Official Report: Tuesday 23 June 2020
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I inform the Assembly that the Budget (No. 2) Bill received Royal Assent. The Budget (No. 2) Act (Northern Ireland) 2020 became law on 17 June 2020.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I advise the House that Sinn Féin's nominating officer notified the Speaker that Ms Linda Dillon has been nominated to fill the vacancy of Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures with effect from 18 June 2020. The Speaker is satisfied that all the requirements of Standing Orders have been met, and she is duly appointed.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Yesterday, all Members will have received correspondence from the Speaker that referred to the current unavailability of the Principal Deputy Speaker to chair Assembly proceedings. In light of that and the continuing unavailability of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker Mr McGlone, it is likely at times in the weeks ahead that the Assembly will need to rely on its arrangements for Temporary Speakers, or else I will be in this position permanently, without any breaks.
Standing Order 9A provides that:
"If neither the Speaker nor any Deputy Speaker is able to chair a sitting of the Assembly, the sitting shall be chaired by a temporary Speaker. ...
The temporary Speaker shall be the member, present at the sitting, who has served the Assembly the longest number of days, and in the case of a tie, the oldest of the longest-serving members present. Ministers and junior Ministers are not eligible to be considered as temporary Speakers."
The Speaker, therefore, approached Mr Kelly and Mr Wells, as the two oldest of the longest-serving eligible Members, and they confirmed that they are willing to assist the Assembly, if required, over the next few weeks. That means that, if I am unable to chair a sitting of the Assembly, it shall be chaired by Mr Kelly, if present. If Mr Kelly is not present, the sitting shall be chaired by Mr Wells, if present. If neither of the two is present, it will fall on anyone else who meets the criteria. I hope that that is clear.
Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Section 52C of the Northern Ireland Act is very clear. It states that when a North/South body meets with Ministers present, a Minister:
"shall, as soon as reasonably practicable after the meeting, make a report ... to the Assembly."
Today, we are going to get a belated statement about a meeting — for what it was worth — that took place on 11 March, over three months ago. That contemptuous treatment of this Assembly arises in circumstances where the Assembly has had 14 plenary sittings since 11 March, yet it is only today that the Executive deign to bring a statement to this House. Can the Speaker's Office write to the Executive, remind them of their statutory duty under section 52C, and indicate that they are expected to meet it?
"as soon as reasonably practicable after the meeting".
Clearly, that has not happened in this case; it is some time since the meeting occurred. The junior Minister may, perhaps, want to comment on that. However, I will refer the matter to the Speaker and I am aware that there will be concern about this issue. I am sure that the Speaker's Office will subsequently be in touch with the Executive Office to try and establish what has happened and, hopefully, it will not happen again.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Speaker has received notice from the Executive Office that the First Minister and deputy First Minister wish to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council institutional meeting of 11 March. Before I call junior Minister Kearney to make a statement on their behalf, I remind Members that, in light of the social distancing being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members do still have to make sure that their name is on the list, and they can do so by rising in their place and their name will be added to the list of those who wish to ask questions; alternatively, they can provide information to the Speaker's Table directly.
I remind Members that this is an opportunity to ask questions on the statement, and they should be concise. It is not an opportunity for Members to make statements themselves. I encourage Members to ask concise questions so that as many Members as possible will be able to follow and also ask questions.
Mr Kearney (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): In compliance with section 52C, paragraph 2, of the NI Act 1998, I want to make the following statement on the 11th North/South Ministerial Council institutional meeting that was held at the NSMC joint secretariat offices in Armagh on 11 March this year. The Irish Government was represented by Helen McEntee TD, Minister of State for European Affairs. The Executive was represented by junior Minister Gordon Lyons and me. Minister McEntee chaired the meeting. Minister Lyons has agreed that I will make this report on his behalf.
The Council approved the appointment of board members to the trade and business development body InterTradeIreland and directors to Tourism Ireland Ltd to fill a limited number of urgent and critical vacancies that were affecting the governance of both boards. The Council agreed that appointments will be made at future meetings of the NSMC to fill the remaining vacancies on those boards and the boards of other North/South ministerial and other North/South implementation bodies.
I welcome the appointments and appreciate that they are filling spaces on North/South bodies following the lack of an Assembly for three years and that they are essential appointments to important boards. I hope that the appointments do not follow what has happened in the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA). I tried checking the North/South Ministerial Council website but cannot find the names of the people who were appointed, and I was wondering whether we could get those as soon as possible, unless they are maybe posted elsewhere. Given the critical North/South nature of the bodies and the work that the Council does, will the Minister detail the obvious, urgent and additional workload that the Council and the bodies will have to undertake as a result of the rushed Brexit process that we are being subjected to?
Mr Kearney: I thank the Chair of the TEO Committee for that contribution. For your information, the appointments made were Florence Bayliss and Adrienne McGuinness, who were appointed as board members to InterTrade Ireland, Joan O'Shaughnessy, who was appointed as chairperson, and Nóirín Hegarty, who was appointed as a member of the board of Tourism Ireland. All members of the implementation bodies should be available online, and I will speak with officials after this morning's meeting to clarify whether that is, indeed, the case.
On the broader issues that the Member raised, clearly, in the context of Brexit this has implications for the work of the NSMC. While the British Government's withdrawal from the EU and their practical application of the withdrawal agreement will have implications under strand two, these are not solely issues that will be addressed under the auspices of the NSMC. However, as identified in the agreed protocol, it is envisaged that the NSMC and North/South implementation bodies will play a role. One instance of that will be the negotiation and operation of Peace Plus, for example. In second terms, the 'New Decade, New Approach' document also commits the Brexit subcommittee to initiate an assessment of the impact of Brexit on the institutions on a North/South and on an east-west basis.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the junior Minister for his statement. Given that remote working has now become the new norm and, indeed, the Executive are encouraging it, do you see value in meetings North/South taking place via videoconference or other technology, going forward?
Mr Kearney: Yes, I do, and I see it being applicable in the context of the necessary convening of meetings of the British-Irish Council (BIC), and it would be of assistance in the convening and full operation of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIC).
Mr Sheehan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráiteas. Are there any plans for the North/South Ministerial Council to meet in plenary format any time soon?
Mr Kearney: The requirement for seeking meetings of the NSMC in plenary format rests with the Irish Government. The Irish Government are responsible for convening the next plenary meeting of the NSMC. That has not been done. It is a huge disappointment that we have not, since the restoration of our power-sharing Government in the North, seen a plenary sitting of the North/South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council or the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.
In my opinion, we need to see all strands, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, within their institutional framework, back to work and as urgently as possible. Frankly, Government formation in the South of Ireland and the onset of COVID-19, which we have all been living through, do not constitute valid reasons for not convening a plenary sitting of the NSMC. That should be done urgently, and the Taoiseach, either a caretaker or the incoming Taoiseach, should move immediately and urgently to remedy that failure.
Dr Aiken: I thank the junior Minister for his statement. It is interesting to see that, in this New Decade, New Approach era of openness and transparency, appointments have been made to significant boards in the North/South process. Will the Minister outline the recruitment process, the remuneration package and the approach that was taken to make sure that they had the best people for the job, and will he explain, bearing in mind that the discussions on New Decade, New Approach agreed that a D'Hondt process should be brought into appointments to boards, how it is that that seems to have been completely ignored?
Mr Kearney: The appointments made on 11 March were Irish Government appointments. A number of vacancies are extant in relation to the full complement of the implementation bodies. There are currently 10 Executive vacancies on the boards of the North/South implementation bodies, and it will be up to the Executive to nominate the individuals to fill those allocated vacancies. Those appointments will be formally made at a subsequent NSMC. That cannot happen until the next plenary meeting, which is the responsibility of the Irish Government to convene.
Unfortunately, I do not know the remuneration for members, chairs or vice-chairs of boards, but I will ensure that that information is shared with you.
Mr Muir: 11 March was a long time ago, especially in the context of the public health emergency that we have been experiencing with COVID-19 and the economic crisis. Why has the North/South Ministerial Council not met since then? COVID-19 does not stop at the border, and it is a real reason why these institutions should be working. They are there for a purpose. Why have we not been utilising them?
Mr Kearney: I thank the Member for his question, which overlaps with the earlier question from Pat Sheehan. I apologise, Members, that this statement was not brought to the House at an earlier stage. There have not been plenary or sectoral meetings of the NSMC in the period that you stipulated. The only meeting that has occurred under the auspices of NSMC has been the institutional meeting, on which I have provided a report.
It is simply not acceptable. We need to see all the bodies under all the institutional frameworks of the Good Friday Agreement in full operation. We have re-established our power-sharing institutions in the North. It is time that the NSMC became fully operational. The responsibility for convening the next meeting of the NSMC rests with the Irish Government, Frankly, we should dispense with the foot-dragging and the prevarication. An Taoiseach should move urgently to ensure that that plenary meeting takes place.
The Member is absolutely right. It has been too long a passage of time. I add, for the Member's information, that six meetings have taken place in a quadrilateral format since the beginning of COVID-19, to address matters pertaining to that. I emphasise that all those meetings, with the exception of the institutional meeting that I attended, took place outside strand two of the institutional framework.
Mr T Buchanan: How will the Minister ensure that Tourism Ireland's priorities and resources are sufficiently focused on Northern Ireland for the next crucial period for our tourism sector?
Mr Kearney: I thank the Member for his question. He will be aware that the joint First Ministers will notify the Executive of any future NSMC meetings, including the agenda. A report will be made to the Assembly by the appropriate Minister after each such meeting.
The cross-community requirement in the legislation requires that appointed Ministers attending sectoral meetings of the NSMC be accompanied. That will ensure that, on the next occasion on which tourism matters relating to our affairs in this region are being addressed under the framework of the NSMC, we will have attendance and have two Ministers involved in the process: the lead Minister and an accompanying Minister. I am sure that the necessary preparation will be undertaken to ensure that our interests are adequately addressed so that we come through this very challenging period, in which there are huge challenges for our tourism and hospitality industry, and enter a recovery that maintains and grows the resilience of the industry in the North.
Ms Anderson: I acknowledge the appointment of board members to InterTradeIreland and directors to Tourism Ireland. That is welcome news for all to hear. What impact has the Government formation in the South had on the functioning of the all-Ireland Ministerial Council during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Mr Kearney: Again, that question overlaps with two previous questions. The fact is that there has not been a plenary meeting of —.
Mr Kearney: Yes, of course, a LeasCheann Comhairle. That is very helpful advice from you. [Laughter.]
There has not been a plenary meeting. There have been no other meetings under the auspices of the NSMC, and that situation needs to be addressed urgently. That can be done only by the Irish Government, however. As I have twice repeated, the onus is on the Irish Government to convene the next plenary meeting. It is up to the Irish Government to propose a date and bring forward a clár — an agenda — and for them then to ensure that that is passed on to the joint heads of government in order that —
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. Please take your seat. I tried to encourage you to address the Chair. I am barely hearing you, and I am sure that Hansard will be struggling. Please address your comments through the Chair so that your microphone picks everything up and it is duly recorded for others to hear.
Dr Aiken: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Points of order are not taken during statements. You may raise the point of order after the period for questions has expired, if that is OK. Junior Minister.
Mr Kearney: OK, a LeasCheann Comhairle. As I was trying to finish saying, the requirement is on the Irish Government to identify a date, provide an agenda and process that to the joint heads of government in order for them to agree with the agenda items to be addressed in that plenary meeting and, in turn, confirm a date. It is my hope that that process will be carried out as expeditiously as possible.
Mr Harvey: Junior Minister, what impact has the absence of a Government in the Irish Republic had on the effectiveness of North/South bodies?
Mr Kearney: I thank the Member for his question. Again, it overlaps with other Members' contributions. We have not had any sittings of the North/South Ministerial Council since we restored power-sharing here in the North. That extends to the non-operation of stand three. We have not seen a BIC meeting and we haven't seen the convening of the BIIC. If we are, in fact, to ensure that our power-sharing Administration and strand one under the Good Friday Agreement are to be fully and properly supported, then we need to see full activation of strands two and three.
A lot of issues have had an impact on political, civic and community life, not least COVID-19 over the last few months, but none of them should get in the way of the effective implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. While a Government has not yet been formed in the Twenty-six Counties, that process is still under way. Nevertheless, there is a caretaker Government in place, and it is the responsibility of the caretaker Government to fulfil their requirements under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement strand two framework.
Ms Sheerin: I thank the Minister for his statement. How many meetings of Ministers, North and South, have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic? Has the memorandum of understanding proved beneficial between both Administrations?
Mr Kearney: Mar a dúirt mé ní ba luaithe, bhí sé choinne ann ó bhí an phaindéim ag feidhmiú fud fad an oileáin leis na míonna seo anuas. There have been six meetings in a quadrilateral format since the beginning of COVID-19 but, as I said earlier, they have all taken place outside the strand two framework. The memorandum of understanding, as the Member rightly observes, has been signed between both Administrations and it has been of benefit. It has been a useful document; it codified effectively the work of the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser respectively across the island and the work that the two Ministers of Health were already involved in. Nevertheless, it serves as an important benchmark for ensuring that the fightback against COVID-19 is taken forward in an effective and coherent way on an all-island basis, so that we can maximise common working on the sharing of information, modelling and data and that, as we move into the process of universal community testing and contact tracing, we ensure that that can be effectively carried out on an all-island basis.
Mr O'Toole: I thank the Minister for the update. There is clearly a specific Brexit interaction in relation to the appointments to the board of InterTradeIreland and, particularly, with regard to the implementation of the protocol, in relation to the protection and development of the all-island economy. I appreciate what the Minister said about the lack of an Irish Government to convene or interact with, but has the Executive Office written to the Irish Government urging them to commission a specific strand of work under the North/South Ministerial Council to get InterTradeIreland to ramp up work on managing the implementation of the protocol and on ensuring that businesses in all parts of the island are best placed to adjust to the protocol and take advantage of continued access to the European single market?
Mr Kearney: The 'New Decade, New Approach' document makes provision for the establishment of the Brexit subcommittee, which has been tasked with the initiation of a full assessment of the impact of Brexit on the various institutions, as I indicated earlier — not just the institutions in and of themselves but, obviously, the sectors for which they are responsible for overseeing. Consideration of that particular issue — the assessment — has now been taken forward in the forward work programme. I am of the view that — I am sure that the Member shares my opinion — North/South Ministerial Council meetings present an opportunity for all Ministers, North and South — going back to Members' earlier questions — to discuss Brexit issues that are going to impact very directly on their respective areas of cooperation on an all-island basis.
Mr Nesbitt: I will stay with 'New Decade, New Approach'. Part 2, paragraph 4, makes a commitment to:
"an ambitious package of measures to strengthen transparency and governance arrangements in the Assembly and Executive in line with international best practice."
Does the junior Minister think that the timing and content of his statement today meets that standard?
Mr Kearney: I thank the Member for his question and take it at face value as a genuine enquiry. Yes, I agree that we always needs to aspire to international best standards and ensure that they are maintained both in our political life — political governance — and in how we conduct civic and community business. The limitations of the statement are that it is simply restricted to the business that was carried out on that day. The meeting took place. I do not believe that it lasted much more than 12 minutes, and it was for our power-sharing Government to approve the proposals being put forward by the Irish Government for the appointments to be made. Had I had more to say, I would, of course, have shared that wisdom and those thoughts with the Member.
Mr Kearney: I provided the names earlier on. Perhaps you did not hear them.
Ms McLaughlin: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. The North/South Ministerial Council is an important body, and it should be an important component of our economic recovery at this time. It is regrettable that many of its boards are so badly depleted when we most need them to be fully operational. The two, in particular, for our economic recovery are InterTradeIreland and Tourism Ireland. On Tourism Ireland, the Irish draft programme for government has in it a commitment to support the linkage of the Wild Atlantic Way and the Causeway Coast, which promises to provide a major boost to Derry city, as we are at the beginning and end of both. Can the Minister give a clear commitment that Tourism Ireland will fully engage with the project and that the Executive will this time give full support to this important vision? I say "urgently": we are going into a period now — a very short tourism opportunity — and it will be about staycations. We need the focus of Tourism Ireland to be on this island and between the two components of this island.
Mr Kearney: Of course, the Member is right, particularly given that we are living through the associated economic and social emergency alongside our health emergency. It is essential that we proceed to reboot, warm up and reactivate our economy in all of its sectors at this point in time. The sector that faces greatest jeopardy at this time, because it is so seasonally sensitive, is our hospitality and tourism industry. Yes, the Executive are fully committed to ensuring that all aspects of our tourist industry in this region are maximised. I can give the Member an assurance that, when the next NSMC plenary meeting convenes — as I said, that needs to be done urgently; there should be no more foot-dragging or prevarication, and the Irish Government should convene that meeting — that will provide an important opportunity and forum for the issues to be discussed in detail and in a strategic sense.
Miss Woods: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. Given the lack of detail here, has there been any discussion or arrival at an agreed position regarding engagement with the Specialised Committee on the Northern Ireland protocol, either through quadrilateral meetings or otherwise?
Mr Kearney: Yes. It falls outside the context of this discussion, but I am happy to share information on that issue. The need for the Specialised Committee to meet is urgent. It has been addressed in the context of quadrilateral engagements with the British, Scottish and Welsh Governments, alongside our Administration. There has been one meeting of the Specialised Committee. In recent weeks, I have twice asked for a date to be confirmed for the second meeting of that committee. As the Member knows, it has specific operational responsibility for the implementation of the protocol. No date has yet been set, but, at the meeting of the Joint Committee that took place earlier this month, the vice president of the European Commission asked, specifically, for a date to be set. The British Government Minister, Michael Gove, gave a commitment that a date for the second meeting of the Specialised Committee would take place within four weeks. At this point, I do not have that date to share with the Member.
Mr Allister: I want to ask about the openness and transparency or lack thereof of the North/South bodies. Take InterTradeIreland as an example. If we go to its website, we discover that no annual report or accounts have been published from 2017, no corporate plan from 2014-16 and no board of director minutes from March 2019. Why is that? When you go to the website and look at who the board of directors are, the ones that you have just announced are not even there. Three faces jump out at you — Jimmy Spratt, Timothy Cairns and Councillor Greenfield. Are the appointments to these just sinecures for political hacks who do not need to have any expertise on the subject matter?
Mr Kearney: Gabhaim buíochas leis an chomhalta as ucht an cheist thábhachtach sin a chur. You are absolutely right: all the affairs of government, including all institutional strands of the Good Friday Agreement, must be subject to maximum transparency. If that detail is omitted from the online records, I will raise it with officials. I expect that that should be fully provided. I see no reason why all of the information that the Member has inquired about should not be made publicly available online and through other sources.
Mr McNulty: Minister, it is hilarious that you are attacking the Irish Government after 100 days after 1,000 days of prevarication and foot-dragging by the two joint Ministers' parties. This place remained down for 1,000 days, and you are attacking another institution after 100 days.
Did the Ministers have any discussions about the particular challenges that they would face? Specifically, I refer to cross-border workers, many of whom have been left behind during the pandemic?
Mr Kearney: The Member's comments are slightly misdirected by drawing out a suggestion of some insinuation. The reality is that we have not had any meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council since the restoration of our institutions in the North. I am sure that the Member understands. I assume that he is familiar with the detail of the Good Friday Agreement and that he has read it. It is a requirement that all strands of the Good Friday Agreement should be operable at the same time. It is a source of great regret that we have not seen the convening of the NSMC. Clearly, if the option had been available to our Administration to convene the next plenary meeting, that would have been dealt with at an earlier stage. The issue is beyond our control. I urge the Irish Government to address the omission of meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council as quickly as possible.
Mr O'Dowd: Minister, annex B to 'New Decade, New Approach' sets out firm commitments from the Irish Government, including the establishment of a working group composed of representatives from the North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association, as well as the Clerk of the Dáil, to consider and make recommendations within six months focused on developing North/South parliamentary relationships. The six months is now up. Have there been any developments?
Mr Kearney: Míle buíochas leat as ucht an cheist thábhachtach sin a chur. The Member is correct in noting that detail. It is a precise explanation of the state of play. That has been placed as an objective question: the objective answer is, "No, that has not happened".
Dr Aiken: Yes. My point of order is that, much as enjoy hearing the junior Minister — Declan is a fellow MLA from my constituency — the degree of disrespect that he showed to you after you made your ruling is something that I would like the junior Minister to address. It is not just an issue of turning round and whatever it happens to be; for some of us of a certain age it is quite difficult to hear the junior Minister speak sometimes. I think that, on this occasion, the junior Minister might like to apologise to the Deputy Speaker. Thank you.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has his point on the record. I was trying to encourage the Minister to address the Chair to ensure that everyone is able to hear and that the acoustics are appropriate. The Member has his point on the record, and I am sure that the Speaker's Office will liaise with the Executive Office to encourage all Ministers and junior Ministers to put their remarks clearly on the record so that everyone will be able to hear what is being said.
I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.
Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): Apologies for not being in the Chamber at the very outset; it is tricky to get used to the new system.
We are here to talk about the opportunities that exist for a new green growth strategy and delivery framework. It is hard to imagine circumstances that have had such a devastating global impact as those that we face.
In recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a swift and cruel blow, with the loss of many lives. It has single-handedly brought countries, economies and people to a standstill across the world, as we work out how to manage and, ultimately, defeat the immediate and ongoing threat that it poses. As in most areas of our lives, the answer to the crisis will involve sustainability, specifically economic, social and environmental, at the heart of everything that we do. Recent months have proved challenging for everyone. There is no blueprint for a pandemic or one single plan that fits all circumstances. We have tried, and will continue to try, to do our best for the people of Northern Ireland, based on the evidence and information available to us.
The public have been very understanding and have sacrificed a great deal to implement the strict conditions that we had to introduce to prevent the spread of the disease. We owe them a great deal of gratitude. Thanks to their resolve and their actions, we have seen a significant fall in transmission, cases of COVID-19 and deaths due to the disease. Therefore, we have been able to introduce greater freedoms. That exemplifies what can be achieved with clear leadership and a willingness to work together to a common good.
I firmly believe that, even in the darkest times, we have a duty to plan for the future, and this is no exception. The COVID-19 pandemic, despite the pain and suffering that it has caused, has forced us to live and work differently, to think differently and to behave differently. Around the world, people are travelling less, using less energy and finding new ways to communicate, to socialise, to work and to learn. At the same time, there have been tremendous benefits for the environment, at the micro and macro levels, that we can all recognise. As we plan our recovery from the effects of the pandemic, it is crucial that we adopt a holistic approach, building on the many lessons learned in recent months. Rather than picking up where we left off, I am recommending economic renewal that recognises the importance of our environment and advocates green growth as a pathway to a sustainable future.
I have spoken to Members from all parties and to people across Northern Ireland, and it is clear to me how much we value our environment. That has never been more apparent than in recent months. People have longed for the opportunity to escape the confines imposed by COVID and engage with nature. For many of us, interaction with the natural environment has sustained us through the lockdown. For evidence of that, you only need to talk to the people who make the five million trips to our forest parks each year.
I share that appreciation of nature. That is why I have asked for sustainability to be placed at the heart of everything that DAERA does. It is also why I believe that if we understand the value of the environment, our natural capital, the challenges that we face can become an opportunity to benefit everyone. Therefore, my message today is one of revolution — a revolution in our economy that, if embraced, will benefit our businesses, people and environment.
In Northern Ireland, we have not always been handed the resources that are available to other parts of the world, such as the coal or oil that drove the Industrial Revolution. Instead, we have been blessed with a rich and fertile land that feeds us and sustains our well-being. Those natural assets attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year and feed millions of people in the UK and across the world. People come here because of the beauty of our landscape and the welcome that they receive. Our exports grow because we can compete with the best in the world. We must look after both if we are to continue to survive and prosper. We have always used anything that we have to great effect and, as a result, have made a greater impact on the world stage than one would expect given our size, location or history. Knowing how to make the best use of what we have is ingrained in us and is a trait that will help us to recover from COVID and serve us well in the future.
Why do I say this? Our economy is changing. Over the next 30 years, it will become unrecognisable. There are many reasons for that, but perhaps the most important is the commitment by the UK Government to achieve net zero carbon by 2050. Now, I am not prone to declaring climate emergencies or promoting panic, but I do recognise the value of data and evidence. It is irrefutable that, globally, greenhouse gas emissions are increasing. We, in the UK and Ireland, have managed to reduce our emissions since 1990, but the big picture means that we need to do more.
In 2018, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, stated, in a special report, that limiting global warming to 1·5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. The new UK net zero target will deliver on that commitment to reduce emissions. Overall, we have reduced our emissions in Northern Ireland by 18% in recent years. We have gone down from emitting 24 megatons of carbon dioxide in 1990 to 20 megatons in 2017, and, while this is not enough, it proves that we can make progress when we work together. Average global temperatures have increased and will continue to rise unless there is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This will have far-reaching consequences for sea level rise, biodiversity, extreme weather and other factors that impact on our society.
Whether or not you or I accept these reports and predictions, reducing emissions will have significant economic opportunities and societal benefits. For example, in 2019, the UK Government estimated that there were more than 430,000 green-collar jobs in the UK and that this figure could rise to two million by 2030. It is important to understand how these benefits come about. First, we must stop squandering our resources. Preventing waste is fundamental to better productivity and more sustainable economic growth. When we waste energy, we produce avoidable greenhouse gas emissions. When we waste assets like food and fill up landfills, we produce greenhouse gas emissions. While we waste nutrients in our food production system, we pollute our water, damage ecosystems and reduce biodiversity. When we fail to support people to develop a connection with their environment, we waste human potential, possibly the most damaging of all.
However, when we treat energy, biological diversity, material resources and people as the assets that they are, we begin to see what is possible. I will give you three examples of this. The first of these is the agri-food industry. Essentially, we have created an asset that is the envy of many economies across the world. The asset benefits everyone by providing high-quality foods, jobs and exports, which bring in valuable revenue streams. The industry is worth some £4·9 billion in sales, supports up to 100,000 jobs and feeds up to 10 million people. Imagine the scale of that for a moment. Here we are in this small place, using our natural capital and the skills and expertise of our people to feed a global megacity the size of London. Furthermore, as an employer, our agri-food industry creates opportunities to attract homegrown talent in the form of highly developed, talented and educated young people. Of course, this scale does bring challenges, not least for the environment. They are challenges that can and will be addressed. Ultimately, however, this will be achieved by making the industry more sustainable and profitable. For example, despite progress in reducing phosphorous in our rivers, water quality remains a problem, and the picture in the marine environment is similar for nitrogen. Both cost our environment and us dearly. Northern Ireland Water is the single largest energy consumer in the country, but this is because our water has become polluted due to a range of contributing factors, not limited just to agriculture. So, by minimising the wasteful escape of nutrients into our water, we not only protect habitats and biodiversity but increase productivity and save on energy costs.
At this point, I want to recognise the enormous contribution that farmers are making to safeguarding and improving our environment. My Department has been running environmental schemes since 1988. The current environmental farming scheme (EFS) was established in 2017, and farmers have enthusiastically responded, signing up in large numbers. To date, almost 5,000 farmers are participating in the scheme, and more will follow. In the first two tranches, EFS has delivered over a quarter of a million new trees, which will absorb well over 100,000 tons of carbon over their lifetime. EFS has also delivered over 200 miles of new hedgerows, which, in addition to capturing carbon, is a haven for birds and insects and improves our biodiversity. EFS will also contribute significantly to improving water quality by protecting our rivers and watercourses from livestock. EFS represents a long-term investment in our environment.
We have also made great strides on carbon efficiency in the agri-food sector. For example, our dairy farmers have over the past 20 years reduced their greenhouse gas footprint by around 35% for each litre of milk produced, and they produce 2·2 billion litres annually. Most notably, they have achieved that while growing their business through improved genetics and nutrition. More needs to be done, however, and more can be done right across our food supply chain.
It is worth noting that around one fifth of the Amazonian rainforest has been cut down in order to produce beef. If, in future, that beef is imported into the UK in large quantities, it could threaten our market and people's livelihoods as well as the global environment. It is therefore important that we understand just what we have in our agri-food industry and the role that it plays in protecting our future. We can become a global leader in the production of high-quality food from sustainable systems, and I believe that we can become a strategic food zone. We can do so by achieving a balance between feeding the world and feeding the planet.
The second example is in the area of recycling. When I previously held the post of Environment Minister, the household recycling rate was just over 34%. At that stage, the received wisdom was that we could not achieve 50% by 2020. Since then, we have made huge progress and, I am pleased to say, exceeded that target. However, the circular economy and recycling are not just about a percentage; they are about economic opportunity. Recent studies have highlighted the economic potential of recycling for the Northern Ireland economy. Upwards of 13,000 job opportunities could be created using this approach. One example of the potential is that, three years ago, my Department provided funding to Ulster Supported Employment Ltd (USEL), a social enterprise company that deals with mattresses. Initially, the project employed 16 people, and it increased the number of mattresses recycled annually from 2,000 to over 60,000. Today, 25 people are employed.
Just three of Northern Ireland's manufacturers, employing a total of 750 people, annually create £110 million in economic value for the local economy by reprocessing paper, plastic and glass recyclates from our households. They have the potential to add a further £50 million to the local economy if more high-quality recyclate was available. To address that need, my Department launched a £23 million capital programme last year to provide financial assistance to councils. It was designed to increase the quality of recycling. Some £3·45 million has already been allocated to projects estimated to deliver an additional 7,500 tons of recycling and over 7,800 tons of CO2 savings, which equates to £485,000 of carbon savings.
The third example is in the area of green energy, and it is a key policy led by my colleague Diane Dodds, Minister for the Economy. Through various means, we have achieved a position in which 45% of our energy is provided from renewable sources such as wind and solar energy. Again, this is a result that would be the envy of many countries across the world. However, through further innovation and investment in renewable energy systems and the storage of that energy, we can go further. The Department for the Economy is developing an energy strategy that will make this a reality.
I stated earlier that Northern Ireland can become a strategic food zone. I also believe that Northern Ireland can become a strategic energy zone. The success of our prosperity agreement programme demonstrates how we can work in partnership with business to deliver significant environmental benefits. Recently, we signed our second prosperity agreement with Coca Cola Hellenic Bottling Company. It sets targets for reducing energy and water consumption; for the reduction of CO2 emissions; and for increasing the amount of recycled plastic in its products.
The point of citing all these examples is this: even with all the challenges that we have faced in our society and in our history, we know that great things are possible when we work together. We need to be seen to play a lead role. We know that we need to put our environmental house in order and show that we in Northern Ireland have the innovation, skills and determination necessary to influence meaningful outcomes that can benefit us locally as well as people across the world.
That brings me to green growth. This is a globally recognised concept, with organisations such as the OECD developing a set of strategic principles in their economic policies. It is not a new concept. It was the precursor to the green new deal that was developed a decade ago in response to the global financial crisis. Although considerable progress was made back then, the concept was, arguably, ahead of its time. I believe that its time has come.
For evidence of that, we need look no further than our neighbours in the EU, who have adopted green growth as the basis of their European green deal. It aims to transform the European Union from a high- to low-carbon economy while improving people's quality of life through cleaner air, water and improved health. By working together across the British Isles and internationally, we can co-design a green growth strategy and delivery framework that will deliver for Northern Ireland. Green growth is about working together to value our environmental assets, growing those assets and, in so doing, growing our economy.
There are three key elements to making that work. The first element of green growth is a co-designed, environment strategy from the Executive, entitled the "Green Growth Strategy". It will be designed in collaboration with a broad and inclusive range of people from across the business community, environment sectors and the community and voluntary sectors. Although I have characterised those as separate sectors, in reality, the boundaries are not so clear. I know many people in the business community who are determined to make a difference to climate change and the environment. People in the environment sector understand the importance of working with the business community to secure positive outcomes, and organisations in the community and voluntary sector know that an excellent way to empower people and communities is to connect them with their environment. It is my intention that the strategy will be discussed at the Executive, with co-design and consultation during the autumn and a strategy finalised by next spring.
That brings me to the second element of green growth, namely the delivery framework. It will be a series of interconnected programmes that demonstrate green growth in action. The first of those will be key foundation programmes, exemplars of what I like to call "strategy by doing"; in other words, they are major objectives that will contribute to the aims of the strategy but in a way that demonstrates real impact on the ground. For example, in March, I announced the first of those in the Forests for our Future programme, which aims to plant 18 million trees over the next decade. That is the type of foundation programme that will be at the heart of what we are trying to do in green growth.
Another element to be delivered over the next 10 years and beyond is keeping plastics in the economy and out of the environment. Through that programme, all plastic that comes into Northern Ireland will remain in the economy and out of the environment. It will be much broader than but will include reform of the packaging producer responsibility system in line with other parts of the UK and participation in a UK-wide deposit return scheme. We will engage in both of those. Another element is growing people’s well-being and confidence through the environment. That will aim to deliver measurable and population-wide improvements in well-being. It will focus on the educational, social and economic benefits associated with the connection between people and their environment, which is something that we have truly appreciated the importance of in recent months. Another element is sustainable growth through technology. That will involve the full roll-out of broadband across Northern Ireland. That, in turn, will support a network of new businesses and services by connecting people and communities in Northern Ireland and across the world. Another element is smart cities and rural communities. We will design the programme with communities and for communities to develop natural green connectors and corridors across cities, towns and landscapes, connecting people and their environment. That will also involve the use of connected technologies, such as office networking tools and the Internet of things, to promote efficient energy use. A further element is blue carbon habitats. That will involve the development of blue carbon habitats, increasing biodiversity and carbon capture.
Finally, we recognise the valuable contribution that agriculture already makes to our environment. However, we can continue to improve sustainable land use, healthy rivers and growing biodiversity. That will involve the comprehensive mapping of soil quality and water catchments across Northern Ireland in support of low-carbon farming; a significant increase in our green infrastructure, for example, hedges and peatlands, to sequester carbon, improve biodiversity and act as natural barriers against pollution and flooding; new food and agriculture policies to encourage and reward businesses for sustainability and environmental outcomes; a scenario-planning model to map, predict and, ultimately, monitor the benefits of different green growth interventions; and the movement of all sensitive sites towards favourable management, including land and marine. I would also envisage programmes in the first phase for an increase in renewable energy to a point where we become a net exporter and sustainable transport using renewable energy to achieve net zero emissions.
I will discuss the proposals with my ministerial colleagues, so that we can bring them back to the Executive. We are also, of course, working with the Department for Infrastructure on adaption programmes to deal with the impact of climate change. As well as planning a significant increase in sustainable transport, we will develop the strategy and delivery framework through a process of co-design and co-delivery. Green growth will happen only if people have ownership and if all the key players work together towards a shared goal. The framework will operate under the oversight of the Executive through an interministerial group that I will chair.
Given the importance of green growth, I have asked the DAERA permanent secretary to lead the development work together with officials from across the Northern Ireland Civil Service and a broad group of stakeholders. The third element of green growth is the development of proposals to address New Decade, New Approach. The recommendations include commitments on climate change, including legislation and reductions in plastics waste.
At the beginning of the statement, I promised to set out the opportunities for Northern Ireland that are possible if we work together to improve our environment and create jobs and economic growth the green growth way. I hope that the statement gives you a flavour of the opportunities, recognising that co-design means not having all the answers in advance. We can make a difference, and we can achieve economic, environmental and social benefits if we use the right approach; indeed, I would argue that we must, if we are to achieve the benefits together. We need a vibrant economy to provide people with meaningful work; we need to give people an opportunity to work their way out of poverty; and we need to help those who cannot help themselves. Importantly, however, we need to do all that in a way that cares for and enhances our environment, as, ultimately, we are part of that environment.
I hope that colleagues will recognise the emphasis on partnership in the statement and the proposals that it contains. They are ambitious, I grant you, but I make no apology for that, because it is what we must do and what people expect us to do. My Department will work with people from across the political spectrum to make it happen. It is my hope that Members will reciprocate in a spirit of partnership. While green growth will be a major challenge for all of us, I believe that, with a vision of sustainability, goodwill and an evidence-based approach, we can make a huge difference to our place and to the people of Northern Ireland at the heart of the next economic revolution.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): We now come to questions to the Minister on his statement. As usual, some latitude is given to the Chair and Deputy Chair of the relevant Committee.
Mr McGuigan (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I thank the Minister for his statement. Green growth is a highly aspirational strategy. The statement is welcome, as it contains many worthwhile aims and objectives. However, on the basis of its content, what has been announced seems to be the start of a process. Many of the programmes, ideas and concepts referenced in the statement are not new; they have been around for a while. What is new, I suppose, is bringing them together and appointing a permanent secretary to lead on them. What is missing is detail such as budget, timeline, proper aims and objectives and delivery plans. What resources has the Minister allocated to the delivery of green growth? Can he provide the AERA Committee with a detailed delivery plan, including a time frame?
Mr Poots: Today's statement is about delivering the concept. Over the next year, as we work with other Departments, with the Committee and, indeed, the entire House, that concept will become the strategy, and the strategy will be bid for on the basis of what, we recognise, is needed to move it forward. It is important for all of us that we understand that, environmentally, this is an opportunity for our economy, not a threat to it. It is an opportunity to build. That is what we want to do: we want to build our economy in a sustainable way; we want to ensure that growth happens in a sustainable way; and we want to ensure that, as we do things that help and protect the environment, we grow our economy alongside that.
We will produce budgets. However, now is just not the time. That work will happen in due course, when the strategy is more formalised.
Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for his positive statement. I welcome the road map for the future, particularly on the need for more work to be done around the circular economy, in particular the better use of our waste material. Keeping waste in our economy is a must. How do you foresee Northern Ireland delivering on that approach?
Mr Poots: We have significant opportunities, and I referenced the £23 million fund that is looking at how we can better improve on our waste strategy. Achieving a 50% recycling rate by 2020 was an admirable aim. I set that policy way back in 2010 and was told that we had no chance: we did it. Now we are looking at 2030 and what we can achieve. Can we achieve 70%? That is a decision that I have to make, but it certainly would be a noble aspiration. Achieving 70% is one thing, but making good utilisation of the product is another matter entirely. In your constituency, for example, Cherry Pipes recycles a lot of plastics. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone we have a company recycling a lot of bottles. We have others recycling considerable amounts of paper that are then reused. All that is absolutely critical.
Last week, I met three companies that employ 700 people in recycling. They keep huge volumes of that waste in the economy in Northern Ireland. I do not want to see recycling happen and then that material being put on a ship to China and we do not know what is happening to it. We want to see it recycled here. It is about supporting businesses to do that here and ensuring that we have that circular economy.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask the Minister to address the Chair. When he turns round, he will find that the microphone is not picking up all that he says. It may cause difficulties for Hansard. I urge him to address the Chair at all times.
Ms Hunter: I thank the Minister for his statement and note its timely nature, given that temperatures in the Arctic Circle reached a record high of 38° at the weekend.
Would the Minister agree that, to protect our natural capital for generations, we need to take action now, but we also need to ensure that we raise a generation of young people who are environmentally aware? To that end, would he agree that green growth and climate awareness should form part of the curriculum?
Mr Poots: I am used, Mr Chair, to addressing the House as well as you. It is a habit that I have of actually speaking to the Members who are asking questions and so forth. However, because we only have the one Speaker, I will take your advice on the matter.
In terms of the question asked by the Member for East Londonderry, it is critical that we get our younger population on board with us. The one thing that I despair of is the amount of waste that is thrown on the side of our roads. On every country road that you go up there are used drink cans, papers from food outlets, crisp bags and all sorts of things. It is not appropriate. It should not happen. Education should take that out of the system, so we need to encourage the environment to be at the centre of education. There are now, GCSEs in land use and agriculture and so forth. We need to encourage more of that, particularly if hundreds of thousands of jobs are potentially to be created across the United Kingdom for that. It is important that people are educated in a way that prepares them for those jobs.
Mrs Barton: Minister, thank you for your statement. I welcome it very much as the way forward for our new green growth strategy. What way do you intend to work in the future with machinery producers in relation to their energy efficiency? Our tractors, as you know, guzzle up so much oil and diesel etc.
Mr Poots: Thankfully, a lot of tractors have become more fuel-efficient over the years, so the more modern tractor is more fuel-efficient than older tractors. I know that many people do not like it, but the bigger the machine and the equipment behind it, the more energy-efficient they are. That is a good thing. It works better if there are fewer, bigger machines rather than lots of smaller machines. We see the opportunities that exist with electric cars, but I suspect that they do not exist to the same extent for HGVs and tractors and agricultural machinery. That is where we need to be looking at other opportunities, such as hydrogen. I welcome the work that has been done by Wrightbus, for example, in Ballymena, in developing hydrogen buses. If it has been done for buses, I assume that it can be done for tractors and lorries. In efforts to achieve a more circular economy, can we capture hydrogen from the residual refuse derived fuel (RFD) waste? Can we derive fuel from that? Those are areas that we need to look at. That is how we can grow the economy and go forward in an environmentally sustainable way, because 100% of that material, which could be described as waste, has a useful purpose.
Mr Blair: On behalf of the Alliance Party, I thank the Minister for the extensive statement, particularly the address therein of the remaining, growing and global challenge of climate change. I hope that what has been called an economic revolution might also provide opportunities for an environmental protection revolution. In light of that, will the specific 'New Decade, New Approach' commitment to a climate change Act be included as we take forward green growth? Will it be done in the context of looking at opportunities for technologies, research and development and skills within that area?
Mr Poots: I have been considering the proposals of the NDNA agreement for the establishment of an independent agency to form part of the possible outline of a future Programme for Government. That will be no small task, given the scope of the potential impacts, and other issues will need to be addressed.
I agree entirely with the Member that this is a window of opportunity for us and that it should be seen as such. As new agreements are made, or deals or done, after the UK moves on from the European Union, we could be left with challenges with imported food coming into the UK that is of a different standard to ours, for example. The message that needs to go out to the public is that that food has been produced in a sustainable way, with regard to animal welfare, environmental production, food miles, for example, and the treatment of the people employed in the processing of the goods. If we can apply those sustainability measures to whatever we produce in Northern Ireland — not just food — it will help us sell our product as a premium product.
I do not want Northern Ireland to be competing at the bottom end; I do not want us to be a commodity-based market. I want us to be a producer of premium goods and to be recognised across the world as such, just as German manufacturing, for example, is recognised as being amongst the best in the world. I want whatever Northern Ireland produces to be recognised as amongst the best in the world. People will pay a premium for that, and there will be a benefit to the entire economy and to the people who work in that economy.
Mr Harvey: I welcome the Minister's statement and the way in which he highlighted the important role that farmers play in protecting the environment and the importance of continuing to support our farmers in that work. How does the Minister foresee his Department assisting farmers in the future?
Mr Poots: A series of things can be done. We have challenges around water management. We make considerable use of the assets that exist, which applies a degree of pressure. Helping with capital investment schemes, and more research and development through AFBI and others, will be important.
We will be looking at further tranches of the environmental farming scheme. Providing good advice to farmers, a wider roll-out of good practice and not reinventing the wheel will be important. In all of that, we do not intend to reinvent the wheel where good practice exists.
How do we harness that good practice? How do we encourage others to participate in that good practice? How do we ensure that we can improve on that, where possible? I know that the farming community will buy into that because we have so many innovative and excellent farmers in Northern Ireland.
Mr McAleer: I thank the Minister for his wide-ranging statement. The Minister will be well aware that his Department is leading an environment strategy that will, I believe, come to the Chamber next week for consent on a legislative consent motion for the Environment Bill. Could the Minister indicate where he envisages that green growth strategy fitting within the environment strategy and the Environment Bill?
Mr Poots: The Environment Bill is necessary to ensure that we do not leave gaps after we leave the European Union. I do not believe that it stops with the Environment Bill. We need to be looking at the green growth strategy, and giving it resource and legislative cover. All those things will be applied as we develop and understand the direction that we are taking.
Mr T Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his wide-ranging statement, and the vision and opportunities presented within the green growth strategy. Minister, you touched on this earlier, but would you agree that in the context of producing environmentally sustainable food, that Northern Ireland, and, indeed, the UK, are well-placed, and that, therefore, we should reduce our reliance on imported food that we have little or no control over how it is produced?
Mr Poots: Absolutely. I challenged some supermarkets during the early part of COVID about their importation of goods. I will continue to do that, and to make clear that they have a premium product on their doorstep that we need to make greater utilisation of. That product is actually of higher value as a consequence of the standards by which it is produced.
During COVID, there was one weekend when Calais was proving a tad difficult and there was a panic about not having enough food in the UK over the following week. That is a demonstration of the importance of food security. I know that some advisers in Number 10 at the start of the year were suggesting that we did not really need farming in the UK. That is a nonsense of a suggestion for the environment and the public's well-being.
Sustainable food can and should be produced here. We need to have the support to do that and to ensure that we can go forward. We are not going to be cutting down rain forests or engaging in those negative environmental activities that are happening in many other parts of the world in producing food.
It needs to be recognised that it will cost a bit more to do that, but for the food security of this country we need to ensure that we have as much food as possible produced at home at the local base and import less, if possible.
Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome the ambition around the green growth strategy and partnership working. You have outlined strands of work that fall across sectors. It not be any surprise to the Minister to hear me say that climate legislation with binding sectoral targets would provide a framework for our strategies and programmes. I urge him to expedite that.
On the current work, will the Minister work with the Economy Minister to ensure that the green growth strategy fits in with the economic recovery plan?
Mr Poots: Yes. I will work with the Economy Minister and all Ministers on this. We brought this strategy to the Executive on an awayday. I think that that was in February, but it was certainly before COVID struck. We are keen to press ahead with it. COVID has delayed it slightly, but that is a blip and will not prevent us carrying this out. As we come out of COVID, we now want to focus on its delivery. So, yes, the Economy Minister will be crucial, as will the Infrastructure Minister. However, every Minister will have a role in delivering this. I will work with all my Executive colleagues on its delivery.
Ms McLaughlin: Thank you, Minister, and congratulations on your policy statement. It is a really good start and I look forward to its further development. I am also pleased with your commitment to work with the other Ministers on this because it is an all-government approach for the future. It is important that all Departments support the green recovery programme. Does the Minister share my concerns about the future of factory farming? It harms the environment and is arguably bad for human health as well, as shown with the recent COVID-19 outbreaks in meat-processing plants in Germany, France, Spain, Wales and England. Are you concerned about that?
Mr Poots: It all depends on what the term "factory farming" is referring to. I do not consider farms that have higher levels of livestock and have to employ additional people over and above the family to be factory farms. Some of the larger pork farms that we have and that are being developed in Northern Ireland can reduce the amounts of ammonia and other gases as a consequence of their being prepared to make significant investment. We need to reflect on that. You can have older or smaller systems in place the environmental footprint of which is much larger given their output. We are not in the situation of the United States, for example, where you could go to a farm that has 20,000 cows; that is factory farming. However, we do have larger farms. Some of those larger farms are carrying out best practice. We need to recognise that and not simply label something a factory farm when best practice is being followed. Let us judge everything in the round and on its merits as opposed to its scale. We will need to judge in the round the environmental impact that they make relative to their output.
Mr K Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his very detailed statement. The agri-food industry is a sector that I was proud to work with for many years. What further practical steps do you think that that sector could take to fit in with your document or road map?
Mr Poots: Good practice needs to be followed throughout the system. From the very start of the process and right through its entirety, factories need to identify good practice on how they manage their waste, how they manage their effluence, what energy they are using, whether they can produce energy of their own and resource water of their own. All those things are in there. I know of facilities that are almost entirely circular and perhaps some that are entirely circular. That is important and something that many businesses have been looking at. It was not on the radar 20 years ago but it is now. It is very important for them and many are responding in positive ways. It is a selling point. There are facilities that are producing their own energy and using it to chill their fridges, drive the lorries and other vehicles that are doing the transporting and so forth.
Those are all excellent and innovative ideas that are making a significant contribution to the circular economy that we desire.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for his statement. However, I have concerns about the seriousness with which he is judging the situation. He prefaced the statement by saying that he is not someone who is:
"prone to declaring climate emergencies."
The House declared a climate emergency, and it is a clear and present risk to us all. It should not be underplayed.
I declare that I was previously a member of Ards and North Down Borough Council and an employee of Translink. My question is about the plans to incorporate this into the multi-year Programme for Government. What engagement does he plan to have with other Executive colleagues, including the Minister for Infrastructure, to ensure that we have a coordinated approach that it is incorporated in the Programme for Government?
Mr Poots: We are very happy to work with all the other Departments, as I indicated to other Members, and transportation is a very important issue. However, COVID-19 has taught us all the lesson that we probably do not need to use as much transport, whether that be aeroplanes, cars, trains or buses, and that many of us can do much more work from our homes. That has been demonstrated to be something that we are capable of doing, and it is a very important demonstration, because we have talked about working from home for years and people were always a bit unsure about it. The fact is that much of the work that we do can be monitored and you can see the outputs of the individuals. Where it is achievable, it should not be regarded as a negative by either business or government.
I want to see less of all forms of transport on our roads, with more people working from home. COVID-19 has awoken us to the possibilities that exist, and that, again, provides an opportunity for the economy in Northern Ireland, because it is much more inexpensive to employ someone to work from their home in Holywood, Hillsborough or wherever else than have those people sitting in an office in London, living in London and going through that transportation system. There are opportunities for Northern Ireland, and we need to embrace them.
Mr O'Toole: First, I welcome the Minister's announcement that he will not cut down the rainforests. The orangutans in Belvoir forest and Tollymore will be relieved and pleased to hear that.
His statement included stressing the importance of the spirit of partnership, and I welcome that. Will he ask his permanent secretary in the Department to look at opportunities for green growth that present themselves from the position that Northern Ireland finds itself in vis-à-vis the protocol? He has talked about that in the past. I do not want to start another row with him over Brexit — we will have lots of time for that in the future — but the European green deal involves one of the biggest markets in the world announcing the biggest ever transition towards a low-carbon economy. How does the protocol enable us, our businesses and workers to avail themselves of that while also benefiting from the pan-UK frameworks and opportunities? Can he ask his Department to look at those opportunities and ensure that they are reflected in the strategy?
Mr Poots: We will look at every opportunity that lies there, whether it is European or beyond the shores of the European Union. We are very happy to look at whatever opportunities exist, but the policy that I wish to follow is that we produce premium product at the top end of the market, not the bottom end. That is the market that we need to go after. Obviously, parts of the European Union will fit that bill.
Ms Bailey: I am deeply concerned at the emphasis on growth in the strategy. Why must the economy always be at the centre of every discussion that we have about sustainability and why must relentless growth be the only lens through which we can view solutions? There must come a point when we seriously consider how much growth this planet can sustain. I agree with the Minister's opening sentence though: it is hard to imagine a set of circumstances with more devastating global impacts than those that we currently face. However, if we open our eyes, we will see the other ongoing emergency which threatens the lives of millions more people; one that is set to destabilise and destroy entire economies.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were brave enough to implement unthinkable changes overnight in order to protect people. We made the impossible possible. Will the Minister, please, continue to be brave enough to implement the actual change that is needed to halt the breaking down of the climate, and turn that strategy into a real green new deal?
Mr Poots: The emphasis on growth with regard to the environment demonstrates that both can be done in conjunction. If we do not have growth, we have retraction. If we have retraction, we have unemployment. If we have unemployment, we have hardship and misery. I am not someone who will bring about hardship and misery. Perhaps, it is the policy of the Green Party to make people unemployed and have hardship and misery, and to compare the challenges that we face environmentally to COVID-19. The response to COVID-19 is temporary and was made in the moment to respond to a particular crisis. No Government in the world could sustain what is currently happening. The borrowing of tens of billions, trillions, pounds and dollars is not sustainable. Perhaps, the Green Party thinks that that is sustainable as an environmental solution, as opposed to reducing greenhouse gases, carbon, methane and ammonia, and, at the same time, allowing businesses to grow and create jobs, opportunities and wealth, which can, then, be invested in health, education and infrastructure. That is my way. The Green Party may want to have some sort of trashed place. I do not want that. I want a vibrant Northern Ireland that is positive and forward-looking.
at a time like this to give a reality check on that misty-eyed aspirational statement. I do not say that there are not worthwhile things in it — there are — but I must ask the Minister where the audit is of the cost of what is called "green growth", or some other fancy title, in terms of existing jobs, set-up costs, and costs that are piled upon the consumer. Today, I have heard, again, much praise of the renewable sector. However, I seldom hear about the resulting costs to the consumer of funding and subsidising the renewable sector. Where is the balance sheet? Will the Minister produce a balance sheet of costs against benefits on those aspirational proposals?
Mr Poots: I thank the Member for his question. We are in circumstances in which many of the actions that have been taken have actually been cost-neutral or have had marginal costs, but the benefits have been phenomenal. The Member would do well to reflect upon that. Significant organisations have engaged in partnerships with us through prosperity agreements, not because it is misty-eyed but because it is economically beneficial to the company and helps it to sustain its position in the market and continue to provide jobs. Some of those actions will actually create economies in those companies.
I do not know whether the Member is suggesting that it is a good idea to use plastic that has been produced by oil once and, then, put it into the ground, where it will still exist one thousand years later. I do not know whether the Member thinks that it is a good idea to have waste from the agri-sector going into waterways. Most farmers do not believe that. The vast majority of farmers do not want it. So, I am not sure where the Member is coming from; I do not know whether he thinks that using energy that is produced by combustion in the next 100 years, as opposed to the energy that exists around us, is a good idea. I would much prefer to use energy that is harvested in the Irish Sea, the Atlantic Ocean or the hills of County Tyrone than use gas that comes from Russia — from Mr Putin — or use oil that comes from Iran. I would much prefer to have energy security from our own sources, and the benefits of that to the environment are there to be seen. So, the route that the Member is going down is not a particularly logical one.
Mr Carroll: Teachers probably would not miss Sammy Wilson, given his recent comments, but that is for another day.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has stated that we have six months to change course in order to avoid a climate catastrophe. The next three years, whether action is taken or not taken, will shape the next 30 years. I want to ask the Minister about a just transition. We are likely to see highly skilled workers in Bombardier and Thompson Aero Seating losing their jobs. What steps will his Department take to ensure that workers are not thrown under the bus because of COVID-19 or the economic crisis that is likely to come and to ensure that their skills and efforts can be utilised to protect the environment so that we have a just transition?
Mr Poots: It is hugely unfortunate that those job losses are happening. Unfortunately, there is a reality, and COVID has driven that home in the aerospace industry, and there will be radical change there. We have a specialist aerospace industry in Northern Ireland, and job losses are a consequence that has come about and we need to look at how we can address that and support those workers by providing high-quality jobs, maybe in other industries that are not under the same threat. We will see many job losses over the next number of weeks and months, but as we come out of COVID we need to be very flexible and fast on our feet in demonstrating how we can create other opportunities for people who are losing their jobs.
Mr Stewart: I agree entirely with the Member for East Londonderry on the issue of an education process for young people to try to encourage them to think more green through recycling and protecting our environment.
I agree entirely with the Minister; I loathe, as I am sure all Members do, dumping. That is a growing issue in my constituency of East Antrim, as is protecting our waterways, which you also refer to in your statement. Do you support further sanctions and regulations to try to tackle that because it is starting to happen on an industrial scale, and I want to see more done to protect our countryside?
Mr Poots: NIEA always seeks to recover the costs that are involved, and it is for the courts to then impose the fines. Members have often indicated their dissatisfaction with that. The scale of the fines that can be imposed is quite significant, but it is not always utilised. That is an issue that the Member rightly raises. I am not in a position to impose fines; we set the law and others administer it. It is for the people who administer the law to impose the appropriate fines and sanctions on those whose activities have brought them before a court.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That concludes questions to the Minister on his statement. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments while the Temporary Speaker takes the Chair.
(The Temporary Speaker [Mr G Kelly] in the Chair)
The Temporary Speaker (Mr G Kelly): I have received notice from the Minister of Education that he wishes to make a statement.
Mr Weir (The Minister of Education): I want to make a statement to the Assembly regarding my major capital works investment plans in the coming period. In my statement to the House on 5 May 2020, I announced investment of around £40 million, across 16 schools, under the school enhancement programme. My focus today is on major capital works projects that I have approved to advance in design. Before I announce those projects, I would like to provide the House with a brief update on the Department's current capital works programme.
My Department is responsible for the planning, management and delivery of a fit-for-purpose schools estate that will provide a first-class educational experience for pupils, staff and wider school communities and help our young people to fulfil their potential. The schools estate is wide and diverse, spread across five sectors, with an even broader management authority base. There are many challenges in managing such an estate, not least of which is the need to balance the limited capital resources that I have available to me against the much-needed capital investment in our schools. It is, therefore, essential that any capital investment is targeted at supporting the delivery of modern, fit-for-purpose schools that are viable and sustainable into the future.
Since 2012, 66 projects have been announced under the major capital works programme. Twenty-six of those projects are now complete, eight are currently on site, 20 are in the design phase, 11 are at business case preparation stage and one is on hold. In addition, 76 projects are being progressed under the school enhancement programme, and a further 27 major capital projects are being progressed under the Fresh Start programme.
In terms of capital budget, I have agreed a provisional budget of £40 million for the major capital works programme and the school enhancement programme in the current financial year, with a further budget of Fresh Start funding of £19·1 million for the Strule shared education campus and agreed shared and integrated school projects. Smaller investment at a larger number of schools continues to be delivered through the minor works capital programme, for which I have agreed a budget of £64 million in this financial year. I also continue to recognise the much-valued education and development of our young people being delivered in non-school settings through youth programmes throughout the country and have ring-fenced a budget of £10 million for capital works for youth centres.
In delivering across those programmes, I am also conscious of my Department's wider environmental responsibilities. I am aware of the emerging regulations aimed at bringing our public buildings to near-zero emissions, and accordingly, following my statement today, I shall instruct my officials to examine how best practice in that regard can be reflected in the design and delivery of the projects that I will announce shortly.
My delivery teams in the Department and its arm's-length bodies continue to work hard to progress projects across all those programmes. However, the time required to develop any major capital project from concept through to actual build means that sufficient projects must be advanced to the point where they could effectively utilise funds that may be available in the future. Therefore, in addressing the need for much greater capital investment across the schools estate, I must ensure that I have sufficient announced projects at an early development stage to ensure that capital budget available to me can be utilised to the greatest extent.
Rather than congest the early stage delivery pipeline with a large number of projects, it is my intention to make modest but more frequent announcements on capital to ensure that those projects announced have gained real traction before the next announcement is made. Therefore, following my announcement today, I intend to ask my officials to commence preparation for a further call for project nominations later in the year to facilitate a further announcement in 2021. This will facilitate schools that need major capital works but have either not scored highly enough on this occasion to feature in this announcement or did not satisfy the gateway requirements but shall do so in the future following, for example, the outworking of a statutory development proposal to either rationalise or amalgamate. For that reason, I have decided to announce nine new major capital projects, with estimated capital in the region of £156 million. An announcement on this scale means that there is sufficient delivery capacity to ensure that work can continue on previously announced projects while also allowing these additional projects to be moved forward at pace.
I take the selection of major capital works projects to advance in design very seriously as, effectively, it is a competitive process. It is, therefore, critical that the process used to select projects is documented and, more importantly, followed. In the last number of years, this has been achieved through the development of a protocol for the selection of projects to advance in design, and the same process has been utilised on this occasion. I do not intend to go into the protocol in great detail. However, in brief, Mr Derek Baker, the Department's permanent secretary, launched a call for major works projects in September 2019 for primary and post-primary schools. By the closing date, 31 October 2019, a total of 89 eligible applications were lodged by school management authorities and sectoral bodies. The applications lodged were assessed in line with the 'Protocol for 2019/20 Major Works Call for Projects', which was agreed and published on the Department's website in advance of the launch of the call. A gateway check was undertaken to ensure that schools considered for major capital investment were viable, sustainable, had certainty about their development and had not been announced to receive major capital funding under the second school enhancement programme. The gateway check resulted in 21 schools being ruled out from further consideration. The remaining 68 schools were ranked on merit based on a scoring system, which was detailed in the protocol, and separate prioritised lists were drawn up for primary schools and post-primary schools.
In deciding the number of schools to announce under the major capital programme, I considered the capital budget required to build these schools, the Department's current capital works programme and the capacity of the resources required to develop and deliver the projects. I understand that there are many competing budget pressures at this time, and the current COVID-19 outbreak has had a significant impact on resource budgets. However, it is important to look to the future and give some much-needed good news not just for schools and the wider school communities but for the contractors, the professionals in the construction industry and the wider economy that will benefit financially from the announcement. Whilst construction spend on these projects is not likely to commence until the 2024-25 financial year, making this announcement today will ensure a steady pipeline of projects in design that, in turn, will ensure the continued modernisation of the schools estate in future years as these projects move to construction.
Now, I wish to turn to the list of major works projects to be advanced in design. Today, I am announcing nine projects to advance in design. These schools will benefit from a total estimated capital investment of £156 million. The list comprises three primary schools and six post-primary schools. The three primary schools to be brought forward in design are Holy Trinity Primary, Enniskillen, St Catherine's Primary, Strabane and St Mary's Primary School, Craigavon. The six post-primary schools to be brought forward in design are All Saints College, Belfast, Blessed Trinity College, Belfast, St Conor's College, Kilrea, St Louis Grammar School, Kilkeel, St Patrick's College, Maghera and Tandragee Junior High School, Tandragee.
It is important to recognise that many schools in the estate are old and are costly to maintain, and others are not operating with sufficient pupil numbers to provide the optimum learning environment as recommended by Bain. There must be careful consideration as to how the available funding is invested. Focusing on area planning and investing in schools that are viable and sustainable will help us all in this endeavour. The schools that have been announced today have met these criteria. In making this announcement today, it is my intention that these projects will be taken through to construction. However, I stress that authorisation to proceed to construction on any individual project will be based on the level of capital funding available at the point when the design is complete and all necessary approvals have been secured.
I recognise that today's announcement will be good news for some and disappointing for many others. For those who have not been successful in their application, I advise that it is my intention to make smaller, more frequent announcements of major capital projects. That approach will ensure that schools that are subject to area planning considerations will be better placed to apply under the next major capital works call for projects.
Finally, I reaffirm that my Department's strategy for capital investment in the coming years will continue to be shaped by the outworking of area planning and the delivery of a modern, fit-for-purpose estate of viable and sustainable schools.
Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): I thank the Minister for his statement. I will also use this time as an opportunity to continue thank our teachers across Northern Ireland for their hard work, dedication and innovation during the public health emergency and for continuing to work well beyond their contracted hours to achieve a return to education here.
We welcome this investment, but I imagine that most MLAs will be deeply concerned at reports today of a dispute between the DUP and Sinn Féin delaying investment in free school meals and, I understand, quite possibly childcare. Will the Minister update the Assembly on why there has been a delay in delivering that investment in free school meals and childcare and ensure that a political dispute will not lead to further delay in that investment?
Mr Weir: I thank the Member for some of his comments, and I join him in thanking not only the teaching workforce in the current situation but the many non-teaching staff who have helped to deliver over the last few months and who will, indeed, continue to deliver.
The question was somewhat tangential to the statement, but let me make it clear that we want to see a resolution to all budget issues, including the victims' pension. That will be progressed, and there is common consent on free school meals in particular. I am confident that that will be progressed to ensure that we will have that provision for our vulnerable children. Particularly for free school meals, in Northern Ireland, the levels of funding for and, indeed, coverage of a number of children have been much greater than in other parts of the United Kingdom. That is something that I welcome, and I look forward to a resolution to all those issues.
Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for his statement, and I welcome the investment in particular in Blessed Trinity College, which has come from the merger between Little Flower Girls' School and St Patrick's College in North Belfast. That school could certainly do with the investment, so I welcome that.
I thank the Minister for his ongoing work on and support for education in the decisions that he is making in very difficult times. I also thank him for the time he took to visit the Belfast Boys' Model School a couple of weeks ago, and I know that he will visit the Belfast Model School for Girls later this week. Will any further announcements be made on school capital development in this tranche, particularly on Seaview Primary School in North Belfast, which needs a new school urgently and which I mentioned to him before?
Mr Weir: I thank the Member for his comments. Yes, and I know that he has been lobbying on a number of projects, particularly Seaview, and that he has been a strong supporter of that school. It is important that we keep a pipeline of projects going. Therefore; it is my intention to make another call in 2021. That will mean, as is inevitably the case with any capital announcements, that those schools that receive will be very happy and those that do not will be disappointed. In some cases, some of those schools will be fairly high on the list, although I am not going to mention particular schools.
A further call will be made in 2021, and the intention will be to make sure that we have a number of calls, with perhaps smaller announcements. On occasions, there have been announcements where there have been a greater number of schools and a longer gap between those calls. I want to make sure that all schools are treated fairly and are given that opportunity. Seaview and, indeed, other schools that have not been successful in this particular call will have that opportunity at the next call, and it will be in 2021.
The Temporary Speaker (Mr G Kelly): Before I call the next Member to ask a question, I remind Members that to ensure that Hansard and other Members can pick up your comments, you must speak into the microphones and speak through the Chair.
Ms Mullan: I thank the Minister for his statement. It is welcome news for the successful schools, but many in my city will be disappointed after the announcement, in particular the Irish-medium sector. We have three Irish-medium schools in the city that have operated in so-called temporary accommodation for between 15 and 30 years. You are aware of their situation, and in your statement you say:
"It is, therefore, essential that any capital investment is targeted at supporting the delivery of modern, fit-for-purpose schools that are both viable and sustainable into the future."
I ask you to come to Derry and meet those schools to discuss their needs and outline the process.
Mr Weir: I am happy to meet anybody to outline the process. The position is that 89 schools applied, and 68 made the gateway check. By doing so, all 68 are investable. However, there are limitations on resources. One of the restrictions is that something can be done many times over. The scheme was announced in 2019 and scored according to the criteria in the protocol that was existence at that point. It is done directly and fairly, according to those objective criteria. It means that, at times, in individual announcements, different sectors may have different levels of success.
I am committed to ensuring that schools, as much as possible and where it is needed, will get that new school build. However, actions across the board, in individual circumstances, can be taken to ensure that, if there is inadequate provision, where something can be done temporarily in a particular school, it will be looked at. That will be borne in mind as we move into the autumn. We will try to make sure that we maximise the number of children who are directly into the classroom.
I am more than happy to meet anybody from any sector to explain the situation. Inevitably, in announcing successful schools, there will be a much greater pool of schools that will be unsuccessful. That is not because they are without merit; it is because, in the ranking according to the criteria, they were not ranked ahead of other schools that we could announce.
Mr McCrossan: I thank the Minister for his statement. For once, I thank you very happily for the announcement in relation to Strabane. It is welcome news, particularly for the principal, Mrs Bridget Wilders, her team and the many families across Strabane who have long awaited the new build and the advancement of the project. Some 470 pupils await this, so it is welcome news.
Many schools across Northern Ireland, including my constituency, are anxious about the return to school, which your Department is working on. What investment or plans are in place to ensure that there is the necessary infrastructure to ensure the safety of staff and pupils in the school environment? For instance, a lot of the discussion has been not just about class sizes but about classroom sizes. What happens in a situation where a small school cannot accommodate the pupils, even with a one-metre distance between pupils, in the classroom? Will provision be made for extra space, and will that be financed by the Department or the EA?
Mr Weir: We have been working on that, and the Finance Minister is keen to be supportive where possible. It may be that practical solutions can be provided. One of the constraints on capital works is that there cannot always be a quick turnaround of that. We are in a rapidly developing situation. My aim is to reach a point that enables everybody to be back in place this autumn all the time. That depends on the wider medical and scientific situation, but it is not something that has been in any way given up or abrogated. Guidance has been issued. Some schools will be able to do it; for many others, the constraints on space will mean that they cannot, if the current environment still prevails. At present, we are making the effort to maximise space and numbers. If there are temporary solutions that can be put in place to aid that, they are to be taken into account. I will seek wider support for the paper that was put to the Executive.
There is also a challenge out there that may be more about providing other locations that can be used for supervised learning. If the voluntary sector, the community sector, Churches and others can assist by providing additional space on a temporary basis, the community should use the opportunity to pull together to try to provide it. We will work with schools to maximise the opportunities to provide space. That work will be ongoing in the weeks to come.
Mrs Barton: Thank you very much, Minister, for your statement. On the subject of new builds and new schools, I welcome the news about Holy Trinity Primary School in Enniskillen. I also welcome the £19 million for the new integrated school project in Omagh, because a lot of pupils from Fermanagh and South Tyrone are educated in Omagh. I thank you for both.
We have gone through a pandemic with COVID-19. To follow on from Mr McCrossan's question, I would like to know what planning there is for future classroom sizes etc. I know that there are specific instructions when plans are being drawn up for new-build schools. What does the future hold? Are you intending to have classrooms made larger to accommodate social distancing, if it has to be in place in the future?
Mr Weir: It is important that whatever we do be future-proofed, although we cannot always simply react to the precise circumstances. The position, which is always kept under review, is that, whenever schools have been built in recent years, they have been built to handbook specifications on size. For instance, in the primary sector, classrooms in schools of a particular size tend to be 60 square metres or above. The problem is not with what has been built in recent years but is sometimes a reflection of the historical situation. For instance, we find that roughly a third of classrooms are 50 square metres or below in size. As I said, the problem is not to do with the specifications for new builds or any schools that have been recently built but is more to do with the historical situation. What the best specifications are in the handbook is something that will always be kept under review to ensure that we have something that is fit for purpose.
Ms Bunting: I welcome the statement from the Minister and indeed his strategic vision and commitment to the ongoing improvement of the learning environment for Northern Ireland's children. I draw his attention to where he mentions in his statement £10 million being ring-fenced for capital works for youth centres. I would be grateful if he would expand on the detail. I also draw his attention to the fact that those buildings are dependent on the projects still being in existence in circumstances in which there is a dearth of overall funding, as well as on having the pupils to fill them. I am certain that he is cognisant of the issues, but I would like some reassurance from him that he is giving consideration to them, because he will be aware of the good work that goes on with our young people outside the school curriculum.
Mr Weir: It is undoubtedly the case that, while good work happens in schools, that work is supplemented by those involved formally, particularly through the Youth Service, and by other organisations. I think in particular of voluntary youth organisations and some of the uniformed organisations. There is a range of settings in which, from a practical point of view, there is that level of delivery. I know that this is on a slightly different subject, but, as we look ahead to the summer, I am keen that, in addition to what is done officially through Youth Service, broad permission be given to organisations to take action over the summer, provided that they follow the public health advice.
The £10 million is provided on the basis that youth centres are slightly different from schools. It would be unfair if they were bundled in together. That would be like comparing apples to pears. That is why there has been a level of separate provision. When I accompanied a couple of Members on school visits in the north-west some months ago, we visited a youth centre, and I think that it is progressing. I think that an official announcement was made about the work ongoing on that and the replacement. There is a critical role for the Youth Service.
It is the case that longer-term provision is made on the basis of ensuring that there are pupils to fill the places. Over a decade ago, when it was probably felt that there was a fairly open amount of money that would simply go on and on, a number of capital announcements were made without ensuring that that provision was future-proofed. That is why, as part of any process, the gateway check is there to make sure that schools meet the requirements of area planning. As time moves on, it is likely that there will be changes to the gateway checks. Some schools will fail to make it because of an artificial barrier in their numbers that, sometimes, reflects their historic enrolment. It is the case, therefore, that any announcements will be made on the basis that the school is sustainable into the future. The gateway check, therefore, becomes critical in making sure that we are not, potentially, pouring money into a school that may not have a future five or 10 years down the road.
Ms Ennis: I thank the Minister for his statement. I am absolutely delighted to see the inclusion of St Louis Grammar School in Kilkeel. The Minister will know of my persistence in ensuring that there is financial investment in the school and in the wider Mourne area. I cannot think of a school that is more deserving. As someone who has worked closely with the board of governors of St Louis Grammar School, I know that they will be absolutely thrilled to be included in today's announcement. The investment is absolutely necessary and justified. It will allow the much-needed new school build to proceed at pace, and it will ensure continued educational excellence and the viability of education in the Mournes.
Will the Minister outline the process for the next steps for schools? I invite him to Kilkeel to meet the teaching staff and the board of governors to discuss the next steps with him, and I know that he will be very much welcomed.
Mr Weir: I thank the Member for her observations. I suspect that there will be at least 18 different views in the Chamber about which is the most deserving school project to be at the top of any list. That is why there always needs to be objective criteria. I will be happy to go down to Kilkeel or to other places. On a visit to Newry, I met all the post-primary principals from the Newry and south Down area, including, I think, representatives from Kilkeel. I think that there was somebody there from St Louis Grammar School.
The next steps in the process will be to work through the business case and carry out a feasibility study that will make sure that what is put forward is fit for purpose. In most cases, it will be a direct new build, but, if there is a different solution, that is what will be done. By their nature, major capital works tend to take longer than other types of capital works, in part because one of the issues is that a project board will have to be established in each case. Where those works differ from the school enhancement programme, not just in terms of scale, is that, as part of the process, there will be a site search. Areas will be scoped out in the local area to establish the best location according to value for public money and its fitness for purpose. That will, inevitably, mean that things take a bit longer.
In the current circumstances, however, there will be no barriers to that. We all live in a slightly more virtual world than we did a few months ago, and all those issues will be able to be commenced. It will follow, if you like, standard procedure, but, again, I will be happy to meet representatives of the school at some stage.
Mr Frew: What is the breakdown of spending across all the schools that have been successful today? Will the Minister enlighten the House on the differences between the school enhancement programme and the major capital works programme?
Mr Weir: There will be individual budgets that are tentatively set aside. Roughly speaking, because the bulk of them tend to be of a much greater scale, we are looking at around about £20 million on the primary side of it, for the three schools, and the remainder of the budget being spent on the post-primary side. Those will be adjusted a little bit as we move into feasibility studies and business cases.
On the school enhancement programme, there are two major differences which then lead to a consequential change. First, there is an upper limit of £4 million on the school enhancement programme. Major capital works are pitched above that. The school enhancement programme also has a minimum level of investment of £500,000. The other issue is that the school enhancement programme is essentially to take an existing building and, by its nature, enhance it. So it may well be that an additional sports hall is built, a science block or something of that nature. It will involve work happening on site.
With major capital works, there will be an examination of, effectively, what is the best site on which to rebuild a new school. On some occasions, that will mean a build which actually takes place on the site of the existing school, but that is not necessarily the case. A school enhancement programme will always take place on site. That affects the speed of turnaround, both in terms of size and the fact that it takes a major element out of the process. School enhancement programmes will typically be delivered a lot quicker than major capital projects.
Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for his statement. It is welcome that St Conor's in Kilrea, which is in my constituency, is one of the post-primaries that have benefited from investment to advance and design. It is also welcome that the design and delivery of these builds will be based on net zero emissions. That is very welcome.
Ms Bunting addressed the £10 million that has been ring-fenced for youth centres. When do you expect announcements around that to be made? Will they be included in this process, or is a completely new process required for those projects?
Mr Weir: In terms of the exact timescales, I can certainly get back to the Member. In many ways, it is a separate project, and quite often the nature and scale of youth centres will tend to be smaller than a major capital build with schools. That is why it is kept on a separate side of it, and also on the basis that it is not comparing like with like, so it will be dealt with in a separate way.
Mr McNulty: Will the Minister join with me in applauding our principals, teachers, school staff, parents and pupils, whose roles have been completely reconfigured and who have had to make the best out of very difficult and challenging circumstances?
I welcome the statement today and the continued investment in our school estate. I particularly welcome the inclusion of Tandragee Junior High School, and I especially welcome the commencement on site of St Joseph's High School in Crossmaglen. Will the Minister update the House on the proposed new builds at St Peter's, Collegeland and St Malachy's, Armagh, both of which were announced in March 2016?
Mr Weir: First of all, I am happy to join in the thanks to teaching and non-teaching staff. I also think that we should be thankful for the role played by parents and students, who have been left at times in a very difficult situation, particularly younger children, and who must be wondering at times what is going on. I am certainly happy to congratulate them on that.
In terms of the specifics of the two projects, I do not have the detail directly at hand, but I will be happy to write to the Member with the detail.
Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for his announcements today and, whilst none of them extend to Lagan Valley, I join in the thanks that everybody has given from their respective areas for the schools that have benefited. You did talk, Minister, about emerging regulations aimed at bringing our public buildings to a near-zero net emissions target, which is appropriate, ambitious and commendable, but I would have liked to have heard a line about therapeutic design. When we talk to young people, the number-one issue that they talk about is mental ill health, and schools and the school environment have a major part to play. I would like to have heard a commitment towards a zero-suicide-focused design. Can the Minister give us a commitment today that that is indeed the case, and it was just omitted from his statement?
Mr Weir: Everything will always be tried to be done around mental health. I am conscious of what can be promised. All of us have the ambition to see zero suicides. Whilst there is a contribution with regard to the environment, it is a much wider issue than simply the school buildings.
One thing that has struck me is around designs that have been put in place. To be fair, from visiting school buildings, even with schools that have been built in the last decade or so, you will see that consideration has been given, in the design, to the impact of the broader mental health environment. For example, in a school that is roughly 10 years old, you will see a much greater use of space and light, and the atmosphere that that automatically creates is conducive to helping with broad schooling and also mental health. That is part of the broader process.
With regard to design, there is much more imagination and thinking, particularly around the use of windows and open spaces which create a better atmosphere. Buildings can take us so far but there is a range of other interventions which, as all of us know, need to happen. They are happening to some extent, but we need to make sure that they are there. That is why, for instance, in this year's budget I have given additional funds. It remains to be seen whether further assistance is possible from the COVID side of it, but, prior to that, I was keen to commit additional spend around mental health, particularly focused in primary schools which, to some extent, have maybe been the poor relation of that funding, but there are additional resources this year that will tackle the issue not just within the school system but in a wider context as well. It is a job for all of us.
Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his announcement today. The investment in new builds is really welcomed. Does the Minister recognise, or have any ideas, around further opportunities for investment in our schools, especially in the north Down area? Bangor Central Integrated Primary School has long awaited such an announcement, which you are aware of, Minister.
Mr Weir: Bangor Central is part of the Fresh Start money, so it is happening. As is often the case, and particularly with a major capital announcement, it takes a while to go through processes. I give the Member an absolute assurance that Bangor Central and a number of other projects are happening. Priory Integrated College, for instance, is part of that. The Member may be very keen to slip a couple of additional schools into the announcement today but it is what it is.
It is important, in getting this right, that there will be a mixture of major capital announcements and, as part of that, I want to create a mix and also a school enhancement programme because that can also be the solution as well as other minor works. Despite circumstances, there has been a small increase in the maintenance budget this year. If we can head off problems, prior to them happening, that is also something that would be welcome.
Ms C Kelly: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I am very glad to see St. Catherines’ Primary School in Strabane included in the plans, going forward. I also welcome the further commitments made around the Strule project. What does today's announcement mean for the Strule project with regard to the delivery of the campus?
Mr Weir: It is confirming that, within the capital budget, further work will be done this year. Unfortunately, because of the particular circumstances of Strule, there was disruption caused by the COVID intervention. That has knocked things back a little bit. Strule is the biggest single investment that Education has put into place in any one site. It may even be one of the biggest investments that the Executive as a whole have ever put in, so it is a key priority.
With regard to the direct reference to the nine schools, that does not directly impact on Strule but it is a clear indication of the direction of travel and that there is an ongoing commitment to Strule. I had the great honour, along with the then First Minister and deputy First Minister, of visiting Arvalee School when it was opened. It was the first element and I look forward to seeing the other schools on campus being opened as well.
Ms Armstrong: Thank you, Temporary Speaker. It seems quite strange to say that but it is good to see you sitting up there. It is a different way to look at this place.
Thank you very much, Minister, for your statement. In it, you confirm a further £19·1 million for Strule and shared and integrated education. The dictionary definition of further is additional. Given that Fresh Start is a fixed budget, is that more money? Will the Minister breakdown how the £19·1 million will be spent? If Strule accesses the majority of that amount, is that part of the planned spend on Strule or is this more money that is going out of Fresh Start to one project? If the Minister is able to access further capital funding, what money is he planning to spend to facilitate the necessary space for the educational restart programme?
Mr Weir: We have been working with colleagues on any additional support that can be there, particularly on a temporary basis, for the restart programme. It is ultimately a profiling issue. One of the restrictions that was put on Fresh Start — the Member will be only too aware of this — was that what was provided by the Treasury was ring-fenced to a particular amount of money. Therefore, if bidders missed out, they did not get another chance in that particular year. We have been able to some flexibility.
Wearing a different hat, I can say that that was initially secured through the confidence and supply arrangement, but it has been honoured by the Government since. It was about ensuring that all the money that was available through Fresh Start was delivered in that period. Consequently, that meant some re-profiling, with some stuff being brought forward at times. The aim is that everything — from across the considerable support of £500 million — is spent within the time constraint.
Mr Givan: I know that, today, there will be schools that are, rightly, very pleased with the outcome, but the people in Dromore will be extremely disappointed with this decision. There is a school with over 1,000 children, a canteen that can only serve half of them and no disability access. They have to access sports facilities from outside their precincts, and there is an expectation that that school needs to have a new build. What assurances can the Minister give that, in the next call, the criteria that are used will not disadvantage schools, such as the school in Dromore, which are not able to merge with another school in their vicinity because they are already at capacity and bursting at the seams?
Mr Weir: I will make two points, and I know that I will visit Dromore High soon. First of all, the criteria are always kept under review to try to make sure, as we move ahead, that any future call is done on as fair a basis as possible. I know that Dromore High has very strong needs, as do a number of schools. The other thing is that because nine schools have been given the green light, when it comes to the next call, they will effectively be out of the picture and will not be at the head of queue. That means that, when a further call is made, whether it is on this or on other issues, those schools that missed out today will have a much greater opportunity to feature in the top number. Once a capital announcement is made, it effectively puts successful schools out of the picture. I appreciate that a number of schools in Northern Ireland have not been successful today. That is not to say that they will not be successful in the future.
The Temporary Speaker (Mr G Kelly): 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 first item of business will be Question Time, after which questions on the Minister's statement will resume. The first Member to ask a question will be Sinéad Bradley.
The debate stood suspended.
The sitting was suspended at 12.58 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair) —
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members will be aware that, as part of our phased resumption of Question Time, only listed questions will be asked of Ministers. Topical questions remain suspended until 4 July. Members who ask listed questions will have an opportunity to ask a supplementary question. I will keep progress under review during Question Time and, should it become apparent that time is available near the latter part of questioning, I may ask other Members to ask supplementary questions.
Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister for Communities): I thank the Member for his question. It is a very good question. During the current crisis, the advice sector has been critical in assisting the most vulnerable people in our society and advice organisations across our community continue to deliver front-line support. I want to acknowledge that work and thank them for what they have delivered on the ground every day as we now move into a period in which restrictions are being eased.
I am committed to protecting those who are in most need across our society and access to community-based, independent advice services is critical in meeting that commitment. My officials have worked closely with regional and local front-line advice organisations on a co-design production approach to develop support mechanisms. Transition planning is now well under way to assist regional and grassroots organisations to return to normal business, whilst ensuring that those who have been affected by COVID-19 continue to receive much-needed support.
The community helpline will continue to connect the most vulnerable people to local support services through our stakeholders in the voluntary and community sector, and I have allocated additional funding to support that. Some £1·8 million of additional funding for debt-related advice will provide much-needed support to the individuals and small businesses that are experiencing financial problems due to coronavirus, and my officials are exploring options to ensure that that funding achieves the maximum impact. My Department continues to provide significant direct financial support of over £6·4 million per annum, which supports 360 jobs in the sector and delivers independent, community-based advice services to over 230,000 citizens.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for her response. I also welcome her to her role and pass on my and my party's best wishes to Deirdre Hargey for a speedy recovery after her period of illness.
We are emerging from a public health emergency and moving into an economic crisis and recession. Will the Minister meet the advice sector to explore further what support measures are required to ensure that it can assist people as we go through the economic downturn ahead?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The short answer is yes; I will absolutely continue the work that Deirdre Hargey started and will work with officials to do so.
I saw some of the social media commentary on advice from the very start of the crisis. Everyone possible, all the partnerships, have worked together and the advice sector has loomed large. It is important that we talk to the experts, learn lessons from the lived experience and try to adjust the services so that they go to those who are in need. We also need to listen to the experiences of those who are delivering the services to ensure that the services are effective and on the ground and that people get a better outcome. I am happy to meet the structural and independent advice sectors. Those at the grassroots who have been working throughout the crisis definitely need a hearing.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. My officials have had contact with National Museums NI about that matter. Museums NI has recently reviewed the relationships with the Model Engineers' Society Northern Ireland, which had enjoyed access to the walled garden in the Transport Museum for over 50 years to operate its model engines. Museums NI is developing a master plan for the Cultra site, which will provide a better look at unlocking its potential to meet its long-term objectives.
With those considerations in mind, Museums NI indicated to the Model Engineers' Society, in October 2019, that its continued use of the walled garden would not form part of future plans for the site. However, Museums NI has not yet given the society formal written notice to vacate. This is, ultimately, an operational matter for the management of Museums NI to decide.
Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she agree that it is a shame that the Model Engineer's Society of Northern Ireland may have to leave the site? Would it not have been better to look at different areas of the site, where there are large spaces to which it could move? At this late stage, would the Minister consider writing to the Ulster Transport Museum to ask whether it would look at other areas of the site to which the society could move?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member will appreciate that I am just coming into this role. I am happy to write to Museums NI. I am happy to get an update and better briefing. I am certainly happy for my officials to communicate with the society to ensure that, if there is potential, my officials, the museum's officials and the society can try to work something out, because the society has been there for 50 years, but I cannot make any further commitment, and I will not try to. The best I can do is try to get them together to see what comes out of that, and I will keep the Member informed.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. The social supermarkets pilot programme has been running since October 2017, with five sites in operation. By the end of March this year, almost 120,000 people had received support through the programme, which redistributed148 tons of food. The model provides a more significant experience than a food bank. In addition, it provides people with a pathway out of poverty by supplementing food with access wrap-around services, including debt, budgeting and healthy eating advice, as well as training skills and other opportunities.
A roll-out evaluation of the pilot programme up until March of this year was completed and it indicated that support was reaching those who are particularly vulnerable with low income, debt obligations and high levels of unemployment. The most common household profile has been that of lone parents. The evaluation also indicated that the programme is achieving significant outcomes for its users, with really good, positive impacts on well-being, healthy eating and food stability.
Additionally, the programme has provided a platform for collaboration. All five social supermarkets have connected with wider support networks to leverage their involvement. That includes my Department's Make the Call initiative, which ensures that individuals get access to all the benefits and support to which they may be entitled. The Member may be aware that my predecessor, Deirdre Hargey, decided to extend the pilot while a business case is undertaken to assess the case for rolling out a fuller programme.
Mr G Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra. I think that the Minister has answered my second question. It is a wide-ranging programme, and the outcomes that she describes are very heartening. It is unfortunate that it took COVID-19 to see how these sort of projects work. Effectively, the pilot is being moved forward, and I hope that the assessment comes back on that fairly quickly. That was a comment rather than a question.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Fair enough. I appreciate that. I think that a lot of people will be asking for similar social supermarkets in their constituencies. In fact, most of us know of food banks and community and church support groups that have been instrumental throughout this crisis. What we have all learned from this is that we all need to pull together and work together. Providing food security for people is important but so is providing advice and guidance on areas such as debt management, mental health and employability. The Strategic Investment Board (SIB) did the review and evaluation, and that is being disseminated with a view to bringing more social supermarkets to many more constituencies.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Question 4? Just keeping you on your toes, Declan. [Laughter.]
Ms Ní Chuilín: Despite the current COVID pandemic, councils continue to play a key role in delivering essential services, such as waste collection and disposal, community support and the provision of registration and cemetery services. All Members will be aware of the severe financial challenges that each of the councils are facing. The funding of £20·3 million from DFC will help to assist councils with their cash flow and support them in the delivery of the vital services that they are providing to the community at this time, but it will also help to ensure that they are ready to play their role in our post-pandemic recovery and limit the financial impact on ratepayers going forward.
I also recognise that councils have unique community insight to reach grassroots groups and are really well placed to ensure that citizens receive as much help as possible. DFC has provided £1·5 million of additional community support funding, and this money is an initial tranche and more will follow. This is to provide assistance to those at risk due to financial stress, ensuring access to food for those in most need and helping to connect those living alone or living in rural areas, who are likely to experience greater challenges, and people from all walks of life. As I said, this is a step forward to help citizens to help neighbours with deliveries of food and medicines so that they can remain safely in their homes.
Mr McAleer: I thank the Minister for her answer to question 4. Will the best practice and the lessons learned from the pandemic be carried forward in future dealings with local government?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I think that they have to be. I know that this is probably a well-worn phrase, but COVID-19 presented us all with challenges, and we were literally trying to deal with those as best as possible. In the past, local government has always stepped forward in emergencies. I cannot speak for your constituency, but I can certainly speak for Belfast and for what Belfast City Council has done during the global pandemic. In the Department for Communities, our support and appreciation for the work of local government has been well recorded, and I want to take the opportunity on behalf of us all to do that. We must learn lessons. We must work out what we did not do so well but would like to do better, and we must work out what we did well and would like to do more of. I have absolutely no doubt that there will be a financial cost to that, but lessons learnt must be part of our post-COVID recovery.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. I am pleased to advise that my Department has moved quickly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to relieve hardship and ensure that the people who are in most need get the help and support that they need. This has included introducing measures to ensure that the social security system is more flexible and to reassure very vulnerable people about the continuity of their benefits.
In total, 16 sets of emergency regulations have been made in response to COVID-19. The immediate impact of these changes include increasing the amount payable under universal credit so that the average award will go up by approximately £90 a month, regulations to ensure that grants to self-employed people are appropriately treated in their universal credit award and temporary changes to statutory sick pay rules to ensure that support is available from day one for individuals who are sick, self-isolating or shielding. That also includes changes to the local housing allowance rates, which benefits private rented sector tenants. People in receipt of carer's allowance will continue to be paid the benefit even if they have temporarily ceased caring or because they have been affected by COVID themselves. Other changes are changes to maternity allowance and statutory maternity pay as well as the coronavirus job retention scheme. The specific discretionary support scheme has been enhanced by introducing the living expenses grant to help those who find themselves in a financial crisis due to the impact of COVID. An increase in the discretionary support annual allowance income threshold to £20,405 will also ensure that more people on low incomes can access emergency financial support.
Ms Ennis: I thank the Minister for her response. Is she considering continuing any of these mitigating factors once the crisis has passed?
Ms Ní Chuilín: A lot of these will have been direct Barnett consequentials from DWP, and I think that everybody has recognised that the Executive have also found additional money and that DFC has spent it very well.
The existing mitigation packages will continue. Collectively, as an Executive, we need to look at what additional support we can give to people who are really vulnerable, particularly those who are on benefits. We are still working our way through this. We will look at any potential that we have that will not have a massive impact on the budget, to help the people who need it most.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I am committed to delivering long-term, sustainable solutions to poverty in all its forms, including food poverty. There is no doubt that pre-existing inequalities have been exacerbated during the pandemic. The increased need for food support is evidence of that. The extent of food poverty in our society has been underlined by the response to the access to food programme. One of the key elements of our emergency response during the current crisis has been the delivery of more than 150,000 food boxes to those in most need since my Department launched its COVID-19 food parcel service in April. Alongside that, allocations of £1·5 million in financial support to councils enabled a significant community response, with the majority of interventions relating to food. There is also the increase in the use of food banks, with the Trussell Trust reporting a 142% increase in demand for its services here. Given those issues, my predecessor, Deirdre Hargey, agreed a package of medium-term measures to support people experiencing food poverty, including the introduction of some grant flexibility to allow grant-funded organisations to respond to coronavirus and £3·3 million of funding for food-related projects delivered under the neighbourhood renewal People and Place strategy.
Ms Mullan: I thank Minister Hargey and this Minister for their sterling work and numerous interventions over the past number of months, particularly the measures that have protected and supported the most vulnerable. Many of those interventions, while welcome, have shone a light, as the Minister said, on many areas of poverty and need across society. Has the Minister engaged with other Ministers to develop a cross-departmental approach to food poverty?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I know that holiday hunger is an issue close to the Member's heart. Just this morning, Minister Peter Weir and I discussed last week's announcement and what we could do, given that the school term ends on Tuesday 30 June. It was a good, productive meeting, and we are committed to trying to address food poverty in the form of holiday hunger. The Member will be aware through her role on the Education Committee that, in the short, medium and long term, we need to bring forward an anti-poverty strategy that does not just look at holiday hunger during COVID but tries to address it in the long term. The phrase "heat or eat" represents the experience of many, and we need to put our best foot forward to get this sorted once and for all. In the interim, we are looking at getting free school meal supplements to families.
Ms Ní Chuilín: The role and regulation of the private rented sector is one of the Department's priorities and certainly one of mine. The Department's consultation exercise on proposals for change to the role and regulation of the private rented sector ended on 3 April 2017. To improve standards for the benefit of tenants and landlords, my Department is carrying out a comprehensive review of that sector's role and regulation. Areas included in the review are supply; affordability; security of tenure; tenancy management; property standards; and dispute resolution. Minister Hargey was considering how to take forward the recommendations of that review and what other measures may be necessary, including proposals that may warrant future legislation.
Since the outbreak, Minister Hargey has put in place legislation to ensure that private tenants are protected from eviction during the COVID emergency. It requires landlords to give tenants a minimum of 12 weeks' notice to quit. At this time, it is vital that those who live in private rented accommodation are not forced out of their home. My Department has issued detailed guidance to landlords and tenants. I also commend the services of Housing Rights, which the Department funds to provide expert housing advice, mediation and guidance.
Ms Flynn: I am not sure if the current health and safety regulations are included in the review that the Minister spoke about. If not, will the Minister commit to carrying out a separate review of those regulations in the private rented sector?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The honest answer is that I am not sure, but, when you look at security of tenure and standards, the key word for me is "standards". We need to look at the conditions that tenants live in and look at things like when the electricity was last checked and whether there is mould or damp. More than half of the population in the private rented sector receive housing benefit. Those are public funds, and, unfortunately, there is a better standard of homes in public housing than in private housing. That is not to say that private housing is bad; it is just that we have an obligation to ensure that tenants live in a safe, clean and proper environment. I will see what that review covered and will write to the Member and share it with the Committee.
Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member has probably listened to some of the previous answers, so, if it sounds a bit repetitive, I apologise.
Access to the food programme, as the Member will know, has proven to be one of the key elements of our emergency response during the current pandemic. More than 150,000 food boxes have been delivered to those most in need since my Department launched its COVID-19 food parcel service in April. Alongside that, allocations of £1·5 million of financial support to councils have enabled a significant community response to those in need of food, income and connectedness. I am aware that there are a number of people across the community who currently rely on regular food parcels from DFC and are likely to continue to require its support when the present crisis ends.
As part of the transition from an emergency response, Deirdre Hargey decided to extend the food parcels beyond 26 June for people currently receiving a food box who have been told to shield by their GPs and have no other access to food. That support will be available for those who are medically shielding and in need of a food box until the end of July. For those who are not medically shielding, the Department recently made allocations of £1·5 million in support to councils. That enables them to make a significant contribution to those in need of food, income and connectedness. Furthermore, DFC, as the Member may be aware, has been delivering the social supermarkets pilot programme as part of its welfare mitigations package.
Mr K Buchanan: I refer to the Minister's letter, dated yesterday, regarding the information that she provided about carrying out an interim review. My question is obviously timely. Will she confirm who fed into that review: delivery partners, Advice NI, councils? There seemed to have been a different approach across councils where some people were getting them and some were not. I appreciate that it was put in at speed, but there is a different approach across areas. What did that review entail?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I will have a look. I agree: I do not think that anybody wants patchiness, where one area gets a really good service and another area gets a half-decent service. Regardless of where your constituency is, regardless of who the citizens are, they deserve the very best that we can provide for them. I will try to find out, and I will write to the Member. If he wants to share that correspondence with the officials up in the office, I will try to get him a quick response.
Ms Ní Chuilín: The Department and Sport NI have provided both financial and practical support to the sector, including advice on accessing COVID-related relief programmes, maintaining the health and well-being of members and putting together specific protocols for a safe return to sport. In terms of financial support, Sport NI immediately paid the sector grants that were due under existing programmes. The Department and Sport NI launched the sports hardship fund, which now totals £1·245 million. That will enable 620 clubs to receive a £2,000 grant to assist with the cost of maintaining their facilities. In addition, Minister Hargey made the case for clubs to be included in the eligibility criteria for the £25,000 hospitality, retail, leisure and tourism scheme. I can advise that I have submitted a bid through the June monitoring round to help to prepare for further assistance to the sports sector. My officials continue to work with Sport NI on the return-to-sport framework, which provides vital guidance to sports' governing bodies as they develop their protocols for a safe return to sport.
Mr McGrath: I welcome the Minister's reference to a bid in the June monitoring round to get additional funds, because, as, I am sure, many Members are aware, within 48 hours of the scheme opening, it had to close. There will be hundreds of groups that were not able to access the scheme. If there are additional moneys, will the Minister commit to helping some of the governing organisations, as that might help to send funding out on the ground?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I remember it well, because I was on the Committee for Communities. We, particularly Jonny, remember the explosion almost of people who had had very little time to put their application in before the whole thing closed. Governing bodies are key. Any sport affiliated to a governing body providing advice, guidance and information is supported by Sport NI. It makes sense that Sport NI would use governing bodies to help to disseminate information and to support them so that, if they apply, they are in a good place. To be honest with you, in relation to previous questions, I think that a lot of local sports clubs, not so much the governing bodies, have been outstanding throughout this period, because they are all citizens and residents. They have experienced great hardship, yet, despite that, they have rolled their sleeves up and got stuck in.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I acknowledge the contribution that the hospitality sector makes to the economy and to society more generally. I am keen to see that sector play its part in the safe recovery from COVID-19.
The outdoor spaces close to hotels, bars, restaurants and cafés could be utilised to maximise opportunities for businesses to deliver their services while ensuring the safety of staff and customers. I also emphasise that the needs of our citizens who are partially sighted or have disabilities or other mobility issues should be foremost in our minds when making any changes to our streets.
The Department for Communities owns a number of public spaces in our towns and cities as well as sites that have been acquired for regeneration purposes. The Department is willing to make those available, where it can be helpful, to support safe queuing, social distancing or to provide spill-out spaces for clubs, cafés, bars and restaurants. I am also grateful to my Executive colleague the Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon, as we have written to all councils asking them, as planning authorities, to take a flexible, pragmatic approach to the use of street seating.
Miss McIlveen: I welcome the progress made since the question was submitted, particularly in relation to correspondence with councils.
Can the Minister outline what plans her Department has to help to revitalise small towns, such as Newtownards and Comber in my constituency, as we move towards post-COVID-19 recovery?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I will look at the portfolio of regeneration schemes. As a former Minister, the Member will appreciate that I want to look at that, because I am aware that, in an area that she did not mention — Bangor — there has been ongoing regeneration. However, that is not to say that the rest of that constituency does not have bids or calls in. It is important that we use whatever time we have now to make sure that the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed, so that, when we go back to normal — whatever that may look like — we do not waste time doing things that we could have done earlier to speed the process. I will certainly look at what regeneration programmes there are.
I know that my Department and that of my colleague Edwin Poots could work on extending regeneration schemes to towns and villages, right down to small rural places of fewer than 5,000 people. I will certainly look at it and write to the Member to give her an update on what is happening in her constituency.
Ms Ní Chuilín: This is an important issue for my Department and me. On my behalf, it was raised by the permanent secretary, and I will discuss it with the chair and the chief executive of the Housing Executive at the forthcoming accountability meeting.
Prior to COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown, the Housing Executive took forward a pilot scheme with a view to streamlining a major adaptions process. Following the success of that pilot in the south region, the Housing Executive mirrored that approach in the north region, with timescales for improvement in both cases. In the 12 months prior to lockdown, the Housing Executive moved towards recruiting additional staff resources to undertake the design element of adaptions in-house. That has been proven to increase the quality and has definitely improved the time frames. While good progress has been made, there are still backlogs following the insolvency of a consultant who previously provided much of this work, along with other external factors.
To mitigate that kind of ripple effect from contractor insolvency in the future, the Housing Executive has gone to tender with the larger contractor framework, and is hoping to attract a larger pool of contractors, in order to limit the need for further procurement through the duration of any new contract framework.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister for her answer. The Minister will be well aware that any delays increase the applicant's dependency. Is the Minister confident that there is sufficient funding to tackle the backlog, so that whenever the systems are put in place and the consultants etc are engaged, we will be able to fast-track, especially given the importance to the construction industry as well as to the applicant?
Ms Ní Chuilín: To be honest, I cannot say I am confident yet, because I have not looked at all the details. I assure the Member that she should be confident that I will certainly make that a priority. That is the only commitment that I can give.
As well as the backlog I outlined, she and other Members will be aware that there has been a backlog in occupational therapists (OTs) doing the assessments that are passed on to the housing providers, either the Housing Executive or housing associations, so that adaptions can be carried out. Meanwhile, people who have to go from one place to another, for example the kitchen or the bathroom, are in sheer agony. Their quality of life has reduced, so I am with her. I want to make sure that we make the process as smooth and streamlined as possible, so that we are not sitting in this situation again.
As well as looking at contractor arrangements, I am also looking at reports about the staff side representatives and allied health professions who are needed. We need to unlock that; people are waiting too long. To be honest, their lives are miserable and I do not think that any of us want that on our watch.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question and I also thank all those who have been involved in what has been a really great community effort.
Minister Hargey responded quickly. On 20 March she established an emergencies response leadership group. The group, which includes local grassroots community groups as well as the wider voluntary and community sector, has worked side by side with the Department, health and social care trusts, and local councils to ensure that tailored support is in place for the most vulnerable. The speed at which that cross-sectoral partnership approach was developed was particularly important. The COVID-19 community helpline was launched on 27 March, only a few days after shielding was announced.
I mentioned earlier, and the Member was present, that access to food has been one of the most critical elements to the emergency response. Access to medication is also particularly important for those who are shielding and those who support them. In partnership with the Department of Health, we helped match over 250 community pharmacies with voluntary and community groups that have delivered over 34,000 prescriptions. A further partnership has also seen the launch of a virtual well-being hub, providing mental health and well-being resources and support for those impacted by the crisis.
Throughout the response, the Department has ensured that financial assistance is successfully provided to those impacted by the pandemic. An enhancement to discretionary support was quickly put in place and over 99% of all universal credit claims have been paid on time each week, despite the caseload almost doubling.
Mr Stewart: Thank you, Minister, for your response. I congratulate you on your new position. I wish you well and I wish a speedy recovery to former Minister Hargey.
I know that the food hampers and packages have been discussed already. We all take our hats off to that scheme to help those most in need.
One of the success stories and positive aspects to come out of the whole COVID crisis has been the community across the country uniting to help the most vulnerable. It has been amazing to see big groups coming together. We talked about a post-COVID debrief. If we have to roll out such a scheme again, can we look at the quality of some of the food that is being put out, because, in the hamper scheme that we were running locally, we were seeing some out-of-date bread and damaged goods? It is never going to be perfect, but some of the most vulnerable were also being missed.
Ms Ní Chuilín: That is not good enough, to be honest with you. We all have dignity, and nobody wants to get out-of-date bread. There is a message when you get that: you feel like an afterthought, despite all of the good efforts and good heart behind it. I hear that.
What lessons can be learned? We have to learn lessons regarding access to some of the supports under the social supermarkets. They are looking at fresh fruit, fresh meat and fresh bread. We are all entitled to fresh food. Lessons will be learned. If we go into a second quarter, councils will be taking forward the support for money, but it is also about due diligence. Everybody knows what they do not want to do again, but we need to put a plan on paper for what we will need to do post-COVID, and, God forbid, if we ever go through a second wave of this, to ensure that we are in a better position than we were in March.
Ms Ní Chuilín: During the crisis, volunteers have been critical to the success of community-level response. They have been involved in a wide range of activities to support vulnerable people, from providing practical support, delivering food, delivering prescriptions and collecting shopping, through to providing emotional and well-being support. Sporting organisations and faith-based groups have stood out for their contribution. They have played a massive role, as have some businesses in their volunteering role.
Sporting organisations have been key stakeholders throughout the crisis. I commend everyone who has volunteered, particularly the grassroots organisations. In many ways, volunteers have been the first responders during the crisis. It is important to recognise the individual acts of kindness shown by many people: checking on their neighbours; picking up their neighbours' messages; chatting to each other across the fence; walking their neighbours' dogs, or whatever it has been. Those strong communities and strong bonds have been crucial throughout the emergency, and we will continue to ensure that their significance and contribution is recognised as we, hopefully, move into the recovery phase.
Mr McGuigan: I echo the Minister's kind words and praise for the support and contribution of the community, voluntary and sporting organisations during the crisis. Does the Minister believe that there are lessons to be learned from the mobilisation of volunteers across community, voluntary and sporting sectors and that it can be built upon?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The answer is yes: it definitely can be built upon. In North Belfast — my constituency, and Paula's — we had soup deliveries from north to west Belfast, from the New Lodge to the Shankill. Relationships, which had always been there and had worked through the most difficult times, shone throughout the pandemic. On Sundays, people on the Shankill made all the soup for the residents; roast chicken and roast beef were cooked in another kitchen; and the youth clubs tried to put it all together and deliver it safely. There were lots of groups involved. People from GAA clubs, soccer clubs and Scout groups, for instance, were out delivering. You would not have got that effort in the absence of a crisis, despite the fact that they all do good work. We cannot lose sight of those connections and friendships that will, hopefully, endure well beyond the crisis.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, we are coming to our final question. I hope to be able to take a supplementary question if anyone wishes to rise in their place.
Ms Ní Chuilín: My Department is seeking to target and help those in most need. I am sure the Member has listened. The food parcel service has been critical and, in particular, has delivered to people who are vulnerable or have been shielded through notification from their GP. The boxes have also been available to people who are not shielding, but who are in critical need of food. People are able to request support through the COVID-19 community helpline. A triage system is operated locally through helplines to assess the needs of a person, regardless of whether they are shielding or non-shielding, or have already received support through other networks, such as family and friends.
Mrs Barton: Thank you for your answer, Minister. Some who were eligible for food parcels did not get them. With the service continuing, will there be a guarantee that those people will be considered second time around, if you understand what I mean, starting from July?
Ms Ní Chuilín: We were told that 40,000 people received shielding letters, and that figure more than doubled. In my constituency, people got their first shielding letter only four weeks ago, never mind the continuation letter. Granted, they were helped out by neighbours, but without their neighbours' vigilance, they may have been ignored.
I understand what the Member is saying. That is the sort of lesson that we need to build into the review to ensure that those people are not missed a second time. For those shielding, the food boxes are continuing until 31 July. After that, we need to look at other opportunities for support.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for her answers. My question is in a similar vein. How confident are you that the right people are going to get them, and what conversations have you had with the Department of Health? We know that the Department for Communities was not at fault for people receiving shielding letters only four weeks ago. Are you confident that the right people are going to get them and that GPs have done their job and sent out those shielding letters?
Ms Ní Chuilín: We discussed that at the Communities Committee and were really frustrated that some very vulnerable people had only got their shielding letters. We were worried that they were invisible, by and large. They had good community networks and neighbours, but if they lived in an isolated or rural area, such as Rosemary represents, that is a fear for us all. I will be having conversations with the Department of Health to try to ensure that something like that does not happen again.
Mr O'Toole: I welcome the Minister to her job, and well done for stepping up at short notice.
She will know, as a former Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, that the arts sector in Northern Ireland is on its knees as a result of COVID. Our arts and cultural sectors are critical to how we live across the island. They are also critical to economic recovery and tourism. I do not know if she has had a chance to look at detail of the letter that she will have got from the cultural sector. They want support —
Mr O'Toole: — and will she form a cultural task force —
Mr O'Toole: — to help to aid the recovery of the arts and culture —?
Ms Ní Chuilín: The answer is yes, even though it has nothing to do with food. Yes, I saw the letter. We saw it at the Committee. It was detailed, so we are certainly looking at it. Again, it is about the Executive's five-stage recovery plan and how we can move forward. I fully understand the absolute pressure that the arts sector is under. It is about people's livelihoods, and people are having to go to food banks, so there is a connection — they are going to food banks. So, I understand.
Ms Armstrong: I will be quick. Minister, thank you very much for you answers. As we know, some who needed food parcels did not get them. Unfortunately, many who did get them did not need them. Are you considering having an easy version of how to decide who does need them, and I do not mean by means testing, and will you continue the priority slots in supermarkets?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I will take the last point first. The priority slots in supermarkets are important. Some supermarkets in north Belfast are keen to do that post-COVID, particularly for people working in education and health, but certainly for the elderly and children with autism.
In north Belfast, and I hate using north Belfast as an example, there is a lot of need and a lot of food was delivered. I am unaware of people getting food who did not need it. I am not saying that it does not happen, but I am not aware of it.
Do we need to tighten things up? Absolutely. We need to ensure that people who did not get, do get. That is where we are all coming from. Whatever the lessons and experiences, that is one of the things we will look at coming out of this.
Mrs Dodds (The Minister for the Economy): I am wholly opposed to the Department for Education England's intention to impose a student number control on full-time undergraduate English domiciles at Northern Ireland's higher education providers in the coming academic year. I am shocked that another jurisdiction in the United Kingdom is seeking to control student numbers in Northern Ireland and concerned about the impact that it may have on our local sector. This intention runs contrary to what had been agreed amongst the four UK Administrations at the beginning of May on a number of measures relating to admissions for the coming academic year under the UK admissions package.
Local institutions will have already started to determine their recruitment of English domicile students without any indication that the Department for Education England restrictions would be imposed on them. For the proposal to be brought to the fore at this stage in the recruitment and admission cycle is not just unfair but unprecedented. Five local institutions are impacted on by the decision: Queen's University Belfast, Ulster University, St Mary's University College, Belfast Metropolitan College and South Eastern Regional College. I have raised my opposition to the action directly with the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, and the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan. On the basis of legal advice, it appears that neither I nor my Department can stop the Department for Education England introducing the measure. However, I continue to raise the concerns of the local sector with the Universities Minister and seek a solution for any local institution negatively impacted on by the decision.
Mr McCrossan: Thank you, Minister, for the answer to that important question. This year, the academic year has been hugely disrupted. Our every way of life has been hugely disrupted, but the academic year for students has been disrupted from start to finish. Has any consideration been given to the waiving of tuition fees for the students affected this year? Has your Department had any engagements with the universities on that? Student debt is a big issue, and I do not see why students should incur that debt, given that they have not benefited from the full educational opportunities.
Mrs Dodds: This is a very important issue for students. However, universities are autonomous financial bodies. It is up to the universities to decide whether they wish to pursue any return on the fee charged. In fairness to universities in Northern Ireland and unlike many universities in GB and the Republic of Ireland, Ulster University, Queen's and others have allowed students to opt out of their accommodation contract. They have not been charged for the third term of that accommodation. Universities have also been conducting a lot of online courses and online teaching. We have ensured that student loans will be paid in the third semester. We have also ensured that provisions for those in training or other similar programmes will be paid. Universities have done a significant amount to alleviate student hardship. Of course, in the last monitoring round, I was allocated £1·4 million from the COVID hardship fund, and, with the reprioritisation of resources in my Department's budget, I have been able to double that. An additional £2·8 million is going into the student hardship funds, and the universities will administer that because they know best the students who attend their universities.
Mrs Dodds: COVID-19 has had a devastating impact across Northern Ireland, and its impact will be felt in each council district. I have not tried to minimise or sugar-coat that position in any shape or form.
My Department recently published the 'Charting a Course for the Economy' document, which is a plan to restart our economy, and I am pleased to say that some of the actions outlined in the document are under way, such as the much-needed reopening of non-essential retail stores on 12 June.
A key aspiration for promoting economic recovery and rebuilding the Northern Ireland economy will be the development of a competitive, regionally balanced green economy with opportunities for all. Our longer-term economic policy objectives will be reflected in a new economic strategy that will set out how we will seek to drive growth and prosperity for the benefit of all the people across Northern Ireland. In that strategy, we will seek to continue to support the industries that are core to our economy — the tourism, agri-food and manufacturing industries — but we will also seek to identify new opportunities for growth for the Northern Ireland economy in areas where we are already world-class and in areas where we already make a significant impact across the world. We will seek to grab those opportunities for Northern Ireland.
For the north-west and for the council region there, I am pleased that we have recently, as an Executive, agreed the new city deal and the Inclusive Future fund, which will see over £200 million of investment in the city. That will provide, in the medium term, an important stimulus to economic and inclusive growth across the wider region.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I remind the Minister that she has two minutes for answers and, if she feels that she needs additional time, she can request an additional minute at the start.
Mr Durkan: The north-west is the worst-performing subregional economy on these islands. I could ask a supplementary question about the failure to expand the university, one about the tug of war that is ongoing with the medical school or one about Invest NI's record in the north-west, but all those issues are symptomatic of failed economic policy. The Minister talks about a new strategy: strategy is one thing, but policy is another. The last independent review of economic policy —
Mr Durkan: — took place in 2009. Will the Minister commit to a fresh independent review of economic policy here?
Mrs Dodds: I am committed to an economic strategy that is for all of Northern Ireland, that is inclusive of all of Northern Ireland and that gives us balanced regional growth across the whole of Northern Ireland but, importantly, an economic strategy that captures all that we do best and grabs the opportunities for the future. That is why I announced the Economic Advisory Group and why, this week, I will talk to a group of stakeholders in my Department, right across the full spectrum of the economy, about the important opportunities for the whole of Northern Ireland.
In relation to the important economic development opportunities in the north-west, on 22 May, the local council submitted the strategic outline cases for two innovation and two digital projects to my Department and to the UK Government for approval. We are committed to assessing those projects and getting them back out, because they will drive economic growth in the council area.
Mrs Dodds: My Department fully appreciates the terrible impact that the COVID-19 crisis is having on all citizens across Northern Ireland, especially the most vulnerable. We are engaging with other Departments to ensure that the Executive's priorities to support citizens and businesses are implemented as quickly and effectively as possible.
On telecommunications matters, my Department maintains regular contact with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which leads on telecoms policy, and with other key stakeholders, including Ofcom and industry bodies. As telecommunications policy is a reserved matter, DCMS is leading on a UK-wide basis regarding a cohesive package of support for the telecoms sector. The importance of connectivity has been underscored at this difficult time. The telecommunications industry, led by DCMS, has implemented a number of initiatives to ensure that customers, especially the vulnerable, can keep connected with work, family, friends and important services. I have met Mobile UK to discuss how some of those measures operate in Northern Ireland. That engagement is not directly related to the #NoOneLeftBehind Internet Access for All campaign. My Department is aware of the letter issued by Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) in April 2020 but has not been contacted directly.
The telecommunications industry has worked with a cooperative spirit in responding to the needs of vulnerable consumers during the COVID-19 crisis. Details of the various initiatives can be found on my Department's website. I am also happy to write to the Member about those initiatives, if that is at all helpful.
Ms Ennis: I thank the Minister for her detailed response. The 'Connected Nations 2019' report showed that, in the Newry, Mourne and Down area, only 7% of premises had ultra-fast broadband, compared with 92% in Belfast. Nine per cent of premises in Newry, Mourne and Down were unable to get broadband speed of even 10 megabits. That is a serious issue for students, families and businesses, notwithstanding the current crisis and the necessity to work from home at this time. Can the Minister ensure that Project Stratum will prioritise areas with the lowest coverage?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for her question, which is, of course, incredibly important. I am delighted that we are currently assessing the bids for Project Stratum. The Member will know that that arose from the confidence and supply arrangement. Government continues to fund that important infrastructure improvement in Northern Ireland. I hope that we will be in a position to award the contract for Project Stratum in late September and that we would have operations on-site by late winter or the early spring of 2021. It is massively important to address the issue of poor broadband connectivity. The COVID-19 crisis has made us more aware of how important it is for all areas of Northern Ireland to be connected. Reiterating my theme of a regionally balanced, more competitive economy, that is an important infrastructure investment that the Executive will make to ensure that we achieve just that.
Mrs Dodds: We are all, understandably, perturbed by the job losses in our constituency of Upper Bann in Thompson Aero Seating and the wider industry. Officials from Invest Northern Ireland are in advanced discussions with Thompson Aero Seating. They met recently to agree the company's training and business plan, which included a discussion on the skills and capabilities required for Thompson Aero Seating to implement its recovery plan and meet market demands. My careers department has also been in touch to offer the company assistance in the form of tailored careers advice for those workers who face redundancy. We all recognise that this is an incredibly difficult situation, in which many people face an uncertain financial future.
Mrs D Kelly: It is good to hear that the Minister's officials are working with the company on its sustainability and long-term future, but it is imperative to get the 500 people who have lost their jobs placed urgently on retraining schemes and into jobs that are available in the area. What specific action is being taken to match those people up with retraining schemes and available jobs? Will the Minister consider giving additional funding to the Southern Regional College or elsewhere to provide the classes and training schemes for those individuals?
Mrs Dodds: The Member made a really important point: for those individuals who face redundancy in the near future, it is important that we are able to offer retraining, if that is necessary, or further job opportunities. That is why all branches of my Department will be working with those employees, through, for example, a dedicated jobs fair or further careers advice. It is also very important that the local further education college is able to offer the appropriate reskilling and upskilling courses.
It is worthwhile noting that I spent most of this morning talking about skills in Northern Ireland and how to recover the local economy and protect it in the future by building the skills of our people, which are probably our greatest resource. I intend to bring to the Executive a package of measures that will detail how, as part of our recovery, we will invest in, and build on, skills. Crucial to that recovery will be the skills gap, which can be dealt with by our further education colleges in particular. I am really looking forward to bringing that package of measures forward and to working with our further education colleges to ensure that we address the skills gap. That may be about apprentices and making sure that we have a recovery programme for apprentices who have lost their jobs in Thompson Aero Seating or the wider manufacturing supply chain. These are really important issues that we need to get working on for our short- and medium-term recovery.
Mrs Dodds: Youth unemployment is a particularly concerning issue and stretches across several Departments in addition to the Department for the Economy, not least the Department for Communities. A key response to youth unemployment is encouraging employment opportunities, and a priority for my Department is the promotion of, and support for, the apprenticeship system, which plays a key role in creating an effective and sustainable pipeline for skills development in the Northern Ireland workforce. Increasing participation in, and awareness of, apprenticeship training provision is another priority.
Through my Department’s ApprenticeshipsNI and Higher Level Apprenticeships programmes, employers are encouraged to create apprenticeship opportunities that are open to all young people across a wide range of occupational areas. Colleges, universities and other work-based learning providers are funded by my Department to deliver apprenticeship training from level 2 to level 7. For those aged 16 to 24, ApprenticeshipsNI and Higher Level Apprenticeship funding is available at all levels without restriction. For apprentices who might lose their job or for young people unable to secure employment as an apprentice, my Department provides a guarantee of a full-time training place through its Training for Success programme to all those under the age of 18.
My Department has also implemented a package of supplier relief measures related to the retention of services across ApprenticeshipsNI, Training for Success and disability support provision, as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, to ensure the continued viability of our skills infrastructure.
To support the rebuilding and renewal of the economy, my Department is developing an apprenticeship recovery initiative, with ongoing engagement with the UK Government and devolved Administrations to explore additional measures to support existing apprenticeships and apprenticeship opportunities through shutdown and recovery phases. Those will, of course, require investment, and I will make an announcement on the additional support needs for the arrangements in due course.
My Department also provides an all-age Careers Service, with a particular focus on youth, to support them in seeking employment but also to provide advice and guidance on the learning and progression options available to them.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Again, I remind the Minister that two minutes are allocated for answers. If she feels that she requires additional time for an important answer, she can request it.
Ms Dillon: I thank the Minister for her very detailed response. Does she agree that not every young person wants to be an apprentice? Some would like to be an entrepreneur. Many of those whom we encouraged to be entrepreneurs are now in a very disadvantaged position because they have been given no financial assistance as someone who is newly self-employed or a sole trader. Does the Minister have any plans to address that issue?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for her question. She raises a really important point. One of the things that I would like to see us develop further is our thoughts on entrepreneurship and how we can develop that for young people in further education colleges and, indeed, throughout their education and training. That is one of the things that it is very viable and possible for us to introduce as a matter of great importance.
I understand, of course, the very deep problems that young people who are entrepreneurial and have started their own business have experienced over the last months. The Member will also be aware that, in my Department, I have been working through the various grant schemes that are available. I will, in due course, make recommendations and a paper available to the Executive. They can decide where any underspend or further funding might go to fit any particular group that feels that it has not been supported in this situation.
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. I have no immediate plans to introduce new legislation in relation to agency workers. As Minister for the Economy, I wish to work with Executive colleagues and the Assembly to ensure that measures relating to employment rights balance workers' rights with the flexibility that Northern Ireland businesses need to succeed.
The Agency Workers Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2011 already entitle agency workers to the same basic employment rights as employees after a 12-week qualifying period. That includes statutory sick pay after completion of the 12 weeks' service. In addition, recent legislation, introduced in the context of the COVID crisis by the Minister for Communities, allows employees to receive statutory sick pay on the first day of illness rather than on the fourth. That is in line with EU and UK-wide legislation.
Mr Gildernew: I welcome the fact that agency workers get statutory sick pay and the initiative taken by the Minister for Communities to improve their situation. However, the Minister will be aware, as is everyone in this House, of the unprecedented commitment shown by key workers at this time. Yet, after 12 weeks, those agency workers still do not qualify for maternity pay, paternity pay, lay-off or redundancy. Does the Minister believe that those workers are entitled to the same rights as every other worker?
Mrs Dodds: Of course, I support the Member when he refers to the sterling work that has been done across many sectors of the community in Northern Ireland during the difficult time that we have experienced. In food factories and various other parts of the economy, people have gone to work and served their community by making sure that essential supply and food chains are available to us in every situation. It also includes those people who have worked in small and large retail stores during a very difficult time.
I am committed to employment rights that are sensible, proportionate and extended to all. I encourage anyone, agency worker or otherwise, who believes that their employment rights have been breached in any way during this difficult time, to use the Labour Relations Agency workplace information service for impartial information on employment rights. In addition, the Law Centre NI provides free independent specialist legal advice on employment rights, and those are important avenues people can use should they feel that their rights have not been respected during this period.
Ms Anderson: I will take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on her position. It is the first chance I have had to do so.
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member. It seems a long time since the European Parliament and the end of January. It is only a few months ago and a lot has happened, but thank you.
I recently published my framework for rebuilding the economy into a more competitive, inclusive and greener economy that will benefit all parts of Northern Ireland. The framework focuses on delivering higher-paying jobs, a highly skilled workforce and a more regionally balanced economy. Addressing regional imbalance is integrated into all the work of my Department. For example, Project Stratum will address regional imbalance and broadband access, and it will bring broadband to those premises currently unable to access such services.
Delivering benefits for all of Northern Ireland is also integrated into the work of Invest NI. Invest NI is actively working with Derry City and Strabane District Council and regional partners to develop a coordinated approach to the development and growth of the regional economy in the Foyle constituency. Skills will also play a key role in our economic recovery, and the initiatives in this area will also help rebuild the economy of the Foyle constituency. I have been developing new initiatives to help sustain apprenticeships and support the pipeline of skills.
North West Regional College has been doing impressive work in continuing to deliver courses. The college has worked quickly to move delivery to an online platform and has developed new courses in response to the pandemic. The college is also delivering a range of fully funded online courses. That will assist those who have become redundant or who wish to upskill or reskill to secure employment.
Ms Anderson: Minister, I know that you were not in office but you have inherited Invest NI's woeful record for visits to Derry from 2016-19. Can you outline how Invest NI's overseas team engages with prospective foreign direct investors who might come to a city like Derry? How does it market the talent and skills that Derry has to offer? In the time ahead, will you market Derry, in the context of tackling regional disparities?
Mrs Dodds: I again thank the Member for her question. Over the last five years for which figures are available, Invest NI has offered £81 million of assistance to local businesses located in the north-west. That is with the north-west being defined as having Invest NI's regional area office, which covers the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council area and the Derry City and Strabane District Council area. That assistance will have delivered £439 million in support of the creation of 4,280 jobs across the region. I understand that Invest NI plan to publish its latest figures for 2019-2020 in the reasonably near future.
As I said, my economic strategy will be central not just to the recovery from COVID, but to Northern Ireland's future going into its second century. Central to that will be producing an economy that has greater skills, is more regionally balanced and greener and that looks to grab the opportunities of the future. We will invest in the core of our economy, which is our manufacturing, our agri-food, our tourism sector, but we will also look to where the new job opportunities are and to where we can create them. Central to that, of course, will be the work of the city deals. I have been to Magee university, and I was extremely impressed by the forward-looking approach to those areas of the economy that will bring more and better-skilled jobs and investment for the future.
Mrs Dodds: To date, I have had no engagement with stakeholders on sectoral bargaining in the childcare sector, nor is my Department aware of any requests from them to discuss it. However, I note that the issue has implications for the Ministers of Education and Health in their respective responsibilities for childcare in Northern Ireland.
I am, of course, always open to working with Executive colleagues, the Assembly and stakeholders to make sure that the wider plans I have for ensuring that our employment legislation framework takes account of the needs of workers and businesses in these very difficult times.
Ms Flynn: I thank the Minister for her response. The Minister will be aware of the report of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) on childcare, which was published last year and which found that workers in this sector are underpaid, with almost half being paid below the real living wage. The introduction of sectoral bargaining would help to set minimum standards of pay and conditions to devise career paths for workers in the sector, which has been historically categorised as a low-wage industry. Will the Minister ask the Labour Relations Agency to convene a sectoral bargaining forum between childcare providers and trade unions?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for her question. For me to do that would require the stakeholders to say that this is something that they, of necessity, want.
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for her question. The fourth round of negotiations concluded at the beginning of this month. Whilst it is clear that the UK and EU share similar objectives in many areas, progress will need to be made on governance and on issues relating to open and fair competition. As negotiations proceed, the Executive continue to press the UK Government to do all that is possible to facilitate our trade within the United Kingdom and with the European Union, including the Republic of Ireland. A positive outcome to the negotiations will be particularly important for cementing our trade within the UK on goods, our trade on services with the EU and for electricity trading. I believe that a deal is achievable, but we clearly have some way to go in those negotiations, which will no doubt intensify in the coming months.
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Minister for her response. Her Majesty's Government is carrying out a consultation on free ports and, while it may not be for the Minister to respond to, I ask what consideration her Department is giving to that, and the associated benefits and potential opportunities for Northern Ireland?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for her question. It is important that we respond to our national Government in relation to the free ports issue. We need to understand the economic benefit for Northern Ireland and how that will benefit all the people and regions of Northern Ireland.
I am committed to exploring any and all options to ensure that we have the policy tools to drive the Northern Ireland economy forward. That is hugely important, at a time when we are recovering from the pandemic emergency, and in a difficult space in trying to reopen and revitalise our economy, and ensure that, for the future, we are able to grab every opportunity to have a more inclusive economy.
Mrs Dodds: Maybe they will also clap when I give the answer. [Laughter.]
I am not terribly sure about that.
I thank the Member for his question. It is a really important issue and one that, given the statements made today in our national Parliament, is incredibly important to Northern Ireland and to the recovery of this particular sector.
The work of the tourism recovery steering group and its supporting working group is ongoing, and a number of key issues are being progressed by my Department, in partnership with the industry and other stakeholders. A key focus in recent weeks has been our work with the tourism and hospitality industry to identify a clear road map and timescales for the safe reopening of the industry.
This partnership approach has been crucial in informing the Executive’s decision to begin the reopening of key sectors of the tourism and hospitality industry. I am delighted that, depending on the rate of infection, caravan parks, camping sites and self-catering tourist accommodation will be able to reopen on 26 June 2020, with hotels and other tourist accommodation being able to reopen from 3 July 2020.
The Executive’s decision, to allow visitor attractions, restaurants, cafes and coffee shops to reopen from 3 July, is also an important step forward, as is enabling the reopening of pubs and bars for the provision of food, and the conditional opening of beer gardens.
The steering group and working group are also progressing work in key areas, such as the development of overarching guidance to the visitor economy on how businesses can operate as safely as possible once lockdown is eased, research on consumer sentiment to inform the industry and marketing plans including plans for marketing in our domestic market, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
Mr Catney: Thank you very much, Minister. I am aware, from your previous answers to me, that an advisory group has been set up to look at the gaps in the COVID response funding. Our hospitality and tourism sectors contain a vast proportion of single-person businesses. How close are we to finding support for them?
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. As I indicated in response to an earlier question, I am bringing a paper to the Executive and it will be for them to decide what is done with the underspend that is a result of the grant funding that we have had. We will know the outcome of that process in the reasonably near future.
These are important conversations and the Executive will make a balanced judgement on all the competing issues. I will say in general, however, that the greatest and biggest help that we can give to our tourism and hospitality sector is to allow it to reopen safely and in a way that makes it financially viable. I notice that, in our national Parliament, the Prime Minister has indicated that, in England, he would like the social-distancing measurement to go down to 1 metre-plus, with 1 metre being the minimum distance. I have made no secret of the fact that I am advocating 1 metre on behalf of the industry. At 1 metre, our restaurants, our hotels and our coffee shops are more viable than they are at the 2-metre social distance. Just after our Prime Minister's announcement this morning, I wrote to my Executive colleagues and indicated that we, too, should formally review the social-distancing advice, because we want our hospitality and tourism industry to be sustained and to be sustainable into the future. We need to make sure that the provision is there for it to do that, in a way that is safe, of course, with all the reasonable mitigation measures being in place.
Mrs Dodds: It is crucial that we move as quickly and safely as possible from the devastation wrought on our economy by the pandemic and that the Executive work collaboratively to that end. The provision of childcare for those returning to work is one of the key supporting measures for restarting the economy, and I am working closely with Executive colleagues, and in particular the lead Departments of Health and Education, to align work and childcare.
Miss Woods: The Minister will be aware that we have still to experience the brunt of the negative impact of COVID-19, with further business closures and redundancies to come. Those will affect not only employers but the livelihoods of many. In the light of the fact that people will be made redundant, what advice has the Minister or her Department given to date to employers on engagement with trade unions? Will she recommend that all employers across all sectors and regions of Northern Ireland have trade union representation, especially when decisions are being made that affect employees' futures?
Mrs Dodds: Of course I recommend that there be full consultation with trade unions on any or all redundancies, where that is applicable to the particular sector of the economy.
Mrs Dodds: The Northern Ireland Executive's business support grant schemes and the microbusiness hardship fund have now closed, with over £300 million of support to businesses having been paid out to date. Outstanding applications and payments are being verified and processed as quickly as possible.
The Welsh Government's economic resilience fund is still operational, so we do not have the necessary information to carry out a meaningful comparative analysis at this time. I have asked my officials to consider the outworking of the three support measures that have been managed by my Department. Along with Executive colleagues, I will continue to examine those areas of the economy that have been unable to avail themselves of financial support to date, as well as businesses' investment needs, as we move forward with attempts to reopen and rebuild the local economy.
Mr Nesbitt: If the Minister were an entrepreneur struggling to survive this public health crisis, would she rather have access to Welsh grants or Northern Irish loans?
Mrs Dodds: My Department has made significant amounts of money available to businesses right across Northern Ireland, including almost 24,000 businesses, run by very entrepreneurial people, that are in receipt of £10,000 from the small business fund and those businesses in receipt of £25,000 from the scheme targeted at tourism, hospitality, leisure and retail.
We have also looked at the businesses that are covered by the microbusiness fund. Of course, we will continue to look at other options that are available to the Northern Ireland economy as we go forward, not just at grants that mitigate the impact of COVID-19 but the recovery measures that will be important for the vulnerable but viable businesses that we will need to help and see through a difficult time.
I have done some reprioritising of my departmental budget in that respect. I have looked at providing funds to Invest NI and InterTradeIreland around e-commerce. We have looked at how businesses can get online and at the support that we can give to them in relation to those measures. We will, of course, look at a whole-Executive package and we will speak, as an Executive, about that later this week.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Colin McGrath has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Health. I remind Members that if they wish to ask a question, they should indicate so by rising in their place continually. The Member who tabled the question will be afforded an opportunity to ask a supplementary question.
Mr McGrath asked the Minister of Health, given the recent change of management personnel in the organisation and the resignation of all the non-executive directors, for his assessment of the capacity of the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) to undertake its work and fulfil its statutory duty in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask for an extra minute to give my answer.
I am confident that the changes to RQIA's management personnel and board membership will have no impact on the organisation's day-to-day work. Let me make it clear that I continue to have total confidence in the staff who work in the organisation. I am grateful to those staff for their continued commitment to delivering on RQIA's priorities because this has been an unprecedented time and the organisation's staff have worked tirelessly and consistently with colleagues across health and social care (HSC) as an integral part of the regional response to support services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following the receipt of a request from the Department, and in response to an urgent need for support across the HSC, RQIA significantly reduced its inspection activity and review programme. That temporary measure was introduced in order to, understandably, minimise the risk of health and social care professionals and other visitors spreading infection in care homes. I remind the House that similar decisions were taken in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland.
The resignation of the board members is regrettable, especially coming at this incredibly challenging time. That is why, within hours of the former board members resigning, I moved quickly to appoint Christine Collins MBE as the new interim chair. I am confident that Christine will further strengthen the voice of people who use the health and social care system; something that I am very keen to see. As I said last week, I have asked officials to consider how, going forward, we might further strengthen the voice of people who use services in the field of regulation, quality and improvement, in keeping with our approach to co-production and partnership working.
In the light of the move to rebuild HSC services across Northern Ireland, and with community transmission of COVID-19 now significantly reduced, the Chief Medical Officer has written to RQIA seeking to enable it to increase its activity across all areas of work. RQIA has developed a revised, flexible inspection process that it intends to implement from July 2020, following engagement with providers and trusts. I am confident that RQIA will continue to take a pragmatic and flexible approach to how and when inspections take place and will endeavour to meet the statutory minimum requirements where possible. In the immediate time, it is important that RQIA focuses its activity where it is most needed, following an assessment of all the risks.
I have today asked David Nicholl of On Board Training to undertake a review of the circumstances that gave rise to the recent events in RQIA. David has a wealth of experience in this area and is a highly respected independent figure, and I look forward to receiving his objective analysis of the position.
Mr McGrath: I thank the Minister for coming today to address this urgent matter and for his response to my question, which has at its core the protection of our vulnerable and elderly relatives.
It would appear that the management of RQIA was systematically dismantled in the middle of a global pandemic, without the consent of its board. Was this the sensible thing to do, Minister, given that our care home sector is on the front line of the pandemic? Who took these decisions, and do you stand over them?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for bringing the matter to the House, because I think that it is something that needed to be addressed, not just publicly but in the Chamber.
With regard to the management changes that we made in the teeth of the COVID-19 pandemic, Members should always remember that this was just a few months ago, when we were looking at scenes across western Europe and in Italy where people were lying in hospital corridors waiting for treatment. In changes of management, the RQIA's chief executive, Olive Macleod, has actually taken up a temporary post within the Public Health Agency (PHA), which is another front-line part of our fight against COVID-19. Dermot Parsons, previously the director of assurance, has been appointed as the interim chief executive of RQIA, and Emer Hopkins, previously the deputy director, has taken up post as interim director of improvement. So it is not a completely new management team. We took Olive out to place her in the PHA at a time when we needed to strengthen what the PHA was doing with regard to test and trace and our entire system there. We used her expertise, and Dermot and Emer were promoted internally to retain the collective knowledge and management experience within RQIA.
Mr Gildernew: Given the quite unprecedented nature of the en masse resignation of the board, does the Minister accept that the Department's actions have called into question the independence of RQIA?
Mr Swann: I do not think so. I think that there are difficulties in relationships, which the independent inquiry that I have asked David Nicholl to take forward may tease out. I was made aware of tensions between the board and the executive management of RQIA at the start, while we were actually working through our response to the pandemic. Those tensions will be teased out and worked out, but I do not think that the independence of RQIA has been affected at all. The reaction, now that we have stood up inspections again as from yesterday, will actually strengthen that input as to how we manage the care home sector in the next few months and make sure that it is prepared for any second surge, should that occur.
Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for the opportunity to ask some questions on the subject. With hindsight, does the Minister accept that the Department's focus on minimising the risk of health and social care professionals from RQIA spreading infection within care homes was disproportionate, given the rapid spread of the virus in those homes at the height of the first wave?
Mr Swann: As I said in my earlier statement as well, the steps that were taken with regard to repurposing RQIA were the same steps that were taken in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. It was not about stopping inspection or stepping it back. It was about a reduced inspection process, but it was also about utilising the professional talents and capacities of those people working within RQIA — social care workers, nurses and healthcare professionals — that we can actually put in place to support care homes with regard to infection control, the use of PPE and how they actually supported residents as well. It was about repurposing a cohort of highly qualified and reliable staff, who knew the sector, to aid us in the response and how we tackled COVID-19.
Ms S Bradley: Minister, given the critical need for a regulatory body at this time, can you outline how long you anticipate it to take for a new board to come together? Are you planning any interim measures that could, perhaps, bridge the gap until a full board can be put in place?
Mr Swann: That is a critical point. As I said, that is why I moved at haste to appoint Christine Collins, the current chair of the Patient and Client Council. She comes with experience, not just of the health sector but of chairing a board.
To clarify the point, I wrote to the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments for Northern Ireland on Thursday 18 June to inform her that, on the 17 and 18 June, the active non-executive chair and five non-elected board members had resigned. So I have already engaged with the Commissioner for Public Appointments. That process will now start, and I hope to have a full board in place by the end of July.
Dr Aiken: I thank the Minister for his response so far and for his swift response in setting up the independent investigation into the RQIA. However, can the Minister ensure that the terms of reference cover why the recent board of the RQIA did not action the many recommendations from previous investigatory reports and, particularly, those from the Care Inspectorate and the Commissioner for Older People?
Mr Swann: When looking at the terms of reference and what to ask David Nicholl to do, I would rather concentrate on this specific issue. I am aware that the Commissioner for Older People has raised a number of concerns around outstanding pieces of work that the RQIA were undertaking and are due to undertake. In the initial steps, I will ask David to look at this specific focus because I cannot afford to distract the current staff of the RQIA as we move back into the inspection phase that they are tasked and empowered to do.
Ms Bradshaw: Minister, in your press statement, from the last 24 hours, you said that you wished that the board members had approached you and raised the issues so that you could have resolved them. We now know that emails were coming forward from the former chair and the interim chief executive to your Chief Medical Officer and permanent secretary as far back as the end of April. When did you become aware, and what have you done, to try and resolve the issues?
Mr Swann: I was made aware in early May that there were tensions between the executive and the board of the RQIA. I was not aware that it was to the extent that it was, neither was the Chief Medical Officer or the permanent secretary. When the resignations came through, they came as a surprise. I was due, that afternoon, to meet with the chairs of all the arm's-length bodies, including the chair of the RQIA. She resigned on the morning that I was due to meet her. That was actually in the diary and ready to happen but, unfortunately, events overtook that being possible.