about your safety and the safety of the members of your team. You are hyper-vigilant.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. It has been a privilege to work with him on prison officers' health and well-being. Perhaps he would care to reflect that, obviously, while the Justice Minister is not here given that the matter pertains directly to the Department of Finance, she has already, early in her tenure, engaged with and visited prison officers?
Mr Butler: I absolutely would. The former Justice Minister, Claire Sugden, made that her priority, and I hope that, after today's debate, the Justice Minister makes it her number-one priority. As I said, prison officers are not civil servants; they are operational prison officers. I operated an attendance management policy in the Fire Service. It was not a Civil Service policy. It was for the Fire Service. We need a bespoke policy that goes further than the intention of the motion. What is being put forward by my colleague Doug Beattie is reasonable.
What happens when that heightened sense of hyper-vigilance manifests itself? It is about the impact that it has on your mental health. We talk about PTSD and we know what a trauma or a physical assault looks like. Some officers talked about urine being poured over them. Do you know what has changed? It used to be that if you had urine thrown over you, you could report it and the police were brought in and it was investigated. Not now. They have adopted a new standard and that is not even an assault any more. It is scandalous how our Prison Service staff have been treated.
What are the implications for the future, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, if you will indulge me for 30 seconds? We are storing up a real problem for the Prison Service when it comes to retention. We have devalued the job as regards pay and the ridiculous attendance policy and its focus on inefficiency. It is scandalous. My solidarity is with many of my former colleagues who have had to leave the job early. We are storing up a problem with retention and valuing our Prison Service operational staff. I ask Members to take on board that there is no intention behind the motion other than to do the very best for prison officers.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I wish to put on record my deepest sympathies to the family of Billy Bell. As well as being an Assembly Member, he was, I think, without fear of contradiction, the only person who was Mayor of Belfast and Mayor of Lisburn. That was quite a record to have.
Mr Blair: Before I speak on the motion, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I will take a moment on behalf of my party to add to your comments about Billy Bell. I knew Billy a little bit in my early days in local government and I know that he was a very highly regarded man throughout local government and across all political parties. I will also take an additional brief moment on behalf of the Alliance Party to welcome Cara Hunter to the House and congratulate her on an excellent maiden speech. Those of us on these Benches wish her all the best for the future.
It has become clear that there is probably no one here who disagrees with the sentiment that is expressed in the motion, which, very appropriately, reflects the huge pressure that is placed on those who are involved in the Northern Ireland Prison Service in the course of their duties and also when off duty. There are pressures right across our public services, and, sometimes, the most challenging and stressful working circumstances are thrust upon those who are involved in public-facing roles. However, I will sound a note of caution. None of those stresses should ever be compared, favourably or unfavourably, with another. All of them are stresses, problems or threats that are placed upon an individual who has feelings and family and who suffers just the same as anyone else.
It is no surprise, therefore, that there are business areas of public service delivery where levels of illness, including mental health illness, are historically higher than average. It follows, then, that attention will be paid to those levels of sickness and that procedures to deal with and manage them will be reviewed or refreshed. Many of us who worked in other jobs before we came to this place have undergone those changes in process.
Mr Frew: I appreciate the Member giving way. Does he realise, though, that whilst we recognise that mental health goes right across the spectrum of society, we are really talking about the warning procedures that are in place in the Civil Service that disproportionately affect the Prison Service to the tune of 60%? If you take a panoramic view of the Civil Service, you might ask why 60% of those warnings are going to the Prison Service. There is something wrong.
Mr Blair: Thank you very much, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I am not averse to having a closer look at this in other fora, such as the Justice Committee, but I am mindful that those who work for the Northern Ireland Prison Service are subject to the Northern Ireland Civil Service handbook rules the same as everyone else in that service. However, I stress that I am not averse to a wider and separate review of those processes in other appropriate places.
As I was saying, whilst recognising the excellent work that prison officers do in unique circumstances, we need to remain mindful that HR processes and leave management in the Northern Ireland Civil Service have undergone extensive change, and that has been done to ensure, as far as is possible, best practice and consistency of approach. It is perfectly reasonable to expect maximum and sympathetic consideration, of course, when dealing with mental health-related absence. It is also reasonable to assume that each case is considered on an individual basis and on its merits, and we are told — I guess that we have to accept — that this is, in fact, the current practice. The difficulty with the motion is that it seems to seek a separate process for Northern Ireland prison officers to that which is available to others in a similar role and to every other employee in the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
Mr Butler: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that it was a change to the conditions of service for the Prison Service that led to this? It did, at one time, have its own conditions and sickness procedures. There was a change a number of years ago, which the Minister might refer to. It has been a retrograde step to change that, and if that is the case, why can we not change back and why should the Prison Service, when it is faced with so many pressures every day that lead to these conditions, not seek that change through the motion?
Mr Blair: I imagine, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, if I could reflect briefly, that not changing it back is related directly to the consistency in approach for all the employees in that service and that I reflected on a moment ago. I will not give way again, as I am coming to the end now.
The motion seeks that which I referred to, by the way, where the backdrop is that more working days are lost in the Northern Ireland Prison Service than in the PSNI, for example, or in other comparable services across these islands. It is not unusual or unreasonable, therefore, that this matter is being examined and dealt with. That does not mean that that process cannot be reviewed as it goes along.
Yes, we must seek to do more for mental health and well-being in that service in a real, effective and joined-up way, but we also need to address a number of factors when doing that. Those are best practice and value, as well as consistency of approach and provision that will, across the public service, sometimes include warnings where appropriate. Lastly, we need to consider that absences place additional pressure on those who remain in work. Regrettably, the motion, although honourable in sentiment and aspiration, neither addresses nor delivers on that detail. I am obliged, therefore, to oppose the motion.
Mr Carroll: Let me say first that I take the mental health crisis in our society extremely seriously. I raise it repeatedly in the Health Committee, which I sit on. It is one of the biggest health crises that faces us, and it needs to be addressed in a systematic and radical way, with an expansion of funding across society and real and proper mental health provision in place.
The mental health crisis impacts all elements of society, as Members have said, although the poor are more marginalised in a more disproportionate way. There is no doubt that the stats, which Members referred to, show that prison officers make up the many people who need increased mental health support and services to be in place.
It would be remiss, Mr Deputy Speaker, to not mention that it is unfortunate that we have a motion on mental health problems in prisons that does not mention the deep and painful mental health crisis faced by prisoners too. I think Ms Linda Dillon might have mentioned it previously, though I missed the start of her comments.
Mr Butler: Thank you for giving way. There were debates in the previous session around 2016 about in-custody deaths of prisoners. It is a very sad thing when any prisoner loses their life. At the time, I got the chance to speak on it, and I know from Prison Service staff who deal with prisoners that there is a high prevalence of mental ill health in prisons. Would the Member accept that, for prison officers dealing with people with a high prevalence of mental ill health — the very fact that they have criminal sentences — and high levels of addiction, that is a further trauma and that the build-up of the traumas that prison officers face is exponential in comparison with any other profession? They care about the mental health of prisoners and put themselves at risk to protect the mental health of the prisoners that you talk about.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: OK, before I call Mr Carroll, can I say that he is entitled to another minute, but Mr Butler took a minute off him in getting him his entitlement to another minute? Interventions should be brief, please.
Mr Carroll: Thank you. In fairness to Mr Butler, he raised a number of questions, but I think that the point about whether prison officers face mental health problems stands. Of course. Are they dealing with people who face mental health problems? Of course, but the point remains that there is nothing in the motion that mentions the mental health of prisoners.
I think that there was a BBC report a number of years ago that indicated that the figures for mental health problems in prisons was very high. I cannot remember the exact figure off hand, but it was astronomically high. For me, mental health problems in prisons must be dealt with in a way that does not leave the door open to other problems, as other Members have indicated. My concern with the motion is that it could have problematic consequences in granting preferential treatment to prison officers over prisoners. What happens if problems arise in prisons, as they can arise in any institution, with prisoners often being at the receiving end of them and examples of prison officers maybe not acting the best or with appropriate behaviour. I am concerned that that behaviour will not be dealt with appropriately, and the motion allows for that to be the case.
I am also concerned about the motion leading to situations where some prison officers are absolved from facing disciplinary proceedings, such as written warnings, if serious issues emerge in prisons, as they often do. It is disappointing that some Members tried to amend the motion, I understand, to reflect those concerns, but the amendment was not selected. If it had been, I probably would have supported the motion. The problem with the motion is that it disregards normal due process for prison officers, regardless of what they might have done or are alleged to have done.
It is welcome that the issue should be considered for Civil Service workers more generally, but I cannot help pointing out that, often, when the issue of mental health and absence in the Civil Service is discussed on media outlets, some parties in this Chamber bang on about high levels of absence and sickness and do not really understand the mental health problems that other Civil Service workers face.
I will leave my comments there.
Miss Woods: I thank the Members for bringing the matter forward. I, too, welcome Cara to the Chamber today for her maiden speech. It was only a couple of months ago that I was making mine. Welcome.
Mental health issues in prisons do not affect just those who are in the care of the Prison Service. As we know and as other Members have discussed today, mental health issues can affect everyone, including prison officers. There have been studies that have investigated the working lives of prison officers across the world as well as in the UK. Some have shown that psychological engagement with offenders and the mental demands of the job can lead to high levels of workplace stress; others have suggested that the prison environment and the rules governing daily life inside a prison can be seriously detrimental to mental health. Prisons are often difficult and demanding working environments for all levels of staff. Dealing with prisoners with unrecognised and untreated mental disorders can further affect the environment and place even greater demands on staff.
A prison that is responsive to and promotes the mental health of prisoners is more likely to be a workplace that promotes the overall morale and mental health of prison staff and should, therefore, be one of the central objectives of good prison management. I know that the Northern Ireland Prison Service has taken steps to address mental health through programmes and having support systems in place for prisoners. Of course, more can and should be done on that, but, today, we are discussing the experiences of the staff.
The Civil Service HR policy is used by every person who is employed by the Civil Service. The problem that has been raised today seems to be with the way in which staff, particularly Prison Service front-line staff, are treated under the so-called inefficiency part of the policy and how much pressure is put on people who are off sick. I have heard of times when prison staff have been pressurised to return to work despite being off receiving cancer treatment. Others have spoken of being assessed as unfit for work and referred to counselling, assistance and other therapies, which are often subject to delay. I know of an instance where a staff member who was signed off and waiting for therapy to start was receiving letters asking them when they were returning to the very workplace that they had just been signed off from. They were threatened that, if they did not return, they would receive a warning. They found themselves caught up in the inefficiency policy despite their GP letters confirming their health status. It would seem that, as soon as trigger points are breached, letters are sent out. I would welcome some further information on how that process is set up. If someone who is off sick breaches trigger points in their contract or in the HR policy, are letters automatically sent out, and are they automatically under investigation? Could that process not be done a lot better?
Last week, at the Justice Committee, I questioned officials on the mental health support that people may need when returning to work in the new normal, as well as adapting to the changes that COVID has brought to work, home lives, family and friends for all ages and for years to come. I was told that the Inspire service is available for all staff in the Department, which, of course, is welcome, and I know that the Prisons WELL programme is also in place for prison officers. Having processes in a workplace is key, as is all staff knowing that they have a support line there if they need to reach out, but support must be made available —.
Ms Dillon: Does the Member agree that we should not offer services after a mental health issue has arisen and that protections should be put in place prior to that? If we know that there is a prevalence and an issue, why are we not putting a strategy in place to deal with it in advance?
Miss Woods: Thank you. I completely agree. That brings up the wider point of how we deal with mental health in our society and workplaces. Support services should absolutely be there for anybody who needs them.
Having processes in workplaces is key, and staff must know that they have a support line, if they need to reach out. Support must be made available and must be expanded.
I know that the motion in no way says that people who work in different workplaces do not suffer mental health issues, and we know that anyone and everyone is affected by mental health. It is, of course, a fundamental part of human health and one that needs much more consideration, awareness and action to be taken in all workplaces. For the purposes of the motion, where we have people working on the front line in our prisons who are dealing with people who are in prison and have addiction issues, are self-harming or have attempted suicide, there must be a sensitive system in place that recognises that and does not unduly or unfairly mean that people are subject to disciplinary action for being off ill with mental health issues.
I am glad that the Minister is here today. I hope that he will outline the processes by which staff are treated when they return to work. Are debriefs used in the Civil Service, particularly in the Prison Service, to see if staff are feeling OK or to offer support? Is management fully equipped to recognise when there are issues? Are HR policies sensitive, or do we need a bit of a rethink, not just in the Prison Service but across the Civil Service? Can we use this as a means to independently review sickness absence across the Northern Ireland Prison Service, as has been called for by the Community union? As Mr Frew mentioned, could we look at the physical buildings of our prisons and how they contribute to the mental health of prisoners and staff and look at making prisons structures safer for staff? Can we look at offering more mental health assistance to those who are affected?
Like others, I have some issue with the wording of the motion with regard to the written warnings systems and their use. That could pose problems for employment law, but I hope that that could be addressed by moving forward with the Departments involved. Stopping the issuing of written warnings may prove to be inoperable in one section of the Civil Service if not for all, so I would like to hear from the Minister on that. However, I do not think that that is enough to stop the motion being passed. It is an important issue that needs to be looked at, and we need to look at what actions can be taken. I hope that, through the motion, there will be a greater awareness of mental health across the Northern Ireland Civil Service and that not one civil servant will be treated unfairly or feel that they have been on the basis of their mental health.
We have to take this opportunity to assess where we are, and how we deal with mental health in society, the home, community and workplace. We must recognise, although there are differences in jobs, where the structure of the policy has control.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That is the last Member who has indicated that they wish to speak. I therefore call the Finance Minister, Mr Conor Murphy, to respond to the debate. The Minister will have 15 minutes.
Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance): I thank the Members for bringing the debate.
I add my condolences, to those of his party colleagues, to Billy Bell's family on his sad passing. I was here in 1998 with Billy Bell when he was first elected. I got to know him over the years and he was a gentleman. I am very saddened to hear of his loss. Being one of the shrinking club — looking around, I might be the only one who was elected to here in 1998 — it filled me with dread when our newest Member referenced her age, which was when the Good Friday Agreement was struck. I welcome her to the Assembly, wish her well and look forward to working with her.
The motion starts by noting:
"the stress experienced by members of the ... Prison Service in the course of their duties".
Prison officers perform a difficult role, and I have no hesitation in recommending that the Assembly recognises that it is a stressful job. The motion further calls for the policy on inefficiency sickness absence management to take that stress into account, and for "compassionate management" of mental health issues.
The inefficiency sickness absence management policy aims to minimise sickness absence and support people so that they can regularly attend work. It applies to all civil servants, including prison officers. The policy was implemented in 2010 in consultation with the recognised trade unions, which continue to work within the defined processes for managing all sickness absence.
Under the policy, if an individual's absence is thought to be due to illness, people can be referred to a range of support services, including an internal welfare support service, specialist confidential counselling services provided by Inspire, and the occupational health service. In addition, the Prison Service has worked with the Police Rehabilitation and Retraining Trust to provide bespoke support for prison officers who suffer from mental health issues or who require physiotherapy treatment.
That external professional level of treatment is not provided to the wider Civil Service. The support available for staff who are absent is set out in the meetings undertaken and the letters issued by employee relations staff as part of the absence management procedures. In 2019, there was a fundamental review of the letters used for absence management. The employee relations team works closely with the behavioural science unit and the Department of Finance, the recognised trade unions and departmental stakeholders to develop a suite of letters that focus on the individual who is absent, offering support, and clearly outlining each step of the process and who to contact in encouraging staff back to work.
All prisons have an on-site HR team to provide a face-to-face service, giving staff direct access to professional HR specialists, who can provide support, confidential stress intervention meetings and advice on a wide range of personnel matters. There is also a dedicated team of experienced employee relations staff within the NICS HR that directly supports the Department of Justice and takes decisions on absence management.
The existing policy does take into account and provide support for stress and other health issues. However, if there are ways of improving it, I am more than happy to do so. I have written to Mr Beattie to offer a meeting with my officials responsible for that policy.
I do think that the terminology in the policy should change. The language of "inefficiency" is not a compassionate way to approach a situation in which an individual is absent from work due to illness. I understand that the use of the word "inefficiency" refers to the impact on the organisation when it cannot maintain the required staffing level, not to the individual involved. However, my officials accept that it is not appropriate, and are reviewing as a matter of urgency the use of the word "inefficiency" in the policy document.
I have asked the HR team to work with prison services across these islands to see if we can learn any lessons from them, including where line managers are more directly involved in the process.
The motion calls for an end to written warnings to members of the Prison Service who are diagnosed with a mental health condition. A written warning is a letter that sets out the implications if attendance at work does not improve. Those can include a final written warning, and, ultimately, dismissal. A staff member can appeal the decision to issue a warning. The appeal is heard by an individual previously unconnected with the decision to issue the warning.
Removing the ability to issue a written warning could have a profound unintended consequences. It would mean that a member of the Prison Service who had a mental health condition could never attend work, and no action could be taken. That is not a tenable position for any employer.
If I may make a correction, there was perhaps some overlap in Mr Carroll's contribution between this being a health issue and a disciplinary issue. Written warnings in relation to disciplinary matters are a separate matter entirely. The motion relates specifically to health.
It is also likely that an exemption from written warnings that applied only to certain civil servants and certain illnesses would breach equality laws. Let me make this very clear to Members: the potential implication of the motion is that all civil servants with an illness will be able to absent themselves from work without consequence. I therefore ask Members to think very carefully before endorsing it.
Given the equality, policy, HR, employment contract and fairness implications, I cannot accept that specific recommendation. It is unfortunate, given the tenor of the debate, that the exchange between Mr Givan and Mr Frew included a reference to people opposing the motion on a technicality. It is much more than a technicality; it is a serious implication. The tenor of the debate was very supportive of the sentiment of the motion. However, the fact that one of its proposed solutions is not correct and would cause further complications takes it beyond a mere technicality. I feel that I cannot support it, and I note that others expressed the same sentiment.
Setting that aside, I agree with the rest of the motion, and I am happy to work with my officials, the motion's proposers and everyone concerned to ensure that people who are absent from work due to mental health issues receive the support that they need.
Mr Nesbitt: I begin in the traditional sense by thanking the mover of the motion, Mr Beattie. I acknowledge that mental health and well-being has moved way up the political agenda during my time in this Building. It was on a Saturday in 2012 or 2013 that I first made a speech on the subject. That was at a party conference, so it was televised. When I came here on the Monday, an MLA stopped me in the corridor to say that he had heard a bit of my speech. He asked, "Mental health? What's that all about?", and he walked off. I do not think that any one of the 90 no longer gets it. Indeed, the draft Programme for Government begins by stating that our purpose is:
"improving the wellbeing of all citizens".
I pay tribute, of course, to our Health Minister, who is prioritising mental health in his time in office.
Today, we have an example of the two actions that we need to take to tackle mental health and well-being. The first is awareness, and I think that, largely, we are there. The second, however, is action points: how will we deliver actions that will improve the mental health and well-being of our citizens?
Opening the debate, Mr Beattie made clear that prison officers are affected disproportionately by written warnings that stay on their record for two years. He also made clear that it was wrong and inappropriate — I acknowledge the Minister's saying that his Department will look at this — to use the word "inefficiency" when talking about a medical condition. It suggests that the Department and the Civil Service do not understand that thousands of our fellow citizens woke up this morning with no sense of purpose in their life — the sense of purpose that motivated us to get here today — and will go to bed feeling no sense of achievement or feeling frustrated; or perhaps a mixture of both. They have none of the motivation that we have to get up and try harder. Many of these people are on benefits, not because they want to be but because they do not have the mental capacity that we enjoy. That is why they are stuck in a rut, and that is why they need help.
I am disappointed and shocked to hear that the House might divide on the motion and, certainly, that it is not fully supported. Linda Dillon said that talking just about prison officers made the debate too narrow, and she got some support from around the House. Mr Catney talked about divergence and offering special treatment to prison staff. Mr Blair talked about a separate process. Indeed, many Members felt that this was wrong, including Jemma Dolan, who acts as workers' rights spokesperson for Sinn Féin. She complained about different treatment.
However, I say to her, are you actually just confusing equality with equity? There is no point in giving everybody the same thing if they are not starting from the same place. You have got to get everybody onto a level playing field; you have got to have equity before you can start delivering equality. I will give way.
Ms Dillon: Thank you, I appreciate it. To make a quick point, I think that I did address that in that I think that you are right; prison officers are not starting from the same point and that is why we need to have a proper process in place in order to support them.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Member for her intervention, but you did say that it was too narrow. You also speculated that it might not be compliant with employment law. However, the motion was passed, it was accepted for debate and it is not legislation. Is it a coincidence that the Minister responding is a member of your party? I just ask the question.
Is it about equality or is it about equity? Are prison officers a special case? Mr Givan, who is the Chair of the Committee for Justice, was very eloquent in saying that prison officers work in special and very challenging circumstances. He speaks as the son of a prison officer of 33 years standing, and he produced an evidence base from the Northern Ireland Audit Office and a UK-wide analysis, which identified that, among the categories of civil servants, prison officers are particularly prone to mental health and well-being issues.
His colleague Mr Frew expanded on that when he said that prison officers have to interact with people who have massive mental health and well-being issues and many of whom, or some of whom, are very dangerous people. How right you are. As a Victims' Commissioner 10 years ago, I learned very early on that, when you are in that environment, dealing with people who have severe mental health and well-being issues, you absorb it. It gets transmitted to you. I am not ashamed to say that, very quickly into my tenure, I started taking what they call "Supervision", which to anybody else is counselling, so that I was able to offload what I absorbed. Therefore, prison officers are a special case and they are working in a different, special and incredibly challenging environment.
My Givan also made the point that although we are post-conflict, potentially, the same issues apply. You are not like a civil servant who is leaving this Building, or some other departmental building, and going home at night with no cares in the world. You might be under threat and you are taking home all the previous issues that I have mentioned.
I am glad that the Minister agrees that they are going to look at inefficiency, but I am very disturbed that the House cannot row in behind the motion. It is narrow, but why not? Why should we not debate narrow issues in the Chamber from time to time?
Other Members who spoke included Mr Lyttle, who was talking about sickness absence procedures, and Rachel Woods, who also wants to question the process by which warning letters are issued. As for Cara Hunter, I join with others in welcoming her through her maiden speech. However, the next time that you mention that you were three years old when the agreement was signed, you will get an intervention. [Laughter.]
As for the Minister, I thank him for coming along today. I was listening to him and I was actually reminded of the time that the England rugby team came to play a Five Nations rugby match in Dublin in 1973. That was when other nations would not travel because of their fear of a terrorist attack. Ireland tanked England — absolutely thrashed them on that day. At the banquet that night, John Pullin, who was the captain of the England team, stood up and uttered the famous words, "We might not be any good but at least we turned up". So, Minister, thank you for turning up. [Laughter.]
This will be my final thought, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Linda Dillon made the point that we must look after our prisoners; Gerry Carroll made the same point. I agree, of course we want to rehabilitate them — there is an element of punishment, but, when they come out, we want them to be better citizens. I agree with you, but listen to this: earlier, Robin Swann, the Health Minister, came here to talk about rebuilding health and social care services post-COVID-19. Later, I opened an email from the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, which covers my patch, Strangford, with its action plan for June and its specific action plan for prisoner health. It stated that it would continue face-to-face appointments for prisoners with mental health issues and increase its phone and video call options for all prisoners where that is beneficial. Therefore, we are looking after prisoners, but we are doing so at a time when some prison officers are self-harming and some are going to the WAVE Trauma Centre to get help.
Some years ago, I brought forward a motion calling for a mental health champion. Sinn Féin would not support it. I was disappointed, but I did not divide the House over it. I ask that anybody who does not like the motion does not divide the House, because they will send the worst possible message to everyone in this country who suffers from poor mental health and well-being. The motion may not be perfect to them. It may be too narrow for them. However, I think that we have made the argument successfully that prison officers are a special category. It is about equity, not equality. I ask that those Members, please, do not divide the House and that they support the motion.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Clear the Lobbies. The Question will be put in three minutes. I remind Members that they should continue to uphold social distancing and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come to the Chamber.
Order. Members, resume your seats, please. Before I put the Question, I again remind Members that, if possible, it would be preferable if we could avoid a Division.
Question put a second time.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before the Assembly divides, I remind you that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies.
It is important that, during any Division, social distancing in the Chamber continues to be observed. To facilitate that, I ask the following: any Members in the Chamber who are not due to vote in person should consider leaving the Chamber until the Division has concluded. Those Members who wish to vote in the Lobbies on the opposite side of the Chamber to which they are sitting should leave the Chamber via the nearest door and enter the relevant lobby via the rotunda. Those remaining Members who are sitting closest to the Lobby doors should enter the Lobbies first. Any Member who has voted may then wish to leave the Chamber until the Division has concluded. However, any Member who needs to vote in both Lobbies should remain in the Chamber.
I remind Members of the need to be patient at all times, to follow the instructions of the Lobby Clerks and to respect the need for social distancing.
Ayes 37; Noes 46
Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Ms Bailey, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, 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, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Beattie, Mr Givan
Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Carroll, Mr Catney, Mr Dickson, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Mr Muir, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Catney, Ms Dillon
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, Ms Bunting, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan [Teller, Ayes], 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 O’Toole voted for Ms S Bradley, Mr Catney [Teller, Noes], Mr Durkan, Ms Hunter, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Mallon, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Ms McLaughlin and Mr McNulty.
Mr O’Dowd voted for Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Ms Dillon [Teller, Noes], 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, Mrs O’Neill, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan and Ms Sheerin.
Miss Woods voted for Ms Bailey.
Question accordingly negatived.