Official Report: Tuesday 06 July 2021
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Further to that, I advise the Assembly that Jeffrey Donaldson MP, as nominating officer for the DUP, nominated Gordon Lyons MLA as Minister for the Economy. Mr Lyons accepted the nomination and affirmed the Pledge of Office in the presence of the Principal Deputy Speaker and the Clerk/Chief Executive this morning.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Speaker has received notice from the First Minister and deputy First Minister that they wish to make a statement. Before I call the deputy First 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 who are participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members present in the Chamber can do that by rising in their place or by notifying the Speaker's Table directly.
I remind Members to be concise in asking their question. A statement 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.
Mrs O'Neill (The deputy First Minister): I wish to make the following statement on the thirty-fifth summit meeting of the British-Irish Council (BIC), which took place on Friday 11 June 2021. I hope that the Assembly will understand that recent events regarding the position of the First Minister meant that it was not possible to make this statement as promptly as is customary following a summit.
The summit was hosted by the Executive and attended by the then First Minister, Arlene Foster MLA, and by me as deputy First Minister, as well as by Minister Poots, Minister Swann, Minister Mallon, Minister Long, Minister Murphy, Minister Hargey, junior Minister Kearney and former junior Minister Lyons. They have agreed that I will make this statement on their behalf.
The Scottish Government delegation was led by Nicola Sturgeon. The Welsh Government delegation was led by Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, who attended virtually.
The British Government were led by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove. The Government of Guernsey were led by the Chief Minister, Peter Ferbrache, who also attended virtually. The Government of Jersey were led by the Chief Minister, Senator John Le Fondré. The Irish Government were led by an Taoiseach, Micheál Martin. The Isle of Man Government delegation was led by the Chief Minister, Howard Quayle. The full list of delegates who attended the summit is attached to the copy of the statement provided to Members.
This was the first summit to be hosted by the Executive since 2013, and we were delighted to host the meeting in Fermanagh. We welcomed the attendance in person by representatives of other Administrations despite the difficulties imposed by travel restrictions. The focus of the summit was on recovery from COVID. It is important that, as we move through recovery, we do so both informed of and learning from the approaches being taken across member Administrations. Our engagement in the British-Irish Council enables that to happen.
Ministers discussed the impact of COVID-19 across member Administrations and reflected on the need for approaches to recovery that are sustainable and that address the potentially long-lasting impacts. The Council also discussed areas of coherence across member Administrations for recovery, as well as planning for potential future impacts of COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to all the BIC Administrations, as it has done globally. Other Administrations are, like us, operating and planning for recovery in a still-evolving situation, as the vaccination programme progresses but new variants emerge. All recognised the need to remain alert, flexible and responsive as external factors change around us.
A common theme of the members' reports was the way in which the crisis has acted as a driver for change to ways of working, and that has created changes in approach that are irreversible. Societies have had to innovate rapidly, and positive developments have taken place that may not have occurred without the challenge of combating the impact of the pandemic. To cite a few examples, digital transformation has been essential to the delivery of our public services and is becoming the norm; sustainability efforts have been enabled through new ways of working; and a greater and very important focus is being placed on the mental health of the population.
Administrations at the summit also discussed the latest political developments across their jurisdictions and noted the recent elections held in a number of the jurisdictions. Ministers provided an update and engaged on a number of topics of mutual interest, including the EU-UK relationship.
Ministers took the opportunity to reflect on the period since the establishment of the British-Irish Council and on how the Council had evolved to adapt to a changed context. They welcomed the fact that, despite the pandemic, the British-Irish Council had continued to meet by virtual means. Ministers considered a number of potential developments that would further develop the role of the Council in responding to new and emerging trends and challenges and in promoting its objective of positively strengthening links and relationships among the people of these islands. The latest BIC annual report has now been published on the Council's website.
Finally, the Council noted the secretariat's 2020-21 end-of-year report and welcomed the publication of the Council's annual report for 2020-21. The next summit will be hosted by the Welsh Government later this year. I commend the statement to the Assembly.
Mr McGrath (The Chairperson of the Committee for The Executive Office): I thank the joint First Minister for her statement, and I welcome the fact that the British-Irish Council meeting took place, albeit in difficult circumstances. It is really important that everyone working for people and in communities right across these islands be given the opportunity to come together to discuss matters of common interest and to share ideas and practice that will help develop the work that we do. COVID recovery was high on the agenda, but COVID is still very much on people's minds. People are still worried about the virus, and the numbers that we are hearing over the past week are very worrying. There is some comfort to be taken from the fact that hospital admissions and serious illness from the virus are not translating into intensive care admissions yet, but the key word is "yet".
Bonkers Boris announced yesterday that he intends to relax many of the key regulations that are in place in England, and that is being done in the face of many of the scientific facts. Even his most senior advisers suggest that they will continue to wear masks in crowded environments whilst telling everyone else that they do not have to and that it is a choice.
Mr McGrath: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Chairs of Committees are also afforded the opportunity to make a few introductory remarks.
Mr McGrath: What does that therefore mean? That the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser will still wear masks but that everyone else is OK? That type of mixed messaging is ludicrous. Will the Minister tell us in detail what discussions there were, at the summit meeting and since, about the different paces of relaxation to COVID and whether the different pace in GB and the island of Ireland will have any impact upon people here?
Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Chair of the Committee for his question. He is right to reflect that people are still worried about the pandemic and about the fact that, with the new delta variant becoming our dominant strain, people are right to be cautious and anxious. However, I always point to the positive, and the positive is that the vaccination programme is rolling out very well, and we need to continue to see uptake. I encourage all Members to use their good office to try to promote the uptake of the vaccine because that is our best defence.
Boris Johnson made announcements yesterday, and, as I noted in the statement, throughout the pandemic, all member Administrations of BIC have, at different times, been in different positions and taken different paths. We have prided ourselves on taking our own path, based on our own information and advised by our own Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser, and that remains the case.
With regard to the announcement yesterday, personally, my view is that it is far too much far too soon, albeit we want to keep making progress, and we want to keep lifting the restrictions where we can. Our Executive will met this Thursday, and our Executive will decide collectively on our next step.
With regard to the issue of masks that the Member referred to, the Health Minister and the Chief Medical Officer have been very clear in saying that we are not there yet. That will be up for discussion on Thursday, but I will be supportive of that view.
We want to keep making progress, but the best way that we can do that is by going steadily, continually making progress and getting the maximum number of people vaccinated. I will keep repeating this message: please encourage people to come forward and take up the vaccination.
Mr Robinson: Will the Minister provide an update on the ongoing work of the Council?
Mrs O'Neill: It was useful that we were able to meet in person at this time. We were able to have a very frank conversation around where we all are with the COVID crisis, but we are very much looking towards the future and other ways that we can work together.
There have been four virtual ministerial meetings, including a joint housing and collaborative spatial planning meeting held recently. The housing and collaborative spatial planning work sectors are chaired by our Executive colleagues, so there is a lot of work going on there. There is also a lot of work going on around the misuse of substances. That work sector will be renamed drugs and alcohol, and there is a lot of work going on there.
There is a lot of conversation and work being done around a review of how we work. It will take a very different approach like a task-and-finish approach, so it should allow us to be able to look at areas where we can collectively work and be able to find ways to do things better and more speedily.
We have 11 live work sectors across a whole range of things. Those are: creative industries; digital inclusion; drugs and alcohol; early years; energy; environment; housing; social inclusion; indigenous, minority and lesser-used languages; and transport. There is a lot of work being done around the future of the Council and how we can work more collaboratively and share information. That is advantageous to us all.
Mr Sheehan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis ar maidin. I thank the joint First Minister for her statement this morning. Does she have any concerns about the delivery arrangements for the Levelling Up Fund and the Shared Prosperity Fund?
Mrs O'Neill: I do indeed. The delivery arrangements for the Levelling Up Fund and the Shared Prosperity Fund pilot programme cut across the responsibilities of a number of Executive Departments. The Executive continue to consider the impact of the loss of EU funding and the approach to replacements in Whitehall Departments.
It is very clear that the British Government intend to use the financial assistance powers in the Internal Market Act to deliver those funds intended as EU replacements and funding streams where we would have expected to receive Barnett allocations. That approach directly bypasses the devolved structures, so it is a matter of concern that the Westminster Government approach clearly does not build on existing and well-established structures that we have in line with the Executive's agreed position, nor does it give the Executive or our Ministers the normal role that they would have had in devolved functions.
The way that they are to be financed is a matter of concern. The Levelling Up Fund, which you referred to, is to be financed using spending power that was promised to us in the spending review, and the Shared Prosperity Fund is to be a replacement for our income from EU programmes. Urgent clarification is required to ensure the effective delivery of this funding locally. It is essential that the Executive's reviews and spending priorities are taken into consideration in the delivery of these funds to ensure that there is maximum benefit and delivery from the support that is provided.
Mr Stewart: I thank the deputy First Minister for her statement and answers. You referred to attendees' difficulties with travel. Was there any discussion about when we will see an end to the inconsistencies and inequality within the common travel area, particularly from GB to the Republic of Ireland? Does she agree that the current travel rules are surprising and potentially outdated given that, over the past six months, the Republic of Ireland has consistently had a much higher infection rate than Northern Ireland?
Mrs O'Neill: The issue of travel was touched upon and continues to be touched upon because we are at different places in the virus spread. That has been the case the whole way through the pandemic. The Member should not get too excited if the South of Ireland's cases are higher than ours at the moment or vice versa because, at times, we were the best in Europe and there were times when we were the worst. It is important that we work together and finally see a resolution to the travel issue, particularly the travel locator forms, which has been ongoing for some time. We have encouraged a resolution to that, and progress has been made.
As travel starts to open up — and that seems to be the direction of travel across the board; excuse the pun — it is important that we are as aligned as we can be across these islands. I have always advocated that two-island approach. That is the best way. It is simpler for people to understand if there is no conflict in messaging, for example. I would like us to be as aligned as we can on travel, whether that is within the common travel area or as we start to see international travel open up.
Mr Dickson: Thank you, deputy First Minister. Given the Member of Parliament for East Antrim's, quite frankly, offensive and unnecessary remark about our Health Minister yesterday, what work was done in your Council meeting on harmonising restrictions across all the jurisdictions? What actions are you taking to expand the green list for travellers?
Mrs O'Neill: As I said, travel was discussed. Each Administration is coming at this with their own data and information, and taking decisions based on what they think is in the best interests of their people at that time. The better aligned that we can be, the easier that it will be for all of us, and the public at large, to understand.
On the comments about the Health Minister, the Health Minister has a very difficult job at a very difficult time. He deserves the support of the Executive and other MLAs. Quite frankly, unless you have been in his shoes, you will not understand the level of the decisions that have had to be taken. People should be very focused on recovery, which is what the public want. We should focus on taking decisions to remove the restrictions as quickly as we can and getting people back to some sense of normality as quickly as we can. So many people have lost their jobs. The economic consequences of the pandemic are dire. We have a big job of work to do. We should be focused on working together to do that as opposed to taking pop shots at the Health Minister, or anybody else for that matter.
Mr Stalford: I am looking at the list of ministerial delegates at this event. It includes the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, his deputy, Mr Leo Varadkar, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Simon Coveney. The event was held in Fermanagh, and presumably they were able to cross our border to attend it. If the Minister was listening to Radio Ulster this morning, she will have heard the story of a Northern Ireland family that has been effectively placed under house arrest in the Republic of Ireland. Has the issue of the Irish Government providing the necessary information to those arriving in Dublin and travelling on to Northern Ireland been satisfactorily resolved? It is ridiculous that Irish Government Ministers are able to cross our border but Northern Ireland citizens are not.
Mrs O'Neill: That family's situation was brought to my attention just before I came into the Chamber; I did not hear about it on the radio. Obviously, we will work to try to get a resolution for that family, which, I believe, has issues with young children at home, and perhaps sickness in the case of one of the individuals. I hope that there is a speedy resolution to that.
Again, it is back to what I have said previously: it is important that we share information and data so that people are very clear about the travel limitations or otherwise, the testing policy and the information. It falls to the two Health Ministers and the two Chief Medical Officers to make that as simple as possible. I welcome the fact that there was a meeting last week, I believe, between the two Chief Medical Officers. I hope to continue to see progress around the sharing of data and making sure that we are as joined up as we can be in this period. That is in the interests of all the people who live on this island and the people who travel right across the common travel area.
Ms Sheerin: I thank the joint First Minister for her statement. The BIC was COVID-focused, which created opportunities for discussion about its impact and the recovery, and a good platform for sharing information. Given the scale of the challenges facing our health and social care services, including the crisis with waiting lists, the problems facing families when they try to access packages of domiciliary care and the ongoing fight against COVID-19, does the joint First Minister agree that those issues transcend party politics and that a health summit involving all Executive parties should now be called to agree an urgent and joint response?
Mrs O'Neill: Thanks. I absolutely agree. As a former Health Minister, I am very aware of the challenges facing the health and social care system, which was already stretched due to Tory austerity over many years. The pandemic has very much heightened those challenges. Addressing all that in ordinary times would be difficult enough. We have faced the growing waiting list situation in a pandemic. It is clear that we need an urgent and unified approach to tackle waiting lists and to make sure that people get access to healthcare as and when they need it. I welcome the recent initiative by the Health Minister, who has brought forward mechanisms to deal with the waiting list situation, including using all-island healthcare. That is practical and makes sense. It is evidence that positive outcomes can be achieved when you work together. Hosting our own Executive health summit would certainly be a very positive step forward. I certainly look forward to that discussion. It will take heavy lifting from all of us to turn that situation around. The waiting list situation at the moment is atrocious. We have to fix it collectively.
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Minister for her statement. During the BIC meeting, the Foreign Minister of the Irish Republic took the opportunity to state his views on the protocol. Will the Minister, who, quite rightfully, did not respond to him in that forum, indicate whether she thinks that that was an appropriate use of that forum? He would be better keeping his views to himself in places where they are not appropriate.
Mrs O'Neill: The Member is right: Minister Simon Coveney, and maybe the Taoiseach as well, raised the issue of the protocol, and rightly so; they were speaking about current political developments. It would have been to ignore the elephant in the room for it not to be mentioned at a summit of that nature, given the implications that Brexit has on our people, our economy and wider society. It was appropriate that it was discussed there. The Member may shake her head, but we would not have a protocol today if we did not have Brexit, which you and your party ably championed.
Ms Anderson: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis. I thank the Minister for her statement. Minister, even Minister Michael Gove has said that the challenges that are in front of us because of the protocol can be resolved. Do you agree that the focus now needs to shift to maximise the opportunities and minimise the challenges for our businesses so that they can enjoy the access that we now have to numerous markets, such as the British market, the EU market and the rest of the world, and that having such access really enables us to mitigate some of the worst impacts and effects of Brexit?
Mrs O'Neill: It was referred to, insofar as it came up under current political issues. I will address it, given that I answered Mrs Dodds's question.
It will come as no surprise to the Member who asked the question that the disruption and difficulty that we are experiencing is a direct result of Brexit — the hardest possible Brexit and one that was rejected by the majority of people in the Assembly.
To go back to my previous answer, those who championed Brexit need to own some of the economic consequences and uncertainty that have flowed from it. However, our collective effort and focus now needs to be on protecting jobs and livelihoods. As the Member knows, the protocol is our only protection against the hardest possible Brexit and its worst excesses. Businesses want the protocol to work, and they want solutions to the challenges that we face. In my view, there are solutions to be found via the Joint Committee. The CBI recently acknowledged that the protocol is already working for many businesses and presents many exciting opportunities.
All of our collective effort, as the Member said, needs to be to minimise the challenges and maximise the opportunities. Let us make the protocol work smoothly and give our manufacturing and agri-food industries, our food processors and all other businesses the certainty and stability that they require to take advantage of the dual market access now available to them.
Mr O'Toole: Brexit has damaged relationships on this island and between Britain and the island of Ireland. Given that many in the Chamber have focused on what they see as the damage done to east-west relationships, is it not the case that, given that the British-Irish Council is literally the first item in strand 3 of the Good Friday Agreement, it is precisely the forum for these issues to be raised and discussed? Was a specific work stream agreed to mitigate some of the outworkings of Brexit and, yes, maximising the opportunities for all the people of these islands?
Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member. The summit focused on COVID, so that was the main topic of conversation, but, of course, it is the natural forum in which to have those conversations. When we talk about the Good Friday Agreement, we talk about the totality of relationships. It is about relationships and about having honest conversations, and the British-Irish Council, the North/South Ministerial Council and this Chamber are the places where we should have those discussions. It should come as no surprise to anybody that the summit took the time to have a conversation, albeit a brief one, on that issue. I have no doubt that we will have to come back to a lot more conversation in the next format later this year in Wales. There will be an opportunity again for us to speak about the current political situation, and I am sure that Brexit will still be on the agenda.
Ms Á Murphy: The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on many sectors of our society that were already disadvantaged, including children, young people, women and those on low incomes or with disabilities. Will the joint First Minister confirm that building a better and fairer society will be core to recovery?
Mrs O'Neill: I welcome Áine, the new MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, to our team on her second day in the role and wish her the very best. I have no doubt that she will be a champion for the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I stand to be corrected, but I believe that she may be our youngest MLA. It is important that the interests of young people are reflected in the Chamber, so congratulations and good luck.
I agree with you about the need to tackle the high levels of poverty, inequality and disadvantage that exist across our communities; that has to be at the core of our approach to recovery. I am also particularly aware that the social and economic impact of the pandemic has fallen hard on women, and we have talked about that on a number of occasions in the Chamber. Many of those women are in low-paid, precarious employment while many others have lost their jobs. As we step out of the restrictions, we must develop more sustainable and strategic responses that, at their core, break those endless cycles of poverty, exclusion and inequality. Looking after the most vulnerable, the lonely, those in housing need, those in poverty, families with disabled members, those with a disability and workers on low incomes must be core to the recovery strategy. That will mean doing things differently and, often, doing things more effectively.
Work has been ongoing to develop the draft integrated recovery plan, which is focused on delivery over the next 24 months.
The four main areas are economic growth; tackling inequalities; the health of the population; and green growth and sustainability. That will be a longer-term, strategic approach, and it will be incorporated in the Programme for Government and the work that we are doing there. There is a lot to be done, but the recovery plan will identify ambitious opportunities to break, as I say, those longer-term cycles of poverty and exclusion.
Mr Allister: It turns out that the protocol was discussed and raised by the Dublin Government. Why was that concealed from the House in the statement, given that there is a statutory duty to report the goings-on at the Councils to the House? If it was raised, did no unionist Minister raise the economic dislocation that is being caused by the protocol? If they did, why have we not heard about that? If they did not —.
Mr Allister: Well, Mr Deputy Speaker, we are in a strange circumstance —.
"The Summit also discussed the latest political developments across their jurisdictions".
Obviously, that includes political developments around Brexit and the protocol.
Mrs O'Neill: Absolutely, it is "obviously", because it is a recent political development.
Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Section 52C of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 is clear that, following meetings such as this, there shall be a report to the House on the goings-on at those meetings. We had a circumstance this morning where a statement was produced that concealed the fact that the protocol was even discussed. The word "protocol" is not mentioned. Is it in order and is it compliant with section 52C for a Minister to come to the House and conceal from it a relevant aspect of the proceedings on which she is allegedly reporting? Is that in order?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): It is clear from the answers that there was discussion on the issue. I will pass the matter to the Speaker's Office to make a declaration on it and to determine whether anything needs to go forward. The Member has rightly raised the matter and put it on the record.
I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments until the next item of business.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Education, Miss Michelle McIlveen, that she wishes to make a statement.
Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education): In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I will make the following statement, on behalf of former Minister Weir and Minister Hargey, on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in education sector format that was held on Wednesday 9 June 2021.
The meeting was conducted via videoconference owing to current COVID restrictions. Minister Foley TD, the Minister for Education in the Republic of Ireland, Minister Hargey as accompanying Minister and the then Minister of Education, Peter Weir MLA, attended the meeting. The meeting was cordial and productive, and progress was made on a number of key issues, including the education implications of the UK's withdrawal from the EU; the response to COVID-19; a review of the work programme; an update on EU funding; educational underachievement; special educational needs (SEN) and cooperation between the inspectorates.
The NSMC noted the current assessment of the education implications of the UK's withdrawal from the EU, and welcomed the ongoing engagement and implementation of all measures necessary to ensure that the agreed common travel area (CTA) rights and privileges are protected. Ministers also welcomed the commitments made on future funding for education programmes and the work that is under way to develop them.
Ministers noted the Irish Government's decision to facilitate continued access for Northern Ireland higher education students wishing to avail themselves of ERASMUS mobilities in another participating country in Europe and reaffirmed their commitment to continued cooperation on education in the new relationship between the EU and the UK. Ministers also noted the UK's proposed funding of the Turing scheme.
Ministers noted the successful implementation of measures to facilitate the safe reopening of all schools, following the school closures in January and February 2021, and the continued support provided by teachers to their pupils through the delivery of online provision. The Council noted the role played by education agencies in supporting pupils' well-being, particularly those vulnerable from interruptions to direct contact with teachers and the wider education community. The Council was also advised of the response by those delivering programmes in youth and other non-formal education provision.
Ministers also noted that both Education Departments continue to liaise and share learnings on the development and delivery of response and supports to schools. The Council commended the efforts of all educators and support staff to deliver as normal an education experience as possible to the 1·3 million pupils across both jurisdictions during the past 18 months, typifying the unspoken vocation associated with education.
The NSMC noted the commitment to reviewing the work programme and the plan to convene a meeting of senior officials from relevant Departments, co-chaired by the secretary general and the permanent secretary of the respective Education Departments, to make recommendations for the future work programme.
Ministers noted the continuing impact of COVID-19 on Peace IV-funded shared education projects and the enhanced use of online technologies to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic. The developments made on Peace IV shared education programme delivery, including proposed extensions, and the positive findings of the recent Peace IV shared education impact evaluation, published in April 2021, were noted by the Council.
The NSMC noted that the expert panel, appointed by the Northern Ireland Minister of Education under the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement to examine the links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background, delivered its final report in June 2021.
Ministers also noted that research on the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) programme has been provided as part of the evidence base to the panel. The Council also noted that evidence gathered as part of 'A Fair Start' and the DEIS programme can be used as a basis for developing joint actions under the PEACE PLUS programme.
Ministers received an update from Gary Cooper, CEO of the Middletown Centre for Autism (MCA), and welcomed the progress made by the two Education Departments and the Middletown Centre for Autism to facilitate and maintain the delivery of the centre's range of services since the previous meeting in 2016.
The Council welcomed the efforts of the MCA management and staff to remain operational and the continued delivery of elements of their service throughout the period of COVID-19 restrictions. The proposed delivery plan for the centre and the fact that the new board has been in place since April 2021 were noted. The NSMC noted that the MCA's day-to-day operations have been largely unaffected by the UK withdrawal from the EU, but matters of data transfer and recognition of professional qualifications remain under consideration. The Council also noted recent developments in the delivery of special educational needs programmes in both jurisdictions.
Ministers welcomed the continuing collaborative work of the education inspectorates, albeit online due to public health advice.
My officials and I look forward to working with Minister Foley and her Department as we continue to meet the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): I think that the Education Minister was replaced the last time I spoke in the Chamber on education. I hope that the current Minister does not meet with the same fate. I am grateful for the early engagement that the Minister has given to me and the Education Committee in her role.
Equal educational opportunity is key, and we hear increasingly that, to achieve that, equal digital educational opportunity is key. Other jurisdictions are working towards one appropriate digital device and internet connectivity per pupil. What is the Minister's assessment of the extent of the digital inequality in Northern Ireland that is faced by pupils? Will she work towards that aim of one appropriate device and internet connectivity per pupil in Northern Ireland?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Chair of the Committee for his comments, particularly those in relation to digital devices and the ongoing issues relating to internet access. They create a problem and, obviously, relate to inequality among pupils. He will be aware that, up until 21 June, 24,824 new devices had been provided through the Education Authority (EA) to schools to lend to pupils. Schools have been informed that devices will remain with them into the next year for ongoing support for learning for disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils. A small contingency of devices has been kept in case of further lockdown or to replace damaged devices. It is an issue that is ongoing in the Department, particularly in discussions with EA, and anything that we can do to address it is on our radar.
Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for her statement. She made a brief reference to cooperation between the inspectorates. Obviously, that is an important area of work. Will the Minister expand or elaborate on what that area of work has entailed?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I welcome the cooperation that has taken place between both inspectorates. I am pleased that the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) has been able to share its knowledge, skills and insight with other inspectors and learn from its counterparts. Over the past year, for example, the ETI has shared practice on its approach towards inspecting how schools in Northern Ireland address bullying. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the senior management of both inspectorates have continued to engage regularly and have shared information and practice with the heads and deputy heads of inspectorates across the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. That has enabled important learning to be shared in relation to remote learning, support for schools, Education Restart, public examinations, recovery and transition through to a resumption of inspection. As the Member will appreciate, this has been a particularly challenging time across education, and it is good to know that inspectors have been continuing on work and learning of best practice from others.
Mr Sheehan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis ar maidin. I thank the Minister for her statement this morning. Educational underachievement and the shared challenges that it presents across the island were discussed at an NSMC meeting last year.
Since then, we have had the 'A Fair Start' report. How will cooperation in this area be enhanced?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. As he will understand, I was not present at the meeting to get the full report of the engagement on educational underachievement. The work that we have done in Northern Ireland will be useful as a reference point to those in the Irish Republic as well. As you know, the work recommended by the panel through 'A Fair Start' has a substantial budget attached to it. We will be working towards it as an Executive. Sharing best practice is useful, and I am confident that that will continue in the discussions.
Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for her statement. It is good to see such positive references to the Middletown Centre for Autism. I welcome its incoming board and wish all the members well in their very important roles.
There is one line that concerns me, and it is about Brexit. It states that the UK withdrawal from the EU means:
"data transfer and recognition of professional qualifications remain under consideration."
I am not really worried about the transfer of sausages west-east, but I am really worried that Brexit has the potential to have an adverse impact on children's education. Can you give some more information on that, please, Minister?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. That issue was primarily about data sharing and data adequacy. Since that meeting, the issue has essentially been resolved. Alongside the recognition of professional qualifications, data issues fell in with other implications for the EA, CCEA and the Middletown Centre for Autism in providing services in, and employing staff from, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Sharing information was a concern at that meeting. However, since then and after more than a year of discussions, the European Union has formally recognised the UK's high data protection standards. That will allow the seamless flow of personal data from the EU to the UK, which will address the concerns that were raised at the meeting.
Mr Butler: I welcome the Minister to her first box. She is no stranger to the box and giving information.
I have been contacted by many groups that will fall through the cracks in the transition period between Peace IV and Peace V funding. There does not seem to be anything to catch them. Will the Minister update the House on any of the shared education projects that may fall foul of lack of funding between Peace IV and Peace V, and any steps that she has taken to address that?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I understand that there have been some concerns about that. The are two main shared education Peace IV projects for which the Department of Education was identified as the accountable Department: Collaboration and Sharing in Education, which takes place in primary, post-primary and special schools; and Sharing from the Start, which takes place in early years settings. Both projects have been impacted by COVID and the associated periods of school closure, as you would imagine.
I understand that there have been requests for a temporary variation arrangement. That has provided some flexibility and ensured that schools and early years settings have not been penalised for an interruption to delivery. Principals and leaders have been working hard to try to fulfil the needs associated with shared education programmes. Obviously, face-to-face contact was missing during that period and has been replaced, to a certain degree, by online technology.
Work to deliver on those projects has continued. Both projects have sought an extension for a further year. The Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) has approved the extension for the Sharing from the Start project. The extension for Collaboration and Sharing in Education is under consideration and will require approval from SEUPB. Work to reach a solution is continuing.
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Minister for her statement. I was interested in the question that the Chair of the Education Committee asked about digital poverty, and there is no doubt that children and young people's experience of COVID has exacerbated that and made life incredibly difficult. The Department has made enormous strides towards helping young people with that issue, but I am keen that our education system also develops a digital spine for Northern Ireland so that young people are taught the technologies that will help them to gain employment in the future. Does the Minister agree that it is appropriate and desirable to increase young people's knowledge of the digital sector earlier in life and that we can work together to do that so that young people are ready to take their place in the economy of the future?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. She brings her own experience from the Department for the Economy and, no doubt, from her grandchildren. My nieces and nephews were digitally aware from the age of about three. They can probably work my phone better than I can. I absolutely agree with the Member's sentiment. We need to be much more cognisant of that and to focus our funding on it. That very much ties into the commentary from the Chair of the Committee.
Ms Brogan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire fosta. I thank the Minister for her statement. In relation to ongoing and future cooperation, what is the Minister's assessment of the impact of COVID on cross-border shared education projects?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question and will refer back to my response to Mr Butler. It has had quite a significant impact, in that they have not been able to have face-to-face engagement, which is critical, particularly to the shared education experience. Although online technologies are beneficial, they have not been able to replace that face-to-face engagement. I am glad that we are in a situation where we are able to seek an extension of that funding so that that invaluable work can continue.
Mr Harvey: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. Yesterday, the Autism (Amendment) Bill had its First Stage in the House. We are all aware of the outstanding Middletown Centre for Autism and the support that it provides for parents. Can the Minister provide details of the level of funding that the centre receives and of the work that it carries out?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. The Middletown Centre for Autism is absolutely known for its outstanding work. If the Committee gets the opportunity, and if visits are permitted post September, I recommend that it takes the opportunity to go to the centre to see the work that it has been doing. I had the opportunity to do that when I was on the Committee.
The Middletown Centre for Autism received a total annual resource budget of £2·5 million for 2021-22. The Department provided £1·25 million of that. The allocated capital budget for that period is £0·2 million, of which the Department provided £100,000.
As you know, the Middletown Centre for Autism was established in 2007. It supports the delivery of services for learning support and assessment as well as training and research. The learning support and assessment service is a second-level service that delivers intensive assessment and learning support — it has been adapted to meet COVID-19 regulations — to around 60 children and young people with autism through a transdisciplinary approach. It also has three whole-school referrals, facilitating school staff to create an autism-friendly environment on an annual basis in Northern Ireland. There were also 12 referrals to the learning support and assessment service in the Republic of Ireland, where overall delivery is much more focused on training. In 2021-22, the centre aims to provide 3,300 training opportunities to professionals, as well as to 1,000 parents in Northern Ireland. It also aims to provide 7,000 professional training opportunities alongside 7,000 parental training opportunities in the Irish Republic.
Mrs Barton: Minister, what sharing is taking place on both sides of the border to deal with the challenges of persistent educational underachievement and its links with children's socio-economic background?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. I refer to my previous response to Mr Sheehan. I was not present at the meeting, so, at this stage, I am unaware of the ongoing work on underachievement. I know that an update was given on 'A Fair Start', which is the document that was published on educational underachievement in Northern Ireland. I would like to think that lessons will be learned on both sides of the border from that ongoing work.
Mr Boylan: I thank the Minister for her statement. I ask for some clarity on the issue of mutual recognition of qualifications. Was it a data transfer issue, or was that a separate issue? It was discussed last year at the North/South Ministerial Council. There have been recent developments in both jurisdictions on special educational needs programmes. Will the Minister provide an update on what is taking place there?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I understand that the issue related to data sharing. There may be a bit of an issue with how the regulators continue their work in developing responses. I am mindful that there is cross-border mobility for teachers, and the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland and the Teaching Council have engaged with each other and, I understand, with other UK teaching regulators to mitigate any immediate issues. Moreover, policies have been put in place to ensure that suitably qualified teachers continue to be able to register and work in either jurisdiction. That facilitates mobility while ensuring that all necessary safeguards are put in place and observed. That may have been discussed at a previous meeting. However, I understand that the issues about which there were concerns at the meeting were of data adequacy and data sharing.
Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for her statement. As someone who has visited the Middletown Centre for Autism, I encourage anyone, and particularly the Education Committee, to visit it. It is very worthwhile to do so.
The Minister said that the UK-wide Turing scheme was raised at the meeting and that she received information on it from the Republic of Ireland. Will she give more background information on the Turing scheme and on what encouragement will be given to schools in Northern Ireland to participate in it?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I could put the question back to him, as he was at the meeting. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, announced last December that a pot of around £100 million would be provided to enable over 35,000 students to go on placements and exchanges overseas. That was to start in September 2021. The Member will know that the Irish Government have also put a scheme in place that will allow higher-education students from Northern Ireland to have continued access to and to avail themselves of Erasmus mobilities in Europe.
The majority of the Turing scheme funding is focused on higher education and really falls within the remit of the Department for the Economy. To apply for schools projects, schools must provide general vocational or technical education at any level from primary to upper secondary or be a national schools consortium such as the Education Authority and be applying on behalf of a number of schools. Unfortunately, to date, no schools from Northern Ireland have applied to the Turing scheme. I understand that the Minister for the Economy will meet the Minister of State for universities at the Department of Education in England to discuss how to raise awareness of the scheme to schools and colleges.
That meeting was scheduled to take place in May, and I understand that it will now take place in September. I do not have further details on that.
Mr O'Dowd: Mr Weir may have just set a pub quiz question: which former Minister asked a question on a statement on a matter for which he was responsible? [Laughter.]
My question to the Minister —.
Mr Weir: It takes one to know one [Laughter.]
Mr O'Dowd: Yesterday's significant announcement of €40 million from the Shared Island Fund for universities was welcome. Did Minister Foley give any indication that the Dublin Government are also interested in using funding from the Shared Island Fund for education, particularly along the border? Will the Minister lobby Minister Foley for such an investment in shared education along the border from that fund?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. As I said a number of times in the statement, I was not present at the meeting, so I am not sure whether anything further was discussed about any sort of prospective fund. I am happy to follow that up.
Mr Muir: First, I welcome the Minister to her role. We miss her as the Chair of the Committee for Infrastructure.
At the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in education sector format, the expert panel’s report on educational underachievement was discussed. The report refers to the post-primary transfer process in Northern Ireland as a "systemic inequality". Will the Minister provide an update on the context of that? How many children are unplaced in the post-primary transfer process this year? That issue has come across my desk and, I am sure, many other Members' desks.
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. As of today, 85 children are unplaced. As he will know, there has been work over the last number of weeks to rectify that. A number of challenges have been presented, and we have made some temporary variations to schools to alleviate some of the pressures. There are some areas in which it is more difficult to achieve extra places, because schools physically may not be able to take a larger school population. We have been working closely with the EA, schools and parents to find suitable places. I appeal to parents to identify a school for their child. If they do that, we can see where the true pressures are, and we can try to alleviate them. As of today, the number has decreased, but it is still a little too high for my liking.
Mr Allister: What do affirmations about the protocol's adverse impact on North/South meetings by the Minister's new leader mean, if such meetings continue in a routine fashion? If the Minister and her party are serious in opposing the protocol, when will we see an impact on "North/Southery", given that east-west relations continue to be seriously trashed?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. He will understand that we have ministerial duties and that there is a ministerial code that we need to abide by. However, all strands need to work together, and, clearly, if there are serious east-west issues, those will reflect on our North/South relationships. Those relationships will be impacted, and that will be demonstrated, as the Member knows.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No other Member has indicated to me that they wish to ask the Minister a question. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments before we move on to the next item of business.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
That the Local Government (Meetings and Performance) Bill [NIA 26/17-22] do now pass.
Ms Hargey: I welcome the opportunity to explain the progression of the legislation. The Bill's intention was always to support councils through the difficulties imposed by the pandemic and onwards through the recovery period. The changes set out in the Bill will provide much-needed support to councils, giving them again the ability to hold remote meetings. That will provide a valuable tool that will enable meetings to be held remotely or in hybrid form, allowing councillors to participate in democratic local government while social distancing and self-isolation remain. The Bill will also regularise the decision that I took at the height of the pandemic to set aside certain local government performance improvement duties for 2020-21 to ensure that no unnecessary burdens were placed on councils in that area, allowing them to concentrate on providing vital services to the community. The enabling powers in clauses 2 and 4 will provide the necessary flexibility to support the sector further as we move forward. They also provide the necessary powers should there be any future upsurge in cases of coronavirus.
I will take the opportunity to address a couple of issues that were raised during yesterday's Further Consideration Stage debate. Concern was raised about the lack of consultation with the sector on the Bill. Given the urgency of the provisions, it was not possible to consult in the normal manner. I can, however, assure the House that there has been engagement with the local government sector. As I said yesterday, I spoke to NILGA about the issues, and my officials discussed the proposed meetings and performance clauses with Society of Local Authority Chief Executive (SOLACE) members and individual officers. My officials also wrote to all council chief executives before the Bill was introduced to the Assembly to update them on my intention to bring it forward.
Much has been made of the enabling power to extend remote meetings, with it being seen as a power grab because it also regularises the making of provisions on speaking, voting and participating in remote meetings and on public access to meetings and documents. To be clear, the intention is to ensure that the legislation that governs council meetings — Parts 7 and 8 of and schedule 5 to the Local Government Act 2014 — should apply whether a meeting is to be held in person, remotely or by hybrid means. Councillors should have the same voting, speaking or participation rights no matter what form the meeting takes. Provisions on public access to meetings and documents in the 2014 Act should also apply whether a meeting is held in person, remotely or by hybrid means.
The intention of the enabling power in clause 2 is to allow us to facilitate remote working. It will also enable my Department to make suitable adjustments to local government legislation to ensure that references to meetings, participation in those meetings and public access to those meetings include meetings that are held by remote or hybrid means; in fact, it will be something along the lines of the 2020 meetings regulations, which set out what references to "remote meetings" and "remote access" mean.
I am confident that the enabling power to extend or make permanent regulations in relation to remote meetings will provide the opportunity to put in place fully scrutinised legislation that will provide councils with a more flexible framework for meetings as they move forward post pandemic. I am confident that they will not restrict councils' autonomy but will facilitate them to ensure that decision-making can remain fully inclusive. In any case, any regulations to be made under clause 2 will be subject to the draft affirmative procedure. The Communities Committee will be able to thoroughly scrutinise the regulations, and, ultimately, it will be for the Assembly to decide which draft regulations should be made.
My Department will continue to liaise with councils on their statutory performance improvement duties. Having the enabling power in the Bill, we will be in a better position to address any further difficulties that arise as a result of the pandemic during councils' recovery this year. I was asked yesterday when Royal Assent would be granted once the Bill had been passed. We hope to have Royal Assent in a matter of weeks, but that is outside my control.
I acknowledge and thank everyone who has been involved with the Bill for the quick pace at which it has moved. In particular, I thank Members for agreeing to the Bill progressing by accelerated passage and for their consideration throughout the various stages. I also thank the Communities Committee for making time for my officials to brief it at very short notice, as we moved to the Further Consideration Stage. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister and the officials in the Department for the work that has been done so swiftly on the Bill. I also thank the Department for briefing the Committee a couple of weeks ago. We are all in agreement that accelerated passage is most certainly not our chosen way for any legislation, and the number of issues and questions that have been raised by Members about the Bill has shown that.
I am glad that our councils will be able, as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent, to hold their meetings in whatever form, whether it is in person, fully virtual or a hybrid. None of us knows what lies ahead in the coming weeks or months or next year, so it is good that we will not be in the position that we were in in March of this year — sorry, maybe it was after March; I am totally confused — when councils were having to outlay money to hold their meetings in venues that were big enough to facilitate all their councillors. I am glad that we have got to this position.
Everyone knows my views on clause 2 from yesterday's debate, but I understand that the regulations will be subject to the draft affirmative procedure and that the Committee will have an input to any that may have to be changed.
Again, I thank the Minister and her officials for the work that they have done and for listening to the concerns of Members early on and setting about making changes to the Bill. I support the Bill.
Mr Durkan: The rationale behind the Bill, as outlined by the Minister and, once again, by the Chair of the Committee, is to allow councils flexibility in how they conduct their business and meetings in light of the COVID crisis — it is hard to think of any sector that has not had to adapt to new ways of working — and afford them and us the agility, should we find ourselves back in a lockdown situation, to conduct meetings and make decisions in a lawful way.
I have previously stated in the House, and will again for the record, that accelerated passage is a suboptimal way to process and pass legislation. That has become painfully apparent during the accelerated passage of this Bill. We should only use accelerated passage to pass legislation that needs to be passed now. Members made the point quite well at Further Consideration Stage yesterday that some of what the Bill would do might go beyond what is strictly necessary. However, I am content that the safeguards are in place that, should changes be required, those changes will have to come back to us as an Assembly, we will have sight of and input into them, and, ultimately, we can stop them if we fear that they are damaging to democracy.
I thank the Minister for the flexibility that she has demonstrated on the Bill, and the officials who have given us a lot in the little time that we had to consider it. I hope that it works well and that the councils work well with it to continue to deliver vital services and value to our ratepayers. I support the Bill.
Ms Armstrong: As others have said, accelerated passage is not always the best way to do legislation. However, we all recognise the pressures that our councils have been under. We know that the legislation that allowed them to have remote access to meetings expired early in May and that, since then, as the Committee Chair mentioned, councils have been trying workarounds and hiring large premises to hold their meetings.
I appreciate the concerns raised by others at Further Consideration Stage that changes to the Local Government Act 2014 were being made and that the legislation would supersede standing orders of councils. The new clause 2(5) of the Bill specifies:
"Regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of them has been laid before and approved by a resolution of the Assembly."
I am content that the Department and the Minister will engage with councillors and council bodies when bringing forward those regulations. We all agree that co-production and co-design are the way forward for all legislation.
I, too, thank Julie Broadway and Anthony Carleton for their work and for engaging with the Committee when they did not have to. Thank you to the mayor — apologies; I have councils on the brain this morning — to the Minister for allowing those officials to meet the Committee at such short notice. It was much appreciated, and it helped to clear up a lot of my concerns.
I am grateful that the Minister took on board the concerns raised by the Committee and that changes were made. That is how we do legislation in this place; we can work together. I am pleased that the future of council meetings will be considered and that this issue does not relate only to COVID or the pandemic. How our councillors and, indeed, we in this place take our meetings in future will be different. At long last, we will be able to afford councillors access to remote meetings if they are on parental leave or if they have a long-term illness. When that measure is considered and brought forward, it can only be welcomed.
I am absolutely delighted that officials confirmed, when they met us in Committee, that no councillor will be denied a vote, placed on mute or silenced, and that points of order can be raised; that no chief executive, mayor or chairperson can deny our council colleagues the ability to take part in debate and play their role in the democratic process; and that regulations may not be made unless they are approved by the Assembly. Given that protection, I am delighted, on behalf of the Alliance Party, to support the Bill at Final Stage.
Ms Hargey: Thanks to all the members of the Committee for their contribution over the past few weeks. Some of the negotiations took place just outside these doors. I thank the Assembly officials and my officials in the Department. We have all worked on amendments and made sure that the Bill was scrutinised in the short time that we had, while moving at pace to legislate before the end of the Assembly term. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Local Government (Meetings and Performance) Bill [NIA 26/17-22] do now pass.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: We are flying through the Order Paper today. Members may take their ease for a moment before we move on to the next item of business. Thank you.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 33(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 33(2) be extended to 17 December 2021, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Financial Reporting (Departments and Public Bodies) Bill.
Dr Aiken: The Committee wishes to extend the Committee Stage of the Financial Reporting (Departments and Public Bodies) Bill because of the considerations that we need to have in Committee. Certain areas of the Bill will require significant work. In particular, we are looking at what are known as black-box procedures, where particular areas of finance have been laid out to look to how we manage those moneys. There are implications for the Bill having the potential to look at moneys of about £1·5 million, which, as the Assembly is fully aware, is about half a million pounds more than what is normally expected in black-box procedures. That is being opened up to potentially two years, and, as we are aware from numerous debates in the Assembly, there have indeed been occasions on which close to £1·5 billion has been hidden away in black boxes. That is not appropriate, so we need to consider the issue further. I ask the Assembly to support the motion.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No other Members have indicated that they wish to speak. That being the case, it is not necessary for you to make a winding-up speech.
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 17 December 2021, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Financial Reporting (Departments and Public Bodies) Bill.
That this Assembly notes with concern the falling number of taxi drivers in the industry and the impact this will have on post-COVID-19 economic recovery; recognises the impact that the delay in reviewing fare structures has had in exacerbating this decline; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to implement measures to address the fall in driver numbers, to expedite the review of fare structures, to work with her Executive colleagues to identify a suite of measures that can be initiated to make the sector more attractive to new entrants, and to review her decision not to issue sector-specific support to operators.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The Committee's amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List.
Leave out all after the first "fare structures" and insert:
"and the complexity of taxi driver testing have had in exacerbating this decline; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to implement measures to address the fall in driver numbers, to expedite the review of fare structures and to work with her Executive colleagues to identify a suite of measures that can be initiated to make the sector more attractive to new entrants, including a review of sector-specific support to operators."
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: By convention, where the sponsor of a motion seeks to amend their own motion, they are invited to address both the motion and the amendment within the time allocated to them. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
I call the Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure, Mr Jonathan Buckley, to open the debate on the motion and the amendment.
Mr Buckley: I commend the motion and the amendment to the House. I stand as Chair of the Committee for Infrastructure to speak on this issue. The Committee has long been a strong advocate for the taxi industry, for taxi operators and taxi drivers. The Department for Infrastructure has responsibility for the regulation of the taxi industry. To that end, the Committee has had close contact with its various representatives and has taken every opportunity to listen to their concerns and to advocate on their behalf.
During the pandemic, the Committee has doggedly promoted the issues faced by the taxi industry with the Minister for Infrastructure, her officials and her colleagues in the Executive. The Committee for Infrastructure has used every opportunity to champion the need for financial support for the taxi industry and to ensure that it is adequate and fair in its accessibility.
For the past year, the Committee has received briefings from the Minister and her officials and sought to find solutions to the problems faced by the industry during the pandemic and endeavoured to hold the Minister to account. Despite our best efforts, the pandemic has taken a toll on the taxi industry, and it faces a number of challenges in coming out of lockdown.
At its meeting on 23 June, representatives of taxi operators appeared before the Committee to bring to its attention the issues facing the industry and its proposals on what the Executive can do to help.
Due to the pandemic, taxi drivers stopped working. The reasons for that are obvious. During lockdown, there was very little available work, and drivers were trying to avoid infection for the sake of their own health and that of their families. As there was very little work, many drivers were forced to cancel their expensive insurance as they were unable to earn enough pay for it. Some even returned their cars, unable to maintain them.
Now that lockdown is easing and the world is opening up, taxi drivers are once again needed not only for the benefit of our hospitality sector and wider economic recovery but for the health and social care sector to ferry individuals back and forward to appointments. However, at our meeting last week, taxi operators wanted to highlight with the Committee their concern that taxi drivers are simply not returning to work.
The operators said that there were a number of reasons for that. Some drivers have left the industry, and some have yet to make up their mind about whether they will return. Sector representatives quoted figures that showed that driver numbers have dropped by approximately 1,000 each year, from 16,000 in 2013 to around 8,000 now. They believe that there has been a further 30% decline because of the pandemic.
The operators told the Committee that they estimate that they are trying to deliver services to Northern Ireland with around 5,000 active drivers. One said:
"In any average week, between 1,250 and 1,300 of them were working ... Post-pandemic, we have an active fleet each week of between 850 and 900 drivers."
Another operator said that 425 of his 800 drivers were back at work. He said that he knew of 100 who would not be back and another 150 who were unsure.
The operators' request is for a stimulus for their sector to bring more drivers into the industry. They see a need to incentivise drivers to come into the sector and to work the unsociable hours during which taxis are most essential. Drivers are self-employed for a reason. They choose their hours and do not have a fixed work schedule. Operators point out that many have chosen to work Monday to Friday during the day so that they can spend more time with their families and friends in the evenings and at weekends. That, the operators highlight, means that passengers find it increasingly difficult to get a taxi during peak busy hours.
The stimulus that operators seek, which the Committee for Infrastructure's motion endorses and supports, is an urgent review of taxi fare structures and the suspension, for the time being, of the practical and theory tests to become a taxi driver, to coax younger people into the industry and recognise it as a viable job.
The current tariff was calculated on 2011 prices and implemented in 2016 and has not changed since. That is tantamount to an earning cap for the past 10 years, making it a huge disincentive to those considering joining the industry. The fare structure that was introduced was based on a 2011 cost review. It was to be reviewed in 2018 under the Taxis (?Taximeters, Devices and Maximum Fares) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015. Although operators were told that the review was carried out by the Department, no rise was given. The next review was in 2019, and, again, no rise in tariffs. Then, when the pandemic happened, work on this was set aside. Operators are calling for an urgent review that will address the differences between days, evenings and weekends.
Furthermore, operators told the Committee that the current taxi driver licensing requirements are inhibiting entry to the industry, which is exacerbating the decline in driver numbers. Complex, lengthy and difficult licensing arrangements are an impediment to our taxi industry and must be grasped if we are to go forward and support the industry. The Committee for Infrastructure calls on the Minister to urgently implement measures to ensure that the taxi tests are less of a bottleneck in getting drivers into the sector. Prior to 2015, taxi drivers required a normal driving licence, a medical and Access NI clearance. The taxi operators who briefed the Committee advised that the number of applicants to take the taxi theory test last year was 111, which is much lower than the number needed to take the places of drivers who simply will not return. Pre 2015, it took six to 10 weeks to get people into the industry; under the current system, it takes between four and six months and, sometimes, much longer. That situation is simply unsustainable.
I urge the Minister to return to the issue of financial support for this delicately balanced and economically and socially vital sector. The sector's health and viability is your responsibility, Minister. Therefore, the Committee calls on Minister Mallon to take the lead and work with Executive colleagues to provide the support that the sector needs. To date, there has been no financial support from DFI for operators and only general support from other Departments for a small number of operators. The demand for taxis may be high, but, without the drivers to fulfil that demand, there will be greater implications when lockdown restrictions are completely relaxed. The taxi operators issued the Committee with warnings of an increase in drink-driving, of an increase in lifts in illegal and uninsured taxis and of the requirement for a greater police presence in our town centres at closing times to prevent antisocial behaviour due to increased numbers waiting for taxis.
I hope that, in the time that I have had, I have been able to give Members a sense of the abandonment felt by the sector and the challenges facing it, the proposed solutions that the Committee for Infrastructure has put forward and the concerns of the sector. Our economy and our communities simply cannot stand by without taking action.
I will make some brief comments as DUP spokesperson for infrastructure. Minister, the industry is struggling. Drivers and operators under the remit of the Department for Infrastructure feel let down. For our road haulage, bus, coach and taxi operators and drivers, the continued passing of the buck and the blame to other Ministers will no longer cut it. Kind words of thanks and pats on the back will no longer cut it for those key workers, who have kept this wee country moving in difficult times. They have been met with a closed door from the Department for Infrastructure. It is time to step up and deliver for those drivers. I commend the motion and the amendment to the House.
Mr Boylan: I welcome the opportunity to debate the issue. I support the motion and the amendment. The Chair has left little for the rest of us to say, but I will try to make some key points. The most important thing is that the motion and the amendment are supported by the entire Committee. It is a Committee motion.
I appreciate what the Chair said about the principal argument, which is that responsibility lies with DFI. We do not mind working with the Minister and other Ministers to deliver. There needs to be a swathe of things done to facilitate the industry. The representatives from the industry who came to us most recently were the operators. That is fair enough, but a number of single taxi drivers also came to us with key points and asks. Driver numbers are down, and there are difficulties with testing that are plain to be seen. There are online portal issues, among others. It is also the case that a lot of people have carried out work throughout the pandemic to support key workers and deliver essential workers to their work. There are people out there who have carried on through all of this. I praise the drivers out there who have kept going.
The Chair mentioned a drop in a number of significant figures over a number of years. He went back to 2013. Commitments were made to look at the fare structure, which is vital. Driver numbers have been declining since 2013 for a number of reasons. The industry has said that it wants there to be a review of the Taxis Act 2008. There are a number of things in it. It has been tried and tested. No matter whether you go to single operators or taxi operators, they talk about the single tier and everything else.
I appreciate what is in the motion. I want to expand on it, however, because, if we are serious, we now have an opportunity to address the whole of the industry and look at taxi provision. The key element of the motion is economic recovery and fighting back after COVID. The industry made a number of points to us. Fare structure, which the Chair outlined, is definitely one. That issue goes back a number of years. It seriously needs to be looked at. The Committee will work across the board on that. We need to see some of the reports and some of the figures that have been produced.
There needs to be a review of the Taxis Act. People have been talking about class A, class B and class C, and there are issues across the board. As part of her response, maybe the Minister will give us some detail on her thinking around that.
Turning to the financial side of things, I know that the Minister previously stated that it would take roughly £6,000 over a two-year period to support some in the industry. Others have intimated that certain schemes were run by different Ministers but some in the industry were not facilitated and could not get moneys. So, there is the £6,000 that was reported over a two-year period, and I believe that she has given out the £1,500 grant twice now — I stand to be corrected on that. There have been so many grants and funding streams and so many applications have been made, and I would like the Minister to comment on that as well. Online access has also been an issue.
I want to work with the Minister and the Committee, but, more importantly, we need to support the industry. When the night-time economy opens up again as, hopefully, it will shortly, we will need the taxi industry. I say that only in the context of having gone through the Taxis Act for a number of years, as have other Members, with a fine toothcomb to try to get the right solution. Sometimes it has worked, and sometimes it has not. That was a key element and a key argument, but my point is that the taxi industry has a big part to play in the economic recovery, especially in the cities.
I heard somebody use the terminology "town criers". The taxi industry are not the town criers in an urban setting. They are looking for support by way of regulation and financial support to ease their way back in and increase their numbers so that they can deliver the service and play their part in the economic recovery. I support the amendment and the motion.
Mr Durkan: First, I apologise on behalf of Dolores Kelly, who is our party spokesperson on infrastructure. She has been detained at a Policing Board meeting this morning. She had expected to be back in time for this debate, but the taxis arrived unexpectedly early today [Laughter.]
It is always when you do not want them to.
This is a Committee motion, which demonstrates the fact that all of the parties want a better deal for taxi drivers and support measures to strengthen and support our vital taxi sector. I say "vital" because the taxi sector is vital. Taxis play a vital role in so many people's lives, getting them where they need to be, whether that is their work, important health appointments, shopping or leaving kids to school. We need them to do our daily business and, critically, to get us home after a night out.
Taxi drivers are much more than mere transporters. They provide a lifeline to many vulnerable people and a listening ear. However, as has already been pointed out, numbers of drivers are dwindling. That was an issue pre-pandemic, but the risk to drivers' health and that of their families, together with the shutdown of town and city centres, turned a hard job in which to earn a living into a virtually impossible one.
The Minister has provided assistance to drivers over the pandemic, but her powers to do so as Infrastructure Minister were limited, meaning that a scheme could only be delivered if it replaced or refunded costs incurred by drivers for insurance and PPE but not lost income. That was and remains the case. The Minister demonstrated flexibility and that she was listening to the sector by designing the second scheme, in recognition of the fact that so many drivers had been ruled out of the first scheme because they had paused their expensive insurance policies as a financial necessity while there was no money coming in.
The reality now is that the industry is suffering. When the taxi industry suffers and struggles, so does our wider economy. People will be more reluctant to go out to socialise and support city-centre businesses if they are not sure how or even when they will get home. We need to look at the fare structure. We need a fair fare structure to incentivise drivers to work difficult hours that are not just unsocial but, sadly, in many cases, antisocial, with drivers under regular threat of attack.
The Taxis Act 2008 was one of the first pieces if not the first piece of legislation passed by the House. Part of the difficulty that we are still feeling the hangover from today is that that legislation, which was passed in haste, took so long to implement. I was the Minister of the Environment who finally implemented the final pieces. No review of that legislation could take place until the final pieces of the jigsaw were in place. It is essential now that there be a holistic review of the legislation that looks at all the issues, including the fare structure and the evident barriers, which are more difficult to navigate than might have originally been anticipated or intended, to people entering the industry.
We need younger drivers coming in. If you have a look at any taxi stand or do a wee straw poll of the taxis that you get, if you use local taxi companies, you will see the age profile of taxi drivers. They are generally people who are moving on in years and are now moving out, due to issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. What is vital is that we, as parties, all work together. We did that quite well during work on earlier incarnations of the Taxis Act and on the issues, of which there were plenty, that arose throughout that process.
Another ask of the motion is support for taxi operators. Taxi operators absolutely need support. They lost huge amounts of rent. However, to put the responsibility for all of that on the Department for Infrastructure or the Minister for Infrastructure, who does not have the power or the vires to deal with such an issue, is short-sighted and smacks of political opportunism, particularly when coming from a party colleague of the former Minister for the Economy, who worked to exclude operators from some of the schemes that she designed. We need to move away from that politicking and work together to deliver better for our taxis, our taxi industry and our taxi drivers. Give them a fair deal.
Mr Beggs: Taxis and taxi drivers play a vital role in our economy. They can take people to work. They were important during and at the peak of the pandemic, when there was reduced public transport, because they took essential workers to hospitals, shops, garages etc. Taxis play a vital role for those who may not have their own transport. In normal times, they play an important role for parents, often assisting in delivering children to school. They are also vital in giving people a lift to an NHS appointment, be it with a doctor or a consultant. Frequently, people are not able to use public transport because of an illness. Then, there is the night-time economy, which is yet to fully reopen. There is some activity at present, but we expect it to gradually reopen fully. In rural areas, where there may not be any public transport, a taxi may be your only means of getting to a shop or an appointment. Therefore, they are vital.
It is clear from the evidence that we have been given that the taxi industry is experiencing difficulties. As others have said, taxi drivers are generally an older workforce, and many have been driving for some time. However, some decided to shelter during the pandemic, and many have decided not to return to work. They have perhaps got used to other roles or are working in more nine-to-five jobs. Let us face it: taxi driving can be a very antisocial activity. You are required to work long hours, often late into the night and early morning. As others have said, the number of registered taxi drivers has dropped from 16,000 to about 8,000, but I understand that only about 5,000 are active. Many have not yet returned to work. They are waiting for better times or, perhaps, to see whether they can find another form of employment and not come back to taxi driving. In evidence given to the Committee by Value Cabs, it said that it had 800 drivers at one point but only 425 have come back. The company knows for certain that 100 drivers are not coming back. Some 150 drivers have still not decided what exactly they will do. We have a problem on the horizon, and it is important that we address it.
Tariffs cause difficulties. Taxi driving is not the lucrative job that it once was. The review was originally due after three years, in 2018, but it has not happened, and another three years have passed since then. That must be addressed urgently. We must make sure that the tariffs are reviewed. No one likes to pay more, but what would be worse than that would be being unable to get a taxi.
The review should look at whether there is a need to incentivise those who work longer hours, late into the night and the early morning, so that taxis will be available for the economy where there is that demand. Supply and demand are out of kilter at the moment.
Another issue that was highlighted was that class C taxis are unregulated and can charge whatever they want. Meanwhile, class A and class B taxis are limited to £1·57 per mile. There is clearly an issue with class C taxis. Are they operating fully within their remit? Is there a need to clarify that and protect the public from the higher costs that can result?
Most people recognise that taxi drivers are essential, and it is important that we address the issues. There is some time to do that. Schools will be back in September, so that pressure is coming. The night-time economy is opening, and we need to look at what we can do to improve things.
Tariffs are one thing, but I also ask that we look at issues such as the level of continuing professional development (CPD). Do we really need 35 hours per year of training for a fully qualified taxi driver? There is a cost involved, and there is the cost in loss of work.
I ask the Minister to ensure that there are taxis for those who need them.
Mr Muir: On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the motion. One of the few silver linings of the pandemic has been a much greater appreciation across society of key workers. Those on the front line of the NHS, the delivery drivers at our doors and the supermarket staff who kept the shelves filled are some of the people on whom we relied during these unprecedented and difficult times. To that list we must add taxi drivers. Throughout the pandemic, they have been on the front line, bringing health and social care workers to work and helping older people to get to where they needed to go. Much of that was during a time when people were told to avoid public transport if at all possible, and all of it was happening while there was a significant risk to the health of the taxi drivers.
Important as taxi drivers have been during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is equally important that we help them to recover. If we want people to return to our high streets and particularly if we want to support tourism and hospitality as they gradually return to full capacity, we must have a thriving taxi industry.
Through the Alliance Party's 'Green New Deal' document, the party is committed to a green and equitable recovery from COVID-19. The taxi sector is absolutely a part of that. Research from the Northern Ireland Consumer Council shows that people on low incomes and those with a disability are disproportionately more likely to rely on taxis. Furthermore, having a taxi industry that is affordable, safe and reliable means that more people can give up car ownership but still rely on car transport if they need to. There is no contradiction between a green recovery from COVID-19 and supporting the taxi industry. They can be complementary. Taxis are part of sustainable travel solutions today and going forward.
Positive steps forward have occurred since the introduction of the Taxis Act in 2008 and the subordinate legislation introduced in 2016. However, as was made clear by the taxi operators when they appeared before the Infrastructure Committee, problems in the industry have been building. The Driver and Vehicle Agency's (DVA) figures show a consistent decline in the number of active taxi drivers in Northern Ireland. That has been exacerbated by the pandemic. While there is hope that some of the worst of that will be rectified once further restrictions are removed, many of the underlying issues from the past few years will remain. It is important that there be a thorough review of the fare structure. Operators have been able to attract new drivers into the industry with the prospect of a decent wage, but class A and B operators should not be at a disadvantage to those in class C. We support the call for the Minister for Infrastructure to work with her Executive colleagues on a suite of measures to attract new entrants to the industry. I caution that any change regarding any relaxation of driver testing and licensing requirements must go through proper scrutiny and consultation, as it is important that the public continue to have confidence in the industry. Any short-term moves in that regard could quickly backfire if confidence is undermined.
I move now to additional sector-specific support for operators. While we acknowledge that operators have been eligible for various forms of support during the pandemic, that has been comparatively low. There is still a case for considering whether anything more should be done with regard to how the pandemic has impacted on taxi drivers and taxi operators specifically and their ability, particularly that of the smaller operators, to rebound as we emerge from the pandemic.
Too often, during the pandemic, the taxi industry has been used as a political football for multiple sides, and the discussion has centred on a pre-emptive blame game rather than on collaboration and practical solutions. People look to this place to get something done. They do not want to hear blame; they just want something to be achieved. Blame serves nobody, least of all the taxi industry. I support the motion and call for Ministers to come together quickly, in collaboration, to respond to the concerns articulated by the industry.
Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom left the European Union. This is another demonstration and example of the issues relating to labour market mobility and access, alongside those relating to the logistics sector, which the Minister will be aware of. That also needs to be taken into account.
Mr Robinson: As a new member of the Committee, I am privileged to speak in the debate. The debate is aimed at ensuring that Northern Ireland has a viable taxi sector capable of meeting the needs of the public as well as contract work for the Health and Education Departments. Currently, there is a risk to the viability of the sector. In recent years, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of taxi drivers throughout Northern Ireland. Some reports suggest that a drop of almost 50% has occurred. That has resulted in taxi services becoming more difficult to sustain, whether for the general public or contract work.
Ways have to be found to make the taxi industry capable of meeting every demand placed on it. That can be fully addressed only by a cocktail of measures, from a temporary postponement of theory and driving tests — not the other checks that are required — and a review of the fares. The review of fares is to ensure that the industry provides a financially secure job for people who have families to support. It is important for any industry that participants can make a living from it. Therefore the review of a fare structure that is about 10 years old is essential for the industry to attract new entrants.
There is also concern that the loss of drivers is putting contract work, such as that for Education and Health, in jeopardy. There have to be enough drivers to cover that essential work, as it often involves dealing with vulnerable people who are dependent on taxis for everyday life. Taxis are not just to take people shopping or home after a night out; they are a foundation for the economic success of many sectors of the economy. They are an essential support to a good quality of life for mobility-impaired people, and they help to meet the needs of a rural population. To ensure that we meet all those demands, there must be a proactive drive to recruit taxi drivers as a matter of urgency, with some of the possible measures that I have outlined. Please remember that taxis are essential for travel in many areas, including health and education, as well as economic well-being.
Mr Beggs: The Member has indicated that he wishes to concentrate on attracting new drivers. Will he accept that it is important to ensure that we retain the qualified drivers that we have? They are the easiest drivers to get back into their vehicles and provide that service to the public.
Mr Robinson: The Member has made a very good point. I fully endorse what he said.
Finally, I ask that the Minister and her Executive colleagues review the decision not to award financial support to operators due to COVID-19. The taxi industry has seen a drop in driver numbers, partly because the pandemic has made it not possible for drivers to earn a living. While the very limited support given to the taxi industry was welcome, it was nowhere near sufficient to prevent the exodus of drivers. With live music, hopefully, resuming shortly, the need for taxis will increase, and drivers will be needed for contract work. A package of measures for the taxi industry from the Executive in city, urban and rural areas is a must for the Northern Ireland economy and is the best chance for a speedy recovery. It will enable people to support business as normality begins to return.
Ms Anderson: Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin. To fully comprehend the falling numbers of taxi drivers in the industry, as the motion notes, it is important to mention what the industry has gone through over the last year. As we went into lockdown, and as the Executive advised people to stay at home, the demand for taxis was almost upended overnight. Over the following months, drivers felt that they witnessed a ministerial ping-pong between the Minister for Infrastructure and the Minister for the Economy over a response and who was responsible for providing financial support. All the while, our taxi drivers, who are hard-working individuals, struggled to pay their bills, put food on the table and support their families. It is no surprise that, as the motion notes, taxi drivers began to leave the industry. As far as I know, not one operator in Derry received a single penny from the COVID restrictions business support scheme from the Department for the Economy.
On 1 April last year, in an open letter to taxi drivers, the Minister said that she would support taxi drivers and continue to press for more assistance. It took, however, five months to request powers to introduce the financial scheme for the industry: five months to ask for something that could have been done on day one. It took a very public campaign from drivers and the industry. Yet, still, when details of the scheme came to light, we discovered that any taxi driver who had paused or cancelled their taxi insurance, maybe because they were struggling even to live on the breadline, was not eligible for the first financial scheme. The second scheme deducted the time during which they could not afford insurance from the £3,000 grant.
It took almost six months for a financial scheme that provided financial support for drivers who had paused their insurance to take effect. In total, that was a year after drivers and operators were told that they would get financial support. Is it any wonder that drivers are leaving the taxi industry in their droves? The operators need a sector-specific scheme. Many felt completely abandoned by the Department for Infrastructure, which gave them far too little, far too late. Indeed, it is estimated that there has been a 30% decrease in the number of working taxi drivers because of the pandemic. Clearly, the taxi industry is a vital industry that is in crisis. We need urgent and decisive action so that more drivers will join the industry, and there must be incentives for drivers to return to it.
Access to taxis is not just about ensuring that people have a safe way to get home after a night out in Derry, although that is a large part of it. It is also about the carer whose car has broken down and who has to care for five different people that day. It is about the elderly person waiting for a taxi to their local community centre to see someone in person, possibly the first person that week. It is about the schoolchild who has missed the bus and whose parents are unable to drive. If the taxi sector no longer has drivers available to meet demand, there will be a massive implication for the rest of the economy and for our communities and constituencies as people struggle to get from A to B.
As is noted in the motion, we need to make the industry "more attractive to new entrants". That also means making it easier to become a taxi driver, at least in the post-pandemic environment. Furthermore, we need to ensure that taxi drivers get a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. Consistently low fares have meant consistently low wages and long hours for drivers, and hence a review of fare structures —.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for giving way, and I agree with much of what she has said. Does the Member recognise that, in our shared constituency, fares are very low compared with those in other parts of the North, let alone with those on the Continent? Does she concur that those fares are set not by the Department per se but by the operators?
Ms Anderson: Fares across the city of Derry are consistently low. Many drivers who work very long hours do not feel that they are getting a fair wage. That is why a review of fare structures is needed, and that is what I am calling for.
It is no surprise that more and more drivers are leaving taxiing to get better wages working with, for example, local delivery services. Sensible, practical, bespoke support requires ministerial willpower to help drivers and operators. That is what the industry needs and deserves, and it is what we, as Committee members, are calling for. Sinn Féin supports the motion and the amendment.
Mr Catney: I had reason to take a taxi from my home out to Moira on Saturday night. I got a text message telling me what colour the car was, its registration and what time it would be there. I took the taxi out and booked one to take me home at midnight, for which I got a similar message.
When I spoke to the taxi driver on the way back, he informed me that he does not have a work pattern or a 40-hour week to do. He can work whenever he wants to. He can come in and go out, 24/7. He can come in and go out at the busy times. I asked him, "How does that work at night-time?", and he said that it is up to each individual driver. He is with a large taxi company from Belfast that has now set up in Lisburn. Technology is therefore changing the way in which taxis drivers operate and the way in which they can switch on and off. It made me think about how, when I had the bar in Belfast, I had to have a relationship with all the taxi drivers. My office makes a joke that, every time that I mention the ring of steel that was around the city, I have to put money in a box. People coming out of bars late at night used to have to walk to one of the exit points of Belfast to try to get a taxi. Our taxi drivers kept the city going, and we know the difficulties that they experienced during the worst times of the Troubles. As an MLA, I know what they have done, the part that they have played in Northern Ireland, and the fun and the craic that tourists told me that they had with them.
I am pleased to be here speaking on behalf of the SDLP. There are problems, but our Minister has stepped up to the plate to help the taxi industry throughout the pandemic. While others ducked and dived, the SDLP Minister stepped up to provide not only regulatory support to the taxi industry but financial support of up to £3,000 for each driver. Many in my constituency of Lagan Valley have been so grateful for her Department's work. As we look to recovery, the industry will need our support, particularly to bring in new drivers to support the local economy. Those matters are on the Minister's radar, and she will ensure that the Department works to support the industry through this period of recovery. It will be helpful if the Minister can outline the next steps and options that she is exploring to support the industry's recovery from COVID-19 and to support our town and city centres as we hopefully continue to work our way out of crisis and into recovery from the pandemic.
Mr O'Dowd: I apologise to those Members for whose contributions I was not in the Chamber. I have been listening to the debate from my office and have been back and forth.
There is general acceptance in the Chamber that our taxi industry and taxi drivers require support. There may be disagreement on where that support comes from and how it is delivered, but that is the nature of politics. The taxi industry and the drivers will want to know only when they will get the support.
If I may, I offer the Minister some advice on the next steps. I am a wee bit like the previous Member to speak, who hankers back to the ring of steel: sometimes I hanker back to when I was the Minister — once too often sometimes, perhaps. Sometimes, as Minister, your focus and that of your Department is on what you cannot do rather than on what you can do. The approach required for taxi drivers is this: what can the Department do and what can be done in conjunction with other Departments to support those drivers? As a number of people said, COVID has brought a reality check to many of us or, at least, to society. We took many roles and jobs in our society for granted, whether they were shop workers, taxi drivers or even, in some instances, healthcare workers. We now realise that our society cannot operate without many of our service industries, and taxis are one of those.
When I meet Translink and others to talk about funding opportunities for services, they tell me that, if they do not get more funding, they will cut rural bus services. I look at them and say, "That will be difficult for you, because there are very few already". Transport in rural communities is provided by taxis. If you do not have access to a car and the chances of you getting a bus are limited, you rely on a taxi. Taxis are a vital support for rural communities and those who are vulnerable or isolated. Taxis are not only about coming to pick you up to take you to where you are going. Often, they provide an important link for the elderly, the isolated and the lonely through the conversation that takes place on the taxi run, such as, "How are you keeping? Is everything OK? Do you need anything? Are you supposed to be at the doctor's?". Taxi drivers complete many tasks. Moreover, the taxi industry brings in staff who are finding it difficult to find work elsewhere, and, as has also been said, the unsociable hours suit some workers. However, I urge that, even with the introduction of technology, basic workers' rights should be protected. We do not want the gig economy to create a scenario where taxi drivers have fewer rights than they have now.
The case has been made for financial support. The industry and the drivers need financial support. I urge the Minister to do everything in her power to bring that forward. I recognise the Committee's work, some of which I have followed. The Committee, including my colleagues, lobbied intensively on taxi drivers' behalf. The case is made; now, taxi drivers need to see it delivered.
I also note the comments on training, how often qualified drivers require training and how drivers access the taxi industry. Of course, there has to be safety for drivers, passengers and other road users. When you look at the timescales involved, however, a review is required. A review of fares is also required. As everyone who runs a private, family car knows, costs are always increasing. The costs, such as insurance, that are associated with running a taxi have increased.
I congratulate the Committee on its motion. Hopefully, the motion will be agreed today, and, as a result, we will see delivery for our taxi drivers.
Mr Dickson: I support the motion and the amendment, and I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue.
The taxi sector provides key services to people across Northern Ireland, as others have said. It is especially flexible in meeting the needs of many individuals in different places and at all hours of the day and night.
As Members have said, that includes accessing hospital appointments, shopping, school transport and many other activities.
As we reopen our economy, we see the need for taxis more than ever, particularly for our tourism and hospitality sectors. Taxis open up parts of Northern Ireland that are not accessible in any other way to tourists, for example. They also allow bars and restaurants to serve many more customers later and people to know that they can get home safely. However, as shortages have become clear, there are risks that constraints to the taxi sector could limit the reopening and recovery of the hard-hit tourism and hospitality sector. We have seen changes to hospitality rules on licensing, which will be a further challenge for taxi operators. If people cannot go out with the confidence that they can get home safely, they may simply stay at home. It is vital that we do what we can to help to secure that sector and protect those services and the jobs that it provides.
Prior to the pandemic, the taxi industry was already facing considerable headwinds, including falling numbers of drivers and an ageing workforce. During the first and subsequent lockdowns, we saw the complete collapse of travel, which has started to recover but which is not yet at pre-lockdown levels. That meant low-earning potential and little reason for drivers to go out, spend money on fuel and, of course, put themselves at risk of COVID-19 infection. Unsurprisingly, many drivers left the sector or retired, leaving us with significantly fewer drivers.
That was, sadly, not helped by the lack of timely support from the Government. Unfortunately, support during the COVID-19 pandemic has been patchy. The taxi sector has fallen between the Department for the Economy and the Department for Infrastructure. While those two Departments disagreed with each other for months, time was lost to support the sector. Then, the Department for Infrastructure had to basically find a way to pay out funds, which it does not regularly do. Rather than the Department for the Economy, it was the Executive Office that, inexplicably, administered support schemes for travel agents. Similarly, it is clear to me that the Department for the Economy should have taken action to assist the taxi sector. I acknowledge, of course, that some non-specific assistance was provided to depots through the coronavirus restrictions business support scheme.
We need a comprehensive package of support to rebuild the industry, with the full engagement of the Economy and Infrastructure Ministers. The Department for the Economy needs to stop disowning whole sectors and to recognise that we have one integrated economy. As I outlined, there are real risks to our tourism and hospitality recovery, as well as a social impact, of losing taxi services. On the structural issues faced by the industry, it is clear that a package of support and incentives needs to be looked at to stabilise and rebuild the sector. Drivers are leaving the sector and not being replaced. It is vital that the Department for Infrastructure looks at what needs to be done to tackle that now, before it further deteriorates.
The sector has also highlighted the regulation of taxis as a problem. I am well aware of the issues of taxi regulation, as I have worked on the issue, and the odd regulation of the wedding car industry that makes it a challenge to even operate that service. I know that the Minister is aware of that, and I have been in contact with her office on the issue on many occasions. Today, I would appreciate if the Minister would indicate what progress has been made on exempting wedding cars from the Taxis Act 2008 and the onerous and, in my opinion, unnecessary bureaucratic burden that it places on them. Let us be sensible: wedding cars are not taxis, not least because many drivers do not do that as their job. Legislation in Northern Ireland is a mess of red tape, and it is far behind the rest of the United Kingdom. For example, I recently read on the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) website about how easy it is for a family member or guest to hire a car for a wedding and drive it themselves on their regular licence. That simply cannot be done in Northern Ireland.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. It is a vital point. I, too, have been lobbied heavily about the inequalities faced by those who run wedding car businesses. Does the Member agree that red tape and bureaucracy are not only stifling their businesses but preventing part-time work? Many people who have retired from their day-to-day jobs look to that industry for part-time income to support their families.
Mr Dickson: Thank you. Yes, Mr Buckley, I wholeheartedly agree with you. There is a whole variety of reasons that people do that job, particularly as wedding car drivers. Some of them do it just because they love driving classic vehicles, others because it provides extra income or is their main income and, indeed, others because it is their business to supply the cars and drivers.
The DVLA advises that the quickest way to view or share driving licence information when hiring a car is to use its view and share driving licence service, but that service is not available in Northern Ireland. As the motion states, a review is needed, particularly of tariffs, which I understand were essentially set in 2011.
It is clear that we need to act now to stabilise and rebuild that broad sector, from taxis to wedding cars. The Infrastructure and Economy Ministers need to get together to sort it out and provide specific support. Long-term planning is also needed to encourage new drivers into the sector; that is important. I look forward to the Minister's response to those matters.
Mr Carroll: The plight of taxi drivers during the pandemic was sorely underestimated. Frankly, the way in which they were treated as far as receiving financial assistance is concerned was unacceptable for too long, and it was due only to their determination and protest that they were able to access help eventually. The decline in drivers is less of a concern for the economy getting back on its feet and more for the workers who were overlooked. Even now, some — many — are struggling to get into work because of overheads or do not see the job that they held as feasible or possible to maintain.
While I agree that having a transparent and capped fare structure is paramount to driver and customer trust, my party does not think that looking at taxi fares alone will ultimately provide the solution to the precarity of taxi drivers or having fewer drivers in cars, especially when that solution will presumably involve fares being increased. The main problem that needs to be addressed is the massive outgoings and overheads that have to be paid out in depot fees, insurance and other charges. The Assembly would do better to intervene to cap those costs in order to ensure that drivers can take home a fair wage for their work. By focusing on raised fares instead, the root of the issue is left untouched, and large depots will continue to make a killing at the expense of drivers and those who have to use private taxis because they have a disability or are elderly. Those customers face the harshest impacts of fare rises and, in some cases, will be priced out of using taxis entirely.
Ultimately, the solution is to have either a state-run or cooperative worker-run taxi fleet that pays drivers a fair wage, guarantees better conditions by capping outgoings and provides a service that is not too costly for some and that is run in an eco-friendly manner, with electric cars and the like. If the Department and the wider Executive take their duty to workers, communities and the environment seriously, that is the kind of plan that they should or would be putting in place, instead of focusing exclusively or narrowly on solutions that do not address the environmental impact of cars, the rising costs to customers and, most importantly, the ridiculous outgoings that workers are expected to fork out to drive for a living. Ultimately, that is the kind of plan that we need to see being implemented through the prism of a just transition that puts workers at the centre.
I apologise to the House: I have to run out to the front steps for a protest. I will not be able to hear the comments of the Minister or the Chair, but I will be able to look back at them. It was important to put those matters on the record even if I cannot hear the responses to them.
I call the Minister for Infrastructure, Ms Nichola Mallon, to respond to the debate.
Ms Mallon (The Minister for Infrastructure): I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure for tabling this important debate on the challenges that are faced by the taxi sector.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a significant and long-lasting impact on many businesses. At the onset of the pandemic, in recognition of the challenges that were faced by the taxi sector, I acted swiftly to put in place a number of regulatory easements, which amounted to over £1 million of support for the sector. During the pandemic, my resources have also been focused on providing financial assistance to those in the taxi sector who needed it most but could not avail themselves of the other grant schemes or loans: that is, taxi drivers. As Mr Durkan pointed out, through two bespoke taxi driver financial assistance schemes, my Department has provided £15·5 million in support to taxi drivers, having received new powers from the joint First Ministers under the Financial Assistance Act to do so.
We engaged with taxi drivers and the industry, and their analysis indicated that they would require £6,000 of support over two years. I was therefore pleased to have a grant scheme in place that paid out £3,000 over one year to taxi drivers. Of course, as Members have pointed out, as we worked through the schemes, it became evident that a number of taxi drivers had taken breaks in their insurance. That is why we tailored the second scheme to ensure that support could be provided to them and, importantly, also ensure that payments could be made retrospectively so that they were also paid for the duration of the year.
Of course, as we look to the future and turn our focus to post-COVID recovery measures, my Department has stepped up to ensure that the services that it provides are ready to support the businesses that it has responsibility for regulating. That includes the taxi sector. Vehicle testing resumed for priority vehicle groups, including first-time taxis, on 20 July 2020. From 10 March 2021, DVA also resumed testing for taxis that qualified for the regulatory easements that I introduced, which allowed for the automatic renewal of taxi vehicle licences free of charge, including those without a prior test, for a period of 12 months. The DVA also resumed practical driving and theory tests for all categories, including taxi drivers, on 23 April 2021.
I am confident that applications for taxi-driving tests, vehicle tests and taxi-driver and operator licences are being processed in line with normal timescales. I am pleased to confirm to Members that there is no backlog. However, there is still work to do; we are not out of the woods yet. I accept that as we move into recovery from the challenges of COVID-19, unforeseen challenges will emerge. Regardless of our, at times, divided views on dealing with the pandemic, we have one thing in common: we are all in unfamiliar territory. It is about how we step up and deal with the challenges and find solutions to them that will be key to our recovery.
I am willing, as ever, to listen and carefully consider the concerns raised here, and I have asked my officials to continue to engage closely with the sector on issues as they emerge in order to gauge what additional practical steps we can swiftly put in place to assist those in the sector in getting back on the road to earn a living. However, as Minister for road safety, it would be remiss of me to consider or introduce any measures or easements that would compromise road-user standards, the safety of the public, or remove parity between drivers entering the industry and existing drivers who have worked hard to acquire the standards that are legally required of the industry through the current framework that the Assembly approved.
I do, however, recognise the pressures that the taxi sector has been under and remain committed to working with the sector in continuing to monitor the impact of COVID restrictions on it and consider, with my Executive colleagues, how we should respond to support our drivers and all other areas of the economy as we move towards COVID recovery.
I thank Members for drawing attention to the concerns of the sector and for providing me with an opportunity to set out my responsibilities to the sector and the actions that I have taken to support it. I have listened carefully to the views of all Members and will turn to some of the specific points that they have raised.
The decline in the number of taxi drivers has, as Mr Buckley and others pointed out, been happening over a number of years, but there is no doubt that it has been impacted on by the pandemic. In addition to some existing taxi drivers whose taxi licence expired in the period, a number of taxi drivers decided that they would not incur the cost of renewing their taxi-driver licence until the COVID restrictions had been lifted. We want to work with them, and we have reduced processing times for customers through our commercial licensing system. We are also doing what we can to redesign the portal page to make it easier for customers to navigate. The portal is an issue that Mr Boylan raised.
The industry is looking for measures that will support and improve it. That is why I am keen that we continue to work with it — with taxi drivers, operators and the wedding car industry — to support it through this difficult time.
The issue of a fare review was raised. As Mr Durkan said, we need a fair fare structure: I agree. The previous review, as Mr Boylan pointed out, was carried out in 2019. It was not implemented, owing to the suspension of the Assembly, followed by the COVID pandemic, but I am sympathetic to it. Of course, public consultation will be required to gauge the views of the taxi industry and other stakeholders, including the Consumer Council as a statutory consultee. Any changes to the minimum fare would require retesting, recalibration and the resealing of meters. There is work to be done, and that would need