Official Report: Monday 06 July 2020
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Is it within the functions of the Speaker of this House to use social media to advertise and promote funeral arrangements in circumstances in which prevailing Executive guidance at the time prohibited such promotion and advertising?
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Strictly speaking, that is not a point of order relating to the business of the House, Mr Allister. What I will say is that, when I am in the Chair, I make every effort to be neutral and impartial and to leave the fact that I am a DUP Assembly Member to the side. It is important that anyone who exercises such a function should try to do the same.
That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 6 July 2020.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 6 July 2020.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: There was one dissenting voice, Mr Allister's, but I am satisfied that cross-community support was demonstrated.
That Standing Order 15(1) be suspended on Tuesday 7 July, for the purpose of the motion on ministerial breaches of COVID-19 regulations and guidelines, and that amendments to the motion shall be given in writing to the Speaker not later than 9.30 am on Tuesday 7 July 2020.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Order 15(1) be suspended on Tuesday 7 July, for the purpose of the motion on ministerial breaches of COVID-19 regulations and guidelines, and that amendments to the motion shall be given in writing to the Speaker not later than 9.30 am on Tuesday 7 July 2020.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: As there are Ayes from all sides of the House and no dissenting voices, I am satisfied that cross-community support has been demonstrated.
That Mr John Stewart replace Mr Doug Beattie as a member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr John Stewart replace Mr Doug Beattie as a member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
That this Assembly, in accordance with section 3(1) of the Public Services Ombudsman Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, nominates Margaret Kelly for appointment as the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman.
The Public Services Ombudsman Act 2016 delegates to the Assembly Commission—.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Butler, you just need to move the motion at this stage. I have some House rules to outline before the debate can begin.
The Business Committee has agreed to allow 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and a further 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. I now call Mr Butler to open the debate on the motion.
Mr Butler: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. You could say that I am a slow learner at times. What to do is actually written on my notes. I just chose to ignore it.
The Public Services Ombudsman (Northern Ireland) Act 2016 delegates to the Assembly Commission the responsibility for determining the criteria for appointment and making arrangements to identify, by fair and open competition, a person to be nominated by the Assembly for the role of ombudsman. The appointment of the ombudsman is by royal warrant and is for a single period of seven years.
Like the House when it established the ombudsman's office, the Assembly Commission believes that the ombudsman carries out an important and effective function in ensuring that there are free, independent and impartial services for handling complaints about public services in Northern Ireland. Good governance and oversight are important to enable us all to be confident that our public bodies are carrying out their functions in a fair and transparent manner. In addition, the ombudsman can initiate investigations when there is a reasonable suspicion of maladministration or, in the case of health and social care, where there is a reasonable suspicion of systemic injustice.
The ombudsman also performs the role of the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Ombudsman and Local Government Commissioner for Standards. Members will recall that shortly after the resumption of Assembly business in January of this year, the Assembly nominated an acting ombudsman, Mr Paul McFadden, to ensure that this important role did not stay vacant until such time as the recruitment competition for the office of ombudsman was completed. I thank Mr McFadden for undertaking the role of acting ombudsman during what has been a challenging period.
The recruitment process involved myself, Mr O'Dowd, the Clerk/Chief Executive and Rosemary Agnew, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman. I place on record my thanks to Ms Agnew for her insight and willingness to help the Commission with the competition. I am delighted to inform the House that the recruitment competition has now been concluded and that Margaret Kelly was identified as the successful candidate.
Members may know Ms Kelly from her active work in the voluntary and community sector over the past 30 years. She is an honours graduate in politics and economics from Queen's University and holds a master's degree from Bristol University in social science, with a focus on racism and ethnic minority communities. Ms Kelly has a wealth of experience in working with children, young people and families and has held senior roles in many children and family organisations. Since September 2015, she has been the director of Mencap Northern Ireland. During that time she has been responsible for developing a range of early intervention services for children with a learning disability and their families. She has worked with children, adults and families to ensure that the needs of those with a learning disability have a higher priority with public services.
Ms Kelly has worked with the Assembly and a range of Departments on the development and improvement of policy and practice. She also has extensive experience in commissioning, managing and publishing research, as well as ensuring that an evidence base underpins policy and practice.
I record the Assembly's thanks to the former ombudsman, Marie Anderson, for her work as the first ever Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO). Today, the Commission seeks the Assembly's agreement to the nomination of Margaret Kelly as the Public Services Ombudsman. I have no doubt that Margaret's skills and experience will enable her to be an excellent ombudsman. I commend her nomination to the House.
Ms Bunting: I rise as the Deputy Chairperson of the Audit Committee. As Members will be aware, the Audit Committee plays an important role in scrutinising and agreeing the budgets and Estimates of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, as well as those of the Northern Ireland Audit Office and, more recently, those in relation to the Assembly Commission.
Although the appointment of the ombudsman is a responsibility for the Assembly Commission to manage, the Audit Committee has an important relationship with the ombudsman. At its meeting on Thursday 13 February 2020, the Audit Committee received a briefing from the Office of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman. One of the issues raised at that meeting was the vacancy within the ombudsman's office and the impact of that vacancy on the work of NIPSO as a whole. At that time, members noted that the nomination and, in turn, the formal appointment of the acting ombudsman would be for a period extending no longer than the first anniversary of the vacancy of ombudsman arising — that is, up to 15 July 2020 — or until the appointment of a successor ombudsman.
Members were keen that that risk was addressed and the post of ombudsman filled before the deadline expired, and, consequently, the Committee agreed to write to the Assembly Commission to request a timetable for the recruitment and appointment of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman. The Speaker replied to the Committee, indicating that the Commission had been prioritising the vacancy in the ombudsman's office and had agreed on the urgency to appoint a new ombudsman, given the time limit on the powers of the acting ombudsman.
I think that I win the prize for the number of ombudsman mentions in one paragraph.
The Committee also noted that the Commission would be proceeding with a recruitment competition to facilitate the appointment of an ombudsman, the result of which is today's motion and nomination. I expect that, like me, the other members of the Audit Committee will be pleased to see the vacancy in the office addressed and look forward to engaging with the new ombudsman as the Committee continues to progress its work with NIPSO.
Mr Allister: I am not very familiar with the history and work of Margaret Kelly, so anything that I say is not to be taken to reflect upon her capacities and abilities. I did not hear about anything in her background that indicated that she has legal expertise. I think that, given that, very often, the ombudsman's function involves quasi-judicial functions in reaching judgements, assessing evidence and all of that, it might have been advantageous to have had someone of such a background. We have not been told, and I would like to know, how many applicants there were for the post and how many were interviewed.
The ombudsman has a right to self-initiate investigations. I suggest to Ms Kelly that the first investigation that she should initiate is one of recent events in Belfast City Council, where there appears to have been gross maladministration in the selective preference given to one applicant family in the use of the crematorium over others.
Belfast City Council needs to be strongly held to account in respect of its administration of that matter. How is it that eight families, on Tuesday, were denied the privileges, the rights and, it turns out, the overnight change in the law that no one was told about? How is that eight families were denied all that, and one family was afforded those special treatments? That, surely, is a matter of maladministration.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The subject under discussion is the appointment of an ombudsman. I appreciate that your comments relate to the functions of the ombudsman's office, and you have got them on the record. I am happy to let you resume, but it is important that you come back to the appointment of an individual. That is what is under discussion.
Mr Allister: I thought that I was speaking on that topic, because I was talking about the function whereby the ombudsman can initiate investigations. I was giving Ms Kelly some advice as to what she might initiate an investigation about. The point is there. It is crying out for investigation.
When the Commission come to reply, could they also tell us what progress they have made in the appointment of a Standards Commissioner for the House, which is a long-outstanding vacancy?
Mr Beggs: I welcome the proposal and support the appointment of Margaret Kelly as the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman.
I first got to know Margaret a couple of decades ago, when she was a policy officer in Barnardo's, one of the biggest children's charities in Northern Ireland. Through that, she had close involvement with Assembly Members, public representatives and, indeed, with government officials, particularly in the Department of Health. When I was Chair of the all-party group for children and young people, I found that measured and knowledgeable advice came forward.
Margaret subsequently became the chief executive officer of Mencap, one of the largest charities in Northern Ireland, which cares for those in need of support. She has shown her professionalism there, and I have no doubt that, in the role of Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, she will act in the best interests of the Northern Ireland public and, hopefully, assist in providing a better Administration for all the people of Northern Ireland.
Mr Gildernew: I would also like to welcome the appointment of Margaret Kelly to this important role. I have worked with Margaret on a number of issues in relation to her work on the all-party groups, and also in her role in Mencap. Her insights into the difficulties faced by carers and families, struggling with very difficult situations, will be of great value to her in the role. That perspective will be something that the ombudsman will benefit from.
I would also like to wish Marie Anderson, who I worked with on a number of issues, well in her future, and acknowledge that she made the ombudsman more accessible to families and people badly in need of representation. There is a major issue with the health and social care complaint systems, and I think that the Public Services Ombudsman could have a key role in the time ahead.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No other Member has indicated that they wish to speak. I call Mr John O'Dowd to make a winding-up speech and conclude the debate on behalf of the Assembly Commission.
Mr O'Dowd: I welcome the contributions made by Members. In relation to a number of questions raised by Mr Allister, all those who were interviewed met the criteria of the post as advertised. I have a figure in my head of the number of candidates who were interviewed, but I do not want to give the House the wrong figure. That figure — the number of candidates who were interviewed for the job — can be supplied to Mr Allister and put on the record. I welcome that there was a significant number of applications, and that a significant number of them met the criteria for interview. I welcome that.
I reiterate the point made by my Commission colleague Mr Butler in recognising the assistance provided to the recruitment panel by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, Rosemary Agnew. Her expertise and input were invaluable, as we sought to identify the best candidate for the post of ombudsman. I feel that we have done that. I sincerely believe that Margaret Kelly will be a highly effective ombudsman, who will help to ensure that public services can be delivered in the best possible way, and held to account, for all our citizens.
I urge Members across the House to support the motion, which I commend to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly, in accordance with section 3(1) of the Public Services Ombudsman Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, nominates Margaret Kelly for appointment as the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Members should take their ease for a few moments to allow the junior Minister to arrive for the next item of business. Thank you.
Mr Kearney (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): Iarraim go dian an Bille a chur chun cinn. I beg to introduce the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill, which is a Bill to make provision concerning the decisions which may be made by Ministers without recourse to the Executive Committee.
The Bill addresses the implications for the decision-making function of Ministers of the judgements of the High Court and the Court of Appeal in the judicial review of a planning decision by the permanent secretary of the Department for Infrastructure.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be published.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The next two motions are to approve statutory rules relating to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations. There will be a single debate on both motions. I will ask the Clerk to read the first motion, and I will then call on the Minister to move it. The Minister will commence the debate on both motions. When all who wish to speak have done so, I shall put the Question on the first motion. The second motion will then be read into the record, and I will call on the Minister to move it. The Question will then be put on that motion. If that is clear enough, we will proceed.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 7) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
Mr Lyons: There are two motions before the Assembly today. With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I will address them both in my remarks.
I will begin by outlining the changes brought about by these regulations and the reasons behind the Executive's decisions. First, the amendment No. 7 regulations amend regulation No. 5 to allow an additional circumstance whereby people can leave their home to visit another person's dwelling, either alone or accompanied by others, provided that the maximum number of persons in the dwelling is no more than six. The Executive considered that this easement would make provision for informal childcare arrangements between family and friends to resume. I know that it has been much welcomed by many people, especially grandparents who previously had been unable to have contact with grandchildren.
Before I outline the further changes to the regulations brought about by amendment No. 8, let me remind Members that while the approach of the Executive has not been to make decisions based on a timetable, we have recognised that some sectors benefit from future indicative dates. That means that our decisions are taken on the basis that sectors and citizens will have the information that they need, including some indicative dates, guidance, where necessary, and strong messaging. With that in mind, the Executive gave advance notice to people and relevant sectors of the dates from which they could resume their activities and operations. The following are the regulatory changes that were made to give effect to those dates.
The Executive agreed to amend regulation 3 and schedule 2 to allow businesses, such as hotels, restaurants, cafes, bars and coffee shops, to reopen from 3 July, subject to certain restrictions relating to the serving of alcohol. The Executive considered that that relaxation would assist in allowing people to leave their home, improving well-being and increasing the sense of normality, as well as restoring the livelihoods of those employed in the sector.
The Executive further agreed to amend regulation 4 to allow holiday accommodation, such as caravan parks, to open from 26 June, to allow people to travel to a second home and to allow visitor attractions, such as historic houses, culture and heritage centres and outdoor attractions, to open from 3 July. These relaxations will provide significant economic benefits for the tourism and hospitality sector. They will also allow people to take much-needed leisure breaks after the difficult restrictions that we have all been living under since late March.
We have been pleased that representative bodies from the food and drink sector, including UKHospitality, the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation and Hospitality Ulster, have worked closely with the Department for the Economy, the Public Health Agency (PHA) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to produce timely and appropriate guidance to enable those businesses to reopen.
The Executive agreed to further amend regulation 3 to allow premises used as indoor sports facilities to open for the purpose of training undertaken by elite athletes. The Executive recognised the comprehensive protocols that sporting bodies have in mind to allow this.
The Executive also agreed to amend regulation 4 to allow places of worship to hold religious services, other than baptism services or certain wedding services, and Bible readings from 29 June. Junior Minister Kearney and I had very positive meetings with church leaders to agree the guidelines that churches would adopt to allow for services to recommence.
The Executive agreed to amend regulation 5 and schedule 2 to allow nail, hair, beauty, barbers, tanning salons, electrolysis and acupuncture businesses to reopen from 6 July. I know that that relaxation has been particularly welcomed by Members who have participated in all our debates to date.
In previous debates, Members raised concerns about the time lag between the Executive making decisions and the opportunity for the Assembly to hear and debate those. I am taking the opportunity today to update the Assembly on decisions made last week.
Last Monday, we agreed that the number of people allowed to attend outdoor gatherings was to be increased from 10 to 30, and then, on Thursday last, we agreed to give legislative effect to allow a range of activities and sectors to restart. These included: the reopening of museums and galleries from 3 July; the reopening of bookmakers' offices from 3 July; the reopening of close-contact services — massage, tattooing, piercing and spas, not including thermal treatments — from 6 July; and the restricted opening of restaurants and bars in private members' clubs from 3 July.
As we reduce the degree of regulation, it is guidance and adherence to that guidance that will become more and more important. We cannot defeat COVID-19 with fines and penalties alone. The choices that each of us makes will determine the outcome.
As I close, it would be remiss of me not to mention the importance of compliance with the regulations. The events of the last week are well rehearsed and will, no doubt, be a matter of further debate today. However, I want first to recognise the pain that many people feel at this time. We have all made sacrifices over the last number of months, because we wanted to comply with the regulations and with the rules that had been put in place for the simple purpose of saving lives. I know that people are angry. They are angry that the rules have been broken; they are angry that there was a denial that the rules had been broken; they are angry that, when they highlight those issues, they are accused of making party-political points; they are angry at the lack of remorse; and they are angry at themselves for having kept the rules when others have not. Many families who saw what happened have asked themselves why they went to the lengths that they went to when others then broke the rules. I have had families coming to me saying that they feel like mugs because of it.
I have been contacted by one family in my constituency who asked me to share their story. Thomas McFarlane died during this period of restrictions. His family told me of the lengths that they went to to comply with the regulations. His grandson, who had come home from Scotland, stayed in the family's garage so that the family would comply with the rules. They did not get to grieve as they wanted, and Thomas McFarlane did not get the funeral that he deserved. His name may not be familiar to everybody here, but I think that most people have probably seen the picture of him taken as he was led away from the scene of the Abercorn bombing in 1972, guided by two ladies as the blood poured down his face. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of his life. His family shared in that suffering, and they felt that the funeral last week and their inability to have one as they would have liked was a final kick in the teeth from the republican movement.
I understand the anger felt by many who say to me that it appears that all funerals are equal but some funerals are more equal than others. How do we respond to that? First, although the credibility of some of the messengers may have been damaged, the credibility of the message remains unchanged. The regulations are still required, they are still necessary, and we still need to adhere to them. Secondly, two wrongs do not make a right. I urge people over the next number of days, especially those in my community, "Please stick to the regulations. Adhere to them. Do not let those who organised the funeral last week be the yardstick by which we measure ourselves. Just because others have broken the rules, don't think that their irresponsibility gives us licence to do the same". Let us make sure that we keep the rules, not just for the sake of keeping them but so that we can protect the health and the lives of people here.
I also say to those who have adhered to the rules, "Please do not regret the fact that you have done so. Your sacrifice was worth it. It was not for nothing, and it probably saved lives. Let me very clear: your loved one was not worth less than anybody else; your grief is no less than anybody else's". We thank them for sticking by the rules and doing what was required of them. I urge others to do the same, and I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I thank the Minister. Before I commence the debate, I remind Members, insofar as is possible, to direct their comments to the content of the regulations that the Minister was referring to. I also remind Members that tomorrow a motion will be debated that stands in my name alongside the names of Ms Kellie Armstrong, Dr Steve Aiken and Mr Colin McGrath, so there will be ample opportunity. I want to impress on the House, without trying to restrict debate in any way, to try to direct remarks to the regulations that the Minister was referring to.
Mr McGrath (The Chairperson of the Committee for The Executive Office): As I have said in every debate on the amendment regulations, the Committee welcomes the lifting of the restrictions when the time is right. The First Minister and deputy First Minister attended our Committee meeting on Wednesday past and provided an update on the Executive's response to the pandemic. The Committee was concerned about the wider health, societal and economic impacts of the regulations and the significant and serious implications that the crisis has had for all sectors of our community and the economy. Members were, therefore, pleased to hear that a process to develop an Executive strategy for recovery has begun. It is clear, though, that, for the strategy to be effective, we need constructive collaboration between Departments, local government and the private and community and voluntary sectors. No one can work in isolation. We have a long road ahead of us, but the road is worth travelling if it leads to effective health, economic and full recovery.
On the face of things, it looks as if we are moving fast towards normality. We can go back out for a meal, we can get a haircut later today and we can go out to the museums. However, it is important to emphasise that things are not normal. A pandemic situation is not the norm. We might be able to do all of the things that the junior Minister has outlined, but we must do them responsibly whilst observing social distancing guidelines and washing our hands frequently. The evidence shows us that the community transmission rate is now as low as it will get in the absence of a vaccine, but, for that situation to continue, everyone must continue to show discipline and be compliant.
I would like to make one or two remarks as an SDLP MLA. I thank the Minister for his report this afternoon. I see that you are now prompting many of the questions that we are going to ask and our remarks, so that allows my remarks to be somewhat shorter.
I welcome the continued relaxation of the regulations, safe in the knowledge that you are introducing them after consulting our scientific community and the leading experts. It would be, of course, remiss of one not to ask and encourage the community of the North to do their level best and stick to the regulations and stick to the guidelines. It is fairly obvious that some in this place think that the regulations that we pass here do not apply to them, and I want to send a clear and unequivocal message that the regulations apply to everyone. We all must do what we can. It is unfortunate that those in positions of responsibility have chosen to be lax in their approach to the regulations. That has caused difficulties. That has caused confusion. It does not make the journeys that we all must make any easier. I commend people who have stuck with the rules, made the sacrifices and borne the scars of the impact of the regulations. Thank you. Thank you for making that sacrifice. You have helped to stop the spread of the virus. You have helped to save lives. You know where your loyalties lie: with all of us in our community and not the narrow constituency of your mates.
This will be a long journey. There will be no quick and easy solution until we see a vaccine.
The relaxation of the regulations does not mean an immediate return to business as usual. It is a move to a new way that we all must adopt immediately so that we can save lives, stop the spread of the virus and continue with our lives as best we can in a common effort and with a common purpose.
Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá le leasuithe a seacht agus a hocht. I wish to update the House on the Health Committee’s consideration of the latest amendments to the regulations.
Once again, I acknowledge the enormous work being done by all those working to protect public health and manage the ongoing risks and challenges presented by the pandemic. It is clear from a range of sources that continued vigilance is essential. The Committee was briefed on amendment (No. 7) and amendment (No. 8) last Tuesday, 30 June. The Chief Environmental Health Officer advised of the main easements for each, as outlined by the junior Minister. In relation to small groups being able to meet indoors under amendment (No. 7) and the broader suite of easements provided for by amendment (No. 8), Members reflected their ongoing desire to have a better sense of the scientific evidence informing decisions. The Committee awaits a reply to correspondence sent to the Department on the matter, and the view was expressed that the Committee should be provided with relevant evidence assessing the safety of the easements before being asked to give support to relevant regulations.
The Committee returned to the issue of enforcement raised in relation to previous amendments and was advised that the regulations had now been amended in such a way as not to require an amendment to the enforcement provisions on each occasion.
Such is the pace with which changes are being made and considered in the Chamber that the Examiner of Statutory Rules had not had a chance to report on the amendment (No. 8) regulations prior to the Committee’s consideration, since they had been laid only a few days earlier. The Committee therefore agreed to support both statutory rules, subject to the Examiner’s report. The Examiner reported on Friday and highlighted an issue for clarification in amendment (No. 8) around reference to places of worship being able to open for purposes including "bible readings" and whether it was intended that the regulations should facilitate all faith communities in holding services involving readings from other sacred texts. Her report advises that the Department of Health has indicated that the regulations do not fully reflect its policy intent and that it will bring a corrective amendment shortly. I hope that the junior Minister will provide an assurance on that point in his winding remarks. The Committee has not had a chance to consider the Examiner’s report, but I hope that this information assists Members today in coming to a conclusion.
Mrs Cameron: For many debates here, we have been talking about significant steps in the easing of lockdown but maybe smaller than what we do today. We do not underestimate the necessity for each move, but it is worth noting that the changes to the regulations we have here probably represent the biggest step forward. I am sure that many of us can say that we never knew that so many people owned caravans before lockdown kicked in. I know from messages and emails received over the last days and weeks that the move to reopen those much loved escapes is very welcome.
Our tourism and hospitality sector has been particularly hit by the lockdown period, so it is welcome that we now see our bars, restaurants, cafes and hotels once again opening their doors. We have a fantastic industry here, and it is in desperate need of public support. I really encourage the public to get out there and spend their money in their neighbourhood. With one-metre social distancing, turnover sits at 70%. That is hugely challenging and does not reflect an environment where a living can be made. Out of hope, we have to continue on the path to normality. We hope that further easements of restrictions can be implemented to help those businesses, going forward.
Family life has also been hugely impacted on. The indoor gathering provisions are very welcome. They allow children to see granny and granda, which, I know, has been so keenly anticipated and is now enjoyed by many. I often think about how lockdown has impacted on the minds of our young people, and it is bound to have brought so many questions about changes to normal routines and activities. That is something we need to be cognisant of, moving forward.
The last area that I wish to mention is the reopening of places of worship. Faith is fundamental to the way in which many people in Northern Ireland live their life, and the act of public worship is a key part of that; it is not an optional extra for them. I know that many congregations and church leadership teams struggled to level the idea of closing churches with their beliefs. Faced with such a significant threat to the health of their congregations, they did the right thing and closed their doors. I commend so many churches for the innovative ways in which they have adapted through online services. I also want to commend folk such as Colin Tinsley, who made school assembly and Bible clubs available to kids.
Once again, I commend all the people of Northern Ireland who have adhered to the regulations and guidance to allow the restrictions to be eased. It is not easy; it is difficult, and many people have had to do difficult things to get us to this point. That is why the recent actions of so many on the Sinn Féin Benches in the Chamber are so shameful. There was no respect for the regulations, the wider public or our front-line healthcare workers. There was no integrity to front up and tell the truth. The Sinn Féin version of equality is supremacy, arrogance and entitlement. I beg the public not to weaken their resolve in the face of the reckless actions of some so-called leaders. We have come so far; let us not ruin it now.
Mr Beattie: These are amendment Nos 7 and 8 of , I think, 10 amendments so far; I am sure that there will be an awful lot more to the coronavirus legislation. I have not spoken before on this, because I supported the Executive and the Executive Office and trusted them when they asked us to adhere to the regulations. However, I am not sure that I can say that any more. I am not sure that I can even support the regulations any more.
The legislation was the most draconian and far-reaching possible, and the amendments ease the restrictions but do not take them away. They just give more guidelines and more restrictions that everybody has to adhere to. It is a drip feed towards getting us out of lockdown, and it is the right way to do it, if we all abide by it. We have to understand what we did as an Executive and an Assembly nearly four months ago, those difficult decisions that we made.
In an attempt to protect the health of our citizens from the effects of COVID-19, we have damaged the health of our citizens. Mental ill health, already at crisis levels, is now at epidemic level. Amendment (No. 7) aims to address that. In an attempt to protect our economy with furloughing, grants and support measures — all of which were needed and were welcome — we have damaged our economy. Small and medium-sized businesses find it extremely difficult to take root even with the amendments, and some may never open again. Amendment (No. 8) aims to deal with that. In order to save lives, because of the pandemic, we have cost lives. As we close down services, people with cancer and other illnesses have succumbed to the ravaging of their bodies and have passed away. We did that — the Executive and the Assembly. In order to protect all our citizens — young and old, sick and healthy, working-class, middle-class, Catholics, Protestants and neither, foreign nationals, visitors, key workers, the furloughed, those who were shielding, the people frightened by a pandemic that had already cost them dearly — we curtailed people's civil liberties. We allowed the sick to die scared and alone. We stopped people mourning and going with their families on that final journey that is so important in our culture on this island.
People accepted those hardships with grace, sorrow and understanding. They lost moments that they will never get back. Yet, Sinn Féin drove a coach and horses through that sacrifice with an act of selfishness, arrogance and pure privilege. Words cannot express how angry and sad I am today. Many people in our society are angry and sad at what has happened.
The actions of Sinn Féin have trampled all over the hurt, the pain and the sacrifice of this society, and you do not have the good grace to stand up and say sorry for doing so and to make amends for it.
The hard facts are that the Executive and the Assembly grappled with the restrictions over the past four months, and I know from my colleague the Health Minister, Robin Swann, that that weighed heavily on him, as he had to make life-and-death decisions. Look at us now. What a sorry bunch we are. All that we said, all that we told — pleaded with — society to do has been undermined. Everything we say now has been undermined, and it was undermined by a deputy First Minister who simply does not care.
Mr O'Dowd: On a point of order, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I believe that you made a ruling at the start of the debate as regards the legislation going through today. There will be an opportunity for Members to debate their concerns etc tomorrow. Perhaps you would like to make that ruling.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I do not think that I made a ruling. To be fair, I think what I said was that it was important that Members related their comments to the content of the regulations. In his introductory remarks, I think, the junior Minister addressed some of the issues that Mr Beattie is addressing. However, I reiterate that a motion has been tabled and there will be an opportunity for a thorough discussion of those events tomorrow. I encourage all Members to direct their comments, please, to the content of the regulations that are being amended.
Mr Beattie: I acknowledge what Mr O'Dowd has said. Fair enough, I understand what you are doing. You are trying to protect your deputy First Minister and maybe even some of your Ministers and MLAs who also broke the regulations. If we want to relate this to what we are talking about here, we need only look at amendment (No. 7), where it says that no more than six people can gather in a house. What about the 45 all crammed in together in a building with no social distancing, with an MLA from the Member's party posing beside them? That is a clear breach of amendment (No. 7). We can relate to all of these. The problem is that, as we drip-feed the changes, if we do not adhere to them, it is absolutely pointless to do that. It undermines the Executive's credibility. It means they have lost integrity and moral authority. It means that, as we sit here trying to ignore that, when we look at the amendments and ask people to adhere to them — remember what we said: we are on 10 now, maybe going on to 12 — we are really saying to people, "You have to do that, but do you know what? We don't".
Yes, we may have a debate about this tomorrow. That will be for tomorrow. I am talking about the amendments today. The question is simple. Will Sinn Féin address the issue of the MLA who was in a room with 40 to 50 guys dressed in black and white with no social distancing, breaching amendment (No. 7)? If the answer is no, they have no credibility.
Ms Bradshaw: I will speak on behalf of the Alliance Party. My colleague Kelly Armstrong will address the wider issues during the debate tomorrow.
For many in our society, the changes made by amendments (No. 7) and (No. 8) have brought us closer to a return to normality and a resumption of activities that bring joy and amusement. Amendment (No. 7), which amends regulation 5, allows people to visit others in their home. That has, undoubtedly, brought untold joy to people from all walks of life but especially, as Mr Lyons pointed out, to grandparents, who have had to learn to use electronic devices to engage with their treasured grandchildren during the pandemic. When we saw the photographs of recent family reunions, we were all reminded of the purpose of the lockdown restrictions: staying apart so that we could reunite in the future. I do not think that any of us will take for granted again that quick pop in for a coffee with a loved one. Those chats and connections are so valuable to our sense of community and belonging, and, no doubt, it will go some way towards easing some of the poor mental health and well-being issues than many of our constituents have experienced during this prolonged period of isolation.
As we turn to amendment (No. 8) and the opening up again with mitigations of our restaurants, bars, hair salons, beauty bars and visitor attractions, we must remember how difficult the process has been for those businesses. I reference in particular the small operators who have a few staff and are just pursuing their passion by going it alone in enterprise. They have faced the most horrendous financial circumstances over the last few months. We will all have received those distressing phone calls and emails from constituents who needed answers about the status of grants because they needed to ensure that their staff, with their own bills, got paid in time. Let us not forget that, while financial measures were brought forward by the UK Government and our Executive Ministers, there were delays in those payments and, worse still, there were many who were not eligible and were forced to take the decision to close their business as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown. As Mr Beattie has just pointed out, we know of many who will sadly not reopen this month. Moving forward, we must bear it in mind that, from small cafes to hairdressers, with the current restrictions, many are left with much uncertainty about whether they will survive. During the coming weeks and months, we will continue to need to balance the need for effective and clear public health guidance and advice with not placing unnecessary pressures on those businesses, so as to allow them to open their doors, to continue to provide a service to their local community and to provide opportunities for employment.
The other group of people who are of high importance to the regulatory changes are the staff who will be working in our visitor attractions, nail salons etc. We need to give them confidence that the lifting of the lockdown restrictions has been done with clear evidence and careful thinking. I hope that the Executive's decision to support the Infrastructure Minister's request to make wearing a mask on public transport compulsory, albeit with some exceptions, will give them the extra confidence, when they return to work in the coming weeks and months, to use our trains and buses.
Further to that, the childcare needs of some of our returning workers must not be forgotten. With amendment (No. 7), we know that grandparents can begin to be an option again for that, but there are still many who will not have full childcare cover. It is a reminder of how interlinked our society is and the important role that we have in the legislature in ensuring that, when we amend the health protection regulations, we reflect on the full consequences of the announcements. I repeat my support for Mr McGrath's suggestion last week that, when we get the announcements of easements from the Executive Office, we are given an opportunity in the Chamber to ask questions of the junior Ministers about what that means in practice for our constituents and when they will receive updated guidance and advice.
In closing, I ask that the public, as they return to our hospitality and beauty businesses and to visiting their loved ones, are ever mindful of the need to be vigilant and careful. No one in the Chamber wants to see a second spike in cases with more deaths, illness and misery.
Mr Sheehan: As I say on all of the occasions when we speak on these issues, in normal circumstances this would be draconian legislation that, I am sure, most in the House would not support. However, given the crisis that we are in with the pandemic, it was essential that the regulations were brought in when they were brought in. As it turns out, we were very much ahead of the curve, compared with what was happening across the water.
Of the amendments that we are debating, amendment (No. 7) is particularly welcome with regard to visiting other houses and opens the door again for grandchildren to visit their grandparents and for grandparents to take up the role that many of them do in childcare.
So, that is very welcome, and it is very welcome in general that the restrictions are being eased.
Of course, the amendment (No. 8) regulation relates to the easing of restrictions to allow the reopening of various businesses: hotels, bars, restaurants, cafes, coffee bars, indoor training facilities, places of worship and visitor attractions, as well as enabling people to stay in their second home. Hairdressers, barbers, beauty salons and so on can also reopen.
Although the restrictions are being eased, there will still be major problems, particularly for small businesses. My wife will not readily forgive me for telling you here today that she was at a beautician at eight o'clock this morning for the first appointment because she is going away tomorrow. The beautician had on a full face visor, apron and gloves — the whole shebang — and she told my wife that she would be working until nine o'clock tonight. It is very welcome, of course, that people can get back to work, but by the time that she was finished with my wife, the sweat was pouring out of her. The amount of PPE that she has to wear is very awkward, and, in the heat of the salon, makes for very uncomfortable working conditions for anyone. She said to my wife that, if this continues, she'll be off sick in two weeks' time. We all know the problems that will be faced by other businesses as well.
We know, of course, that there is a time lag before we debate these amended regulations: they have already come into effect. On 29 June, another regulation was amended to increase from 10 to 30 the number of people allowed to attend outdoor events.
In general, all these easements of the regulations are welcome. However, I heard the First Minister say on the radio this morning that the R rate had risen above one in London. That is very concerning, and as the easing of these —.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Sorry, Mr Sheehan, just one moment. It is not in order to heckle another Member when they are on their feet. We do not do that in this House. We should treat each other with respect.
Mr Sheehan: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. The Member in question regularly heckles, so it is water off a duck's back to me.
It is concerning that the R rate has risen again in London, and, of course, we all know about the lockdown in Leicester and other places. As the easing of the restrictions continues, we need to be careful.
In our last debate on the subject, junior Minister Lyons raised the fact that I had mentioned the wearing of face masks. I welcome the fact that that is being introduced on public transport. However, the point that I had made during that debate was that the Chief Scientific Adviser had said that he was concerned that when he went into a shop, he was the only one wearing a face mask. By coincidence, he was on Radio Ulster shortly after the last debate, and, in that interview, he stated that the wearing of face masks would significantly — significantly — reduce the transmission of the virus. That is probably another area that the Executive need to look at.
I welcome the relaxation of the restrictions. I will leave it there.
Mr Butler: Like my colleague Doug Beattie, this is the first time that I have spoken on the regulations. Looking through them, I think that the import of the implications of the easements of the regulations has been highlighted by many Members. These are not normal times, and this is not normal legislation. The regulations have been described as draconian. Let us hope that we never have to revisit them again.
I want to take the opportunity to congratulate the majority of the wider community, businesses, the community and voluntary sector and, in particular, statutory services, who have had to look at the amendments to the regulations and alter how they provide their services, how they keep us safe and how they serve us.
In respect of the amendments, in particular, amendment (No. 7), we all welcome the easement. The ability to spend time with each other in someone else's home is really, really welcome. That is the case for many reasons. There are many social reasons for that. We have talked about mental health at length since I became an MLA. We cannot waste an opportunity not to raise it as the most significant issue even at a time such as this with COVID. In fact, COVID has potentially magnified what was already a pandemic and a crisis that we had here in Northern Ireland. It has certainly stymied the ability of the health service and those health professionals who work in mental health from doing the best that they can. It has forced them into unique challenges with, for instance, face-to-face counselling and the ability to interact on that very personal basis because what you lose when you spend time with somebody is picking up on the little cues that you get that words do not give, whether it is the wink of an eye, the nod of a head, a fidget or a nervousness. We welcome the easing of the amendments and the ability to have that social interaction again.
The SDLP MLA Sinéad Bradley heads up the all-party group on social isolation. That is something that is really gaining momentum. The ability for families to socially integrate again is really important. However, we cannot forget that we still have the crisis of mental health that existed before COVID. It was not COVID that caused it. We have problems here that are decades old, which we are collectively trying to fix, but COVID has magnified that.
We will look at all the implications of COVID, and we will talk about some of those things tomorrow because COVID has brought death to the door of many, whether it is through COVID or whether it is to do with a lack of services, but that mental health impact will be felt for generations. It is something that we will have to deal with and collectively adjust and be honest about what we did and did not do at this time.
The inability to grieve in a time like now cannot be learned from a book or be fixed by a book. It will take time and it will take the rebuilding of confidence. I welcome the easing of the amendment (No. 7) regulations.
If we look briefly at the amendment (No. 8) regulations, it is good to see feet on the ground of our town centres once again. It is remarkable to see the lengths that have had to be taken to provide social distancing inside and outside shops. It is weather dependent, and, obviously, the last few days have not been kind, but there has been a great financial impact on our shops. Whilst the intervention of the British Government has been very welcome and gratefully accepted, we need to discuss the ability to trade on in the weeks and months to come. The easement that we are seeing here that allows our shoppers to go back and shop local is really important because our local shops underpin our employment opportunities for the people who live in our community, so it is vital that we encourage people to shop locally but safely. We see the adherence to the regulations and we see that footfall.
I was reading recently of the richest people in the UK. I am not sure if the owner of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, is the richest, but he was not impacted by COVID. I would go so far as to say that there were people who financially benefited to extraordinary measures that we would not enjoy here. We need to see that our legislation marks time with our businesses and with our health to ensure that people return with confidence to support the businesses that underpin Northern Ireland plc. I welcome the amendments.
Mr Blair: I will address some specifics and outworkings of the amendments to the regulations. Before I do that, I thank the Minister for the statement. I welcome the amendments, which will, of course, assist in restarting the economy and also, very importantly, give signs of recovery and reassurance to those who have adhered patiently to the regulations in the interests of public health. As others have done previously, I, too, want to pay tribute to those in Northern Ireland, from all communities, for their efforts in battling coronavirus and keeping themselves and others safe.
I would like to address the fact that it is extremely difficult to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to some aspects of recovery. I wish to draw particular attention to specific needs in rural areas in Northern Ireland. While efforts to roll out initiatives such as pavement cafes in city and urban areas are very welcome, we need to address the reality that they will not fit every street, small town or village across Northern Ireland. I raise that issue not to negate the value of the excellent initiatives that have come forward but simply to point out that different approaches and priorities will be required in different places. Bars, restaurants and hotels in rural areas may need considerations that are wider than simply the use of pavement areas. Often, at those businesses' locations, there is an outdoor area with an open or semi-open aspect, or outbuildings, that could be utilised further if there were a desire to do so. One hardly needs to point out that the rural economy and local jobs rely heavily on those businesses restarting successfully and sustainably.
I am pleased to hear that, in recent days, an inter-agency group has been set up that will be led by the Department for Communities. It seems that it will look at how recovery will be best accommodated within the remaining coronavirus regulations. It is my hope that other Departments will join with Communities to look not just across Departments but across all localities in Northern Ireland. Hopefully, flexibilities and temporary arrangements can be considered by the working group for a range of businesses and areas, bearing in mind the differences in local settings and opportunities that are available. Those are likely to involve some, at least, temporary reconsiderations of planning and licensing matters. It would be reassuring to know that the Executive and the Executive Office will consider those specific needs and challenges in rural areas as they take that forward. Hopefully, the junior Minister will reflect on that when he responds to the debate.
Mr Chambers: I, certainly, welcome the relaxations that are contained in the amendment (No. 7) and amendment (No. 8) regulations. I must say that I had some personal concerns about the amendment (No. 8) regulations, on the opening of certain premises where food and drink are consumed. However, I must say that the hospitality industry has risen to the challenge over the weekend, and I do not believe that we could find any fault in how it has approached its responsibilities towards keeping people safe.
We have to recognise that those relaxations, welcome as they are, are only part of the road back to normality. They are only part of the journey. We are not there yet. The pandemic is still claiming lives, making people ill and causing families misery. We cannot lose sight of that. The message is still very much about social distancing and washing our hands. The simple things that we have been told and messages that have been preached over recent months still very much apply. If we are serious about protecting public health, we all must continue to buy into that guidance and those restrictions.
As other Members have said, we have all made sacrifices because of the introduction of the coronavirus regulations and guidance. If we look around us, we see that even the democratic process has been compromised to the degree that only so many of us can be in the Chamber to exercise that process at any given time.
We have all made sacrifices around the education of our children and grandchildren. People of faith have made sacrifices around their ability to join in public worship. Families have made sacrifices around family gatherings, and one of the big things is that we have all made sacrifices around not being able to visit relatives and family members who are in hospital, nursing homes or care homes. Those are huge sacrifices that we have all had to make. However, the one sacrifice that trumps them all is the sacrifice that we have had to make around our attendance, or lack of attendance, at the funerals of friends. The most recent funeral of a friend that I attended was, maybe, two and a half months ago. In the meantime, a lot of my friends have died and have been buried, but you did not know where or when they were buried because of the restrictions around the number of people who can attend the funeral.
We have to recognise, as Mr Beattie said, that the restrictions, particularly around funerals, are not directed at any one section of the community on the basis of religion or political positions. They are regulations that have affected every home throughout Northern Ireland. The regulations are not in place, and they have not been put in place by the Executive, for fun. They are here for a reason, and that reason is to protect us all and to stop the spread of this dreadful virus.
Over recent weeks, we have had instances where we have seen irresponsible behaviour around gatherings on beaches during the good weather, albeit, thankfully, nothing like what we witnessed on the south coast of England. However, we have had large gatherings, particularly of young people, on beaches, and we have had protest meetings and gatherings to protest about various issues. We all accept that those sorts of gatherings are ill-advised. In his opening remarks, the junior Minister said that fines alone are not the answer. Of course, they are not. We all have a civic responsibility to exercise the regulations and guidance that are given, and we have a responsibility to show civic leadership.
Last week, I spoke on the day of the funeral that has been in the news in recent days. When I spoke, I did not have knowledge of any of the circumstances around that funeral or of what happened subsequently at Roselawn crematorium. I told a story, and I will repeat it, of a neighbour whose husband had served in a uniformed organisation of the state. He was a long-serving member. There would have been an expectation, I think, that his cortege would contain colleagues from that uniformed organisation and, no doubt, they would have carried his coffin with pride. That lady followed the hearse from a funeral home, where they had a short service, and stopped in the middle of the road, not far from where I live, and had to say her goodbyes to her husband of some nearly 60 years. It was quite poignant: she had to kiss the window of the hearse. That was her goodbye to her husband, whose body was then taken to Roselawn for cremation. She had to make that farewell in the middle of a public street, with traffic flowing past her and people walking up and down. Not a terribly dignified way for anybody to say goodbye to a loved one. That lady made that sacrifice, about two weeks ago. I cannot start to imagine what her feelings were when she saw the news last Tuesday and heard about all that went on at the crematorium. I am sure that they were sadness and disappointment. I am sure also anger, and I can understand the anger.
I am talking about only one lady, one family. We all know families that have made the same sacrifices. Hundreds of families have made that sacrifice over funerals in recent weeks. I had dozens of emails over the weekend asking me, as a public representative, for an explanation and to comment. I really do not know what to say to people. I have respect for the House, I have respect for the Executive, I support the Executive. I have been a cheerleader for all the regulations. It is the responsibility of us all to be cheerleaders for what will protect life and limb.
The Chief Scientific Adviser told the Health Committee that he walked into a shop with his face mask on and was surprised that others in the shop did not have face masks. He may have been referring to the proximity of people in a confined space. I am not sure that he was indicating that he wears a face mask when he walks up and down the street. The face mask can give a degree of mitigation against the transmission of this virus. The greatest mitigation is to avoid large gatherings. The events of last Tuesday, which we will debate at length tomorrow, were totally ill-advised. It was disappointing that Members of the House and our Executive saw fit to attend that funeral and could not make the sacrifice.
I have heard "I could not not attend the funeral of a friend". I could have said that 20 or 30 times over the past couple of months. What gives those saying that they had to attend the funeral of a friend the moral right to take that position? I can understand colleagues in the House wanting to have been at that funeral last Tuesday. I totally get it, and if there was not a pandemic, I would have no quarrel with hundreds of people going and doing all that you do at that type of funeral. I would have had no difficulty with that, but we are still in the middle of a pandemic that we are all trying to fight.
Let us be under no illusions: another surge could take many more lives. We all have a responsibility to do what we can to ensure that that does not happen.
Mr Allister: This is a sham debate because we are debating regulations made by an Executive, when that Executive, collectively, do not believe in regulations in some respects. The sham is further underscored by the fact that the debate will be responded to, on behalf of the Executive, by junior Minister Kearney, who, when we debated these matters last Tuesday, when he ought to have been here to move or to answer, chose instead to breach the regulations by attending the funeral of a person who was neither a member of his household nor a relative. When the regulations were abundantly clear in regulation 5(2)(g) that no person should attend a funeral of someone who is not of the same household or a relative, junior Minister Kearney, with his cohorts, decided that that law was not for him. Yet today, in a display of incredible hypocrisy, the House will be treated to a junior Minister responding to the debate on regulations that he does not honour. How low can this place sink? That is why I said that it is a sham.
Fundamental to the contract between Government and the governed is that the Government that make the laws keep the laws before they expect the people, for whom they are also made, to keep them. Yet, here we have a situation where we have Ministers in the Executive, who sit around the Executive table and make these laws, when the opportunity requires them to, flagrantly breach them. Where is the loyalty? Where is the collective responsibility? The answer is that there is a greater loyalty when it comes to Sinn Féin members of the Executive; the greater loyalty is not to the Executive or to any system of government, it is fidelity to the republican movement and to paying homage to the gruesome heroes of that movement. That is the greater loyalty that trumps obeying their own laws.
That is what we saw last Tuesday. We saw Ministers openly and unapologetically, after demanding loyalty to law from everyone else, setting themselves above the law. Those are Ministers who took a pledge of office that included an obligation to:
"support the rule of law unequivocally in word and deed".
Unequivocally in word and deed. Last Tuesday, we saw deeds that were in flagrant breach of the very rule of law that applied at that time to funerals. Why was that? I will say it again: they told us that there would be no exemptions. However, when fidelity to the republican cause demands homage to people such as Mr Storey, that trumps everything, which is what we saw last week.
As for supporting the rule of law unequivocally in word, in addition to the sham situation of this debate, we have had the sham apology.
We had Michelle O'Neill, effectively the joint First Minister in this part of the United Kingdom, saying, "I'm sorry if people were hurt, but I didn't cause it". What a sham of an apology. Then, of course, lest anyone be in any doubt, she copper-fastened it by saying, "I will never apologise". So much for saying sorry about anything when you immediately take any shred of contrition, of which there was none to start with, and underscore it by saying:
"I will never apologise for attending the funeral of my friend".
What was she saying? She was saying that, whatever about her Pledge of Office or whatever about unequivocally by word and deed supporting the rule of law, there is a greater loyalty that she has, and that is to the republican movement. That is the Achilles heel — in fact, it is far more — of the Executive and the Assembly. We are now in a situation in which the Executive's credibility has been shredded by themselves, by an integral part of the Executive. All that the Executive parties can say is, "We're very disappointed". That is what they will tell us tomorrow in a motion: "We're very disappointed". No condemnation, no demand for resignations, just, "Isn't it disappointing?". How pathetic.
We will, no doubt, be treated in the winding-up speech today to a recitation of all sorts of weasel words, but the reality remains that this is an Executive populated on the Sinn Féin side by Ministers who believe themselves to be above the law: the very law that they make. I cannot imagine a more shattering position for any Government to be in than for those who make its laws to set themselves up as being above those laws and then come to the House with the pretence that they need to have it approve regulations that, when it suits, some will not even obey. What a sham.
The other junior Minister, Mr Lyons, told us about other amendments that have since been made. One is the amendment (No. 9) regulations. The amendment (No. 9) regulations were made at 9.30 pm on Monday evening last. What did the amendment (No. 9) regulations do? They allowed, instead of 10, 30 people to participate in an outside gathering. When did they come into effect? You might have thought that they could have been laid in the House before they came into effect. Oh, no. They came into effect 90 minutes later — at 11 o'clock last Monday night — before they were even laid in the House, never mind debated. Why was that? Maybe we have the answer in the utterly bogus excuse proffered by Sinn Féin as the justification for being at that funeral: they sought to self-isolate the cortège from the funeral and sought to suggest that the cortège was only 30, even though they had elbowed family members out of it to keep it at 30 so that they could be there themselves. "The cortège was only 30: therefore they did not break the law": utterly bogus. Totally spurious. Regulation 5(2)(g) is emphatic in its terms. Is that why amendment (No. 9) was made and published at great haste late into last Monday evening: so as to provide a fig leaf to Sinn Féin? Were the DUP complicit in that? Did they not see what was happening? That, the very next day, a gruesome hero of republicanism was to be buried? Did they fall blindly or not so blindly into the trap of providing a fig leaf for Sinn Féin, even though that is all that it is? It is utterly bogus. It does not exculpate them from the breach of the law. The public, who have been watching on in amazement, will want to know what was the haste and urgency that the statute required to make that amendment before it could even be laid in the House. It is not the first one that has been made without being laid — I grant you that — but it is the one made in the shortest time with the most obvious political ramifications. So, many questions.
I come to an issue about marriages. I have raised it many times. I raised the issue of indoor weddings last Tuesday and the fact that indoor weddings are still prohibited. Yet, from today, you can have an indoor piercing carried out. You can have a ring put through your nose, but you cannot have a ring put on your finger indoors. What sort of logic governs the Executive's timescale in this? I make a further plea: why oh why, if you can have religious services, if you can have funerals, if you can have Bible readings and all those things — we saw many of them yesterday across the Province — why can you not have an indoor wedding? Really, it is time the Executive dealt with that. I trust that they will.
Mr Carroll: It is concerning that we are again being asked to amend the coronavirus regulations without any clear focused or detailed scientific rationale or medical evidence for doing so. It is something that I have repeatedly raised in the Health Committee, and I do so again today with concern. The Health Minister stated at the Health Committee that the virus had not gone away; indeed it has not. I, alongside many others, are worried that the Executive are moving too fast to lift the restrictions. We hear repeated pleas from scientists about the measures being implemented far too quickly, and we need to listen to those concerns. If there is medical evidence or a scientific basis for the actions, surely it would be provided to the public and to the House.
The truth is that the Executive and the Tories moved too slowly to enact the lockdown in March because they prioritised economic concerns and profit rates over health concerns. Now, we see the situation in reverse, as the Executive move to lift lockdown hastily to appease similar economic interests. I am concerned that the Executive have moved to lift restrictions such as those outlined in amendment (No. 8) not because we are reaching near-elimination of the virus on this island but because they are, seemingly, being leaned on and lobbied by business interests above all else. We often hear about the economy and the need to protect the economy in the debate, but we have to remember that the economy does not exist on abstract notions or theories but on the actual activity and labour of working people. Without workers, there is no economy to speak of. The pandemic has shown that chief executives and corporate bosses are nothing without the skills and labour of people who are often paid very little. Those people, who are often not well paid, should not be forced back to work en masse when there are still concerns over their safety and the virus more generally.
It is worth saying that, by many accounts, we were already heading towards a recession before the crisis, although, admittedly, one not as deep as the one that, we are told, will come. Recession is not inevitable though. It is due to capitalist economics, and we need to move away from society being run in that way. Systems based on addiction to growth and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a tiny elite are a health risk to many and need to be dismantled if we are to avoid economic ruin, climate disaster and many other problems. Economic competition seems to drive the bulk of the decisions on the coronavirus response. Once a decision is made in the South, it appears that scrambling goes on to make a similar decision in the North. There is a clear attempt to get the last of the consumer spend of the summer with the changes to these and other regulations. We have to prioritise: health concerns should come before all else.
I will be crystal clear: I have no issue with people visiting family safely. People have gone for months without doing that and without seeing their loved ones, and, as Members have said, their mental health has been impacted. Therefore, I have no real issue with amendment (No. 7). However, with such decisions, there is a clear issue of autonomy; that is, people can take it upon themselves to visit family members having weighed up the potential risks and taken the guidance into account. People have a choice about whether to do that, but workers who are being forced back into work do not have that free choice; they cannot make the same choice. It is deeply concerning that, with the furlough scheme still in existence, workers are being forced to return to work in such large numbers, particularly in the hospitality industry. I made my concerns about that clear at the Health Committee. Seemingly, I cannot force a Division in the House today, as I am in a minority, but, for Hansard, at least, I repeat my view that I do not support the opening of bars and other outlets so soon and with such haste. In that regard, I pay tribute to all those who have raised health and safety concerns, in particular Unite's hospitality branch, which has raised concern after concern about the opening of the hospitality sector's bars and restaurants. I encourage anybody working in those sectors to join Unite and other trade unions to protect themselves and their colleagues at this time. We all know about the potential for a second wave and the possibility of clusters in workplaces. If those do arise and we have a situation like the one that has emerged in Leicester, the Executive will have some serious questions to answer in that regard. It is an issue of the utmost severity.
I have a few questions for the junior Minister to answer. Can the Minister indicate how the Executive plan to oversee and inspect the reopening of bars and restaurants? Bars may function well — by most accounts, it appears to be the case that they did at the weekend in Belfast, at least — but, as the days go on and when profit and motive come into it and more alcohol starts to flow, are people seriously confident that social distancing will be adhered to? Will an inspection plan be in place? Do the Executive plan to just sit and hope and wait and see and respond if the R rate rises? We need some clarity and clear answers on those fundamental and important questions.
We know that vulnerable people were failed at the start of the pandemic with inspections not taking place in any real sense in care homes. If the Executive failed elderly and vulnerable people, where is the confidence that the actions of people in bars and restaurants who may be healthy and may not have underlying health conditions will be inspected? The public and those who work in hospitality need clear answers to those questions, and I would like the junior Minister to provide them.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No other Member has indicated to me that they wish to speak in the debate, so I call the junior Minister Declan Kearney to conclude and make a winding-up speech.
Mr Kearney (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): Gabhaim buíochas leis na Comhaltaí sin a chuidigh le díospóireacht an lae inniu, agus cuirimse fáilte roimh a dtuairimí sa díospoireacht. I welcome today's debate and thank Members for their contributions and views.
Our five-party power-sharing Government have been committed to working in partnership with all sectors of society, extending through business, faith and community leaders, our sports organisations and others, as we have sought to provide leadership, clarity and decision-making during this challenging time.
As I explained to the House in the past, all the decisions in relation to lifting restrictions have been made with careful consideration and clear reference to three broad criteria: community well-being and public health; developing a pathway to economic and social recovery; and ensuring, at all times, the resilience of our health and social care system.
The joint heads of Government published a road map of relaxations, matched to indicative dates, from now until the end of August. That was discussed at length, in Committee and in the Chamber. The timetable makes it clear what the coming weeks look like, and how we can move back, from August, through the succeeding weeks. We all want to see a return to a more normal way of living, but the reality is that, what we have now, is the development of a new normal. We need to learn to live with the virus, at least for some time to come, because, as other Members have pointed out, in this debate and previous ones, coronavirus or COVID-19 remains in our midst.
A Phríomh-Leas-Cheann Comhairle, ba mhaith liom léirmheas a thabhairt ar an díospóireacht anois. I would like now to turn to some of the points that Members made during the debate. I will try to touch on most of the key issues and focus, in particular, on those aspects relevant to the amendment regulations at the centre of the debate.
Colin McGrath spoke first, and he addressed the House initially as the Chair of the Executive Office Committee. He emphasised the need for compliance by everyone. He thanked our society for continued sacrifice, and impressed, in his contribution, the need for common purpose to be shared. I agree with him on the importance of a recovery strategy, and the need for an intensive engagement with civic society on that strategy, because that, and a coordinated approach, is the key to a successful delivery. I welcome his recognition of the many sacrifices that have been made by so many of our fellow citizens and the key workers who have held the front line against COVID-19, because they have saved lives.
Colm Gildernew spoke next, and he set out how the Health Committee approached these amendments. I will ensure that the officials address the omission to which he referred. The publication of the scientific advice is to inform the collective decisions and it needs to be taken forward by the Executive for consideration, alongside all our Committees, which exist to perform democratic scrutiny of all legislation and regulations.
Pam Cameron welcomed the easement process to date to assist in getting business back to work. She addressed the needs of children and also highlighted the importance of churches and places of worship once more being open. She made the point that the relaxations bring welcome relief to the hard-pressed hospitality sector, and that they bring undoubted benefits in mental health terms and in how we can all seek to get back to that form of new normality, specifically through being able to access places of worship, acts of worship, families being able to meet, in however limited terms, and being able to visit holiday homes. She welcomed the positive engagement with church leaders, which I and Minister Lyons have been directly involved in, and the positive leadership that our church leaders have been providing throughout this period. She also delivered a criticism of Sinn Féin Members of the House.
Doug Beattie spoke next. He rightly referred to the need for the restrictions and the cost of them to be fully recognised in terms of the economy, the normalisation of social life and the mental and physical health and well-being of our citizens. I welcome the fact that these regulations allow us to make real progress on the path back to normality, and Doug Beattie indicated that he sees the trajectory opening up on that basis. However, he raised and spoke at some length on particular concerns, and there will be more to be said on all those issues, as you said, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, on another day. I recognise the profound and enduring hurt felt by all those who have experienced a bereavement as a result of the pandemic and of those who have been unable to grieve as they would wish. I acknowledge and deeply regret the hurt that they do and must feel.
Mr Kearney: No, Mr Allister, I will not.
Paula Bradshaw spoke next and highlighted the difficulties faced by local businesses and the very real prospect of some businesses, even as we move through our recovery, facing overall closure. She raised masking and suggested that wearing masks is likely to become a very important confidence-building measure in the time ahead. She repeated a concern that she raised before about the delay in notifications of how we move through lifting restrictions for the public.
Pat Sheehan then spoke, and I agree with him about the importance of the role of grandparents and the value of intergenerational care and family life, which is such a feature and distinct characteristic of our society. I also agree with him that we must recognise the sacrifices that so many people continue to make in having to work with the adaption or the adjustment to uncomfortable PPE or to the repurposing or reconfiguring of businesses so that their services can continue to be provided. It is very arduous, and I welcome and appreciate with significant gratitude the manner in which those businesses are seeking to adapt.
Mr Chambers: I thank the junior Minister for giving way. Mr Sheehan expressed concern about a rise in the R number in London, which is cause for concern. Does the Minister agree that what is more relevant to the House is the local R figure and what we all should be doing to help to keep it low?
Mr Kearney: Yes, I agree with the Member. Our focus needs to be on the region and on ensuring that we minimise the development of the R number and keep a very close focus on all the other indicators that provide our medical and scientific advisers with the data that allows them to provide us with advice.
Returning to Pat Sheehan's comments about face coverings, I thank him for highlighting, along with Paula Bradshaw, that it is strongly recommended that the public should, in fact, use face coverings in enclosed spaces where social distancing in particular is not possible for short periods. Those circumstances will extend not only to public transport, shops and other retail environments but to those where we find ourselves visiting family or friends indoors and, indeed, to when we are in healthcare settings.
Mrs Cameron: I thank the junior Minister for giving way. On wearing face coverings, which I am not opposed to in any circumstance if it helps to combat the virus, will the junior Minister inform us whether he or his colleagues wore a mask when they attended that funeral, given that there was no social distancing in place either indoors or outdoors?
Mr Kearney: On that particular matter, yes, I did, and I will habitually wear a face mask when I am doing the shopping and when I find myself in circumstances where it is difficult to socially distance, such as in shops, shopping centres and so on.
Robbie Butler's contribution came next, and he spoke about the pressures, pre-COVID, on our health and social care system. He emphasised, importantly, not only the significance of local shopping but of the ability to do so safely. There is a potential link between the use of face coverings in that context. I agree strongly with the Member's remarks on the importance of social and family life and the real dangers of indefinite social distancing and the difficulties that that causes not just for older people but for some of our young people and, most especially, those who live with special needs. I agree strongly that, as we emerge from the pandemic, we must not lose sight of the important issue of mental health and well-being.
John Blair stressed the difficulty of a one-size-fits-all approach being taken to how we move forward in relation to recovery. He specifically highlighted that as an issue in relation to rural areas and he pointed to the need to address licensing and planning issues, particularly in a rural context. I fully agree with the Member on that particular matter. We share a constituency, and very significant parts of that constituency are rural, in and of themselves.
Alan Chambers reminded us that these amendments and the lifting of restrictions are only part of a journey. He spoke about the level of sacrifice that we have all experienced throughout this period and he stressed the vital importance of civic leadership being demonstrated. He also, very poignantly, recalled the personal grief of friends and neighbours close to him and in his area during this period.
The final Member to speak was Jim Allister. He chose to make a personal attack on me and to describe the debate as a sham. He repeated his concern about the facilitation of indoor funerals, but I can assure the Member that that particular issue is going to be addressed by the Executive presently.
Mr Kearney: No, I will not, Mr Allister.
I am sorry, I misdescribed Mr Allister as the final Member to speak. The final Member to speak was Mr Gerry Carroll, who stated that the Executive are moving much too quickly. He feels that the easements and the relaxations are coming at a pace. Specifically he disagreed with elements in relation to the amendment (No. 8) regulations. He feels, in his view, that that kind of amendment, and the restrictions being lifted, are principally being influenced by business interests. He expressed his lack of confidence that appropriate inspections will be carried out in a number of the settings that will now be allowed to go back to business as a result of the lifting of restrictions. I can assure the Member that, in the same manner that the Executive have worked with other appropriate agencies throughput this period to ensure that we have safer workplaces, that practice will extend to the new workplaces that are reopening and providing services as we move through this phase of recovery.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, allow me to say this: I, too, have listened to the voices of those who have lost loved ones. No family's grief is any more important than any other family's. I am also deeply concerned that those grieving families are experiencing, right across our community, more hurt over recent days, and I am sorry that that is the case.
I assure those Members whose points I have not addressed in the debate — although I think that I have — but in the event that I have left any particular issue out, I will respond in writing and will direct officials to do so.
In conclusion, notwithstanding the erroneous and direct criticism of me personally, I will continue to act with integrity to observe the ministerial pledge and code
to act in the interests of all citizens living in our society, to uphold the basis of the Good Friday Agreement and the operation of our power-sharing Government and our political process going forward.
A Phríomh-Leas-Cheann Comhairle, molaim an rún agus na rialacháin don Tionól. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
Mr Sheehan: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for Members in a sedentary position to be grunting in the Chamber?
The guidance on the conduct of the House is generally clear — I think that all Members know this — that debates should be temperate and Members should be respectful towards one another. In answer to your question, sustained heckling is not appropriate. I think that "grunting" was the word that you used: when I am in the Chair, I will allow a little grunting but not sustained heckling. I think that that is the best way of putting it. Sustained grunting is a different issue.
Mr Allister: For the avoidance of doubt, I was expressing utter disbelief in the affirmations and the obfuscations of the junior Minister. Is it in order for a junior Minister to come to the House and engage in weasel words and obfuscations on an issue such as this?
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: "Weasel words" is your term, but they are not defined in Standing Orders. Members may take exception to answers, but the answers that a Minister gives are the answers that a Minister gives. There is ample opportunity for Members to cross-examine Ministers on the Floor of the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 7) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Members, before we start the next item of business, I advise you that an urgent oral question will be taken at the end of Executive business today. That will be at the conclusion of the Second Stage of the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill. Can I ask Members to take their ease for a moment?
Mr Lyons: The second set of regulations have to be voted on.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 8) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved. — [Mr Kearney (Junior Minister, The Executive Office).]
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
That the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.
Mr Lyons: I welcome the opportunity to address the Assembly on the motion. It would be our strong preference to have even a short Bill such as this progress through the conventional procedure, including a full Committee Stage, as that would permit detailed scrutiny of its clauses. The Bill is intended to address the implications for ministerial and Executive decision-making of the judgements of the court in the case brought by Mr Colin Buick against a decision of the Department for Infrastructure to grant planning permission for a waste incinerator. It is necessary to clarify the circumstances in which a Minister is required to refer a matter to the Executive Committee where that matter may be cross-cutting, significant or controversial. As I explain to the Assembly in accordance with Standing Order 42(3) why accelerated passage is being sought and the consequences of it not being granted, it might appear to Members that this is a somewhat academic issue. However, if it is not resolved quickly, it could have important consequences for the economy and, particularly, our pressing need to promote investment in our infrastructure.
The Assembly will be aware that a cross-cutting matter is defined as one that cuts across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers. Planning decisions had up to then been regarded as solely the preserve of the relevant Minister on the basis that, though of interest to other Ministers, such decisions did not cut across their statutory responsibilities. The court, however, defined the planning decision in question as a cross-cutting matter by eliding the concepts of responsibility and interest and therefore potentially making all planning decisions subject to agreement by the Executive Committee and effectively making it the relevant authority rather than the Minister. The Executive have agreed that that is not an appropriate position, but ignoring the court's judgement would risk opening up planning decisions to legal challenge simply on the basis that they had not been agreed by the Executive. Such a situation would have profound implications for a number of significant planning decisions that are expected during the remainder of this year and could lead to significant investment and employment opportunities being deferred or lost. We believe that that vulnerability can be quickly and simply rectified by means of the Bill before us today.
In accordance with Standing Order 42(3), the First Minister and deputy First Minister appeared before the Committee for the Executive Office to explain the purpose of the Bill and the need for accelerated passage. They are grateful to the Committee for its support and therefore also seek the support of the Assembly in approving the motion.
Mr McGrath (The Chairperson of the Committee for The Executive Office): I am pleased to speak to the motion on behalf of the Committee for the Executive Office. On 23 June, the Committee for the Executive Office received notification from the First Minister and deputy First Minister that they intended to introduce an Executive Committee (Functions) Bill and seek the Assembly's support for accelerated passage. The Committee did not consider the matter at its meeting on 24 June, as an explanation was not provided of why accelerated passage was needed and what the consequences would be if it were not granted. However, in compliance with Standing Order 42(3), the First Minister and deputy First Minister provided that explanation to the Committee at its meeting on 1 July.
The Committee understands that the urgency around the legislation is to remedy the situation where planning decisions that could be open to challenge because of the judgement in the case of Buick cannot be made by the Minister for Infrastructure; rather, they need to be approved by the Executive Committee. The Minister has already provided significant detail on the issue, and I do not intend to repeat it. However, I want to point out that, in deciding whether to support the request for accelerated passage, the Committee took into consideration the current COVID-19 pandemic and the need to regenerate the economy as quickly as possible, especially as we move into the recovery phase. Members recognised that infrastructure projects were absolutely key to recovery and that any further or unnecessary delays in planning decisions could have serious implications for our economy. It was the Committee's firm view that decisions on the planning applications that are currently sitting on the Infrastructure Minister's desk need to be made as soon as possible. The legislation would allow that to happen and needs to be progressed with urgency. The Committee for the Executive Office, therefore, supports the motion that the Bill proceeds under accelerated passage procedure.
As an SDLP MLA, I welcome the accelerated passage, as it will allow for the quickest possible introduction of the Bill, which will help to make for a smoother passage for the decisions that may come down the line. The Bill allows a lot of major decisions that are currently in, for example, the planning system to be taken quickly, and that will provide a positive boost for the economy of the North and allow major projects that are in the system to be delivered on the ground faster, as that allows for the potential for jobs in our construction industry and, with new factories and facilities, more jobs in all of our communities. I appreciate that the drafters of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 may not have understood every nuance of the implications of their Bill, but often it is in practice where the best understanding of matters comes from, and I appreciate that that is the case here. I welcome the fact that we will not delay the passage of the Bill with a lengthy Committee process and look forward to its further progress later today and its swift enactment.
Mr Stalford: I associate myself with the comments made by the Chairman of the Committee. Paragraph 14 of the memorandum that has been circulated in relation to the content of the Bill clearly states its purpose:
"will ... clarify that the decision-making functions of the Department for Infrastructure and its Minister under the Planning Act (NI) 2011 and regulations ... under that Act are the responsibility of that Department and Minister ... (with the exception of planning policy formulated under section 1 of the Act) are to be excluded from the requirement under section 20 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 for referral to the Executive Committee."
The explanation is plain, and the reasons why we need to do it are plain. We all know that, as a consequence of putting our economy into cold storage for four months, there will be serious economic slowdown and, potentially, a devastating recession. Government has at its disposal the potential to assist in getting out of that recession and in stimulating
— if I was in the Chair, you would be getting reprimanded for that, so I will just reprimand you without being in the Chair
— and in stimulating economic growth. One of the ways in which government can do that is to ensure that planning processes around major infrastructure projects are sped up. The Bill gives government a flexible tool whereby jobs and opportunities can be provided for our people, who will struggle with the economic consequences of the situation that we are in.
Mr Storey: I appreciate the Member's giving way. Obviously, this is a necessary requirement in relation to what happened in the courts. However, Members need to also take into account what the Audit Office has said in relation to the £700 million overspend. That report, which, some Members seem to forget, has been made public, makes clear reference to the problems in the Planning Service. My concern is that, while the legislation has to be made to respond to what happened in court, we also need to take into account the fact that, if we want progress, it has to be on the basis of a Planning Service that is fit for purpose.
Mr Stalford: I absolutely agree. I speak as a Member for South Belfast, where, if you stand still long enough, they will build a house on top of you, I understand why people are naturally concerned about the way the planning processes work. What I have seen in my constituency, certainly at a housing level, with issues like garden-grabbing and huge apartment blocks going in everywhere, is of concern in terms of how it works. However, there are also issues around major economic projects that can stimulate job growth and job creation. In those instances, it has taken far, far too long for businesses to get through the planning process. We need to recalibrate how planning works in this country; there is no question about that. In this small way, if it makes it easier to get decisions made that create jobs, that can only be a good thing. Therefore, I support the accelerated passage of the Bill.
Mr Sheehan: I support the Bill. It is a sensible and effective approach to the uncertainty that was introduced into the planning process by the Buick judgement. The Bill allows the Minister for Infrastructure the autonomy to work effectively in the planning process. Not passing the Bill would leave the Minister open to legal challenges on decisions that she might make and would mean that planning decisions would have to go to the Executive. We all know that that would create greater bureaucracy, more prolonged delays and the jamming up of the whole planning process.
As has been mentioned by others, such delays would have a detrimental impact on our economy.
As we come out of the COVID-19 crisis and the economy comes out of cold storage, there is a need to get things moving quickly. The planning process needs to be agile and nimble to get the infrastructure sector up and running again. I support the decision to grant accelerated passage to the Bill, which will allow the Minister to deal with the growing pile of planning applications in her in-tray.
Ms Bailey: This is an important Bill but I cannot support the granting of accelerated passage. I listened to the meeting when the Committee looked at the Bill last week but it spent only a few minutes on it. I do not believe that that represents either good governance or good scrutiny. Accelerated passage should not be used to rush the Bill through. Without proper scrutiny, we cannot understand its full implications.
There was a judicial review and a judge ruled while we had no Assembly, Executive or Ministers. Things were forced into the courts. Since we have been back, we have been asked on numerous occasions to accelerate pieces of legislation or to pass legislative consent motions without proper scrutiny. We are continually hearing from a lot of Committees that we do not have the proper time to look at those matters. The Committee on which I sit has been looking at the Environment Bill, the Fisheries Bill and the Agriculture Bill, all of which are coming through. In our evidence sessions, stakeholders told us that there are many problems and issues with those Bills, yet we are consenting to accelerated passage or to legislative consent motions.
I hope that the legislation will not be used, for example, to make planning decisions that will have a detrimental impact on the environment just to get the economy back on its feet. Planning applications have environmental impacts, as do capital projects but no expediency should be used just to keep the show on the road. Let us not forget that the Executive and Ministers already have the ability to make decisions but continue to delay them. As a recent example of that, we all know that Northern Ireland needs an energy strategy and that the sector is waiting for targets, for example, for renewable electricity. Yet, after many responses to the consultation, we are hearing now that the Minister says that the strategy will not be produced until November next year.
I do not see how accelerated passage will help us to have any confidence that planning decisions will be made in any better way. As Mr Stalford said, there are many issues with the planning system at the moment, but this will not do anything to instil faith or confidence in ministerial decision-making.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call the junior Minister, Gordon Lyons, to conclude and wind up the debate on the motion. I am sorry; I have had an indication that Andrew Muir wishes to speak.
Mr Muir: Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Alliance Party will vote for the Bill today. The Buick judgement makes the Bill necessary to allow the Minister for Infrastructure to decide on regionally significant planning applications, as has been outlined by some other Members. I declare that I was previously a councillor on Ards and North Down Borough Council.
The Alliance Party will support the Bill in the context that planning statistics in Northern Ireland make for very grim reading, as other Members have said. For context, the average length of time taken by councils last year to decide on major planning applications was 53 weeks against a target of 30 weeks. The figures for regionally significant applications that are decided by the Department for Infrastructure, and which are key to the motion today, are even worse. In the year to March 2020, regionally significant applications had an average processing time of 74 weeks — way over the 30-week target. At least that was an improvement on the year before, where the processing time was an unbelievable 261 weeks.
Mr Humphrey: I thank the Member for giving way. Will he agree that, while no one wants to see accelerated passage, at the end of the day, it is vital that we have legislation that allows Northern Ireland to go forward and our economy to recover as quickly as possible and nothing that puts Northern Ireland at a disadvantage with the rest of the United Kingdom, indeed the rest of Europe, in getting inward investment? I also make the point to the Member that judicial reviews —.
Mr Humphrey: Does the Member agree that judicial reviews are far too readily available and slow down the process of development in Northern Ireland, which places Northern Ireland absolutely at a disadvantage when we are trying to develop our economy and build new homes, which are so badly needed, for our people?
Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his intervention. We do need to look at why there are so many judicial reviews in Northern Ireland. That will have to be explored over the months ahead. Why are we unique in having so many judicial reviews?
Mr Storey: The Member will be aware that the Northern Ireland Audit Office —.
Mr Storey: Apologies, Mr Deputy Speaker. I always like to look at the person I am speaking to, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The issue is that, next year, the Northern Ireland Audit Office will carry out two very important pieces of work; one on procurement and one on planning. Those will be fundamental because they look at issues that have created massive problems for investment in Northern Ireland. I very much welcome the fact that the Audit Office will be taking that work forward.
Mr Muir: I agree. I think that is important work to be considered. I know that the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a member, is considering major capital projects, but that is all related. As I was going to say, anything that can speed up planning decisions in Northern Ireland is to be welcomed, and that is why we support the Bill.
At the end of last year, there were 38 regionally significant planning applications waiting for a decision by the Department for Infrastructure. Of those, 23 had been waiting longer than two years. The two oldest had been waiting for 13 years each — 13 years. How can we attract the investment that we so badly need if regionally significant planning applications are taking so long?
The Bill is welcome, but it must be only the start of a major shake up of our planning system in Northern Ireland, and I recognise that it is largely an Infrastructure issue, but the Bill is presented from the Executive Office. We must reform the pre-application discussion process so that major issues are caught early and dealt with. We also need to ensure that statutory consultees are properly funded so that consultation deadlines are adhered to.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that, often, statutory consultations and the length of time that it has taken for some Departments in particular to come back has put a huge strain on our Planning Service locally? Again I mention in the House, that, for me, one of the main culprits is often the Department for Infrastructure and its Roads Service, where we have continuous delay and a lack of correspondence and engagement with the proposal's developer or agent or even with elected Members. If that could be addressed, surely we could get to a situation where we could speed up the process.
Mr Muir: I agree. In my time on the council, I dealt with a planning application that took, I think, nearly two years because, quite frankly, a statutory consultee was messing around, not coming back and then, eventually, coming back with further queries. That was a proposal for a business, and it was delayed as a result.
Furthermore, it is time for us to consider whether an independent planning authority, such as An Bord Pleanála in the South, with the authority to take regionally significant planning decisions is something that we wish to consider here in Northern Ireland. Such a body could make informed, independent decisions on planning applications. Crucially, keeping politics out of planning decisions, it could lead to the more-timely decision-making that we so badly need.
All of that should be considered as part of the forthcoming review of the 2011 Planning Act, which the Minister for Infrastructure has promised to bring forward soon. As a member of the Infrastructure Committee, I look forward to working constructively with the Minister on that issue.
Finally, I would be grateful if the junior Ministers could outline the timetable for the remaining steps of the Bill, assuming that it passes Second Stage. I disagree with Clare Bailey around the issue about accelerated passage because I feel that the issue does need to be progressed and we need this legislation in place as soon as possible. Thank you very much.
Mr Lyons: Who knew that a debate on accelerated passage could touch on so many issues in such a short time. I thank the Members who have contributed so far and who have indicated their support.
To pick up on the comment that Clare Bailey made, the Bill does not affect the integrity of the planning process or the quality of the decisions that are taken. Rather, it is about who should take that decision: whether the Infrastructure Minister can act alone or whether she needs to take it to the Executive Committee. I am sure that we will hear more about this in the coming debate, but, on the motion for accelerated passage, I thank Members for their support and I urge them to support the motion.
Mr Allister: I have not heard any explanation proffered as to why this necessary legislation — I accept that it is necessary — was not brought sooner. We have known about this for a very long time. Why is it that, in the last week in Stormont, a Bill is suddenly being brought when it could have gone through the processes much earlier?
Mr Lyons: Mr Deputy Speaker, I do not think that Mr Allister was here for my earlier remarks. When I first introduced the accelerated passage debate, I set out why it is necessary. With regard to timescales, we are obviously trying to get this done before the summer recess, as well, so that it can be put in place for then. Obviously, yes, we would like to bring through legislation as soon as it is ready, but we have got to the stage where we have the Bill and we are trying to make sure that we can get it through all its processes.
Mr Stalford: I sympathise with the point that the Member from North Antrim makes, and I am aware that the Speaker of the Assembly has written to the Executive to raise concerns about legislative scrutiny. However, when motions come forward to permit accelerated passage or to suspend Standing Orders in relation to a Bill, the Assembly has the ability to control how that is done.
Mr Lyons: That is a factual point. This is the opportunity for Members to put on the record what they believe should happen with regard to accelerated passage. I look forward to Members supporting the motion. Thank you.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Clear the Lobbies. The Question will be put again in three minutes. I remind Members that we should continue to uphold social distancing and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come into the Chamber.
Question put a second time.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before the Assembly divides, I remind Members that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. It is important that, during a Division, social distancing in the Chamber continue to be observed. In order to facilitate that, I ask the following: any Members in the Chamber who are not due to vote in person should consider leaving the Chamber until the Division has concluded. Those Members who wish to vote in the Lobbies on the opposite side of the Chamber to which they are sitting should leave the Chamber via the nearest door and enter the relevant Lobby via the Rotunda. Those remaining Members who are sitting closest to the Lobby doors should enter the Lobbies first. Any Member who has voted may then wish to leave the Chamber until the Division has concluded. Any Member who needs to vote in both Lobbies should not leave the Chamber.
I remind Members of the need to be patient at all times, to follow the instructions of the Lobby Clerks and to respect the need for social distancing.
Ayes 80; Noes 4
Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Ms S Bradley, Mr Catney, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin
Mr Allen, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Stewart, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir
Ms Armstrong, Mr Blair, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Dickson, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle, Mr Muir
Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Ennis, Mr Stalford
Ms Bailey, Mr Carroll, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Noes: Ms Bailey, Mr Carroll
|Total Votes||84||Total Ayes||80||[95.2%]|
|Nationalist Votes||38||Nationalist Ayes||38||[100.0%]|
|Unionist Votes||36||Unionist Ayes||35||[97.2%]|
|Other Votes||10||Other Ayes||7||[70.0%]|
The following Members’ votes were cast by their notified proxy in this Division:
Ms Armstrong voted for Mr Blair, Mr Dickson, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle and Mr Muir.
Mr K Buchanan voted for Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford [Teller, Ayes], Mr Storey and Mr Weir.
Mr Butler voted for Mr Swann and Mr Stewart.
Mr McGrath voted for Ms S Bradley, Mr Catney, Mr Durkan, Ms Hunter, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Mallon, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty and Mr O’Toole.
Mr O’Dowd voted for Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Ms Ennis [Teller, Ayes], Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan and Ms Sheerin.
Miss Woods voted for Ms Bailey [Teller, Noes].
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.
That Standing Order 42(1) be suspended for 6 July in respect of the passage of the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill.
Mr Kearney: The purpose of the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill is to provide greater clarity for Ministers on the circumstances in which they must refer matters to the Executive Committee for agreement. It also provides an exemption from referral to the Executive Committee for certain decisions taken by the relevant Minister under the Planning Act 2011.
The functions of the Executive Committee are set out in section 20 of the NI Act 1998. Those functions are primarily the ones set out in paragraphs 19 and 20 of the Good Friday Agreement/Belfast Agreement. Of those functions, the one that is of most relevance to the Bill is the provision of
"a forum for the discussion of, and agreement on, issues which cut across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers".
Secondly, the Executive Committee are given the function of
"discussing and agreeing upon—
(a) significant or controversial matters that are clearly outside the scope of the agreed programme referred to in paragraph 20 of Strand One of that Agreement",
that is, the Programme for Government. Those functions are also reflected in the obligation placed on Ministers to bring certain matters to the Executive Committee under paragraph 2.4 of the ministerial code.
I will give Members some background to the need for the Bill. In 2017, the Department for Infrastructure, in the person of its then permanent secretary, took the decision to approve a planning application for the construction of a waste disposal incinerator at Mallusk in County Antrim.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. I ask the Minister to resume his seat. I remind you that we are debating a motion to suspend Standing Order 42(1); this is not a debate on the merits of the Bill that the Member is referring to. Can I draw you back to the suspension of Standing Order 42(1)?
Mr Kearney: I beg your pardon, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will recalibrate and address the matter in question.
Standing Order 42(1) provides that there shall be a minimum of five working days between each stage of any Bill. It is recognised that providing that time between stages helps to ensure detailed legislative scrutiny by the Assembly by providing Members with the opportunity to consider the legislation that is being proposed in detail. The joint heads of government acknowledge that the suspension of any Standing Order is far from ideal. However, they feel that the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill has a particular urgency that justifies it on an exceptional basis.
Legislation is needed urgently to address the implications for ministerial and Executive decision-making of the judgements of the court in a legal challenge to the Department for Infrastructure's decision to grant planning permission for the waste incinerator. It is also necessary to clarify the circumstances in which a Minister is required to refer a matter to the Executive Committee, where that matter may be judged to be cross-cutting, significant or controversial. Without those clarifications, considerable uncertainty will continue to exist around the integrity of decisions taken by Ministers, particularly the decisions that are urgently needed to support the recovery of the local economy. The Bill is therefore important to the operation of the Executive.
We acknowledge that all legislation is important and that the Assembly must be afforded an opportunity for thorough scrutiny. We have issued advance copies of the legislation, along with its explanatory and financial memorandum, to all Members. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister also met the Executive Office Committee on the matter and accordingly seek the support of the Assembly in approving the motion to suspend Standing Order 42(1) today.
Mr Kearney: I simply refer to the contribution made by the Chair of the Executive Office Committee and reiterate the importance of passing the Bill in order that we can regularise the anomalies that we are currently trying to resolve.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Order 42(1) be suspended for 6 July in respect of the passage of the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill.
That the Second Stage of the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill [NIA Bill 08/17-22] be agreed.
Mr Kearney: The purpose of the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill is to provide greater clarity for Ministers on the circumstances in which they must refer matters to the Executive Committee for agreement. It also provides an exemption from referral to the Executive Committee for certain decisions taken by the relevant Minister under the Planning Act 2011.
The functions of the Executive Committee are set out in section 20 of the NI Act 1998. First, those are the functions set out in paragraphs 19 and 20 of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. The most relevant of those to the Bill before the Assembly is that of providing a:
"forum for the discussion of, and agreement on, issues which cut across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers".
Secondly, the Executive Committee are also given the function of:
"discussing and agreeing upon—
(a) significant or controversial matters that are clearly outside the scope of the agreed programme referred to in paragraph 20 of Strand One of that Agreement".
The "programme" referred to is the Programme for Government (PFG). Those functions are also reflected in the obligation placed on Ministers to bring certain matters to the Executive Committee under paragraph 2.4 of the ministerial code.
I will now give Members some background on the need for the Bill. In 2017, the Department for Infrastructure, in the person of its then permanent secretary, took a decision to approve a planning application for the construction of a waste disposal incinerator at Hightown, Mallusk in County Antrim. An application for judicial review was granted by the court. The key issue in the judicial review was whether the decision could be taken in the absence of a Minister, and the court ruled that that could not happen. However, the judgement of the court and the subsequent appeal by the Department, while upholding the original judgement, added further dimensions to the question. The judge also determined that this was indeed a cross-cutting issue. It involved the interest of the Minister responsible for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs because of its specific waste management functions. It also extended to the joint heads of government and the Executive Office because of the impact on compliance with EU directives. In that latter regard, the Ministerial Code states that responsibilities of the joint heads of government include EU issues. The judge also considered the matter to be significant because of its importance for waste management policy. It was also judged controversial because of the evident political differences reflected in the papers relating to the decision. The matter, therefore, was considered by the Executive Committee in accordance with their function of discussing and agreeing on:
"significant or controversial matters that are clearly outside the scope of the agreed programme referred to in paragraph 20 of Strand One of that Agreement".
The judge also said that, as there was no Programme for Government in existence, the matter was outside the scope of such a PFG.
The Bill will address the implications of those judgements in three main ways. First, in accordance with the judgement, it will amend section 20 of the NI Act. The amendment is to make it clear that a matter that is significant or controversial should be referred to the Executive Committee if it is outside the scope of a PFG that has been approved by the Assembly and is in operation and in circumstances where no such programme has been approved and is, therefore, not in operation. That means that the absence of a PFG, for whatever reason, cannot be used as a reason for not referring a matter to the Executive Committee for decision. That is the purpose of clause 1(2).
The wider definition of "cross-cutting" had been interpreted as applying only to matters that cut across the statutory functions of two or more Ministers. It did not encompass those in which they simply had an interest, although the matter might, as in this case, be supportive of other Ministers' aims or objectives. The judgement means that the range of matters that would require referral to the Executive could be widened substantially, with the inherent difficulty of measuring the extent and nature of the interest that another Minister might well have in the matter. It could also tend to undermine the executive authority of individual Ministers in their areas of responsibility.
Specifically, it means that planning decisions that were considered the sole responsibility of the relevant Minister and were not referred to the Executive Committee for agreement would henceforth need to be so to remove the risk of legal challenge on the cross-cutting principle. That would make the Executive Committee the de facto planning authority rather than the Minister for Infrastructure, in whom the statutory power is vested. The Bill addresses that point by providing that a Minister does not need to refer a matter to the Executive Committee if it affects the exercise of another Minister's statutory functions only incidentally. In this context, a statutory requirement for one Minister to consult another is not considered as affecting:
"the exercise of the statutory responsibilities ... more than incidentally."
Finally, to place the remit of planning decisions beyond doubt, the Bill provides an exemption from referral to the Executive of certain decisions made by the Department or Minister for Infrastructure under the 2011 Planning Act or regulations or orders made under that Act.
The Bill will, therefore, offer much-needed clarification to Ministers on the extent of their obligations to the Executive Committee, ensure that an appropriate degree of ministerial authority is preserved and, finally, place reasonable limits on the extent to which ministerial decisions, including essential planning decisions, could be challenged on the grounds that they are cross-cutting.
Mr McGrath (The Chairperson of the Committee for The Executive Office): At its meeting on 1 July, the Committee for the Executive Office considered the general principles of the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill, and the First Minister and deputy First Minister attended the meeting to answer members' questions.
The Committee is aware of the judgements of the court in the case of Buick, who successfully challenged the decision by the Department for Infrastructure to grant planning permission for the construction of a waste treatment plant and energy from waste plant at Mallusk. The Committee is also aware that the Court of Appeal held that the decision to approve the application was a cross-cutting matter that required the approval of the Executive Committee. As was referred to in the debate on accelerated passage, that situation needs to be remedied to ensure that the Minister for Infrastructure can make planning decisions without challenge and without referral to the Executive Committee except in particular circumstances.
It is important to point out that the Bill does not remedy the matter just in relation to planning decisions; it could apply to other scenarios in which there is an interest of more than one Minister. It is also important to point out that any planning or other decision can still be brought to the Executive for consideration if three or more Ministers think that it is significant or controversial.
The junior Minister outlined in detail the general principles of the Bill, but, in short, it will allow the Minister for Infrastructure to make the decisions that she is best placed to make without challenge and provides clarity on matters that need to be brought before the Executive Committee.
The Committee noted that a number of high-profile planning applications will come forward for decision this year, and it is essential that any vulnerability to the integrity of the planning process is removed. The Committee for the Executive Office therefore supports the Bill's general principles.
The Bill is proceeding under accelerated passage, and I highlight the fact that it has three clauses: one is the commencement date and another is the title, so, in effect, there is one clause. The Committee undertook a question and answer session with the First Minister and deputy First Minister for any members who had questions. I think that it is well accepted that the point about whether a decision should be taken by one Minister or more than one Minister is a general one. It is a fairly reasonable point, notwithstanding the fact that the decisions taken can be open to further scrutiny, if required.
On behalf of the SDLP, I welcome the Bill. It will allow for better, speedier decision-making. It removes ambiguity and will enable more openness and transparency, as one Minister can own a decision and, if needed, it can be challenged. We have some dark and difficult economic days ahead. We will want to see some quick decisions being taken, especially regarding planning, to enable swift developments that can deliver jobs. I do not want to see bad decisions — no one does — but a quick decision is not necessarily a bad decision. The construction and other key economic sectors will want to see quicker decision-making that allows them to get moving much more quickly. We will all want to see that when the inevitable economic downturn or recession arrives after the coronavirus pandemic.
I welcome the Bill and support it at its Second Stage.
Mr Stalford: The arguments on the advantages of the changes have been aired, and I do not intend to repeat them beyond stating our support for the Bill and the measures being brought forward by the Ministers.
The Chair of the Committee touched on an important point that was in danger of being lost in the earlier debate: the "three or more Ministers" safeguard remains in place. If Ministers are upset or concerned about the implications of a decision that is cross-cutting, three of them are required to ensure that the Executive as a whole have a conversation about that decision. It is important that that safeguard remains in place.
The Chair said that significant projects would be required to provide an economic stimulus as we come out of lockdown, and I absolutely associate myself with what he said. Ultimately, the measure is about delivering quicker governance. One of the problems that we have had, which is reflective of the nature of our society, is that our political arrangements can make decision-making slow.
Therefore, anything that makes government quicker and more reactive to the needs that confront it is only to be welcomed, and, on behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party, I support these measures.
Mr Sheehan: I want to reiterate or summarise the remarks that I made earlier in that the Buick judgement has created some problems insofar as, if the Infrastructure Minister were to make decisions today, they could be subject to legal challenges on the basis that other Ministers had an interest in that planning decision. The example has been given that the Finance Minister has an interest in practically every ministerial decision that is made, so it is taking bureaucracy to a ridiculous degree to suggest that all planning decisions should go to the Executive. It would slow down the decision-making process and add another layer of bureaucracy that is not needed. There are already many complaints about how slow the planning process is, and we do not need this. We need the Infrastructure Minister to be able to make planning decisions. All the Members who have spoken so far have mentioned the importance, when moving out of the current crisis, of the need to reopen the economy and to get it moving, and the infrastructure sector is an important part of all that. This will make the system more effective and more efficient, and I welcome and support the Bill.
Mr Muir: I declare at the outset that I was formerly a member of Ards and North Down Borough Council.
By ensuring that the Infrastructure Minister has the legal authority to take planning decisions, the Bill can be an important step in speeding up our planning system, but a step is all that it is and there is so much more that needs to follow so that councils and the Department for Infrastructure can start meeting their targets for determining the outcome of planning applications, as I outlined earlier.
The overdue review of the 2011 Planning Act will be important, as will the forthcoming Northern Ireland Audit Office report, which some Members cited earlier. Both are opportunities to implement much-needed reforms, and we can ill afford to miss those reforms. As well as changes in process, we need to understand why so many judicial reviews occur in Northern Ireland and why consultation periods so often exceed their specified time frames. Where statutory consultees lack resources, that must be addressed. Where there is simply inefficiency, through either sticking to or enforcing the deadlines, that also needs to be called out as unacceptable.
Finally, we can have all the reforms in the world but it will not be enough if Ministers do not have the political will to act or, dare I say, put political interest over planning policy and plans. An independent planning authority charged with taking the politics out of planning and getting decisions made on time should be considered in the forthcoming review of the 2011 Act. I support the Bill but request clarity on when further stages will be presented to ensure that we can get the Bill passed and enable decisions to be made to aid the focus of the Executive in the time ahead, which must be about managing the public health threats but also, put simply, jobs, jobs, jobs.
Mr Frew: I support the Bill but do not necessarily support accelerated passage. That is never the best way to do legislation. However, I see that an anomaly has arisen due to Buick and that it needs to be resolved. We need to be in a position where Northern Ireland can make decisions that are sound and safe, and, if the Bill goes some way to allaying those fears and making sure that the Executive and Ministers in Northern Ireland can make those decisions, that is a good thing. Where we are at the minute should not be where we are at, and we have to try to rectify that.
Planning worries me. We have seen councils take over planning to a certain degree. What we have found, over the last number of years, is the creation of a patchwork, where different councils, in different constituencies, make different processes of decision-making, which has gone some way to creating confusion, twin tracks and dual speeds, in planning. Consultants and planning agents complain that, if they cover three or four council areas, they have to keep in touch and keep an eye on deadlines, schemes, schedules and registers. It is very confusing. Even the process itself can be confusing. Anything that brings certainty, or clarity, to planning would be good.
Do not get me wrong. Decisions have to be taken quickly, but correctly. That is a massive point, along with planning. I fear that, in the current position that planning is in, at council level, it is not that council has taken over planning; it is sometimes the case that planning has taken over the council. My constituency has two council areas, Mid and East Antrim and Causeway Coast and Glens. Many times it has been said that Mid and East Antrim has one of the best, quickest and most efficient teams of planners and planning system, whereas, Causeway Coast and Glens, you could say, is the opposite. That should not be the case, and it needs to be resolved.
Mr Storey: I thank my colleague for giving way. He cites a comparison that has been in the public domain for some time, not only between the two councils that are close in jurisdiction, but wider afield. Earlier, Mr Muir gave us a startling statistic, in regards to the length of time. I am told that one developer, from outside Northern Ireland, wonders if there is a planning department at all. That individual is now considering taking his money somewhere else, and putting it in a jurisdiction where they are glad to see development.
Mr Frew: That is a very bad place for Northern Ireland plc. My point is this: even though some of our councils can be classed as being efficient, effective and speedy in their decision-making process, I wonder whether they are still serving the people they are meant to. Those are the agents, the applicants and the objectors. I have found that, with all the haste in Mid and East Antrim, is that, progressively, over the last months and years, you used to have a planning schedule with seven or eight applications per month, now you have two or three.
The powers that councils sought and got are being diminished because they are delegating that power to the Planning Service. In the old-style councils, the old-style councillor used to be a guardian or representative, someone who fought for applicant, agent and objector alike. However, that representation part has now gone. I worry about that. Councils and councillors have to take back control, in many ways, of our planning systems.
We also have to ensure that decisions made on a regional basis, by the Minister, are sound and procedurally correct. If they are not, it will cause only more stagnation and delay. Many massive projects have to go ahead but cannot at present. That is somewhere we cannot afford to be. In these projects, time is of the essence, and, usually, time is money, whether it be a big building contract, an infrastructure project, a road network, carriageways or dualling them, or bypasses for towns and some cities. This is all massive work that needs to be done.
One project that is very important is the North/South interconnector. It will conjoin the two infrastructure grid systems of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Now, it has been said for many years that the North/South interconnector was required for security of supply. I do not believe that for one moment. I believe that SONI is wrong and has been wrong for many years in giving that excuse. It is not for security of supply that we need an interconnector; it is to add the flexibility to our system to inject competition into our markets. I always get worried when so-called experts in the field of —.
Mr Frew: Yes, I will, and the North/South interconnector is one of the biggest decisions that the Infrastructure Minister will have to make for Northern Ireland plc.
Mr Humphrey: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I just want to build on the point that my colleague from North Antrim made to his colleague from North Antrim a few moments ago. I remember an industrialist from Northern Ireland being interviewed a couple of years ago who said that he decided to relocate his factory from Northern Ireland to Wales because it took so long to get the planning. That is the sort of decision that the private sector cannot be forced into because of the inertia of government. Does the Member agree?
Mr Frew: Yes, I do, and that is why at every level of the Planning Service and at every level of government, whether it is local government or regional government, Departments have to be in a position to make decisions soundly and quickly. Speed is of the essence, and many of these projects need that, especially in the private sector. It is different for public-sector projects, even though they are all very important — I am talking about schools and infrastructure such as roads and railways and the grid — but for the private sector, it is massively important. People from places all over the globe may be looking to set down a plant somewhere and assessing all their options, including this area and that area, and realising, "That is a prime spot. That is a really good spot. There will be good employment opportunities there, but do you know something? The Planning Service is far too slow. It will not engage with me. It will not give any commitments for support or for planning", and that is a —.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. I know that he was not in the Chamber for an earlier intervention that I took, but his point about the speed at which the Planning Service operates still stands. Does he agree that the statutory consultees, some of whom he mentioned, are the main stumbling block for progress on many of the fundamentals, whether they are for a local development or a major application that has the potential to bring much-needed employment to our constituencies?
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his intervention. He has hit on a massive point. Some of the consultees treat some of the applications to flippant responses, which take ages to come through. That then builds on delay. That is not the Planning Service's fault, the Infrastructure Minister's fault or the local government planning services' fault, because there is a process to go through, and if they do not follow it, they could end up being challenged. That is a massive plank in planning law at the present time. However, if you have any uncertainty about that system or any shred of doubt about the process, you will probably end up being challenged and in court, and —.
Mr Humphrey: I thank the Member for giving way. I agree with all that he is saying. What message does it send to Invest Northern Ireland when it goes internationally to ask for inward and foreign direct investment to come here? At another wing of government, —.
Mr Humphrey: Sorry.
Another wing of government is in a position where it cannot further planning regulations quickly enough to enable that sort of investment as quickly as possible so that meaningful, well-paid and long-lasting jobs are brought to Northern Ireland. The same applies to tourism and to the tourism infrastructure where this matter is concerned. The infrastructure that is needed must be built up to ensure that we get people to come here, and, when they come here, they invest money in our tourist product, which is now so well known across the globe.
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his interjection. Of course the Member seeks joined-up government and a joined-up Executive where we are all pushing the same way, where there is a Programme for Government that is fit for this Province. We await those decisions and we await those days.
It should not be the case, if we have a focused Programme for Government and we have aligned our planning strategy with so many of our other strategies, that that should not take place. It should be the case that one Department is opposed to another, and then another makes a decision on planning. That is not a place where we would like to be and it is a bad place for business. If a business sees friction between Departments, with no clear vision or focus, of course it will go somewhere else. It will go to a greenfield site in another province, or in another part of the UK, Europe or the world.
That is not where we need to be. We need to have a slick operative machine that makes sound decisions quickly and informatively, and we need that now. Delay is costing this country millions and it is costing this country jobs, and that is a place where we cannot be.
To go back to my point about strategy: we have been told over the last number of weeks, even in the Economy Committee, that the energy strategy will be delayed further.
Mr O'Dowd: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. We have moved to the energy strategy. We were at council planning a moment ago, and we were at the Programme for Government before that. If I did not know better, I would suggest that there is a bit of filibustering going on in the Benches across the way. They might be waiting for somebody to come to the Chamber, but it is certainly nothing to do with the Bill.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member raised a point of order and it is on the record. I endeavour to give some flexibility. Periodically Mr Frew has mentioned regional planning issues, and when he has deviated off that topic, I have tried to draw him back to it. I will continue to try to do my job, and I encourage the Member to come back to the content of the Bill.
Mr Frew: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is great to have the opportunity to speak in the House about these important issues, but you know something, it is all linked, it is all tied in together. There is no point having a strategy for this and a strategy for that and not being able to join them together in a Programme for Government, and then having your Infrastructure Minister abide by that Programme for Government to produce good, sound, decent planning legislation and decisions. That is what we are talking about here and what part of the Bill is about. That is why we have to make sure that the legislation is passed: to give the Infrastructure Minister the sound basis on which good decisions can be made.
When we go to make planning decisions on wind farms and grid infrastructure, surely we need to see in a blueprint somewhere that it is actually required. If it is not needed, why do we pass it, when it is going to cost Northern Ireland consumers money? Why would you pass something like that if it is going to cost us money in the long term and it is not actually required? That brings me back to my point about the North/South interconnector, which is one of the biggest single issues that the Infrastructure Minister will have to make a decision on, probably in this mandate. Yet are we clear that the Infrastructure Minister has all the information that she and the Executive require to make that decision, and the right rationale for making it?
Whether or not Buick comes into it, whether or not the Bill comes into it, it is very important that the Minister makes sound decisions. SONI has said that we need the interconnector for security of supply, when we do not need it for security of supply. It is very important that, when a decision is made by the Minister or by local planners, the decision is sound. I am not convinced that that is the case, so I look forward to seeing the Bill go through its stages so that we can interrogate it more. When we look at this, there may well be tweaks and turns required in the Bill, but so be it. We have to make sure that we come out the other side with good-quality legislation that is fit for purpose, helps business and, as the Member said, helps infrastructure and growth in this country. Remember that all those projects — whether the North/South interconnector, rail or road networks, buildings, businesses, wind farms or power plants — create work.
Mr Humphrey: I thank the Member for giving way. Another very clear planning issue, which Members will have experienced in their constituencies, concerns the Department for Infrastructure ensuring that new roads, a water supply and sewers are in place at new housing developments. My colleague also mentioned this issue during a previous debate. Those are salient issues for the Department for Infrastructure to ensure that we can get the investment that we need and that planning approvals for affordable social and private housing go through quickly to ensure that those houses can be built and our constituents can be provided with much-needed housing.
Mr Frew: The Member has hit on another critical point: our water and waste sewerage systems, which are, quite honestly, antiquated. There is talk about putting it on the developer, but that will not solve the issue, because, even on the development side of a planning application, it will only help to sort out the pipes and the drains at that point. They will run into smaller, more antiquated, drains further down the system.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. I encourage the Member to come back to the principles of the Bill rather than dwell on the practical, long-term outworkings or planning difficulties that may exist in Northern Ireland. The issue is the principles behind the Bill. I look forward to hearing the Member's comments.
Mr Frew: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I agree 100%, and I agree with your ruling that the principles and the outworking of the Bill should be that we have a planning system and a decision-making process that are safe and sound and will deliver for Northern Ireland.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. I accept fully, as does, I think, the House, the need for the Department for Infrastructure and the Minister for Infrastructure to have the ability to adjudicate on these decisions, given the need for speed that the Member mentioned and also the quasi-judicial aspect of planning. However, does the Member accept that it is important, as mentioned in the Bill — it was one of the concessions made in the St Andrews Agreement — that cross-cutting, controversial issues still be referred to the Executive? Would the Member accept that that is an important aspect of the Bill that should be kept?
Mr Frew: I agree. We have gone right back to the St Andrews Agreement. Again, everything is threaded through everything. Although the Bill may put in place a power and a responsibility for one Department and one Minister, surely the best thing for Northern Ireland is a joined-up Executive making decisions as one, with one focus in one direction, with their decisions being populated by a Programme for Government, and all the other arts and parts of strategy that we have adopted over the years that have to be renewed over the coming weeks and months of the rest of this mandate. That is what should be in the mindset of a Minister making a planning decision, no matter it might be: does it fit the criteria, does it fit the policy? If it does, yes, we should pass it; if it does not, we should refuse it. That is safe, intelligent decision-making. It has to be done quickly and assuredly. So, yes, I agree with the Member 100%.
I have taken a lot of interventions, even from the other side of the House. It is maybe a record, I do not know, This is a very important Bill for our people, our Government and our businesses. It needs to be sufficiently resourced so that decisions can be taken quickly. That is something that we have not been able to do of late. I welcome the day when that will be the case. I support the principles of the Bill and look forward to its other stages where we can get into a debate, maybe with fewer interventions and interruptions, I do not know. However, let us look forward to that.
Mr Allister: I will be mercifully short, and, if you do not mind, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will address the issues in the Bill. [Laughter.]
I have one area of concern in respect of the Bill. It is right that we should respect the principle that if you have a Minister who has oversight of planning, it is that Minister who should make decisions that are within their ambit. I will stray slightly to say that I found it rather ironic that the Minister who moved the Bill was one of the first people out of the traps to welcome the Buick judgement when it was issued in quashing the Arc21 decision. There you are: what a tangled web we weave. The one area of concern that I have is clause 1(8), which states:
"Nothing in subsection (3) requires a Minister to have recourse to the Executive Committee in relation to any matter unless that matter affects the exercise of the statutory responsibilities of one or more other Ministers more than incidentally."
What does "more than incidentally" mean? This comes about in consequence of judicial review. I cannot think of wording more likely to provoke judicial review applications than a dispute about whether or not something is more than incidental. It is not defined in the Bill, save clause 1(9) setting some parameters by saying that the statutory responsibility to consult another Minister is more than incidental. That apart, there is no attempt at defining, maybe because it cannot be defined, what is more than incidental. I am just cautioning that that seems to me to be likely to lay a vast opportunity for challenge when decisions are taken not to heed and to not to join with others in making a decision. It is a huge area for challenge as to whether or not the role of that other was more than incidental. I would like to hear the other junior Minister in replying give us some indication of what that terminology is meant to convey. Since this will be the only practical occasion when we will debate the Bill because there will be no Committee Stage, I think that it is important that we get that answer.
Mr Storey: I rise not as a result of why other Members think I am on my feet but because this is an issue in the House that I think, ironically, goes to another issue that is lying in tatters at the other side of that Door. That is the credibility of the House and our ability to make legislation and, having made that legislation, abide by it. The Member who spoke previously referred to the mover of the motion, and I think that it does beg the question about what declarations of interest are made in the House when Members stand. Surely, if you were involved in a judicial review against a planning application, you should make a declaration of interest because you would have an interest in that particular matter and you had taken that matter through the courts whether you had won or lost. Obviously, if you had been a Member in a constituency who had a particular issue in relation to this very specific issue of what happened in the Member's constituency, you should make a declaration of interest. So, I do think, not for the first time in the House from Members opposite, we need the word that everybody has seemed to have on their lips in the past number of hours: clarity.
We are, I am assuming, before the House today, having the Bill in front of us to clarify and put into legislation the outworkings of what happened in the Buick case. That has brought us to this point. That issue raises the other element of this debate, and that is, as has been referred to, about recourse to the law. I think that it is right that we have a legal process, and I think that it is right that we have a legal system where we can have issues addressed that are of concern, but there is a concern that we have a process in Northern Ireland, particularly in planning, where there is a very, very high dependency upon the legal process.
The Member for South Belfast raised a query earlier in the debate in regard to the diminution of environmental protection. It is well known now, whenever any Minister in the Executive, be it the Infrastructure Minister, the Agriculture Minister or any other Minister, introduces legislation to try to make progress, benefit society, enhance industry or say something that is good news to our farming community, which has suffered and continues to suffer, where we end up. We end up in court.
Will Members allow me to digress for one minute, not from the principles of the Bill but just to give an example? Shared Environmental Services is an organisation that was established by the former Environment Minister. It now has a life of its own. It seems to be able to make decisions, it tells us, only in the interpretation of the European habitats directive, but it is not under the control of any Minister in the Executive. It is an agency, and, when we have tried to find out which is the sponsoring Department, we are left almost with silence. It is not Infrastructure; in fact, it has been suggested to me that maybe the Department for Communities has responsibility for the organisation, which happens to be based in my constituency and governed, in terms of its function, by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council.
So we come to the House to look at the Bill, which has come as a result of what happened in the courts. It has come as a result of a judgement in the courts, so it is right that we seek to regularise that issue.
I would like whichever junior Minister answers before the House this afternoon to give us some understanding of the terminology:
"the exercise of ... statutory responsibilities ... more than incidentally".
I did not have the benefit of going to school for any longer than, I felt, was necessary. I was 16 when I left and went to work for Lovell and Christmas at the Agivey bacon factory. However, I am blessed enough to know that there are some words that are placed in documents such as we have and in legislation for a purpose. While that purpose may not be explicit to those who read it, it will clearly be explicit to its authors. Its draftspersons — the people who drafted it — surely will have had some idea of what was specifically meant when that was put into the Bill. I would welcome the junior Ministers' answer when they come to the Floor.
There is sometimes a comment that, when you come to look at a Bill — maybe more the detail of the Bill, as opposed to its principles — you can go from Dan to Beersheba. I think my colleague and friend Mr Frew tried, and he tried very valiantly. I may not get so far before the Deputy Speaker brings me back to the principles of the Bill. However, Mr Frew raised an issue or issues that come as a result of what we are establishing in the Bill, if it passes the House to go further in its legislative process. It highlights for us the importance of the Planning Service and the functions of the Minister who has responsibility. The House responded to public outcry: "Too many councils. Let's get rid of them. Let's have 11. Let's reduce the numbers, the bureaucracy, the cost and the duplication". I wonder how many would want to go back to the 26 councils today when it comes to making local decisions.
There was a report last week from Queen's University on the Planning Service. Of course, that report was more to do with the public perception of those who were involved in making the decisions. Yes, we have to have openness and transparency. I was at a meeting the other day and I was taken aback when a member of the party on the opposite Benches said that what we needed was honesty. That is exactly what we need from the party opposite: honesty about a lot of things that have gone on in this little country for far too long.
I will conclude by saying that, in the House, we often refer to setting precedents. We are setting a precedent and a marker for the processes that we will use. I trust that, in the outworking of the legislation, we will look back on this day and say that it was beneficial and necessary and that we will not look back and say that we should have done something else. I agree to an extent that accelerated passage is never a good way to do business. Equally, it is not a good thing when there is urgency to put it into a Committee and kick it around for weeks and get more and more information. You end up with a pile of information, and nobody is any the wiser after all the information has been provided. It is about striking a balance between those two things. On this one, while it is a necessity, I would still prefer to scrutinise the Bill in Committee with evidence being gathered from appropriate witnesses and from a wide variety of sources. Sometimes, when we come to this issue, as with many others, it is the usual suspects who —.
Mr Frew: I agree with the Member about accelerated passage. We do not need any legislation going through —.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order, Members. We have had the debate on accelerated passage. Members expressed their views and cast their vote. We are past that. I bring the Member back to the issue of the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill.
Mr Frew: That is a strange one, Mr Deputy Speaker, where you have made a ruling on an intervention and an intervener. I say to the Member who kindly granted the intervention that, at least in a Committee setting, we are able to get all interest groups and arts and parts to have a debate about the subject and make sure that the legislation is clear and concise.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his intervention. I will not pre-empt the wrath of the Deputy Speaker any longer. I accept his ruling that the vote on accelerated passage has taken place. However, we also need to be cognisant of the fact that what we have done today will be important when we look back and ask whether we should we have had more detail on the Bill. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that there is not someone listening to these proceedings who already has their pen and pencil ready to take the next application that is before a Minister to court. That will bring about delay, which, ultimately, will lead an investor to decide, "I have had enough. That place is not worth investing in, and it is time for me to put my money somewhere else". The Members who, with great delight, will have won a hollow victory will complain about there being no investment in their area. That is something that some Members need to seriously reflect on.
Mr Carroll: Barely a week goes by in the Chamber when I am not shocked by the cavalier way in which the Executive circumvent basic tests of scrutiny and accountability around governance and decision-making that most reasonable citizens would expect from political leaders, whether it is on the Budget Bill a few weeks ago, which was a laughing stock in terms of scrutiny and oversight, legislation carried over from Westminster or a variety of Bills on housing, private tenancy or other matters. You do not have to be cynical to conclude that the Executive are using or attempting to use the crisis to ram through a range of measures that suit a decision-making process that favours the bigger parties. The Executive Committee (Functions) Bill is, I am afraid, this week's example. The function of the Bill is to reduce scrutiny and accountability by limiting the number of large, regional and costly projects that must receive proper oversight by the Executive Committee. It is ironic, too, that it is in direct response to the important court case that was won by campaigners against the Arc21 incinerator.
Let me be clear about this: People Before Profit oppose the incinerator. We have done so every step of the way at council level and in Stormont. We also commend the No Arc21 campaign for its campaigning over many years. I hope that we now have a Minister who is sympathetic to their campaign, and I appeal to her and her Department to reject the project as a means of standing up for our environment. What if we do not —?
Mr Carroll: No, I will not. You had enough time — almost an hour, I think.
What if we do not have a sympathetic Minister? Would we seriously want to bypass Committee Stage on such a project? Absolutely not.
The outcome of the court case stated broadly that projects of significant and regional nature and high costs would need to be referred to an Assembly Committee before decisions are taken by a Minister because of the way that they overlap Departments and other work remits, as has been referred to. I am no legal expert, but I suggest that a legal decision such as this, made, as it was, after a successful judicial review by a progressive, pro-climate campaign, should at least be given weight and listened to by the Executive. Instead, the Executive are trying to circumvent that decision somewhat by passing a Bill through accelerated passage that will, in reality, restrict the process to projects that are outside the Programme for Government.
I would suggest that a project being listed as part of the Programme for Government is not enough to overcome the test for Committee scrutiny. Take the issue of Casement Park in my constituency, for example. If you were to look up the word "cock-up" in a dictionary, you would likely find a picture of Casement Park beside it. I suggest that those at fault are primarily the upper echelons of the GAA and various Stormont Departments for their cavalier attitude to the project, for their refusal to properly engage with residents to secure a safe and suitably-sized stadium —.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. We do not want a tour of significant planning decisions that Members may have in their constituency. We are debating the principles of the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill as to the power that would exist with a Minister in taking decisions. I ask the Member to concentrate on that matter.
Mr Carroll: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I would say that significant leeway was shown to Members from across the Chamber, significant leeway.
Just to conclude that point, the clear lesson of the Casement saga is the need for maximum scrutiny, accountability and consultation. That is relevant to that decision and to the Arc21 incinerator.
The point that I make is that the Bill has serious implications for scrutiny and accountability on a range of projects. For that reason, my party cannot consent to it today, and it would set a dangerous precedent —.
Mr Carroll: I will not. I am bringing my remarks to a close.
Mr Stalford: I am going to agree with you on something [Laughter.]
Mr Carroll: I don't know about that.
Just to conclude, this move, this proposed Bill, smacks of Boris Johnson's "Build, build, build" approach, and surely, if we have learned nothing else, we have learned that we should not follow Boris Johnson and the Tories on anything.
Mr Storey: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Mr Carroll made comments in reference to the Minister. He said that the Minister would be sympathetic to a particular issue. Will those matters be considered, and will they be ruled on? I do not think that a Minister, who will have to make decisions on many applications, should be perceived as somehow having a particular view on an issue, given the fact that the matter has just come out of the court.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has made an important point and has put his views on the record. I am not sure that I, as Deputy Speaker, need to make a judgement on what he has said, but, nevertheless, what he has said is on the record.
I invite the junior Minister, Gordon Lyons, to conclude and wind up the debate on the motion.
Mr Lyons: I thank the Members who took the opportunity to contribute to the debate. To follow on from one of Mr Storey's points, I emphasise that it is neither the preferred nor the ordinary way of doing things for the Assembly to consider two stages of any primary legislation on the same day. It is the desire of the First and deputy First Minister to provide as much time as possible for the Assembly to consider the legislation brought before it and to discharge its scrutiny role to the fullest extent, but I thank Members for their comments.
I will begin with Mr McGrath and welcome his support for the general principles of the Bill. It is absolutely right that there will be additional high-profile planning applications on the agenda, no doubt, in the near future, and he is absolutely right when he says that we need an efficient planning system. I know that that point has been brought up by a number of Members today. It is absolutely essential, if we want to build our economy and have investment in infrastructure, that we have those decisions made quickly and efficiently. If you are coming into Northern Ireland and have money to spend, the chances are that there are people elsewhere who could have that money spent in their area as well, so let us make sure that we make it as easy as possible, while keeping within all of the regulations and making sure that we have a robust planning system. That is why I agree also with what he said about a quick decision not necessarily being a bad decision.
Those points were echoed by Mr Stalford. I will take his advice not to stand still in South Belfast if it is likely that something will quickly be built on us. I note the similar comments by Pat Sheehan and Andrew Muir. I apologise to Mr Muir, who asked in the accelerated passage debate — I am trying not to test your patience, Mr Deputy Speaker — about the timetable for the rest of the Bill. That will be a decision for the Business Committee; indeed, they may already have ruled on that today.
Paul Frew made a number of comments, it is fair to say. I will not refer to them all. He mentioned Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and how efficient they are in their planning process. An awful lot of credit for that should go to the inaugural chair of the planning committee in Mid and East Antrim. Now, modesty prevents me from sharing with Members who that chair is
but, if people are interested, they can, no doubt, find that out for themselves. Again, the Member mentioned slow decision making and the consequences that that has, and I am in agreement with him on that and, indeed, with Mervyn Storey, who raised it as well.
To comment on Jim Allister's point, I think that it is always sensible for me to defer to the Member's legal expertise on the issue, but the term "incidental" — it is useful for me to put this on the record — is used to convey a meaning that a matter is not central to or does not impact on another Minister's statutory authority, although it may be of interest to him or her in other ways. The term is used in section 6 of the Northern Ireland Act, concerning legislation that is only "incidental" or "consequential" on referred or excepted powers. There is a precedent for its use, and, as a legal term, it exists. We may return to the issue of definition at subsequent stages, but, of course, it is not always possible to be definitive on that. I hope that that answer is useful to the Member.
Mr Carroll believes that the aim of the Bill is to reduce scrutiny. That is not the case. My experience, though, of Mr Carroll is that nothing that I say will convince him on this or, probably, any other issue. I will repeat what I said to Ms Bailey in the previous debate: the Bill does not affect the integrity of the planning process or the quality of the decisions taken under it; rather, it is about who should take those decisions.
We have had a wide-ranging debate. I know that I have not responded to all the comments that Members made. I believe that, despite accelerated passage, there has been ample opportunity for Members to put their concerns and views on the record, and I urge them to support the Bill this afternoon.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Question will be put again in three minutes.
Before I put the Question, I again remind Members present that, if possible, it would be preferable if we could avoid a Division.
Mr Stalford: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I know that, traditionally, a point of order —.
Question put a second time and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill [NIA Bill 08/17-22] be agreed.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): We had one No from Mr Carroll. Other than that, we had Ayes from the House.
I ask Members to take their ease for a moment, as some Members may wish to return to the House.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Jim Allister has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Executive Office. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a question, they should rise in their place continually. The Member who tabled the question will be called for a supplementary question to begin with.
Mr Allister asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister how they propose to restore credibility to the Executive’s promotion of the restrictions under the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 after the deputy First Minister’s attendance and conduct at the funeral of Bobby Storey on 30 June 2020.
Mrs O'Neill (The deputy First Minister): The Executive's message will continue to be based on scientific and medical advice reflected in guidance and in legislation. As we emerge from lockdown, the key to tackling the pandemic will be to enable citizens to make informed choices about resuming their normal lives safely, and I will continue to work with my Executive colleagues to achieve all of that.
Mr Allister: The deputy First Minister holds office only because she took a solemn Pledge of Office that created an obligation to support the rule of law unequivocally in word and deed. The law, as far as last Tuesday's funeral was concerned, was unmistakably clear: there only could be attendees from the household and the close family of the deceased.
The deputy First Minister then compounded that breach by arrogantly declaring that she would never apologise for attending the funeral of a friend. Yet, the law that she made — the law from which, she said to every citizen, there was no exemption — was that you could not attend the funerals of your friends.
Mr Allister: Why does she think that she is above the law? Is it because she has a higher loyalty, which is to the republican movement?
Mrs O'Neill: I take very seriously indeed my responsibilities as a holder of public office, deputy First Minister and joint head of Government. A lot has been said over the past week since the untimely death of Bobby Storey and my attendance at his funeral in Belfast. There has been unfortunate and considerable controversy over my decision to attend. As a Member of the Legislative Assembly, I have taken the opportunity to set out my position at the scrutiny Committee last week, the Executive Committee and the party leaders' forum last Friday. I have set out my position in the media. Today, I welcome the opportunity to do so again in the House.
Always at the forefront of my mind are all the families who are grieving and all those who have lost loved ones throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. I have listened very carefully to the voices of all those who have lost loved ones. All grief is the same. I am particularly concerned that grieving families who lost a loved one during the pandemic had their heartache compounded by the necessary restrictions that were in place at that time over the past number of months. Not being able to have their family and friends support them and help them through their mourning and grief was hugely difficult for all. I am also concerned that those grieving families are experiencing more hurt this week. Given that I would never set out to compound anyone's grief, I am sorry for that.
Mr Buckley: I want to acknowledge the huge anger and frustration that there is among the many families who buried loved ones in accordance with the regulations that were put forward by the Executive, including the deputy First Minister. What makes Bobby Storey's funeral any different, and Sinn Féin members believe that they are above the law? The deputy First Minister's insensitive and crass approach to the matter has left many people asking — and I ask it here now — the question: does the deputy First Minister enjoy hurting people? Does she believe that she is in breach of the ministerial code? People are, rightly, asking those questions.
Mrs O'Neill: As I have said, and I say to the Member again, I take my responsibilities very seriously, as joint head of Government, a public figure and a holder of public office. Again, I can say, absolutely, that I would never set out to compound any family's grief. I encourage Members not to play on that: I would never hurt anyone intentionally. The past four months have been a hugely difficult time for everybody, particularly those who have lost and buried loved ones, and have had to do that all by themselves because of the restrictions at the time. I would never compound any family's grief. I have said that I am sorry for that.
Mr Gildernew: Is it still the Minister's view that the general public wants to see the Assembly and its political leaders continue to work together to tackle COVID-19 and to steer the much-needed economic recovery?
Mrs O'Neill: We have huge challenges before us and really important work to do. I believe firmly that all the parties in the Executive are committed to that and to ensuring that we have stable power-sharing after three years without functioning government. We have, certainly, made good progress on that despite all the difficulties. My commitment is to continue that work.
Since the middle of March, the management and response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the Executive's number-one priority. Our objective throughout all that has been to help to keep people safe and to support those who faced real hardship as a result of the pandemic. That has required a huge effort from all those who are involved, and there have been very many; the health service, health and social care workers, teachers, essential retail staff, those who provide key local government services, industry and employee representatives, and church leaders. People in every sector — public, private, community and voluntary — had to stop their normal work and working practices abruptly in order to join the fight against COVID-19 and help to manage the risks and mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. The progress that has been achieved is due entirely to everyone's support and concerted efforts. As a result, we have, now, reached a key turning point in the management of the crisis, where the Executive's attention is able to move away from purely controlling the public health response towards planning for economic health and societal recovery instead.
We have come a long way in a short time. It is great that we are, now, able to carefully reverse our way out of the restrictions. That remains the case now and will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. COVID-19 is still with us. I will continue to lead us through the crisis and into recovery, and I will continue to work with my Executive colleagues.
Mr McGrath: Does the deputy First Minister accept that it was obvious that the funeral was going to draw huge crowds and that those crowds gathered, and did so in an unsafe manner? The use of loudspeakers, marshals and invites confirm the fact that Sinn Féin was aware that there would be crowds. Do you think that that was a breach of the rules?
Mrs O'Neill: We are legislators, and we develop the regulations, and, obviously, enforcement is a matter for the PSNI. We will let them do their job. They will make their assessment on all of that. It was always going to be the case that thousands of people would want to go along to the funeral of Bobby Storey, given the huge figure that he was. The organisers tried to limit the large crowds that were expected to attend by providing online streaming of the funeral for people to watch from the comfort of their own homes and by placing socially distanced stewards along the route of the funeral to ensure that the large numbers present did not join the cortege.
Mr Beattie: Minister, confidence is damaged: confidence in you, the deputy First Minister; confidence in the Executive Office; and confidence in the Executive. As we fight the pandemic, a lack of confidence will be terminal; it will cost lives. Will the First Minister and deputy First Minister set up an independent statutory inquiry to investigate the issue and all MLAs who deliberately breached the guidelines?
Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member. I do not believe that we need a statutory inquiry into anything. There are regulations in place, and those who are in charge of enforcing them should do their job, and we should let them do their job.
Ms Armstrong: Today, I am disappointed more than angry. I was in the Chamber when the deputy First Minister gave me sympathy. My uncle died during the coronavirus pandemic. We buried him, without being able to see him, and we had his month's mind in the same situation. I go back to the question for urgent oral answer: how do the First Minister and deputy First Minister propose to restore credibility to the Executive's promotion of the restrictions under the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations? It is important that we bring people with us. I have suffered the death of a loved one during this terrible period, and I do not want anyone else to have to go through that.
Mrs O'Neill: At the time, I recognised that you had lost someone, and I recognise that it was a difficult time for anyone who had lost someone. Grief is difficult at any time, but it was particularly difficult during the pandemic when, at times, it was not possible for people to have a support network and the comfort of people round them. That will probably have an impact for a long time on your grieving process. I have said it, and I say it again — I have no reservations in saying it: I never wanted anybody's grief to be compounded; that was never my intention. I have led us through the pandemic, and I will continue to lead us into the recovery phase, because that is the space that we are in. Thankfully, for three days in a row, no one has lost their life to COVID-19. We are in a space where we can start to think about recovery, building to the future and making sure that we have prosperity. We are in for a challenging time. That will take a collective effort from the Executive, and I will certainly continue to play my role in that.
Ms Bailey: I, too, go back to the question for urgent oral answer. Do the First Minister and deputy First Minister believe that a commissioner for ministerial standards — for all Ministers — should be appointed as a matter of urgency in order to try to restore confidence with not only the public, but Members?
Mrs O'Neill: Yes. I am happy to say that we want and need to have a commissioner in place. The position has been recruited, I believe, and the last I heard was that the person could be in post in August. Yes, that is part and parcel of what we have established. We need to have the commissioner in place.
Mr Middleton: It is clear that the deputy first Minister has broken the funeral guidance that she helped to set. Can the deputy First Minister confirm whether the PSNI has approached her regarding those breaches, and, if not, will she make herself available to the PSNI?
Mrs O'Neill: I can confirm that the PSNI has not been in touch with me, and I am more than happy to cooperate with any PSNI officer who may wish to speak to me.
Mrs D Kelly: Minister, Sinn Féin seem to think of themselves as an elite party to which the rules do not normally apply, and have created a hierarchy of people who can flout the rules whenever they so choose. How, exactly, are you going to prevent people from having that perception and be able to stand at a podium telling me, everybody here and everybody outside of here what to do, and that the rules do not apply to you?
Mrs O'Neill: I say to the public listening at home that it is important that they have walked this journey with us and that they need to continue to walk this journey with us, and I will continue to walk with them.
I am determined to continue to lead us through this pandemic, just as I have done day and night for the past four months. I will continue to make sure that we do everything that we can to protect the public and lead us into economic recovery, which is where we need to be focusing our efforts right now.
Dr Aiken: I thank the deputy First Minister for her comments so far. She mentioned the word leadership quite a few times. One of the most important things about leadership is the ability to make difficult decisions, and to abide by the rules and guidelines that are then set.
I would like to ask the deputy First Minister, and, indeed, many people from Sinn Féin, that if there is a regrettable increase in COVID cases from the areas of west Belfast or any areas linked to those who attended the funeral, will the deputy First Minister then consider her position and look to what is really important, which is restoring trust in government here in Northern Ireland?
Mrs O'Neill: As I said, I take my responsibilities very seriously. I will continue to lead us through the pandemic no matter what comes at us. We have come through difficult days, particularly over the past four months. This has been one of the most trying times that I think any of us in political leadership have come through. I will continue to play my role. I will continue to do everything that I can to protect the public and lead us into a recovery. That is the space that we are in now. I will play my part in all of that.
Mr Storey: On 4 June, the deputy First Minister said in relation to the Black Lives Matter protest:
"We have to send a message very clearly that by gathering in such big crowds we’re actually spreading the virus, and ultimately that’s killing people".
Following on from Mr. Aiken's comment, will the deputy First Minister stand over those words?
Secondly, and this is important, will she clarify whether the back-and-whites who followed the cortege at the funeral of Bobby Storey were part of the funeral?
Mrs O'Neill: The black-and-whites were stewards at the funeral to try to prevent the thousands of people who were there from joining the cortege. That mitigation was, obviously, put in place by the organisers.
On the issue of previous protests, we are lifting restrictions here so quickly. I do stand over everything that I have ever said. Just to put that on record. We have lifted restrictions so quickly here. We are in a place now, as we reverse our way out, that we always knew was going to be more difficult than going into things because shutting everything down is simpler, in a way. Where we are now, lifting restrictions and making changes, and doing it all at breakneck speed, as we have said in the House on numerous occasions, things continually change. Where we were in June and where we are today are two different spaces. Where we were in March, April and May, and where we are today, is a very different space — thankfully, because we are able to lift more restrictions.
I am glad, and I hope that that continues. I welcome the fact that, even today, we have been able to agree to more restrictions being lifted to allow for weddings and baptisms. Those are significant and important things that we have been able to do. We still have a wee way to go, and we will just have to work our way through it.
Mr O'Toole: Does the deputy First Minister agree that, at the core of republicanism, whether that is republicanism in Ireland, France or the United States, is the idea that all citizens are equal before the law? Does she further agree that those of us who seek to build a new republic in Ireland have a responsibility to demonstrate to those whom we seek to persuade, and everyone else, that we are all equal citizens before the law?
Mrs O'Neill: The answer to that question is not in doubt because that is exactly what I believe: everyone is equal.
Mr Chambers: Does the Minister accept that there is huge and growing public perception and anger across the community that her actions, and those of others at the funeral, breached the regulations and guidance that are in place to protect the public whom we serve?
Mrs O'Neill: There are people who have lost loved ones during the pandemic who perhaps are feeling hurt. I have said, and I say it again here today, that I would never seek to compound anybody's grief. For that, I said that I was sorry, and I stand over that. I have spoken with many families who have lost loved ones during the pandemic; I have supported them through the pandemic and will continue to do so.
So, we need to be careful. I am very happy to speak in the Chamber; I have spoken, as I said, at the Executive, in front of the scrutiny Committee and in the media, and I am more than happy to answer all these questions. However, I distinguish between families who have lost loved ones, and their hurt, and the charges that are levelled towards me that are about politics and not the law.
Mr Stalford: That answer just demonstrates that the deputy First Minister really does not get it. She said to us in her comments, "That was then and this is now". I put it to her that what changed was that a senior republican died and the rules that everyone else had to abide by went out the window. Does the deputy First Minister recall saying on 23 May:
"The role of every member of society is still crucial on the journey towards recovery. The better we all follow the advice and regulations that are in place, the sooner we can come out the other side of this together."
Does she not accept that, by her actions, she has completely undermined her credibility?
Mrs O'Neill: As I said, I take my responsibilities very seriously. I am so glad that we are in the space that we are in today, with so many restrictions having been lifted. We have been doing that on an almost daily basis for weeks and months. We continue to make progress on that, and I want us to continue to get back to normal life as best we can and prepare for whatever comes down the road at us. For now, our focus has to still be on battling COVID-19, building recovery, building our economy and making sure that there are employment opportunities, getting our children back to school and making sure that there is sufficient childcare so that people can go to work. We, as a collective Executive, have to take on all those challenges.