Official Report: Monday 28 June 2021
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I advise Members that I have been informed by the Chief Electoral Officer that Mr Stephen Dunne has been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the North Down constituency, to fill the vacancy resulting from the sad passing of his father, Gordon. I offer my sincere sympathies to Stephen and the entire family.
This morning, Mr Dunne signed the Roll of Membership in the presence of the Principal Deputy Speaker and the Clerk to the Assembly and entered his designation. Mr Dunne has taken his seat. I welcome him to the Assembly and wish him every success in his time here.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Mr Gerry Carroll has been given leave to make a statement on the NI Public Service Ombudsman's (NIPSO) report on the personal independence payment (PIP), which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should rise in their place and continue to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that interventions are not permitted and that I will not take any points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.
Mr Carroll: Thanks to the Speaker for accepting the Matter of the Day. Last week's report from the ombudsman was damning about the welfare system and, chiefly, the personal independence payment, which is an issue that people have highlighted for many years. The report underscored what many people have thought, experienced and said for some time now: Capita is unfit for that work. Time and time again, Capita has proven that it is either unable or unwilling to deal with highly sensitive circumstances and with people who have disabilities and vulnerabilities. The question is how was it able to do that in the first place? The answer is two words: welfare reform.
The parties in this House that implemented welfare reform are responsible for this scandal. In the main, the DUP and Sinn Féin. It is not that they did not know the scale of the problems with not only Capita, but welfare reform itself. They were warned before they implemented it, but they proceeded regardless. We were told that the vulnerable would be protected. That is a laughable claim when you read the details of the report from last week. It is a system of conscious cruelty that says that it is OK to slash welfare services and put people through a degrading and rigorous ordeal, all for a cosy deal to cut corporation tax for the wealthy.
That was in the detail of the Stormont House Agreement, the legacy of which we still live with today.
The report found that, repeatedly, Capita did not contact doctors or other health professionals in the majority of cases. Who better to know about people's health or disabilities than their doctor or medical practitioners? It also found that applicants with Parkinson's disease received zero points for daily living and mobility and that, disgracefully, GP evidence that had been given was not taken into consideration. The report also found:
"the evidence supports a finding of systemic maladministration. The issues I have reported do not point to 'one off' mistakes but instead support the need to fundamentally review how further evidence is obtained and applied in the PIP process and how this is communicated."
That is from the ombudsman herself. In any sane, fair and rational system, you would think that that company would at least have its knuckles rapped and its contract cancelled. What is the response from the Department for Communities and the Sinn Féin Minister? It is, disgracefully, to continue the company's contract for another two years.
Then we have the awarding of a contract for victims' pensions to the same organisation. Who can say with any sincerity that they trust that company to treat people with any empathy and care, considering how Capita has repeatedly functioned in the past? I certainly do not. We were told about a new normal, but given the report, its findings and the future outworkings of the contracts, there will be no new normal for people on PIP or for people with disabilities.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Member for bringing the issue forward. I am sure that all of us could give testimony to the fact that none of us needed an ombudsman's report to know what was happening in the PIP system and its assessment system. All of us could wax lyrical in the Chamber about the many people we have seen in our offices who have been unfairly treated through the PIP assessment system. We could talk about cancer patients. We could talk about people with long-term learning or physical difficulties who, although their difficulties are never going to get better, were questioned time and time again through that system on their experiences and how their life was going to change. Again, it is no surprise that the ombudsman's report discussed inconsistencies and poor communication, because, as MLAs, we see the results of that day and daily. Where medical evidence is concerned, I know that, very early in the changeover to PIP, a delegation met Capita to talk about people with autism. If you have autism, you will not have medical evidence because you do not have a disease. You are not required to have a massive amount of medical evidence, yet those people were treated very unfairly when we first had PIP.
There is strong evidence in the ombudsman's report that things need to change. There are questions about Capita continuing in its role, given the many faults and failings that are highlighted throughout the report. At the end of the day, people's lives are involved. Those involved are real people living with trials and tribulations every day that are being compounded on a daily basis because the wrong decisions are being made. People have to wait such a long time for their appeals. We know that the waiting period has been extended partly because of COVID, but we have people at home now who have been made to feel as though they were telling lies and that their illness or disease does not matter. That needs to change, because their illness absolutely matters, and we have a responsibility to tell people that it matters. Change needs to come about, and we need to see it now.
Ms Ennis: Sinn Féin has fundamental concerns with the Capita system. I commend the ombudsman and her team for carrying out their in-depth investigation, which began 20 months ago. I am glad to say, however, that, since the appointment of a Sinn Féin Minister, a number of immediate and much-needed changes have been introduced to improve the delivery of PIP and that more changes will come.
I welcome the report and its findings and recommendations. As Paula Bradley said, I, too, have had many people contact me over the years regarding their experiences as, I am sure, has everyone across the House. At this point, I thank the independent advice sector for not only its work in guiding people through the PIP system but its continued advocacy for change. It has been doing extremely good work in highlighting the concerns and the treatment that some people experienced in the Capita process.
I put on record the fact that Minister Hargey is the first Minister to commit to bringing those assessments back in-house. She has stated her intention to do that as soon as it is practicably possible and her intention for health professionals in the Department to carry out those assessments. That is absolutely one of the changes that needs to happen.
I also welcome Minister Hargey's commitment, which she has stated to the House before, to working with the ombudsman on the report and the recommendations. However, she requires resources and the support and partnership of the Department of Health to do that. Of course, that was not possible due to the current pandemic, and steps were needed in the interim to ensure the continued provision of services.
As I said, I welcome the report. It is fair to say that nobody across the House will have a problem with any of the recommendations. We now need to see Minister Hargey working with the ombudsman and her team on the full implementation of the report's recommendations.
Mr Durkan: The NIPSO report that was published last week was shocking but, sadly, not surprising. So many vulnerable people have suffered at the hands of Capita and the current system, not just to their financial detriment but at huge cost to their health and well-being. Our office workers and the vital independent advice sector do their best to help people navigate a system that fails people, and not a week goes by that we do not hear a fresh horror story of how Capita conducts its business.
By any measure, Capita has failed. The NIPSO report laid out some of those failings, but we also have to look at the number of successful appeals that are being heard. What is the cost of the appeals system to the public purse? Another £2 million was allocated in the recent monitoring round precisely for the purpose of clearing the backlog in appeals. Clearly, if Capita was doing its job properly, we would not be incurring that cost.
How much will Capita gain from the two-year extension to its contract? Whatever way we look at it, it is rewarding not just failure but the abuse of vulnerable people.
Mr Nesbitt: I very much welcome the report from the NI Public Services Ombudsman. I also note that it is an own-initiative report. Members may recall that the office of NIPSO was created by the Committee for the Executive Office. It is the only Committee ever to bring forward legislation on its own. The five parties of that Committee agreed that it was important to give the NIPSO the power to initiate his or her own investigations when a pattern of maladministration was suspected in any area of devolved government. The ombudsman has, indeed, concluded that there was systemic maladministration with regard to the PIP system. I welcome that.
Speaking on behalf of my constituents, I am no different from the other 89 MLAs. We have constituency offices, and constituents come in. You do not have to look at the file or the medical evidence to realise, within seconds, that you are dealing with a very vulnerable person, who does not understand the system, who may find some of the technical language entirely foreign and who is simply looking for somebody to show a little empathy in the first place and to help. I have gone to many appeals, and I have come to the conclusion that Capita does not give sufficient weighting to mental capacity.
The question of whether someone can prepare and cook a simple meal is judged crudely on the physical ability to open a can of beans, put the beans in a pan, put the pan on a stove, turn on the gas and heat the beans. People can do that, but they do not have the mental capacity to continue to concentrate. They may dander off and start watching television, and they then wonder why the fire brigade is at the front door. We need to do things an awful lot better.
I noted that Ms Ennis said that we need to bring the assessments back in-house. How many millions have we spent on the recent voluntary exit scheme to reduce the headcount of our Civil Service? Are we now going to say to the Executive, "Spend millions more on a recruitment campaign to boost the headcount yet again"? Absolutely not. There is a very simple answer for the Department for Communities: get your act together and sort it out.
Ms Armstrong: I welcome, as others have, the stark but well-researched report by the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, which identified systemic maladministration in the PIP system. I call on the Minister to outline urgently her planned actions to rectify that situation.
Like other Members, I deal with constituents who have tried to navigate the PIP system. They have complained and said that the system is not fit for purpose. Claimants have raised constant concerns about the amount of paperwork and the application process, including the assessment interviews, and the report confirms those concerns. I absolutely accept that some claimants proceed through the system. Others, however, have been forced to appeal and go through a tough tribunal just to allow them to access support and live independently. That is not good enough, and the failings land firmly with the Minister.
The evidence supports a finding of systemic maladministration, and I am so sorry for those who have suffered unnecessarily. The Minister must act, and I believe that she will. She has decided to extend Capita's contract while she prepares to bring assessments in-house. However, unless significant improvements are made, the same assessors will be transferred to the Department under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE) and will continue to deliver processes that are not good enough.
We all know that DWP created the system. Unfortunately, we are delivering it here. People with disabilities should not be treated so appallingly by the very system that is supposed to support them. Given that the Department is working on a disability strategy, I absolutely hope that the expert panel that is responsible for that strategy will ensure that the scandalous treatment that was dealt out to people who applied for PIP will be addressed and that appropriate direction will be provided to stop that treatment from continuing.
I call on people to stop harming victims. Today, we heard it conflated that the Victims' Payments Board will use the same system. It may use the same company, but it is definitely not the same system. The Victims' Payments Board is working to put out the criteria for that service, and it is independent of the Department of Justice. We need to stop harming victims, and I am very disappointed by the BBC's 'Nolan Show', which has upset a number of victims on the issue. The Troubles permanent disablement payments scheme has not even been created, yet it has been trashed.
We have to look after our victims and those who are applying for PIP. It is up to all of us to take that forward and make those improvements.
Miss Woods: I welcome Stephen Dunne to the Chamber. It is good to see you, Stephen.
I thank Mr Carroll for bringing the Matter of the Day forward, and I thank the Speaker for accepting it. It is indeed a Matter of the Day, but it has also been a matter that many of us have been dealing with for many years. Like other Members, I am not surprised at the outcome of the ombudsman's report. The PIP system is broken and is not fit for purpose. We know that, and last week's report was just the latest pointer to the failings. It found evidence of systemic maladministration, which is just not OK. How many more reports will we read? How many more reports will the Department read and put on a shelf?
The implementation of PIP has caused hardship to a significant proportion of applicants for years and has thrown many people into significant distress and despair. Despite that, even the recommendations from Walter Rader's first review of PIP have gone largely unimplemented, and I continue to receive correspondence from constituents about the same issues that have gone unchecked.
The report of the second review, which was by Marie Cavanagh, was published late last year. It contained 12 recommendations, and I encourage the Communities Minister to implement those as soon as possible. However, of particular significance in that report is a recommendation that the Department should:
"produce guidance/examples for claimants, advocacy services and Healthcare Professionals of appropriate evidence to support the PIP process and where this evidence should be obtained."
Now, we have this report also highlighting the importance of evidence.
In our constituency offices, we all deal with applications for social security. Many people come to us only when they have tried all other avenues that they can see, or when things have got really bad. However, the incredible role of the independent advice sector must not be underestimated. Without it, people would be in a far worse position.
We have all helped too many people who have faced degrading and humiliating questions or had claims unfairly and unjustly rejected: people who have been let down by the system. The privatisation of the PIP process has been a disaster: the evidence that people are required to submit on the form, the support available and even the data collected and published. We have appeals going to court. This should not be a matter for the courts. The process should be brought in-house completely. The Department does not even properly publish statistics on the appeals. That was subject to another report that has gone largely unchecked.
People need to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect when making social security claims. We know that they are not. Whilst we are not debating the merits of the entire process, the point remains that those administering the system have a duty to ensure that they do not fail the people whom they assess. That is the least that anyone in our society can expect.
Mr Allister: I join others in welcoming Stephen Dunne to the Assembly, although the circumstances that bring him here are, of course, those of immense sadness for him and his family.
There is no glossing over the findings of this ombudsman's report. They are stark and compelling, and an unflinching and unmitigated indictment of Capita. Clearly, as a company, it is not fit for purpose. Yet, even though probably any MLA could have identified the issues that have now been articulated so fully by the ombudsman's office, our daily experience means that is no great surprise to us to read the findings.
Yet, instead of an adverse reaction to Capita when it was pretty clear that it was not fit for purpose, its contract was extended. Across government, another Department decided to engage it on the most sensitive of issues: victims' pensions. Ms Armstrong makes a gallant effort to distinguish the issues, but there is an indistinguishability about the fact that a company charged with assessing individuals has lamentably failed with PIP. What confidence can we have that it will do otherwise when it comes to victims of the Troubles? Therefore, I am astounded and appalled that the Justice Minister has engaged the same failed entity to oversee that particular operation. Really? Do we learn nothing in this House?
Mr Easton: Nobody should be surprised by the ombudsman's report on PIP and the outcomes of it. Every one of us in the House has known about this for years. What did we do about it? Some of us may have raised questions at the Communities Committee, but we let it happen, even though we knew that it was going on, day in and day out. It is a collective failure of the Assembly. We should all hang our heads in shame. It is our fault.
Partly, the problem with Capita is also a problem with the Department for Communities, because, at the end of the day, the Department put Capita in charge.
The Department set the criteria and the guidelines, so it has a big responsibility for what happened. People who should have had their PIP are being denied it. Those people are being traumatised, and that is the fault of all of us in here — all of us — because we are allowing it to happen. Even without COVID on top of it, we have backlogs of appeals on mandatory reconsiderations and actual oral appeals that are costing hundreds of thousands of pounds. I will have to table an Assembly question to find out what the exact figure is. I fear for the future, because the Department for Communities under the Minister has allowed the contract to go on for another two years. As a result, in those two years, we will traumatise more people. The Minister really needs to look at that very quickly.
On top of that, as Mr Allister mentioned, we will traumatise the victims of the Troubles, because we are going to give the contract for victims' pensions to Capita. It will be in charge and will create a mess of that as well. I have no doubt that it will create a mess. We have a responsibility to ensure that that does not happen. I call on the Justice Minister to pull back from giving Capita that contract before it is too late and we cause more problems for the victims of the Troubles.
Dr Aiken: I thank Mr Carroll for bringing the Matter of the Day before us. There are two issues here, and they are substantial issues of which we as Members of the Assembly need to be fully aware. I pay tribute to a member of my staff, Leah Smyth, who is my constituency manager. Like nearly all our constituency managers, she spends a considerable amount of time dealing with PIP enquiries. If you look at the volume that constituency managers have to go through and the inexplicable positions taken when cases get to appeal, you will see that, nine times out of 10, the appeal is accepted, because, when the detail of it is looked at, it is clear that Capita did not do its job right in the first place.
The cost of this, above all to the people whom we are trying to help, is unbelievable. We have to remember that people come to our offices not as a first resort but as a last resort. When they come to us, we have so much sympathy for the position that they are in. We also know that, once we get the form filled in correctly and get the case to appeal, there is a 90% chance that they will not have to go through any more trauma, because it will be sorted out. The fact that that happens time and time again should be completely unacceptable to the Assembly, but there is something more fundamental here. The Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) clearly used the word "maladministration". Think about that: a provider of public services has been told that it is maladministering the process. That is not a one-off with Capita. Anybody who knows anything about what is going on across the entirety of the public services will ask why we use Capita time and time again. Why do we use it across government? What is the hold that Capita has on our process that we feel that we have to use it time and time again? Even when it is manifestly failing and has been told that it is maladministering the system, we give it another contract and say that it can have other contracts across government. That needs to be investigated. What hold does Capita have over our Civil Service and our Ministers? I cannot understand why we allow that situation to continue.
I look at Mr Carroll, and he is probably thinking exactly the same thing. I look at Members from every other party in the Chamber, and they are all asking the same questions: what is it about Capita that we do not seem to be able to wean ourselves off it, and what hold does it have over our Government, our system and the rest of it? Those are the questions that we need to ask ourselves and that must be addressed.
Ms Bradshaw: I thank Mr Carroll for bringing the Matter of the Day to the House. It is important that we reflect on the report in the Chamber today.
On the specific issue of the personal independence payment, I strongly endorse many of the comments made today and commend Margaret Kelly and her team on the clarity of the report. Its contents are of little surprise to those of us in the Chamber who have been helping our constituents with PIP payments; indeed, the reality of the situation is rather worse when you hear the details from someone in front of you as opposed to reading them on a piece of paper.
The failure to make the right payment without effectively forcing claimants to make continual changes and the impact on them in every sense, financial through to their mental well-being, are, frankly, always harrowing. What claimants report to me time and again is a sense of desperation, intrusion and gross unfairness. There was a sense throughout that the process was about assuming that people were not entitled rather than helping them to receive the support to which they are entitled and that they greatly need. That is clearly the wrong way round.
I want to address some issues that have been raised in the Chamber today around the awarding of the contract for victims' pensions to Capita. The victims must absolutely come first, and I have to say that, not just in the Chamber today but on the air waves earlier, there were a lot of misinformed and inappropriate comments, with the voices of victims notably being drowned out. I am concerned not that the process will re-traumatise them, as Mr Easton said, but that, I suspect, a lot of the discourse in the public domain today will very much re-traumatise them in that regard.
The process for victims' pensions is, perhaps thankfully, utterly different from the assessment needed for PIP. Capita was appointed following a public tendering process with specific criteria drawn up. As opposed to what others have said here, it is not about a hold on any Department; it is about an open process that any company can apply to. That took place several months ago, before the NIPSO report, and it was largely welcomed by victims' organisations in the recognition that such a step was necessary towards achieving the actual implementation of the pension scheme.
There was no need for the Justice Minister or the Department of Justice to take on the scheme. They did so because of the urgency involved and the recognition that victims were fed up with being further victimised, re-traumatised and used in political games. They need a process that will involve specialists and expert medical professionals, and I agree with others in their commentary on that. We need to move forward with the process, and others in the Chamber need to reflect on their commentary around the scheme.
We do not want to detract, however, from the real problems and concerns that Members have mentioned around the PIP assessment process. I welcome the report.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Tá cead iarrtha ag Dolores Kelly achainí phoiblí a chur faoi bhráid an Tionóil. Mrs Dolores Kelly has sought leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22. The Member will have up to three minutes in which to speak.
Mrs D Kelly: I am grateful to the Speaker and my colleagues on the Business Committee for providing time in a busy schedule today to present this petition calling for an animal cruelty register. It is something that our party colleague Malachy Quinn has worked hard on over the last number of years and that has the support of all councils across the North. It is something that people obviously feel passionately about. Within a matter of days, the online petition acquired over 4,000 signatures. In many Members' constituencies — certainly, in mine — in the last couple of years, there have been some horrendous cases of animal cruelty towards domestic pets and farm animals.
The petition has widespread support. It is supported by the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (USPCA), and I am grateful to it and to all those who signed the petition, which calls on the Agriculture Minister to work alongside the Minister of Justice — the Minister of Justice recently gave commitments to make her officials available — for the register to be established, because it is important that those convicted of such horrendous cruelty are disbarred from keeping animals.
The register, it is hoped, would be able to be accessed by shelters and charities so that people convicted would not be able to rehome animals and, indeed, by pet shop owners and others so that they could check the bona fides of people who wished to purchase animals from shops. Indeed, for those who have been convicted of illegal practices on puppy farms as well, that is very important.
We already have stiff sentences available to the courts, although some might argue that the sentences that have been imposed thus far do not go far enough in relation to what many see as a very sadistic form of behaviour. Many think that, in some cases, it is psychopathic, given the levels of cruelty. Therefore, it is timely that the register be established. I hope that the Minister works hard during the remainder of the mandate to have it established; indeed, I know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you have had discussions on an ongoing basis with the Agriculture Minister in the South, Charlie McConalogue TD, in looking at an all-island register. We know that this border is far from — well, we know today, anyway. Certainly, the Committee meeting in a room nearby will know about the border.
Certainly, I think it is worth the effort —
Mrs D Kelly: — to have an all-Ireland register that has the support of people across this island.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I thank the Member. Normally, I would invite the Member to bring her petition to the Table and present it to me. However, in light of social distancing, I ask the Member to remain in her place and make arrangements to submit the petition to the Speaker's Office electronically, if that is possible. I thank her indeed for bringing the petition to the attention of the Assembly. Once the petition is received, the Speaker's Office will forward it to the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and send a copy to the Committee.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Agus an chéad ábhar eile. Tá cead iarrtha ag Nicola Brogan achainí phoiblí a chur faoi bhráid an Tionóil. Nicola Brogan has sought leave to present a public petition to the Assembly in accordance with Standing Order No 22. Again, the Member will have up to three minutes to speak.
Ms Brogan: A LeasCheann Comhairle, I present this public petition to you on behalf of the people of Omagh and the wider west Tyrone area. The petition calls on the Health Minister, Robin Swann, to progress the acute mental health centre for Omagh town that was announced in 2016. The business case for the facility was created by the Western Health and Social Care Trust. It proposes a 6,700 square metre new-build facility to be located adjacent to the Omagh Hospital and Primary Care Complex. The new centre was intended to replace outdated facilities and provide the people of Omagh and the wider west Tyrone area with modern, fit-for-purpose accommodation. We have already seen new builds for Belfast and Derry and, recently, progress on a new site at Holywell Hospital. The facility at Omagh would include a 26-bed acute mental health unit with six integrated psychiatric intensive care beds and a therapy day centre. It would have an eight-bed alcohol and drug treatment unit and an older people's mental health unit, with space for older people with mental health concerns and those with dementia.
I bring the petition to the Assembly on behalf of almost 600 signatories. The people of Omagh, Fintona, Trillick, Strabane and all of west Tyrone deserve high-quality, safe and effective mental healthcare based on the identified needs of the local population. Following the pandemic and the increase in mental health concerns throughout the population, it is more vital than ever that we have a facility that supports those struggling with mental health and addictions. It may be too early to assess the full impact of COVID-19. However, we can already see in just one specialist service — eating disorders — that referrals have increased by 43% and review appointments by 64% between March 2019 and September 2020. My concern and that of many members of the public is that, if we do not have a unit suitable for escalating cases, those in need do not receive the service required.
We are constantly advising and reminding our friends, families and colleagues to speak out and ask for help when we feel like we are struggling to cope or having our own mental health issues. Whilst it is obviously really important to have that space to talk about concerns, we also must ensure that the necessary professional help and support is available to those who need it. If there is no capacity to escalate and provide enhanced inpatient services, their needs will not be met by already stretched and hard-working community services.
I welcome the Minister's recent announcement of £400,000 from the Department that will go towards the modernisation of mental health services in Omagh. However, that is simply a sticking plaster. We need the outdated facility to be replaced with the modern, fit-for-purpose facility that has already been agreed. The people of Omagh and West Tyrone cannot be left behind or ignored.
I hope that the Minister listens to all those who have signed the petition and understands just how crucial the service is to the people of Omagh.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Normally, I would invite the Member to bring her petition to the Table and present it to me. However, in light of social distancing, as before, I ask the Member to remain in her place and make arrangements to submit the petition to the Speaker's Office. I thank the Member for bringing the petition to the attention of the Assembly. Once it is received, I will forward it to the Minister of Health and send a copy to the Committee.
Members, I propose a short suspension of five minutes until we move to the next item of business.
The sitting was suspended at 12.40 pm and resumed at 12.45 pm.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I have received notice from the Minister of Finance that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members in the Chamber that, in light of the social distancing being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members present in the Chamber must also do that by rising in their place as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly.
I remind Members to be concise in asking their question. This is not an opportunity for debate, and long introductions will not be allowed. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the period for questions afterwards.
Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance): I welcome the opportunity to make a statement on the outcome of the 2020-21 provisional out-turn and the Executive’s June monitoring exercise. While I advised of them by way of a written statement, today’s oral statement will allow Members an opportunity to engage more fully on those important issues.
Before turning to the current year, I want to update the Assembly on the 2020-21 provisional out-turn and resulting Budget exchange position. Last year, the unprecedented levels of COVID-19 funding, the late notice of much of that funding and the rapid establishment of unique support measures created a real prospect of returning significant underspend to the British Treasury. In the absence of bids from other Departments, my Department established contingency measures to put that money to good use by supporting businesses. As a result of those contingency plans and good budget management by many Departments, I am pleased to say that no resource or conventional capital departmental expenditure limit (DEL) has been lost to the Executive. The underspend reported by Departments, together with central adjustments, has resulted in the carry forward of £85·7 million in resource DEL and £17·8 million in conventional capital DEL.
Unfortunately, the underspend of £55·6 million for ring-fenced financial transactions capital (FTC) exceeded the amount that can be carried forward by £26·4 million, meaning that 28·5% of FTC lending has been lost through underspend. While it is an improvement on the 2019-2020 position, when £72 million or 54% was lost, it is nonetheless disappointing. It reflects, however, the challenge associated with identifying suitable projects that can avail themselves of that finance, which may be used only for loans or equity investments in the private sector.
The £401·9 million of underspend on ring-fenced resource DEL, of which £395·7 million cannot be carried forward, seems, on the face of it, concerning. However, that must be considered in context. That funding may be used only for the non-cash costs relating to depreciation and impairments, so it is, in effect, a technical accounting issue. The majority of the underspend arose from a Barnett consequential that resulted from an allocation for student loan impairments in England that was not needed here. Given its technical nature, the loss of that underspend has no impact on the level of funding available for public services.
Turning to June monitoring, Members will be aware from my written statement that the Executive had £149 million in resource DEL, £91 million in capital DEL and £57·6 million in financial transactions capital DEL available to address pressures of a routine nature and those that arose as a result of COVID-19. That funding includes reduced requirements of £20·7 million resource DEL and £23·4 million capital DEL. Further details are included in the tables provided with the statement.
As usual, the resource DEL bids submitted by Departments far outweighed the level of resources available. Some bids can be revisited later in the year, when there will be more clarity on actual costs. The Executive have agreed to allocate the full level of resource DEL funding that is available in this round: some £149 million. Full details of bids and allocations are set out in the tables that accompany the statement. However, I would like to highlight a few specific areas.
I am providing £54·7 million to the Department of Health, including £31·5 million to aid pressures in elective care, which will help with waiting lists in the short term. I have also written to Executive colleagues to seek their support for a longer-term plan to tackle waiting lists and transform the health service as part of the multi-year Budget that we hope to move to. The Department of Education will receive £39 million, £35·7 million of which is to help children with special educational needs (SEN). The remaining £3·3 million is for COVID-19 pressures.
In light of the need to have funding in place to provide certainty for victims, an allocation of £19 million was made to the Executive Office (TEO) for the victims' pension scheme. Discussions continue with the British Government regarding the long-term funding of the scheme. Given some of the erroneous media reporting on the issue, I wish to clarify that the delay in launching the scheme has absolutely nothing to do with funding.
The decision to delay was taken to give applicants time to familiarise themselves with the guidance and to make sure that they can get the support that they need before making an application.
I have met all the bids for capital DEL submitted by Departments, which total £61·3 million. I am allocating £26·6 million to the Department for Communities for a range of housing projects, including £8·3 million to the Housing Executive to help tenants with a disability to adapt their property. The Department for Communities was hoping to invest £18 million this year in the development of a new stadium at Casement. However, planning permission has not yet been approved, meaning that it is not possible to spend that amount within the financial year. Funding for that flagship scheme will instead be allocated next year. The Department of Education receives £18 million, £14 million of which is for works to deliver additional accommodation across the school estate. I am allocating £11·5 million to the Department of Health, including £8·4 million for the replacement of equipment and vehicles and for essential maintenance work across the health estate. Some £1 million is allocated to assist the provision of a pilot mental health rehabilitation facility in Antrim. The facility is the first of its kind and will address an identified gap in care. An allocation of £8 million in ring-fenced financial transactions capital has been made to the Department for Communities in this round to assist the funding of the over-55s shared ownership scheme.
All capital DEL bids having been met, £29·7 million remains unallocated. Given the position on capital DEL, I have decided to reduce reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI) borrowing by £30 million, leaving a small overcommitment of £0·3 million. That can be revisited in October monitoring, when a decision to access further borrowing can be made, depending on the capital bids submitted at that stage.
At the conclusion of June monitoring, £46·4 million of financial transactions capital remains unallocated. I call on the Departments to consider ways to utilise that lending capacity.
This year's monitoring statements are accompanied by tables outlining the detail of changes to spending areas in Departments in order to aid transparency in the process. I commend the June monitoring outcome to the Assembly.
Dr Aiken (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance): I thank the Minister for his statement and for meeting me and our new Deputy Chairperson earlier today to discuss the key points of his briefing. I am sure that the Committee will welcome the £149 million of resource DEL allocations as well as the £61 million of capital allocations, with Communities, Education and Health all benefiting.
A few days ago, at Final Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill, I referred to the possibility of unknown and undeclared problems in the Estimates that may have gone unscrutinised. Today we see an underspend of £400 million of ring-fenced DEL, all of which cannot be carried forward into 2021-22. I understand the explanation that that will not affect non-ring-fenced DEL spending. Nonetheless, I ask the Minister why that large allocation, which relates, as he said, to unrepaid student loans, was made by the Treasury to the Department for the Economy in the first place if it was not germane to Northern Ireland. I also ask why so much of the Budget cover was not spent by the Department in 2020-21 and what the impact is likely to be in future years. I ask why, during all the scrutiny by the Committee for Finance of the spring Supplementary Estimates and all the related debates in the House, the size of the problem was never explicitly revealed. It is not satisfactory that the Committee for Finance or, indeed, the Committee for the Economy —
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Dr Aiken, maybe you were not listening to my initial remarks. I have allowed a fair bit of latitude because you are Chair of the Committee, but I think that you have asked four questions thus far. Whether the Minister answers them will be up to him. Perhaps you could inject a bit of brevity into this.
Dr Aiken: With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, these are important issues. I am sure that the Minister —
Dr Aiken: I shall be very snappy and very sharp. Thank you very much.
Minister, if you could answer those questions, the Committee and the Department for the Economy would be delighted to have your views.
Mr Murphy: I thank the Chair. As I said, the significant level of that ring-fenced resource DEL was due to a Barnett consequential. There was a significant amount of impairment to student loans in England that required a significant amount of money to be spent there. We got a Barnett consequential as a consequence of that. It is ring-fenced and can be spent only on the exact area of impairment to student loans. Relatively speaking, we had a very small amount and therefore could not use the rest of that money and could not be allocated to any other public service. It is not a loss from the finances that we had available for public services and has been returned to Treasury.
I am happy to hear from the Finance Committee if it thinks that there was any deficit in the information that it received on that funding. I will make sure that those issues are addressed.
Mr K Buchanan: First, it is only right that I welcome my colleague Stephen Dunne to the Chamber, in case I forget and do not do so for the next two or three years. You are very welcome, Stephen.
My quick question is about financial transactions capital. Pages 3 and 4 of your statement refer to the loss of 28·5% of FTC this year and 54% last year. How can we improve on that? Will you give us a bit more detail on how Departments can utilise FTC so that it is not sent back?
Mr Murphy: As I said to the Member in a meeting that we had earlier, it is an improved position on last year. However, it is not where we want it to be. Financial transactions capital spend is fairly limited in what it can be used for. Specifically, it has to be for a loan to a private enterprise, and some of that was used over the course of the year by Departments in an improved position. Nonetheless, we have still fallen short.
We will continue to remind Departments and familiarise them with the rules and regulations. Departments were interested in FTC and RRI borrowing. However, distilling schemes into those that qualify and can access that type of facility reduces their number. There is an improved position, which is good, but there is more work to be done. We will continue to engage with Departments in the time ahead to make sure that they understand how that funding can be utilised. The ambition will be to utilise that funding fully in the next Budget.
Mr McHugh: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. Does the £19 million for the victims' pension scheme allow it to commence this year? In the event that the British Government do not step up to the plate to support the scheme, how long can it continue?
Mr Murphy: The Executive have given a commitment, including a commitment in the courts, that the scheme will go ahead, and it is going ahead. There is some slight delay. The £19 million identified by the Member is the amount estimated by the Department of Justice, and it is based on the number of people who will access the scheme. The estimate can be used in this financial year, and we have committed to doing that.
Of course, our dialogue with Treasury continues. We have challenged Treasury. According to their statement of funding policy, the Government who design and legislate for a scheme are responsible for the cost. That discussion with the Treasury continues. A number of weeks ago, I met the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I had that discussion with him, and we have heard back from him since that meeting. We continue to have exchanges with him. There is no doubt, given the estimates that we have, on which all of this is based, that the cost, not necessarily this year, at the beginning of the scheme, but over the next four to five years, after which it tapers off over the lifetime of the scheme, would be beyond the affordability of the Executive
Mr O'Toole: Minister, I welcome the £30 million allocation to the Department of Health for elective care, particularly as, in response to a question for written answer from Mark Durkan, you said that you personally did not have the power to allocate money to the Department of Health. I notice that the statement says:
"I am providing ... to the Department of Health ... £31·5 million".
I welcome that change of heart on who allocates the money.
Minister, you said that the reduced RRI borrowing might be allocated later in the financial year. Is it not better to come up with potential places to allocate that money earlier in the financial year rather than later? While you are right that we will have more information later in the financial year, if it is left until then, it will, by definition, be more difficult to deliver that within this financial year.
Mr Murphy: Lest the Member misunderstand, I make the statement on my behalf, and the Executive agree the allocations that I propose to them. I would have thought that, after a year or so on the Finance Committee, he might have grasped that.
We had more capital available than was bid for by Departments. It therefore made more sense to use conventional capital rather than to get into RRI borrowing for some of the capital projects that had been identified. We can access RRI borrowing throughout the year. If Departments have any other ideas, I very much welcome their coming forward with them.
Mr Muir: Like Mr Buchanan, I welcome Stephen Dunne to the Chamber today.
My question is on capital funding. From the statement, it is clear that £91 million of capital funding was available but that bids of only £61·3 million were made, all of which were fully met. From my perspective, that is very concerning, particularly in the light of increasing construction costs. Is the Minister confident that everything is being done to ensure that we maximise the capital funding available?
FTC has also been talked about. Numerous reports have come out about the need for joined-up working and collaboration that make the case for having an infrastructure commission. Is the Minister confident that everything is being done to ensure that we can shift the capital funding and invest in our green recovery?
Mr Murphy: It is early in the financial year, and this is the first monitoring round exercise. All Departments got their capital allocation only at the start of April, so the likelihood that some have already assessed that they do not have enough capital and will therefore need to come forward with significant bids is slim. Perhaps costs are a feature, but, as the year rolls on, other features will reduce capital spend, such as planning exercises and various hold-ups that happen over the course of significant capital projects. It is therefore not surprising that, on top of the capital that they have already got, there are not huge additional bids for capital from Departments this early in the financial year. Although we had a standstill Budget for resource, we had some extra money for capital, so Departments might have got a better allocation in that regard. We will, of course, continue to monitor the situation and engage with Departments. We do not want to see any underspend. We want to see money managed properly, and we will engage over the year to make sure that that is the case.
Ms Dolan: Minister, the £31·5 million provides an immediate injection of funding to tackle waiting lists. What are your views on how longer-term funding might be provided to bring down waiting lists? Can that be done as part of a multi-year Budget?
Mr Murphy: There is no doubt that that is helpful for the Department in the short term, but, as the Health Minister and I have agreed many times, what we need is longer-term recurrent funding. We can do that only in a multi-year Budget scenario, through which we can employ people to address waiting lists. Other than that, we can, in quite a lot of cases, spend money in the private sector to try to reduce waiting lists, but that does not fix the ongoing problem of our health service's ability to manage waiting lists in the longer term. The longer-term solution is health transformation and the plan that the Health Minister has outlined. It is about ensuring that we have the right number of staff working in the NHS to be able to deal with the issues into the future.
Mr Catney: I read with interest about the number of development-led capital projects that have historically been funded through FTC. I am sure that you know where I am going with this, Minister. It strikes me that the Maze/Long Kesh development in my constituency of Lagan Valley is a perfect project to which to award such funding. Given the historical underspending of FTC, will you push the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to bring forward plans for the site in order to utilise that funding?
Mr Murphy: I know that the Member has a constituency interest, but, regardless of that, he is correct in saying that the site has enormous potential, and the need for it to be properly developed is long overdue. I look forward to development plans being brought through the Executive Office and then the Executive, and for spend to be attached to them. If we are heading into a budgetary planning exercise over the summer and into the autumn, that would be the time at which to identify what is required for the site.
Mr Beggs: I thank the Minister for his statement. He reports that, in the previous financial year, some £19·2 million of financial transactions capital was returned to the Treasury unspent and that some £57·6 million is available this year, of which £46·4 million remains unallocated. That could be useful to develop social housing. If the Housing Executive were restructured, it could help to fund housing through it. If Northern Ireland Water were restructured, it would have potential there. How will the Minister ensure that we make good use of that large amount of money that remains unallocated? Can we afford to wait until the October monitoring round to ensure that it is well spent in this financial year?
Mr Murphy: The Member's suggestions about the Housing Executive and Northern Ireland Water would obviously require a much longer period if those organisations were to transform themselves or to move into the position where they could access that funding. There are other opportunities to access it. Departments have only improved the picture from last year. I am speaking off the top of my head, but I think that something like £90 million was returned last year. That figure may be incorrect. It was certainly a larger amount. It has improved. It is about getting Departments to understand how that can be utilised and getting them involved in that. Of course, there is a longer-term transition process in relation to a number of arm's-length bodies, which might mean that it is availed of more readily in the years ahead. We want to see the picture improve over the course of the year. Rather than wait until the October monitoring round, we will continue to engage with Departments in the meantime to ensure that they understand the opportunities that exist with that facility and bring forward schemes in order to avail themselves of it.
Mr Gildernew: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. The Minister has allocated £5·1 million towards the A5 and A6 projects. Will that allocation ensure that progress is made on those important road-infrastructure projects this year?
Mr Murphy: Yes: undoubtedly, it will. Obviously, there are other issues to be overcome with the A5. Inquiries and other matters have held up that project, which has been far too long in its delivery. Certainly, I know from travelling on the A6 that significant progress has been made on that road. I look forward to the day when there is that connection to the north-west, with both the A5 and A6, improved railway links and improved connectivity with the City of Derry Airport. That will fill a significant gap in the island's infrastructure.
Ms Bradshaw: I thank the Minister for his statement. The Alliance Party is delighted to see that there is £31·5 million for elective care. We very much welcome the Health Minister's approach to that. I have wider concerns, in that over £6 billion is spent on health every year. When scrutinising the Health and Social Care Bill, I have raised concerns about how services are commissioned. How can we spend so much money and still have such huge waiting lists? How is Finance engaging with the Department of Health on the Health and Social Care Bill and how that Department will commission and fund services? We cannot keep dropping small amounts of money into it. There needs to be proper reform and financial management.
Mr Murphy: I do not disagree that there needs to be that longer-term approach. That is possible under a multi-annual Budget setting. It is difficult year-to-year. Last November, the Department of Health found out that, basically, it would have the same budget this year as it had last year, and it has only a one-year budget. As the Member knows, the Executive have prioritised Health. I am sure that they will continue to do so. However, we want to get to a scenario where health transformation and dealing with waiting lists, workforce planning and all those more acute issues are properly funded and planned over the years ahead, so that we can actually deliver that longer-term change. Otherwise, we will end up in a situation like this, where we are trying to fix acute problems with in-year cash injections. While that is welcome, it is not a long-term solution.
Mr McAleer: I thank the Minister for his statement. I want to express my disappointment that DAERA has not bid for any money in the June monitoring round. That is made even worse given the fact that £29·7 million of capital funding has been unallocated. I look at other Departments, such as Communities, which has bid successfully for work that is similar to that carried out by DAERA. For example, the Department for Communities bid for £1·7 million for climate change funding. That brings into question DAERA's ability to forward plan and to scan the horizon for needs that are there. I have flagged up that issue repeatedly here. It is very disappointing for rural communities that there are no bids from DAERA at this time. We need to follow up on that.
Can the Minister outline the rationale as to why DAERA requested to reclassify £1·6 million of resource DEL into capital DEL for the common market organisation funding?
Mr Murphy: There was an ability to transfer that resource into capital. It is a fairly complicated issue, but I am happy to ensure that Finance officials write to you and your Committee to give an explanation for that.
Mr McCrossan: I thank the Minister for the statement. Minister, you will be aware that, since 2010, school budgets have received savage cuts, approaching 10%. Indeed, children in NI were among the most disadvantaged when compared with other jurisdictions. The money has never been restored, and the Department of Education has constantly made bids to your Department. For example, this year, £116 million was sought and £39 million was delivered. When will you, Minister, prioritise education, or is it not a priority for you or your party?
Mr Murphy: The Member knows that it is the Executive that set the priorities, including the Minister from his party, and the Executive agree those priorities, including his own Minister, who, I presume, speaks on behalf of his party. We have made health the priority for the Executive. Of course, we try to prioritise education as well, because the education of our young people and support for our young people is hugely important, and that is why the Department of Education is the single largest recipient of funding in this monitoring round, particularly in relation to special educational needs.
The Executive can only deliver the Budget that they receive, and while we wish to prioritise things and will continue to prioritise health, when we get an annual budget of the same amount, that, in effect, means a cut. Departments may well identify pressures and make bids, and something like, I think, £1·3 billion of additional pressures which could not be met were identified across all Departments ahead of the Budget. That gives you a sense of the scale of the impact of eight or nine years of austerity policies from Westminster and the effect that they have had on the delivery of public services. Education is not on its own in suffering, and it will be supported whenever we can find money to support it, but the Executive decide the allocation of the funding and the priorities, and we have prioritised health in the time ahead.
Ms Ennis: I thank the Minister for his statement. Minister, the statement indicates that the £18 million that was allocated for the delivery of Casement Park could not be spent because the planning permission was not yet received. Can the Minister give assurances that, as an Executive flagship project, it is still a priority for him and that he will ensure that the necessary funds are found, when they are needed, to deliver Casement Park?
Mr Murphy: We had allocated in full what was anticipated to be required for this year, and, unfortunately, the delay in planning has pushed that back. That means that, because it is ring-fenced and because it is a flagship project, the Department for Communities had to return the unspent capital for that. It is an agreed flagship project for the Executive. It was part of the NDNA commitments, so I fully expect it to be funded into the future, and whatever is needed for the years beyond next year will be provided by the Executive.
Mr Allister: I want to return to the issue that Mr McCrossan raised. The outcome for Education is devastatingly disappointing. Not a penny for school maintenance. Not a penny for delegated budgets. Those are two of the most crying needs in our community, yet the Department for Communities, a Department that was so over-feted with funding during COVID that it squandered it on golf clubs and others besides, is a key winner again. Even though Communities had a 20% underspend on its ring-fenced resource and large reduced requirements on its non-ring-fenced resource and its capital, it is a winner again, and Education, one of our biggest needs, is a loser, particularly on school maintenance and delegated budgets.
Mr Murphy: As I said, Education probably gets the largest single allocation from this monitoring round. I know that he is not personally responsible, but the people from this part of the world who cheerled the Tories into power and who sustained them in power when they had opportunities to change the Government in Westminster over that time — I have not heard him criticising them for that decision — are ultimately responsible for the deficit in Education and all the other budgets. As I say, there is over £1 billion of unmet pressures across all our budgets as a consequence of nine years of cheerleading the Tories into power and sustaining them in power when there were alternative opportunities for different Governments.
Mr Carroll: I would like a bit more detail, please, on the elective care money for waiting lists. Will the Minister give a breakdown of where that money will be spent and the proportion that will be spent on private or independent providers? If not, when will he and we receive that information?
Mr Murphy: I am afraid that the Member will have to go to the Department of Health for that breakdown. As I said in response to previous questions, we find ourselves in a situation where we have to try to give emergency money, if you like, given that the tendency of the Health Department over the years has been to use the private sector to reduce waiting lists. As, I am sure, the Member will agree, the longer-term solution is to have a sufficient number of staff working in our health service to take care of the people who have to be taken care of. That is the long-term solution that I want to get to.
Mr McNulty: Minister, I note the question on Casement Park and you talked about delays to the planning permission. Will you confirm that you have budgeted for the additional spend that will be necessary once planning permission is granted, hopefully, in the not-too-distant future?
Mr Murphy: I confirmed that we had given, as part of the allocation to the Department for Communities in the Budget that was just passed in the Assembly, the money that, it was anticipated, would be required for Casement over this year. That money — I think it was £20 million — was given to the Department for Communities and ring-fenced for Casement. That will now not be required in total, because the planning permission delay means that construction did not start as soon as we would like. What will be required over this financial year is available to the Department for Communities, and the amount of money it anticipates it will not be able to spend will be returned because it is ring-fenced for that specific project. Of course, it is a flagship project; it is an NDNA project; it has been committed to by the Executive; and it will be seen through.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make the following statement on the twenty-third North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meeting in the health and food safety sectoral format, which was held by videoconference on 26 March 2021. Junior Minister Declan Kearney MLA and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive at the meeting, while the Irish Government were represented by Stephen Donnelly TD, Minister for Health, and Roderic O'Gorman TD, Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. I chaired the meeting. The statement has been agreed with junior Minister Kearney, and I make it on behalf of us both.
The Council reiterated its appreciation to all those who have played a part in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the health and social care workers who have led from the front and led the front-line response. The Council received a briefing from the Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) on the current public health situation. We discussed the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the continued close and productive cooperation between Health Ministers, Chief Medical Officers and health administrations in both jurisdictions to deliver an effective public health response.
The Council welcomed the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between both Departments to address cooperation and mutual support in critical care delivery. We noted the ongoing cooperation on contact tracing, including the established processes for sharing the necessary details between the Public Health Agency (PHA) and the Health Service Executive (HSE). Ministers welcomed the ongoing collaboration between the two jurisdictions on the further development of the proximity app and noted the ongoing discussions between the two Administrations about a data-sharing agreement in relation to passengers arriving into each jurisdiction. We noted that officials from both jurisdictions will continue to consider the relevant learnings from the phases of the pandemic and exchange views to foster commonality in their approach, where possible, and provide a progress update at a future North/South ministerial health meeting.
Ministers discussed the implications of the UK's withdrawal from the EU, and the Council noted the update provided on that matter.
Ministers welcomed the progress made to date on implementing the Council’s current work programme in the health sector and noted that the Departments of Health have identified additional areas in which there is potential for further development and collaboration between the health authorities in both jurisdictions.
The Council also noted the proposed revisions to the work programme in the area of child protection, which covers a three year period up to 2024.
The Council agreed the updated work programme and noted that work to ensure that the work programme reflects the priorities of each Administration will continue and that a further draft revised work programme will be presented for consideration at a future NSMC health sectoral meeting.
Ministers noted the continued progress on the development and implementation of strategies to prevent the harm related to alcohol and drug misuse in both jurisdictions. We also noted the successful enactment of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018, which is designed to address the health impacts of harmful consumption of alcohol in Ireland by reducing consumption levels, delaying the age at which young people begin to drink and regulating the sale and supply of alcohol products. The Council noted the Northern Ireland Department of Health's consultation 'Making Life Better – Preventing Harm & Empowering Recovery: A Strategic Framework to Tackle the Harm from Substance Use'. Ministers noted the potential for further collaboration on issues connected with alcohol and drug use and the developments in relation to obesity prevention policy in both jurisdictions. We also noted that, following the UK's withdrawal from the EU, tobacco and related products on sale in Northern Ireland must continue to comply with the requirements of the EU tobacco products directive.
Ministers noted the update on suicide prevention initiatives in both jurisdictions, including the joint working on the self-harm registry and the continued collaboration between the Public Health Agency and the National Office for Suicide Prevention, working with the GAA, the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and Ulster Rugby on a health and well-being project.
The Council noted the updates on the all-island congenital heart disease network and the North/South living donor exchange kidney transplant service.
The Council noted that over 700 cross-border patients have received treatment at the North West Cancer Centre since November 2016, demonstrating how health cooperation delivers real benefits to citizens. Ministers noted that a renewed memorandum of understanding on the Ireland-Northern Ireland National Cancer Institute Cancer Consortium was agreed by both Health Ministers and the director of the US National Cancer Institute on 16 March 2021. We also noted the work of the US-Ireland research and development partnership in relation to cancer research, including work combining international expertise from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), Queen’s University Belfast, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) and GE Global Research. The Council noted that the Health Research Board (HRB) recently amended its host institution policy to enable eligibility for Northern Ireland research-performing institutions to apply to act as host institutions for HRB grants.
Ministers welcomed the update on the ongoing work of the All Ireland Institute of Hospice and Palliative Care (AIIHPC). The Council noted the importance of continuing to support the ongoing work of the AIIHPC to improve palliative care and quality of life for people with life-limiting conditions and their carers across the island of Ireland.
The Council approved the revised child protection work programme and the priorities set out for the three-year period until 31 December 2024. Ministers noted the latest position provided on other matters, including the updating of the protocol between Northern Ireland and Ireland for handling interjurisdictional child cases and that an updated protocol will be considered at a future meeting of the NSMC. The Council noted that a knowledge exchange forum of child protection practitioners from both jurisdictions who are working at an operational level has been established with an initial focus on the sharing of learning from the implementation of the signs of safety methodology that is being taken forward in both jurisdictions. Ministers also noted that additional opportunities to extend the remit of the group will be developed in consultation with the NSMC child protection officials group. An update will be provided to a future meeting of the Council.
Ray Dolan, the chief executive officer of Safefood, provided an overview of the work of Safefood and updates on campaigns related to weight management, handwashing and Christmas food safety. The Council noted that Safefood has developed and distributed various resources in educational settings, delivered events including webinars and a podcast series and promoted healthy eating guidelines. The Council noted that Safefood has engaged with customers on social media and has carried out research on food allergens, sustainable food policy and fiscal and pricing policies related to food and non-alcoholic drinks.
Ministers received an update on the work of Safefood networks, including community food initiatives and knowledge networks, and on progress in the tripartite initiative between Safefood, the Public Health Agency and the Food Standards Agency Northern Ireland in rolling out minimum nutritional standards for catering for staff and visitors in health and social care settings while supporting nutritional standards for food in schools. Ministers approved the process for the recruitment of the chief executive of Safefood.
We agreed that the next North/South Ministerial Council health and food safety meeting will be held in late 2021.
Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): Go raibh maith agat, Minister; thank you for your statement.
Minister, the first memorandum of understanding on COVID-19 cooperation was signed in April 2020. You have announced that the Chief Medical Officer will review the MOU. On 16 March, in advance of the NSMC meeting, I asked you about the scope and scale of the review. Will you set that out for us?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. The matter was not covered at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting. We talked about the MOU on critical care delivery and about where we could interact and exchange ICU patients if necessary. The review of the memorandum of understanding on the greater work specifically on COVID is ongoing. We have asked the Institute of Environmental Health, an external body, to conduct that review, rather than doing it in-house or asking the Republic of Ireland Government to do it.
Mr Lyons: The Minister said that there are ongoing discussions between the two Administrations on a data-sharing agreement for passengers arriving in each jurisdiction. That refers, of course, to passenger locator forms. Those discussions have been ongoing for more than a year. Can the Minister explain why, he thinks, the Irish Government have continually refused to share that information and what impact that has had on our efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 in Northern Ireland?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question and welcome him to his position as Deputy Chair of the Health Committee. I look forward to working with him in the future.
On the passenger locator form, positive steps have been taken in the past few weeks, and I hope that we will have that data sharing in place in the next few weeks. Tests are going on at the minute. One of the concerns that we raised while progress was being made was about the data breach that had occurred in the Republic of Ireland through their online and electronic systems. We are seeking reassurance that the security is in place for data sharing to proceed. However, great progress has been made.
Over the past year, it has been a great frustration that we have not been able to obtain that data. The Member will know that I have raised the matter on various occasions. The concern about international travellers being able to enter Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom via Dublin Airport has been raised not just between Health Ministers but between the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the Taoiseach. I am hopeful, however, that we may resolve the issue once and for all in the next few weeks.
Ms Hunter: I thank the Minister for his statement today, which I welcome, especially the continued collaboration between the Public Health Agency and the National Office for Suicide Prevention. The statement mentions a health and well-being project with the GAA and Ulster Rugby. We know that those sports clubs play a huge, positive role in all of our lives, so that is most welcome. Are there any further details on what that important health and well-being project may look like?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for that valuable point. Over the past months, we have seen the interaction with and the support given by different sporting codes in relation to COVID. Suicides, as we all know, are preventable, not inevitable, which is why that piece of work is set out in the strategy. The strategy includes a number of programmes designed to prevent suicide, including the Towards Zero Suicide initiative, the multi-agency triage team collaboration between the health and social care (HSC) services, the PSNI and the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS), resilience building and suicide prevention training. The strategy aims to reduce the suicide rate in Northern Ireland by 10% by 2024. As the Member will know, Protect Life 2 also ensures that suicide prevention services and supports are delivered appropriately in deprived areas, where suicide and self-harm rates are highest. When we engage with the three sporting codes and utilise their strength in getting the message out, it mainly helps us to communicate on mental health and suicide prevention with the hard-to-reach target audiences, who, unfortunately, as we know well in Northern Ireland, are mostly young men. That is why utilising those sporting codes is important to us.
Mr Chambers: I place on record my personal welcome to Mr Stephen Dunne to the Chamber today. I look forward to working with him.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I refer to the paragraph on the implications of EU exit. Does the Minister have any sense of whether the Irish Government realise how potentially disruptive and detrimental the protocol is to the supply of medicines and medical devices to Northern Ireland? On that point, how confident is he that there will be progress this week from the European Commission on that very concerning issue?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. It became only too real for the Irish Government when article 16 was triggered in relation to COVID vaccines earlier this year, and they saw the real impact and the dangers that it could have. I am not sure whether they are completely alive to the real effect that it is having on our health service, but I continue to raise it with Her Majesty's Government and Minister Ed Argar, who leads on that vital work.
I hope that we will see an announcement on some direction of travel in the next few days. I know that there is concentration on sausages and fresh foods at the minute, rightly so, to get that issue resolved. However, as suppliers of medicines need a six-month notification to cease a market, it will very soon become very real for anyone who wants to cease supplying the Northern Ireland market at the end of the year. Those declarations will have to be made within the next few weeks, if not days. I hope that we see a resolution that continues the delivery of supplies to Northern Ireland.
Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, Minister, for your statement today. You referred to discussions on the potential for further collaboration on issues connected to alcohol and drug use. Was the minimum unit pricing of alcohol raised, and will you give us an update on how your Department is taking that forward in Northern Ireland?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for the question. It was raised, and, in fact, I had an individual meeting with Minister Frank Feighan, who leads on that work, outside and as a conjunct to it as well. As the Member will know, we are only too aware of the dangers of alcohol consumption. Since 2018, I have been following closely the Scottish Government's introduction of minimum unit pricing. It is part of our substance use strategy. That includes my commitment to hold a full public consultation on the introduction of minimum unit pricing in Northern Ireland within the next year. I noted with interest the Irish Government's recent decision to proceed with the implementation of minimum unit pricing of alcohol. There are ongoing conversations. We would have liked to introduce it in both jurisdictions at the same time. Unfortunately, once again, due to our time frames and our mandates not being concurrent, that is not possible. The consultation will be in my substance use strategy later this year.
Mr Buckley: Following on from Mr Chambers's question, I ask how concerned the Minister is, and, indeed, how bothered his Southern counterpart is, about the harmful and selfish implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol and its impact on medicines and medical devices coming into Northern Ireland, given that 98% of such items come from the UK mainland. Is there a recognition that an extension of the grace period, as welcome as it is in the interim, will not cut it as a long-term solution to that vital issue?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. As my response to Mr Chambers indicated, I am concerned. It is my responsibility and desire to make sure that the people of Northern Ireland get the same access to drugs and medical devices as the rest of the UK population gets. I am not in a place to comment on how concerned the Health Minister of the Republic of Ireland is. He can and will speak for himself.
As the Member indicated, although a grace period is welcome, there is already an extended grace period for medicines and medical devices until the end of this year. As I said in my response to Mr Chambers, however, suppliers of medicines and medical devices must give six months' notice to quit before they can leave the market, so if suppliers decide to quit the Northern Ireland market while still supplying the rest of the United Kingdom, that will happen in the next few days or weeks. That is of great concern to me and those in my Department. Later this week, I will meet Minister Ed Argar again to discuss what has come out of UK-EU negotiations on medicines.
Mr McAleer: The Minister referred to North/South cooperation and its importance in our response to COVID-19. Does he believe that, despite the fact that there are two jurisdictions, the island of Ireland is and should be treated as one epidemiological unit? Should that be recognised in agreeing a common travel policy for all arrivals to the island?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his point. It is one that has been raised numerous times over the past 15 months. It was the deputy First Minister who said that there should be a common travel agreement across all the islands in the common travel area. No matter if we look at this island as one unit, the common travel area also allows anyone to travel east-west without checks and balances. It would therefore make more sense to look at both islands as one epidemiological unit.
Mr O'Dowd: Minister, in your statement, you mentioned that the Health Research Board in the South has extended its policy to cover research institutions in the North, such as our universities. That is a very welcome move, and it will further enhance our universities' standing. Will that move replace the funding that was lost as a result of Brexit? Will it allow our universities to access EU research grants that were lost as a result of Brexit?
Mr Swann: I do not have the detail about what that will allow as far as accessing funding from EU bodies is concerned. It is, however, a welcome step that that research and development will continue. What is also welcome was the signing of the memorandum of understanding on cancer research by Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic and the National Cancer Institute in the United States. That is a big step forward and a welcome commitment to cross-border and international working on best practice and research and development.
Mr McNulty: Minister, I am sure that you will join me in welcoming back the Member for North Antrim after his recent heart scare. It is good to see him back in the hot seat.
I welcome the statement. A lot of very important matters are covered in it, such as contact tracing, critical care delivery, the proximity app, data sharing, harm related to alcohol and drug misuse, obesity prevention policy, cancer research cooperation and suicide prevention. So many important matters were discussed that would not have been if that North/South Ministerial Council meeting had not happened.
I want to ask about the work that is being done by the GAA, the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and Ulster Rugby on health and well-being, specifically on suicide prevention. Did discussions take place about the impact of the pandemic on people's mental health? Does the Minister agree that the GAA, IRFU, Ulster Rugby and other sporting organisations can play an important role? As they deal with young people, weekly and daily, they can reach out to them and give them assistance, identifying where there are issues, potentially working together and collaborating to address the mental health crisis that could be an outcome of the pandemic, and —.
Mr McNulty: OK. Very quickly, Minister: I met representatives of FC Mindwell, on Saturday, by coincidence. Glenn Emerson and Ciaran Feehan, who were two great soccer players in their day, are now promoting a local soccer club team that works only to help with mental health issues. You see the importance of sport. What I am getting at here, Minister —.
Mr McNulty: You see the importance of sporting bodies. Do you know how they can be embraced to help to deal with the issues at play here?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his statement. [Laughter.]
I also welcome Philip McGuigan back to the Chamber. Philip, you look well, and I see, on the front page of the 'The Irish News', that you have thanked the health services for the support that they were able to give you.
In regard to the Member's point, we have seen the voluntary and community sector and our sporting codes step up, throughout the pandemic, with getting out the mental health message and supporting our communities over the past 15 months. The organisations that the Member talks about should look to the mental health support fund, which I hope to announce in the next week. There is access to a £10 million pot of funding for organisations that support and work with mental health organisations and individuals across Northern Ireland in the community. I encourage the Member not just to sing the praises of those individuals and organisations but to encourage them to look to that funding, so that they can continue that work over the next three years.
Mr McGuigan: I thank the Minister and all the Members who have wished me well since I have come back. I have put on record — it is important to do so — my thanks for the professionalism, courtesy and good humour of all the staff who I encountered during my stay in hospital.
In your statement, Minister, you indicated the ongoing and welcome work on this island in health promotion in areas such as alcohol, drugs, obesity and suicide prevention. You will be aware of the work being carried out in the North by the Communities Minister in trying to bring gambling legislation into the modern era. The current, very serious and growing problem of gambling addiction on this island needs a public health focus, over and above a legislative one, for education, prevention and recovery strategies. Was there any discussion, at the meeting, on the health impact of gambling addiction, and, if not, will you commit to raising it at the next meeting?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his point. It was not covered at the meeting, but it has been covered in conversations that I have had with his party colleague the Minister for Communities. I will ask that it be put forward for the agenda of the next meeting. I have no problem in doing that and including it among the issues that have already been covered in the North/South Ministerial Council meetings that I have attended.
Mr Allister: The statement begins with the declaration that it is made, "In compliance with Section 52". However, section 52C(2) is very explicit in its terms, which suggest to me that the statement is not made in compliance. Section 52C(2) says that the statement shall be made:
"as soon as reasonably practicable after the meeting".
This meeting took place in March. There have been 23 sitting days of the Assembly, not including today, since then. Why has it taken three months to make a statement, where there is a statutory obligation to make it as soon as practicable?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his point, and he raised it about a previous North/South Ministerial Council statement that I made. We had omitted that paragraph from that statement, so we made sure that it was in this one.
With regard to the 23 sitting days, the Member will note that I have been in the Chamber for quite a few of them, making statements on many issues, such as elective care and mental health, and responding in a number of debates. We brought this statement forward as soon as reasonably practicable to get it here, so that I had time to get it in the Order Paper to be given proper consideration, because of the content and the large-scale and important issues that were discussed at that North/South Ministerial Council meeting.
Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for his statement, and I wish Philip McGuigan well. Hopefully, he is on his bike again soon.
Minister, was the decision on appointing a representative from the formula industry to the Safefood advisory committee discussed at this meeting? I have raised that with you in questions for written answer. Given that you and your Department are committed to the promotion of breastfeeding, what message does that decision send out? Did you have any input into that decision, and was it discussed in any detail or any concerns raised about it at the meeting?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. I know that he has supplied a number of questions for written answer on that specific point. I am aware of concerns surrounding an individual appointed to Safefood's advisory committee last year. Appointments to the advisory committee are not representative appointments. The advisory committee provides technical advice and guidance to assist Safefood in setting strategy and delivering on its business plans. There will be no impact on my Department's initiatives on breastfeeding. Safefood's advisory committee draws its members from a wide range of experts from the fields of food science, diet and health, industry, communications and regulations, and they act as a resource to Safefood and do not represent their employers. As long as the establishment of the advisory committee complies with the relevant legislation, the two Health Departments do not get involved in selecting the members.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That concludes questions to the Minister of Health on his statement. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.
Moved. — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group for debate — amendment No 1 and opposition to clauses 2 and 3 stand part — which deals with performance and opposition to clauses. Once the debate is completed, the amendments will be moved formally as we go through the Bill and the Question put without further debate. The Questions on clauses stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we shall proceed.
Clause 1 (Meetings: effect of regulations under the Coronavirus Act)
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Notice taken that 10 Members were not present.
House counted, and, there being fewer than 10 Members present, the Deputy Speaker ordered the Division Bells to be rung.
Upon 10 Members being present —
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 2 (Meetings: power to make similar or further provision)
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): We now come to the group of amendments for debate. The Minister has signalled her intention to oppose the Question that clause 2 stand part of the Bill. With that Question, it will be convenient to debate the opposition to the Question that clause 3 stand part of the Bill and amendment No 1. I call the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, to address her opposition to clause 2, the other opposition and the amendment listed in the group.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr Allister had given notice of his intention to oppose the Question that clause 3 stand part of the Bill.
The following amendment stood on the Marshalled List:
In clause 5, page 4, line 5, leave out subsection (2). — [Mr Allister.]
Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): Due to Members' concerns, I gave a commitment at Second Stage to remove clause 2, following which I tabled a notice of my intention to oppose the Question that clause 2 stand part of the Bill. I acknowledge Members' concerns about clause 2, including concerns regarding the level of Assembly scrutiny that subordinate legislation made under the clause would be subject to.
The intention behind clause 2 was to create an enabling power that would allow provisions for remote meetings to be further extended or even made permanent by means of subordinate legislation, should that be considered necessary or desirable after the regulations being extended by clause 1 end in March 2022. The intention was not to change the voting, speaking rights or participation in meetings by regulations; rather, it was to provide flexibility for councils to hold meetings remotely and to make provision on how the legislation governing council meetings should apply in the context and to facilitate meetings held remotely. The aim was not to restrict the rights of councils but to enable them to hold remote meetings. Removing clause 2 will mean that councils will not have cover to hold meetings by remote hybrid after 25 March 2022, when the Coronavirus Act 2020 is scheduled to expire, or sooner, if that Act is to be suspended earlier.
The removal of the clause would result in another piece of primary legislation being required if future provisions on remote meetings are deemed essential. That could mean that a further Bill would need to be introduced and would need to proceed via accelerated passage, something we all want to avoid. Using that route could still leave a further gap in the legislative provision to allow councils to hold remote meetings post-25 March 2022, when the Coronavirus Act expires. Giving the timings and the number of Bills in the legislative programme, it may not be possible for a second Bill to be progressed during the current mandate.
At Second Stage, I indicated that, whilst I would give notice of my intention to oppose the Question that clause 2 stand part of the Bill, I would also give further consideration to whether a further amendment was needed to deal with any unintended consequences. At First Stage, I agreed that officials would brief the Committee for Communities on the Bill. That briefing took place on Thursday 24 June, during which allowing council meetings to be further extended or even to become a permanent fixture was discussed. Officials indicated that, whilst I would oppose clause 2 at Consideration Stage, I would like to explore the possibility of tabling a further amendment at Further Consideration Stage to provide a suitable enabling power to extend or make permanent the remote meetings provisions and, indeed, for those to be discussed with the Committee before that. From Members' comments during the Second Stage debate and from queries raised by the Committee for Communities, it would seem that there is some support for continuing the flexibility for remote working for council meetings post pandemic. Taking all that into account, I plan to table an amendment at Further Consideration Stage to introduce a new clause to allow further regulations to be made for council remote meetings. This will be subject to a draft affirmative resolution, which would allow robust scrutiny of any such future legislation. However, I am opposing clause 2 standing part of this Bill.
I have considered Jim Allister's intention to oppose clause 3. The intent of clause 3 was to amend sections 93, 94 and 95, and Part 12 of the Local Government Act (NI) 2014, to allow the Department to determine each year, after consultation with the local government auditor, councils for which a section 93 performance improvement audit or section 94 performance improvement assessment must be completed. Section 95 already provides that the Department, in consultation with the local government auditor, must determine the councils for which the auditor will issue an audit and assessment report each year in respect of performance improvement. The amendment to sections 93 and 94 would bring those sections into line with the approach already included in section 95. It is in no way intended to erode the accountability of councils, and the duty placed on councils to publish an assessment of their performance would remain.
As I stated during the Second Stage debate, the move to a risk-based audit approach was discussed during the Committee Stage of the Local Government Act 2014. An amendment was subsequently tabled and agreed at Consideration Stage, which is now section 95. However, further amendment is needed to sections 93 and 94 to provide the same flexibility as in section 95, which will allow the move to a risk-based audit approach in future. That being said, if the amendment were agreed, it would not hinder the overall intention of the Bill. The change could wait until some future time when a full review of the 2014 Act is being undertaken.
Finally, I have considered the amendment tabled by Jim Allister to remove clause 5(2). The intention behind 5(2) was to create a time-limited enabling power to allow the Department to produce regulations to amend or set aside for the 2022-23 year any performance improvement duties in Part 12 of the 2014 Act. It is important to stress that the power was only ever intended to be used if it proved absolutely necessary as a result of possible future impacts of the pandemic. If agreed, the amendment would mean that regulations could not be made promptly to set aside or amend performance improvement in statutory duties for 2022-23, if this were to be required. All that being said, again, if the amendment were agreed, it would not hinder the overall intention of the Bill.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, Question Time is due to begin at 2:00 pm. I suggest that the House takes its ease until then. This debate will continue after Question Time, when the next speaker will be Paula Bradley.
The debate stood suspended.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)
Mrs O'Neill (The deputy First Minister): The 'New Decade, New Approach' document sets out an ambitious package of measures that covers a broad range of social, economic and cultural issues, all of which are important. The Member will know that the Executive's focus has been on managing the COVID-19 pandemic and charting the path for recovery. As we continue to move forward, we are committed to delivering all of TEO's NDNA commitments and moving on the things that have been delayed.
Our Department has made good progress on a number of issues, including providing support for victims and survivors of historical abuse, the conduct of Executive business and EU exit. The Executive will have the opportunity to consider the totality of the proposals in the context of the ongoing work to bring forward a new Programme for Government (PFG). A public consultation has concluded, the findings of which will inform decisions on the final shape and content of a new PFG outcomes framework, which we hope to bring forward very shortly.
Mr Beattie: I thank the deputy First Minister. There have been difficult times, of course. Part of New Decade, New Approach talks about the racial equality strategy. We have a framework in place, but, considering that 80% of Belfast-born teenagers from ethnic minorities want to leave the city due to racial attitudes, is there something that can be brought forward to try to address what is clearly a failing strategy?
Mrs O'Neill: Thanks to the Member. Of course, it is incumbent on us all to make this a welcoming society and somewhere where we all live and feel comfortable, and have a roof over our head and a job. Although we have the racial equality strategy, there is much more that needs to be done. We need to bring forward all the social inclusion strategies. It is about having an inclusive society that is valid in every part of your life. We will certainly not be found wanting in trying to shape things and build the better future that all our society deserves, including people who have come here and made this place their home.
Mr O'Dowd: It is good to hear about progress across a range of issues in NDNA. Will the Minister give an update on the adoption and children Bill?
Mrs O'Neill: I have been very keen to see that Bill progress for some time. It is vital legislation that will allow us, in the first instance, to improve outcomes for children and families in need, looked-after children and care leavers. It will provide greater opportunities for children and carers to experience permanence and stability, and it will also place a greater focus on children and young people's rights. That is what we owe to all the children who await adoption. I am pleased to report that progress has been made through the Executive, and we can now move on to the next stage of modernising our adoption laws. That is great news for children and prospective parents. It will move forward to the next stage in the Assembly, when Members will have a chance to debate the merits of the Bill and deal with it in its entirety.
Mr Allister: Why, among all the New Decade, "Old" Approach commitments, was Irish language legislation thought to be more important that the multiple issues that affect our constituents, to the point where the deputy First Minister was prepared to ensure that there was no progress on any of those unless she got her way with her poisonous agenda? Will she remind me when the public consultation on Irish language legislation took place?
Mrs O'Neill: The Executive Office is committed to ensuring that we bring forward all the NDNA commitments. That is the collective responsibility and will of the Executive. The implementation of many aspects of the political agreement that brought us back to power-sharing has been delayed. I am committed to delivering on those. We have to pick up from dealing with the COVID crisis before we can advance many of those things, including the language and cultural pieces and all the other issues that have been set out. There are, maybe, 200 commitments in NDNA, and we need to see progress on them all.
Mrs O'Neill: With your permission, a LeasCheann Comhairle, junior Minister Kearney will answer this question.
Mr Kearney (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): There appears to be general agreement that this provision needs to be reviewed. TEO officials have had some preliminary engagement with the Department of Education, as any such review must be taken forward collaboratively with the education sector. That review will, of course, include consideration of the removal of the exception.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the junior Minister for his answer, although it is fairly different from the responses that I have received previously on this matter. Will he support my proposal for private Member's legislation to remove the exception of teachers from the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998?
Mr Kearney: I thank the Member for his supplementary. I share his frustration on this matter, which has taken much too long to progress. I am aware of the Bill that the Member has out for consultation. The blockage that has prevented the matter from going forward and ensuring an appropriate resolution — the withdrawal of the exception — is not with me. However, I will be very pleased to work directly with the Member to move the issue forward. I will be very happy to have a follow-up conversation with him on his consultation. I will approach that matter very positively indeed. We are on the same ground.
Ms Sheerin: Does the junior Minister agree that the teachers' exception is out of sync with modern equality legislation? Will he reaffirm his commitment to deliver rights, equality and respect across all aspects of society?
Mr Kearney: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as ucht an cheist a chur, agus tá nasc idir an cheist seo agus an cheist a chuir an tUasal Lyttle. I agree that the teachers' exception from the fair employment legislation is entirely out of sync with modern equality legislation. Ní aontaímse léi mar éisceacht agus i mo thuairim ba cheart deireadh a chur léi láithreach bonn. I have noted the Equality Commission's previous interventions on the issue. The commission previously made a recommendation that the exception from the Fair Employment and Treatment Order 1998 should be removed. I share the commission's assessment of the issue:
"all teachers should be able to enjoy the same legislative protections as other workers."
My answer to the Member's second question is that my commitment to equality and to standing up for people's rights is unwavering. I am hopeful that we can see progress on the issue at hand in the time ahead. All barriers to equality in the workplace should be lifted. I want to see integration right across this society. That should extend to the integration of teachers in employment as well as to the increased promotion of integrated education itself.
Mr Stewart: I agree that the exception is wrong. Does the junior Minister also accept that the petition of concern, which was used in 2016 to block the changes, was also wrong? Successive First Ministers and Education Ministers have said that the exception is wrong. Who is blocking it?
Mr Kearney: As I indicated in my answer to Mr Lyttle, the blockage is not with me. There is common ground on the matter. Whatever about 2016, this is 2021.
That legislative provision is outmoded and outdated. I believe that it runs counter to the progressive direction that society needs to take, which must be towards equality for everyone in the workforce and, in particular, full equality for and integration of our teachers. That becomes a firm foundation for advancing, promoting and mainstreaming a desire, which every Member needs to take forward, to achieve greater integration of education right across society, where our children are brought together to be taught jointly.
Mrs O'Neill: The process for the relaxation of restrictions is outlined in our pathway out of restrictions. The process works through the Executive's COVID-19 task force and the cross-departmental working group, which acts as an advisory panel to the task force. Departments bring forward fully assessed relaxation proposals that relate to their areas of sectoral responsibility, outlining the evidence for the relaxation and the consultation that they have undertaken with stakeholders.
The proposals are then discussed and considered by the cross-departmental working group. Through that analysis and discussion, each Department has the opportunity to review the proposals, with a view to identifying any cross-cutting issues and providing input into collaborative approaches where there are interdependencies between possible relaxations. Where issues of consistency or inequality of application are identified, the responsible Department is expected to amend the proposal or bring forward a further proposal to remedy it.
Mr Weir: I thank the deputy First Minister for her answer. She will be aware of the good work that is often done over the summer, particularly by uniformed organisations. Will she provide an assurance that youth gatherings and overnight residential trips will be treated as a specific priority when the Executive are discussing relaxations next week?
Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for his question. I know that, in his previous role, he was keen for that issue to be progressed. I am pleased to say that, although the reopening of youth services was delayed — we entered a delay phase — because of the emerging data on the delta variant that we are all conscious of and worried about, we will revisit that issue on Thursday 1 July. Issues that will be revisited include live music, residential stays for youth services, the opening of theatres and indoor seated venues, the resumption of conferences and exhibitions, and allowing walk-ins to close-contact businesses.
Alongside that, officials are working towards next week's Executive meeting and what we can potentially bring forward then. We are always mindful of and informed by the medical and scientific advice. That is the position that we have taken all the way through. We will continue to keep the situation under review, but, all things being equal, we hope to be able to progress those things on Thursday, provided that doing so is supported by health advice and science.
Mr McNulty: I draw the Minister's attention to recent research done for the Education Committee. It included the recommendation that children should get 60 minutes of physical activity each day, which only 13% of children in the North are getting. Will the joint First Ministers undertake to bring that issue before the Executive and then bring forward a strategy to close the gap and ensure that our children get the recommended physical activity that they need for their well-being?
I know that Healthy Kidz is banging down the doors of the Department of Education, the Department of Health and the Executive Office to get them to help kids move forward, mentally and physically, in a healthy manner.
Mrs O'Neill: I do not underestimate and absolutely value the importance of physical activity for our young people, particularly after 15 or 16 months of lockdown and not being able to take part in youth services, sport and everything else that they would otherwise have had the opportunity to do. Thankfully, we are in a better place today.
The Member raises an issue that is the policy responsibility of the Department of Education. It would therefore be for the Minister of Education to bring forward a proposal on it. I would be open to looking at such a proposal. If you want the Executive Office to look at it in conjunction with the Education Minister, you may wish to send us a note.
Ms Brogan: The pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on many sectors of society that were already disadvantaged such as children and young people, women, those on low incomes and those with disabilities. Will the joint First Minister agree that our approach to recovery is an opportunity for us to build a better and fairer society by tackling inequalities and disadvantage?
Mrs O'Neill: In short, yes. Absolutely, we have an opportunity in front of us that we must grab with both hands. I agree with the Member about the need to tackle the high levels of poverty, inequality and disadvantage that existed prior to COVID and which have had a bright light shone on them now. I am particularly aware that the social and economic impact of the pandemic has fallen hard on women, and we see that daily. Many women are in low-paid, precarious employment, and many others have lost their job. There has been a rise in domestic violence and abuse during the pandemic, and it has been alarming to see the level of domestic violence.
As we step our way out of the restrictions, the focus has to be on developing a more sustainable and strategic response that can break the cycles of poverty, exclusion and inequality. A core and central part of our recovery strategy has to be addressing social inequality and looking after the most vulnerable, the lonely, those in housing need, families living in poverty, those with a disability and workers on low incomes. We need to be serious about doing things differently and more effectively, and it means listening to people. If one thing stands out to me from the course of the pandemic, it is that we can do things differently and more speedily. We can be more responsive.
We need a plan for inclusive growth. We need to develop a new focus on community wealth-building to create a better and more sustainable economy by strengthening our communities, creating jobs and having sustainable development and local business networks. The Executive, as a whole, are committed to doing that. We owe it to people to take the opportunity to learn from a very negative experience, to take the positives and to run with them into the future.
Mrs O'Neill: With your permission, a LeasCheann Comhairle, junior Minister Kearney will answer question 4.
Mr Kearney: An Executive paper on progressing the FICT report was approved by the Executive on 25 March 2021. A FICT working group, involving junior Ministers, special advisers and officials, is taking forward the steps set out in the Executive paper, including cross-departmental engagement. Decisions on the publication of the FICT report will be a matter for all Executive Ministers working together.
Mr Lunn: I thank the junior Minister for his answer. There is some history to this in that such reports are not always published in a timely fashion. This report appears to have been sidelined to a working group, which indicates to me that it might never see the light of day. The report, apparently, cost about £800,000. Can the junior Minister give more detail on the reason that the report has not been published? Will it ever be published?
Mr Kearney: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as an cheist a chur. Go raibh maith agatsa. I share the apprehension that the Member has expressed. I assure the Member of my full determination that the process will be fully and properly implemented and that the FICT report will be published. It is essential to how we move forward as an inclusive, united and pluralist society where there is respect and regard shown to all traditions. However, it is now almost a year since we took possession of the report. I have sought repeatedly with officials and through special advisers to see the matter expedited over recent months. The implementation programme needs to be owned by the entire Executive. All Ministers must buy into that approach, because they are cross-departmental issues. Sectarianism is not a silo issue; it needs to be met and faced down head-on by our entire Executive and, indeed, the entire Chamber.
The report was brought to the Executive, and I offer that information to be helpful to the Member. The intention was to have a special Executive meeting to discuss the report, recommendations and next steps. That has not happened. I have asked that it should be progressed. The blockage in bringing the issue to a comprehensive resolution does not rest with me. I encourage the Member to continue to be vocal on the issue in order to emphasise the necessity of bringing the work to a conclusion. I offer this caveat: the importance of ensuring that we do this as a collective Executive and a collective Chamber rests on the fact that the issue is deeply contentious.
We have a pathway in the report. It does not provide us with all the answers, but it provides us with some of the answers. For that reason, we need to get to that point. We need to ensure that the full report is brought into the public domain in a timely way. Let us do that in an orderly, agreed and systematic way and ensure that it does not become an issue that leads to further division and rancour in our society.
Mr Weir: Producing a report and finding consensus on how to implement it can be two different things. Does the Minister agree that it is important that that consensus be reached? Can he therefore give an assurance that all parties and all Ministers will be involved in finding consensus on the way forward?
Mr Kearney: I thank the Member for his observation and his question. He will recall the Executive meeting to which I referred, when I cautioned that we need to ensure that the issue does not become a free-for-all in the Executive or, indeed, in wider society. Yes, there is an absolute imperative to find consensus and agreement, and it needs to be inclusive of all parties. It is my aspiration and ambition that, on the basis of what we agree in the Executive and bring forward to the Chamber — this is the leadership that wider society expects of us — we go forward collectively, not just as five parties but as all Members, giving coherent leadership on the issues and setting out a progressive vision of change for the future where we can put these issues of rancour and contention behind us once and for all.
Ms Dolan: Minister, do you agree that the proliferation of flags at this time of year is an attempt to mark out territory and intimidate communities and should be roundly condemned across the Assembly?
Mr Kearney: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as an cheist sin a chur. I wholeheartedly agree with you: erecting flags to mark out territory instils fear, raises tensions, damages community relations and causes intimidation. Caithfear an fód a sheasamh sa Tionól seo in éadan an tseicteachais, is cuma cá as a dtig an seicteachas, caithfear an fód a sheasamh ina éadan. It is not acceptable, and we need to get to the point where we recognise that flags erected in mixed communal areas cause sectarian intimidation and that that is the driving motivation. That is characteristic of a number of traditionally mixed communal areas in my South Antrim constituency, including Antrim town, Mallusk and Hightown, where we see an increased proliferation of flags.
The police have a job to do on the matter. The police need to step up to the plate. There are other statutory agencies, such as the Housing Executive, that have a shared responsibility in tackling this cancer. Where there is such provocation, it needs to be challenged by everyone in political leadership. It does not matter where the provocation comes from or what position you have in political leadership: we have to stand together against any attempt to intimidate or raise tensions.
On a secondary and linked issue, I am deeply alarmed at the emerging potential for illegal bonfires at interfaces in Belfast, especially around Adam Street and at Lanark Way. Left unchallenged, that type of intimidation will serve only to strengthen the barriers to building a safe, shared and better future for us all. The politics and principles of NDNA and the Good Friday Agreement must have primacy. Everybody in society, regardless of who they are and where they live, has a right to live free from sectarian harassment, threat and intimidation, not just at this time of the year but all year round. Let us stand together against all forms of sectarian intimidation. That should be the clear message that leaves the Chamber today.
Mr Catney: I hear what the Minister says. We were told that the Executive approved a paper on progressing the FICT report on 25 March this year and that a FICT working group involving junior Ministers, advisers and officials was advancing cross-departmental engagement to take the report forward. What is causing the delay in progressing it? I hear what you said, junior Minister, but we need to know what the hold-up is and what progress has been made on the report. I hear what you said about your constituency: in my constituency of Lagan Valley, we have the same problems.
Mr Kearney: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as ucht an cheist a chur. To go back to the question that Mr Weir posed, we require consensus. You will, through your experience, understand well the joint basis of the Executive Office. It means that issues that fall within the ambit and remit of the Executive Office must command agreement and consensus on both sides. I assure you and reiterate that the blockage to moving forward with the timeline and pathway that have been set out for the FICT report does not rest with me.
Let us ensure that we get to a point where there is unanimity and agreement on how the report is brought forward and tabled. I said that we needed to ensure that it does not become a free-for-all. Tackling sectarianism, hatred and exclusion must be done in a strategic, thought-out way. The report provides us with the assistance and resource for doing that. Let us stop the prevarication, the blockages and all that hinders our moving forward with the work and ensure that, in a short period of months, we get back on track with the timeline that the Member referred to. All Executive parties need to buy into that. There should be no further hindrance or blockage to progress.
Ms Bradshaw: I am concerned that, if the FICT report is taken forward, it will be seen as a loss for a part of society, which will feel as though its cultural expression is being undermined. Is there an opportunity for the FICT report's recommendations to dovetail into the tripartite cultural Bill that is coming forward so that we can put forward positive ways in which cultural expression can be made and have a more harmonious, shared society?
Mr Kearney: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as ucht a ceist a chur. I agree with you. You made a wise observation about trying to get complementarity in how we move forward. The FICT report has been in the making since 2016. Finally, we have a draft report. Good work has been done by the junior Ministers, advisers and officials, certainly at the outset of taking receipt of the report. Officials have focused carefully on where we could, in fact, arrive at a point of consensus and unanimity.
The report contains many recommendations that deal with a huge volume of issues. You will be aware of what they are. We have identified an approach that would allow us to advance the implementation of a large number of those recommendations subject to being able to bring the report back to the Executive and getting their approval. We have identified where challenges remain. Where challenges remain, there may be issues that present further difficulties through their intractability. However, I am confident that the way forward is to bring the report to the Executive, deal with the issues that we can handle now, separate out the issues where challenges remain and then, absolutely, get that strategic fit with the requirements of NDNA. If we get the right kind of cohesion between FICT and NDNA, that will provide us with an appropriate pathway towards a more pluralist, inclusive and progressive society.
Mrs O'Neill: A LeasCheann Comhairle, with your permission, Minister Kearney will take this question.
Mr Kearney: There is no restriction in the regulations that prevents vocal coaches from undertaking face-to-face teaching provided that they do so in line with the necessary requirements and mitigations, and anyone providing vocal coaching should refer to all the relevant guidance for the sector.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That ends the period for listed questions. We will now move to 15 minutes of topical questions. Before we do so, I have to announce that question 4 has been withdrawn.
T1. Dr Aiken asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the deputy First Minister thinks that, with less than 48 hours to go, it is either helpful or respectful to the people of Northern Ireland that the European Union has still to allow the movement of chilled meat products to our country. (AQT 1471/17-22)
Mrs O'Neill: First, I welcome the fact that Commission vice president Maroš Šefcovic met MLAs today. That was a very good exchange, I believe, over a considerable period of time, and I hope that, during that conversation, there was a balance put on the fact that the protocol is mitigation and is the best effort that we have against the worst excesses of Brexit. Maroš Šefcovic will have an opportunity today to hear from all the other MLAs, and I welcome the fact that a positive response on the extension for chilled meats is expected. That is good, and we should bank that, but we need longer-term solutions, and I hope that we can find those solutions in the period ahead. I also note that there are some other areas of progress. Again, we need sustainability here, and our local industry and business community need the opportunity to plan into the future and to take benefit from our unique access to two markets. Some more-technical discussions are under way, and I am hopeful that we will see positive progress on this recent issue, but I want to see a fulsome response to all the issues. Let us find the resolutions, and let us work on the opportunities.
Dr Aiken: I thank the deputy First Minister for her reply. Obviously, she seems to put a lot of weight on what Maroš Šefcovic has been saying, but we have real concerns, particularly about the supply of medicines in Northern Ireland. What degree of risk does she think is acceptable? Indeed, do the Northern Ireland Executive see that there is considerable risk to the supply of medicines?
Mrs O'Neill: First, as the Member knows, there is no collective Executive view on Brexit. There are differing views. Obviously, the DUP has its view, and others have their view. My view is that Brexit is bad all round. From its very inception, it was bad. There is no good to come from it. However, there has been mitigation in the form of the protocol, which gives us some protections and also gives us opportunities. I believe that the EU has shared proposals on resolving the issue of the supply of medicines, the licensing side, medical devices and veterinary medicines, so let us hope that there is a resolution on that issue.
T3. Ms Bunting asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in light of their response to a question for written answer about the Communities in Transition (CIT) programme, which said that "positive feedback from participants stated that projects being developed in association with CIT are beginning to have a significant positive influence on their surrounding community. The review also includes a number of recommendations which will be considered in the context of Phase 2 planning", how will the Executive Office measure a tangible difference in relation to transition and how will it ensure a balanced approach across both communities in accordance with their needs. (AQT 1473/17-22)
Mrs O'Neill: With any programme that we take forward, we need to make sure that there is a balanced approach and that we are supporting everybody regardless of their background. It is really important that, as we roll out any projects, we take on board the learning as we go. There has been a review, so that needs to be taken on board, and I very much welcome that being put into place. You have asked before about different projects under Communities in Transition and the progress that has been made. We are moving to an open procurement process in line with procurement policy around new projects. We have to learn lessons from all these reviews. I am very happy to write to the Member to provide her with more detail on how that will be implemented.
Ms Bunting: What conversations has the Executive Office had with DOJ and DFC on the continuation of the Women Involved in Community Transformation programme beyond the extension period to ensure that there is continuity and that women who are making progress are not just abandoned and left unable to complete courses or to maximise their potential fully?
Mrs O'Neill: I agree with the Member. When people have taken the time to engage and take part in programmes, they need to have continuity and want assurances that they will have that. Engagement across Departments happens at official level; there has not been ministerial engagement on it. I am happy to provide that detail to the Member in writing.
Mr Lunn: I have to apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr Lunn: I was not aware that my name was down to ask a topical question. I will pass on this occasion. [Laughter.]
T6. Mr McHugh asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, who will know that the majority of people in the North of Ireland opposed Brexit and, in reflecting that position, the Assembly has repeatedly endorsed the protocol as the necessary mechanism to mitigate some of the worst impacts of Brexit, whether they agree that today’s appearance of Maroš Šefcovic at the Committee for the Executive Office was a positive development and that his contribution and comments demonstrate the constructive approach of the EU to mitigating the negative effects of Brexit on the island of Ireland. (AQT 1476/17-22)
Mrs O'Neill: There is no Executive agreement on Brexit, but the appearance of Maroš Šefcovic at the Committee was a positive development. It is really important that he hears at first hand that the DUP does not speak for the North on Brexit or the protocol. On the EU's part, it shows positive intent that it is prepared to come to the Assembly to listen to our locally elected representatives and hear the reassertion of our continued support for the pragmatic implementation of the protocol and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement. His contribution today demonstrates the constructive approach of the EU to mitigating the negative effects of Brexit on the island of Ireland.
We can never forget that we have the protocol because we have Brexit, which was not our wish and was imposed on us. The protocol is necessary to provide the protections that businesses, farmers, retailers and manufacturers need. Together, we need to put our efforts into ensuring delivery of the protocol, as agreed, maximising the advantage to businesses here of unfettered access to British and EU markets and making sure that we work to iron out the issues that need to be resolved because we have to deal with the consequences of the Brexit that we neither wanted nor voted for.
Mr McHugh: Often, we hear that businesses find solutions to problems: they may go over them, round them or under them, but they find solutions. Do you agree that the wholly negative presentation of the protocol by some needs to be challenged, given that many of our businesses are seizing the opportunity that it provides? Those businesses want more focus on the building of special status, which affords the North unique access to the British market and the EU's single market to help to attract investors and create jobs for us in the North of Ireland.
Mrs O'Neill: Some of the narrative around the protocol clearly flies in the face of reality and is directly contradicted by the fact that many businesses are seeing and utilising the advantages with which the protocol provides them. It has provided us with a special and unique status that should be embraced. Of course, there are issues that need to be addressed in a pragmatic fashion and solutions need to be found, but that does not change the fact that the protocol is necessary. It was agreed and it needs to be implemented, and we need to give businesses the certainty and stability that they tell us every day that they crave.
T7. Mr Lynch asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the joint First Minister will take this opportunity to reiterate her commitment to New Decade, New Approach (NDNA). (AQT 1477/17-22)
Mrs O'Neill: Yes, absolutely. I am fully committed to New Decade, New Approach. That is the basis on which power-sharing was restored in January of last year. All the parties and the two Governments signed up to it, so there is clearly an obligation on all of us to ensure that it is implemented in its entirety. NDNA is a compromise: there are parts that we like and parts that we do not like, but that is how compromise works. It is not up for renegotiation or cherry-picking; it is to be implemented. I take my commitment to NDNA very seriously, and I want all parties to step up in a similar vein to make sure that we all work to make power-sharing work.
Mr Lynch: I thank the joint First Minister for her answer. As the Minister said, NDNA is the basis on which we re-established these institutions. Does the Minister agree that the DUP's decision to vote against a motion to establish a simultaneous translation service in the Assembly was an act of gross bad faith?
Mrs O'Neill: As I said, the Irish Government, the British Government and all local parties signed up to the New Decade, New Approach political agreement. For a party to vote against one of the key commitments within that agreement does not demonstrate a faithful approach to its implementation. However, bad faith cannot be a blockage to the access of na Gaeilgeoirí, or anyone else, to their rights. We have to find ways around bad faith, as we did with Acht na Gaeilge and the wider language and culture package.
T8. Mr Gildernew asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the joint First Minister can provide an update on the important Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC) strategy. (AQT 1478/17-22)
Mrs O'Neill: We have made significant progress in delivering the Together: Building a United Community strategy. A number of headline actions have been achieved: more than 24,000 young people have taken part in T:BUC camps; five Urban Village areas have been established; four shared education campuses have been approved and are progressing; 10 shared neighbourhoods are providing 483 new homes — that has been completed; over 6,000 young people have participated in the Peace4Youth programme; over 26,000 young people have engaged with the Uniting Communities Through Sport and Creativity programme; and the number of interface barriers has been reduced by 14. Although that represents huge progress, huge societal challenges remain around dealing with sectarianism. Together, we can deal with those challenges. We need to do more, and I am committed to doing more to try to build a truly inclusive and rights-based society that promotes equality, values difference and cherishes diversity.
Mr Gildernew: Does the joint First Minister agree that the displays and behaviours that we often see at this time of year, such as the proliferation of flags and displays of hatred on bonfires, totally fly in the face of what we are seeking to achieve through T:BUC? Does she agree that people in positions of political leadership and responsibility have a duty to confront that behaviour, rather than encouraging it?
Mrs O'Neill: You are absolutely right that T:BUC commits us to improving community relations and to continuing the journey towards a more united and shared society. The displays of sectarianism, intimidation and intolerance, which we see more of at this time of year, fly in the face of that commitment and should be condemned. The Member is also correct that all political leaders have a responsibility. We have individual responsibility and a collective responsibility. The clear message that must be heard from the Chamber is that we stand together to confront intolerance, intimidation and sectarianism in all its manifestations.
T9. Ms Sheerin asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister to confirm that Irish Government Ministers and officials are welcome in the North. (AQT 1479/17-22)
Mrs O'Neill: The Irish Government are, of course, welcome here, and they will continue to be so. Irish Government Ministers and officials have every right to be here. In fact, they have a responsibility to be here due to their statutory role in the North through the North/South Ministerial Council and as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements. They also provide funding to many cross-border and Northern-based projects. Their role in the North is well established, democratically endorsed and valued across the communities.
Ms Sheerin: I thank the joint First Minister for her answer. Does the Minister agree that it is entirely inappropriate for an organisation that purports to represent illegal criminal gangs to attempt to subvert that work by issuing threats and warnings and by telling people from the Irish Government that they are not welcome in the North?
Mrs O'Neill: The Member is, of course, referring to the recent statement by the Loyalist Communities Council. I will cut right to the chase: that statement was completely unacceptable. As I said, the Irish Government play a very constructive role here. Such organisations should not exist 23 years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, never mind issuing threats in the media. That statement should be withdrawn, and all the organisations that are behind it should leave the stage once and for all.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That concludes questions to the Executive Office. I ask Members to take their ease before we move on to the next set of questions.
Mr Frew (The Minister for the Economy): I thank the Member for his question. Ensuring that workers have jobs to go back to is my foremost priority as we look to recover from the damage inflicted on our economy by the pandemic. The economic recovery action plan that my Department is delivering will help protect jobs. We must not lose sight of that as being the most fundamental of all employment rights.
I am pleased, however, to reflect on some of the other work that my Department has taken forward to protect workers' rights. Legislation was introduced to ensure that redundancy and other payments for employees were based on normal pay rather than on furloughed pay. Last week, the House approved legislation extending vital health and safety protections to all workers that previously applied only to employees. The Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill also recently passed its Second Stage. Members will agree that that will bring in an important new employment right for parents in Northern Ireland who, sadly, suffer the loss of a child.
I am aware of other commitments made in 'New Decade, New Approach' on further employment rights. Faced with the need to respond to the COVID crisis, it has simply not been possible to progress all of them in that time. Northern Ireland already has a robust framework of employment rights in place, however. We will keep that under review in the months ahead.
Mr Boylan: I thank the Minister for his answer. I ask him to give a commitment to what is in 'New Decade, New Approach' about the protection of those rights.
Will the Minister undertake to meet the further education staff who are on strike over pay and conditions and commit to securing a deal for them?
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his question. In my short time in the Department, I have been advised that there is a process to follow for such disputes and for questions of who is the governing body with regard to pay. I give the Member my commitment that I will study that process to see where the Department and I can be helpful. There may be a place for us in it. I would not want to do anything to jeopardise a successful outcome for all involved in the dispute.
Ms McLaughlin: Will the Minister commit to ensuring that Invest NI will protect the rights of workers when they travel the world to attract investors here? It is important that workers' incomes be supported and that Invest NI do not promote Northern Ireland as a low-paid economy.
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for her question. It is important. I recognise that the pandemic has had a significant impact on businesses and workers. My Department's priority in respect of employment law has been to protect those immediately affected by the pandemic. To date, my Department has legislated to protect workers' rights by ensuring that statutory family-related payments and various statutory entitlements connected with redundancy or the termination of employment are based on normal pay rather than furlough pay. Legislation has also been introduced to allow workers who are unable to take holiday leave as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak to carry over up to four weeks of their annual leave into the next two leave years. I was also pleased that Members debated and approved legislation to extend an important protection to workers so that they have a right not to suffer detriment in the workplace in relation to actions that they may take to protect themselves or others where they reasonably believe that there is serious or imminent danger. Members will also be aware of the good progress on the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill. Collectively, those actions highlight the importance that my Department places on protecting workers' rights. As we look to the longer term, I wish to ensure that all our employment legislation continues to take account of workers' needs, while balancing the needs of businesses, at this difficult time and beyond.
Invest NI has an important job in promoting Northern Ireland throughout the world. I want it to focus on the competitive prices and costs. I would not use the words "low paid"; I would talk about "competitive pay". Ensuring that people have good, decent jobs to return to after the pandemic is vital to me and my Department.
Miss Woods: The Minister will definitely be aware of the impact of domestic abuse as a societal issue but also as an economic and workplace issue. Does the Minister support the introduction of 10 days of safe leave for victims of domestic abuse?
Mr Frew: I know that the Member has a question in the schedule. She is getting in first, in case I do not get that far. I commend the Member for those skills.
The Member will know how important that issue is to me, having worked with the Member on the Justice Committee. I will commit to the Member to looking at that in the days and weeks ahead. It is important to me that workers and victims of domestic violence are protected and that their employers treat them with respect and dignity and allow them the freedom that they should have when they suffer domestic violence. It is a horrendous crime, and it needs to be resolved. I see, throughout society, that employers can and do help at times of stress for victims of domestic violence. I want to see that continuing and being enhanced, so that we can move on as a society, because domestic abuse is a societal ill that needs to be tackled. People need to be made aware of it, not least in the workplace.
Mr Frew: I thank my colleague for his important question. A wide range of financial and advisory support is available from Invest NI and other organisations for people who are considering starting a business. The Northern Ireland business start-up programme is part-funded by the 11 councils, Invest NI and the European regional development fund (ERDF) under the investment for growth and jobs Northern Ireland (2014-2020) programme and promoted under the Go For It brand. The programme is delivered by Northern Ireland's 11 councils and is available to all potential new start-up businesses. The programme provides one-to-one support from an experienced business adviser, with help to develop a practical business plan and referrals to follow-on support options.
Invest NI has provided £16·4 million to local businesses through the local economic development measure over the past three years to deliver the scheme. Councils have provided an additional £3·6 million, reaching a total investment of around £20 million. To date, over 12,000 business plans have been completed to support people planning to start their own businesses. That must be welcomed. Invest NI also provides a comprehensive range of information on new business start-ups on its website.
Mr Robinson: I thank the Minister for his answer. Coming out of the pandemic is creating both distress and opportunity for businesses, and I am eager to see support being given to businesses that need it to survive. Will the Minister come to Limavady to visit an innovative scheme at the North West Regional College to help to establish small businesses?
Mr Frew: I thank my colleague for his supplementary question. I have no problem visiting him in Limavady to see the work of the college and other businesses. It is a nice part of the world. I have been there many times, and I have spent a lot of time in Magilligan Point and up Binevenagh. I am sure that the Member will not take me up Binevenagh, but I would be interested to see some of the businesses and the innovative work that businesses and colleges are doing at this time.
I should add that other support mechanisms are available. For example, the Propel Pre-Accelerator programme is funded by Invest NI and delivered by Ignite, a UK-based start-up support and investment network. The programme offers workshops, tutorials, networking opportunities, mentoring, financial support and access to investment. Invest NI also works with other stakeholders in the start-up ecosystem, including councils, universities, further education colleges, incubators, enterprise agencies, tech starts, catalysts and special interest groups, such as Women in Business, to provide support to business start-ups.
The Member coming from where he does, I note that there are issues in his area, an area that is dear to my heart. In 2019, in the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council area, there were 390 start-up businesses. That could be improved. In 2017, that figure was 530. There is much work to do, and I assure the Member that I will do my best to enhance his area and all of Northern Ireland. When all of Northern Ireland works best, we all work best.
Mr O'Dowd: Minister, the head of Invest NI said that there has been significant interest in inward investment as a result of the protocol. There are businesses in my constituency that are creating and sustaining jobs as a result of the protocol. Of course, some businesses face challenges, but many are looking for opportunities to create jobs and prosperity. However, they are concerned that the Minister's political stance will stop his Department offering them the much-needed support that they require to create jobs and prosperity.
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his question. My Department and Invest NI are all about support and supporting businesses. They will continue to do that and will have my full support. In visiting businesses, even over the last two weeks, I have seen that, whilst there might be advantages — slight advantages — for some businesses, they are being hampered when they try to buy in stock from GB. Even if they can get any sort of advantage through a twin-track approach or by selling into different markets, the fact that they have to buy stuff from GB penalises them greatly, as does the fact that the paperwork has spiralled out of all control and that they have to employ people just to keep on top of it. That is damaging to their business cases. That is what I experienced when I was out and about visiting businesses over the last two weeks.
Let us be clear: the protocol is damaging and brutal and is being used as punishment and leverage for future negotiations with the UK Government. Northern Ireland is in the middle of that, and some people here are complicit in that. That has really frustrated the businesses that I have spoken to over the last number of weeks.
Mr Catney: Minister, when you were on the Finance Committee with me, you told me that you started out in a trade. I also did that over 50 years ago. What I am really asking is this: what is your assessment of the quality of entrepreneurial training for people who start their own businesses here? Those people are the risk-takers and potential employers of the future. Small acorns grow into big trees.
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his question. He is a man after my own heart. I enjoyed my time with him on the Finance Committee, and I will miss that aspect of my work. He is right. There are supports for start-up businesses, even during these challenging times.
It is important to state that restrictions hurt new start-ups. They damage confidence in the people taking that step to open up a new business because they do not know whether there is a market there for them, whether they will be placed under restrictions by government or whether they have a footfall to spend or trade in. It is very important that confidence is injected into all sectors of our economy, and I will work towards opening up the economy in its completeness over the next couple of weeks.
Invest NI start-up financial support is focused on businesses that intend to sell outside Northern Ireland. Such businesses can also access support for product development, skills development, market development, strategy development and consultancy, as well as support for job creation. High-potential start-ups may also apply to five equity and debt funds as part of Invest NI's access to finance portfolio. That comprises the Northern Ireland small business loan fund, which has support totalling £8 million; the growth loan fund, which has £30 million; the growth finance fund, which has £30 million; and Techstart NI, which has £30 million. There is also Co-Fund NI, which has £70 million. Those are the support branches and support schemes that will help start-up businesses in the weeks ahead.
Mr Dickson: Minister, do you recognise the damage that Brexit is doing, given that there are labour shortages as people are not coming into the United Kingdom, but particularly into Northern Ireland, because entry to the United Kingdom now has a pay tariff connected to it? Traditionally in Northern Ireland, for a variety of reasons, good and bad, pay has quite often been lower than in the rest of the United Kingdom. That is a further barrier to people coming in and supporting the labour market in important jobs, such as caring, catering and a wide range of other jobs that can, and should, be done in Northern Ireland and for which we do not have an indigenous workforce.
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his question. Many aspects and factors affect the flow of people and workers throughout the world. One of them is exchange rates. In my experience over the last number of weeks, where there are skill shortages and people are trying to find workers and staff, I have found that Brexit is not necessarily the main issue. The main issue is skill shortages and people who are on furlough and who then get different jobs. If there are people who have left these shores, it seems that was to do with exchange rates, rather than Brexit.
Mr Frew: I understand the difficulties that travel agents continue to face in light of the ongoing travel restrictions. However, support for the sector is being taken forward by the Executive Office. In March, TEO introduced the Travel Agents (Coronavirus) Financial Assistance Scheme 2021, which provided a grant payment of £10,000 to travel agent businesses operating from commercial premises or a £3,500 payment to self-employed travel agents working from home.
As well as availing themselves of the Executive Office Travel Agents (Coronavirus) Financial Assistance Scheme 2021, I am aware that some travel agents, subject to the respective criteria, have been able to avail themselves of business support grant schemes introduced by my Department, such as the £10,000 small business support scheme; the £25,000 retail, hospitality, tourism and leisure scheme; the micro-business hardship fund; and, more recently, part B of the COVID restrictions business support scheme.
Despite the unprecedented level of financial support that has and is being offered, the Department appreciates that there are some businesses and individuals who continue to be severely negatively impacted, with travel agents being one of them. However, it will be for the Executive collectively to determine how any COVID-related funding is allocated as we progress through the road map and lifting restrictions, which, in my eyes, is the most important thing. We must make sure that we can have confidence injected into the market for travel agents.
Ms Armstrong: Does the Minister agree that travel agents are key high street businesses and are vital in supporting our air routes and airports in particular? Therefore, if there is further money coming forward, will he seek to bring forward a further support package through his Department, as opposed to it coming through the Executive Office, in order to target travel agents in particular, because they are so important to our air industry?
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for her supplementary question. Since March 2020, the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government have introduced an unprecedented number of interventions and packages of financial support to help those who have been affected by the consequences of COVID-19. My Department has led in the delivery of business-related support, providing over £513 million of much-needed funds to support local businesses from all sectors and occupations throughout Northern Ireland, with the primary aim of helping those businesses to survive the pandemic and protect as many local jobs as possible.
Despite the unprecedented level of support that has been offered, some businesses and individuals continue to be negatively impacted. The Department and, indeed, the Northern Ireland Executive continue to receive calls for further support packages to be put in place. The Department's focus is on the full and uninterrupted reopening of the Northern Ireland economy in line with the Executive's road map and the associated health regulations. It will be vital to instil confidence into our travel industry in the weeks ahead. I am not sure that the traffic-light scheme actually does that. I think that decisions being made like a guillotine will sap confidence, and that is not a place where we want to be.
To add to that answer, I inform the House that the Northern Ireland domestic aviation kickstart scheme (NIDAKS) has now launched. Our domestic and international air connectivity is critical both for the local tourism sector and for the wider economy, especially as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. NIDAKS is a support scheme for airlines that is being developed by the Department and is aimed at maintaining and enhancing Northern Ireland's air connectivity with the rest of the United Kingdom following the COVID pandemic.
Dr Archibald: Following on from the previous question, for some businesses, direct financial assistance will be important to allow them to continue to be there to recover. So, as part of the recovery plan, is the Minister looking at support for sectors, such as a the travel and tourism sector, that have been most badly hit? They were the first to close and will probably be the last to open. This morning, I met the English language schools with the Finance Minister, and I really encourage the Economy Minister to meet that sector. That is one sector that has been badly hit by the pandemic and has not had a great deal of assistance.
Mr Frew: The Member raises a very important issue. It is widely accepted that the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme, which are both currently scheduled to end in September of this year, have been instrumental in avoiding mass unemployment. It is clear that both the furlough and the self-employed schemes are essential and must remain in place as we move into a sustainable economic recovery. I will be seeking to engage with the UK Government on how these schemes can be maintained to protect industries that are still impacted by restrictions. I hope that that will enhance and go alongside any work that my Department can do, with regard to its recovery plan going forward, to support businesses and to support jobs. I think that we could well be in for a critical couple of months as we come in to the winter months, and it is important that all restrictions that can be lifted are lifted to ensure that markets can activate and work as they should without any government interference. I think that that is important, and I will certainly be pushing for that support for our industries so that they will be allowed to get on with their business safely and productively and so that we will, hopefully, get the economy back up and running sooner rather than later.
Mr Weir: As Members have indicated, this has been a critically difficult time for industries across the board in their response to COVID, particularly the travel industry. Obviously, I welcomed the Minister's announcement on Thursday that he was launching NIDAKS, and I note that there has been a very warm welcome to that from our three airports. Can the Minister give the House some more detail on that scheme and how it will be helpful to the travel industry and to airports in particular as we move ahead?
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his question. It is critical that we get this good news story out there, to be fair. NIDAKS aims to support inbound tourism and business travel between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and to encourage inward investment into the local economy. These are essential for Northern Ireland's recovery. We have engaged with our three local airports and the airlines in the development of NIDAKS, and the Department has launched it to deliver on our commitments to support Northern Ireland’s domestic air connectivity with GB as soon as the required approvals are secured. I have spoken to the airports, and I know that they are very thankful for that, as are the airlines involved. It is £4·5 million of support through ministerial direction, and it is vital that we maintain those links to GB not only for tourism but for commuter travel, especially when it comes to visiting family and friends throughout this country. It was very important that the scheme was rolled out as soon as possible. It started at the beginning of June. We had to instil confidence as soon as we could, which is why we had to go down the ministerial direction route.
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his question. With the relaxation of many COVID restrictions, the tourism sector is beginning its positive recovery from the challenging period of lockdown. We need further restrictions to be lifted as soon as possible, and we look forward to 5 July.
Phase 2 of the tourism recovery action plan was launched last month. It has been developed in collaboration with Tourism NI, Tourism Ireland, regional and local government stakeholders, representative bodies and the tourism industry. It contains a comprehensive package of measures to support the regrowth of the tourism sector. Those include measures designed to stimulate consumer demand, enhance the capability of businesses and the skills of the workforce and create a supportive policy environment.
Marketing activity is under way to encourage people to holiday here by reminding them of the great visitor attractions, accommodation and hospitality that sits on our doorstep. That will be complemented later in the year by a £2 million holiday at home voucher scheme. That activity is specifically aimed at supporting local businesses and, ultimately, saving jobs.
The tourism industry has been incredibly resilient, and bookings so far look very positive. Partnering with key stakeholders, I am determined to deliver on that phase of the action plan to ensure that the tourism sector can emerge and recover from the impacts of COVID-19 and the harmful restrictions that have been imposed.
Mr Beattie: I thank the Minister for his answer. The tourism sector is massive, and visitor attractions are incredibly important. They come both large and small, and I guess that we all focus on the large visitor attractions. How do we get funding and support to smaller visitor attractions such as the War Years Remembered Museum in Ballyclare? The museum is important to that area for tourism and for footfall, yet it does not seem to be able to get that support. Will the Minister look at that?
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his question. The tourism sector is vital. The Executive took immediate action to enable businesses to survive the impact of the pandemic, including implementing a range of financial support schemes to support businesses, including in the tourism and hospitality sector. My Department alone provided over £313 million of financial assistance to 47,128 applicants via a range of schemes. That included £20·7 million for the hospitality sector and £1·2 million for the tourism sector through the £25,000 retail, hospitality, tourism and leisure grant scheme. There are many other schemes, including: £50·7 million through the large tourism and hospitality business support scheme; £4 million for the hospitality sector under the wet pubs scheme; and £1·8 million through the bed and breakfast, guesthouse and guest accommodation scheme.
With regard to additional financial support, it will be for the Executive collectively to determine how any COVID-related funding is allocated as we progress through the road map and the lifting of restrictions.
The Member mentioned the museum in Ballyclare. I visited that very good museum. I was saddened to hear the news over the last number of days, and I hope that the museum can find a settled home and get the support that it requires. It would be such a loss to everyone, not only for the local community but for tourism coming in, if they could not avail themselves of the opportunity to see that museum and all its artefacts. The museum is very dear to my heart.
I undertake to look at that and assess it. If the Member wants to write to me, I will certainly pick that up and take a look at it.
Mr Allister: I want to link back to the plight of travel agents. I well remember the Minister, when he was a member of the Finance Committee, articulating his deep dissatisfaction with the inadequacies of the support for our travel agency sector. Now that he is in a position to do something, will he turn his words into action?
Mr Frew: I thank my colleague from North Antrim for the question. I sat on the Finance Committee with him, and I enjoyed my time there. He is right: the sector should be supported. The Executive Office is taking forward that scheme. It would be inappropriate for me to do something on the back of that. I would like to see that money rolled out as soon as possible. I certainly will ask why, considering the achievements of the Department for the Economy and the £513 million that it has rolled out, it is taking so long. I would like to see that money going to support travel agents, who so badly need it. Let us be clear: travel agents have had a really tough time, not only because of the loss of trade and the collapse of the market but because they had to remain open not to trade but to give back money. That is a unique position, compared with any other sector of our economy and trade.
I hope that the scheme gets rolled out as quickly as possible to those people, many of whom are in my constituency, which I share with the Member, and that they are supported as quickly as possible. I hope that we can lift restrictions and open up their industry as quickly as possible so that it can flourish again. I welcome the placing of a number of countries on the green list. I have an issue with the fact that countries can be put back on to a red or amber list. That impacts on confidence in the market. For businesses and people alike, there has to be a better and safer way. I am happy to explore any way in which we can support the industry.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): That ends listed questions. We move to topical questions. Question 5 has been withdrawn by Órlaithí Flynn. I forgot to mention that, similarly, question 12 has been withdrawn by Ms Flynn. That was remiss of me.
T1. Mr McHugh asked the Minister for the Economy, who will be well aware that Dale Farm recently agreed a major supply contract with the Danish company Arla, which underlines the fact that the protocol and the resulting continued access to the EU market has benefited local companies, what his Department will do to promote and build on opportunities that are presented by that continued access. (AQT 1481/17-22)
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his question. In my role, as he would expect, I want to grow our businesses, seek investment and increase our exports to all markets. Investment, trade and exports are one of the four key planks of my Department's economic recovery action plan.
My Department recently published a further paper on trade and investment for a 10X Economy. The paper sets out how DFE will engage widely to co-develop clear targets for our trade and investment ambitions and to define the actions needed to bring them to life. It sets it out in black and white that Northern Ireland is a great place to work and do business, for all sorts of reasons. My Department, along with Invest NI, has never stopped promoting that message all around the world.
Exports rely on inputs, and many of our businesses, no matter where they sell to, rely on purchases from GB. A key foundation to exporting is first resolving the well-documented issue around trading goods between GB and Northern Ireland. Until that is resolved, we cannot resolve issues with the protocol and the damage that it causes. Businesses are raising concerns about the additional workload and cost associated with the new requirement for supplementary declarations. They are complex in nature, and I am concerned about the impact that the requirement is having on already struggling businesses across Northern Ireland. The ending of grace periods poses the risk of further cliff edges for our businesses. It is vital that the issues are resolved and that we do not see further barriers arise due to divergence. It is vital that Northern Ireland businesses can remain competitive in the UK internal market. I want to resolve the issues so that we can continue to demonstrate that Northern Ireland is an exceptional place in which to invest and so that we can ensure that our businesses can grow their exports to their key markets, whether those be in the UK, the EU or beyond.
Mr McHugh: Thank you, Minister. I am sure that you will agree that it is because of not the protocol but Brexit itself that mobile providers O2 and EE have announced that they will reimpose roaming charges. What will you and your Department do to drive down the cost of phone bills for those who will be affected by that?
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his question. The imposition of the protocol is doing so much damage to our businesses and our trade, especially between GB and Northern Ireland. It is hurting our businesses incredibly, no matter to where they export. They find crippling factors, such as needing to employ people to fill out paperwork and planning new routes, which is costly: in fact, routes and products are sometimes completely closed off to some of our businesses. It is the protocol that is doing damage to those businesses.
I am happy for the Member to write to me about providers reimposing roaming charges. He has submitted a couple of questions for written answer that have yet to be answered, so I will take a keen interest in how they are answered. Let us see whether we can get something resolved.
T2. Mr Carroll asked the Minister for the Economy whether he has any plans to introduce legislation to ban the so-called fire and rehire practice, which became widespread during the pandemic and through which companies dismiss staff only to re-employ them on worse terms and conditions. (AQT 1482/17-22)
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his question. I make it absolutely clear that fire and rehire should not be used as a negotiation tactic. Using fire and rehire as a tactic to put undue pressure on workers to accept new and often worse terms and conditions or face losing their job is totally unacceptable. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) published a report on the practice of dismissal and re-engagement, known as "fire and rehire", on 8 June 2021. The views expressed in that report are wide-ranging. For some, it is never acceptable, while, for others, in its most legitimate form, fire and rehire allows employers to avoid redundancies and business failure after negotiations have been exhausted. I warn employers that dismissal and rehire should be used only where there is a risk to their business. Even in those circumstances, employers must follow a statutory minimum dismissal procedure. They may have to follow a collective redundancy consultation process if a group of employees is involved.
That having been said, I am conscious that potential measures to address the worst excesses of fire and rehire, including legislation, must be carefully considered to ensure that there are no unintended consequences, particularly where measures could lead to more redundancies. My officials will continue to liaise with their counterparts in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) on the matter.
This is not a new thing. I remember the practice being in play when I was in the electrical trade in the early 1990s. It meant that people did not build up rights while working for the same company. The two-year threshold for longevity of employment was rarely met. It is therefore important that we get this right and that workers be afforded the opportunities that they need to bring stability to their employment, because that will affect other things, such as a mortgage and everything that goes with that.
Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for his answer. I welcome his comment that it should not be used as a tactic, but it should not be used at all. A survey from the GMB union found that 76% of people surveyed were opposed to the action and would support legislation to ban it. Unions such as Unite the Union — the Minister might be a former member of it — and many others are calling for legislation to address that disgraceful practice, which treats workers like dirt. Legislation is progressing through Westminster at the minute. Does the Minister agree that it would be wholly unacceptable if there was a divergence on the matter, and, if legislation to outlaw it is passed in Great Britain, will he move swiftly to introduce similar legislation here?
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. The practice of dismissal and re-engagement — fire and rehire — has received widespread attention during the COVID pandemic, particularly in GB. A number of big businesses have been named in media reports. In January this year, the TUC published research that suggested that as many as one in 10 workers had been told, during lockdown last year, to reapply for their job on worse terms and conditions or face the sack. That is unacceptable, when we know the scale of the support that the Government have given to businesses over the last year. There is no excuse for that, so I am totally in sympathy. I want to get the situation resolved, so that workers who are in a vulnerable position in that regard get the employment protections and safeguards that they deserve.
T3. Mr Lynch asked the Minister for the Economy whether he will meet with officials from Fermanagh and Omagh District Council to re-examine the scope of Project Stratum, given that, when he talks to people across different sectors in his constituency, particularly in Fermanagh, including farmers, businesspeople, students and families, who have poor access to broadband, it is clear that that scheme will not fully address the issue, with the council finding out recently that 2,392 premises had been removed from its scope. (AQT 1483/17-22)
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his question. First and foremost, we must appreciate the level of roll-out and support that the broadband scheme will deliver. It should be noted that it was my party, through confidence and supply, that got Project Stratum off the ground. The continuing roll-out of the programme is a good news story for Northern Ireland. I understand that there will be teething problems and that there may be other, bigger problems as the roll-out continues. I give the Member a commitment that I will meet whomever he wishes me to meet. If he writes to me to request a meeting, I will certainly consider that. If there are any gaps in provision in the area that he represents, I will be only too happy to see what we can do to roll out a more comprehensive scheme. That will always come with a caveat about the business case, but, if addresses are being knocked off the scheme, it is not the scheme that we thought that it was. We will need to look at that carefully to see exactly what has gone awry in that area.
Mr Lynch: I thank the Minister for his answer and for giving an undertaking to meet officials on the matter. The Audit Office reported that the Department could claim back £14 million from BT in relation to previous broadband schemes. Does the Minister agree that any clawback of public money should be directed towards improving broadband in rural areas such as Fermanagh?
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his question. Yes. We need to make sure that that utility — that is what it has become — is rolled out to as many people as it can be, so that they can enjoy the facilities that people enjoy in other parts of the country, with the advantages that a good broadband connection can bring to a household, not least for businesses, while people stay at home to work, but also for homework and young people, who, let us face it, could probably buy and sell us on the internet. They are more expert than anyone — certainly, I suspect, more than anyone here. It is good that we will be able to get as many people as possible hooked up to decent broadband as quickly as we can. For some people and some communities, it could be a game changer between working at home and having to travel to work. I will be keen to promote flexible and blended systems of working into the future, to ensure a good work-life balance but also to increase productivity.
T4. Mr Sheehan asked the Minister for the Economy whether, at this late stage, he will consider extending the COVID disruption payment to those students who have been excluded, particularly because, despite the welcome announcement from Queen’s and Ulster University that they will provide additional grant support to low-income students, up to 75% of students have received no support at all, and it is deeply frustrating that so many students have been excluded. (AQT 1484/17-22)
Mr Frew: I thank the Member for his question, which is very important. The Economy Committee and a number of other MLAs wrote to former Minister Dodds, following the recent Assembly motion, requesting an update on whether she intended to expand the COVID disruption payment scheme to further education students, part-time students and Northern Ireland-domiciled students studying in the UK and Republic of Ireland. Minister Dodds previously set out the policy rationale for not including FE students or part-time students in the scheme. Officials sought legal advice on the potential legislative barriers to expanding the payment to Northern Ireland students studying elsewhere, which are in addition to the operational, practical hurdles in place, and have submitted full briefing to me to allow me to respond in detail to the Economy Committee in the first instance. I will assess that, as I am assessing all aspects of the Department, in the coming days and weeks.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)
Clause 2 (Meetings: power to make similar or further provision)
Debate resumed on Question, That clause 2 stand part of the Bill.
The following amendment stood on the Marshalled List:
In page 4, line 5, leave out subsection (2). — [Mr Allister.]
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The next Member to speak is Ms Paula Bradley, who, I am advised, will not speak in her capacity as Chairperson of the Committee.
Ms P Bradley: I welcome the Consideration Stage of the Bill. As was said last week, there is a need for the Bill and, primarily, for clause 1, to allow councils to continue to follow any COVID guidelines and for councillors to have the opportunity to fully engage, whatever their circumstances. A longer-term solution should be explored. Mr Durkan spoke last week of a need to modernise how councils do their business. As we know, that is not within the scope of the Bill, but I look forward to amendments from the Minister at Further Consideration Stage that might provide for hybrid meetings to be put on a statutory footing.
I will turn to the clauses and amendment. I thank the Minister for following through on the decision that was made last week not to move clause 2. I know from the Minister and the Department that their intention was not to take away from the autonomy and decision-making of councils. It was good that the concerns of the House were listened to. I also put on record our thanks as a Committee for the briefing from officials on Thursday morning.
Moving on to clause 3, my party cannot support that clause, which concerns the:
"exemption from yearly audit and assessment".
Those of us who were here when the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014 was debated will know how difficult and cumbersome it was, not least for the Minister of the Environment at the time, who may speak later. We are on dangerous ground if we remove something from that Act without full scrutiny, especially if it relates to the assessment of a council's performance. Again, unintended consequences were raised last week, so without proper scrutiny, we cannot agree to the clause.
Amendment No 1 is on clause 5(2), which concerns the performance indicators for the oversight of councils in the financial year 2022-23. I understand the rationale behind the amendment, given the situation our councils find themselves in and the recovery, which we know will not be quick. However, the Local Government Act, especially Part 12, should not be tampered with without full scrutiny. For that reason, we will support Mr Allister's amendment.
Mr McCann: I will be brief, as everything was said when the Bill was before the House at Second Stage. I do not doubt that it will come before the House again. I fully support the Minister in what she is trying to do. The Bill is a prudent and reasonable step that allows our councillors to fulfil their roles safely and in line with public health guidance. I will not repeat what I said about the Bill, as points in its favour have been made. We all need the legislation to pass as quickly as possible.
The Committee has scrutinised the Bill. I believe that there was a consensus on the way forward, with a couple of exceptions. Our councillors need the provisions in the Bill so that they can carry out their duties in a safe manner. The Minister proposed a common-sense approach, and we should all focus on getting the legislation through in as timely a manner as possible in order to guard against any further delay. In the Second Stage debate, it was said that we owe a debt of gratitude to those across local government who dealt with the difficulties and problems that we all faced. We now need to equip those people with whatever they need to ensure that the sector can move forward.
Mr Durkan: Last week, we consented to grant the Bill accelerated passage. I, along with many other Members, lamented the use of accelerated passage as a suboptimal way of doing business. The Bill embodies why that is the case. We should try to restrict not only the number of times we use accelerated passage but the nature of the legislation that is treated in that manner. We should use accelerated passage only where we have no alternative, which, in this case, is clause 1: what needs to be done now.
I have concerns that some of the other clauses go far beyond the desired and stated intent of the Bill and go too fast. Ms Bradley referred to the Local Government Act 2014. That is certainly not perfect, but the passage of that Bill was painstaking and painful. It was consulted on and reconsulted on for years, so I do not concur with the Chair that it is appropriate to use this Bill, particularly under accelerated passage, to tamper with the Act without urgent need and the full consideration of and consultation on the outworkings and impact of the proposed changes. For that reason, we will support the Minister and Mr Allister's opposition to clauses standing part and Mr Allister's amendment. I commend the Minister for being flexible on the matter. The Minister has now clarified that the amendment will not be fatal to the Bill or its original intent.
The Minister has also indicated that she will table an amendment at Further Consideration Stage. We look forward to seeing, scrutinising and, hopefully, being able to support something that is essential to allow councils to work effectively, delivering vital services and value to our ratepayers.
Mr Allister: I will be mercifully brief on these matters. I am grateful for the support indicated by some for the amendment. I have two points to make in the case for clause 3 not to stand part. First, we granted accelerated passage on the basis that what we were going to do was COVID-related. Patently, clause 3 is not COVID-related and is therefore not a fit candidate to be in a Bill that has been granted the exceptional treatment of accelerated passage.
Secondly, an outworking of clause 3 is that it would make it easier to avoid annual audits. In a public body such as a council, annual audits are critical. They are not just some optional add-on. They are a key component that give public confidence to the ratepayers who pay the rates into that council. Therefore, the thought of the Minister being able to remove those obligations for audit is, to me, an unhealthy and unwelcome step, particularly, as I suggested last week, in some councils where, it seems to some, myself included, that the relationship between the Audit Office's local government representative and the council is, very often, just far too cosy. Therefore, an arrangement whereby, in consultation with the Audit Office, an audit can be passed up and does not need to happen is not somewhere we should be going and certainly not in the haste of accelerated passage.
The key point about clause 5(2) is the vast scope of what it takes out, which is the entirety of Part 12 — 19 different sections — of the Local Government Act, including the statutory duty to keep improving the provision. Suddenly, we are going to enable the Minister to remove that. The second point is that that is particularly inadvisable in what will be a council election year up to 2023, because you could run the risk of an allegation that a council that has something that it would rather the electorate did not hear before the election has been able to pull a fast one by ensuring that certain provisions relating to audit have been set aside until after the election. That is not healthy, and it is not good. I do not think that any Minister would want to operate under any such cloud of suspicion, so why create it in the first place? For those reasons, I say to the House that it should not assent to clause 3 and should take out clause 5(2).
Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): Thanks to all who contributed, including in Committee, to the consideration of the Bill. I know that there will be ongoing work with the Committee on a further amendment around the provisions in clause 2, which is to be removed, to see whether we can bring in those changes as part of this legislation.
On clauses 3 and 5, which, I know, have been highlighted by three Members who spoke — I recognise that the legislation has not gone through the normal scrutiny process — clause 3 is an attempt to tidy up or align the arrangements that already exist, and clause 5 would only be used in the second year if COVID impacts were still there, so it would be under a strict set of circumstances.
That said, I have already clarified that it has no overwhelming weight with regard to the Bill's main purpose. I am not particularly hung up on those two issues or the amendment.
Clauses 6 and 7 are technical and consequential to the rest of the Bill.
I have nothing to add. There will be ongoing work with the Committee. Hopefully, we can find consensus on the way forward on an addendum to what clause 2 initially sought to do. I accept and understand completely that Members want further scrutiny of the other two issues. That is it from me, as we move to the next stage.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I put the Question, I remind Members that we have debated the Minister's opposition to clause 2 but the Question will be put in the positive, as usual.
Question put and negatived.
Clause 2 disagreed to.
Clause 3 (Performance: exemption from yearly audit and assessment)
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I put the Question on clause 3 stand part, I remind Members that we have debated Mr Allister's opposition to clause 3, but the Question will be put in the positive, as is normal.
Question put and negatived.
Clause 3 disagreed to.
Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 5 (Performance: power to alter various rules (2021/22 and 2022/23))
In page 4, line 5, leave out subsection (2). — [Mr Allister.]
Clause 5, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 6 and 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes Consideration Stage of the Local Government (Meetings and Performance) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker. I remind Members that the deadline for tabling amendments for Further Consideration Stage is 9.30 am on Wednesday 30 June. Members may take their ease for a few moments before we move to the next item of business.
That this Assembly agrees, in line with section 87 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the provisions of the Compensation (London Capital & Finance plc and Fraud Compensation Fund) Bill relating to the Fraud Compensation Fund as contained in clause 2 of the Bill, which was introduced in the House of Commons on 12 May 2021.
Ms Hargey: The Compensation (London Capital & Finance plc and Fraud Compensation Fund) Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 12 May. Clause 1 provides for the British Treasury to incur expenditure for a compensation scheme regarding London Capital & Finance plc. However, that is a reserved matter and does not require a legislative consent motion (LCM).
Clause 2, which relates to the pensions Fraud Compensation Fund (FCF), makes provisions for devolved matters and requires an LCM. Clause 2 amends provisions in the Pensions Act 2004 that extend here. The amendments allow the Secretary of State to make a loan on the bond of the Pension Protection Fund (PPF). The loan will fund compensation payments from the Fraud Compensation Fund to those who have suffered financially due to pension liberation fraud. Although pensions are generally a devolved matter, pensions policy and legislation here operate in line with corresponding pension provision in England, Scotland and Wales and in line with section 87 of the NI Act 1998. Private pensions are subject to a somewhat complex web of tax law, which is an excepted matter; financial services law, which is a reserved matter; and general pensions law, which is a devolved matter. Given the nature of the private pension sector, most bodies in this area, such as the Pensions Regulator, the Pensions Ombudsman, the Pension Protection Fund and the Fraud Compensation Fund, operate across these jurisdictions.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
The parts of the 2004 Act that extend here establish the PPF and FCF. The FCF provides compensation if a workplace pension scheme has had its assets reduced due to an offence involving dishonesty and there is no solvent employer to make good the shortfall. Payments are made from the FCF and paid for by a levy on all eligible workplace pension schemes. The levy is collected by the Pensions Regulator annually, and the fund is transferred to the PPF as scheme manager of the FCF.
When the FCF was established, pension liberation fraud did not exist, and, therefore, it was not the policy intent of such schemes to be eligible for entry. Pension liberation fraud involves members being persuaded to transfer their pension savings from legitimate schemes to scam schemes that promise a high investment return; that they would be able to cash in all or part of their pension fund; or that they would receive a loan from their pension fund before the age of 55 without incurring a tax charge. Fraudsters charged high administration costs and then drained any remaining scheme funds, often moving them abroad.
The Pensions Regulator has placed professional pension trustees in charge of the affected schemes. The trustees are seeking compensation on behalf of the affected members through the fraud compensation scheme.
Following receipt of an unprecedented number of applications to the pension liberation scheme, the PPF, which administers the FCF, sought guidance from the High Court in England on which schemes should be eligible for the FCF. The court, in its judgment in the case of the Pension Protection Fund Board v Dalriada, held that the representative scheme in the claim had an employer for the purposes of satisfying the FCF's eligibility requirement for an employer's insolvency. The effect of that judgment is that, provided that a scheme meets other entry criteria, liberation schemes similar to the representative scheme will be eligible for FCF compensation. The FCF, since it was established in 2005, had previously paid out compensation totalling approximately £5·4 million in respect of 14 claims. The value of the current claim is £350 million, which compares with assets of approximately £26 million. The funding pressure is therefore around £324 million.
The fraud compensation levy is currently capped at 30p for master trusts and 75p for other eligible pension scheme classifications. Under current limits, it would therefore take approximately 30 years for the fraud compensation levy to secure the income required. The FCF balance sheet is not sufficiently capitalised, and sufficient funds cannot be collected via the levy to accommodate the immediate funding pressure. Without intervention, the FCF will be unable to comply with the court ruling and may lose its going concern status. A condition of being a going concern is that the FCF is able to maintain continued provision of service. The FCF assets will be exhausted by October of this year. At that point, the PPF will be unable to comply with or implement the judgement. There are 122 pension schemes within its scope, with a total of 8,806 members. Of those, 3,900 are within pension or retirement age.
Clause 2 enables the Secretary of State to make a loan to the board of the PPF. The money lent will go into the FCF and be used to pay out claims. That will ensure that the PPF and the FCF can maintain provision of service and continue to provide a safety net for pension scheme members.
The Bill makes provision for the allocation and spending of money through the FCF. It is considered that that will impact on devolved competence on the basis that it will be used to fund compensation payments from the FCF. Compensation payments from the fund here are a devolved matter. While the FCF was established under the 2004 Act, the Pensions (NI) Order 2005 makes provision for fraud compensation payments to be made here. The money allocated on foot of the Bill will allow compensation payments to be made to any affected pension scheme members here. The Secretary of State loans provided for in the Bill will, over time, be repaid from the FCF using money derived from the fraud compensation levy.
The amendments made by clause 2 of the Bill to the 2004 Act will have repercussions for how the FCF operates here, as provided for in the 2005 Order. If it is agreed that clause 2 should be extended to here, that will allow its important provisions to be enacted in Britain and here at the same time. That will provide legal certainty for schemes and allow fraud compensation payments falling from pension liberation fraud to be made here and ensure that the going concern status of the FCF will be maintained. It will also ensure that scheme members here are not put at any disadvantage compared with those in Britain and are able to enjoy the benefits of the loan.
If it is not agreed to extend the provisions in the Westminster Bill to here, it will be necessary to introduce a separate Assembly Bill to ensure that parity is maintained and that the FCF can continue to function. Timing, however, will be critical. It is likely that an Assembly Bill would not be introduced until September at the earliest, and it would then be subject to the Assembly's Bill procedure and timetabling. Again, as we know, given the demands on the legislative programme, it is by no means certain that a slot could be found in this mandate.
The intention is for the Westminster Bill to be enacted as soon as possible, with the clause 2 provisions coming into operation on Royal Assent to allow the Secretary of State loan to be made. It would therefore be beneficial timewise and for ensuring that the affected scheme members here can receive compensation from the fund to agree to extend to here the relevant provisions in the Westminster Bill.
Pension scams are a scourge on society, robbing people of their hard-earned nest egg that was meant to support them in their later years. Clause 2 contains a beneficial measure to support the FCF and other reparations to pension savings that have been financially impacted on by fraud or dishonesty. While I seek to avoid using the LCM process in all circumstances, in this case it seems sensible to agree the LCM to secure the benefits of the Secretary of State loan for scheme members here. The use of the LCM procedure in this case should not be seen as a precedent or an indication of how we will proceed in the area in the future. I am aware of the Assembly's role, and I am just asking Members to understand that we are making sure that protections are brought in here in line with those being brought in for scheme members in England, Scotland and Wales.
Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): On behalf of the Committee for Communities, I thank the Minister for tabling the motion. I have no doubt that Members will have read the Committee's report on the legislative consent memorandum, so I do not intend to go into too much detail.
The Westminster Compensation (London Capital & Finance plc and Fraud Compensation Fund) Bill that is before Parliament includes provisions relating to devolved matters. The Bill was introduced on 12 May 2021 and is expected to progress quickly, with Royal Assent anticipated by July 2021.
Pensions are a devolved matter, but, in general, pension legislation here operates in line with corresponding provision in England, Scotland and Wales, in line with section 87 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Due to the complex nature of the private pensions sector, the majority of bodies in that area, such as the Pensions Regulator, the Pensions Ombudsman, the Pension Protection Fund and the Fraud Compensation Fund, operate across the United Kingdom. Parts of the Pensions Act 2004 that extend here established the Pension Protection Fund and the Fraud Compensation Fund. The Fraud Compensation Fund provides compensation if a workplace pension scheme's assets have been reduced due to an offence involving dishonesty and there is no solvent employer to make up the shortfall. Members will be aware of the recent surge in claims to the Fraud Compensation Fund in respect of so-called pension liberation fraud. Without urgent action, the fund could fail, leaving those affected without recourse or compensation.
The Committee was briefed on the Westminster Bill and the legislative consent memorandum on 27 May 2021. Members were advised that the Bill makes provision in relation to the Fraud Compensation Fund to enable the Secretary of State to make a loan to the board of the Pension Protection Fund. Officials advised the Committee that the money lent goes into the Fraud Compensation Fund and is used to pay out claims. Members were assured that the LCM provides legal certainty for schemes, allows fraud compensation payments to be made from pension liberation funds and ensures the going concern status of the Fraud Compensation Fund. Members were further advised that the LCM will ensure that scheme members in Northern Ireland are not put at any disadvantage compared with people in England, Wales or Scotland.
Committee members asked officials what the impact on Northern Ireland will be if the LCM is not agreed as quickly as possible. The Committee was advised that, if the LCM is not agreed, the provisions relating to the pension Fraud Compensation Fund will not be extended here and that it will be necessary to bring forward a separate Assembly Bill to ensure that the Fraud Compensation Fund can continue to function here.
In its consideration of the LCM, the Committee also sought the views of the Pensions Regulator, which advised that it had no objection to the LCM. To ensure that Northern Ireland members are not disadvantaged and to prevent the need for a separate Assembly Bill, the Committee agreed to recommend that the provisions in the Westminster Bill, as outlined in the LCM, are extended to Northern Ireland. Therefore, on behalf of the Committee, I support the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): No other Members have indicated that they wish to speak. I call Deirdre Hargey, the Minister for Communities, to conclude and make a winding-up speech.
Ms Hargey: I thank the Chair and members of the Communities Committee for their consideration and support. As has been said, this is about providing certainty for schemes, particularly for those that have been impacted. The LCM is needed to ensure that we do not fall behind England, Scotland and Wales and to make sure that people here are protected. I commend the motion to the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly agrees, in line with section 87 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the provisions of the Compensation (London Capital & Finance plc and Fraud Compensation Fund) Bill relating to the Fraud Compensation Fund as contained in clause 2 of the Bill, which was introduced in the House of Commons on 12 May 2021.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 6) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.
Mr Swann: Today I bring forward a statutory rule (SR) on a very specific, narrow issue: SR 2021/151, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 6) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021. Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I will focus my remarks on the key changes made by the amendment. Before I do, however, I want to express my disappointment and, I am sure, that of others that it is me standing here today and not the Economy Minister. This is a single amendment that delivers a single policy that was facilitated and secured by a single Department: the Department for the Economy. That is why, on 15 June, I made what, I thought, was an entirely reasonable request to the newly appointed Economy Minister to lead the debate on the amendment. I was disappointed to receive the Minister's reply a week later, in which he said that he felt that it was not appropriate for him to lead on the scrutiny of the regulation as it was technically a matter for me. Such a response was disappointing. I hope that we will see less of it over the coming months. As I said this morning to the new Deputy Chair of the Health Committee when I welcomed him to his place, I am missing him already in his former role. Nevertheless, the debate needs to happen or else the changes to hospitality would have fallen. That is why I stand here today.
SR 2021/151 was made and came into effect at 12.30 pm on 4 June. Following the reopening of the hospitality sector outdoors on 30 April and indoors on 24 May, businesses providing food and drink were required to operate on a table service-only basis. That was deemed a necessary precaution to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. Following significant sectoral engagement with Departments on the issue, operational and compliance challenges were reported, as well as significant challenges for the business models of buffet and carvery services. In addition, it was noted that, during the period of relaxations in summer 2020, only venues that served alcohol were required to operate on a table service-only basis.
Following Executive discussions on 27 May, the then Minister for the Economy brought a paper to the Executive with a proposal to amend the regulations to assist such hospitality venues by relaxing the requirement to provide table service. On 3 June, the Executive agreed to amend the regulations. The amendment permitted:
"food to be ordered other than at a table in venues that do not serve alcohol, and ... food to be ordered at a buffet or carvery",
including at premises that sell or provide alcohol. The Executive collectively ratified those decisions, and the changes were made the following day, Friday 4 June, to assist with that weekend's trade for the affected hospitality venues.
I understand that, in communicating the changes to the businesses that were impacted, their trade bodies and enforcement authorities, the Department for the Economy emphasised the importance of the mitigations that were still required. Those included collection of customer details for contract-tracing purposes, as required by regulation; effective management of queuing with social distancing; wearing of face coverings when not seated, as required already in the regulations; observation of hand hygiene; and undertaking of staff safety measures and enhanced hygiene and cleaning.
I assure Members that, at all times, the Executive's reviews of the regulations were guided by the four principles that they agreed in May 2020, which focus on purpose, necessity, proportionality and reliance on evidence. In addition, we recognise the importance of balancing public health needs with those of the economy. The COVID-19 cross-departmental working group led by TEO continues to meet weekly and manages the process for bringing forward relaxation proposals to the Executive. Further, I thank the Health Committee for its continuous helpful contributions and scrutiny, which enabled the amendment to be finalised.
As Health Minister, I have ultimate responsibility for protecting the health of our most vulnerable and our vital health services. It is my firm belief that, overall, the restrictions and requirements imposed by the regulations continue to be proportionate to what they seek to achieve, which is a public health response to the COVID-19 infectious disease threat. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): I will make some brief remarks as Chair, and then I have a couple of even briefer remarks to make as Sinn Féin health spokesperson. Before I start, I welcome the new Deputy Chair of the Health Committee to his role. I look forward to working with him, as I did with his predecessor.
First, I welcome the fact that we have now delivered over two million doses of the vaccine in the North. The vaccination programme has been a great success and has provided for the gradual easing of the restrictions that we are considering today and, hopefully, in the future. I pay tribute to every one of those who have helped to deliver the vaccines: GP surgeries; our local pharmacies; and vaccinators and staff in the vaccination centres. They have all played a hugely significant role in getting us to where we are today. However, again, this is a process, and I urge everyone to follow the guidance and regulations and not to push or bend the rules at this time, especially with the increase in the number of cases and the prevalence of the delta variant. I encourage all of those who have not yet been vaccinated to please book in or go to the walk-in vaccine centre and get vaccinated. I welcome the fact that the SSE centre is now open on a walk-in basis to everyone over 18.
The Committee was briefed on the regulations at its meeting on 17 June 2021. As the Minister outlined, the rule ends the table service requirement for unlicensed premises such as cafes and permits food to be ordered at a buffet or carvery. Officials outlined that feedback from the sector on the changes was positive. I raised an issue about testing, track and trace and measuring the impact of easing restrictions on the transmission rate. That is an area that the Committee has highlighted on number of occasions, and it would be good to see the evidence behind easing restrictions to ensure that they do not significantly increase the transmission of the virus. The Committee agreed to recommend that the health protection regulations be approved by the Assembly.
In my role as Sinn Féin health spokesperson, I reiterate the message that everyone, especially as we go into the summer, should bear in mind the reality of the situation that we still face with COVID-19 and the fact that our Health and Social Care (HSC) system has been stretched above and beyond breaking point and remains extremely under pressure. I ask people to bear in mind that we are not yet out of the woods and to continue to abide by the guidance and social-distancing requirements in order to ensure that our Health and Social Care system can deliver the excellent service that it wishes to for us all.
Mr Lyons: I thank the Chair of the Committee and the Minister for their welcome. I am very pleased to be on the Health Committee and to help, I hope, the Minister in his role.
I welcome the fact that we are debating the relaxations of regulations. I pay tribute to my colleague Diane Dodds for her work in bringing them to the attention of the Health Minister and to the Health Minister for the way in which he responded. The changes greatly helped businesses in the hospitality industry, which, as we all know, have had a very hard time over the last 12 to 18 months. The relaxations of the restrictions are important. They make a difference and are welcome. I was pleased to see the work between the Department of Health and Department for the Economy.
Today, the Minister released a statement, saying:
"Vaccination helps us reclaim our lives."
That is absolutely the case. I am glad to see that so many people have taken up the vaccine. We have had an encouraging start, especially with those under 30, but we know that there is more work to do in that area. I join others in encouraging people to get their vaccinations because the Minister is absolutely right: it helps us to reclaim our lives.
To that end, I ask the Minister to consider a number of further relaxations that I hope are due to be made soon, and I would appreciate his comments on those. I know that we are straying a little further away from the regulations, but I am sure that the Deputy Speaker will allow me just a little latitude.
Mr Lyons: Thank you very much. I will be quick.
I will start with one on which I might get a little bit of support from the Deputy Speaker, that is Larne Football Club. He will know the position that we find ourselves in and the matches that are ahead of us. I am sure that the Minister is watching with interest as well. I hope that the restrictions on outdoor events will continue to be relaxed. There are a lot of important games coming up, and a lot of people who are involved in organising festivals and other large events are really dependent on the relaxations that were meant to come into force previously. I would appreciate it if the Executive could keep those in mind. I would also appreciate it if they could look at camps or overnight stays for young people over the summer. Those have been discussed, but it is important that young people can take advantage of those.
I would also ask that we consider indoor relaxations. Last summer, there were less-stringent restrictions on the number of people that could meet inside. I am very aware of the new variants and the challenges that we continue to face. However, I hope that we can see the further relaxation of restrictions, particularly as we move forward with our vaccination programme.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I do not want to test your patience any further. I welcome the relaxations that we discussed. They were common sense and were made in response to the situation in which we found ourselves. I hope that that can continue and that, where possible, further relaxations can be made. It is not just good for our people and economy but, under our legislation, they should, of course, be relaxed as soon as they are no longer required. I hope that that can continue.
Ms Hunter: I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate in my role as my party's health spokesperson and a member of the Health Committee. I, too, would like to welcome Mr Lyons as the new Deputy Chair of the Health Committee. I look forward to working with him.
Amendment No. 6 is another welcome change to the regulations. It has been particularly welcome to cafe and restaurant owners. I am sure that it will have made the running of their business and their jobs that little bit easier, as will the provision to allow food to be ordered at buffets or carveries.
Over the last year, we met here to discuss and debate coronavirus regulations on countless occasions. At times, we discussed the further tightening of restrictions, but I am pleased that the discussion today has been about changes to the regulations in recent weeks that have been for the better and have allowed a greater return to life as we used to know it. Of course, we remain mindful that the virus is still very much with us and that case numbers have been on the rise again, with the delta variant accounting for many of them. I continue to urge caution and, as we return to a much more normal way of life, I hope that people continue to follow the regulations and good practice to minimise risk and spread.
So many sacrifices have been made across society and so much progress has been made in combating and fighting the pandemic, it would, indeed, be very regrettable if things were to take a turn for the worse at this stage. We continue to take great heart from the continued roll-out of the vaccination programme, and I pay tribute to all those involved. It is a great relief that the vaccination programme has contributed to fewer and fewer people getting seriously sick as a result of contracting the virus. As such, the immense pressure that was on our health service has now been relieved.
As I did previously, I continue to urge and press for departmental and Executive action on and support for mental health and further support for local businesses. Only now as we begin to emerge from the pandemic, and in the weeks and months ahead, will we see the true impact that the pandemic, successive lockdowns and increased isolation have had on our mental health and well-being. I really worry about that. Before the pandemic, we were faced with not only a crisis in mental health but a health system that was struggling to cope. As we all know, the pandemic served to exacerbate both. I know that the Minister is committed to improving mental health care in the North and to creating a health service that reflects that. I hope that that will continue to be a priority for him and the Department and that the Executive will act accordingly in the months ahead.
While the reopening of local businesses, including the hospitality and close-contact sectors, has been welcome in recent weeks, I continue to urge support for those businesses.
Mr Chambers: I will be brief. This relaxation is another small step back to some level of normality. This step needs to be taken but, more importantly, needs to be received cautiously. We need to be careful as we move forward that we do not take one step forward and two steps back. That is the last thing that the population needs at this time.
The vaccination programme has been a huge enabler for us to move towards normality. Those who have been involved in that operation should be extremely proud of their efforts and what they have managed to deliver over the last few months. The population needs to be congratulated as well for the way in which it has responded to appeals to take up the opportunity to be vaccinated. Over the last few days, it has been made easier for anybody who has not been vaccinated to get vaccinated. I urge those who have any doubts or reluctance about being vaccinated to think hard about it and take the opportunity to get a vaccine. It will definitely help us to get back to normality.
As other Members said, the message is still the same: wear the masks, maintain social distancing and continue with hand hygiene. The Ulster Unionist Party supports the regulation.
Ms Bradshaw: We support the regulation. I put on record my enduring thanks to health and social care staff as we continue to move through the pandemic, including those who are doing such a wonderful job in our vaccination centres.
We are discussing only one regulation, which enables buffets and carveries to align with other parts of the hospitality sector and provides consistency with those cafes where customers queue to give their order before sitting down.
The reopening of hospitality continues to cause some confusion, particularly around events. I am aware, for example, that it remains the case that live music is not permitted at weddings, even outdoors, whereas it can take place at street demonstrations. That type of inconsistency causes the public to wonder how scientific evidence and advice can enable a performance to take place in one location but not in another, even when the environments are almost identical.
Difficulties about social distancing are being reported. The distance is 1 metre for venues serving buffets and carveries, whereas elsewhere in hospitality it remains at 2 metres. That seems strange to most people.
With cases rising and the need for caution being reinforced, even though we do not yet fully know what the impact of faster transmission will be, I repeat my view, which I gave when I touched on this regulation two weeks ago: all these regulations should also apply to service stations, for which surely no exemption is now necessary. In our communications with the public, particularly with new and apparently more transmissible variants, with perhaps more still to emerge, we need to reinforce the fact that this is an aerosol-driven virus. We still need to do all that we can to protect ourselves and others, particularly indoors, while the vaccination programme is ongoing.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will allow me a moment's leeway on the topic of contact tracing. I restate my concern that, from contact tracing, it is not being publicised exactly where the highest risks of transmission currently exist. It is now an unmistakable fact that the same broad areas have had higher or lower transmission rates than the Northern Ireland average for months. It suggests that, unlike England, we are not intervening efficiently enough. Without the knowledge of where the high risks have been shown to lie in Northern Ireland, it is hard to assess the merit of any of these regulations in detail. For example, has there been a change in the common features of outbreaks since the emergence of the delta variant? Can we identify a specific reason for its increased transmissibility — for example, is it a longer period of infectiousness? We should have some idea about that from contact tracing, but we hear very little at present.
In closing, I repeat my call for clarity from all sides. This is no time to be playing around with whether we should even have self-government. This is a time for taking collective responsibility and collective action in our collective interest.
Mr Carroll: I was not intending to speak, but, since the Minister expressed concern about having to move this amendment, I could not resist the temptation to continue briefly in that vein. I will be brief, Mr Deputy Speaker. I want to ask this question of the Minister today because I may not get another chance to do so before recess. Can he shed any light on the decision taken at the Executive, as media reports suggest, to go against the medical evidence presented on the need for people travelling within the common travel area (CTA) to self-isolate? There are massive questions to be answered. The Committee has put some of those to the Minister, but it might be after the summer when we get answers. Reports suggest that there was a warning from the Chief Medical Officer that ignoring or lifting the requirement to self-isolate would lead to a rapid increase in cases. According to media reports, the Executive voted against or ignored that. A bit of clarity on that from the Minister would be welcome, especially given the fact that 50% of cases are now connected to the delta variant. I know that that is not directly connected to this SR, but a bit of clarity would be useful.
Mr Swann: I welcome today's debate on the amendment, SR 2021/151, and I thank Members for their contributions. Mr Deputy Speaker, with your indulgence, I will turn to some of the points that Members made during the debate.
The Chair of the Health Committee, in his opening comments, gave an acknowledgement, shared by other Members, of our vaccine programme and the advances that it is making. A number of walk-in locations will be announced over the coming days. Mobile vaccination units will also be announced over the coming days, and I encourage Members to keep an eye to the media, including social media, for their announcement by the trusts. It was a welcome sight when we saw the first walk-in deployment in the SSE Arena yesterday. In the region of 400 individuals came forward and took the opportunity of being able to walk in and get their vaccine. I join the Chair in sending the message that we must continue to follow the guidance that has seen us through the past 15 months: good hand hygiene, wearing face coverings and social distancing
The Deputy Chair, Mr Gordon Lyons, acknowledged the importance of vaccines and the decisions that vaccination enables the Executive to make on the relaxation of restrictions. He will be aware that the issues that he raised are due to be discussed at this week's Executive meeting. As he well knows, I do not comment on those before the Executive have had the opportunity to discuss them, but I am sure that an announcement will be made by the First Minister and deputy First Minister following that meeting. He touched on the uptake of the vaccine by younger age groups and cohorts. As of 12.00 pm today, 142,712 people in the 18-to-29 age group had come forward and received their first vaccine. That is 50% of those in that eligible cohort, and I encourage the other 50% to come forward.
Cara Hunter's contribution was on mental health, on which she speaks passionately and often. She also submits questions for written answer on the issue. Before we go into summer recess, I intend to make a statement tomorrow to update Members on where we are with the mental health strategy.
Mr Chambers encouraged the population of Northern Ireland and thanked them for coming forward and taking up the opportunity to get the vaccine. Some 80% of our eligible population have received the first dose, and 60% have received the second dose. That is encouraging. Those sorts of steps and that level of uptake help us to make more relaxations, such as those that we are announcing here today. He also reinforced the basic good principles that we know work: good hand hygiene, social distancing and good respiratory hygiene.
Paula Bradshaw asked for the publication of data. The Public Health Agency has been publishing weekly updates for a number of months now on where outbreaks and clusters have been identified and on changing trends, such as where numbers are increasing as relaxations are made to restrictions.
Mr Carroll —.
Ms Bradshaw: I thank the Minister for giving way. I am well aware that the statistics are being published. My concern is more about the analysis of where the clusters are, how the regulations are working and whether more interventions are needed in those particular areas.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for that point. If she looks at the data, she will see that there are now a number of outbreaks and clusters in bars that there were not previously, because bars had been closed. There is therefore a trend that we can see of outbreaks and clusters shifting and changing as the regulations are relaxed.
The PHA's ongoing work is to ensure that the number of outbreaks in any location does not accelerate at any particular time, so it is about taking a cautious approach. We take a stepped approach to the relaxation of regulations so that there is time to reflect on the number of outbreaks or clusters in any specific location.
Mr Carroll referred to a number of media reports about travel across and within the CTA. I have never discussed internal conversations or divisions in the Executive in the Chamber or in the media, and I do not intend to start now, but, in the past, other Ministers have said that if their party were able to direct solely the decisions made in the Executive, different decisions would have been made. As Health Minister, I stand here today and use that exact same language.
Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for giving way. He has been consistent in his replies about internal Executive matters being discussed. How concerned is he about the potential for a further rise in cases of the delta variant, especially with that decision that he may or may not have supported being made in the Executive? How concerned is he about the summer and the weeks and months ahead?
Mr Swann: At this time, we are seeing an increase in the delta variant. As we have said in the past about any variants, or about COVID itself, it is always a matter of when and not if. If, however, the Member looks at where the variant is and its intensity in other parts of the United Kingdom, he will see that the number of cases here is some way behind. The delta variant is therefore spreading in Northern Ireland but not to the same extent as it is spreading elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It is still a concern for us, however. As the Member will be aware, we have had over 200 positive cases in each of the past three days, so that is a significant increase.
The number of people in hospital is still in the mid-teens, but, as of today, it is a concern that we have two people in intensive care on ventilation. We have not had anyone in ICU with COVID-19 over the past number of weeks. We are therefore starting to see a trend. When the number of cases increases, there is a two- to three-week lag before we see hospital numbers increasing. At the minute, we are not seeing that, but we are seeing a number of people entering ICU and requiring ventilation.
I hope that I have answered as many Members' queries and questions as possible. In closing the debate, I remind Members that the choices that we make now will be crucial to ensuring that the virus does not begin to spread again. COVID restrictions are being eased. We can meet more people and go to more places. We can cautiously start to return to a more normal way of life. By making safer choices, following public health advice and complying with the regulations, we can all do our part to help lower the spread of COVID-19. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 6) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 15 November 2021, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill [NIA 22/17-22].
Dr Archibald: I welcome the opportunity to speak as Chair of the Economy Committee to seek an extension to the Committee Stage of the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill. The Bill was referred to the Committee for the Economy on 15 June for Committee Stage. The Bill should, under Standing Order 33(2), complete its Committee Stage by 10 September.
The Bill's main objective is to provide statutory entitlements to parental bereavement leave and pay, providing two weeks' parental bereavement leave for employees following the death of a child and a statutory paid element to the leave for employees and for workers with 26 weeks' service. The legislation is long overdue given that, until now, there has been no statutory entitlement to parental bereavement leave and pay for people in what must be the most difficult time in their life.
At its meeting on 16 June, the Committee considered its call for evidence and discussed the range of stakeholders that it wishes to hear from during oral evidence sessions. Whilst the Committee shares the Minister's desire to see the legislation complete its passage through the Assembly as quickly as possible, it is important that detailed scrutiny is applied and that stakeholders are able to participate fully and sensitively on all aspects of the Bill.
I ask on behalf of the Economy Committee that the Assembly supports the motion to extend the Committee Stage of the Bill to 15 November. The Committee looks forward to using that time to engage at all levels with those impacted by the legislation.
On behalf of Sinn Féin, I support the extension of the Bill's Committee Stage. Members, particularly those who participated in the Second Stage debate, will be aware that, while there is considerable agreement on the Bill being brought forward and progressed, a number of issues came up where it was felt that it could be improved upon, including statutory pay as a day-one right, that all workers are treated the same, how leave can be taken and, of course, that it is extended to include leave in the case of miscarriage. It will be important that the Committee has the opportunity to conduct its scrutiny to include those issues.
We very much want the Bill to complete its passage through the House and for the subsequent regulations to be passed before the end of the mandate. The Committee will be consulting over the next number of weeks. We look forward to hearing from all those whom the Bill will impact in order to shape it to be its best and to make it a most fit-for-purpose piece of legislation, which, ultimately, is about providing compassionate support for workers at a really difficult time.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): No Members have indicated that they wish to speak. Therefore, I ask the Committee Chair whether she has any concluding remarks.
Question put and agreed to.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 15 November 2021, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill [NIA 22/17-22].
That this Assembly recognises the serious issue of damp and mould existing in many Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) properties; expresses concern that this poses a substantive risk to the health and well-being of tenants and is a contributor to fuel poverty; highlights the need to examine the causes of damp and mould and identify viable solutions to resolve these issues; notes that particular consideration should be given to property cavity wall insulation; notes with regret the inability of the Housing Executive to address the situation thus far; and calls on the Minister for Communities to take firm action, finally, to resolve the issue of damp and mould within the current Housing Executive stock as a matter of urgency.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and a further 10 minutes to wind. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Mr Easton: Over the past decade, I have received numerous pleas for help from my constituents regarding cold, damp homes where, in the worst cases, mould was also present. It was affecting their health and well-being, with many feeling totally frustrated and depressed, unable or embarrassed to invite friends and family to their homes. I know from talking to many of you that you have experienced it in your own constituencies. The majority of these homes are rented from landlords — in particular, the Housing Executive — but those are not the only instances. A few years ago, I asked the Minister for Communities, in a question for written answer, how many cases of damp had been reported to the Housing Executive over the past four years. The total was 25,150, which is absolutely massive.
Many of the householders have told me that, when they report the problems, they are told to open their windows or stop drying clothes on the radiators, and that that is the extent of the response that they receive. If they persist, they may get an extractor fan in their bathroom or kitchen, but that does not address the problems. I know that many of you will have similar stories to tell. A few quick trawls through social media will highlight plenty of similar cases. Occasionally, the issue appears in the media, with the latest example being the recent article in the 'Newtownabbey Times' that highlighted problems in Ballycraigy and Three Mile Water. The problems that we see here in Northern Ireland are also prevalent in the rest of the UK. Recent studies have shown that landlords need to do more to tackle the problem, emphasising the health problems that cold, damp and mould cause. Nearly one in five people in Northern Ireland are affected by lung conditions. Traditionally, lung disease has a long profile in the public mind and in healthcare, even though nearly twice as many people per day are diagnosed with respiratory disease as with non-respiratory cancers. Lung disease is costing £250 million a year in Northern Ireland. Prior to the pandemic, nearly 2,000 people died every year from respiratory disease in Northern Ireland. Damp and mould are key triggers for asthma attacks and can also lead to rare lung conditions. If any of the 182,000 people who have asthma in Northern Ireland live in a damp house, there is a high chance that it will trigger an asthma attack, which will likely result in a trip to hospital and, in a small number of cases, can even lead to death.
In the 1980s, the Housing Executive carried out an extensive programme of wall insulation on its properties. At that time, the right to buy was in its infancy. The number of properties likely to have been insulated was around 150,000. Many of those properties are still in Housing Executive ownership, but even more have now been sold into private hands. The insulation in the walls is now nearly 40 years old. The material that was used in most of those homes and houses is mineral wool, which has been discontinued in Northern Ireland for nearly 20 years due to the fact that it retains water and thus is likely to cause cold spots and subsequent damp.
Very few of those houses have had their insulation inspected to ensure that it is still effective, and even fewer have had it upgraded.
If the Housing Executive is going to eradicate cold and damp issues in its properties, it needs to begin to address the problems in those houses that have old and ineffective insulation. This is not the first time the topic has been brought before the Assembly. In 2017, on virtually the last day before the Assembly crashed, there was a debate on the subject. From memory, I believe it was debated twice before that. It is truly shocking and a damning indictment of the Assembly and the Department for Communities that here we are again debating the issue and nobody is holding the Housing Executive to account — nobody.
You all may remember that a motion was passed calling on the Housing Executive to be held to account for its failure to address the problems of cavity wall insulation in its housing stock. Our new First Minister was the Minister for Communities at the time, and he participated in the debate, promising the Assembly that a further survey of 1,000 houses would be carried out in order to assess the problem and to produce an action plan. A smaller survey of 236 houses had been previously carried out. What has happened since that motion was debated?
The survey was carried out, and a specialist organisation called the British Board of Agrément (BBA) was appointed that summer. It completed the surveys in 2018 and produced a report in 2019, which identified that almost two thirds of Housing Executive properties did not have cavity wall insulation up to current standards. The report made a series of recommendations. That was pretty much the same conclusion that was reached and recommended on in an earlier report by the South Eastern Regional College (SERC) in 2014. Five years later, at an additional cost of £400,000, we got told what we already knew. Really, Members, how many surveys and reports need to be done on the issue? It is a scandal, and we are allowing it to happen.
Two years have passed since the report's publication, and those recommendations have still not been implemented. The Housing Executive will tell us that it issued a consultation on its proposed actions in March this year and that it is now finalising an action plan. Its proposal, however, while acknowledging that there is a serious problem, is to do nothing until its financial situation is stabilised in future. We are all aware of the financial difficulties that are facing the Housing Executive and the increasing state of disrepair of its stock. To be fair to the Minister, she has highlighted that several times and is planning to bring forward proposals that may change in future. In the meantime, due to COVID-19 and procurement problems that arose a few years ago, the Housing Executive has built up a surplus of nearly £200 million in its landlord reserve account. Why can some of that funding not be used to begin to address the problems of cold and damp in our houses?
Since the resumption of the Assembly, we have heard many speeches about climate change. A Climate Change Bill is progressing through the Assembly, with the likelihood of a similar Bill being introduced by the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in the coming months. Those Bills will bind us to targets for energy efficiency and will require us to better insulate our homes. There will be much reference to a just transition and not leaving the poor behind. I suggest that the greatest need exists in our social housing and private rented stock, where people are now being placed because we do not possess enough social housing to accommodate them all. Surely our biggest landlord should lead the way on energy efficiency, insulating our homes better and, consequently, reducing fuel bills and carbon emissions.
Many of us are digesting the energy strategy consultation, which was recently issued by the Department for the Economy, and we will be preparing a response. The document is an extensive piece of work that reflects a very complex problem and asks more questions than it provides answers, as it acknowledges that more work is required. However, one of its proposals is for the introduction of a retrofit scheme in 2022. It does not provide any details of the scheme, but surely the focus must be on a fabric-first approach, as we still do not have the answers to the problems of replacing fossil fuels. A fabric-first approach ensures a focus on insulation, and, if we are ensuring a just transition, surely Housing Executive stock must be dealt with in a similar fashion. Introducing a scheme for the public while ignoring social housing properties makes little sense.
Last week, Lord Deben, the chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, said in his report to the Government that Northern Ireland was further behind the curve than it needed to be with immediate action on climate change. It is nearly 10 years since the insulation industry highlighted the historical problems with cavity wall insulation and the difficulties that that would create. All the political parties from across the board have met the industry, so they know the issues. We will never eradicate fuel poverty, meet our climate change ambitions and provide the poorest in society with warm, healthy homes unless we begin to address the problem now.
I ask the Assembly to call on the Minister for Communities to ensure that funding is available now for the Housing Executive to address the issues of cold, damp homes caused by poor ventilation and insulation and that the affordable warmth scheme focuses on those issues. The Minister for the Economy must take these things into account when finalising the energy strategy for residential buildings and, if possible, accelerate the proposed retrofit programme.
I do not want to hear more excuses from the Minister today — I know that she has not been involved in previous discussions in the Chamber about this — because I have heard them all before. I do not want to hear of yet another report or review being announced. We all know the problems, and so does the Housing Executive. Minister, when will somebody hold the Housing Executive to account for its lack of willingness to engage on this issue, its lack of willingness to admit problems and its lack of willingness to fix problems? Do not make me have to come back to hold you and the Housing Executive to account on this issue. I ask the Assembly to support the motion.
Ms Mullan: I support the motion but would like it to have gone further. Damp and mould do not exist only in Housing Executive properties, so it is important for us to address and identify solutions for all homeowners. The right to a high-quality, safe and secure place to call home is one of the most basic and fundamental rights in any society.
Sinn Féin recognises the urgent need for investment in our housing stock. Minister Hargey's revitalisation programme includes not only building new homes to address the numbers in housing stress but maintaining and retrofitting existing stock to ensure that it is up to standard. My party recently responded to the Housing Executive's draft cavity wall insulation action plan consultation, on issues with cavity wall insulation in its housing stock.
The extent of the issues facing tenants was initially brought to light by the research carried out by the South Eastern Regional College in 2014. The research found that many homes suffered poor and inadequate levels of thermal protection, resulting in unnecessary energy losses and assumed high heating costs. More recently, a much larger piece of research was carried out by Consultancy, Investigation and Training (CIT), which was commissioned by the Housing Executive and published in May 2019. That research went further, looking at the fabric of the property to see other building deficiencies that could be causing damp.
For the purpose of today's debate, I will focus on Creggan in my constituency, where hundreds of homes have been affected for many years by damp and mould because of lack of ventilation and poor insulation. Following the SERC report, surveys were carried out of properties in Creggan in 2015 and 2016. The surveys found that insulation had broken down in all the properties that were inspected and that some had poorly fitted tiles and eaves. With these findings, tenants expected to see remedial works brought forward immediately, so when work was deferred in 2018, and CIT was commissioned, residents were disappointed.
In 2020, when Minister Hargey took up her post, I engaged on behalf of the residents of Creggan with her, her Department and the Housing Executive. I also carried out an online survey of residents who lived in Housing Executive and housing association properties affected by damp. Respondents outlined timelines of their experiences of damp and mould, with one resident reporting having experienced it for 33 years — absolutely shocking.
I am pleased that the Housing Executive has made progress. A scheme to address building defects and wall insulation is in the pipeline. The first phase will see £3 million investment into Housing Executive properties in Creggan. Tenants have waited too long and suffered too many cold and damp winters. I hope that there are no further delays. I know that Minister Hargey is committed to delivering on the highest standard of housing for all.
As I said at the beginning, the Housing Executive is not the only housing provider that needs to act. I want to see the housing associations putting plans in place immediately to address the same defects in their homes, with grants made more widely available to homeowners and those in the private rented sector, so that everyone can have a warm and safe home.
Mr Durkan: I welcome the opportunity to debate the perennial issue of damp and mould, which, it is fair to say, plagues many Housing Executive properties across the North and, indeed, many other homes, as Ms Mullan correctly said. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure that housing standards are upheld. It is shameful that we are standing here today to demand action and ask for accommodation to be habitable so that it does not present a risk to the health and well-being of individuals and their families. Our constituency office staff have become accustomed to bearing witness frequently to tenants' horror stories. During my time as an elected representative, I have witnessed multiple serious instances of not just damp but black mould in Housing Executive properties right across the Foyle constituency.
One case that comes to mind is that of a young family who contacted my office last year. After a year of raising concerns with their housing officer and the Housing Executive, they were no further forward. Each time, the young couple was advised to open windows and ensure that the property was properly ventilated. Housing officers said that there was a superficial damp problem. Every member of the family suffered from persistent coughs and chest infections, including the couple's infant son, who had recently been diagnosed with asthma. Despite assertions from the family's GP that the illnesses were the result of their housing conditions, no action was taken. When I set eyes on the photographs provided, I was astounded that anyone lived in such conditions. Black mould ravaged almost every room, particularly the child's bedroom. The window frames were rotten, the cot and pram were covered in mould and were no longer fit for purpose. It was not until my office intervened that the family's complaints were finally heard, and they were rehoused.
What is most frustrating is that that case is far from unique. To add insult to injury, when attempting to rectify issues with damp, tenants are often treated like idiots. They are told time and time again that valid, genuine concerns are merely condensation. Of course, I can speak only to the experiences that I have encountered. However, too often, these issues are not dealt with, and, in some instances, records of complaints are not kept. It is shameful that the issue of damp and mould has become so rampant that it is treated with an almost blasé attitude in some quarters of the Housing Executive.
Mr Easton cited research by the British Lung Foundation on the very serious health impacts that damp and mould can have. In consideration of those facts, the failure to respond to concerns could have far-reaching and even fatal impacts on tenants. In the case that I mentioned, but for the grace of God, negligence had the potential to result in devastation for that family and their young son.
I fully appreciate the financial constraints faced by the Housing Executive and acknowledge the role that the cavity wall insulation plan will play in this matter. However, we cannot afford not to address the root causes of damp and mould in the existing housing stock and to identify solutions. The Housing Executive must look inwards and ask questions about how it spends money and the cost-effectiveness of certain schemes.
I had hoped that the motion would provide an opportunity to raise the review of the housing fitness standard. I spoke to Housing Rights, and issues of housing fitness remain a significant concern for many people who avail themselves of its advice service. Unfortunately, my amendment was not accepted. However, it needs to be said that the minimum housing fitness standard in Northern Ireland is very low. There have been calls for some time for the minimum housing fitness standard to be replaced with something more comprehensive that takes into account the impact that poor housing conditions can have on occupants' health.
In 2016-17, there was a discussion in the Department about replacing the fitness standard with the housing health and safety rating system model currently used in England. However, despite public consultation, it seems that progress on the review, like so much here, has ground to a halt. I hope that the Minister will update the Assembly accordingly in the time ahead, maybe even in her response later this evening. In conclusion, we support the motion. However, I reiterate the calls for the Communities Minister to review the current statutory minimum fitness standard for housing.
Mr Butler: I thank the Member who proposed this important motion, which we are in favour of. My colleague Andy Allen apologises that he is unable to contribute to this important debate, Minister. However, he has fed into the remarks that I will make. Before I read those out, I think back to when I grew up in a Housing Executive house on the Low Road in Lisburn that I shared with my five brothers and sisters and my mum and dad. That was in the 1970s and 1980s, and there was no central heating or double glazing. The window frames were made of metal, and ice used to form on the inside. Black mould and damp were constant companions, and it was a battle for my mum and dad to tackle them with bleach and cleaning fluids. It was not acceptable in the late 1970s and 1980s, and it is not acceptable in 2021.
This is still an important issue that affects far too many households across Northern Ireland, and it has been a scourge for many years. There are many examples of families and individuals living in unacceptable conditions in constituencies across Northern Ireland, some of which I have seen at first hand, and which many Members will discuss today. Dampness and mould can have a detrimental impact on our health, as we know. The first thing that I want the Minister to respond to is this: how does she intend to address the high level of instances of dampness and mould in Housing Executive stock? I am sure that it is in her hands to do so.
Northern Ireland faces a housing crisis that is compounded by the poor state of some of our housing stock. The Housing Executive stock condition survey, which was carried out by Savills in 2015, highlighted that the required investment, at 2015 prices, to meet the tenantable repair standard over 30 years for all properties was in the region of £5·84 billion, which is an incredible amount, and that the total cost to meet the commonly adopted standards was £6·7 billion. Given that the report and recommendations are now six years old, can the Minister — this may be hard for her to do — provide an update on the progress made on that?
If we look at the Department for Communities statutory minimum fitness standards for housing, we see that one of the criteria is that a home should be:
"free from dampness prejudicial to the health of the occupants".
"Under the fitness standard a dwelling is fit for human habitation unless, in the opinion of the relevant authority, it fails to meet one or more of the above requirements."
However, there are many examples of homes with severe mould and dampness that would fail to meet any of the standards set out, but there is little by way of a joined-up, proactive approach to that. Indeed, in most cases, constituents are advised that the mould and damp are a consequence of lifestyle choices, such as a lack of heating, too much heating or a lack of ventilation, causing condensation to develop. They are told that this condensation creates mould and damp in the house. We have all been there and heard those reasons, and, sometimes, there may be an element of truth to them. However, there is no doubt that, where condensation and mould exist, the overriding factor is a lack of cavity wall insulation or, indeed, the wrong type of cavity wall insulation. None of us across the House accepts that the conditions and standards that our constituents have to live in and endure are appropriate, so I pose this question: are we collectively — I use the word "collectively" because there are no stand-alone Ministries in 2021 — doing all that we can to responsibly tackle and address this important issue? I note that the Member who proposed the motion spoke about the need to tackle the issues collectively and collegiately.
It has been identified that cavity wall insulation in much of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive stock is non-existent, insufficient or generally of poor quality, which can lead to severe cases of dampness and mould. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive stated:
"Cavity wall insulation installed in homes across the UK in the 1980’s and 90’s",
which probably refers back to when I was a child,
"has been a major concern across all housing sectors in recent years."
In 2017, the Housing Executive commissioned an independent construction certification body to examine cavity wall insulation in Housing Executive and privately owned homes in Northern Ireland. That report found that 63% of the Housing Executive dwellings surveyed had cavity wall insulation that was non-compliant with current industry standards. I will finish with this question: can the Minister provide an update on that work stream and any other actions that she has taken to address this important matter? We support the motion.
Ms Armstrong: Thank you very much to the proposer of the motion, which we absolutely support.
Like other Members, I have been invited into constituents' houses, albeit before COVID, to see the state of their home. When one goes into someone's home, looks up into the corner of their bedroom and sees that it is encrusted and black with mould, or goes into their bathroom and sees that underneath the sink is thick with mould that has started to form circles of spores, and one knows that, in that household, lives a vulnerable person, small child or someone who is not very mobile and cannot get about much, one asks, "What sort of Northern Ireland do we live in when we have people living in such conditions?".
As Mr Durkan said, many of those people are told that it is condensation and that they do not open their windows enough. Really? Damp and mould are key triggers of asthma attacks and can lead to rarer lung conditions, such as aspergillosis. Forgive me, but I probably pronounced that incorrectly. We must remember that mould is dangerous. A while back, I wrote to the Department for Communities to ask whether mould is tested. I was told that it is not. Some of the homes of that landlord, the Housing Executive, are therefore incredibly old and have bad cases of mould in them, but that mould is not tested. If someone who lives in one of those houses gets ill, what does that mean? It means that they are probably looking at a limited life; at illness, with further cost to the health service; at restricted or limited mobility; and, potentially, at lung disease. Those are all things that should not be put upon people because of the house in which they live.
I looked at the Housing Executive's Decent Homes Standard. Really? Although many Housing Executive staff work hard and try their best, those very old homes could not possibly pass its house condition survey. Will the Minister consider bringing in some means of testing the mould to see whether it makes homes dangerous for human habitation?
A consultation has begun on cavity wall insulation. The Minister has updated the Housing Council on the revitalisation of the Housing Executive. A lot of things are going on. When I look at some of the reports that we have been provided with, however, I can see that £32 million will just about scratch the surface of the remedial work needed to get rid of the category 1 hazards in 1,559 houses. That is just damp and mould growth. There are a heck of a lot of older houses. As Mr Butler said, we in the Assembly need to work together. We cannot allow people in our communities to live in houses in which there is black mould on the walls, the clothes in their wardrobe are covered in mould and the mattress on their child's bed has mould on it, all because the home is damp. It is not condensation. I do not know anybody in Northern Ireland whose breath is so hot that it will create enough condensation for a bed to be covered in mould.
The Housing Executive has an enormous stock, and it needs a heck of a lot of work. I will back the Minister to the hilt to get as much money as possible to put into the Housing Executive to fix those houses. While the Housing Executive is able to sell off properties, however, with the money going into a big pot and all that maintenance still not being caught up on, we really need to think about Housing Executive revitalisation. It is not fair to many of our older people who are living in homes that are not fit for human habitation. Mould is horrible. It smells. It gets into people's clothes. It is getting into people and making them sick.
I thank Mr Easton for bringing the motion to the House. He has talked about the issue for years. He has talked about cavity wall insulation for years. I went into one house in which there was a pool of water on the person's living room floor because the water had run straight down the cavity wall and into the living room. Another skim of plaster had been put on the wall. How does that fix the issue? There is therefore a lot of work to be done. Further education colleges are an excellent way forward. They can provide some of the solutions and some of the help so that we can meet future climate change requirements. For now, however, people are living with black walls, and that is not good enough.
Mrs Cameron: I support the motion. I thank my party colleagues for securing the debate on an important subject.
As constituency representatives, we all deal with Housing Executive tenants daily. The range of issues can be varied, as indeed can the experience of dealing with the Housing Executive to get a remedy to the issues raised. I must say that I find the issue before us today — damp in Housing Executive properties — to be one of the most serious matters.
The health impact of living in such conditions ought to prompt swift and decisive action from the Housing Executive, as the responsible landlord. Nearly one in five people in Northern Ireland is affected by a lung condition, and those conditions can be COPD, asthma, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), sleep apnoea, long COVID and severe asthma, amongst others. Traditionally, lung disease has a low profile in both the public mind and the healthcare system, even though nearly twice as many people per day are diagnosed with respiratory disease than are diagnosed with non-respiratory cancers. Lung disease is costing over £250 million a year in Northern Ireland, and, prior to the pandemic, nearly 2,000 people died every year of respiratory diseases. Kellie Armstrong has already mentioned that damp and mould are key triggers for asthma attacks and can also lead to rare lung conditions. It is a fact that, if you have damp and mould in your home, you are more likely to develop respiratory problems. No individual or family should be put at such a health disadvantage by their landlord, yet it is to the Housing Executive's shame that it does that.
Furthermore, it is all too common. My friend and colleague the Member for North Down Mr Easton asked the Minister, last November, how many claims against the Housing Executive had been made in relation to damp in the preceding 10 years. There had been 869 claims. Indeed, my friend and colleague from South Belfast Mr Christopher Stalford, who is in the Speaker's Chair, ascertained from the Minister that, from February 2020 until February 2021, a total of 2,121 defects associated with damp had been reported to the Housing Executive, with a further 55 connected to housing associations. Those figures are startling. They show the prevalence and seriousness of the issue and how it is affecting so many people day and daily. What does it say about government that it is letting people live in homes like that? These are not just houses; they are homes. When mushrooms are growing on walls and wallpaper is falling off as soon as it is hung, it tells us that we are failing our neighbours and that we must strive for better.
Recently, the problems facing Housing Executive tenants in the New Mossley estate in my constituency were highlighted in the local media. Those residents are at their wits' end awaiting repair work to their homes after multiple inspections and promises of a scheme to address extensive damage caused by damp over several years. I urge the Housing Executive to ensure that the long-overdue maintenance work takes place at the earliest opportunity. There should be no more delays.
We need a clear pathway and a targeted programme of intervention from the Minister to address the damp crisis in our social housing stock. We also need to look at how, across local and central government, we can work more closely with the environmental health teams to tackle the problem. We also need to get the powers to take the necessary action to fix the problems when issues around ownership occur.
I know of one example where a Housing Executive property is now experiencing damp because the adjacent property has been vacated by the private owner for some seven to eight years and the place has been left to ruin. Charges exist against the property, and all interested parties are washing their hands of addressing the problem. That is not good enough for the tenant who lives next door.
I want the best for my constituents, and I am sure that the Minister does too, but the reality is that we are offering some people homes that are simply not good enough and that, if we are honest, we would not live in. How dare we do that. The time to address the issue is now. No more kicking the can down the road — now.
Mr McCann: I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion today. The issue of dealing effectively with dampness and mould growth in housing is one that, I believe, everyone in the Chamber will support, and, listening to testimonies and speeches, I have obviously got that right. It is quite shocking to hear some of the statistics that people have talked about.
I am sure that all of us have been in a house, whether it was a Housing Executive house or one in the ownership of another housing provider, and been shocked at the conditions that we witnessed.
I commend the Members who have brought the matter to the Chamber. This is not the first time that we have debated the issue, and I have no doubt that it will not be the last. We have debated this issue a number of times and asked the Assembly to take action to deal with this serious problem. While I agree that it is an issue that needs our urgent attention, it needs to be done as part of a strategy. I have been in many homes that suffer from the blight of dampness, and I have witnessed mould growing on walls and seen the health consequences of that for those who live in those homes. It is not just a blight suffered by Housing Executive tenants; it goes much wider. Homeowners also face huge problems from dampness and mould as well as huge disrepair, and many are elderly and unable to financially meet the cost of dealing with that growing problem. I have heard it said that, unless we also prioritise that housing sector, we will be dealing with the slums of the future.
The right to a good, safe and secure place to call "home" is fundamental to providing a firm foundation for individuals, workers and families and impacts not only on their physical mental health and well-being but on their educational attainment, welfare, family relationships, stability, human dignity and quality of life. Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognises the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living and continuous improvement in living conditions, including housing conditions.
I reiterate that we should not look at this in isolation; let us look at all the sectors of housing. The Minister has a plan to deal with housing as a whole, but it requires financing. We all have a duty to ensure that we join the Minister in demanding that she gets the resources that she needs to deal with the issue. Minister Hargey has promised a housing revolution to bring the sector in from years of neglect and build it into a sector that we can all be proud of. That will include dealing with the serious problem of unfitness, which includes dampness and mould growth. For that, we need the input and support of all parties.
Ms Bunting: I am grateful to my colleagues on the Communities Committee for tabling the motion and thus allowing us to voice a significant problem for our constituents across Northern Ireland. As we have heard from Members today, damp and mould in Housing Executive properties is a common theme across all constituencies and among those we represent, some of whom have reached the end of their tether.
People's homes are, in theory, a sanctuary and a place of respite, solace and recovery from everything else outside. Yet, for some, the condition of their home means that it is the last place that they want to be, to go or to spend time. Couple that with the fact that there were COVID-induced breathing problems and that the COVID messaging for many months was to stay at home, work from home and not visit other people's homes, and you have circumstances where damp and mould have not just a physical health impact but an impact on the emotional and mental well-being of tenants.
Of course, there are many reasons for such damp conditions leading to mould, including old and problematic windows, some of which will not shut once they are opened, and hence tenants are eager to not lose heat; old and expensive heating systems that force people to choose between heat and food; a lack of loft and cavity wall insulation; a lack of vents on windows that have been newly installed as part of schemes; delayed decision-making, which I will come to later; and poor inspections, which blame it all on not opening windows and putting clothes on radiators but completely ignore the fact that it is never black and white and that they are failing to get to the heart of the matter. The bottom line is that it is a combination of all of those factors, most of which are beyond the tenants' control.
Given that the Housing Executive is the biggest landlord in the country, there is no excuse. Given that its home Department is essentially the regulator of landlords and thus the keeper of standards, we must get beyond the familiar "Do as we say and not as we do" approach. It should set an example to other landlords.
According to the Department for Communities, the statutory minimum fitness standards for housing are that a home is:
"free from dampness prejudicial to the health of the occupants"
"adequate provision for ... heating and ventilation".
In some areas of my constituency, those standards are not being met. I am not clear how the first standard of:
"dampness prejudicial to the health of the occupants"
is measured and monitored, and I am not clear on what actions follow that.
I appreciate that the Minister has already agreed that the housing system, as it stands, is failing and must be reformed. She outlined her commitment to revitalise it, but that will take time. Many tenants do not have time. The detriment to their health and well-being is too great, and the processes take too long.
By way of an example to illustrate the practical outworking of the problem, I turn my focus to my constituency of East Belfast. The bulk of my casework is on housing. My office is contacted daily by constituents seeking support for individuals, families and those with disabilities who continue to struggle with their housing situation. Day in and day out, we hear how individuals are expected to live, with many having to decide whether they should heat or eat. That is not any kind of choice.
The Minister will be familiar with the Kings Road flats in Tullycarnet, given the number of times I have raised them with her and continue to raise them with the Executive. From the correspondence that I have sent and the images enclosed with that, she will have seen how Housing Executive tenants are expected to live in horrendous conditions in the "flats from hell". There are numerous problems with the buildings, including enormous amounts of damp and mould that cover tenants' flats, furniture and belongings. No property should be left to reach that point. In one home, mould is growing on every piece of furniture that the tenant has, and the inside of the front door is pure black from top to bottom. The ceilings are covered, there is visible mould on the curtains and cushions, and even the pillows are damp to the touch. He has to wash his wooden bed frame every other day to get rid of the green algae. As is so often the case, a public liability claim (PLC) does not cover him because the Housing Executive does not accept responsibility. Tullycarnet is in that state because of perpetual delays in decision-making and everything being weighed against nugatory expenditure. In the meantime, what of the tenants who have to live there because the waiting lists are so long that it will be years before they get out? There are other examples in Braniel and Cregagh.
I will finish by saying that I am grateful, because we in East Belfast are blessed with senior managers and area managers who do their utmost. They are pragmatic, adopt a common-sense approach and, most importantly, care about their tenants and work with elected reps to find solutions within their designated authority. However, they can do only so much, and that is why we call for ministerial intervention. For the sake of our constituents, I trust that she will intervene. I call on colleagues to support the motion.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call Ms Sinéad Bradley.
I beg your pardon. It is Sinéad Ennis. I am terribly sorry. That is what happens when you are on autopilot. Sorry.
Ms Ennis: There are two Sinéads in the one constituency, so it is understandable. Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I welcome the opportunity to speak on today's motion, because it is a chance for us not only to deal with the substantive issues in the motion but to discuss the overarching need for investment in the Housing Executive stock.
We have seen welcome progress recently on the Irish language commitments in the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement. That is, of course, good, but we want to see delivery of all the commitments in NDNA, including the commitment to tackle the lack of investment in Housing Executive stock.
The discussion about damp, mould and cavity wall insulation cannot be taken in isolation. It is wrapped up in the financial realities of the Housing Executive and the ongoing challenge of revitalising it and enabling it to borrow again. That is a challenge that the current Communities Minister has not shied away from. I accept that, while a large proportion of Housing Executive houses are built to a decent standard, the Housing Executive has acknowledged that there are problems and instances of damp and mould in its housing stock. Regardless of how widespread the issue is, it is not acceptable for any of our citizens to live in a home that is riddled with damp or does not meet the standards any of us would expect.
Cavity wall insulation is critical for maintaining the fabric of homes and the people who live in them. The discussion should be extended to the many people who own their home but who, because of their financial circumstances, cannot afford to insulate or upgrade it. As other Members have said, over 180,000 people in the North suffer with asthma. Many of those people are homeowners, and living in a damp house could trigger an asthma attack in any of them. Equally, homeowners should not be put at a disadvantage simply because they own their property. Absolutely no one should have to live in a home that could have an adverse impact on their health.
The right to a good, safe and secure place to call "home" is fundamental to providing a firm foundation for people and families. A good home is a firm foundation for good health, well-being, stability, human dignity and a good quality of life. For many young people and families in places such as Rostrevor in South Down, there is no prospect of one day owning or living in a home in the place where they grew up and where their family is from. The cost of homeownership coupled with the total lack of investment in any social or affordable homes in Rostrevor means that some people will be forced to move out to the hinterlands of Warrenpoint, Hilltown or Newry. That means that they will lose the connection to their community — their local GAA and soccer clubs — and children will not go to the school that is their parents' first choice. The choice to live and work in the community that they grew up in and are from will be out of reach for some people. The knock-on effect of a lack of good, affordable homes in the likes of Rostrevor will have far-reaching consequences for the fabric of the community there.
The task of revitalising the Housing Executive is vast. It includes not only building new homes to address the numbers in housing stress but maintaining and retrofitting existing stock to ensure that it is up to standard. The Housing Executive needs to give full consideration to the responses to the cavity wall insulation consultation, which was closed at the beginning of this year. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has exacerbated the difficulties over the past 18 months, but it is now fundamental that the repair and replacement retrofitting project be undertaken without delay. The £217 million spend on planned maintenance for the 2021-22 year must be focused on that issue to ensure the comfort and safety of citizens who have already waited far too long and in poor conditions.
Mr Catney: I thank Ms Paula Bradley, Mr Alex Easton and Mr Robin Newton for tabling the motion. Well done.
I was shocked to hear that the issue was discussed many times in the House before my time. The problem is out there, it is real, and you see it in houses that you visit. As of January this year, nearly 30,000 out of 42,000 people on the housing waiting list are in housing stress. We need not only to create more homes to house those people but to make sure that homes are fit for purpose to allow people to live in dignity.
The issues with mould and damp in Housing Executive properties go a lot further. Poverty has huge implications for health. It has been shown that conditions such as respiratory disease, heart disease and cancer overwhelmingly affect those on low incomes. Mould and damp have a massive impact on those conditions and put those who live in substandard homes at critical risk.
Due to climate change, there has been an increase in rainfall over the past few years. That has negatively affected housing in Northern Ireland, because the increase in rainfall has meant that mould and damp have become more prevalent problems for homeowners. That will require us to take more action with the aim of fixing and preventing the problems that are caused by mould and damp.
Outside the social housing sector, there is also a massive issue in the private rented sector. Removing mould and damp can be an expensive job. It requires money and resources that people cannot afford to use when they have to use their limited resources to, for example, make sure that they have enough food or can send their children to school. That feeds into the cycle of poverty and makes it that much harder for families to break out of the cycle and have a self-sufficient home.
It is hugely important that tenants know their rights. That is why the fantastic work by organisations such as Housing Rights is so important. I have found the work of Housing Rights to be invaluable, even for legislators like us. When tenants are better informed, the whole system works better. Better homes are available, which are better kept by better landlords.
Tackling mould has additional benefits. It creates more efficient homes, which helps to tackle the issue of fuel poverty. I hope that the Housing Executive will continue its work and try to utilise unused wind energy for the homes that are most affected by fuel poverty.
My daughter bought one of the little army houses with her boyfriend. I do not know whether it is all right to speak about this now. They got new carpet. Both of them have learning difficulties. When I went into their house, I was shocked to see the mould on the walls that was coming from a disused chimney breast. I have since written to Clanmil Housing. I have no problems with saying that. It was only on Thursday. It is not that Clanmil did not know. I have already said that there were learning difficulties, but I had never been upstairs in their house until they got a new bed, and they needed me to assemble it. I was shocked to see the wall and the room that they are living in. They moved in only four years ago, and they are buying it through co-ownership. We should expect better when we put people into those homes. They should be finished to a high standard, and the onus is on those who rent out the houses or are selling houses to see that the houses are fixed.
Mr Humphrey: I, too, join others in congratulating my colleague and friend from North Down for tabling the motion, along with colleagues from the Communities Committee, and for his excellent contribution to the debate.
Some five years ago, I visited a house with my colleague Councillor Gareth McKee, who has subsequently stood down and been replaced as a councillor. There have been elections since we visited that home five years ago in the Silverstream estate. When we visited the home, we met the parents of two young girls. The young mother was acutely embarrassed at the home’s smell and state of repair. It was very clear that she was immaculately clean, but there was only so much that she could do. She asked us to visit the bedroom of the two young girls, and we went upstairs. They were sleeping in bunk beds. There was mould on all the walls, particularly the exterior walls, which had travelled to the interior walls, and in the corners. When you opened the built-in wardrobe in the bedroom, it was absolutely disgusting. You could not have stored anything in there, certainly not clothes. The bed and the bedclothes were completely covered in black mould. There were spores right across the room: the ceiling, the floors and right up the walls. The solution from the Housing Executive was to say that it was condensation. A device was produced, and a needle was placed against the walls. "There you are; it is condensation. There is not enough air travelling around the room". I could not believe what I was hearing or the complete lack of compassion and empathy from the Housing Executive official. I will not embarrass them by naming them in the House. I said, "What is the solution, then?". He said, "We will drill a hole and put in a vent, and you can open and close the vent". I said, "The two young girls have severe, acute asthma. What do they do with the holes in the wall and the vent in the winter when it is freezing?". He had not thought of that.
That house is in the Silverstream estate. Over the years, I have raised it on many occasions with various Ministers. In fact, I have raised that issue with the current Minister at Question Time. I have written to the Minister. I have met the chief executive of the Housing Executive. I have met the current permanent secretary in the Department for Communities. It is batted back and forward between the Housing Executive and the Department. The reality is that nothing is done in the Silverstream estate.
A number of years ago, work was carried out on some properties. That was welcome. Many homeowners bought their properties, and they carried out the work themselves. There is still a sizeable number of houses across the Silverstream and Tyndale estates that have to deal with structural flaws such as Finlock guttering. The Minister is well aware of that. More recently, my colleagues Paula Bradley, the Chair of the Committee, and Councillor Dale Pankhurst met the Minister to raise the issue. Unfortunately, I could not attend. The problem is that, when Finlock guttering gets moist, it retains the moisture and becomes like a sponge. Therefore, serious remedial action must be taken, and I accept that that is expensive. Some of those families have been enduring that for 20 or 30 years. In this day and age, it is not acceptable that people have to live in those conditions. The time has come for it to be addressed. I ask the Minister to address the issue for my constituents who are living in Silverstream and Tyndale. The time for action is now. Minister, between your Department and the Housing Executive, please sort the problem out once and for all and let people live in dignity.
Ms McLaughlin: I am very pleased that the motion has been tabled in the House. We will, of course, support it.
The problem of damp and mould is extremely serious, and we heard that from all Members who contributed to the debate. It is a social problem, but, when it is your home, your friend's home or your child's home, it is also a very emotional and heartfelt problem. It is particularly heartbreaking when we see young children being reared in those homes. I have spoken to parents whose kids will not bring their friends home because of the smell in their house. Their house does not smell like their friends' houses. That is heartbreaking. It is essential that we act to eliminate damp and mould in properties that are owned and managed by the Housing Executive.
The motion also touches on a concern that I have raised repeatedly in the Assembly, particularly through questions for written answer: are we too focused on replacing oil boilers with gas boilers at the expense of the quality of our homes? We have limited resources — we all know that — and money is scarce, but we really need to focus on the conditions of our homes, including resolving the problems with damp and greatly improving energy efficiency. Quite often, people living in damp and mouldy homes also live in complete fuel poverty, which leads to child poverty. There is a whole social involvement there. While we recognise the need to balance spending, we do not have the right balance at present.
There are also questions about the standard of past improvements. Complaints have been raised in my constituency office, and, I am sure, in other Members' constituency offices, about, for example, cavity wall insulation that was no longer adequate having to be renewed. We are retrofitting the retrofits. It is a case of cutting costs at the expense of quality, which leads to work needing to be done a second time after a comparatively short period.
Over 60,000 homes in Northern Ireland do not meet the decent home standard. That is 8% of all homes. It would be remiss of me not to talk about the biggest problem of all. The Housing Executive and housing associations do not own all of those homes or properties, and we have an even worse and growing problem in our privately owned housing stock, particularly with homes in the rented sector. People in the most deprived areas who have to be placed in rental properties experience horrendous conditions. That sector has grown substantially in recent years, not least as a result of the right-to-buy scheme. That led to some former Housing Executive stock being owned by private landlords, who rent out properties but do not always maintain them in a good condition. In 2016, the private rented sector accounted for 17% of all homes, up from just 12% in 2006. It is, no doubt, even higher now. We know that social housing is better maintained than private sector homes that are rented out. For example, 79% of social housing has one of the best energy efficiency ratings, compared with just 49% of all homes in Northern Ireland.
Although we should be very concerned about Housing Executive homes that are damp, mouldy and cold, and we are, problems are vastly more common in the private rented sector. The motion might have usefully included a proposal to strengthen controls over private rented accommodation that is of poor quality, damp and inadequate and that has inadequate heating.
In the period ahead of the most recent house condition survey, more than half of all social housing had been repaired or improved. That is totally not good enough, but it is a higher rate of repair and improvement than amongst owner-occupied accommodation, and it is vastly higher than amongst homes that are privately owned and rented out, with fewer than one in five such homes being repaired or improved.
Mr Carroll: Four should be OK, hopefully, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.
I thank the Members who brought the motion to the House. I also thank Joseph Carter from the British Lung Foundation, who sent through very important and useful information ahead of the debate.
Too many people are faced with inappropriate housing conditions, and they include a large number of people in my constituency. They live in housing that has bad damp and other issues of disrepair. As other Members have said, such problems are not limited to Housing Executive properties, while landlords too often dismiss issues of damp as being able to be resolved by tenants simply opening their windows. Those are shocking comments. Even when windows are open day and night, the damp persists. That is something that I have experienced myself when renting privately.
Too many mothers of children who have been in and out of hospital owing to chest and breathing difficulties are dismissed when they raise concerns about damp and mould. I have heard too many of those heartbreaking stories over the years.
With all the focus over the past year on COVID affecting organs and causing respiratory issues, it is right and proper that the House should discuss the impact of damp and mould on homes, and on the tenants living in them, and, crucially, what can be done to eradicate that blight from our communities. We are talking about conditions in homes in which you would not even put dogs or cats.
A harsh reality for people on whom bad air quality has an impact outside the home and who live in deprived areas is that they are more likely to be impacted on by bad air quality in the home, with issues such as damp and mould being more prevalent in such homes and communities. Although some can afford not to live in crowded and bad housing conditions, not everyone has that luxury. During COVID, some people could self-isolate in reasonable comfort, if they had space and a big garden, but those living in an apartment or in a built-up area could not.
I support the motion and its aims. Ironically, the recently passed Budget did not have the resources in it to tackle this massive problem, but it passed anyway. The only way in which to tackle the problem is to keep the Housing Executive as a publicly run and funded body, and I urge against the plan of the previous, interim Minister to redesignate landlords, or any part of the Housing Executive, as mutuals. Such a redesignation, if proceeded with, would take housing out of public and departmental control. The example of Capita should serve as a warning to everybody about the deep problems caused by taking services outside of public control.
Finally, there is the issue of a just transition and green jobs. Faced with economic ruin, we should use the already existing skills of people to protect and insulate homes and to reskill the many more people who would be able and willing to do those jobs.
The only way in which to deal with the issues of housing waiting lists, damp and mould is to fund and protect the Housing Executive as a public body.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Members, the business in the Order Paper is not expected to be disposed of by 6.00 pm, so, in accordance with Standing Order 10(3), I will allow the business of the House to continue until 7.00 pm, or until the business is completed.
Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): I thank the Members who tabled the motion. It provides an opportunity to discuss a really important issue. It is not a surprise. The party that brought the motion to the House and the party on the Benches to my left held the portfolio for this Department for almost two decades, from 1999 until 2017, so they are acutely aware of the fundamental challenges that face housing.
Obviously, I came into post in January last year. We were hit with the biggest global health pandemic, which nobody could have foreseen. That having been said, following the housing statement that was made in the Chamber in November last year, work is ongoing to fundamentally deal with the issues that we are discussing and to look at housing more broadly.
As I have said, I grew up in a working-class community where social housing is the main provision of housing. I grew up in a social home, and I have asthma. On Friday, I met the Housing Executive on constituency business, and I completely understand the issues of residents living in substandard homes. That is why I have said that we are in a housing crisis, not just in that people are waiting for a home and we do not have enough social homes for the number of people who re waiting but regarding the condition of those homes and the fundamental investment deficit that we have. That was reported widely in 2018. This is not a new phenomenon but one that has been building over the past couple of decades.
I am glad that the statement that was laid out in November of last year said that I am firmly putting down a way forward for dealing with those decades of problems. We know that, in 2018, the deficit stood at £7·1 billion being needed over the next 30 years. We knew from that period that, if we did not deal with this challenge, the Housing Executive, because of the very issues that we are discussing about not maintaining and not having the ability or the resources to maintain the stock, could potentially lose nearly 40,000 homes. Obviously, the Assembly does not want that. As the Minister, I do not want that. I am sure that the previous Ministers who held this portfolio did not want that either. We need to deal with the huge investment challenge and hole of £7·1 billion. That is just to bring the existing stock up to standard; it does not deal with anything new going forward.
It also does not deal with increased prices or the issue of moving to zero carbon, which the House is debating. On the challenges with climate change, that is the direction of travel that we need to go in, particularly around housing. For the building and safety work that is required, that figure of £7·1 billion will be much higher when you start to look at all the issues in the round. The importance of tackling the Housing Executive investment challenge has never been more critical, and that was recognised through the commitments set out in NDNA, which committed the Executive to tackling this challenge. That is why I intend to introduce proposals for the revitalisation of the Housing Executive to the Executive for consideration by March next year.
On looking at the issue of damp, the Housing Executive acknowledges that there is dampness and mould in its stock. It is not widespread, with a large proportion of the stock meeting the decent home standards. However, I completely acknowledge and understand that, if you live in one of the homes with dampness and mould, that is the most important issue for you and that issue needs to be resolved. Through the engagements that I have had with the Housing Executive, I have been assured that it takes issues of dampness and mould seriously. In all instances, the circumstances will be inspected and assessed on what the cause of the dampness may be and the action that will be taken as is necessary.
In February, I answered a question for written answer on this issue and said:
"The Housing Executive has advised that, in the last 12 calendar months, it has had 2,121 defects reported by its tenants associated with damp where corrective action has been taken."
If investigation shows that it is a one-off problem specific to an individual property, it will most likely be addressed through the Housing Executive's response maintenance programme. However, if there is a clear cluster of problems in an area, consideration may be given to addressing that through a remedial works scheme. Those works could be a combination of improved ventilation, insulation and heating. Where the source of the dampness is identified as condensation, advice will be provided to tenants on its causes and how to avoid a reoccurrence.
Cavity wall insulation was specifically raised in the debate. As was stated earlier, the 2019 BBA report on cavity wall insulation rightly found that 63% of Housing Executive properties surveyed had cavity wall insulation that was not compliant with modern industry standards, and around 1% exhibited issues of damp that may have been a result of water penetration in the external wall and defects in the cavity wall insulation. The fact that there may be defects in the cavity wall insulation, in that it is not compliant with modern industry standards, does not necessarily translate into problems for the home. It is a combination of the physical condition of the property, the external walls and the defects in the cavity wall insulation that create the problem. The report highlights that 1% of Housing Executive properties fall into that category.
What the report terms as class 1 — incidentally, it should be noted that this is exactly the same for private sector housing. Further to that, the BBA report highlighted that 84% of Housing Executive stock surveyed demonstrated evidence of external facades not being adequately maintained and showing various levels of stress. The Housing Executive and I both acknowledge that cavity wall insulation and external fabric issues in its cavity wall stock were identified by the BBA, and the draft cavity wall action plan was put out to public consultation in December 2020, setting out proposals for addressing the BBA's findings and recommendations. The Housing Executive is considering the responses from the public consultation and from the industry. From that information, the Housing Executive will prepare the final action plan for approval in late summer or early autumn this year.
The draft cavity wall insulation action plan notes that a remediation or replacement programme will be required at some point for all cavity wall stock. That will be an integral part of the Housing Executive's future energy efficiency strategy. It is estimated that such a programme will cost in the order of £150 million to £175 million. As things stand, the level of funding required for a comprehensive cavity wall insulation remedial package is not available, due to the combination of other competing priorities, rental income not being adequate and the Housing Executive's inability to borrow to invest in its stock. In 2014-15, Savills endorsed a response maintenance approach to cavity wall insulation issues — a fabric-first approach. Looking at heat retention, airtightness and ventilation is the right way to go about property maintenance.
Members will be aware that the Housing Executive has a substantial sum held in its reserve. The reserve was established to provide the Housing Executive with the flexibility to plan and manage the financial implications of large planned maintenance schemes that start and finish in different accounting periods without detriment to vital rental income. That allows it to carry forward and set aside funding to make provision for future liabilities and commitments, as well as providing some contingency for the unexpected. Having access to reserves significantly aids the Housing Executive in its delivery of long-term stock investment, allowing it to smooth its investment spend over the medium or longer term. That flexibility allows it to strategically plan for the future, as it gives certainty to future programming and effectively deals with the natural peaks and troughs associated with maintenance cycles that do not always fit within the boundaries of each financial year.
Although the reserve balance has increased significantly over the past few years, procurement issues and the COVID lockdown, which stopped the Housing Executive delivering anything except emergency maintenance for some time, mean that the total held is nothing more than a tiny down payment on the huge investment challenge that I addressed earlier.
The Housing Executive's future energy efficiency strategy will help to address any occurrence of damp and mould. As I discussed, the fabric-first approach is aimed at improving heat retention, airtightness and ventilation. As with the cavity wall insulation programme, the energy efficiency strategy will require significant funding and will similarly be a medium- to long-term programme. However, in the interim, the Housing Executive has begun to address a number of non-traditional stock through the energy efficiency in social housing programme, which is funded by the European regional development fund and through which external wall installation and other thermal improvement measures are being installed. That major investment from the European Union is being match funded by the Housing Executive and will significantly deliver for the tenants of those properties.
Some Members raised a review of fitness standards. Preliminary work has started on that. That review and bringing forward the legislative changes that will need to be made will take about a year. Some Members touched on the fact that you cannot fix just one problem, because that has a knock-on effect on the others. As part of addressing the challenges, we need to look at a whole-house approach to making the necessary changes and to ensuring that we upgrade the properties as a whole for those who live in them.
I completely understand, and I hear it in my constituency office, that housing is one of the major issues for us. There is no mistaking that we are in a crisis with waiting lists, the availability of more social homes and stock maintenance. That is why I am calling on all parties to support a stand-alone housing outcome in the Programme for Government. I know that all housing associations and those working in the housing sector support that call. It would really show the importance of addressing the huge challenges that we have and how they impact on our residents in communities.
Some Members mentioned the private rented sector. I will bring forward legislation shortly — it has passed through the Executive — to look at the private rented sector. It is one part of the legislation, because huge changes are needed in that sector. More consultation and engagement needs to happen, but a good part of the legislation that will be introduced in this mandate will be on health and safety in the private rented sector. I acknowledge that it is a huge area. We are not building enough social homes and therefore we now have more children and families living in the private rented sector than in the social homes sector. That is why revitalisation is key. We need to allow the Housing Executive not only to borrow to invest in existing stock but, importantly, to start building homes again. That is a critical priority for me.
Some Members touched on the independent advice sector. I agree that Housing Rights and others are excellent organisations. That is why the Department funds them to do the work that they do. They are also involved in the engagement on any new legislation. Those are issues that we need to look at.
One thing is clear: the Housing Executive simply cannot afford to fund the investment that is required in its stock purely from rental income and the reserves. It can afford only about half the total investment needed, so the Housing Executive needs a substantial capital injection. From where should we take the funding required? We cannot just do it on a stand-alone basis or take it from the existing budget. Where do we take it from? Do you take it from hospitals? Do you take it from schools?
We need a broader approach to allowing the Housing Executive to borrow to invest. We need to look at the work that DOF is doing on a fiscal council and at how we raise finance. I would like to see a fiscal commission follow up on a broader piece of work looking at putting our public finances on a more substantial footing so that we are not just relying on a block grant from Westminster. You can cut that cake only in so many ways. Taking the funding from hospitals or schools would not be acceptable options, and there should be no question of doing that anyway.
We have a duty to secure the long-term financial sustainability of the Housing Executive. I know that all Members will agree that the threat of the loss of 40,000 homes is just not acceptable. We need to build more homes —.
Ms P Bradley: You will all be glad to hear that I do not intend to go on for too long. I see that this place is slowly emptying: it must be the thought of me getting up to speak.
I thank all of the Members who took part in the debate today. There is unanimity around the House that we need to do something. I do not know what that something will look like, given the financial constraints that we have talked about, but doing nothing — Mark Durkan made this point — is not an option. Something has to be done.
I thank the proposer, Alex Easton. Anybody who knows Alex will know that he has raised this issue on many occasions over the past decade. It did not matter who the Minister was; it was raised. The Minister talked about the past two decades. So many programmes have been rolled out over the past two decades — window schemes, composite doors, boiler replacement, the warm homes scheme and installation for roofs — to help people living in Housing Executive accommodation. However — Sinéad made this really good point — none of those schemes addressed the root cause issue for many: the insulation of the cavity walls in our homes.
When I first became an MLA, one of my first house visits was to a flat in Rathcoole estate, where there was a young family who had brought their newborn baby girl home from hospital a couple of weeks previously and had asked me to come down. There, in that beautiful, little pink nursery, were damp spores all over the walls. A Housing Executive official who came with me was able to tell me that they had been drying clothes in that room and had not opened the windows, which is the usual story that we all hear. That official did not go outside to check the brickwork. They did not get anybody outside to check the guttering. They did not think of going up to the attic to check what the insulation was like. No tests at all took place, but he was fit and able to tell me that it was due to closed windows and drying clothes. How many more times will we, as elected representatives, hear that old chestnut? We know better; we know that that is not the case. We all own or live in homes. Some of us, from time to time, will have damp in our home and will know the reason why. Hearing that excuse time and again is not good enough.
My colleagues behind me both mentioned the 'Newtownabbey Times' article. One of our councillors — Councillor Ross — dealt with that. He had a fight on his hands to get an independent review and inspection done on houses in New Mossley. When an independent review and inspection was eventually done, it stated that there was most definitely a really bad case of damp in those houses. He is now working on that on behalf of William Humphrey and me in Skegoneill. Mark mentioned photographs that he had received and some of the horror stories that he had heard: we have all received them. I received photographs last week of a home where the damp was so bad that, when they lifted the carpet, which they had to lift, the cement floor of their home was black with mould spores. That was not just walls and ceilings; it was also the floor. Yet again, that was another household who were accused of drying their washing in the middle of their living room, which is something that does not happen too often.
As other Members have said — I know that Karen certainly brought it up, as did others — this is not just the Housing Executive; it covers so much more than that. We have big issues in our private rented sector. We have issues in our housing association sector. Joanne Bunting made the point that the Housing Executive is the keeper of standards. Therefore, it should set an example.
Various Members brought up health issues. Kellie Armstrong and Pam Cameron talked about health inequalities for people who live in such conditions. Other Members spoke about inequalities when it comes to other aspects of our life, including education, relationships and all of those things. As someone said, you want your home to be your sanctuary. For many, the home is the last place that they want to be because of the conditions. It is the last place that our young people want to bring their friends to because their house smells of damp and damp spores.
Ms Bunting mentioned the flats in Tullycarnet and the competition for the flats from hell. Every one of us in the Chamber could enter that competition from somewhere in our constituencies where those problems exist. I heard the Minister say that the costs for cavity wall insulation amounted to between £150 million and £175 million. Those are eye-watering, staggering figures, but we cannot do nothing. We have to do something. Many people who have lived in their homes for years have taken good care of them and take pride in them. For them, it is not a house; it is their home. We have a responsibility as their Government to make their home as comfortable as possible and to alleviate their health issues. We also need to do something about their fuel bills, which was mentioned earlier.
There have been lots of schemes over the years to replace this, that and the other, and it is great to have really efficient boiler systems, with a great composite front door and great windows. However, if you are spending many pounds every week trying to heat your house when the heat is just travelling out of the walls, it is a false economy for all those people who live in those homes.
I thank everybody for taking part in the debate. I have no doubt that we will be back to discuss the issue again in a couple of years' time. We need to start making the improvements in our housing stock really soon.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly recognises the serious issue of damp and mould existing in many Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) properties; expresses concern that this poses a substantive risk to the health and well-being of tenants and is a contributor to fuel poverty; highlights the need to examine the causes of damp and mould and identify viable solutions to resolve these issues; notes that particular consideration should be given to property cavity wall insulation; notes with regret the inability of the Housing Executive to address the situation thus far; and calls on the Minister for Communities to take firm action, finally, to resolve the issue of damp and mould within the current Housing Executive stock as a matter of urgency.