Official Report: Monday 10 May 2021


The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Executive Committee Business

Mr Speaker: The first item of business is a motion to affirm a statutory rule.

That the Rates (Regional Rates) Order (Northern Ireland) 2021 be affirmed.

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed that there will be no time limit on this debate. I call the Minister to open the debate on the motion.

Mr Murphy: This annual order is brought about following the Executive's agreement to the 2021-22 Budget, which I outlined to the Assembly in my statement on 27 April.

Today's order sets the two separate regional rate in the pound figures for 2021-22. One applies to households; the other applies to businesses. In setting the rates, the Executive have to consider the impact on business and household finances and the impact on the level of revenue raised for public services.

For the second year in a row, rates are being set in the shadow of COVID-19. The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the economy and on the cash flow of businesses. The relatively high level of commercial rates was already a key concern for businesses, many of which are very small and locally managed. That is why, last year, I provided all business ratepayers with an 18% reduction in the non-domestic regional rate. The order keeps that reduction in place for another year.

The capacity of many companies to pay rates has been further undermined by the pandemic. COVID created the prospect risk of widespread business closures and, with that, the loss of jobs. Therefore, last year, I provided the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic with a rates holiday. I have allocated £230 million this year to continue that rates holiday for another year.

These measures will help to sustain businesses and the jobs that they provide. Likewise, the freeze on domestic poundage for the second year in a row will be vital to household ratepayers. We already have relatively low domestic charges, and maintaining that low charge will help household budgets. To give ratepayers a two-month break in payments, I have decided to delay again the issuing of rate bills. That will help many ratepayers whose incomes are still being affected by the pandemic.

Taken together, the domestic and non-domestic regional rates that have been set by today's order account for approximately £690 million to the Executive, before the effect of the rates holiday is taken account. That revenue supplements the Executive's block grant and facilitates more expenditure on our health service and on roads, schools, infrastructure and other essential public services.

The regional rate represents just over half of a typical rates bill, with the other half made up of the district rate that is set independently by councils. In total, the rating system is designed to contribute over £1·3 billion to Executive and council funding. My Department has also introduced measures to allow more time for councils to set their 2021-22 rates and to allow greater local flexibility to councils in rate setting. It is welcome that councils adopted a similar approach to that of the Executive, keeping their district rates as low as possible, given the need to shelter homes and businesses from the economic impact of the pandemic.

I turn now to technical matters. The main purpose of the order is to give effect to the poundage decisions that have already been made during the Executive's Budget process by specifying the regional rate poundage for 2021-22. Article 1 sets out the title of the order and gives the operational date as the day after it is affirmed by the Assembly. Article 2 provides that the order will apply for the 2021-22 rating year through to 31 March 2022. Article 3 specifies 27·9p in the pound as the non-domestic regional poundage that is to be levied on rateable net annual values and 0·4574p in the pound as the domestic regional rate poundage that is to be levied on rateable capital values.

I look forward to hearing Members' comments. I commend the order to the Assembly.

Mr Speaker: I call the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance, Steve Aiken. Let me take this opportunity, given your announcement at the weekend, to wish you and your family the very best in the time ahead.

Dr Aiken (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance): Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for his remarks. I can assure the House that I will not be retiring from politics. Despite my demeanour today, I will fully enjoy continuing to hold Ministers and the system to account.

On that point, Minister, the Committee considered the Rates (Regional Rates) Order (Northern Ireland) 2021, and we agree and concur that, in order to provide the necessary stimulus for the Northern Ireland economy, it is very important that we maintain the rates holiday and allow it to happen. Freezing the rates as we have done is also appropriate, because we need to send a strong message across the entirety of Northern Ireland about coming out of COVID and how we will manage that.

On behalf of the Committee, we support the order.

Mr McHugh: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I thank the Minister for his statement, which I support. This instrument, which is at his disposal, will in many respects help to stimulate the economy here in the North of Ireland. We all know only too well just how things are for businesses and for householders and how people have suffered over the period of the pandemic. For some, it has been very difficult: I am thinking in particular about furloughed workers who, like self-employed people, have had great difficulty in meeting bills and, maybe, something as basic as putting meat on the table. This rates relief, in many respects, is such a help to them. It will help to stimulate the local economy and will, hopefully, encourage all of us to respond to the Minister's initiative and others that have been taken by the Executive that will come to the fore later in the year, such as the voucher scheme and the Job Start scheme. Those initiatives will complement this decision by the Minister and allow the economy to emerge from the depressive state in which it has found itself. I look forward to all that improving in every respect. Arís eile, gabhaim mo mhíle buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. Again, I thank the Minister for his statement.

Mr O'Toole: Before I begin, I offer my best wishes and those of my party to my colleague the Chairperson of the Finance Committee and his family as he proceeds, hopefully, not to a completely quieter life. He will have more time to focus on all the important issues that we are debating in Committee.

The regional rates order for 2021-22, which my party supports, is exactly the same as the one that we approved for last year. I want to make a couple of remarks about it today. Given where we are with our economy as we come out of COVID, it is important for our fiscal position going forward.

As the Minister said, the poundage levels for domestic and non-domestic rates are unchanged because we have chosen to freeze them for a further year. Given the severity of the economic conditions that we have faced, we agree that that is the right policy response. As well as continuing to freeze the rates, the Finance Minister has prolonged a full rates holiday for businesses in the sectors most acutely affected by COVID-19, in particular the hospitality and tourism sector.

The Ulster University Economic Policy Centre, which advises the Minister, has said that revenues have fallen in the past year by more than three quarters. That totally unprecedented collapse in income came about as a result of our imposing draconian restrictions, and that is why, in a sense, the rates holiday that we are enacting today, following on from the one that we have had over the past year, is a completely understandable, justifiable and welcome intervention for dealing with that. We hope that the easing of restrictions continues, allowing our economy to re-emerge.

Even as the economy returns and all economic forecasters predict growth in 2021, we do not know exactly how that recovery will map out across our economy, nor do we know how many jobs will be permanently lost when the furlough scheme is fully wound up later this year. The most recent data published by the UK Government shows that just under 100,000 workers were on furlough in Northern Ireland at the end of March. Thankfully, that number will have changed a bit since the economy has started to reopen. Even as it reopens, however, we do not know precisely how many jobs will be permanently lost and how many businesses will, sadly, fail, and I am afraid that some will fail. Nor do we yet know the longer-term structural shifts that may be taking place in economic activity not just here but around the world, following the pandemic. We know that fewer office workers will need to be at their desk Monday to Friday from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm, but we do not yet know exactly how many fewer people will be there. Critically, we also do not know what the knock-on impact will be on city centres, which currently rely on office footfall to sustain retail and hospitality during the working week. We do not know any of those things, but we know that we will still rely on the regional rate as a significant source of revenue for public services here.

The Minister said that, across the Executive and local government, the total amount of revenue raised from rates is £1·2 billion. From reading the Budget, I know that the rates income this year is forecast to be just under £600 million, but that will be largely offset by the £230 million that is being spent in offering a holiday. Taken together, the non-domestic and domestic regional and district rates are the only major source of revenue that is devolved to these institutions. As I said, this year, the forecast income from the regional rate is just under £600 million, but, in fact, a little over half of that sum will be raised owing to the holiday, with which we agree, being extended by the Finance Minister. However — I say this in a cross-party way as genuinely and sincerely as possible — we will have to face up to the difficult truth that, as we approach fiscal year 2022-23, having forgone about 40% or thereabouts — the Minister can correct me if he thinks that that number is wrong — of our regional rate income for two full years, there must be some level of risk attached to that revenue from 2022 onwards. To be clear, over the past two years that was necessary and essential, and we all agree with it. I am not in any way casting aspersions on the policy, but we have effectively forgone about 40% of the regional rate strand of income, which is one of the very few areas from which the Executive can derive an income. That means that we will have to think hard about what happens next year. This time next year, depending on politics but if things go to plan, we will all, I am afraid, be just a few weeks away from a election when the next regional rates order comes forward. I am not casting aspersions on any of us as politicians, but those will be tough decisions for politicians of all parties to make in the mouth of an election.

That is before you add in the fact that the full impact of the Reval2020 exercise has not yet been experienced by most businesses as a result of the holidays and freezes of the past two years. The broad uncertainty facing all tax systems everywhere in the developed world based on commercial property valuation is because, as of right now, we simply do not know what the medium- and long-term impact of COVID-19 on commercial property values will be. We just do not know how completely COVID will transform how we work, shop and socialise.


12.15 pm

All of that is to say in a genuine, sincere, cross-party way that it is urgent that either or both the fiscal council or fiscal commission being set up by the Minister take a long, hard look at the operation of our rates system as they look at our broader fiscal position. As I and my party have said, it needs to be part of a broader look at our economic performance in conjunction with our fiscal challenges. We have had a lot of debate about the fact that a disproportionate amount of the small strand of income that we are able to generate here comes from non-domestic rates. It is really important that, as we look at our fiscal options and at our economy, we make sure that it is not operating, in effect, in an anachronistic way, given the transformation that, we know, we will face in how we work, shop and socialise.

Given the state of our public services, especially the health service, and, as I have said, the highly limited fiscal tools available to us, we simply cannot drift into this time next year without an urgent and fundamental look at our regional rates model. We cannot afford to risk half a billion pounds in regional rates income and, as the Minister said, over a billion pounds from regional and district rates income for public services because we cannot face confronting the difficult challenges.

In supporting today's regional rates order, I simply set it out that we should all be cognisant of the profound issues that we will face as we come out of COVID and deal with unwinding some of the freezes and holidays that we have all, rightly, supported over the past 15 months.

Mr Catney: I welcome the fact that there is a zero increase in the regional rate for another year. The economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic may have some light at the end of the tunnel. We have seen footage across the news of long queues for businesses that have been able to reopen. That has to be welcomed, as long as people remain as safe as they can. As a former business owner, I empathise with the feelings of uncertainty, pain and fear that have been felt by most of our business community throughout the pandemic, and it is right that we should do all that we can to support them in this time of need.

I thank the Minister and all the officials who have worked in the Department to achieve a zero rate increase. The Minister and the Department suggested that councils should make the same decision, and I know that some have. Clearer advice, support and direction were needed to help councils to achieve the zero rate rise.

Coming out of the pandemic and out of this unprecedented time of economic turmoil gives us an opportunity to look at how we tax our businesses. Business taxation must be done in a way that supports business owners to be employers, particularly as the full scale of job losses has been masked by the furlough scheme. It must not inhibit entrepreneurial ventures and must support those who take a chance and put their resources into their dream of owning their own business and play such an important and active role in our economy.

We had issues with our economy long before the pandemic or even Brexit. We had to boost our historically low productivity and move away from low-skilled, low-paying jobs to give our citizens a brighter future and brighter prospects at home. Rates and taxation are only one part of the equation, but they are an important one. If we do not get it right this time, it can hinder what we do in other areas.

Mr Muir: I will be brief, reflecting custom and practice on the subject in previous years. First, I echo the comments about Steve Aiken. He will not be going far, but I wish him best wishes for the future.

The Alliance Party welcomes the action taken thus far in freezing the regional rate and the reliefs that have been offered to certain sectors and those for the last four months of the last financial year. However, as Matthew O'Toole outlined, there are issues in relation to the rating system in Northern Ireland. We face a real cliff edge at the end of this financial year and moving into 2022-23. As part of that, we desperately need an independent review of the rating system, particularly the non-domestic rating system, which is a particular concern.

A review was undertaken by Land and Property Services (LPS), but there needs to be an independent review similar to that conducted in Scotland in order to get authority and respect from the business community and to reflect the issues that I have picked up from traders who are now able to reopen, thanks to the relaxation of the restrictions. They find it tough to swallow to see online retailers, operating from much smaller premises, paying proportionately less in rates, whereas they, on the high street, face significant bills, potentially from the next financial year. They want a fairer and more equitable playing field, to ensure that they can succeed and grow as businesses. We need that independent review of the non-domestic rating system. That is desperately required, and, if we do not get it, we will have the continuation of a broken system. Some of the changes recommended by LPS may be enacted, but they will not attract that level of respect.

We had Reval2020 last year. When the Assembly returned in January, that was a big focus. That dissipated because of the reliefs that were put in place, and it is still not on the agenda. If we do not have that review of the rating system and go back to the full system from the next financial year, we will have serious issues. Hospitality businesses were crying out with the impact of Reval2020. To hit them with the impact of that, just as they are trying to get back on their feet in the next financial year, would be wrong.

I urge the Minister to consider that.

Mr Murphy: I thank all who have contributed to the debate. As I stated, the Rates (Regional Rates) Order 2021 gives effect to decisions that were made as part of the Executive's 2021-22 Budget, the wider detail of which was presented to the Assembly on 27 April. The Executive's aim continues to be to strike the correct balance between meeting the needs of ratepayers during what will be a challenging long-term economic environment and ensuring that public finances are sufficient to cover the priorities that we have set ourselves beyond the pandemic. A number of Members correctly highlighted that in their contribution: the economic challenges, as opposed to the revenue that we need to raise in order to support public services. That is the balance to be struck at any time but particularly at such an uncertain time. Faced with the twin effects of Brexit and the pandemic, those things need to be very carefully considered with the information that we have available.

As some Members pointed out, the fiscal commission will be useful this year. We could have done with one many years back, as Scotland and Wales have. Certainly, in this year, we must use what limited resources we have to support businesses and jobs. This is not just about business people; it is about the jobs that are created and the families that rely on those businesses. We need to supplement as best we can public services, which have already suffered from eight or nine years of Tory austerity. I think that the fiscal commission to look at the overall finances and the fiscal council, which will examine public spend, will be important in the year ahead.

Andrew Muir, who has left the Chamber, raised the issue of the review. The review is not conducted by LPS on its own; it is done in consultation with all the business organisations. A range of the matters raised were taken on board from the previous review. As he said, there is a revaluation exercise and a commitment to do those more frequently. When there is such a gap between them, the revaluations can be quite traumatic and difficult for businesses. The more frequent the revaluations, the less of a shift in what certain businesses pay.

Andrew and others raised the issue of online business.

Of course, particularly during the pandemic, as I said, online became more popular when retail was closed down. However, rates can be assessed only on the size of a property; you cannot assess them on the basis of what business is done. Therefore, actually, the issue that the Member raises is a taxation issue. It would be something else if the Government in London decided to place more tax on online businesses in order to try to create some balance between what online and high-street retailers pay in property tax. However, rates and the issues that we are debating can only take account of the physical size of a property and apply a tax according to that size. Of course, there are reliefs built in as well, but the issue that the Member raises is definitely a taxation issue. We will continue to talk to the Treasury about that.

In conclusion, I trust that Members will show the necessary support for the order. I particularly thank the Committee Chair — as others have, I wish him well in whatever lies ahead for him — the Committee itself and the Committee staff for their work on the order. I look forward to working with them on the wider rating issues over the remainder of the mandate.

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That the Rates (Regional Rates) Order (Northern Ireland) 2021 be affirmed.

Mr Speaker: I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two.

Private Members' Business

Ms Bailey: I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Climate Change Bill [NIA 19/17-22] be agreed.

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has not allocated a time limit to this debate.

Ms Bailey: Before I begin, I will also take this opportunity to wish Mr Aiken good luck. I am delighted that he is remaining as an MLA because he is always a very positive person to work with. I wish him well.

The Bill sets a framework for climate change adaptation and mitigation in Northern Ireland. Since 2008, climate change legislation has been slowly but steadily emerging around the world.

Although we no longer have the opportunity to be global leaders by bringing forward the legislation, our hope is that the Bill will serve to finally enable Northern Ireland to play its part in tackling the biggest issue of our time: climate breakdown.


12.30 pm

The scientific consensus is that climate change is real, is a global issue and requires a global-to-local response. The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is probably the largest and most rigorous examination of a scientific issue in the history of the world. The most recent IPCC report concluded that the "continued emission of greenhouse gases" will increase:

"the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems."

Those impacts include irreparably degrading our natural environment, driving species to extinction, worsening chronic and contagious disease, worsening food and water shortages, increasing the risk of pandemics and aggravating mass displacement.

The UN estimates that there could be anywhere between 25 million and one billion environmental migrants by 2050. Northern Ireland needs strong climate legislation in order to ensure that we do our part to tackle the global, social and ecological crises that are inherent in climate breakdown. As global citizens and citizens of a developed country and as politicians and the generation responsible for leaving behind a liveable world for our children and young people, we have a responsibility to act. We cannot continue to lag behind and let others do the hard work for us.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Ms Bailey: Certainly.

Mr Allister: The Member made reference to what the UN has been saying. What does she say to the fact that, in 1982, which is almost 40 years ago, the executive director of the UN environment programme said that, by the turn of the century, we would face:

''an environmental catastrophe which will witness devastation as complete, as irreversible, as any nuclear holocaust.''

It was wrong then. Why should we believe that it is right now?

Ms Bailey: I thank the Member for his intervention. I am certainly not a climate denier or a climate sceptic. I will act on all the work that comes from international bodies and from states across the world in trying to deal with the issue. Even in Northern Ireland, we are seeing the impacts of it, particularly in our weather patterns. I do not think that any of that should be ignored.

The legislation is long overdue. Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK and Ireland with no legally binding greenhouse gas reduction targets. We know that Northern Ireland has an unfortunate track record of poor performance on climate. Our emissions are not falling at anywhere the same rate as those in the rest of the UK. They are 20% here compared with the UK average of 43%. We have actually increased our share of total UK emissions. The role of climate legislation in driving down greenhouse gas emissions cannot be overstated. The commitment to introduce a climate change Act for Northern Ireland was a cornerstone of the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement. NDNA stated:

"The Executive will introduce legislation and targets for reducing carbon emissions in line with the Paris Climate Change Accord."

It also stated:

"The Executive should bring forward a Climate Change Act to give environmental targets a strong legal underpinning."

In February 2020, the Assembly voted to declare a climate emergency and called on the Executive to fulfil the climate action and environmental commitments set out in NDNA. In July 2020, the Assembly passed a motion calling for the urgent introduction of a climate change Act for Northern Ireland within three months. In response to the July motion, the Minister made it clear that he had no intention of bringing forward urgent climate change legislation. He said that the time frame was "impossible to achieve" and that we were "ridiculous" to ask for it. It was in that context of persistent ministerial inaction that a private Member's Bill became the only option for bringing climate change legislation before the Assembly before the end of the current political mandate. Time is no longer on our side. We need to move far, and we need to move fast. Climate mitigation will impact on all aspects of people's lives.

The key components of a just transition are citizen participation and democratic decision-making. Partnership and participation are inherent to the Bill. It was co-developed by a partnership of civil society, legal and scientific academic experts and MLAs. It originates from the Climate Coalition Northern Ireland (CCNI), which is Northern Ireland's largest collaborative body on climate action and has a membership of 390,000. This will continue to be a collaborative process as the Bill makes its way through the various legislative stages to become law. It must be collaborative. I look forward to taking sectoral evidence, through the AERA Committee, and working with the Committee, MLAs, political parties, stakeholders and civic society to strengthen and advance the Bill.

Before I turn to the detail of the Bill, it may be helpful to set out briefly what the Bill does and does not do, and the rationale for that. This is primary legislation, so it is not prescriptive. It is a framework Bill that sets out the legislative basis upon which to build future climate policy. It does not assign sectoral-specific targets or dictate departmental policy. The Bill sets out a sustainable pathway to decarbonisation for Northern Ireland, ensuring transparency and democratic oversight at every stage and guaranteeing independent monitoring so that the democratic oversight can be effective.

The Bill is divided into three Parts. It is made up of 17 clauses and two schedules. In broad terms, it does the following. First, it declares a climate emergency as the basis for government action to halt human-induced global warming. Secondly, it mandates that the Executive, within three years of Royal Assent, prepare five-yearly climate action plans containing annual targets, carbon budgets, nitrogen budgets and sectoral plans. Thirdly, the Bill establishes the Northern Ireland climate commissioner and climate office to independently oversee the implementation of the Bill and review its working, making recommendations as required to achieve the overriding climate objective. Lastly, the Bill guarantees non-regression in Northern Ireland law from existing climate and environmental protections contained in EU law as it applied before the end of the Brexit transition period. Of course, this is already provided for in the withdrawal Act.

The Bill is broadly broken down as follows. Clause 1 provides for the declaration of a climate emergency from the date of Royal Assent. In declaring a climate emergency, we acknowledge that climate change exists and that the measures taken to this point have not been enough to address it. We recognise the role that Governments have in introducing measures that will halt climate change. The climate emergency will outlive successive Assembly terms. The annulment of the emergency requires Assembly approval and must be based on verifiable proof from a relevant body that the global temperature threshold defined in the Paris agreement or any subsequent agreement has been met. The Assembly can redeclare a climate emergency at any point.

Clause 2 relates to the creation of climate action plans, which are policy documents that detail the steps that will be taken to address the challenges of climate change in Northern Ireland. The plans must be approved by the Assembly and must achieve the overriding climate objective: the establishment in Northern Ireland of a net zero carbon, climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable economy by 2045. This target of 2045 is ambitious but achievable, and it reflects the general legislative trend towards strong climate legislation and the urgency to do as much as possible as quickly as possible. The net zero year may be altered by order of the Executive but cannot be amended to a year after 2045. Each climate action plan will be prepared by the Executive Office and laid before the Assembly for its approval. The first plan must be laid within three years of the Bill being enacted and every five years thereafter. Clause 2 also defines aspects of the "overriding climate objective", such as net zero and climate resilience. It lists the seven greenhouse gases that must be included in the net zero target.

Clause 3 states that climate action plans will be made up of "targets" and "measures". Targets will be for greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, water quality and soil quality. That is because climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions but manifests itself in declining water and soil quality, and biodiversity. Any climate action plan must, therefore, consider those areas as key performance indicators. Measures look at how targets will be implemented. Measures include carbon budgets, nitrogen budgets and sectoral plans across the Northern Ireland economy.

The clause sets out what must be taken into account when setting targets. Targets are set after obtaining advice from the relevant expert body, and certain things must be taken into account. Those include international law and the impact that a target with have on the environment, public health and well-being in Northern Ireland's specific economic and social circumstances. That is key to ensuring that targets are fair and do not disproportionately impact on one group while ensuring that the Bill is effective and achieves its overriding climate objective.

Other provisions in clause 3 include details of what must be taken into account in carbon and nitrogen budgets, including the requirement to take transboundary impacts into account; requirements for DAERA to create a scheme to track carbon usage and its purchase of carbon units; the requirement to take transboundary elements into account; details of which sectors must be included in sectoral plans; and the just transition principles to which those plans must be subject. The inclusion of just transition principles is an important part of ensuring that the change to a net zero carbon society will mean a better and fairer society for all.

The clause states:

"sectoral plans shall also—
(a) support jobs and growth of jobs that are climate resilient and environmentally and socially sustainable;
(b) support net-zero carbon investment and infrastructure;
(c) create work which is high-value, fair and sustainable;
(d) reduce inequality as far as possible;
(e) reduce, with a view to eliminating, poverty and social deprivation".

Clause 4 provides for implementation reports to be laid before the Assembly each year for the duration of the climate action plan. It sets out how the reports should be set out and what they should contain. That includes whether the annual target was met; reasons for failure to meet targets; progress on each sectoral policy and the likelihood of full policy implementation; and the likelihood of the overriding climate objective being achieved.

Part 2 relates to the Northern Ireland climate office and the Northern Ireland climate commissioner. Clauses 5 to 10 and schedules 1 and 2 establish the Northern Ireland climate office and the Northern Ireland climate commissioner, and outline the climate commissioner's powers and functions. The climate commissioner will provide independent scrutiny and oversight of the Act. Similar to the Public Services Ombudsman, the climate commissioner will not be under the direction of any Department or Minister, the Assembly, the Assembly Commission or any local authority. The manner of appointment of the climate commissioner by the Crown on nomination by the Assembly is to allow maximum independence from government.

The climate commissioner will not have enforcement powers, but, similarly to independent climate bodies in other jurisdictions, will have the power to make recommendations and raise issues that the Executive will be mandated to address.

The climate commissioner will have two main functions: to monitor the implementation of the climate action plans and make annual reports to the Assembly on the issue; and to produce, at least once an Assembly term, an independent review report on the functioning and effectiveness of the Act, recommending any amendments that are considered necessary to achieve the overriding climate objective. Those functions will create an important statutory discourse that will allow climate action plans to be flexibly rooted in independent science.

Clause 11 concerns the alteration of climate action plans following the climate commissioner's annual report.


12.45 pm

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Ms Bailey: I certainly will.

Mr Allister: Before the Member leaves Part 2, will she give some explanation to the House of what clause 6(8) means? Clause 6(8) states:

"The Climate Commissioner may do anything (including acquire or dispose of property or rights) which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of the functions of the Climate Commissioner."

What rights is it anticipated that the climate commissioner could dispose of under clause 6(8)?

Ms Bailey: I thank the Member for his intervention. It is not envisaged in the Bill that the climate commissioner will have any enforcement powers; it is simply a monitoring and reporting function to assess how the legislation is progressing.

I have lost my place, Mr Speaker, so I will start again on clause 11. Clause 11 relates to the alteration of climate action plans following the climate commissioner's annual report. Following the laying of the annual report by the climate commissioner, the Executive Office must prepare its response — this may address the Member's point — including any proposed alterations to targets or measures. In altering the climate action plan, the Executive Office must not directly or indirectly lower targets or standards. Alterations must be approved by the Assembly. In that and in its other processes, the Bill outperforms other climate legislation around the world because it enshrines democracy and transparency in law.

Democracy is key to a just transition. Society will shift and change, and conversations about how that happens cannot be had in a room with the doors closed. Every aspect of this just transition will be debated openly and transparently, ensuring democratic oversight and engagement.

Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I thank the Member for giving way. Is that why you engaged in a public consultation process? Did you engage in a public consultation process? If you did, can you make us aware of it?

Ms Bailey: I thank the Minister for his comments. I would be a bit surprised if he were not aware that a private Member's Bill is not mandated to go out to public consultation. There will be evidence sessions on the Bill with all stakeholders at Committee Stage, if it passes Second Stage today.

Clause 12 provides a duty that there must be no regression from the environmental standards that were in place when Northern Ireland left the EU. That is already a condition of the withdrawal agreement. Moreover, nothing in the Bill will override an Act of Parliament.

Back in July, Minister Poots said that we should not use language such as "emergency" or "crisis", but the science does not lie. The climate crisis is already here. Higher temperatures are causing drought and widespread crop failures. Wildfires, storms in the north Atlantic, rising tides and flooding are part of long-term trends. As the Arctic warms, permafrost melts, releasing even more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. We are moving ever closer to the point at which climate change cannot be managed and controlled by humans.

Every tiny incremental temperature rise counts. The more heat that gets added to the earth's climate system, the more out of balance natural systems will get. The more out of balance natural systems get, the more destruction and suffering we will see. We are already sitting at 1·3°C of warming. At 1·5°C of warming, we will push past the turning point, and climate change impacts will go from destructive to catastrophic. At 2°C of warming, we see simultaneous global crop failure, representing a threat to global food security. In a modest mitigation scenario, we will hit 2°C of warming as early as 2038. At 3°C of warming, which, scientists believe, looks increasingly likely between 2050 and 2100, we will have surpassed a tipping point from which there is no return, with humans powerless to intervene as planetary temperatures soar. Warming of 3°C risks seeing the almost total loss of the Amazon rainforest, with drought and fires turning trees back into carbon dioxide as they burn or rot and decompose. The Met Office has warned that we could see 4°C of warming by 2060 without immediate action on emissions. Climate scientist Kevin Anderson said that 4°C of warming would be:

"incompatible with any reasonable characterisation of an organised, equitable and civilised global community."

If that is not an emergency, what is?

Climate change, like COVID-19, requires a global-to-local response and long-term thinking guided by science and the need to protect the most vulnerable. It requires the political will to make fundamental changes to the way we live our lives in order to respond to what is an existential threat to humanity and all life on earth. The Bill will provide a legal framework to decarbonise the economy in a way that tackles inequality and enhances the lives of ordinary people, our workers and our communities. The transition to a green economy must be underpinned by values of social justice and the principle that no one gets left behind.

Finally, I pay tribute to all the activists and environmentalists who have got us to this point today and to all our children and young people who took part in the Fridays for Future strikes in Belfast and further afield for so long and had the vision and determination to demand more of us on climate breakdown. You showed us what democracy looks like, and we continue in that spirit in the Bill. I pay tribute to Climate Coalition Northern Ireland, whose resolve to see climate change legislation has resulted in the Bill that we have before us today. To have a Climate Change Bill debated in the Chamber is a first for Northern Ireland, and we should not forget that. I look forward to the debate and commend the Bill to the House.

Mr McAleer (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): The Bill has a number of co-sponsors, with the main sponsor being Clare Bailey. The Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs heard from Ms Bailey and other witnesses at our meeting on 29 April. Ms Bailey is also a member of our Committee, as are two other co-sponsors, namely Philip McGuigan and John Blair.

Ms Bailey gave evidence to the Committee as a witness and not as an MLA. She was accompanied by Dr Amanda Slevin, Mr Anurag Deb and Mr Philip Carson, all of whom have also been heavily involved in drafting the Bill. Ms Bailey told the Committee that the Bill originated with the Climate Coalition, which is a network organisation representing more than 400,000 people across the region. It was a priority of that organisation to develop an ambitious climate change Bill based on the best available science and for it to be introduced as a matter of urgency.

Let me give you some background to the Committee's work on climate change overall. The AERA Committee brought a motion to the Assembly on 21 July 2020 calling for the introduction of a climate change Act. That motion was endorsed by the Assembly. Since then, we have heard on a number of occasions from DAERA officials about the Minister's plans to produce an Executive climate change Bill. We have also heard about the links to the green growth environment framework, about which the Committee has been unable to get definite detail. During the sessions, officials told us about DAERA's consultation on a climate change Bill, outlined that the issue had risen up the agenda and gave a preliminary policy position on what might be in it.

The DAERA proposal was to be based on a target of an 82% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. That target is based on advice from the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC). The AERA Committee also heard from the CCC —.

Dr Aiken: Will the Chairman give way?

Mr McAleer: Sorry, yes.

Dr Aiken: For clarification, that is "at least an 82% reduction" in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, from the Climate Change Committee report.

Mr McAleer: Yes, Mr Aiken, that is correct: at least 82%.

We had an interesting exchange with the chairperson of the CCC and some of his board's members, and we explored the advice that has been adopted by DAERA regarding the 82% reduction by 2050 for this jurisdiction. The target forms a central point of difference between the Bill before us today and the Bill that, DAERA officials indicated, was likely to come to the Assembly. I have no doubt that this target will be one of the most debated aspects of the Bill during its legislative passage. It already causes considerable debate and discussion in the wider community, particularly among the farming sector. That is to be welcomed. We are glad to see that the issue has risen up the agenda and that people, including the farming and rural communities, are discussing climate change. I assure you that, if the Bill passes the Second Stage and comes back to the Committee, we will allow plenty of time for the views of the agri-food and all those sectors to be heard and debated.

The Bill has a number of aims, which Ms Bailey has outlined. It is useful to go over them again. The Committee heard that it is a framework Bill. It is not prescriptive but sets out a pathway to net zero while ensuring transparency and democratic oversight. It begins by declaring a climate emergency and establishes that as the mandate for mitigation and adaptation. It also sets out how the climate emergency can be annulled. It sets the target of reaching net zero by 2045 and mandates the Executive, within three years of the Bill being passed, to prepare five-year climate action plans to reach that target.

The action plans are made up of two parts: targets and measures. Measures will look at carbon and nitrogen budgets and sectoral plans across a range of areas such as power generation and supply; transport, including shipping and aviation; residential and public buildings; waste management; infrastructure; land use; land-use change; and agriculture. The targets have provisions in place to protect biodiversity, water and soil quality and will include nitrogen budgets. The targets are included because the quality of those things is so closely linked to climate change.

The Bill also has provisions to take trans-boundary impacts into account to track carbon usage etc. Importantly, the Bill also has provisions for a just transition, which have been included to ensure that the change to net zero will mean a fairer and better society for all of us. The Bill also provides for the establishment of a climate commissioner and climate office and for non-regression of our law from existing climate and environmental protections set out in EU law, as it applied before the end of the —.

Mr Poots: Will the Member give way?

Mr Poots: Can you stand over that statement of society being "fairer for all"? The Climate Change Committee indicates a 50% reduction in dairy and a 50% reduction in beef, for example. If that happens, it will migrate what is left of that sector onto the lowlands. In that case, the hill farmers that you have referred to very often will suffer most, and they will not get fairness and equity with the Bill that is being promoted by the private Member.

Mr McAleer: I thank the Member for his intervention. Regarding fairness and justness, Ms Bailey outlined that the climate action plans that are part of the proposed Bill, which will come before the Assembly every five years, will come about only through extensive and detailed public consultation with farmers and rural stakeholders. We want the climate action plans to be just, manageable and deliverable, and we certainly do not want them to inhibit or decimate farming here in the North in any way. I restate that we have plans, from now until 16 December, to scrutinise the draft framework legislation rigorously. It is a framework that will effectively be filled out by secondary legislation, so no surprises will come down the line for farmers. There will be a consultation exercise, and the Bill will be rigorously debated. We will hear evidence from Lord Deben and the UK Climate Change Committee, but we will also hear evidence from other experts from Ireland — from the Teagasc — and internationally to tease all of this out as we move through the scrutiny process.

Mr McGuigan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr McAleer: He asked first. You can go next.


1.00 pm

Mr McGuigan: I thank the Member for giving way and for his response to the Minister. Does the Member agree with me that, as was stated even by the Member who moved the Bill, that, regardless of what the CCC said in its letter, this framework Bill does not actually assign any sectoral-specific targets or interfere with departmental policy?

Mr McAleer: The Member is correct: this framework Bill does not stipulate that at all. As I say, the climate action plans will be five-yearly climate action plans. There has to be a 16-week consultation to sign off on those climate action plans. They have to be signed off by the Executive and the Assembly following rigorous consultation with the farming community and all the other stakeholders.

Mr Allister: I hear what the Member says, but has he read clause 11(2)(e), which is very clear:

"the Executive Office must not propose any alteration which has the effect, whether directly or indirectly, of lowering any target under section 3(2) of this Act from the level approved by the Assembly under section 2(3)"?

How can he say that there is always the option to look again? There is no option in the Bill to look again; none whatsoever. It is set in stone.

Mr McAleer: This is a Bill of the Assembly. It is under the ownership of the Assembly. As I say, at the moment, it is framework legislation. Everyone will have their say as it is fleshed out, including Mr Allister, who will no doubt have plenty to say, because he has plenty to say at other times.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)

Going back to where we were, the Committee explored these principles with Ms Bailey and other witnesses. I will outline some of the thoughts of the Committee. It is fair to say that the Committee spent considerable time exploring the implications of the 100% net zero target by 2045. As I noted earlier, many, particularly in the agri-food sector, have real concerns with this target because of advice from the CCC that such a target would mean radical change for the farming sector. The CCC has:

"recommended that any climate legislation for"

here should

"include a target to reduce all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 82% by 2050".

That is the point on which Mr Aiken sought clarity just a moment ago. It is important to emphasise that the CCC uses the phrase "at least 82% by 2050", because it has been clear that it sees its recommendation as a minimum target. The CCC analysis is based on our position as a strong agri-food exporter to Britain, combined with our:

"more limited capabilities to use ‘engineered’ greenhouse gas removal technologies".

This means that we are:

"likely to remain a small net source of greenhouse gas emissions – almost entirely from agriculture".

The CCC further stated:

"those residual emissions should be offset by actions in"

Britain.

At the request of DAERA, further advice from the CCC was obtained. It has also been considered by the Committee. That advice is available on our website for anyone who is interested. The CCC advice suggests:

"Going further to reach Net Zero in 2050 would likely require either (or both) of ...

A larger reduction in output from"

our

"livestock sector compared to"

other regions and more farming land released for carbon capture. The CCC has created various scenarios to get us to net zero, suggesting:

"Even our most stretching Tailwinds scenario – which entails a 50% fall in meat and dairy production"

here

"by 2050 and significantly greater levels of tree planting on the land released – is not enough to get"

this jurisdiction

"to Net Zero emissions in 2050."

There is a fear among the agriculture sector that it could be disproportionately impacted on by the Bill. That impact would extend beyond farming into the processing and manufacturing sectors. It is also fair to say that the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU), in particular, is very concerned about the impact of the Bill. There are real concerns for some of our farming communities. Others fear that a cut in livestock numbers here could lead to food being imported from other countries that do not produce it to the same high standards as we do. The Committee explored this in some detail. We are aware that we have a population of 1·8 million and produce sufficient food, mostly dairy and meat, for 10 million people. We heard from witnesses that the UK consumes double the recommended amount of animal-based protein and that reducing that can be beneficial for public health. The dietary and lifestyle changes that will be required to meet the target were explored.

Ms Bailey said that she and her colleagues had met some of the farming sector bodies and that, after listening to their concerns, she wished to put on the record that there is nothing in the Bill that will harm the agriculture sector. She noted that the Bill does not mandate any immediate changes to the agriculture sector, nor is it prescriptive. There are no specific targets allocated to individual sectors, and, because some sectors, such as transport and energy, are ready to move immediately and quickly, agriculture may have a more gradual transition. It was also pointed out that the CCC had explored very few pathways for change that include future developments in low-carbon farming measures.

The witnesses further noted that the assumption that we cannot reach net zero by 2045 has not been fully investigated, and they provided examples of what can be done. Moreover, what is happening in Wales and Scotland should be noted. Initially, the CCC recommended to Wales a target of 92% to net zero. That was based on the importance of livestock to the agriculture sector. Wales has taken that on board and moved beyond it. The Committee took that discussion further by considering the impact of climate change on farming, particularly the economic costs of severe weather. One witness referred to research that indicated that climate change has cost the Scottish industry around £161 million and that, on a global basis, climate change has reduced productivity by 21% since the 1960s.

The Committee also considered the transboundary provisions in the Bill, and an important aspect of those is that we share a land border with another jurisdiction on this island. In practical terms, a farmer in the border regions might have some land on either side of the land borders. The difficulties that might be created, particularly as the targets in the Bill are different from those in the South, were discussed.

The consultation with various sectors was discussed. We heard that the Climate Coalition, which had been working with Ms Bailey on drafting a Bill, is the largest civic society network for climate change here, with its member organisations representing over 400,000 people. It did intensive consultation with its members throughout the development of the Bill. There has also been engagement with key stakeholders, including NIAPA, Farmers for Action, departmental officials and energy companies. There are plans for further consultation as the Bill progresses. The Committee was made aware that the UFU strongly indicated that it has major concerns with the Bill. I noted that the Committee explored in great detail the implications of reaching a climate change target by 2050. I will not go over that again.

The next matter discussed by the Committee was the principle of a just transition. We heard that that principle is deeply embedded in the Bill. The witnesses provided further detail about what it means by reference to a paper from the COP26 Universities Network. They also outlined the dimensions of social justice, procedural justice, distributive justice, recognition justice and restorative justice. The aim to reduce inequality, eliminate poverty and social deprivation, to support high net zero carbon investment and infrastructure and to create work that is high-value, fair and sustainable is part of the Bill.

In exploring that principle, food security was discussed. Witnesses noted that perhaps the biggest threat to food security is climate change and that it will force change in how we maintain capacity in the land to produce food in the longer term. We discussed the independent environmental protection agency, the IEPA, and its crossover, including possible joint working, with the climate change commissioner.

The commissioner will have two main functions. The first will be to report on the implementation of climate action plans for the duration of those plans. The second function will be to report on the effectiveness of the Bill once it is enacted and to recommend any changes in order to ensure that the net zero target is achieved. The commissioner will provide the Assembly and its Committees with the evidence on what is going right, what is going wrong and what can be improved.

It is vital that the legislation is kept under review. That review should take account of developments in science and technology and in our understanding of how climate change works and can be abated. To that end, it is envisaged that the commissioner will make recommendations on how we can improve the methods that we use to achieve net zero. We noted that the commissioner will not have enforcement powers. The Committee noted proposals that the remit of the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) be extended to here with the approval of the Assembly in order to include enforcement powers relating to climate change.

I outlined some of the Committee's exploration of the principles of the Bill. In summary, the issue that the Committee paid most attention to was the impact on the agri-food industry of the 100% net zero by 2045 target. Some of our Committee members are very concerned about this aspect. Most are being lobbied very hard on this target, as I have been. However, overall, the Bill was broadly welcomed by the AERA Committee, and, if it receives Assembly approval today, we will look forward to scrutinising it in further detail at Committee Stage. That concludes what I have to say as Chair of the AERA Committee.

I want to comment in my capacity as the Sinn Féin spokesperson on agriculture and rural affairs. In supporting the Bill, we want to assure farmers and those involved in the agri-food industry that we fully recognise the vital role that agriculture plays by producing safe and secure food, sustaining rural communities and underpinning over 100,000 jobs in the North. All of us who have been through the COVID pandemic during the last year appreciate the vital role played by farmers and the agri-food processing industry in keeping our food supplies moving during very difficult and challenging times.

We also recognise the huge environmental contribution that our farmers, as custodians of the countryside, make to the preservation of biodiversity, water quality and animal health standards. Farmers, from experience, know that they are in the front line of extreme weather events brought about by climate change. We need look no further than my constituency of West Tyrone, where we had severe landslides in the Sperrins four years ago. Indeed, in recent weeks, the Minister paid a very welcome visit there. The landslides devastated farms, livestock and properties. With the earth heating up and sea levels rising, unless we take action, these events will become more common.

Across the world, 197 countries have signed up to the Paris climate change agreement. These countries have pledged to take steps to keep the global temperature rise to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. To fulfil this, Britain — Scotland, England and Wales — and the South of Ireland have passed climate change Acts that commit them to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and becoming carbon neutral in the next 24 to 29 years. The North is the only part of these islands that does not have a climate change Act, and this sends out the wrong message to the international world about our commitment to sustainable and environmental practices. We have a very strong and good message to send to the rest of the world, and that will be undermined if we do not commit to ambitious and deliverable climate change targets. If the North does not adopt a climate change Act in accordance with the Paris agreement, it could reduce our ability to access international markets for our produce. This would be particularly pronounced as the South of Ireland and the other regions of these islands have committed to climate neutrality by 2045 to 2050. During the conversation that I had with Lord Deben of the UK CCC, he made the point that, if we do not agree to sign up to a climate change Act, we will be punished by the rest of the world. That could also create unforeseen problems, as virtually all our agri-food and our dairy products are processed in both parts of the island and are deemed mixed origin.

We know that farmers have concerns about the implications of this Private Member's Bill. We all will have received lobbies and presentations about this legitimate concern. On Friday, with my Sinn Féin colleagues, I met a number of leading agri-food stakeholders and listened to their concerns. It is important that we take on board these legitimate concerns as we go forward to scrutinise the clauses. We must ensure that these stakeholders not only have their voices heard but get involved in the process of trying to shape the Bill as we move ahead through the next six months of rigorous scrutiny.

The Bill, as previously said, is a framework. It proposes a number of structures, a climate change office, a commissioner and climate change plans. I re-emphasise that these plans will be co-designed with rural stakeholders and will be subject to public consultation before they are agreed by the Executive and the Assembly. There will be a lot of the rigorous scrutiny and involvement that we want to see being part of the Bill.

The Bill does not contain sanction powers. Any plans will have to take account of the fiscal, social and economic impacts here in the North. In addition, the farming sector is not being asked to make any changes for the next three years.


1.15 pm

I underline again the commitment of my party and, indeed, the Committee to scrutinise the Bill rigorously over the next six or seven months. We have identified a range of experts. It will be debated and discussed at length by the Agriculture Committee. The Assembly will come back to it on more than one occasion. There will be public consultation exercises before the Bill becomes law. The Committee agreed to that range of stakeholders, experts and round-table events, as well as public consultation using Citizen Space for members of the public to have their say as the Bill unfolds and develops.

What is being asked of farmers in the private Member's Bill is that, over the next 24 years, they will take steps to balance out the amount of greenhouse gases that their farms produce with what they absorb or sequester. We have looked at other regions for evidence of how that may be achieved. Rather than decimating herds and farm businesses, we believe that reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved through production efficiency, which also leads to profitability. Indeed, experts from Teagasc in the South of Ireland have identified actions such as extending the grazing season, mixed-grass swards, changing to protected urea fertiliser, reducing losses from slurry and substituting clover for chemical fertiliser that can help to reduce emissions while cutting costs; indeed, last year, farmers in the South of Ireland were able to reduce emissions by 6%.

Mr McGuigan: I thank the Member for giving way. I concur totally with his comments about the importance of the farming and rural community's participation in shaping the Bill. Much will be made and said today about specific lines in the CCC's letter to the Minister or the Committee. Less will be said about other more positive lines and paragraphs in that letter. In its 'Sixth Carbon Budget' report, the CCC says:

"The [greenhouse gas] impacts of [less-intensive farming or agroecology options] are not included in [the CCC] scenarios due to the lack of robust evidence on the abatement potential".

Does the Member agree with my reading of that, which is that the CCC's estimates of potential reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture here are incomplete and are therefore currently underestimates?

Mr McAleer: Yes. I agree with what the Member has said. There needs to be more exploration through the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) and the Department to look at the abatement potential, because one thing that farmers, North and South, have been saying to us is that they do not feel that the amount of carbon that they sequester has been properly calculated. We need to have that if we are to arrive at a proper assessment to reach net zero.

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for giving way. It is important that we debate that issue fully because we have not had a public consultation. I have to say that it is poor form not to have had that consultation, irrespective of whether it had to be done.

With regard to mixed clover and all the issues that the Member has raised as potential abatements, I accept that and agree that they have potential. However, one of the people who are most involved in this is Dr John Gilliland. There is an invitation for the Member to visit the farm at Dowth, and I have that invitation also. Just this morning, we received a letter from Dr Gilliland expressing concern on the issue. Even the people who are at the cutting edge to which the Member has referred are concerned about the Bill. It will have most impact on the farms that are less productive currently. As the Member knows, the less productive farms are those on the hills.

Mr McAleer: Yes. Through the UFU, I have accepted that invitation and look forward to visiting that farm in County Louth — absolutely. I want to pick up on some of those points. We want to hear more of that sort of information and to scrutinise it during the next six months. That is really important. I was looking at DAERA's website to see what mechanisms it has to give farmers some sort of baseline for what they are producing and emitting, and it has the bovine information system (BovIS) calculator. The Department's note states:

"Reducing greenhouse gas emissions involves understanding the relationship between soils, livestock and environmental farm management, but, fortunately, lower GHG emissions are generally linked to improved production and profitability."

We must explore as far as possible the on-farm options.

I will get back to what I was saying. There are many experts that we need to hear from, including the UK CCC and Teagasc in the South of Ireland. Teagasc has identified actions that I have mentioned previously. Other advances have been made in areas such as beef genomics and in soil management, which is about getting the pH level right. Reducing crude protein and incorporating specific minerals and even seaweed extracts into cattle diets have been identified as being effective means of reducing emissions. GHG emissions can also be balanced at farm level through environmental actions such as hedgerow and tree planting, the re-wetting of bogs and appropriate nutrient management of soils to maximise their carbon storage potential. As the Minister brings forward his new agriculture and rural policy, it is important that those actions be factored into it.

I restate that all of this will be rigorously scrutinised and teased out by the AERA Committee in partnership with the agri-food sector, climate change experts and, of course, the public through Citizen Space and stakeholder events.

The aim of the Bill is for the agriculture industry to achieve net zero GHG emissions by 2045. We do not believe that agriculture should be scaled back in order to achieve that. We do not want to see production being inhibited or the problem being offloaded to somewhere else, which is known as carbon leakage. We strongly do not believe that the only solution for reaching net zero is to reduce herd sizes and decimate farm businesses. We could not stand over the decimation of farming in Ireland or the exporting of emissions to other countries. That would be a complete contradiction of our commitment to tackling the global crisis.

To become carbon-neutral in the next 24 years, farmers also need to have a baseline. Farmers need to know where they stand on progress towards carbon neutrality. In fact, many farmers may be more carbon-neutral than they think they are. While researching for today's debate, I noted with interest recent comments by the Irish Farmers' Association's County Kerry chair that many farms are already carbon-neutral. There is a huge onus on DAERA and AFBI to develop an accurate carbon calculator that builds on the BovIS GHG calculator. Farmers need an accurate picture of where they are on the pathway to being carbon-neutral that accurately assesses the huge amount of carbon that is sequestered by hedges, bogs and the grasslands that they manage. The South already has that pathway through its marginal abatement cost curve, which was developed in conjunction with leading national and international experts and scientists and sets out 26 actions that can be taken on-farm to reduce emissions and increase efficiency and profitability. We need to learn from that body of research and, indeed, from the extensive research that has been done in the North and in other regions nationally and internationally. We also need to work with farmers to help them develop the road map.

I cannot underline strongly enough how deeply we appreciate vital role that farm businesses play in our society, and we want to work in partnership with the farming community to support it in putting in place a manageable transition that helps it achieve carbon neutrality.

Mr Irwin: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. As someone who has spent his working life farming the land, I am all too aware of the need to address global emissions in the agriculture industry and many other industries. I do not speak as someone who ignores the ramifications of global emissions; rather, I want to find the best response to such matters, with the twin interests of the planet and our agri-food sector firmly in mind.

I must state that the threat to farming, food production and the economic stability of Northern Ireland could not be starker when the ramifications of the Bill are considered. Ms Bailey has managed to unite the agri-food sector, ordinary farmers and representative farming organisations against her Bill not because they have some fear or unwillingness to protect and enhance the environment — they already try to do that — but because such a Bill, if implemented, would do unimaginable harm to Northern Ireland's food production. The threat posed by the Bill must be weighed against the impact of Northern Ireland's global emissions. According to data, our contribution stands at 0·04%. With that figure firmly in mind, it would be pragmatic and sensible to respond to the threat of global warming with measures that do two things: contribute to a lowering of global emissions proportionally; and ensure that Northern Ireland can continue to have a prosperous economy. Ms Bailey's Bill does neither. That is why it must be voted down.

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Northern Ireland's agri-food sector has shown itself to be a resilient industry that prides itself in caring for the environment and the livestock that it produces. The Bill and its insistence on reaching net zero by 2045 would require a reduction in the output of Northern Ireland farms that would mean the decimation of Northern Ireland agriculture. That is neither sensible nor good for the environment or the economy.

The Committee heard evidence from Lord Deben on his work on the Climate Change Committee, which has taken a long, detailed, scientific and wide-ranging view of the changes required and has drawn important conclusions that, whilst being a significant challenge, represent a much more achievable road map to the reductions required in line with the broader United Kingdom strategy. The private Member's Bill is simply a hopeful political gamble by the Green Party, which seeks to own any official position targets set by DAERA on the important issues while reducing time frames and, in turn, worryingly, increasing risks for one of Northern Ireland's most important economic sectors.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for giving way. With regard to his last remark about this being some sort of opportunistic attempt by the Green Party to do something, does the Member recognise the cross-party support and involvement in the Bill and the fact that there are co-sponsors from every party in the House, bar his party and the TUV?

Mr Irwin: I thank the Member for his intervention. I accept that, but some of those parties are already rowing back from their position. If you had listened carefully to the Chairman of the Agriculture Committee earlier, you would have realised that.

There is much focus on the farming industry, with climate change being considered and much expected of the industry in terms of emissions reductions. However, it is important that we consider the contribution already made by the farming community in assisting in the preservation of the countryside and the wider environment. Indeed, as I have stated before, it is important that that contribution be accurately measured, as there will be great importance tied to what more agriculture can do. Equally, however, it is important to understand what the industry already does in that regard.

That issue requires much more work to establish a scientific baseline for carbon sequestration. My view is that, by supporting the private Member's Bill, we step outside the advice of independent experts and support unachievable, unjust targets, with the consequence of making farmers redundant, reducing incomes, decreasing herd sizes and increasing production costs and, potentially, land abandonment. We will make redundant the vital role that our farmers play in food production as custodians of the countryside and those who hold many of the assets that we need to help the environment. Therefore, the ironic result of this move would be detrimental to the environment and to tackling climate change because we would increase global emissions by outsourcing our production to countries with less sustainable production methods. Let us approach the debate with sensible, practical heads and deliver a pragmatic solution that works.


1.30 pm

I urge Members to rethink the Bill and put efforts behind the Minister's climate change Bill. I also urge other Executive members to get behind those efforts, which represent the very best opportunity to work towards achievable targets. The unilateral support of our farming and food production stakeholders and representative organisations must be at the core of any efforts as full cooperation and buy-in towards addressing emissions will offer the greatest chance of meeting targets. The Bill has failed already in that regard and must be taken off the table.

Mr Durkan: I support the Bill and, indeed, I am privileged to be one of its co-sponsors. I have worked with colleagues across party lines on an issue on which we all recognise that something needs to be done.

The urgent need for a climate change Bill has been well established. The extensive body of research demands that we act immediately — globally, locally and as individuals — in response to the emergency. Climate change is, arguably, the most serious threat that we face to not just our environment but our health, economic prosperity and global security. The overwhelming scientific consensus points to the fact that the impacts of climate change are accelerating and that they are largely driven by greenhouse gas emissions as a result of human activity. Sadly, although the science is beyond reproach, it appears, like most things in here, that it is not beyond dispute.

If we are to combat the devastating environmental, health, economic and societal impact of climate change, we have, as Ms Bailey outlined, a responsibility to act. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to face up to that uncomfortable reality. No longer can it be swept under the carpet or stuck in a hole in the ground to be dealt with at a later date. Climate change is here; it is happening. We are already bearing witness to its dire consequences that are playing out globally and here on our own doorstep. Communities here have been devastated by flooding in recent years. Fluctuating weather patterns have seen us experience practically every season in the course of the last week. If we are to turn back the clock on climate catastrophe, we cannot afford further delay; we must act now.

It remains a stain on Northern Ireland's record that specific legislation on the prevention of climate breakdown, through emissions reduction targets and working towards carbon neutrality or preparing industry for tomorrow's economy, has taken so long to implement. Credit must be given to citizens and councils here, many of whom have been ahead of the curve by taking individual responsibility to consider their own personal choices and to enact green initiatives. In my constituency, Derry City and Strabane District Council has taken action and declared a climate emergency. It has spearheaded the first council climate adaptation plan in the North and has already launched its climate pledge, which commits the city and district to net zero greenhouse emissions by 2045. Vitally, the council has recognised that climate change is not only a global but a transboundary issue. It has developed the first regional energy strategy in Ireland and has an emerging multi-sectoral north-west climate action plan.

The Executive must work to establish an all-island response to climate change, given the similar challenges that we face in both jurisdictions on this small island. In doing so, we could develop a greater harmonisation of climate data; support for just transition; cross-departmental coordination, with supporting policy; and, most importantly, financial and funding mechanisms to deliver action on the ground. To truly effect positive change here, we need a strong legal underpinning of climate principles. It now falls to the Executive and the Assembly to play catch-up in that regard.

Some of my SDLP colleagues will go into more intricate detail on the Bill later. Scientific evidence makes it clear that Northern Ireland needs to meet net zero carbon emissions by 2045. That vision can only be achieved through collaborative working, declaring a climate emergency and establishing a mandate for climate change mitigation and adaptation. The role of a Northern Ireland climate office and climate commissioner as overseers will be integral to accomplishing those goals. I agree that these targets are ambitious, but this is not some pie-in-the sky notion. Rather, they are ambitious because they have to be.

Dr Archibald: Will the Member give way?

Mr Durkan: Yes, certainly.

Dr Archibald: Does the Member agree that it is important that we have ambitious targets, not just as part of our climate legislation but to inform all the other strategies and policies that are brought through by other Departments and to ensure that the targets that are set within those are ambitious as well?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for her intervention, and I agree entirely. Everything that we do as legislators or as a legislative body from here on has to take those issues into consideration. We are right to be ambitious and to aim high. For too long, the Executive have rested on their laurels, not to mention the three years of complete inaction that we had in the absence of an Executive, to the detriment of denizens and climate. Successive Administrations here have failed the wishes of some MLAs — I say that as a former Environment Minister — and of people and the deluge of scientific evidence in our inability to grasp the single greatest issue of our time. It has taken a cross-party coalition of MLAs to push forward this crucial legislation, despite the prevarication of others.

In January 2020, all parties committed themselves to the introduction of a climate change Act under New Decade, New Approach, and again, last July, Members stood in this Chamber making the same appeals and similar arguments when we called on Minister Poots to introduce a climate change Bill within three months. Now, almost a year down the line, Northern Ireland remains the only jurisdiction in these islands without greenhouse gas reduction targets enshrined in law. While the impact of COVID may, in part, explain the recent delay, it cannot be used as an excuse.

The focus on green recovery and the creation of a sustainable society is of even greater significance as we emerge from the fog of COVID. If we have learnt anything from this horrific year, it is that we must do things differently. The pandemic has served as a reminder of the delicate and unpredictable balance between humans and the natural world. It has also given many the opportunity to reconnect with our natural environment and to realise the importance of protecting it. We now need to witness a sea change in behaviours by the powers that be. However, this is the time not for finger-pointing but for rolling up our sleeves and getting our noses to the grindstone. I must, at this point, pay tribute to Climate Coalition Northern Ireland, which has not let up in that regard. It has been an invaluable resource and has worked tirelessly in its mission to put climate action firmly on the agenda. I also thank all the schools, groups, families and individuals who are not only adapting their own ways of doing things, but educating others on the need to change.

So many people and organisations are doing their bit. Within the Executive, my party colleague the Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon, has led the charge. She has wasted no time since taking office in embedding climate change adaptation strategies in her Department. She has placed greater focus on green recovery, including investing in zero-carbon public transport and climate-friendly street lighting and creating a £20 million blue-green infrastructure fund. It is important that, while climate action will be a challenge for all Departments to overcome, Minister Mallon has demonstrated that, even in a Department where climate change targets have posed some of the biggest challenges, she is not afraid to take them on. She has stepped up to the plate and, leading by example, created a picture of what is possible for others to do.

We cannot pretend, however, that there has been, is or even will be consensus on this issue. Reservations and, in some cases, outright opposition about the targets that are set out in the Climate Change Bill have once more reared their head, not unexpectedly, from certain quarters in industry and agriculture. The commercial concerns that have been expressed have perennially been reflected in political opposition to a climate change Act from some quarters in the House. While I understand and appreciate the concerns raised by the UFU in particular, climate principles will inform the trajectory for practically all future legislation here and beyond.

I agree that farmers and industry should and will be part of the solution. This Bill was forged on the premise of collaboration, which is the basis of all good, solid legislation, and it is that playbook that will instruct how we move forward from here. Engagement with all sectors should not be a by-product of but an integral cog in the legislative process.

I acknowledge that Northern Ireland has a very different landscape from that of Britain, and agri-food represents a huge slice of our economic pie. However, meat and dairy farmers are already feeling the pinch following a shift in consumption habits, with well-known supermarket chains introducing targets on sustainable produce. They cannot deny that that transition demands new thinking on their part, and that is where the Bill comes in. It is about working with, not against, the agri-food sector in order to ensure that it is supported and to enable it to establish sustainable practices, such as incentivising farmers to sequester more carbon in their land as we move forward together.

Healthy debate means that we hear out different viewpoints. It does not, however, mean that we stand still. We have moved, or we are at least moving, beyond the old-world view that environmental requirements must constrain economic performance and productivity. It is possible to create a better environment and a stronger economy, which is a sentiment that Minister Poots shared recently when he went on record affirming that environmental challenges present economic opportunities.

Climate change will affect all sectors, not just agriculture. The possibilities that enacting climate action legislation can bring should be embraced rather than being seen as something negative. The transport sector has grasped that opportunity and committed to transitioning to an entirely renewable energy fleet by 2050. It is that type of initiative that we need to witness elsewhere. Research has shown that the cost savings of decarbonisation will bear fruit by 2050. As such, going green makes positive economic sense. While the green revolution is regarded with apprehension by some, it is undoubtedly a vehicle for prosperity that we need to get on.

Regardless of economic losses or gains, tackling climate change and hitting net zero carbon targets just need to be done. Delivering real, tangible change requires difficult conversations and difficult decisions. Without courage, there is no progress, and the alternative, which is inaction by the Assembly here and now, does not bear thinking about. Dissenting voices should not be ignored — Mr McAleer outlined how they will not be ignored — but nor can they hinder progress. Wider societal reform is not an ideal but a necessity. We are living in an interconnected climate where an ecological emergency has been driven by human activities. Therefore, ambitious action is critical. How we live our lives is placing pressure on biodiversity. We must learn to do things differently. We must learn to do things better.

Commitment to advance the legislation is a cornerstone of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which has brought us all here today. We cannot back-pedal on that commitment, nor can we afford a piecemeal approach. The time for climate justice is now. The Bill sets in stone a promise to future generations. It is the embodiment of hope that, together, we can make a difference by creating green, sustainable communities that deliver for everyone. Today's promises guarantee tomorrow's reality. We owe it to our children and future generations to honour that promise.

Given the right leadership and supported by the right legislation, we can deliver change in a manner that will not just help to address the environmental challenges but has the potential to bring about significant economic and societal benefit for all. I support the Bill.


1.45 pm

Dr Aiken: I support the Second Stage of the Climate Change Bill. I will outline my support for its main provisions, coupled with amendments that our party may seek to append at Committee Stage.

First, this is a personal journey for me. It seems unlikely that somebody who comes from my background as a nuclear submarine captain is an eco-warrior, but I take you back to 1987, which was a long time ago. I was operating under the Arctic ice in areas where there was ice that had not shifted in 1,000 years. However, moving on to 2010, when I was back in the Arctic doing other work, that ice had gone. The 1,000-year ice has disappeared. Furthermore, when in Baffin Island doing some research for the Ministry of Defence — I used to be one of the lead researchers on climate change in the Ministry of Defence, particularly what is happening in the Arctic — I saw at first hand the impact on the tundra and that the permafrost had gone.

Virtually every day now, we see increases in the impact of climate change. When we talk about a climate change emergency, there are very key reasons for that, but there is one piece of information for those who still do not think that this situation is occurring. Part of my job when I was at the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre — that is quite a mouthful — was that I headed up the global strategic trends programme. We helped to fund the Met Office's Hadley Centre, which is designed specifically to research climate change and other areas. That organisation was full of people who were as sceptical as I was to begin with. We have heard many times that no models are predicting our climate well. That is not true. There are models that predicted what is happening right now. When I was due to give evidence at the IPCC and various other places, I was told not to use that evidence because it was so alarmist and that the speed of increases in heat and carbon dioxide emissions meant that we would never be able to reach the global targets that we must meet to prevent a climate catastrophe.

I do not want to be somebody who spends my time going around being a doom merchant. I believe in the future, and I believe in opportunity. However, let us be very clear about this: this climate emergency is happening, and it is happening a lot faster than people think. If we think that, in 2050, we will still be arguing about various parts of agriculture here or, indeed, whether beef will be coming from Brazil, which may, in fact, be a desert by that stage, we need to wake up to the fact that we are in a very, very dangerous situation.

With those provisos, as outlined, the Bill seeks to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of our nation, particularly the provisions of the Climate Change Act 2008 and our national Government's commitment to a 78% carbon reduction target above the 1990s baseline by 2035, with an overall approach of bringing the United Kingdom as a whole to net zero carbon by 2050 at the latest. We have seen that the United States, the EU and our nation are seeking to accelerate carbon reduction targets. COP26 is likely to see an even greater emphasis. However, even if we meet these reduction targets, we will still struggle to avoid breaching a greater than 1·5°C increase by mid-century. The chances of us meeting that target are very low.

Eighteen of the past 20 years were recorded as the hottest since records began. The degradation of the tundra and across the polar regions and the increasing moves northwards of desertification should be plainly obvious to us all, except those who wilfully ignore the scientific evidence. It is regrettable that, even here in Northern Ireland, at this stage, some choose to ignore the facts of the situation that we now find ourselves in. Northern Ireland and the Assembly have a critical role. The reasoning for the Bill and its substantive 12 clauses is, first and foremost, to recognise that we are in a climate emergency and that we have little time to act. The Northern Ireland Executive and every Department should now take that fact as part of the future Programme for Government, and it should be factored in to all aspects of future outcomes and work strands.

Clauses 2 and 3 set a series of actions on the Executive to deliver and develop sectoral plans and targets. While much of our net carbon reduction can be achieved from the energy, transportation, manufacturing and housing sectors, there remains a considerable amount of comment and concern from sectors of our agriculture industry, as pointed out by the Chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

As a party, our representatives and I have listened to the issues raised by the Ulster Farmers' Union, the Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association, and the Grain Trade Association, among others. We have also listened intently to the conservation groups, many individual farmers, and, indeed, we have had input from the National Farmers' Union, which, I remind you, now seeks to achieve net zero carbon by 2040. On balance, we understand that the golden objective is to be in line with the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as set out in the report by Lord Deben, dated 1 April, which outlines proposals for Northern Ireland to achieve at least an 82% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. I emphasise the words "at least".

The Assembly is aware that, elsewhere in our nation, there are moves to accelerate the timing of this target. While the difference between 2045 and 2050 may appear to be slight, it has to be recognised that it has exercised some of our farming community. Therefore, we expect to achieve the bulk of the necessary reductions well before 2045, as our entire nation moves to an electric economy. However, we need to help the farming industry transition as, according to the Ulster Farmers' Union, it intends to. We will propose amendments at Committee Stage to enshrine those reduced targets so that we do not significantly damage the agriculture business sector and allow it to transition effectively.

We seek to amend the date in clause 2(2) to read:

"2045, and as far as practicable, based on the provisions of the Climate Change Committee report in respect to agriculture, to achieving their targets for 2050."

The reality is quite clear. The bulk of carbon reductions that we need to achieve has to come from transport, energy, manufacturing and housing, but we cannot get to a situation where we fundamentally damage our agribusiness while we do that. As a party, we recognise that and are trying to achieve it.

We also seek to see provisions made for the Departments of Agriculture and the Economy, which recently commissioned a study by Sir Peter Kendall on the future shape of the agribusiness sector in Northern Ireland. Most of that is to do with the protocol and how it reshapes itself. However, Peter Kendall talks clearly about the fact that agribusiness needs to be smarter. It is not necessarily about making it smaller, but smarter. If you look at some of the work that he has done for the National Farmers' Union and in other areas, you can see that the Northern Ireland agribusiness sector, which is vital to our economy, has a real opportunity for the future, but we need to embrace it.

The safeguards that we have been talking about, and the examples of democratic accountability that are built into the Bill and laid out in the clauses, allow the Assembly to have the final say in the changes. That is important because, unlike things such as the protocol legislation, which we will have no say in whatsoever, the Assembly will be able to look at the Bill as it comes through, modify any targets that are set and enable the Northern Ireland Executive to set the action plans. It gives us some real democratic accountability.

Mr McAleer: Will the Member take an intervention?

Dr Aiken: Certainly.

Mr McAleer: Does the Member agree that, in addition to the democratic oversight in the Assembly, any carbon action plans produced will come about only after a 16-week public consultation? That is crucial.

Dr Aiken: I agree. That demonstrates that another safeguard is being put into the process. It would be good if the Minister had been able to say that he sees the work that the Assembly and the private Member's Bill are doing and takes the opportunity to bring them together. We do no service at all to Northern Ireland, our economy or our environment unless we are seen to be particularly proactive. We have that opportunity to be proactive. I am —.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Dr Aiken: Yes, Jim.

Mr Allister: The Member talks about responding to communities, particularly the agriculture community etc. In clause 11(2), however, the door is slammed shut to all the sectors by virtue of the fact that it states:

"the Executive Office must not propose any alteration which has the effect, whether directly or indirectly, of lowering any target"

that is set in the legislation. Is it not, therefore, hyperbole to say that they will listen, when the very legislation that the Members want to take forward slams the door on listening?

Dr Aiken: I thank the Member for his intervention. As he will be aware, when we guided his Bill through the Assembly, 82 amendments were tabled to it, and amendments made it a much better piece of legislation. We will have the opportunity to look at this Bill as we go forward. When it is brought in front of the Agriculture Committee and debated in the Chamber, we should be able to look at some of those issues quite closely.

I will draw my remarks to a close. It is quite clear that there are a lot of differing views throughout the Assembly on what we are trying to do on climate change. Many Members are quite concerned about climate change and the impact that it will have on the agribusiness sector. Indeed, many have been very strongly lobbied. I respect those Members' views and any particular stance that they may wish to take. I will say this, however: we have an opportunity, as an Assembly, to do something that is not an orange or green issue or that deals with the bickering that we have all the time in the Northern Ireland Executive. We have a real opportunity to do something that is right for everybody in Northern Ireland, not just for now but well into the future. I commend the Bill's Second Stage to the House.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Question Time begins at 2:00 pm, so it would be an injustice if Mr John Blair were allowed only two and half minutes before I interrupted him. I therefore suggest that the House take its ease until 2.00 pm. When the debate resumes, the next Member to speak will be, as I said, Mr John Blair.

The debate stood suspended.


2.00 pm

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

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Before we go to the first question, I advise Members that questions 2 and 3 have been withdrawn. I call Mr William Humphrey.

Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): I have agreed my Department's final budget allocations, and, as I committed to previously, I have protected the budget for those vital services. There is no reduction in the budget for advice services, including for appeals and tribunal representation. As the Department allocates funding for those services through local government, Belfast City Council is responsible for deciding how it allocates funding for the appeals services, including the Belfast citywide tribunal service. I am investing £6·4 million this year in a wide range of advice, appeals and debt services. There are no additional moneys over and above that amount that could be used to match any increase in funding by Belfast City Council at this time.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for her answer. I understand that Belfast City Council has agreed to provide £75,000 for this year and £55,000 for the following year, subject to due diligence. Will the Minister commit to supporting, in kind, the monetary value that Belfast City Council wants to provide? Her answer fell short in that regard.

Ms Hargey: We have made the allocation to maintain the budget that was there previously. That money goes to Belfast City Council and is ring-fenced for use in advice and representation. I have had no further requests. However, as I said, the budget that we have is the budget that we have got. There is nothing additional, at this point. Of course, if a request is made, I will be happy to look at the issues. The Department is working within a constrained budget — effectively, a cut — but I am glad that we were able to protect that vital funding at this time.

Mr Sheehan: Will the Minister give an assurance that funding will continue to be provided to support the important work of tribunal representations?

Ms Hargey: I have given a commitment, as was seen in the draft Budget consultation and the full equality impact assessment that I put out. Money was not secured in the overarching Budget, but I have secured it within my internal budget. I have seen the vital role of the advice sector, not only during the pandemic but before it, and in my time as a councillor in Belfast City Council, for example. I want to continue to do all that I can to support the sector and work with it in the time ahead.

Mr O'Toole: The Minister will be aware that, last week, the president of Appeal Tribunals, John Duffy, published his report on the standards of decision-making by the Department for Communities in 2017-18. In it, he talks about the:

"systemic problem with the healthcare professional (HCP) assessment process",

particularly in relation to the personal independence payment (PIP) and the employment and support allowance (ESA). Considering John Duffy's representations, what is the Minister doing to simplify the process? For instance, are she and her Department finally considering the requirement, via legislation, of a short GP summary report ahead of initial decisions being made?

Ms Hargey: I am looking at the report, and we will be providing a response. The report was taken from the start of the PIP process. Obviously, changes have been made since then, and there will continue to be changes in the process to make sure that it is working as best it can for claimants. We want to announce plans to engage in a more structured way with those claiming the benefits and listen to their views so that we continue to make changes in the time ahead. That is something that I am committing to doing. We will also look at PIP more fundamentally to make sure that it is responding to people's needs.

There are some issues pertaining to parity with Westminster, and there are ongoing discussions with DWP. A Green Paper is being looked at in Westminster, and we are waiting on the outcomes of that coming forward. In the time ahead, I will be making more announcements around this area.

Ms Armstrong: Minister, I know that you are committed to the advice sector. In 2016, a Deloitte report confirmed that a new funding model was needed for the Belfast citywide tribunal service. What actions have you taken to move those recommendations forward, ensure that there is not a postcode lottery across Northern Ireland and ensure that those recommendations will be aligned across all council areas?

Ms Hargey: Obviously, we work closely with Belfast City Council on taking that work forward. We secure the money for the advice services, and I am glad that we were able to do that this time around. We have continued discussions with the council and, indeed, with the advice sector itself. In the time ahead, we will be looking at what changes can be made to ensure that advice services are available to people, right across the board and across all communities, and how we can remove any particular barriers. We will continue to have those discussions with Belfast City Council and, importantly, with the advice sector.

Mr Carroll: It is very disappointing that the Department is not providing match funding for that vital service, which has provided support for tens of thousands of people, including my constituents. Many will ask how things have got this far, why the funding was not included in the budget after implementing welfare reform, why Belfast City Council has to match fund half of it and why the Department cannot fully fund it for next year. Minister, what message does it send to advice workers, citywide and across the North, that you have not done this?

Ms Hargey: I have worked very well with the independent advice sector over the last year, particularly through the COVID pandemic. I have engaged with that sector, as have my officials. We have invested over £6·4 million per annum into budgets for independent advice because we recognise the importance of it. I also encourage councils to look at this issue. I was in Belfast City Council when funding was put into the advice sector. The budget is what it is. It is not a good budget, but the issue is that it was given in a block grant. Effectively, there was a cut by the British Government to the budget here. I have raised concerns about that. I raise it any time I meet a Minister. I met with a Minister from the NIO last Thursday and, again, raised the issue that, when they give a flat budget, in real terms, it means a cut. I also raised the issue that New Decade, New Approach commitments around financing still have not been lived up to and that they need to come forward urgently to address those shortcomings. So I will not be found wanting. That said, in the absence of a budget being allocated, I have protected the money that goes into the advice sector, and I will continue to do that in the time ahead.

Ms Hargey: I thank the Member for his question and, indeed, the email that gave more information on Ards Football Club. I am pleased to see the renewed engagement between Ards Football Club and Ards and North Down Borough Council in their vision for a new stadium that would, once again, give the club a permanent home in the Newtownards community. Unfortunately, with regard to funding to develop club facilities, there are currently no capital grant programmes in my Department or Sport NI to which Ards Football Club can apply. My officials have advised the club to register with Sport NI to receive information on future potential funding programmes that may assist it in realising the ambition to develop the new stadium.

Ards Football Club may benefit from future potential funding through the subregional stadia programme that was set out in New Decade, New Approach. I have asked officials to undertake a review of the programme to satisfy me that proposals are meeting current and future needs.

The refresh and re-engagement review exercise is nearing completion, and the evidence collected, through club surveys, strategic one-to-one discussions with key stakeholders and collaboration with the advisory working group, has informed the shape and scope of the programme. I intend to update Executive colleagues in the coming weeks on the future implementation of the programme, identify potential timelines for delivery and the levels of support available to clubs across the North.

Mr Harvey: Thank you very much, Minister, for your answer. As you know, I have been trying to strike up a conversation with you on this proposal. I ask that you meet me and the manager at the proposed site to look at and listen to the vision and to respond with your thoughts on the way forward.

Ms Hargey: I am always happy to accept invitations from Members.

Mr Nesbitt: Will the Minister clarify whether she is saying that there is no budget for the subregional stadia programme in the current financial year? If that is the case, when does she expect that money to be freed up?

Ms Hargey: There is a budget and a commitment of £36·6 million for the subregional stadia programme. The exercise that took place was to make sure that the initial outcomes of that programme still meet the needs today. A refresh and re-engagement review exercise was taken forward with sports organisations, including a survey that my officials are now tidying up, and they will make a proposal to me on the way forward for spending that money. I want to present that to the Executive in the coming weeks in order to get the programme up and running.

Ms Armstrong: I declare an interest, because I pay sponsorship money into Ards Football Club for its programmes. Minister, I am disappointed by your answers so far, but I understand the predicament that we are in. Ards Football Club has not had a home for quite some time. You said that the subregional stadia programme money might not actually be money that Ards could apply for, because it has no home at the moment. Have there been any discussions with the Strategic Investment Board about capital expenditure that clubs would be able to apply for?

Ms Hargey: Currently, there is no other capital programme. This is across a number of sporting organisations. I have engaged heavily with sporting organisations over the past couple of months. Obviously, they have been impacted by the pandemic. They have played a huge role during the pandemic and will, no doubt, in the recovery. All Members have raised questions for oral and written answer over the past year on the importance of sports more generally, and I completely recognise that.

The money that we have at the moment is for the subregional stadia programme. I also recognise, and have said previously, that that may not be enough to meet the demand. Most certainly, it will not be enough. Obviously, I will have to keep discussions ongoing with the Executive. It will be dependent on the Budget and what is available and will be measured against other pressures in Health and Education more broadly. If there is a need for a capital increase, I will make those representations and requests to the Executive.

I have not had direct engagement with the Strategic Investment Board, but that is certainly something that I could do. I am keen at some point to look at a small capital programme for sports organisations, recognising that not all fit into the subregional stadia programme. A lot of work goes on, particularly at the grass roots. We have no budget for that, but, again, I am keen to engage with the Executive to see whether we can find a budget to bring forward programmes. There is no doubt that there is a huge need and demand in the community, and that is something that I want to continue to engage on.

Ms Hargey: My Department does not hold record information based on constituency. However, the details of the number of personal independence payment appeals, pending per town in North Antrim, as of 31 March this year are: Ballymena 310 and Ballymoney 98, making a total of 408 people in the North Antrim area who are waiting on an appeal hearing.

Mr Frew: Thank you, Minister, for your answer to my question. To get some sort of comparison and context for those figures, will you supply numbers for previous years?

Ms Hargey: I do not have those at hand but I can write to you formally, Paul, with an update on previous years.

Ms Kimmins: Minister, you will be aware of the importance of ensuring that those going through the appeals process are not suffering financially. Will you therefore outline what steps you are taking to ensure that that is not the case?


2.15 pm

Ms Hargey: Mitigation payments continue for appellants who are awaiting the outcome of an appeal, for cases where the initial claim was for disability living allowance (DLA) and for those who are transitioning to PIP. My Department has advised appellants who experience financial hardship that they should make contact with their local office as soon as possible and should engage with the independent advice sector.

We want to address the backlog of hearings. Part of that was caused by having to suspend face-to-face hearings because of coronavirus. We have been transitioning, and we have been rolling out pilots for telephone assessments as well as looking at carrying out assessments virtually. Again, though, it is down to what the claimant wants, and we know that the majority still prefer face-to-face assessments. As easements to regulations come in, we are working with the appeals service on how we can start to safely reopen face-to-face services and deal with the backlog as soon as possible.

Mr Allister: The figure of 310 from Ballymena is particularly disappointing, although it does not surprise me. My office has an appeal next week that has been waiting 14 months. Will the Minister supply the average waiting time for an appeal in North Antrim? That certainly seems to be something that needs to be taken under control. The return of face-to-face services would be a major step forward.

Ms Hargey: I do not have the exact waiting time, but I can furnish you with that in a written response. I know that the caseload from 31 March this year was 8,639. As of the same period, 6,067 live PIP appeals are in the system. That makes up 71% of the overall caseload. As I said, a big part of that was caused by appeals completely shutting down during the pandemic that started in March last year. The appeals service extended that at the start of this year after the new restrictions came in over Christmas. There is no doubt that that led to unacceptable levels of appeals.

Officials are now working with the service and the advice sector to look at how we can have a safe reopening and increase capacity to deal with those levels as soon as possible. As I said, my officials have also been rolling out pilots for telephone and virtual assessments while recognising that the majority of people still prefer face-to-face assessments and that, if that is what they prefer, we will have to deal with it. I am hopeful that, with the easing of more restrictions, with those pilots and with jobs and benefits offices and other services beginning to open again as a result of the easing, we can start to deal with that and get people through the process as quickly as possible. I will furnish you with an answer to the specifics of your question in a written response.

Mr Durkan: The number of appeals and, more so, the number of successful appeals are clear evidence that the system is not working. Many parties, including the Minister's, have been correctly scathing about Capita's performance. Will the Minister inform the House whether she will extend Capita's contract? How might that look, and how much might it cost?

Ms Hargey: Those issues are being looked at. I recognise the issues with the assessment. I also recognise the public opinion on some of the issues. I have indicated that my policy position is to move towards an in-house model, and I indicated what that would look like. Previously, the in-house model involved working with local GPs, and difficulties were presented with that. We are also looking at the Scottish model, where they work with health trusts, and we have had engagements with the Health Minister, but, again, changes have to be made there. For example, the system on which people are recorded is different depending on the health trust. There is no one database the way there is in England. We found that to be an issue with the food distribution service, where there was no single database. I know that it will take a bit of time for the Department of Health to put that in place, but I am keen that a policy be adopted where we move to an in-house service. We are trying to work out the timelines for that. Once I have made a decision about that and about what the timescales will look like, I will certainly update the House and the Committee.

Ms Hargey: Thank you. People who remain in receipt of legacy benefits and credits will be moved to universal credit in the next phase of the roll-out known as "Move to UC". Prior to COVID-19, my Department notified stakeholders here that the planned commencement date for Move to UC would not be before January 2021, with an estimated completion date of September 2024. Planning for Move to UC was temporarily paused to allow my Department to focus all available resources on responding to the COVID pandemic, and, as the Member will know, the number of people who need universal credit here has more than doubled since then. We had to respond to make sure that people were paid. A date for the commencement of Move to UC here has not been confirmed. I have asked my officials for an assessment of the optimal timing for the Move to UC process to recommence here and will bring forward proposals for doing so at the earliest possible opportunity. Stakeholders will be updated when plans are more certain.

Miss Woods: I thank the Minister for her answer. The Minister will be aware that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions recently announced that the process for moving legacy benefit claimants on to universal credit would be completed by 2024. Can the Minister confirm whether that is the timeline that her Department will work to in the coming months? Will she engage further with the independent advice sector to enable it to support claimants who will need help transferring to or not to universal credit in the coming years?

Ms Hargey: As I said, there was a pause in the move, and that may disrupt the timetable and that final date. My officials are working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions in Britain on that timescale. That is why I have asked for an assessment of recommencing the process and of how long that will then take. That will be for ministerial approval going forward. Once I have that assessment, I will decide when it is likely that we can commence that work. Of course, that will be done by engaging stakeholders and looking at the implications. This will be a huge change for thousands and thousands of people, and having independent advice for people as they are transitioning will be key in making sure that the capacity is there. We will do that by engaging with the sector, and, after that, I will make my decision and notify the House.

Ms Anderson: Minister, can you give an assurance to my constituents in Derry and others across the North that those who are being transferred from legacy benefits to universal credit will have a transitional protection? What would that transitional protection be?

Ms Hargey: We are looking at transitional protections for people who are moving over. Some people will be financially better off with a move to universal credit. We want to work with those people in the time ahead and look at the implications as part of that transitional period. We are looking at that as part of the transitional assessment that I have asked officials to look at. Once I have that assessment, I will update the House. I can also correspond with the Member directly.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Member is not in her place for the next question, so I call Christopher Stalford.

Ms Hargey: Through the regional stadia programme, my Department has grant funded the three sporting codes to deliver their respective stadia. Community engagement is an important element of the delivery. In anticipation of planning approval, Ulster GAA is finalising detailed proposals for fresh engagement with the community. The GAA is clear on the importance of being a good neighbour to the community around Casement Park and more broadly, and I have regular engagement with the Ulster Council GAA project team, which is involved in the stadium development, on the fundamental element of the project.

Mr Stalford: I did not anticipate being called for question 8, so I congratulate the Minister on her brevity in getting this far down the list. That said, the Minister has failed to answer my question. I asked her what engagement she or her Department had had with residents in the area on the development proposal. Does she agree that it is important that residents' views on the matter are taken on board?

Ms Hargey: Thank you. The overall project is owned by Ulster Council GAA, and I have been encouraging the GAA to engage. That said, planning approval is not yet complete, and we need to watch the type of engagement that we have until we know that full planning approval has been granted. I have engaged with the GAA through the programme board that has been established to look at the redevelopment of Casement Park. From my background in community development, I have said that it needs to engage proactively. It has an engagement strategy for when planning has been approved.

I have had no direct engagement with the residents' group, neither those who oppose it nor those who support it. I am waiting for planning permission to be approved, because I do not want to do anything that might have an impact on that consideration. There will be comprehensive engagement. I have pushed the GAA to have that and to work with Belfast City Council and the Department to look at the wider issues and opportunities that the redevelopment can bring. The Members knows what the development of Windsor Park has done for the community in his constituency.

Ms Flynn: What is the Minister's assessment of the benefits that the Casement Park development will bring to the wider community of west Belfast and, more broadly, to Gaelic games and culture?

Ms Hargey: If you go to Casement Park, you will see the state that it is in at the moment. As a past camogie player, I know that there is a huge aspiration and demand to see Casement Park revitalised and redeveloped. The scale of the infrastructure will have an immediate impact on construction jobs. It is one of the biggest infrastructure projects that the Executive will take forward in this mandate, once the approval is signed off, in the number of jobs that will come directly from it.

There is the redevelopment of the wider Andersonstown area. If you look at the Falls Road from the bottom right up, you see that there have been huge developments over the last 10 years in the west of the city. Casement Park will be one of the signature projects on the frontage of that road. I have been working with the GAA, and we want to see a wider community impact not just for the Gaels to play in a stadium but for how this pitch and its facilities can be used by other sports organisations and the wider community. There will be huge economic, social, cultural and sporting benefits for the community. We have seen those benefits with the other two stadia that have been developed in the partnering and outreach work that they have done with local sports organisations in growing their sport, particularly for women and people with disabilities. I hope that the redevelopment of Casement Park will bring good opportunities, just as the other stadia have done.

Mr O'Toole: Casement will be a huge benefit not just for Ulster Gaels or for Antrim GAA. It is hugely overdue and will be welcome when, hopefully, it is built. However, the potential is much wider than that. It could be global. At the minute, there are plans for a joint British-Irish World Cup bid for 2030. The truth is that Casement Park will probably be the only stadium in Northern Ireland capable of hosting World Cup games. Minister, what representations are you making with the Irish Football Association (IFA), the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) and the FA in London in order to place Casement Park at the centre of that potential World Cup bid, which could bring World Cup football to Belfast?

Ms Hargey: Thank you for your question. You are right: Casement Park is the stadium that would advance that competition bid. The Minister for the Economy takes the lead on the engagement with London, but, in my capacity as sports Minister, I have engaged proactively with our officials and with the Minister for the Economy to outline the potential of facilities such as Casement as part of that bid. We will keep that engagement going, but it is primarily the Minister for the Economy who represents the Executive in applying for the games.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): We will probably have time just for the Minister's answer, without the supplementary.

Ms Hargey: The Member will be aware that the subregional stadia programme for soccer is a priority in 'New Decade, New Approach', and I have consistently confirmed my commitment to it. The programme provides a real opportunity to deliver a wider range of government priorities and to address social, economic and cultural needs. I have asked my officials to undertake a review of the programme to satisfy me that the proposals look not just at the current needs but at the future needs.


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As I said in response to question 4, the refresh and re-engagement exercise is nearing completion. I hope to have that presented to me, and then, in the coming weeks, I want to make a presentation to the Executive for sign-off in order to allow the programme to go forward. Departmental officials have also worked with experts on an advisory group comprising key stakeholders from the Chief Leisure Officers Association (CLOA), the IFA, the NI Football League (NIFL), Sport NI and my Department. That has ensured a collaborative approach to developing the shape and scope of the programme.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That ends the period for listed questions. We now move to 15 minutes of topical questions.

T1. Mr Chambers asked the Minister for Communities to outline a timeline for when she will create a fund to encourage the creation of changing places — state-of-the-art facilities for those who have severe disabilities — in buildings across Northern Ireland. (AQT 1271/17-22)

Ms Hargey: Since 2018-19, my Department has been working in partnership with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, local councils and the Public Health Agency (PHA) on access to changing facilities. A total of 12 new changing place facilities, at a range of locations across the North, have been supported through the programme. My Department is leading on the development of the Executive's disability strategy. As part of that strategy, we have developed a co-design approach with the sector, including for changing place provision. We are working with the Department of Finance to consider how the issues will be reflected in the new strategy and to determine the funding that will be made available. Subject to that, after consultation, I will present the full disability strategy to the Executive in December.

Mr Chambers: I thank the Minister for her answer. England has created a similar fund of £30 million. Can the Minister commit to a proportionate level of funding in Northern Ireland?

Ms Hargey: There are ongoing discussions about finance and what it will mean in the time ahead. Once that has been confirmed, I will update Members.

T2. Mr Middleton asked the Minister for Communities what she plans to do differently to tackle the shocking levels of poverty, given that she will be aware that recent figures highlighted the fact that 400,000 people across Northern Ireland are living in poverty, with 27% of those people residing in the Londonderry and Strabane council area in his constituency. (AQT 1272/17-22)

Ms Hargey: The poverty figures are well known. They have been highlighted, and everybody has seen that they have been exacerbated as a result of the pandemic. As part of New Decade, New Approach, I had responsibility for taking forward an anti-poverty strategy, which includes child poverty. We established an expert panel, which published its report in March. We have now established a co-design group that is working with community organisations and experts involved in the fields of child poverty and poverty more broadly. We have also established a cross-departmental working group, because it is recognised that the issue of poverty does not rest just with my Department but spans Departments. I know that, last week, the Health Committee looked at a report on health inequalities that showed that the numbers have got worse rather than better.

We are working across government to look at what comes out of the co-design approach, at how the strategy will be funded and at how Departments can take a lead on certain aspects. The strategy will then go out to public consultation. I hope that the timeline will be for me to present the strategy, along with the other inclusion strategies, for sign-off and approval in December. There is other work ongoing. I have papers in on welfare mitigations and other protections. There is also the whole housing transformation that we are trying to do, as we recognise that housing plays a fundamental role. We are looking at areas such as Foyle, where there are high levels of people in housing need. I want to introduce ring-fenced funding to start to address the housing crisis in Foyle, north and west Belfast and other areas.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Minister for her response. The Minister will also be aware that there are particular challenges in our rural communities. I have heard time and time again about the difference in funding available for some of the more urban communities and that available for rural communities. Will the Minister commit to addressing and putting a focus on how we bring rural communities up to par with many of our urban villages?

Ms Hargey: It is an important point. I want to make sure that we are rural-proofing our policies and our spend. That will ultimately mean a change in spend and how money is allocated, for example through councils and other mechanisms. I am committed to looking at all those issues. I have also written about regeneration functions. Primarily, in the Department, mine is focused on urban settings. Many Members have written to me recently about rural settings.

I have engaged with the AERA Minister and the Infrastructure Minister to get a joined-up approach to rural issues and rural inequality. That has been positive. We provided some funding during the pandemic to respond to the needs of the rural community. We will bring forward that engagement soon. I have asked for a meeting with them. We will assess rural proofing and, hopefully, we can make a joint announcement between the three Ministries on making a change in those areas. As part of the housing programme, looking, again, at specific rural needs, we met community organisations in rural areas where those issues have been consistently raised. Working with the other Ministries, we want to bring forward proposals for changes to address the issues.

T3. Mr McHugh asked the Minister for Communities to set out her commitment to and plans for increasing social housing. (AQT 1273/17-22)

Ms Hargey: That has been raised regularly. When Carál Ní Chuilín was in the ministerial position last November, she made a statement setting out the trajectory on what we need to do on housing in the time ahead. There are huge changes relating to revitalising the Housing Executive, such as ensuring that it deals with its historic debt issues, looking at the £7 billion deficit that it needs in order to maintain its current stock, and freeing it up to allow it to build again. We have established a programme board with the Housing Executive and the Strategic Investment Board to look at models and options. I want to do that while retaining the current set-up of the Housing Executive. We are looking at that at the moment.

We had a good result on corporation tax. Over the last six years, the Housing Executive paid over £56 million in corporation tax. We have been exempted from that and are trying to claw some of the money back and to deal with historic debt. We will soon consult on a housing supply strategy. We will look at supply, right to buy, and ring fencing. We will also look at an exercise to identify surplus land and will work with local councils so that they can identify public land in their areas in order to address housing. We are starting to work with the Housing Executive to look at towns and city centres, for example, the Living over the Shop scheme. Are there things that we can do? We will even look at buying back homes to reintroduce them to the public housing market.

I am glad that we have seen an increase of £26 million in the housing budget this year. This year's budget is £162 million. Also in 2020-21, we had the first increase of its kind for a decade in new social homes started: we had 2,403 homes. I want to ensure that we can build the capacity and have the finance to look at increasing housing development over the next period.

Mr McHugh: Thank you for your answer, Minister. You and your Department are to be congratulated on the objectives that have been achieved to date for the completion of new social housing and on the fact that you have exceeded targets for commencement and completion. What steps are you taking to ensure that that trajectory continues?

Ms Hargey: We have set up programme boards to bring forward proposed models on the way forward to deal with some of the historic debt issues and the finances of the Housing Executive.
All of this work will culminate in a proposal, with timescales and finance attached, that I will present to the Executive before the end of this mandate for sign-off and approval. As I said, I am also moving forward with engagements and consultations about a supply strategy for the North, and I am looking to introduce things such as ring-fencing, which will be done in this mandate. However, the longer-term challenges will be presented in a comprehensive report to the Executive before the end of this mandate, and work is well under way to develop that.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): As the Member is not in his place for Question 4, we will move on. I call Órlaithí Flynn for her question.

T5. Ms Flynn asked the Minister for Communities to outline her plans to legislate to ensure that people and families living in the private rented sector have a safe and secure home. (AQT 1275/17-22)

Ms Hargey: Yes. I will be bringing forward legislation. A proposal for the first strand of legislation to build in extra protections for those living in the private rented sector is currently with the Executive. When you look at the revitalisation of housing and what needs to be done on that, you see that there are more children and families now living in the private rented sector than in the social sector. The conditions and the safety standards for those people is a huge area, so part of the legislation will look at health and safety in homes and issues such as electrical checks and the installation of carbon monoxide alarms.

We are drafting other legislation concerning the private rented sector in order to deal with issues such as letting agents and having a longer-term review. However, there are consultations and engagements that need to happen around those other areas of work, particularly around enhancing the role of councils in enforcement. I hope that the Executive will soon sign off on the introduction of a draft Bill, the first part of that legislation. Then, we will work on and draft supplementary legislation before the end of this mandate.

Ms Flynn: Minister, you have partly answered my supplementary question. First, I am delighted to hear that legislation is being prepared and will be progressed, because we know how many families are living in substandard housing accommodation. It is not fair; it is not right. Can you elaborate on the timeline for that legislation's progression?

Ms Hargey: I want the first part of the legislation to be completed by the end of this mandate. I have engaged with the Committee for Communities and highlighted a number of pieces of legislation that I want to bring forward by the end of this mandate. I will go through the normal process of introducing legislation in the Assembly, and it will go to the Committee for consideration. I am hopeful that we will have that legislation in place by the end of this mandate. That is the timeline that I am working to in order to bring in that protection for residents in the private rented sector.

T6. Ms Kimmins asked the Minister for Communities to detail how organisations such as charities, voluntary groups and sports clubs will benefit from the changes to legislation governing lotteries. (AQT 1276/17-22)

Ms Hargey: Yes. I was glad to change the legislation to allow those organisations to sell lottery tickets online for fundraising activities. This primarily came from a request from NICVA, from the sector itself, which asked us to look at this and to look at more flexibility that could be built in, because of the impact that the pandemic has had on the ability of charities and others to fundraise. I am delighted that we have been able to make this change and that those organisations will be able to fundraise through ticketing and lottery schemes. It lifts the block, and it is something that the sector wanted.

Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for her answer. I think that it is important to welcome the Minister's commitment to addressing this issue as it does open vital funding streams for many organisations, particularly as we come out of the current pandemic. Can she provide an update on any other supports that are available to help community, cultural and sporting organisations through this pandemic?

Ms Hargey: Overall, the Department has invested over £306 million as part of the COVID moneys over the last year. A large part of that went to food support and community support programmes that run through councils. We have been working collaboratively with councils, which, ultimately, work with community organisations at the grassroots level.


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I stood up a community emergencies leadership group, which involved grassroots and strategic organisations that have helped us to craft our response to the COVID pandemic and also to look at the recovery. Just over two weeks ago, I met that group to look at social recovery. Obviously, at present, we are bidding for COVID money with regard to restrictions being eased. I want to continue to try to support the sports sector, the charity sector, community development organisations and the culture, arts and heritage sector. I have made bids for COVID money to try to look at that in the time ahead. One area that we have secured in the budget is the £9 million for homelessness services. Particularly as restrictions begin to ease, that may actually bring issues such as homelessness to light. We want to ensure that we work with the sector and have the resources in place to do that. I will continue to engage as we move forward.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Time is up for topical questions. I ask Members to take their ease before the next item of business.

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

Economy

Mrs Dodds (The Minister for the Economy): I thank the Member for his question. In June 2020, the University and College Union requested a meeting with me regarding the further education advisory and oversight group that I established to look at the reopening of colleges. I was unable to fulfil that request due to diary commitments. Following the commencement of pay negotiations, further meetings have been requested with regard to those negotiations. It would not be appropriate for me to meet the UCU in those circumstances, as those negotiations are between the employers — the colleges — and the trade union side. I hope that we can find a resolution to the current situation. Students and lecturers have had an extremely difficult time over the past year. In order to make a recovery, we need to focus on skills and the economy. We need everyone to work together to do that.

Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for her answer. However, I and many workers in the UCU find it frankly insulting and offensive that she refused to meet them and their reps directly. At any time, and at any level, that is unacceptable, but especially in the middle of a pandemic, when workers have worked throughout it while in dispute with their employers. Currently, in further education, they are taking strike action. Not only has the Minister refused to meet unions and workers' representatives, but she and her officials have met employers during the same period — one side in the dispute.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Can the Member come to his question, please?

Mr Carroll: How can those workers and UCU members have any faith in the Minister's being objective and impartial if she meets only one side and refuses to meet the other?

Mrs Dodds: I refer the Member to my previous answer. It is inappropriate for me to meet the union at this particular stage. I and the Department will have to act with a degree of objectivity on the outcome of those negotiations and the business case that will be brought forward following them. I urge both sides to redouble their efforts to bring the process to a conclusion. I have notified the Finance Minister and the Department of Finance that there will be a need for additional funding following the conclusion of the negotiations. It is in everybody's interests — lecturers and students — to bring the situation to a speedy conclusion. I wish them well in doing that, and I will do my best to work for that end once the negotiations have come to a conclusion.

Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Minister for her answers. I accept to a point that it is not the role of the Minister to negotiate in industrial disputes, but a meeting with the Minister, whether it is with the employer side or the trade union side, can bring a certain atmosphere to negotiations that allows them to be successful. Will the Minister reconsider her decision to not meet the UCU? I also urge her to reconsider her decision to not meet the students' unions, which are also an important voice in our further and higher education lobby.

Mrs Dodds: I can only refer the Member to my previous answer. It is important that we are objective in our role, that we fulfil that role, which is a legal responsibility, to the full and that the employers, that is, the further education colleges, and the unions are able to make an appropriate agreement. If that happens, I will not be found wanting in trying to resolve the outstanding issues.

Ms McLaughlin: Thank you, Minister, for your answers so far. Given the flexibility of Zoom, will you commit today to meeting representatives of the students' unions so that they can discuss their situation with COVID supports?

Mrs Dodds: As the Member knows, I do many, many Zoom meetings in a day. Those meetings can be very hectic and take place back to back. I have met the students' representatives — I will meet them again in due course — and I know that students have been through a difficult time over the past year. That is why I have moved to provide the supports that we have available, and the most generous support package in the whole of the United Kingdom is for students in Northern Ireland.

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. I met representatives of ExcludedNI in September, along with Stewart Dickson. Since then, my officials have continued to engage with them and with other organisations as we have developed the COVID-19 supports that local businesses have found invaluable. I will continue to engage with a diverse range of representative organisations as we focus on economic recovery through the economic recovery action plan.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Stewart Dickson. Sorry, I call Mike Nesbitt for a supplementary. Apologies.

Mr Nesbitt: How very dare you. [Laughter.]

I thank the Minister for the answer. ExcludedNI would be interested to know, with regard to the COVID restrictions business support scheme (CRBSS) part B, when her Department intends to release payments for the period beginning 31 March.

Mrs Dodds: My Department has continued to release payments through all the schemes. Indeed, only recently, we sought Executive agreement to extend part B of the scheme that the Member referred to so that people could avail themselves of it right up until 23 May, which is when we hope to see a lifting of many of the restrictions that hold businesses back.

Mr Dickson: Thank you for your answers, Minister, and thank you, Mr Nesbitt, for tabling the question. Minister, you met ExcludedNI. Since that time, sterling work has been done in the background between it and many of the organisations and schemes that you have been working with and through. Do you have further plans to support the events and wedding industry in Northern Ireland as we emerge from the COVID pandemic? How will they fit into your recovery plans?

Mrs Dodds: The Member rightly identifies some of the core issues. In Northern Ireland, we have identified and plugged gaps of support that have not been plugged in the rest of the United Kingdom. For example, the limited company directors support scheme has paid out £10·1 million to date. That invaluable scheme filled a recognised gap in the support that we had put together.

With events, weddings and so on, it is clear that the best way to support all those aspects of our economy is to have our economy open, functioning and operating normally. I look forward to 24 May, when I hope that we will see another step change in that reopening and recovery. That is where people want to be, and that is where we must support sectors of the economy.

Ms Dolan: The stringent criteria applied by your Department for the recent self-employed scheme excluded those who became self-employed after March 2020. In light of the £2·5 million underspend in this scheme, will you now consider widening the criteria so that more newly self-employed people can receive support?

Mrs Dodds: The Member will acknowledge that we looked at the newly self-employed support scheme a number of times and widened and extended the criteria so that the scheme included a wider range of people. We now have around 3,009 applications to that scheme. The 2,481 that have been paid total £8·7 million. That has been an invaluable support to those who were newly self-employed and who missed out on aspects of the core COVID recovery schemes.

As I said to Mr Dickson, the focus now should be for my Department and, indeed, for the House more generally to get the recovery up and running as fast as we can. Today, almost 100,000 people still rely on the furlough scheme for wages in Northern Ireland, and we can reduce that number and stave off a spike in unemployment only if we get the economy open.

Mr Catney: How many businesses have had their applications to part A and part B of the COVID restrictions business support scheme rejected?

Mrs Dodds: I can write to the Member with the precise figure, but, up to now, we have paid out £83·3 million. Part A has included over 6,000 applications. Some 5,086 of those have been paid. Some have been rejected, and, for some, we are awaiting additional information. I will write to the Member with the specific figure.

For part B, 2,387 applications have been submitted, and 1,551 have been paid. The same reasons apply to those not paid: a lack of information or ineligibility under the criteria.

I commend the staff at Invest NI, who have generally responded very efficiently to queries from Members and the general public. The funding that they have administered and put into the economy through grants stands at around £120 million.


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Mrs Dodds: Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask for your indulgence in allowing me an additional minute to answer the question; it is fundamentally important as we go forward. I thank my colleague for his question. Since I launched my economic recovery action plan on 25 February, I have been successful in securing an additional £286·8 million in 2021-22 to deliver it. On 21 April, my Department hosted a virtual stakeholder event to continue the discussion on recovery. Partnership and collaboration are key to the successful delivery of the actions that are set out in the plan. On 30 April, I announced further details of the high street stimulus scheme and the holiday at home voucher scheme. Both those schemes are cornerstones of the plan. The timing of their delivery will help to maintain the recovery momentum that has started with the reopening of businesses across Northern Ireland.

On the green economy agenda, I have published the options consultation on a new energy strategy. That includes progressing key actions relating to renewable energy, energy efficiency, the hydrogen economy and green innovation. On the skills agenda, pilot activity has commenced to test how the flexible skills fund could be utilised to support upskilling. The development of additional upskilling and reskilling interventions is also under way. That is particularly important when we consider the number of people who are still on furlough or still have their employment supported through the self-employed scheme.

I will continue to work hard to deliver the themes that are set out in the plan. It is worth indicating to the House that an additional £31 million has been allocated to skills, education and support, and an additional £10 million has been allocated for university research and development. There is £145 million for the high street stimulus scheme; £2 million for the holiday at home voucher scheme; £20 million for advertising and marketing for tourism and hospitality; and £17 million for tourism support programmes. There is an additional £15 million to maximise Invest NI's external growth opportunities; an additional £1 million for cross-border programmes; an additional £6 million to support air connectivity; and an additional £3 million for innovation and digital innovation. An additional £3·5 million will be available for entrepreneurship, including support for SMEs.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the additional time.

Mr Middleton: I thank the Minister for that detailed update and for taking the time to visit Londonderry Chamber of Commerce very recently. A key element of the Minister's economic recovery plan is the high street voucher scheme. Will she provide a bit more detail about that scheme, which we hope will provide a stimulus to our high streets?

Mrs Dodds: Yes. It was good to visit the city. We had a lovely day and saw some really innovative plans to take the city forward, including innovation at Catalyst and the new environmental scheme down on the lough shores. I was really encouraged.

As I indicated, £145 million has been guaranteed for the high street stimulus scheme. We are now proceeding with the procurement and implementation of that scheme. We have also undertaken research that will give us an evidence base for the best time to roll out that scheme. It appears that, in order to encourage spending after the summer months and the initial pent-up demand that we see in the shops now, the end of the summer or the beginning of autumn is the best time to roll that out. It will be a prepaid card worth £100, and every adult over 18 will be eligible to apply. The only stipulation is that it must be used in bricks-and-mortar businesses in Northern Ireland, not online. It is what it says in its title: it is about stimulating business on the high street and supporting the retail sector, which has suffered enormously during the COVID pandemic.

Dr Archibald: I also want to ask about the high street voucher scheme, because half of the funding for economic recovery is going towards that scheme. We heard about it from officials at last week's Economy Committee meeting, but they were not able to confirm what the voucher could be spent on, where it could be spent or what its economic impact would be. Given what you have said, Minister, about the timescale for delivering it — at the end of the summer, hopefully — are you confident that it will be ready to be rolled out at that time?

Mrs Dodds: Work is already well-advanced on procurement of the provider for the cards. I hope that we will be able to deliver the scheme at the end of the summer or the beginning of autumn. Furthermore, I want to have time over the summer to work with local chambers, towns and businesses, because we want the scheme to support local high streets. It is not about the online shops but about the bricks-and-mortar high street. It is about people from our communities who have invested in their businesses and who, last year, were probably closed longer than they were open. We will be sending out a very strong "shop local" message with the high street voucher scheme. We will be working extensively with groups of people, even those who are hard to reach and who may find it difficult to access the scheme, in order to ensure that it is open and available to everyone.

Ms McLaughlin: I want to touch on the high street voucher scheme as well. There are many variables involved. Has your Department done an impact assessment of how the scheme is going to benefit the overall economy? How will we recognise whether it has been a success or a failure? I do not suspect that it will be a failure, but how we do measure its success? If your Department has done such an assessment, will you publish it?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): There are a number of questions in there.

Mrs Dodds: The scheme has clearly caught the imagination of not only people in Northern Ireland but a wide variety of people in Scotland and elsewhere, who have approached me about it. We have completed a business case for the scheme, and we will then carry out an impact assessment. Where similar schemes have been rolled out, however, it is absolutely clear from the data that they have increased spend on the high street. We must remember that, by the end of August and the beginning of September, we will see the end of the furlough scheme, at which stage there will potentially be greater difficulties for the economy. We want to continue to stimulate the high street throughout the autumn and into Christmas. We hope that there will be a multiplier effect from the scheme so that, if they get £100, people will purchase items that cost more than that, and we also hope that the scheme will encourage them to continue to support local shops and businesses in local towns.

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for her question, which is timely and very important. As we mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, the Department will use it as a time to reflect on our past successes as a small country, where we led the world in shipbuilding, rope-works and linen production, and look at where we are now. We are global leaders in cybersecurity, tech start-ups and fintech and have a creative industries sector that produces TV programmes and films that are broadcast across the world.

The qualities that marked our industrial endeavour in the past — innovation, determination and vision — are still very much evident today, and we have seen that in abundance over the past year, as businesses pivot, repurpose production lines or step up to provide much-needed materials as part of our response to the challenges of the pandemic.

This has been a difficult year for Northern Ireland, and the centenary gives us an ideal platform on which to showcase everything that is great about Northern Ireland and why it is a great place in which to live, work and invest. It can also act as a springboard for economic recovery.

Despite the ongoing restrictions in some parts of the globe, we have an ambitious series of events scheduled, including an international investment conference here at the beginning of next year. Invest NI, Tourism Ireland and NI Screen all have a series of events to mark the centenary and give us standout from other regions.

As we build our second century, I look forward to working with stakeholders from across Northern Ireland to help to shape our future economy and create a place that is attractive to investors, is recognised globally, and creates opportunities at home for people from all backgrounds and communities across Northern Ireland.

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Minister for her answer. Can she confirm whether any bids were made for funding to mark the centenary? Will she outline what her priorities are for Northern Ireland as we build for its second century?

Mrs Dodds: My Department made bids to the Department of Finance as part of the NDNA process. We have not heard from the Department of Finance about those bids. However, we have identified funds in the Department that we will use, along with those from the Northern Ireland Office, to fund the investment conference and the work that we will do to showcase Northern Ireland. As we celebrate Northern Ireland's centenary and move into its second century, I want the economy to be one of innovation and inclusion, and, as I said in my first answer, I want this to be a place where people feel at home and feel that they can have a prosperous and settled life.

Mr Allister: The Minister said that bids had been made. A couple of weeks ago, the Finance Minister told me in the House that he could recall no bids from any Department to mark the centenary, so can the Minister elaborate on what bids were made and to what extent and, indeed, what funds have been set aside in her Department to mark the centenary?

Does she agree that it is beyond shameful that, here in the seat of government, there will not be so much as a rose bush to mark the centenary, such is the bigotry of Sinn Féin?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has asked the Minister a question.

Mrs Dodds: On the last part of your question, I think that the coverage that I read in the papers over the weekend was petty and, indeed, not worthy of people who claim that they want an agreed Ireland for everyone to live in. It appears that it is only for certain folks who conform to what is required. If we are to make this place home, we need to make it a place where we can all live, work and express our identity.

I have made bids to the Minister. They were part of the NDNA process, and there was a series of bids in relation to NDNA. I have identified funding in my Department that I will use, alongside funding that we have secured from the Northern Ireland Office, for the investment conference, which is hugely important as we take the Northern Ireland economy forward.

I have been working with the Northern Ireland Office to increase Northern Ireland's footprint globally. We have secured more funding, which brings it up to about £8 million, to have Northern Ireland represented in growing economies across the world so that we can make the connections that help us to develop the economy. Our arm's-length bodies in Invest NI and NI Screen also have a series of events coming up. Of course, one of the important things that I want to revitalise is Northern Ireland's ambassador programme across the world. Many of the people who come here to invest do so because they have a personal connection or know someone with a personal connection. Therefore we want to utilise the ambassador programme right across the world. I look forward to rolling those out.

Of course, everyone in the House will recognise that, —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Minister's time is up.

Mrs Dodds: Sorry; just one second.

— with COVID and the restrictions, that that has been difficult in a difficult year.


3.15 pm

Mr O'Toole: We will not agree on the exact nature of what we are commemorating and celebrating with the centenary, but, going forward, I certainly want to see maximum investment and maximum opportunity in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister, therefore, agree, given that she has talked about an investment conference, that the best way to celebrate the duality and unique nature of this place is to highlight, at that investment conference, our access to both the UK and EU markets of half a billion people via the Northern Ireland protocol? Will she commit —?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has asked his question.

Mr O'Toole: Will she commit to instructing Invest NI to maximise that opportunity?

Mrs Dodds: We may not agree on the centenary of Northern Ireland, but I think that we should and can all agree that we want a place that is prosperous for all our people. We are already working on some elements of the investment conference that we are going to do at the start of the year, and there is a little taster of one that we will do in London at the end of this year. That is really important. The Member must realise that investors come to Northern Ireland for a very wide range of reasons, and that includes the skills of our people, the cost base in Northern Ireland, the standard of living and the standard of education. It is for all those reasons that they come to Northern Ireland to invest, not just one single element of it. Of course, we have to be absolutely clear that investors come where they have strong supply chains and that, if those supply chains are broken by the protocol, that is a problem as we go forward.

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for his question and, indeed, for his very obvious interest in this issue. Project Stratum is the largest telecommunications infrastructure project undertaken by my Department and will utilise public funding, secured under the confidence-and-supply agreement, together with Fibrus Networks’s investment, to deliver gigabit-capable broadband infrastructure to more than 76,000, primarily rural, premises across Northern Ireland. Following contract award in November 2020, the deployment of infrastructure commenced immediately. Work is under way in the first five deployment areas: Coalisland, Killyleagh, Ballycastle, Kilkeel and Castlewellan. Indeed, I had the great pleasure of talking to people in Coalisland who have been the first to be connected through this project.

To date, Fibrus Networks has completed work on some 1,041 premises through Project Stratum, with more premises to benefit from access to improved broadband services shortly. Fibrus Networks has a target of connecting approximately 19,500 premises in 2021 and is on track to achieve this. The Member will be hugely interested to hear that, in Newry and Armagh, 8,101 premises will be connected under Project Stratum. When this is complete, that will mean that 99·5% of his constituency will have access to superfast broadband.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That ends our period for listed questions. We now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions.

T1. Ms Dolan asked the Minister for the Economy, given that New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) contains commitments on workers’ rights, including ways to create decent jobs that give workers a meaningful voice and input into government policy development, how she will ensure that that commitment is delivered on, in cooperation with trade unions and workers’ representatives. (AQT 1281/17-22)

Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for her question. This morning, I signed off the final draft of the first piece of legislation that we will do in this House around rights for workers. That is the parental bereavement leave Bill. I hope that this will be agreed at the Executive this week and will reach the Floor of the House very quickly. It is hugely important in giving parents statutory rights in such a difficult situation.

The Department is also working on another, wider range of measures around employment rights and looking at many of the issues that have come to the fore over the last year. They include things like the practice of hire and fire, which is quite wrong. Employers should take the time to explain what they need to do and, if they need to restructure, do that without impacting on workers' rights. We will be bringing measures that will cover a wider range of employment rights as soon as we get the first piece of legislation through, which is the parental bereavement leave.

Ms Dolan: I thank the Minister for her answer. News of the parental bereavement leave is very welcome. On the issue of hire and fire, will she commit to bringing forward legislation to end this disgraceful exploitation of workers?

Mrs Dodds: As I indicated, it is not a practice that many in the House would support. We want to see people treated fairly, in line with the conditions that they have signed up to in their workplace. Right now, if anyone feels that they have been treated unfairly or illegally, I advise them to seek advice through either the Law Centre or the Labour Relations Agency. It is important that we protect everyone in society. As I said, I am also working on a wider range of employment issues, and these will come to the House in due course.

T2. Dr Archibald asked the Minister for the Economy, after welcoming the news about the parental bereavement leave Bill, whether she will introduce a strategy to maximise our unique access to the EU single market and our ability to continue to sell goods to that market, given that, in a response last week, the Minister stated that Invest NI had identified over 30 potential inward investment opportunities since the beginning of the year, which is a significant number. (AQT 1282/17-22)

Mrs Dodds: As I said in a previous answer, investors come to Northern Ireland for a wide variety of reasons. It can be can be about the standard of living or the skills of our people. Many investors whom I have spoken to as they come to Northern Ireland talk about that collaboration between university and business that is so important to the future of the economy. Many come because of the clusters of innovation that we now have in our economy. It is not just about one thing; it is about the whole offering that the Northern Ireland economy makes.

In relation to the protocol, we must absolutely sort out the damage that it is doing to supply chains and businesses. I write weekly to Lord Frost about the difficulties that they encounter in their trade from GB to NI.

Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for her response. I am sure that we would all like to see the challenges posed to businesses by Brexit resolved as quickly as possible.

A recent report from the Federation of Small Businesses in Britain showed that 10% of businesses surveyed were looking for warehousing space in the North. Last week, Manufacturing NI published a survey that showed that nearly half of businesses wanted the Executive to identify and secure new opportunities for them. Do you accept that there is a need for a coordinated strategy to support businesses in responding to the challenges that they face because of Brexit and also to maximise potential opportunities under the protocol?

Mrs Dodds: Of course, many of the difficulties that businesses encounter are not because of Brexit but because of the protocol. They are because parties in this House voted for, and stridently asked for, the rigorous implementation of that protocol, even though 75% of businesses in the same survey acknowledged that they had difficulties with their supply chains and businesses in GB. We really need to look at the whole picture for investment in Northern Ireland, and we need to offer people a holistic view of what Northern Ireland has to offer. I hope that the Government are listening and continue to listen, and that the EU will stop its stubborn trajectory of punishing Northern Ireland and not helping as it claimed, so many times in the past, that it was willing to do.

T3. Miss McIlveen asked the Minister for the Economy, after welcoming today's launch of the necessary holiday at home tourism campaign, whether she agrees that we need to see, at the very least, travel opened up across the common travel area, with our tourism sector allowed to begin marketing Northern Ireland in key GB sectors. (AQT 1283/17-22)

Mrs Dodds: I absolutely agree with the Member on that point. Today, I launched the Northern Ireland tourism campaign for the summer. Realistically, we know that the vast majority of the business that will come to our hotels and hospitality sector will be from the home market. That campaign will encourage people to explore Northern Ireland and to get out and about and maybe see things that they have forgotten about or lost contact with over the past number of years. I very much hope that that campaign is successful.

However, there will not be enough business in Northern Ireland to sustain our economy or to grow tourism if we rely only on the home market. Therefore, it is very strange that we are the only part of the United Kingdom that has health guidance that suggests that if someone comes here, they have to isolate for 10 days. It is guidance, but, nevertheless, it is impossible to go into the GB market with a tourism campaign while having such guidance in place. I discussed that with Executive colleagues, and I look forward to Northern Ireland being treated equally across the common travel area and certainly across the rest of the United Kingdom. That is important for business.

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Minister for her response. Given the rates of infection here in comparison with those on the mainland, what does the Minister believe to be the rationale for restricting travel across the common travel area?

Mrs Dodds: Again, I discussed that with colleagues. Northern Ireland has a low infection rate but a comparatively higher rate than that in England, Scotland or Wales. Therefore, that cannot be the reason for restricting travel from GB to Northern Ireland. Of course, we are wary of and want to be protected from some of the COVID variants that we have heard about, but, again, many of those variants are already in the Republic or in Scotland, England and Wales, yet the infection rates in GB are lower.

We cannot continue with that situation. For the sake of our people and of allowing family and friends to visit and businesses to grow and to get us into the GB market with a good campaign for the summer, we need to review that across the common travel area.

T4. Mr McHugh asked the Minister for the Economy what she will implement to ensure that the recently announced holiday at home vouchers will be equality assessed, given that, in her recent announcement about the vouchers, she stated that they will be allocated on a first come, first served basis. (AQT 1284/17-22)

Mrs Dodds: I am absolutely adamant that we support tourism and hospitality because of the dramatic and terrible impacts that COVID has had on that part of our economy. Over 70,000 jobs are at stake in that part of the economy. Many of them are part-time and done by women or young people who do part-time hours to support themselves at college and so on.

I have a number of schemes in my economic recovery action plan to support that sector. The holiday at home voucher scheme is one. There is a budget of £2 million for the scheme. That is, obviously, a finite amount of money, and when it is done, it is done. Therefore, it will be allocated on a first come, first served basis. I hope that people will be able to avail themselves of it and that, like the high street stimulus scheme, it will continue to stimulate demand in that part of the economy so that we can continue to help it to recover.

I remind the Member that we have allocated £20 million for advertising and marketing and £17 million for other tourism support programmes. That, along with the money in the city deals, which will be a medium-term objective of tourism's recovery, mean that, once again, we will get to the high watermark that we achieved in 2019.


3.30 pm

Mr McHugh: I thank the Minister for her answer, but I am still not convinced that a system is in place to ensure that the scheme is equality assessed. Notwithstanding that, the Minister has selected a number of tourist attractions and accommodation providers that will be part and parcel of the voucher scheme. How will the Minister ensure that the impact of the scheme is spread fairly throughout the Six Counties? I am thinking in particular of my region, west Tyrone, where many an attractive site would benefit from the scheme.

Mrs Dodds: The objective of the scheme is to try to spread the tourism offer and therefore the benefit from tourism. Obviously, it will have a dramatic impact on the north coast, the Fermanagh lakelands and maybe in south Down and other more well known areas, but it is available to everyone and every part of Northern Ireland. It is part of the recovery of not just tourism and hospitality but the overall economy. It is part of the aim and objective of our economic recovery action plan and what we are trying to do to ensure that we have a regionally balanced economy in which everyone can prosper.

T5. Ms Dillon asked the Minister for the Economy how she will address an issue across the North that arose at a recent meeting with Fibrus, the provider of Project Stratum, and which people in her constituency have made her aware of, in that users have been left out of the scheme either because Land and Property Services (LPS) did not confirm that a property was occupied or because inaccurate speeds were given to the Department or the provider, with people being told they were getting over 30Mb when, in some cases, they were not getting even 2Mb. (AQT 1285/17-22)

Mrs Dodds: That is hugely important for the people who have been excluded from the targeted intervention area and for those for whom we received incorrect data from Land and Property Services. We are working on the issue. We are trying to identify additional funding within the state aid envelope that we have for the scheme to ensure that we can bring more people into the target area and to make sure that we are not excluding anyone. The Department is working on those important issues. It is a massive scheme — the largest infrastructure project that has been undertaken in Northern Ireland. The scheme was made possible through confidence-and-supply funding of £165 million, with additional investment from Fibrus adding to its value. It is exciting that, at the end of the project, Northern Ireland will have one of the most advanced networks in Europe.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That concludes the period for topical questions. Before we return to the Climate Change Bill, I ask Members to take their ease for a few minutes as we change the top Table.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: I have received notification from the Business Committee of a motion to extend the sitting past 7.00 pm under Standing Order 10(3A).

Resolved:

That, in accordance with Standing Order 10(3A), the sitting on Monday 10 May 2021 be extended to no later than 8.00 pm. — [Ms Bailey.]

Private Members' Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That the Second Stage of the Climate Change Bill [NIA 19/17-22] be agreed.

Mr Speaker: The sitting may now extend to 8.00 pm, should it be necessary. By then, the debate will have had over six hours of plenary time, which is plenty of time for the balance of opinion to be expressed and party strengths recognised. The Business Committee and I have, therefore, agreed that the Minister will be called no later than 7.00 pm, the sponsor of the Bill no later than 7.30 pm and the Question put no later than 8.00 pm. I hope that all contributors yet to speak will facilitate this approach.

Mr Blair: I begin by thanking Clare Bailey and her team for taking the lead on this matter on behalf of concerned Members. I also commend Climate Coalition Northern Ireland for its experience, expertise and dedication to the Bill, and I thank it for its research and preparation and for keeping Members informed throughout the drafting process. Those of us who have been involved closely with the Climate Coalition will be forever grateful for its contribution and dedication.

Much of the Bill's detail has been discussed in the opening and subsequent speeches. Without going into all the detail, it is worth pointing out that, thus far, it has been a most constructive debate.

The Bill was brought forward when there was no movement on the introduction of a long-overdue and increasingly urgent climate change Act, and, in the context that Northern Ireland is the only region of these islands not to have such an Act and associated frameworks, something had to be done. Quite simply, such a situation could no longer be tolerated or defended.

Emerging from the catastrophic coronavirus crisis, our immediate priority must be how to avoid further disasters. Like with the pandemic, all of us will feel the impact of climate change, but we will not all feel it equally. The pandemic has laid bare the injustices and weaknesses in our society and economy. We have seen the damage caused by Governments acting too slowly, from having chronically underfunded public services and through the taking of flawed, short-term and self-serving decisions. We simply cannot make those same mistakes when tackling the climate crisis.

Industrialised nations such as the UK — there are others, of course — disproportionately bear responsibility for climate change, and millions are already suffering the impacts. Millions of people across the globe are immediately threatened. Climate change is destroying livelihoods, infrastructure and communities, forcing people from their homes, towns and countries. The UN Refugee Agency reported that, in 2019, weather-related hazards triggered 24·9 million displacements in 140 countries. That does not even include people forced to flee their homes as a consequence of slow-onset environment degradations such as droughts, sea-level rise and melting permafrost.

It is estimated that there could be between 25 million and one billion people on the climate change front line who will be forced to leave their homes by 2050. The crisis will only increase in magnitude if immediate action is not taken to reduce carbon emissions rapidly. Right here in Northern Ireland, we can and must play our part.

As a member of the Agriculture Committee, I feel that it is pertinent to address the concerns raised by the agri-food sector that have been much mentioned today. Along with Alliance Party colleagues, I have met the Ulster Farmers' Union on the matter, so we are acutely aware of the union's concerns and of the huge efforts being made by farmers to tackle environmental challenges.

The agriculture sector is our greatest ally in tackling the crisis. As was outlined recently in my party's policy document 'Alliance Green New Deal':

"Our farmers play an essential role in driving nature's recovery, and matters like cattle grazing and hedgerow maintenance are critical to protecting our wildlife and biodiversity. Across Ireland, climate and soil mean we depend on a grass-based industry."

We are very aware of that. Our native grass and trees are crucial for carbon sequestration. The policy document adds:

"Nevertheless, much can and must be done to make the industry more sustainable."

It continues:

"With around 25,000 farms in Northern Ireland, most of which are small and family-run, the Alliance Green New Deal will support our farmers in embracing environmentally beneficial farming practices, reducing their carbon footprint, and better using and protecting natural resources and biodiversity."

In fact, I am, with AERA Committee colleagues, working with the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) on a motion to protect our natural environment and tackle the climate emergency while providing a profitable future for the sector. The issue of future agriculture policies, which I raised recently in Assembly questions, must enable a transition whilst providing nutritious food and increased farm resilience. Farmers contributing to sequestration and taking valuable actions to assist in the battle against climate change must therefore be assisted. We need new and better ways of rewarding them for their efforts as they continue to make progress.

I said this earlier, and it is worth repeating: the Climate Change Bill is not sector-specific. All sectors have a major part to play in tackling our carbon emissions. My colleagues Paula Bradshaw and Andrew Muir will refer to other sectors when they speak in the debate later.

Returning to the issue of COVID-19, I hope that all Departments and sectors work together to protect the environment, as well as to protect existing jobs and bring forward new green jobs. The Alliance Party is committed to a green and just recovery and to an urgent and radical overhaul of the policies and practices that have hindered our progress to date.

With that in mind, it should be said that the Bill, and its subsequent outworkings, should not and cannot be about whose idea it was first, whose policy it most closely embeds or who made additional proposals in the first instance. If there is any issue on which we can and should share vision and ambition and exhibit a determination to move forward, surely safeguarding the future of our planet is that issue.

As a co-sponsor of the Bill, I will be supporting this stage of the Bill along with Alliance Party colleagues. We encourage others to do the same in order to progress these urgent matters for the good of our people and for our future.


3.45 pm

Mr Harvey: I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate. The DUP is committed to addressing climate change and ensuring that this part of the United Kingdom plays its role in reducing emissions. I am a firm believer that, as custodians of our planet, we all have a moral and civic responsibility to care for the environment and to do all that we can to create safer and healthier spaces to live in and to enjoy.

As has already been said, tackling climate change is a commitment of 'NDNA':

"The Executive will ?introduce legislation and targets for reducing carbon emissions ?in line with the Paris Climate Change Accord"

through the bringing forward of legislation to:

"give environmental targets a strong legal underpinning."

I am aware that Minister Poots has been working on a climate change Bill that is in the final stages of drafting and has been awaiting approval for discussion by the Executive for a number of weeks. Given that 'NDNA' makes it clear that it is for the Executive to introduce legislation, given that the Minister has brought proposals to the Executive and given the urgency with which other parties wish to address the issue, I cannot understand why the matter has not so much as been discussed by the Executive. I find it bizarre that parties that tell us that there is a climate emergency have not even been able to find time to discuss the Agriculture Minister's Bill.

Regardless of where the Bill originates, the same core issues are at play, including the need to get a robust legislative framework that underpins environmental targets that, though ambitious, are achievable and do not require us to bankrupt our business community. On that point, I echo the sentiments of Manufacturing NI, which warned the House to be careful not to destroy jobs and livelihoods by failing to strike the right balance. I have concerns that the Bill does not strike that balance. I come to that view on the basis of the direction provided by the Climate Change Committee, the independent body tasked by the Assembly and the other UK Administrations to advise on this important issue. In its recent recommendations on Northern Ireland, it commented:

"In every scenario for achieving UK Net Zero that we have constructed, Northern Ireland would not get to Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050."

It also commented:

"An 82% reduction in all greenhouse gases in Northern Ireland represents equivalent effort and a fair contribution to the UK Net Zero target."

This Bill proposes a target of net zero by 2045. That is something that the Climate Change Committee has said is not only impossible but is unnecessary for ensuring that the UK's climate change targets are achieved.

It is evident that the Bill gives little thought to the impact that a net zero target will have on farm businesses and the wider agri-food sector. Northern Ireland is a significant net exporter of agri-food products, with nearly 50% of agri-food products produced in Northern Ireland being consumed in the rest of the UK. It is only fair, therefore, that other parts of the UK that have a lesser focus on food production bear a heavier burden in meeting the UK target. The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) regularly reminds us that NI farmers feed 10 million people in the UK. Any climate change legislation from the House must acknowledge that.

As has already been said, we must get the balance right. That is pivotal. Unachievable targets are of use to no one. We must tackle climate change head-on, but it cannot be at too high a price; otherwise, we will have achieved nothing.

Dr Archibald: I am really pleased to speak in this important debate. I commend those who have worked hard to progress the Bill, particularly Climate Coalition NI and the parties across the Assembly that have supported it to this stage. I am proud that my first motion of this term of the Assembly, when it was re-established last January, was to declare a climate emergency. We worked with the mover of the Bill and her party to table that motion. A collaborative approach is entirely the right approach and the only way that we can deal with the existential issue of our time.

There is no doubt that we face a climate emergency and a biodiversity crisis. Across the globe, there are some acute impacts being caused by climate change, including melting polar ice caps; increased ocean temperature and acidity; increased sea levels; deaths from weather events; droughts and famines; disease; more people being forced into climate refuge, as referenced by Mr Blair; and threats to global food security. The impact is also clearly being experienced locally, with more extreme weather events. Mr McAleer mentioned wind and flooding in his constituency, and my constituency was also impacted by the flooding in the Sperrins. We have also seen wildfires over the past couple of weeks in the Mournes. This year alone, we have had the driest and frostiest April and the coldest May Day on record.

The 2019 'State of Nature' report by RSPB outlined that 11% of species on the island of Ireland faced extinction. In the UK, 41% of species have declined since 1970, with 26% of species found in fewer places. That is the reality of what is happening around us and what will continue and worsen without action now.

In 2016, 197 parties signed up to the Paris Accord, a binding agreement that brings all nations into common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects. More than five years on, we are the only part of these islands without specific climate legislation. In January 2020, in 'New Decade, New Approach', the parties committed to bringing forward a climate change Act. Unfortunately, despite it being a commitment in 'New Decade, New Approach' and the expressed will of the Assembly, the AERA Minister dragged his feet on taking the action necessary to bring forward climate legislation, and so the other parties collaborated with NGOs and activists to bring forward the Bill that we debate today.

Only then did the AERA Minister belatedly publish a discussion document to bring forward a Bill through his Department, and, disappointingly, those proposals could best be described as unambitious and somewhat leading in terms of how they were written. In that document, there is no serious discussion about how an Act would operate as an overarching framework to adhere to when creating legislation. Only basic lip service is paid to the idea of a just transition. A green new deal is not even mentioned, and, most worryingly, the proposals do not address the fact that we are an island and that these are all transboundary issues. It seems like the bare minimum, and given that the Minister has previously denied that there is a climate emergency, one can only surmise that that is why there is a complete lack of ambition in his proposals. It would have been much better if the Minister had chosen to work with the proposers of this Bill in a constructive way. Unfortunately, it seems that he has sought to undermine it rather than engaging, and the approach is somewhat disappointing, given that his office covers environment and rural communities also.

The progression of this Bill is an opportunity to have a really informed debate and discussion about the type of action that is required and how we plan to deliver on ambitious, fair and achievable decarbonisation targets together. We have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the Government in the South, who did not engage properly with the rural community and where there is some disillusionment with the actions that are being imposed or are seen as being imposed on communities there. Over the past couple of weeks, like every other MLA, I am sure, I have received dozens of emails both supporting and expressing concern about the Bill. I thank all those who have taken the time to correspond with me. There is no doubt that there is huge support for the Bill and for climate action.

Almost all the emails that I received expressing concerns about the Bill have been from our farming community, and they are genuine concerns. I am from a largely rural constituency. I am a former member and Chair of the AERA Committee. I worked for almost 15 years in agri-food research, and I worked alongside the industry. I know its importance. I have talked to farmers about climate change. Not only do they understand it, they want to play their part, and many already do so. They are the custodians of our land, and, given that 75% of land in the North is managed for agriculture, there is much that they will contribute in delivering the action that is needed. Our farming community is and will continue to be at the coalface of the impact of climate change. Weather events that devastate land and crops; increased incidences of plant and animal pathogens, including new plant and animal diseases and pathogens being found to occur in regions where they did not occur previously; and altered growing seasons: all those things will impact on the profitability of our farmers and agri-food producers. Importantly, it also affects our food security and our ability to feed ourselves sustainably. Our farmers, like all communities, must be supported.

That means financially and in developing innovative practices and knowledge transfer to be the most sustainable that they can be.

It is not just by reducing our emissions that we will deliver on the greenhouse gas reduction required; it is by expanding our carbon sinks. Again, our farming and rural communities have much to contribute and must be supported in delivering afforestation programmes of native trees and hedgerow management that will not only act as carbon sinks but support and improve our biodiversity. Those things need to be part of the discussion and central to the action plans being developed.

Sinn Féin is completely committed to ambitious climate action: it is necessary. Inaction and half measures are not an option at this point. As it stands, we are on our way to a 3° or 4° increase on pre-industrial temperatures, which will be catastrophic for our planet. Limiting temperature increase to 1·5° will be a significant challenge and will require radical action.

Every time I have spoken on the climate and biodiversity crises and the need for action, I have emphasised the need for the principles of just transition to be embedded in that action. Climate action has to be based on social justice. It has to be equitable. It has to empower communities. That must be the guiding principle of the climate action that we deliver through the Bill.

Let me assure all those who have expressed their concerns: I hear those concerns. We hear those concerns. The Bill is a hugely positive development, and it should be seen as an opportunity. I have talked about our targets being ambitious: they must be achievable. We must be able to deliver on the targets. That will require investment in financial support for the communities impacted; in technology, research and development and innovation; and in support for businesses and entrepreneurship. It is investment that has the potential to pay off hugely for our local economy, and it must be seen as such.

In 'New Decade, New Approach', we also committed to a green new deal, which has to be core to our economic recovery from COVID. We must seek to positively transform people's lives, rapidly reducing emissions while creating good, decent-paying and secure jobs; delivering warmer homes through retrofitting; tackling fuel poverty; delivering healthier lifestyles and more efficient ways of moving around through investment in our active travel and public transport, world-class digital and physical infrastructure and an abundance of renewable and more affordable electricity from our wind and tidal resources. We must create opportunities for young people and those whose jobs will no longer exist in the way that they did.

The debate today is about the principles of the Bill. It is about moving the Bill forward to Committee Stage, where there will be opportunity for further scrutiny, input and consultation. The Bill creates a climate office and a climate commissioner. The Bill will establish the requirement for a climate action plan within three years of receiving Royal Assent and then every five years. The climate action plans would have to be approved by the Assembly, and those plans would be subject to public consultation. Nothing is being imposed or done in the scope of the Bill that will not be agreed by the Assembly.

There is scope for development to ensure that the Bill protects communities in achieving the ambitious targets that it sets out and the climate action plans that need to take account of our circumstances. A greater focus on transboundary impacts needs to be developed in the action plans. We are an island, and there needs to be proper account and cooperation across the island.

It is positive that the just transition principles are embedded in the Bill, and there are references in clause 3(8) to reducing inequality and eliminating poverty and social deprivation. I want to see it expressly written into the Bill that achieving the net zero target and the climate action plans must be based on the principles of just transition. It is important that we define what we mean by a just transition. At its simplest, it means that transition to net zero must happen in a fair way that leaves no one behind. A report for the OECD in 2017 stated:

"A just transition ensures environmental sustainability as well as decent work, social inclusion and poverty eradication."

In fact, it is set out in the Paris agreement itself: national plans on climate change that include just transition measures with a centrality of decent work and quality jobs. A just transition must be based on social dialogue, as mentioned by Clare Bailey when she moved the Bill, and ensure the type of social interventions needed to secure workers' rights and livelihoods when economies shift to sustainable production to combat climate change and to protect our biodiversity.

The development of the first climate action plan should be informed through the establishment of a just transition commission that involves all partners and representatives of all sections of our society and economy. I would like to see that expressly written into the Bill.


4.00 pm

The climate office described in the Bill must have meaningful civic engagement as its modus operandi. The type of radical action that is needed to halt the catastrophic breakdown of our planet will mean change. It will require a major rethink of what prosperity means. The continuing pursuit of profit and capitalist models of consumption have greatly contributed to the climate breakdown that we face, but we have the power to make change if we act now. We have to be honest with people that change is necessary. We also have to empower our communities and provide reassurance and evidence that climate action will mean job creation and community renewal. We have to lead, and we have to manage change.

I will finish by, first, speaking directly to those who have concerns about what the Bill means for them. We are listening. We believe that the best and only way to effectively tackle the climate emergency is by working in partnership through informed debate and discussion that is designed with communities for communities. The type of climate action that we are talking about cannot be done to our communities. We must have maximum buy-in to the plans that are developed. That is the only way that they will be successful. That is the process that I want to be delivered through the ambitious, achievable and fair climate change legislation. That is what Sinn Féin will be working to ensure as the Bill progresses.

Finally, when I think about the climate emergency, I think of our young people. I think of those young people on the climate strikes who have been motivated to become activists by their desire to save our planet. I think of those kids who get on to their parents about recycling, turning off the lights and walking instead of going in the car. Those young people will inherit the planet that we leave. As political leaders, we have to do not only what is politically expedient but what is right. Protecting our planet for future generations is the very least that we can do. I support the Bill.

Mr Wells: It was a bright, sunny day in May 2017. I thought to myself, "I will be environmentally aware. I will not drive from Lurgan to Banbridge; I will take the bus". Off I tootled to my local bus stop in the middle of Lurgan. There he was, the bus driver, reading his newspaper. It was 'The Sun', as it turned out; I will not bring out any jokes from 'The Two Ronnies' here. While he was reading the newspaper, his engine was on. It was a bright, hot day, and, of course, the seating that Translink and Craigavon borough council kindly provided at the bus stop was directly in line with the exhaust pipes of the bus. I sat there as he read his newspaper. Fifteen minutes went by and still his exhaust was going quite merrily. He finished reading his newspaper and folded it. He walked across the street to his bank and withdrew some money. He came back to the bus and started to eat his lunch, still with the engine running. That was half an hour of exhaust fumes pouring out into the atmosphere. I wrote to Translink about that dreadful waste of energy and taxpayers' money and the resultant carbon emissions. You would think that I was asking for the impossible to suggest to it that it might ask its staff to turn off their engines when they are waiting at bus stops. I have seen that many times since. That is an example of what is going on and of the profligate way in which we use energy.

We do not have to go too far. In this Building, the recording machines for Hansard in the Committee rooms remained on for three years when the Assembly did not meet. Nobody was prepared to go and switch them off. The roof would collapse upon us if we dared to switch off those machines in the three years in which we did not meet. We recorded the hottest day in Northern Ireland's history, and, of course, the heating was on full in the Building on that hottest day. All attempts to get the heating turned off fell flat with no success whatsoever.

The problem is, Mr Deputy Speaker — Mr Speaker, sorry; I have enough trouble with you without calling you Deputy Speaker. The problem is, Mr Speaker, that 24% of the energy that we use in Northern Ireland is wasted; it goes down the plughole. If we could solve that problem, we would not have to burden our farmers with very strict emissions targets.

We would have to do very little to increase our renewable energy demands because we could solve the problem simply by not wasting the stuff that we already produce. Any time that yours truly — an obscure Back-bencher from South Down, who is of no great political import — raises that with any of the authorities, you would think that I was asking for the sun, the moon and the stars. Nobody is prepared to tackle the absolutely basic point that we could utilise now to protect our planet.

Bringing our emissions down to net zero by 2045 will be painful for all of us: industry, private consumers and farmers. We cannot reverse the juggernaut of climate change without huge pain. As the honourable Member for East Londonderry pointed out, however, the consequences of not doing it might be that we do not have an agriculture industry in the future. If we allow our planet to go the way that it is going, we might not be able to produce enough food to feed ourselves in the future.

I do not know how many emails, letters and phone calls I have received about this issue. I suspect that the number is second only to the number that came to me on the debate on abortion. Many people in South Down asked me to support the Bill, and many people, most of them farmers, asked me not to do so. I suspect that we have all had the same email from the farming community, which, I believe, was instigated by the Ulster Farmers' Union. It is a fact that what we are asking for will produce pain for the farming community, but we have the mechanisms to deal with that.

First, everyone thus far has said that there has to be protection for vulnerable groups by means of a transition to a net zero target. The fallback is that any targets and policies will have to be agreed by the Assembly. Ms Bailey's Bill sets up a framework, but, time and time again, issues will come back to the Assembly for a final decision. The Bill is only at Second Stage. It will go off to the Committee for further consultation and scrutiny. Assembly Committees have been good at dealing with complex Bills. We are often maligned by the public, but, through our ability to ask questions for written answer and, through Committees, to scrutinise Bills, legislation and policies, we have been successful. Nobody will report that in tomorrow's newspapers.

The Bill will go off to the Committee. I have no doubt that the Committee, led by Mr Irwin who is one of its prime spokesmen, will scrutinise every jot and tittle of the Bill and pore all over it. No doubt it will come back to the Assembly in a different shape and form from that in which it entered the Committee. There is an opportunity to deal with the issues and the legitimate concerns of the farming community about the emissions targets.

We have in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom a unique system of farm support. I still call it the single farm payment, but Mr Irwin, being the guru and the font of all knowledge on the issue, will point out the exact terminology that is now used. The single farm payment is the mechanism that we inherited from the European Union and that we now control for ourselves. That can be used as a mechanism to compensate farmers and to cushion the blow that will undoubtedly occur as a result of the targets.

No matter what Bill we adopt, be it Ms Bailey's or the Minister's — I have no doubt that the Minister's Bill arrived very quickly because Ms Bailey's Bill was coming down the railway line, and, in a rush, the Minister's Bill suddenly appeared as Ms Bailey's Bill was published — there will have to be reductions in emissions from all sectors in Northern Ireland. Some might argue that the Minister's Bill will be less painful than the Green Party's Bill, but it will have to be done. We must take the mechanism that we already have in place to ensure that we minimise the damage to all sectors as a result of the emissions targets.

I see the single farm payment as a way of allowing farmers to adjust to the new landscape by compensating them through a mechanism that has worked very well. I do not believe that it necessarily means that farmers will be out of pocket, but it will be painful.

We have a resource in Northern Ireland. If we stopped wasting energy — I do not think that we will, because many Northern Ireland people are not happy unless they are wasting energy in some form — that would make a major contribution, but we in Northern Ireland and, indeed, the Irish Republic have a unique resource, which, if properly utilised, would be a much less painful way to deal with this climate change issue. Peat covers 18% of our land. Peat covers only 3% of the land area of the entire world, and yet it stores more carbon than all the other vegetation in the world put together. We have a vast tract of peatland, which, if properly utilised, could form a carbon store of immeasurable consequence. It has been shown that, if you take degraded peatland and restore it by a process known as re-wetting, you can form a carbon sink, which can do so much to reduce emissions from industrial and farming processes.

That begs the question: if 18% of our land is peat, and it is our most valuable tool to sequestrate carbon, why are we still allowing the destruction of peatlands in Northern Ireland? Why are we still giving planning permission for peat removal, and why are we permitting peatlands to be drained, burned and damaged when we have this essential tool that could save the day? There must be a complete moratorium on all further damage to peatlands immediately. There must be a policy, which is only just starting, to re-wet those peatlands. I am aware of the excellent project on the Garron plateau and of the work at Cuilcagh in Fermanagh. That is a good step forward, but we really need to get our act together to protect this valuable habitat.

Now, of course, Dolores Kelly has tabled a motion for tomorrow that will deal with that issue to a large extent, but I want to make the point that we have two areas where we can immediately take action to reduce emissions — wastage and peatlands — but we are not doing anything about them, and both are an awful lot less painful than imposing restrictions on other parts of our economy.

Finally, Northern Ireland is extremely blessed with a lot of wind and land suitable for solar panels and tree planting. Again, those are much less painful ways to deal with the problem.

Mr McGuigan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Wells: I certainly will.

Mr McGuigan: I listened to the Member intently, and he has used the word "painful" half a dozen to maybe a dozen times during the debate. Does he agree that, when constructing a narrative about climate change, using the word "painful" is doing a disservice to what the Bill is about? Clean energy production, less air pollution, more active travel, more green energy, businesses investing in the future, our children and grandchildren having a much better future: this is not painful, and there are many positives that society will gain from the Bill.

Mr Wells: It grieves me to say this, but the honourable Member speaks a lot of sense. Yes, he is absolutely right that there are real rewards for our community when we get to our final goal. There is a healthier environment, less dependency on fossil fuels and less waste of precious resources. However, in order to get from our present position to that holy grail, there will be pain and difficult decisions will have to be made. There will have to be reductions in emissions, and there will have to be compensation —.

Mr McGuigan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Wells: I certainly will.

Mr McGuigan: Does the Member agree with me and my party colleague who spoke before me that it is imperative that there is a just transition so that nobody loses out on this path to net zero?

Mr Wells: It grieves me even further to agree with the Member on that point. He is absolutely right.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Wells: Certainly: this is trouble.

Mr Allister: In this situation, is it not a little too simplistic to say that no one loses out, when we know that our agri-food industry will lose up to 50% of its production and that meat eaters, which the Member is not, will find that they are exporting their carbon to import their meat supplies, which will no longer be supplied locally?

Is it not rather trite to suggest that no one will lose out?


4.15 pm

Mr Wells: Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right: I am stuck in the middle on my own. The Member makes a point that, I know, is held by many in the farming community. We have a system whereby we can use the mechanisms that we already have to ease the pain — that is where I disagree with the honourable Member to my right — that there will be for some people in this process, and there will be pain. As long as the farming community believes that it is being treated fairly and that, if society demands that it reduce its emissions, society is also prepared to use the mechanism that it already has to compensate farmers for that, the farmers will join us and support us in what we are doing.

What we cannot do, however, is leave the farming community behind, marooned, because, as everyone has said, it has a tremendous role to play — a crucial role to play — as we move to net zero. There is no doubt that we cannot do it without the farming community. The only way in which we will do it with the farming community is to have mechanisms in place to ensure that it does not lead to the massive reduction in farm incomes that the Member mentioned and that we can compensate farmers. It is difficult. It will stretch everybody in the Chamber and on the Committee and, indeed, the Minister to achieve it, but it is the only way forward, if we are to deliver an effective Climate Change Bill.

If anyone had told me when I first came into the Chamber, a very long time ago, that over half of our electricity generation would be achieved through renewables, I would have laughed. It was pie in the sky. It was impossible. That is exactly what we have done. Northern Ireland now has a very high rate of renewable electricity generation, and that is just from wind turbines. We have not scratched the surface of generation from solar panels. I am beginning to see farms start to be developed. I know that the honourable Member for North Antrim has a particular problem in his area. I will get my retaliation in first before he raises the issue. The reality, however, is that Northern Ireland has huge potential for solar energy. Even in our climate, which is not the sunniest, it is amazing what modern technology can now do in order to achieve a high rate of renewable energy. There is an opportunity there for the farming community.

I will raise the issue of afforestation. One of the best ways in which to control carbon emissions and reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is through tree planting. Again, Northern Ireland is one of the least afforested parts of the United Kingdom and, indeed, in Europe. Vast areas of Northern Ireland could be used for tree planting. Courtesy of the Minister, we already have an attractive system of grants and subsidies that enable farmers to set aside land to plant trees, and the payments are spread over 25 years. Those should be used to a much greater level in order to diversify farm incomes.

I must say how disappointed I am in the Minister and the Department. Last Saturday, I opened 'Farming Life', in which Mr Irwin features at least three or four times every week, and I saw the announcement of a large afforestation project; from memory, I think that it was in County Antrim. It was all well and good — 50 hectares and hundreds of thousands of trees — until I read that half of the trees were to be Sitka spruce. We will get absolutely nowhere in increasing biodiversity and improving the emissions problem in Northern Ireland if we believe that planting exotic, foreign, coniferous trees here will do anything to help the situation. I felt disappointed when I read that. The Minister has announced a major tree-planting programme, but all attempts to tie him down on what proportion of it will be native Irish/Ulster/British trees have failed. They must all be native trees. You cannot increase diversity by going back to the serried ranks of conifers that have marked hillsides so much for many years. That has to stop. We have to go back to the oak, the birch, the sycamore and all those species that, we know, are good for biodiversity and climate change. That penny has not dropped yet. What I am trying to say in my inadequate way is that there are options available that, if we take them now, can turn round the juggernaut of climate change. Those options will have less — I will not say the word "pain", as I have been hauled up already for saying that — they will be less challenging than if we simply leave it too late and end up in a situation where emissions have got out of control.

People may say, "Why should we bother? This is little Northern Ireland, just six counties. We are part of the UK, but, sure, we are only 3% of the population, and our percentage of emissions is just slightly above that". We have two fundamental problems. First, we are part of a big polluter: the UK. The UK has the fifth largest economy in the world, so we have to be seen to play our part in the overall UK target. Secondly, even though Northern Ireland has a population of only 1·8 million, its emissions are much higher than those of many African countries. In the Sahel region of Africa, you have countries with populations 10 and 15 times higher than the population in Northern Ireland, but their emissions per head are so much lower that their overall contribution to global climate change is very small. Northern Ireland cannot sit back and say, "We'll just forget about this and pass on it"; we have to do something to help lead the world, as Scotland, Wales and the Irish Republic have all done. We have to play our part. We are the only part of the United Kingdom that does not have a climate change Act. That is our first difficulty. Secondly, how can we lecture other countries? How can we say to small, impoverished nations that have very low levels of GDP, "You must take challenging steps to reduce your climate emissions", if we are not prepared to do it ourselves? We simply cannot do that. That is why Ms Bailey is absolutely right to move this Bill and why Mr Poots is absolutely right to move his Bill. Hopefully, between the two, we will arrive at a situation where we play our role.

Mr Allister, the honourable Member for North Antrim, made a rather disparaging comment about vegetarianism. As far as I know, there are only three vegetarians in the Chamber, but just remember this: it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat. I will put it another way: if everybody in the world was vegetarian, we could feed the planet three times over and still have a surplus. We have to face the fact that we have only one planet. To sustain ourselves to the level of the United States or Germany, we would need four planets, and we do not have that option. We have to start thinking about our diet and how we produce food.

The frightening thing is that the only reason that 1·1 billion Indians and 1·4 billion Chinese can survive is that they have a largely plant-based diet. The frightening spectre that we have, as a planet, is of those two huge populations adopting a Western diet with all the energy demands that that entails. If that happens, we really will have a problem. In that scenario, our population could remain static, but we would have two major concentrations of people moving rapidly towards a diet and a lifestyle that is incredibly demanding on our planet. Therefore —.

Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to focus more on the principles of the Bill. This is the Second Stage of the Climate Change Bill. Equally, the Business Committee, as we announced earlier, has agreed that the Assembly sitting will finish at 8.00 pm. We will call the Minister to respond at 7.00pm, and he has confirmed that he will take only half an hour to speak, as has the sponsor of the Bill. The business will conclude at 8.00 pm. I ask the Member to be understanding of the fact that quite a number of Members still want to speak, but that the sitting will end at 8.00 pm, whatever happens.

Mr Wells: I assure you, Mr Speaker, that I will not be speaking at 7.00 pm. I was just about to draw my remarks to a conclusion.

It is good for the Assembly that we are dealing with the issue. I have already heard some very useful contributions from all sides. We should allow the Bill to continue to Committee Stage, where, no doubt, many Members are waiting to get their teeth into it. We can then come back and give it further consideration. By the time that process is finished, knowing the track record of the Assembly, we will have made a major contribution on the issue.

Mr Speaker: I thank the Member for that.

Ms Anderson: Sinn Féin has been consistent on the need for climate justice and for a climate change Act in the North because we are living in the middle of a climate emergency. In Derry and the north-west, we have already seen the impact of severe weather, with flash flooding and, at times, scorching heatwaves and storms that have been battering more relentlessly over the last decade. In August 2017, 70 millimetres of rain — around 63% of the rainfall of August — fell in just nine hours, and homes, businesses, agriculture, infrastructure and habitats were destroyed. Four hundred homes were affected. The A5 was closed for three days. Local farmers lost tens of thousands of pounds due to land damage, and five bridges were completely washed away. Then, in 2018, we had 58 consecutive days without rainfall, straining farmlands, causing water shortages and hospital admissions, not to mention gorse fires raging throughout. Being the only part of these islands without bespoke climate legislation is unacceptable because it is our duty as public representatives and custodians of this land to do everything in our power to keep global temperature increases to less than 1·5° Celsius on the pre-industrial level. If we fail to do that — we will fail if the Bill does not go through, and I welcome the fact that we are discussing the principles of it today — the consequences for our island, our peatlands, our wetlands, our ancient forest and mountain life in all its natural beauty could well face extinction.

My Sinn Féin colleague Declan McAleer spoke about the rural community and farmers, and we have all received emails from farmers, particularly in recent days, who must be consulted and must be listened to so that there is, as has been said, a just transition. I also acknowledge the Sinn Féin spokesperson Philip McGuigan, who has led the Sinn Féin position on climate justice from the front and is a proud co-signatory of the Bill.

The Bill provides a framework for decisive action in the North because we are failing to adequately reduce carbon emissions. When you consider that, between 2008 and 2016, the North managed to reduce emissions by only 9%, you see that that is totally unacceptable. Unless urgent action is taken across this island, we will be on a trajectory for natural disaster, so I urge all the MLAs to vote in favour of sending the Bill to Committee Stage so that its principles can be fully and transparently discussed and considered, as has been outlined today.

The Bill gives us an opportunity to tackle an endless cycle of extraction, under-regulated capitalistic growth and materialism that has brought our planet to the brink. Business as usual is no longer an option. That is why Sinn Féin tabled a motion in February 2020 declaring a climate emergency and why my party colleague Declan McAleer, as Chair of the Agriculture Committee, tabled a motion calling on Minister Poots to introduce a climate change Act. However, Minister Poots continued to drag his boots. He only started to take action when every other party in the Chamber came together to bring forward this Bill, and I acknowledge and congratulate all who were involved in that.

I welcome the fact that the Bill sets out the framework for the creation of a climate action plan to put us on an ambitious trajectory for net zero carbon emissions by 2045. A cornerstone of the Bill is the fact that a climate action plan will be co-designed with sectors, businesses and industries to work to make crucial and fundamental change.

Of course, change can be challenging, which makes it all the more important that we ensure a just transition, as has been referred to today and is outlined in the Bill, so that crucial action to protect our environment does not disadvantage anyone who is already struggling to make ends meet.


4.30 pm

The Bill offers us the chance to be ambitious, fair and deliverable and to protect workers, farmers, families and communities by protecting and enhancing our natural world. The climate action plan that is envisaged in the Bill will, without doubt, with reference to energy production and supply, revolutionise our electricity production and consumption, which was mentioned earlier as one of the things that should be taken account of. Currently, as has been stated by other Members, almost half of our electricity in the North comes from renewable sources. As good as that is, it is not enough. The sectoral plans that are envisaged by the Bill should take account of changes that need to be undertaken in, for instance, the transport sector. I know that the Minister has been doing work on all of that. As more hydrogen buses get on the road, we need to have the skills base to maintain them and the ability to fuel them locally. If we do not produce local hydrogen, we will unravel any environmental benefits that are referred to in the Bill by shipping tanks of hydrogen into the North from abroad.

The hydrogen production industry is set to be worth something in the region of £2·5 trillion globally by 2050. That is an opportunity for the Economy Minister, who should not attempt to shunt it into a small corner of the north-east, particularly as the natural geography of Derry and the north-west, including Donegal, is perfectly suited to, and in the perfect location for, the generation of wind energy, which is referred to in the sectoral plans of the Bill and is necessary for the production of hydrogen. I have been centrally involved in showcasing Derry and Donegal to investors; I have exposed to them what the Bill sets out regarding energy production and supply, which is in abundance in the north-west. The Bill sets out the ultimate objective of achieving net zero emissions, and hydrogen opportunities can help to achieve that in Derry, investing in economically sustainable jobs and tackling regional inequalities in the north-west.

In relation to what the Bill says around energy production and supply, I have already initiated conversations with, for instance, Magee university, the Letterkenny Institute of Technology, Derry and Strabane council, Donegal council, the Foyle port and NI Water to help to advance the opportunity for Derry and the north-west city region to capture the all-Ireland opportunities to advance climate justice. In fact, over the past number of months, I have done more for Derry with potential investors than Invest NI has. That would not be too hard, but that is another debate for another day. I know that you will not want me to stray into that.

The bottom line remains that we are at a crossroads. We can choose to do more of the same or to protect our natural world. The longer we dilly-dally over choosing which path to go down, the less of our natural world we will protect. The next stage of the process will be vital in understanding and shaping a climate change Act that will protect people, our ecology and our environment.

Mr McGlone: I thank the principal sponsor of the Bill for its introduction here today. My party colleague Mark, the Member for Foyle, is a co-sponsor of the Bill. When he was Environment Minister in 2015, he proposed a climate action Bill at the time of the Paris Accord in order to keep the rise in global average temperature to well below 2°C, which is above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1·5°C.

We have an obligation and a responsibility to meet those commitments. The commitment to climate change is a commitment to social justice. The delay in seeing a climate change Bill brought before the Assembly has been because of a number of issues, among them the denial of some Members of the current Environment Minister's party and the absence of an Executive, when members of the deputy First Minister's party walked from the Assembly. Nevertheless, we are where we are today, and, indeed, when the Assembly declared a climate emergency in February last year, the Minister, along with his party, voted against that declaration.

However, as we look at this —.

Mr Wells: Will the Member give way?

Mr McGlone: Yes, sure, Jim.

Mr Wells: Not all of his party voted against that motion. I was very much in favour of declaring a climate change emergency.