Official Report: Monday 27 September 2021


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

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: Before we begin business today, I want to deal with two issues. First, I make Members aware that I have written to Ministers about making statements in the Assembly Chamber. I was very pleased with the position that we reached some time ago, when it was clear that the Executive were making a determined effort to ensure that statements, including statements to the Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response, were brought to the Chamber before they were made in the media.

It is noticeable that, for the first two sitting weeks in September and also for this week's business, there have been no requests by Ministers to make statements. A range of ministerial announcements has, however, been made in the media in the same period. It has always been the expectation that Ministers should, as far as is possible, address important matters in the Assembly first. Members will be aware that it is a requirement in law for Ministers attending meetings of the North/South institutions to report to the Assembly "as soon as reasonably practicable" after such meetings.

Members have expressed dissatisfaction in the past with the delay in such statements coming to the House, and I have previously raised the issue with Ministers. Records indicate that a North/South ministerial trade and business development meeting occurred on 21 April this year and that that meeting has still not been reported on to the Assembly. I have written to Ministers to indicate that such a delay is not acceptable, and the matter should be addressed with some urgency. I realise that we are still at an early stage in the last session of this mandate, and I therefore hope that this reminder will encourage Ministers to bring statements on important matters to the House in a timely manner and before such statements are made to the media. That is particularly important in order to enable the Assembly to perform its role of scrutinising decisions and holding Ministers to account. I will keep the issue under review, but I will be extremely disappointed if it returns as an issue that Members have to raise frequently with me.

Secondly, Members will note that additional seating is in place today to allow a greater number of Members to attend Question Time and hold Ministers to account. I have written to Members, but I emphasise to them that the seats are, for the time being, for Question Time only and that social distancing of 2 metres should be retained for all other business.

Members' Statements

Mr Speaker: The first item in the Order Paper is Members' Statements. If Members wish to make a statement, they should do so by rising in their place. Members who are called will have up to three minutes in which to make their statement. Members are reminded that statements will not be subject to debate or questioning, and interventions will not be permitted. I will not take points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.

Rural Housing

Ms Sheerin: I want to raise the issue of rural housing, specifically the changes to planning permission that were brought in at the beginning of the summer via the Infrastructure Minister's planning advice note. The note was issued to councils at the beginning of the summer without any consultation, and it poses a threat to our rural communities.

It is a rights issue. Rural dwellers pay the same contributions, taxes and rates as anyone else, but they do not have the same access to services and infrastructure as our city and town dwellers. Now, they will not even be able to build on their own land in many instances. That will rule out what is called an infill or a cluster dwelling, and it will require houses that are built in connection with a farm to be built in the yard. As someone who was reared on a farm, I know how impractical and, indeed, dangerous that is. The Ulster Farmers' Union has pointed out the many challenges that this presents to the sustainability of our family farms and, indeed, the risks to mortgages and to people's ability to build a house.

Since the issue came to light, I have been inundated with calls from young couples, planning agents and people living on family farms, all of whom are concerned about what it will mean for their future. Council planning officers already implement planning policy in a thorough and responsible manner, which is why so many applications take so long to be processed. I have taken part in many site meetings with councillors from Mid Ulster District Council, during which we have urged people to amend their applications to ensure their successful passage and that the dwelling that they wish to build will not have an impact on the environment. Planning is already stringent, sustainable and measured. The last thing that we need is more restriction on who can build and where. The planning committee in Mid Ulster District Council is so worried about the note that it held a special meeting to discuss it and has pledged, with cross-party support, to write to the Minister about the issues that the note has thrown up.

We have a housing crisis in the North. The shortage of public and private rental stock means that landlords are able to get away with charging extortionate rents. Meanwhile, in our smaller towns, many of the much-needed houses are occupied by people who intend to build a forever home in the country but are waiting to have the finances and planning permission to enable them do so. The note will add financial pressure, time pressure and unnecessary stress to the process. It will serve to make building a home a more exclusive enterprise.

Many of the constituents who have contacted me are attempting to build on the family farm in order to ensure its continuation and to maintain the link with past generations, many of whom had to work hard to hold on to their fields. The pressures on our health and social care services mean that many families rely on elderly parents to care for their young children and on grown-up children to care for their elderly parents. For that to work, they need to live nearby.

I ask the Minister to rescind the note immediately and to allow people to build in the communities that they call home.

MOT Booking

Mr Harvey: MOT booking is a fiasco. Recent changes to the online booking service on nidirect have made it almost impossible — at best, very difficult — to book MOT tests for motor vehicles. Two weeks ago, the tried-and-tested system was working reasonably well, but the new online service has had numerous faults and complications since its introduction, causing even more backlogs in an already overstretched system.

I will give a few examples. People have been unable to access the site; they have had problems paying; and, when payment was taken twice, there was no simple refund process. My personal experience is that, when I went to book my MOT, I was told, "Your vehicle does not exist". Two weeks ago, however, it did exist, and only for the fact that the dates that I was given at that time were not suitable, I decided to wait. There was no answer at all on the helpline or on the book-by-phone number, and there was no queuing system. There was just a message to say, "Not available", which was there all day on Friday and is there again today — I know, because I have just tried. The fact is that, at present, local people cannot make a booking at a test centre. What will we do? An MOT is a government requirement. At present, that service requirement cannot be provided in a reasonable time frame. Is it time for certificates of temporary exemption to be issued until the proper service can be provided?

I will be writing to Minister Mallon calling on her to act promptly on this issue. I have every faith that she will do so.

High Street Scheme

Ms McLaughlin: The high street scheme opened today with a bumpy start. We have had website crashes and very frustrated people. This is an important scheme, and we want it to work efficiently, so I call on the Minister to ensure that all the resources that he has are put to ensuring the smooth running of the online application process.

Independent, locally owned retailers and hospitality businesses have been on their knees during the pandemic, while the big supermarket chains have survived without losing turnover. In fact, many supermarkets have increased their takings. Small independents have been in crisis, despite the support from rate relief and furlough. Many businesses have contacted my office in dire straits. Some business owners have cried on the phone. They told me that they cannot afford to keep paying staff who have been loyal to them for many years. I plead with consumers to show their loyalty to the independent, locally owned businesses on village main streets and in town and city centres. We need them today and will need them in the future.

Just look at our high streets. I can tell you about Derry. Even before the pandemic, we had serious problems because many consumers had stopped going into the city centre. They bought their goods online or at out-of-town shopping centres. The Labour Party in Britain today announced that it wants to reduce the impact of business rates and increase the tax burden on global online retailers.

I make this plea to every person in the Chamber and every person who is listening to this statement or reading my posts: encourage people to spend their vouchers in local businesses. We depend on them if our town centres are to survive.

I plead with the Minister to fix the broken website and throw all the resources that he has at that. We are spending £145 million on the voucher scheme, and we cannot cock it up at this point. If the problem is operational or to do with process, it needs to be fixed now instead of waiting for a week or two into the scheme.

Children’s Funeral Fund

Mrs Barton: How many of us sitting here this afternoon have not shed a silent tear as we watched a distraught parent carry a small white coffin to a waiting hearse? The loss of a child of any age is a tragedy that no parent can prepare for, and it rarely crosses the mind of a parent until, sadly, it affects them. No parent is ever prepared mentally, physically or financially for the funeral and the expenses incurred.

In England, Wales and Scotland, funeral costs for a child under the age of 18 are waived. Much to our shame, no official scheme exists in Northern Ireland. Yes, there has been an interim measure. A number of councils voted in favour of waiving burial fees fully or partially, but that is not the answer.

I pay tribute to Julie Flaherty, an Ulster Unionist Party councillor on Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, for all her work to increase awareness of the concerns of parents who have found themselves in this position. Sadly, Julie is one of those parents.

When a parent loses a child, they have so much to come to terms with — grief, shock, supporting other siblings and making decisions about the funeral — that the cost of the funeral is the last thing on their mind.

No bereaved parent should have the added burden and pressure of having to worry about the cost of their child's funeral. Many parents will have made no financial preparation for such an expense and may have to borrow to meet the costs associated with the burial, just as Carolyn Harris had to do following the death of her eight-year-old boy.


12.15 pm

In January 2020, when New Decade, New Approach was agreed, it included many commitments that, to date, have not been progressed. The Department for Communities submitted a bid of £703,000 for funding in 2021-22 for children's funeral expenses, but that bid was unsuccessful, and a further unsuccessful bid was submitted in the June monitoring round. We have all patiently waited for the Minister to identify funding for the children's funeral fund, but it is not happening. This situation cannot continue. Therefore, I appeal to the Minister to show compassion for grieving parents who have such great personal and financial burdens to bear and to progress, with haste, to establish a children's funeral fund.

Detox Centre for Derry

Mr Delargy: Recently, the campaign for a detox centre in Derry has intensified. Having started in 2014, the campaign ebbed and flowed but was recently given a new lease of life by a young Derry woman called Tamzin White. Tamzin has campaigned vociferously for a detox centre in the north-west to cater for those in our city and area who are battling addiction.

Why does Derry need one? There is a dedicated detox centre in Omagh, and one third of the patients there are from Derry. The work done in Omagh is spectacular, and I want to take this opportunity to thank the staff for their dedication and commitment to each and every patient. Derry does, however, have a disproportionate number of admissions to the centre, reinforcing the need for an additional facility in the north-west.

We are all very aware of the impact that COVID has had on our health service. I am sure that there is agreement across the Chamber that one of the enduring impacts of the pandemic will be its effect on mental health outcomes. That is already causing devastation to many families, and while I am acutely aware of the challenges facing the Health Minister, I ask him to prioritise putting in place the necessary resources to tackle poor mental health.

A detox centre represents an important first step in addressing that. It represents a pivotal piece of the puzzle. It represents one part of a bigger picture — one that shows joined-up strategic thinking and that supports all those in need of mental health support. However, we cannot stop there. A detox centre is not a tick box. It is not case closed. It is the beginning of addressing the mental health crisis in Derry and the beginning of removing the stigma around poor mental health, and I implore the Health Minister to act swiftly to save lives in our town.

Belsonic: Residents' Concerns

Mr Stalford: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Sir, as a fellow citizen of Belfast, you will know that, over the past 20 or 30 years or so, people who traditionally would never have wanted to come to our city to hold events have decided so to do. The first major event that I can recall was the Tall Ships in 1991, and that sent a very positive message that Belfast was starting to turn a corner and that people wanted to come to our city to hold major events.

Belfast is now a centre for great events, and one event that has taken place recently is Belsonic. I rise to express concern, on behalf of my constituents who live in the lower Ravenhill and Ballynafeigh parts of the town, in relation to the management of Belsonic. It is, of course, a good thing that public events are taking place in the city and that people want to have events in our city, but it is also a good thing to treat people who live around those events with respect and to listen to their concerns.

I have been disappointed at the lack of engagement with local residents by the organisers of that event. Specifically, the Lagan Village Youth and Community Group has been working hard to try to articulate the concerns of the people in that part of the town and to make the organisers listen. I regret to say that I do not believe that they are listening or that people's concerns are being taken on board. It is wrong that the associated antisocial behaviour that accompanies those events should be imposed on the people of the lower Ravenhill and Ballynafeigh communities.

I urge the organisers to engage more fully with local residents in that area to hear their concerns and to act on them. Whilst it is true that what takes place in Ormeau Park constitutes the event, it is not true that the organisers have no responsibility for that which takes place outside Ormeau Park, in the streets around the bottom of the Ravenhill Road. They clearly have a responsibility in that regard. I urge them and the council to engage more fully with local people to address those concerns in order to ensure that the event not only benefits the city but is one that local people do not feel detrimentally impacts their life and existence in the place and community where they live all year round, not just during those events.

Legacy Investigations

Mr McNulty: I consider Eugene Reavey a friend. He is a man of dignity, shining integrity, steely resolve and fierce determination. He is a pillar of the Whitecross community. His wife, Róisín, taught me in primary 1, and I remember her glowing, shining integrity. She was a gentlelady. His daughter Aíslíng was in my primary-school class. The family is very well respected in the community.

At about 6.10 pm on 4 January 1976, three masked men, armed with Sterling sub-machine guns and pistols, burst into the Reavey family home in Whitecross. John, 24, and Brian, 22, were killed outright. Anthony, 17, escaped into a bedroom and later crawled 200 yards to a neighbour's house to raise the alarm.

Far too many families like the Reaveys have been waiting for decades for justice. I acknowledge and welcome the fact that all parties have firmly rejected the legacy proposals that were set out in the British Government's Command Paper. As I understand it, over 30 files have been forwarded to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) for consideration, yet there is a lack of resources and, indeed, most worryingly, no dedicated legacy unit.

It is unthinkable that the Reavey family would have to suffer more delays. Therefore, I call on the Minister of Justice and the Finance Minister to provide adequate support to the PPS to allow all legacy cases to progress and be finalised and for justice to be done for the Reavey family of Whitecross and all the other families that have been waiting for far too long.

Ryder Cup

Mr Nesbitt: Following Mr McNulty, I am reminded of a saying from the late Cliff Morgan, a famous Welsh rugby international and one-time head of BBC Sport. He said that, compared to social isolation, poverty, loss and ill health, sport is simply a nonsense, but an important nonsense.

I acknowledge the important nonsense that is the Ryder Cup, which was played in Wisconsin over the last three days. I congratulate the United States on its crushing record-breaking victory, but I acknowledge the role of two of our own — two Northern Irishmen in the European team: Graeme McDowell from Portrush, who was one of the vice-captains; and Rory McIlroy from Holywood in County Down, who is still one of the world's greatest professional golfers.

I commend him for his resilience during the tournament, because on day one, he went out twice to two heavy defeats — so heavy, in fact, that, for the first time in his long career as a Ryder Cup player, he was dropped for the Saturday morning foursomes. He went out again on Saturday afternoon for a third defeat, and, despite all that, yesterday not only did he win his singles match but he went out first, leading for the European team and posting a blue mark for the eventual losers of the tournament.

That resilience is highly admirable. We often stand up in the House to talk about what is wrong with Northern Ireland, but if we think about people like Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, we might realise that not just in sport but in music, the arts, business and all walks of life, we produce individuals of great character who give us a global reputation. Sometimes that is something that we should remember to celebrate. I thank Mr McDowell and Mr McIlroy for their contribution to promoting the little postage stamp on the world map that is Northern Ireland.

Slemish College: Public Transport

Mr Allister: Slemish College is the primary integrated school in my constituency. It is in a very urban, heavily populated area of Ballymena on the Larne Road. By reason of the nature of the school and its reputation, its 800 pupils come from a very wide catchment area. Over 100 of them come more than 10 miles from the Antrim/Templepatrick area, while another 70 come from the Glens of Antrim, and so it goes on, around the hub of Ballymena.

In consequence, public transport is vital to the delivery of pupils to that school. Although there is heavy traffic on the Larne Road, there have always been some bus pull-in points at the front of the school in order to facilitate the reality that it is serviced by public transport and, indeed, by many parents who have to drive their children to school. Yet, this summer, the active travel unit of the Department for Infrastructure — that is the unit that tells us that we all must be on our bikes — decided to remove the bus pull-in points and to widen the footpath to, at one point, over 6 metres so that it is wider than the carriageway, for the purpose of driving cars off the road. Now, we have abundant chaos at Slemish College, which has been inflicted by the idiotic approach of the Department.

At the beginning of September, I met the relevant active travel official along with Councillor Matthew Armstrong, Councillor Quigley and the headmaster of the school on-site to see just what could be done about restoring some normality and sense to the situation. I might as well have talked to the wall. I asked then for a meeting with a higher official, but it was refused. I then asked for a meeting with the Minister, but the Minister has refused. Here we are, in a supposedly caring devolution system, where a school's transport network has been wrecked by the Department, and the Department's attitude is so belligerent and dogged it is outdone only by its arrogance to the point where a Minister refuses a meeting and I have to bring the issue to the Floor in order to put proper attention on it. It is time that the Department woke up and acted on the matter.

Universal Credit

Mr Carroll: The decision by the Tories to reduce universal credit by £1,000 a year will have a devastating impact on people in my constituency of West Belfast and right across the North. Millions of people will be impacted by the cut, and, in the North, we know that 105,000 households will lose £20 a week with the uplift being abolished. Given that we have larger families here compared with other places in the UK, some 300,000 people, according to the Government's own figures, will be impacted by the cut. Why, therefore, are the Executive putting up such a meek front on the question? The cut will push people further into poverty, hardship and difficulty. The Executive should be screaming about that and should mount a wall of resistance against the Tories' plans to implement this drastic cut, which is the worst in decades.


12.30 pm

The truth is that the universal credit uplift was needed so that people on universal credit — a large proportion of whom are in work, let us not forget — could afford the basic necessities to get by in the middle of a global pandemic. COVID is still with us and is circulating like wildfire in our communities. The cost of living has not reduced but has dramatically shot up.

The Tory Government's disgraceful response to rocketing energy prices and to inflation shooting up is to pull the carpet of support from under the people who need it. At the same time, they have not lifted a finger to tackle the obscene wealth increase during the pandemic. The UK now has a record number of billionaires. Corporate profits have continued to surge during COVID, yet working-class people feel the brunt of economic hardship. The Tories are willing to protect the wealthy, and the Executive dutifully follow suit. Class war is alive and well in today's society, and it affects everyone on the bottom rung of the ladder. People from all backgrounds are being driven into further economic hardship by these policies.

The main focus has to be on forcing the Tories to retreat and backtrack from imposing this huge cut on people's ability to live. A retreat can be forced by mounting huge pressure on them. Hopefully, Marcus Rashford's intervention will help in that regard. In the instance that the Tories do not budge, however, and plough ahead with the shocking reduction, the Executive need to step up to the plate to ensure that people are not thrown under the bus. The Executive have responsibilities on many fronts, the chief of which is their insistence on signing up to implement welfare reform. At the very least, they need to ensure that people are not financially penalised as a result of a system that they endorsed.

For all the important talk about an anti-poverty strategy, if the Executive cannot intervene to stop the reduction, they will fail to stop many thousands descending further into poverty. If the Tories continue with the cut to universal credit, the Executive must intervene to ensure that people here are not financially worse off. As usual, we will hear cries that it is unaffordable, but let us not forget that over £100 million has gone to Capita to carry out its detested personal independence payment (PIP) assessment, and hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on agency staff whilst health workers are left without proper pay. The Executive need to make it their priority to ensure that those who rely on minimal state benefits to get by are not hit hard by a cut in universal credit. It is time for action.

Department for Infrastructure: Backlog and Delays

Mr Buckley: I rise to speak about the dire state of many elements of the Department for Infrastructure. That Department has rightly been dubbed "the Department of Backlog and Delay". How many of us have received correspondence from constituents who are unable to book an MOT test? How many constituents have contacted us because they are unable to get a driving test? How many major planning applications have been delayed in the system, some for over 200 weeks? Rural roads are unsurfaced because of continual legal disputes between the Department and contractors. There is a backlog of taxi drivers and HGV drivers looking to access the system because they are unable to get through the complex testing system. In short, service users are not getting the service that they deserve and, more importantly, that they pay for.

As Chair of the Infrastructure Committee, I wrote to the Minister on MOT testing when the new system became active, asking for a meeting to explain the rationale behind the delay. I was greeted with the same response as many of the service users in my constituency: "Sorry, we will get back to you in due course". In the 12 months preceding the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) conducted 850,000 vehicle tests in Northern Ireland; in contrast, only 456,814 tests have been carried out in the most recent 12 months. That underlines the scale of the testing backlog.

If the situation is to be addressed sustainably and not compounded, there is a need for streamlined procedures for booking appointments. The protracted delays experienced by customers after the deferred launch of the new online DVA booking system has further undermined confidence in our testing system. We need active engagement from the Minister. How many car dealers face the real prospect of going under because they cannot get tests so that they can sell their cars? How many of our young people cannot get into the workplace because they cannot get a driving test? Some sit their test, unfortunately fail, are thrown out of the system and have to wait months before they can get another test. The system is flawed. It is broken. I call on Minister Mallon to bring forward realistic proposals to ensure that we get on top of the backlogs and deliver the service that our constituents deserve.

Mr McNulty: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am just checking to see if the purpose of Members' Statements is to allow Sinn Féin and the DUP to get into cahoots and attack the Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon. Are they in cahoots this morning? What is going on?

Mr Speaker: I will consider your —.

Mr Buckley: Do not forget Mr Allister.

Mr Speaker: Order. I will address that in due course.

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: Mr Andrew Muir has sought leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22 but is unable to be in the Chamber today and has asked that it be rescheduled. The Business Committee will consider his request tomorrow.

Mr Speaker: This will be treated as a business motion, so there will be no debate.

Resolved:

That this Assembly agrees that, unless it previously resolves, the time frame for the existence of the Ad Hoc Committee, appointed by the Assembly on 31 March 2020 for the purpose of receiving oral statements from Ministers on matters relating to the COVID-19 response and questioning Ministers on such statements, be extended to the end of the 2017-22 mandate. — [Mrs D Kelly.]

Committee Membership

Mr Speaker: As with similar motions, this will be treated as a business motion. Therefore, there will be no debate.

Resolved:

That Ms Sinead Bradley replace Mr George Robinson as a member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. — [Mrs D Kelly.]

Committee Membership

Mr Speaker: This will be treated as a business motion. There will be no debate.

Resolved:

That Mr Pádraig Delargy be appointed as a member of the Committee for Infrastructure and as a member of the Committee for the Executive Office; that Ms Áine Murphy be appointed as a member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges; that Ms Ciara Ferguson replace Ms Linda Dillon as a member of the Committee on Procedures; and that Ms Ciara Ferguson be appointed as a member of the Committee for Communities. — [Mr O'Dowd.]

Committee Membership

Mr Speaker: As with similar motions, this will be treated as a business motion and there will be no debate.

Resolved:

That Mr Alex Easton replace Mr George Robinson as a member of the Committee for the Executive Office; and that Mr George Robinson replace Mr Alex Easton as a member of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. — [Mr Clarke.]

Trustee of the Assembly Members' Pension Scheme

Mr Speaker: This will be treated as a business motion, so there will be no debate.

Resolved:

That Mr Stewart Dickson be appointed to the board of trustees of the Assembly Members' pension scheme. — [Ms Bradshaw.]

Mr Speaker: Members should take their ease for a moment or two.

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

Executive Committee Business

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated any time limit to this debate.

That the Second Stage of the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Bill [NIA 36/17-22] be agreed.

It has been over 35 years since legislation regulating the gambling industry here was last introduced. In that time, the industry's structure, systems and practices have transformed to the point at which, in many instances, they bear only a passing resemblance to what existed in 1985. In short, we no longer have legislation that is fit for the modern age.

Today's debate is mainly about the Bill's principles. What are the principles that the Assembly needs to reflect on when considering the Bill? First, I hope that, regardless of any differences that may arise over the details of the Bill, all of us will agree that reform of our gambling laws is long overdue. All of us will agree that the process of legislative reform needs to begin now, and we all agree that, in the short time that we have left in this mandate, some change must be delivered. Whatever that change may be, it must lay down a marker for the next Assembly and the next Executive.

Secondly, we need to be realistic about what can be delivered in the time that this Assembly has left. For example, there is much work to be done to tackle the growth in digital, online gambling and gaming platforms, which now make up an ever-growing proportion of the industry. In many respects, online platforms represent in the public mind the most concerning feature of problem gambling. Similarly, I have previously expressed support for the establishment of an independent gambling regulator to monitor, in the public interest, the activities of the industry and with appropriate powers to deal with malpractice and exploitation, wherever they occur. There are also issues to be addressed about new types of betting and gaming machines on the market. We need to look at the control of gambling advertising, both locally and cross-jurisdictionally: east-west, North/South and internationally. There will always be concern about the exposure of children, young people and vulnerable people to gambling products, whatever the platform.

Unfortunately, many of the challenges simply cannot be addressed through our present system of regulation. When that system was designed, no one envisaged the digital revolution or the speed and scale of that change. The law that we have today is of a different era, and, because of that, the changes to the current legislation that I propose are merely what I see as being achievable and realistic within the existing statutory framework and the timescale open to me. I hope that Members will agree that, even if the Bill is eventually passed, there will remain a much larger job of work to be done, and that needs to take place in the next mandate.


12.45 pm

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Allister: The Minister said that she is aware of the scale of the problem, and statistics show that gambling is an ever-extending problem in our community, yet she comes to the House with a Bill the only realistic proposal of which is to further liberalise gambling and increase its availability. Simple things, such as imposing a ban on credit card use on machines, which could be done relatively straightforwardly, are not done. Tackling internet gambling is not touched. Fixed terminals are untouched. Why does the Bill focus only on liberalisation and ignore the necessary regulation?

Ms Hargey: The Member is entitled to his opinion, but I completely disagree with him. The reality is that it will take much longer — a whole Assembly term next time round — to change the full framework of gambling here and, in particular, to look at online gambling and the impacts of that. We need to do more research and consultation on those issues.

The Bill cannot tackle gambling in its entirety. That is why I have decided to break it up. I want to see some changes, which will include protections, in this mandate. The Bill will be the biggest piece of legislation to go through the Assembly — bigger than the Planning Bill that went through the Assembly previously — and there will be almost 340 amendments to it. It will be a huge piece of legislation and, with all the will in the world, it cannot be dealt with in this mandate. I assume that Members who have been here for a long time will understand its scale and magnitude. That said, I am doing what can, I believe, be done within this term. Of course, that will be up to the scrutiny of the Committee and Members in the Chamber. There will then be a much bigger piece of work, and I am laying the foundations for that work to be taken up in the next Assembly mandate.

One other principle that I trust Members will recognise when considering the Bill is around responsible gambling. Many in our society gamble, whether that is buying a ticket for the National Lottery, betting on a sports event or gaming. Most who gamble do so responsibly, but, for the small number for whom gambling is a problem, steps can be taken: they can consider self-exclusion from premises or websites or setting spending limits. That is responsible gambling on the part of the consumer, but the need to promote responsible gambling also applies to the industry. That is why I have included in the Bill powers to allow me to introduce a mandatory code of practice and a statutory levy to help to pay for research, education and treatment.

I believe that it is right that we allow our gambling industry some flexibility to operate and that we seek to remove some unduly onerous, unfair and inconsistent restrictions on betting and the related businesses. However, in doing so, we must continue to encourage, if not sometimes require, operators always to recognise the inherent human risks in the products that they offer and to take proper responsibility for those risks and, indeed, the adverse consequences for many individuals.

At the same time, I want Members to acknowledge a second small but equally important dimension to the Bill. It relates to the efforts of local charities, sports clubs and other voluntary groups to raise money for good causes in order to advance the health, happiness and sustainability of our community in matters that are close to their hearts. Those organisations are the backbone of our community. In my view, it would be wrong to allow today's opportunity to pass by without revisiting at least some of the rules applying to society lottery money-raising activities. We must be prepared to look at how the rules might be adjusted in a way that helps to increase donations and revenue-raising opportunities for voluntary schemes and charitable work.

With those principles in mind, I will now give an overview of the Bill.

The Bill contains 16 clauses, and its purpose is to amend the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements Order 1985.

Clauses 1 and 16 deal with the interpretation, title and commencement of any future Act and how it may be cited: it is the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Act (NI) 2021.

The Bill also inserts schedule 15A into the 1985 Order and clarifies the arrangements about what is and is not classed as a payment to enter a competition or prize draw. The remaining 14 clauses — clauses 2 to 15 — are divided into provisions affecting betting, bingo clubs, gaming machines and lotteries.

Clauses 10 to 15 are a set of miscellaneous amendments to the 1985 Order. The amendments encompass gambling contracts; prize competitions; cheating; age; residency; incorporation status for licences; an industry levy; and a new code of practice. I am removing the current restriction that prevents bookmakers' shops from opening for business on Sundays and Good Fridays. Bookmakers' shops may open for trading on Sundays and Good Fridays, if they choose to do so, but not, as currently, on Christmas Day, including a Christmas Day that falls on a Sunday.

Currently, betting is allowed to take place on Sundays at licensed racetracks. Those employed by a bookmaker to work on those tracks are also protected under the 1985 Order from the requirement to work on a Sunday. In light of the proposal to allow bookmakers' shops and offices to open on Sundays, the protection that bookmaker track workers enjoy will be extended to those employed at shops and offices. Betting shop workers will enjoy the same safeguards against being obliged to work on a Sunday as track betting workers.

I wish to exempt betting offices from the existing restriction that prevents any person from carrying on a pool betting business, apart from at a licensed track or by means of a properly operated totaliser. The amendment will mean that licensed offices may legitimately operate a pool betting system off-track in their offices, but they will be subject to certain conditions. The conditions that are designed to protect consumers are set out in clause 4.

Rules on the membership of commercial bingo clubs will be amended. Only members and bona fide guests of members will be allowed to play bingo at a club. However, the current law, which requires a 24-hour waiting time before someone who has applied for membership of a bingo club may play bingo will be repealed. Furthermore, and similar to what is envisaged for bookmakers' offices, the current restriction preventing bingo clubs from opening or making gaming machines available on their premises on Sundays and Good Fridays will be removed.

A new offence will be introduced of inviting, causing or permitting anyone under 18 to play anything other than a lower limit gaming machine. The Bill also sets out what is meant by a lower limit gaming machine. Those found guilty of the new offence will be subject to a level-5 fine or imprisonment for six months or both. However, the Bill allows it to be a defence for individuals who may be charged with an offence to show that there was good reason to believe that the person had attained the age of 18.

On lotteries and prize competitions, the Bill specifies:

"an arrangement is not a lottery unless persons are required to pay to participate".

The Bill adds new schedule 15A to the 1985 Order that sets out what does and does not constitute a requirement to pay to participate. The Bill further specifies that a prize competition arrangement is not prohibited:

"unless persons are required to pay to participate in the arrangement".

It refers to new schedule 15A, which sets out what does and does not constitute a requirement to pay to participate in such an environment. More importantly, the Bill will repeal the present £1 price limit on the sale of tickets for societies' lotteries. The limit on the amount that may be appropriated for expenses for societies' lotteries will be updated to a more straightforward 20% of the total proceeds.

I want to draw Members' attention to the significant miscellaneous amendments to the 1985 Order. The Bill amends many of the existing qualifications which councils and district councils require to be met before they may grant a bookmaker licence, bingo club licence, gaming machine certificate, gaming machine permit, amusement permit, pleasure permit or lottery certificate. The lower age limit for the granting of a bookmaker, bingo club, gaming machine and lottery licence certificate and permit will be reduced from 21 to 18. The requirement for an applicant to be resident in the jurisdiction in order to be granted the relevant licence etc will also be repealed. Body corporates will also now be eligible to be granted those licences and amusements or pleasure permits. That amendment overturns the current provision and relates only to companies that are registered under the Companies Act 2006.

The existing offence of cheating in the 1985 Order is being replaced with a new and wider offence to make it unlawful to cheat at gambling or do anything to help another person to cheat. The new offence will also apply regardless of whether one either wins anything or improves their chances of winning through cheating. In short, the new offence now includes failed attempts to cheat.

With regard to the gambling contract, the Bill repeals two provisions of the 1985 Order which effectively prevent contracts and securities by way of gaming and wagering from being legally enforced. It now provides for any future contract or security that has been entered into after the Bill becomes law to be legally enforced.

With regard to the industry levy, the Bill creates an enabling power to allow a future Minister and the Assembly, if they consider it appropriate, to make regulations for the payment of a levy to my Department by anyone who applies for a bookmaker licence, bookmaker office licence, bingo club licence, gaming machine certificate, gaming machine permit or amusement permit. The Bill also allows for regulations to make provisions for the amount of the levy and its payment, administration and operation. Consultation will be required before the actual levy could be introduced by regulation. Regulations will also require approval by the Assembly through the affirmative resolution route. The Bill specifies that if a levy is imposed through regulations, any proceeds must be expended by DFC on projects that relate to gambling addiction or other forms of harm or exploitation that are associated with gambling. The Bill also specifies that the provision of financial assistance after a levy is introduced is subject to Department of Finance consent. That is a separate matter from the enabling power and a standard requirement for all public expenditure.

The Bill inserts a new article that requires my Department to issue and publish one or more codes of practice about the manner in which gambling facilities are provided. The code must incorporate arrangements to ensure that gambling is conducted in a fair and open way, where vulnerable persons and those who are under 18 are protected and assistance is provided to those who are or may be affected by problem gambling. The code may be revised, revoked or updated at any time, and may include provisions around how gambling facilities are described or advertised. The Bill contains provisions that set out procedures for consultation prior to the introduction of the code.

I recognise that many people are impatient to see a more radical reform of gambling laws. There will be those, perhaps, who believe that I should take a far more stringent line on the gambling industry in general. I completely understand those concerns. However, I also believe that the Bill offers a balance between what needs to be done now and what is realistic in the remaining time of the Assembly. It offers a balance between what is fair to the responsible operator and what is right and necessary to manage the risks that are associated with gambling. Importantly for me, the Bill is also a chance for the Assembly to do more for all volunteers, charities and support groups that work in the community, not least the individual charities and NGOs that do so much to assist and care for people who are dealing with the crisis and consequences of problem gambling.

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


1.00 pm

Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): I welcome the Second Stage of the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Bill.

The Committee heard in May that the Minister had completed her consideration of the issues raised in the Department's consultation on the regulation of gambling in Northern Ireland. She confirmed that a two-stage approach would be adopted, including a medium-sized Bill to be brought forward during this mandate, with the opportunity for a future Executive to agree a larger and more complex Bill. Here we are today, at the Second Stage of that medium-sized Bill.

The Minister introduced the Bill on 14 September. That marked the start of the process to bring about important and long-awaited amendments to the 1985 Order, which has remained largely unchanged since it was enacted 35 years ago. It is clear that, as a result, gambling legislation here is very outdated and has not kept pace with industry and technological changes. The current law is inflexible, and even minor amendments require changes to primary legislation, which, we know all too well, is a very slow process. To highlight just how outdated the current law is, it is helpful to remind the House that even the 1985 Order is based on various pieces of GB legislation dating back as far as 1963.

There is no doubt that the preferred approach of the Committee, many members of the public and lobbying groups that responded to the consultation was a full replacement of the 1985 Order, with new laws that fully reflect the modern betting, gaming, lotteries and amusements industry. We also know, however, that the outcome of reviews of gambling regulation in Great Britain and in the Republic of Ireland may affect the direction of any changes here.

The Committee cannot ignore the context of the Bill. It has been reported in recent years that up to 40,000 people in Northern Ireland may have a gambling problem. That is the highest incidence in the UK, four times higher than any other region and three times higher than in the Republic of Ireland. The Gambling Commission has reported that children as young as 11 years of age have problems with gambling.

We are where we are, and now we have this Bill that will not, unfortunately, establish a new regulatory framework but will at least amend parts of the 1985 Order. The Bill will provide help for small-scale society lotteries and charities to guarantee their long-term viability and will deal with some aspects of existing gambling law that are a source of public concern. A key inclusion addresses the issue of the industry doing more to protect the vulnerable from gambling harm.

We are here to debate the main principles of the Bill, and the detailed work of the Committee lies ahead. I highlight the fact that the Committee is in the position, not of its own making, of having to complete the Committee Stages of three Bills in parallel. We will not be pushed into rushing our scrutiny, risking the making of bad laws; neither will we cause unnecessary delay to the progress of this legislation. Frankly, it is bad enough that we are not in a position to undertake a full repeal and modern replacement of the 1985 Order, so it is all the more imperative that the Committee get this Bill, within its limited scope, into as good a shape as possible. We need to ensure that it strikes a balance between supporting the industry, protecting under-18s and enhancing support for those who have sustained gambling-related harm, through the proposed regulations to introduce a levy.

I do not intend to discuss all the clauses, however I will highlight a number of key areas. The Committee supports the overarching principles: to address specific anomalies in the current regulation of land-based betting, gaming, lottery and amusement activities; and to strengthen existing regulatory protections for operators and consumers as well as young people and those who may be vulnerable to gambling harm.

The Committee will closely scrutinise the range of measures that impact on those who are under 18. It supports the principle of creating new offences for licence holders in relation to the playing of high-stakes gaming machines by under-18s. The Bill proposes mandatory codes of practice for the holders of gambling licences and lottery operators. The Committee will carefully consider the evidence on that, including on making compliance with the codes a condition of the licence.
The Committee knows that the power to impose an annual financial levy on the gambling industry is a popular aim with the organisations that treat or research gambling-related harm and with responsible industry members, and we look forward to investigating that further.

The principle of having Sunday and Good Friday opening for licensed bookmaking offices and bingo clubs is about removing an inconsistency given that gambling is already allowed on licensed racetracks and arcades on Sundays. However, we know that additional Sunday opening may be problematic for some Members. The proposed reduction to 18 years of age in the lower age limit of those to whom licences, certificates and permits can be issued will need consideration, and we look forward to seeing what evidence comes to us regarding those proposals.

Through scrutinising the Bill, I have learnt that a bet is still considered a gentleman's agreement rather than a contract, so it seems very sensible to modernise the law in that regard through the Bill. Broadening the definition of cheating to include failed attempts to cheat, for example, by making attempted match-fixing illegal, also seems a sensible proposal. Many will be delighted to see the removal of the restrictions on promotional prize competitions, which require a person to purchase a product or service or to hold a specific amount in savings in a bank as a means of being entered into a prize draw. As stakes and prize limits here have not been increased in over 14 years, I am sure the Committee will hear support for that proposal, which the Department states can be achieved using secondary legislation in parallel with the Bill's progression. The Committee welcomes the proposals to put the operation of pool, or Tote, betting in bookmaking offices on a firm legislative footing.

As with the Licensing Bill, which concerned alcohol, all of us will have personal views about gambling based on experience or perhaps our beliefs. However, we are here to legislate for all of society. It will, therefore, be the job of the Committee to consider all the evidence and arguments presented and to advise the House accordingly. The Committee is supportive of principles of the Bill and looks forward to considering it in much further detail during Committee Stage.

I will now make a few points in a personal capacity and as our party's spokesperson on Communities. I am disappointed with the Bill's lack of ambition. I know the Minister had said that it was not realistic in the remaining time of the Assembly mandate to introduce a fuller Bill. The Minister has stated that she is taking a two-staged approach, introducing this legislation now and then hoping that regulation can be put in place in the next mandate. It is clear to me that the Bill is a missed opportunity. Problem gambling in Northern Ireland is endemic. Lives are ruined, families are torn apart, children are condemned to greater levels of poverty and people in the grips of gambling are more likely to take their own lives. In the context of the issues of problem gambling that we face here, it is astounding that the Bill, rather than taking the opportunity to regulate the industry, seeks to further deregulate gambling in Northern Ireland.

Regulation of the gambling industry is not novel or unusual. It is, in fact, the stated position of the Minister's own party. That makes it all the more curious why no meaningful regulation of the industry is in the Bill. In the rest of the UK, regulation exists to protect problem gamblers. While those regulations are not perfect and more needs to be done, especially in relation to young people and on greater advertising restrictions, regulation is in place. However, it is shocking —.

Mr Allister: Will the Member give way?

Ms P Bradley: Yes, certainly.

Mr Allister: Is the Member aware whether there is any reason why the ambit and powers of the Gambling Commission in GB could simply not be extended to Northern Ireland, thereby bringing some regulation and oversight of an independent nature?

Ms P Bradley: I thank the Member for his comments. It is probably up to the Minister to respond to that, but I do not see any reason why we could not have followed suit.

It is well known that Northern Ireland has the worst incidence of problem gambling in the UK. It is clear that we need gambling regulation to help those in the grips of addiction, yet, at a time when regulation is needed, what we have in the Bill is greater deregulation.

Clauses 2 and 6 extend the opening hours of betting shops and bingo halls. That is a not insignificant increase in high street betting. The changes proposed represent an increase in opening hours of 16·67%. What is worse is the fact that the increase in opening hours would disproportionately affect those on low incomes. There are over 300 betting shops on the high street in Northern Ireland. Almost 37% of those shops — over one third — are found in the bottom 10% of areas of social deprivation; over 80% are located in the bottom 50% of the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland; and not one is located in any of the most affluent areas of Northern Ireland. An increase in the opening hours of betting shops will, obviously, affect the areas that can least afford to suffer the harms of problem gambling.

A wider question should, perhaps, be why large betting companies have been allowed to cluster around the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland. My constituency has the most betting shops of any constituency, with 31 shops. That compares with North Down, which has fewer than 10. Gambling is of greater prevalence in our more deprived areas, and research shows that people in deprived areas are more likely to bet on outcomes that have greater odds and, consequently, more chances of losing. That is particularly true in sports betting, which is more prevalent in betting shops.

Mr O'Toole: I appreciate the Chair giving way. She took an intervention about the lack of a commissioner similar to that which exists in GB: does she also recognise that the Bill does nothing about an anomaly that exists on a North/South basis? Gaming machines are not allowed in pubs or bookies south of the border, but the Bill is completely silent on that.

Ms P Bradley: I thank the Member for highlighting that. He is absolutely right. Throughout the Bill, there are anomalies with the situation North/South and east-west.

The legislation does nothing to legislate for fixed-odds betting terminals, as Mr Allister brought up earlier. In the rest of the UK, such terminals are regulated and limited to £2 a bet. There is no regulation in Northern Ireland. There is a voluntary code in place, but not all operators have signed up to it, and it is not universally applied. Given that fixed-odds betting terminals are inside betting shops, most of those machines are located in the poorest areas of Northern Ireland. Such machines, especially if they are not limited, are huge moneymakers for the gambling industry and, more worryingly, are more attractive to young people. While clause 7 makes it an offence for under-18s to be enticed to play gaming machines, the Bill does not go far enough.

Betting shops, by clustering around deprived areas, target those who can least afford it. The Bill does little to help those in vulnerable positions who are being targeted by mega companies that simply exploit them for profit. It is time that something was done to help those who need it. The Bill is an opportunity to bring real and meaningful change, but that opportunity has been missed.

While other parties have taken little action in this regard, my party colleagues at Westminster have been at the forefront of helping better regulate the market. At Westminster, the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Bill proposed the deregulation of advertising for online gambling. It was the DUP, taking its seats at Westminster, that made the case that gambling cannot be deregulated unless there is regulation in place to help and support problem gambling. It was my party colleagues at Westminster who went against the Government and put together a coalition across the House to ensure that meaningful self-exclusion measures for online gambling were put in place. As a result, the Government introduced multi-operator, self-exclusion measures, which resulted in the creation of GAMSTOP. As of Christmas last year, 170,000 people had received support for gambling addictions. That is why I and colleagues feel so passionately about ensuring that any deregulation of the industry is balanced by regulations to help those who find themselves in difficulty. It is clear that, if the Bill passes Second Stage, substantial amendments will be required to protect families and communities, help problem gamblers and ensure that people get the help that they need.


1.15 pm

Ms Ferguson: Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you for the chance to speak at the Second Stage debate of this important Bill. First, it is important to acknowledge that many people — approximately two thirds of people in the North — enjoy gambling and that most do so responsibly. Sinn Féin is not seeking to take that enjoyment away from anyone, but we understand that, for some people and their families, gambling can become a serious problem and, more often than not, lead to heartbreak and pain for many individuals, families and communities.

In 2016, the gambling prevalence survey — the second of its kind here since 2010 — reported that 2·3% of respondents deemed themselves to be problem gamblers. That is obviously a high number, as has been mentioned: it is over four times that in England, three times that in Scotland and twice that in Wales. We can and must do better, not only to support those who suffer from a gambling addiction but to make strident efforts to reduce the number of individuals who may be affected in the future. That is why we in Sinn Féin welcome this extremely important legislation that has been tabled by the Communities Minister. We also recognise and acknowledge the endeavours of previous Ministers to bring about the imperative reform of our gambling legislation. That reform has not been achieved, which is why we must ensure that the reforms in the Bill are implemented as soon as possible.

A special mention must go to my colleague Sinéad Ennis MLA for her commitment to ensuring that we see change to the outdated legislation. In 2019, Sinéad, along with our colleagues in the South, launched the party's all-Ireland document on problem gambling. That document sets out the key recommendations and proposals on how to tackle the growing issue. It looked at specific issues, some of which are being debated today and others that hopefully will be discussed in the not-so-distant future. The recommendations in that document included tackling the issue of fixed-odds betting terminals; greater protection for children and young people, especially from online gambling, advertising, sponsorship and promotions; and the issue of casinos, to name but a few. Those recommendations and proposals will allow for greater protections to be introduced to protect the most vulnerable in our society.

As the Minister said, our current gambling legislation is extremely complex and outdated and requires a lot of reform, as seen with the interest in the consultation. The consultation closed back in February 2020, and a report was published in November 2020. The Minister for Communities' decision to reform our gambling legislation in a two-phased approach is the smart and correct way to go about this. The Minister and her Department plan to deliver tangible changes to around 16 key areas, including greater protection for children and young people, powers to impose a statutory levy on gambling operators and mandatory codes of practice, among other key recommendations. The Minister recently announced that she is changing legislation to allow local voluntary and community groups, along with clubs, to raise vital funds by selling lottery tickets online. That is extremely important, especially with so many of those groups being impacted by COVID, but it is just one step in coming up to speed with the technological advancements in modern society.

On the specifics of the Bill, it was great to hear the Minister reinforcing the point that, when the Bill passes, it will be not the end of the reform of our outdated gambling legislation but simply the beginning. We welcome all proposals, and I will not touch on them all at this stage as we will have plenty of time at further stages to get into greater detail on the clauses. I welcome the work of the Minister and her Department on the introduction of a new article on codes of practice. That will enable the Minister and her Department to issue and publish one or more codes of practice on the manner in which gambling facilities are provided. That will ensure greater scrutiny of the industry and mean that the vulnerable are not exploited.

It is clear that many in the House would like to see more radical reform, but we fully understand what the Minister said about bringing through what is possible and realistic in this mandate. We also welcome the Minister's statement that there will be a next phase, after this phase has been introduced, that will include more radical proposals. We look forward to getting stuck into them when the time comes. In the meantime, however, we have a job to do to ensure that the legislation is done in the best possible way, in order to give greater protections to our most vulnerable and to ensure that our gambling industry comes up to speed with technological advancements.

Mr Durkan: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and on the important matter of gambling-related harm in our communities. I hope that, in doing so, we can raise awareness and break some of the stigma surrounding the addiction, which affects swathes of people in our society, as well as legislate to prevent and mitigate the damage that gambling can and does do.

Others have leant on some of the figures, but, in real terms, the North has a total of 40,000 problem gamblers. That means that there are 40,000 individuals and their families who desperately need protections and support. The Bill fails to provide either. It lacks not only ambition but substance in that regard. The statistics are clear. The Chair of the Committee and my Foyle constituency colleague have already used them. The North has the most profound gambling problem across these islands. That is in no small part attributable to the fact that we have not witnessed any significant gambling law reform for almost four decades. It is therefore hugely disappointing that the Bill fails to address the root causes of gambling and omits significant safeguards. I recognise that, as the Minister said, the Bill is a starting point, but, while some elements are good and welcome, the legislation that the Minister has introduced is notable for what it does not do, rather than for what it does.

The issue is not isolated to the North; rather, it is a problem for the whole island. Mr O'Toole referred to an anomaly between the two jurisdictions. I note with interest that the Minister's party has contributed vociferously to a similar debate in the Dáil, where it has called for all the trimmings — a gambling regulator, an online regulator and self-exclusion regulation — that we would like to see in the Bill. My question is this: why is the Minister opting to deviate in the North from her party's policy? Surely we should push for a 32-county strategy that applies protections for vulnerable people. We need regulation across the island and the islands.

I turn to the detail of the Bill. We welcome clause 7, which makes it an offence to invite a person under 18 to play gaming machines. Clauses 12 and 13 focus on the enforceability of gambling contracts. That is another welcome inclusion, but I fear that, in aiming for the low-hanging fruit, the Department fails to tackle the bigger issues in hand. We would have liked the inclusion of a regulatory provision for fixed-odds betting terminals. I appreciate that that is a legally grey area, but the exclusion of such a key component is regrettable, to say the least. The voluntary reduction in the fixed-odds betting terminal maximum stake to £2 by larger gambling organisations was a welcome step. The absence, however, of a regulator or regulatory body to oversee the number of gaming machines in operation or to determine how many have been recalibrated to reduce the maximum stake puts people at greater risk of gambling-related harm.

I turn briefly to clause 3, which permits betting shops to trade on Sundays and Good Friday. I recognise that that clause has already proved to be a point of contention for some in the Chamber; I am sure that we will hear more on that throughout the day. Criticism has been levelled at clause 3 for normalising gambling in our society. I do not want to gloss over those concerns entirely, but to dwell on that one element is to lose sight of the real issues in the Bill and the wider problem of gambling-related harm. For example, online gambling, which accounts for so much of gambling here, is available 24/7 and is accessible from home, work or wherever else someone may be. I argue that attention should be focused on the online element and on the overall failure of the Bill to provide a framework of protections. Personally —.

Mr McNulty: Will the Member give way?

Mr Durkan: Certainly.

Mr McNulty: Will the Member agree that my good friend and former teammate Oisín McConville speaks with enormous power and credibility on the issue?

He has identified how potentially destructive the proliferation of online gambling and of online betting companies' sponsorship of the sport are to young people's lives. As someone who has gone through that experience, he speaks with real authority. Does the Member agree that sponsorship and access to online gambling must be addressed and that the Bill should seek to do that?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his contribution. It is important that we listen to the voices of those who have been and those who are being damaged by gambling. I commend Mr McConville for the courage that he has demonstrated. Just last week, I watched a documentary about a different code — the Premier League in England — in the 1990s. Keith Gillespie, another man from this part of the world, was very good at outlining the risks of gambling.

I see some rationale for permitting Sunday opening for bookmakers' shops. Many of our major sporting events reach their climax on Sundays, and local businesses miss out while online providers, bookmakers over the border and, indeed, illegal bookmakers can prosper.

Clause 14 establishes a levy on the betting industry. There are concerns that the proposal will place restrictions on smaller businesses such as bookmakers and bingo halls, thus reducing the effectiveness of garnering funds to support people who are experiencing gambling addiction. Again, it seems to let online providers off the hook. Bookmakers who are established here, paying rates and employing people will, effectively, be left to carry the can for the whole industry. The proposed levy is eerily similar to the provision made under the Gambling Act 2005, the shortcomings of which have already been highlighted at Westminster and by stakeholders. We need to do better than to copy and paste from existing legislation elsewhere, particularly when it is outdated.

To address the exponential rise in online gambling, we need a more comprehensive approach that takes into account the North's unique challenges and keeps pace with the industry. The current voluntary model is inadequate and neglects to look at the bigger picture. Figures provided by the NI Turf Guardians Association revealed that, in 2019, only £24,000 was paid to counselling services to support problem gamblers. Considering the commitment of £25 million a year until 2025 that was made by five of the largest gambling companies in England, Scotland and Wales to support those affected by gambling addiction, and bearing in mind that the problem, as all Members so far have said, is most profound in Northern Ireland, £24,000 is but a drop in the ocean. It is a complete pittance in comparison.

Clause 15, which sets out the terms of a code of practice, is, again, remarkable in its feebleness. For cases in which some in the industry breach the code, the provision fails to impose even a slap on the wrist. Without enforcement powers, it proves meaningless.

The oversights and shortcomings that I have outlined so far highlight the need for in-depth scrutiny and amendments that, I hope, will be considered and passed at Committee Stage to strengthen the sentiments and body therein.

In bringing my remarks to a close, I will say that I find it difficult to comprehend that, despite universal support, it is fair to say, across the Chamber for strong regulation, the Minister presents a Bill that does little to help those who are experiencing problem gambling and their families. The fact that the Minister is missing an opportunity to implement her party's policy is even more confounding. Ms Ferguson referred to her party's "all-Ireland" approach, but it seems more like a Twenty-six Counties gambling strategy. Here in the Six Counties, where Sinn Féin has the power to improve things meaningfully and radically for people, it is tinkering around the edges.

The Bill makes for quite a disappointing read. It does not provide the bare minimum of regulating online betting or fixed-odds betting terminals. I am of the belief that, if something is worth doing, it is worth doing right. The delay in bringing forward the necessary regulations will only compound problem gambling and do nothing to help those caught in the grip of gambling addiction.


1.30 pm

The Bill has no teeth. To leave a place that is recognised and accepted by all to be at the greatest risk of gambling-related harm without appropriate protections is not only unconscionable but quite reckless. The Minister cited a lack of time as a reason or some sort of justification for this piecemeal approach, but whose fault is it that we have not had a full mandate? Does the fact that we were not here for three years and not able to legislate at all mean that we should now accept substandard legislation? I do not think so, and I do not think that that is fair on people either.

I am mindful that the gambling industry is an important employer in the North and that gambling, as Ms Ferguson pointed out, can be and is enjoyed responsibly by many. When enshrining gambling protections into law, those points must be considered. However, rather than being nuanced, the Bill is neglectful.

Overall, the SDLP supports the broad principles of the Bill, but, as you may have gathered, we recognise its significant shortcomings and failure to provide a bespoke set of safeguards for those across the North who are at risk of gambling-related harm. The Bill had potential, but it is looking like an opportunity missed. It will be up to us on the Committee and the Assembly to work hard to improve it.

We will support the Bill's passage today in order to give us the chance to do that important work to protect people from the harm and damage that gambling can do.

Mr Butler: Like the Member across the Chamber, the Ulster Unionist Party will vote in favour of moving the Bill through Second Stage. In doing so, we will encourage the Committee to apply a huge amount of scrutiny. The Chair mentioned that, given the volume of legislation that the Committee is sitting under, good legislation is essential, and it will not be rushed through.

There is a lot to draw from. We are talking about only the broad principles today, but, encapsulated within that, we need to ensure that we give voice to those who suffer most from the ill effects of gambling. I do not think that too many prohibitionists will be speaking today with regard to gambling.

Mr Speaker, to declare an interest, I am chair of the all-party group (APG) on reducing harm related to gambling. The group has met religiously for about a year and a half. Philip McGuigan is the deputy chair. The meetings have been well attended, so there is an absolute appetite in the House across all parties to ensure that any legislation protects those at most risk.

We have heard some testimony. Mr McNulty spoke about GAA player Oisín McConville, who has shared not only with the APG but on a mental health podcast. The correlation between gambling-related harm and poor mental health is inextricable, as is the case with most addictions.

Some Members said that Northern Ireland has the highest incidence of problem gambling in the UK and, indeed, on this island. Gambling here, as was said but is worth saying again, is four and a half times worse than in England, three times worse than in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, and twice as bad as Wales. That is why we need something quite radical because the risk here has been measured to be infinitely worse.

Many people hide their gambling, and, by the time it is uncovered, they find themselves in deep debt, and financial problems can escalate quickly. Oisín McConville, who has shared openly many times, has talked candidly about the impact on his family and himself, and the lengths that people will go to to hide that addiction.

In the internet age, the betting shop is always on offer. People can chase their losses 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As problem gamblers try to recoup what they have lost, bills go unpaid. In Northern Ireland, we allow credit cards to be used for gambling, and these can quickly be maxed out. That really is a problem. People get into this type of problem, and the APG heard from witness testimonies that they can steal from loved ones. They can beg, borrow and steal and often find themselves unable to repay their debt. Relationships then become incredibly strained and can often break down.

Even children at home can go without when parents or carers use money that was for things like food, clothing and heating. With the nature of their addiction, they fire the money into a machine — we have heard a lot about fixed-odds betting terminals — or go the bookie's shop or, unfortunately, go online. We know that, during COVID, there has been micro-targeting of prevalent gamblers, and, very often, the high profits come from those prevalent gamblers. It is getting out of control.

At that point, many people will see no way out. They keep gambling and trying to recoup their losses, as they just chase after the money that has slipped through their fingers. Often, the despair is suffered alone, as many problem gamblers keep their addiction a secret, and it is only uncovered when that person has no way out.

As I said, that impacts on people's mental well-being, not just the person with the addiction but, in fact, those around them. People caught in problem gambling are more likely to be depressed, feel anxiety and be stressed and, unfortunately, are more likely to have suicidal thoughts. Problem gamblers are 15 times more likely to attempt suicide than anyone else in the population, and they are four times more likely to attempt suicide than any other people who have an addiction. We already know that we have a problem with poor mental health in Northern Ireland and very high rates of suicide and suicidal ideation, and that is why, when we get the facts about where these problems lie, that gives us the impetus to do something about it. We can no longer choose to ignore what is in front of us. Action is needed now, and if we wait until the next mandate to bring in regulation, it could be another three years before gamblers here are given the same statutory protections that people in the rest of the UK benefit from. People are in the grips of problems now, and we need to act today.

I will turn to the Bill. Clauses 2 and 6, as has been said, refer to Sunday opening. It is disappointing that, rather than regulate the industry, the Bill will give problem gamblers even more time to spend in betting shops and bingo halls. I take the point from the Member across the Chamber that, with the explosion of online gambling, that problem is already there, and I suppose that, in some ways, it levels the playing field. My point is not necessarily about opening on Sundays or having any real problem with that. My issue is that we should not open them up without making sure that the protections are in place for gamblers, if we do indeed open up premises on those days. Perhaps the Committee could look at how these clauses could be amended to take account of the fact that regulations and protections need to be in place before the shops can be opened on Sundays. It would be like a negative resolution, if you like, but that might have some value.

Clause 7 is about gaming machines. The regulation of gaming machines for under-18s in clause 7 is to be welcomed, and a new offence prohibiting the enticement of young people to gaming machines will protect young people from the dangers of gaming, which is a gateway to problem gambling. It is obvious that the earlier a person starts gambling, the more likely it is that they will become addicted. Preventing children and young people from developing a habit that could lead to problem gambling is, obviously, to be welcomed. For me, one of the disappointing parts of the Bill is that I would like to see a much more preventative approach. Whilst we need to have that intervention strategy and help for people who have an addiction, we are learning that addictive behaviour can become imprinted on young people at a very early age, and I would have liked to see something in there about education and prevention.

We need to go much further. I have already mentioned fixed-odds betting terminals, which are regulated across the rest of the UK. They are limited to a £2 bet. That regulation is voluntary in Northern Ireland. Many of the large companies comply with the voluntary code. In fact, many of our gaming establishments already do. However, not every fixed-odds betting terminal is limited to £2, and that cannot be allowed to continue. It is time for comprehensive regulation that allows for age verification, self-exclusion and the banning of the use of credit cards, and we should mandate the use of algorithms to ensure that problematic patterns of play are picked up and acted upon. Many of those regulatory practices are already in place in the rest of the UK but, sadly, not here. Problem gamblers here need the same protections as those that are available in Great Britain, and it is time for the Minister to act.

Clause 10 is about qualifications by age, residence or corporate status. I would like the Minister to clarify the purpose of what, in my eyes, amounts to deregulation in clauses 10(4) and 10(5). That is the removal of the need for a body corporate in Northern Ireland to be registered under the Companies Act 2006. That seems to create a layer of risk and serves no benefit that I can see. I raise that point because there has been a rise, particularly during the COVID pandemic, in unauthorised and unregulated bingo-style events across Northern Ireland, with instances of children under the age of 16 being given access to bingo cards with cash prizes. It seems that such a relaxation, without a robust code of practice and independent regulator or, indeed, a gambling commissioner, may increase the risk of gambling-related problems and habits among young people across our communities.

Clause 14 deals with the statutory levy. If we are to help problem gamblers, we need the resources to be in place, and that will require a huge investment. In 2019, the top five bookmakers in the UK posted profits of almost £15 billion. Of course, that is not the entirety of the gambling profits in the UK; it is just those that were reported. It is estimated that gambling costs about £1 billion in the UK each year. It is easy to see why a gambling levy is required to redress the balance, and I know that it has been addressed in some way. That levy needs to be mandatory and to be significant in terms of what the gambling industry is required to pay. Moreover and crucially, money for research and education — as I outlined, we need to get upstream with our problems — and treatment for gambling-related harms is needed more urgently in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK or, indeed, these islands because of the high levels of gambling-related harm here.

Clause 15 deals with the code of practice, which is welcome. The industry needs to be set the highest standards to follow. However, it is concerning that the code of practice before us is not enforceable and has no meaningful sanctions for those who breach it. A code of practice without meaningful sanctions when it is breached is worthless in combating the harms related to gambling. That omission should be looked at during Committee Stage.

Finally, I want to address some issues with online gambling. It is disappointing that the Bill does not tackle that key area. I am sure that most Members will have been contacted by someone, perhaps a constituent or someone from elsewhere in the country, or will know someone who has fallen foul of the enticements, flashy advertisements or the promise of getting rich quick and then the addictive behaviour that can quickly follow. It is essential that we follow the regulation in the rest of the UK and properly regulate online gambling to protect those people and that we do that as soon as possible.

Online gambling is now a substantial part of the gambling market. Approximately 40% of gambling in the UK market is conducted online. In that sense, the bookies never close, and problem gamblers can never escape their addiction. With 15% saying that they bet while they are working, online gambling has become much more destructive than high street betting. I understand some of the constrictions that the Minister is under and how we have got to the Bill, and, to be fair, at least we have something for the terra firma betting shops and so on. However, it is maybe regrettable that the online part did not come as part of the Bill or, indeed, first. People chase their losses — I said that — and they can do that at any time, day or night. There is absolutely no escape for those who are addicted, and it is clear that people need to be given the tools to escape and to walk away from online harms.

Online gambling does not just take place with the big bookmakers. Significant online harm is aimed at children and young people, too. Children are encouraged to pay money and take risks in computer games, as many games employ what is termed "loot boxes", which are virtual treasure chests that contain undisclosed items that can be used in games. Those might be ways of customising characters or weapons. Loot boxes are random, and you could get a significant character or boost in a game or what amounts to nothing. Games encourage children to spend more money to buy more randomised prizes in the hope of getting a large end-game return. It is easy to see the links between gambling and gaming. The same techniques used by gambling companies are now found in children's gaming. That should alarm us. It may seem subtle, but it is a clear introduction to gambling and something that should be regulated to ensure online safety.

We will support the Bill progressing from Second Stage. We look forward to the Committee's scrutiny and the amendments that will come forward.


1.45 pm

Ms Armstrong: Thank you, Minister. I know you are hearing a lot against the Bill today, but it is a step in the right direction. You are certainly keeping the Communities Committee busy. I am going to declare this interest: I have played the National Lottery, I have bet on Grand Nationals and I have been to Drumbo. I am not going to say that all gambling is wonderful; it is something that is treated as entertainment. However, when it is not entertainment, that is when it becomes a problem.

We know that the Bill is an amending Bill, so I will say this to you, Minister, and your Department: expect amendments to come forward. Your Bill will amend parts of the existing 1985 Order, but it will not legislate for, as others said, online activity, as the 1985 Order is too old. Those of us who were teenagers or maybe slightly older than that in 1985 did not even have the internet, so times have certainly changed.

It is not possible to import modern-day terms into the structure and language of the 1985 Order. I get that, and I get why there needs to be a second piece of legislation, but, as others said, the Bill in front of us is somewhat disappointing. However, I want to let you know, Minister, that I will vote for it, because there is a way to amend it — a few amendments may be coming forward — to make it more fit for purpose, especially during this mandate, when we have so little time left.

Others have talked about different clauses, but I want to come back to clause 14, which is on the industry levy. I have difficulties with that clause. I understand what it is trying to achieve, but the Department of Finance will need to give approval to Communities for what a levy, if we get one, can be spent on. The only people who are going to pay the levy will be the owners of gambling venues in Northern Ireland. The online gaming and gambling industries will not pay and will not be asked to contribute because those businesses do not have an address here. There is very little information in the Bill about what the levy will look like. I hope to tease that out in the Committee in order to see what we can do with a levy within the bounds of the current gaming and gambling industries in Northern Ireland.

I know, Minister, that you are in the process of setting up a cross-departmental group that will look at some of the issues on health promotion. My colleague Paula Bradshaw will talk about that when she speaks on the Bill. I know that you are thinking about what gambling is and what some of the indicators of potential harm are. Many would like to see a stand-alone addiction service for gambling. That is not the responsibility just of your Department, Minister; it will have to go across Education and Health. At the moment, if someone presents to their GP surgery saying they have a gambling addiction, there is very little that GP can direct them to.

As we know, there are protections in the Bill for workers who do not want to work on a Sunday, and that brings us into line with the rest of the UK and with Ireland.

The second phase of the legislation, which you have talked about, Minister, is going to be absolutely enormous. I get the fact that we cannot cover that in the time we have left of the mandate, but there are lots of questions, and I look forward to working with the Committee, with you, Minister, and your Department on moving forward what we can at this stage.

At this point, I pay tribute to Gambling with Lives, which is an organisation that many on the all-party group will have worked with. I absolutely support its campaign that appropriate legislation to restrict gambling needs to be updated in Northern Ireland. Gambling preys on vulnerable people, and it ruins lives. Around 10% of people who take their own lives do so as a result of their gambling addiction. Addiction to slot machines, online betting and lotteries is an issue that is about more than money. Gambling kills. It is vital that the Assembly moves forward on gambling legislation as a matter of urgency in order to save more people from being pulled into a life-destroying habit.

While the Minister says that online gambling will be dealt with in the next mandate, online gambling means that access to betting is available 24 hours a day and often with very few checks on the ages of people using the sites. I am disappointed that we have not taken the opportunity to align with GB by bringing in the ban on the use of credit cards for gambling. Gambling with credit cards allows people to use money they do not have. For addicts, that can be too tempting a proposition to ignore, particularly at a time when online and virtual gambling is more popular than ever before. During the coronavirus lockdown, we saw an increase in the numbers of people using those outlets, so legislation is more important than ever.

Gambling can be fun. The Assembly has used the outputs of gambling to save an absolute fortune. From looking at a piece of research, I know that the National Lottery has put £43 billion into the UK economy. A significant amount of that comes to Northern Ireland. Quite often, we fund charities and organisations that prop up government using National Lottery funding. We have to consider whether we are doing this in the right way. If we want to fix gambling so that it does not cause harm, we need to fix how we budget within the Assembly and ensure that charities that help the most vulnerable do not have to depend on gambling for their income.

The Bill throws up a lot questions — I think that there will be amendments to it — but I welcome any opportunity to act on gambling. I support the Bill at its Second Stage.

Ms Á Murphy: I welcome the opportunity to speak at the Second Stage of the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Bill. From the various contributions so far, it is clear that the House is in agreement that urgent reform of the North's gambling legislation is needed. As others have mentioned, it is not Sinn Féin's objective to remove the enjoyment of gambling for all. More importantly, our objective is the introduction of changes that will ensure greater protection for problem and at-risk gamblers and their families.

Sinn Féin recognises that urgent action is needed to tackle the rise of problem gambling on the island of Ireland. The North of Ireland has a higher rate of problem gambling than England, Scotland and Wales. The North has approximately four times the number of problem gamblers as England.

It is accepted by many, including the Department for Communities, that current gambling legislation is complex and outdated. The legislation has not kept pace with technological developments, such as online gambling. The Minister for Communities recognised the urgent need for reform when she launched a consultation on the regulation of gambling in the North. The level of response to and engagement with that consultation speaks volumes about the importance of this legislation. Indeed, that consultation led to the Minister bringing forward this legislation. It is a two-phased approach. The current phase includes 16 key areas, including greater protection for children and young people, powers to impose a statutory levy on gambling operators and mandatory codes of practice. We agree with and support those recommendations.

The recommendations will ensure that there is greater protection for our most vulnerable, more scrutiny and an onus on the industry to protect those who are at risk. The recommendations are in line with the problem gambling document that my colleague Sinéad Ennis launched in 2019. Some of the key recommendations and proposals in it, such as the introduction of greater protection for children and young people, powers to impose a statutory levy on gambling operators, mandatory codes of practice for the industry and the beginning of the process of establishing an independent regulator to oversee and scrutinise the industry, are being discussed and debated today.

On advertising and promotion, just last week, the English soccer club Bolton Wanderers took a big step by announcing that it is cutting ties with all betting organisations and that it will instead back charities that provide support for people with gambling addictions.

On the specifics of the Bill, we welcome the Minister's words about the introduction of an industry levy. That levy will go a long way towards controlling and tackling the rise of problem gambling in the North, so long as the proceeds are put towards greater research into and education about problem gambling. With greater investment in that research and education, many more problem and at-risk gamblers will get the best possible requested and needed help.

In conclusion, I welcome the debate on this long-overdue legislation. I remind people that Sinn Féin's policy is not to remove the enjoyment from gambling or to stop people gambling, but to ensure that greater protections and regulations are in place to protect the most vulnerable. I look forward to debating the Bill again as soon as it goes through the Committee and comes back to the Assembly.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, Question Time is due to commence at 2.00 pm. I suggest, therefore, that the House takes its ease until then. This debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member scheduled to speak is Paul Frew. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.

The debate stood suspended.


2.00 pm

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Oral Answers to Questions

The Executive Office

Mr Speaker: Questions 1, 5 and 8 have been withdrawn. I call Andy Allen to ask the first question. Bear with me: Andy Allen's question has been withdrawn. Apologies. I call Sinéad Ennis.

Mrs O'Neill (The deputy First Minister): With your permission, a Cheann Comhairle, junior Minister Kearney will answer the question.

Mr Kearney (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): The Member will be aware that discussions on the protocol are continuing between the British Government and the EU. We continue to engage with the British Government and the EU on issues relating to the end of the transition period, including through the Joint Committee and the Partnership Council and in meetings with David Frost and Maroš Šefcovic.

We will continue to take such opportunities to highlight the impact of the end of the transition period on our traders and to reiterate the need for permanent solutions to the issues that they are facing. That is often the necessary first step to ensuring that they have the capacity to grow their businesses in a range of markets, including the British market, the EU and further afield. Our officials are also in regular contact with their counterparts in Whitehall and Brussels, and they regularly meet Irish Government officials to discuss matters of mutual interest.

The primary driver for investment here remains our skilled workforce, competitive cost base and the fact that government, academia and business collaborate to provide a platform for growth. As an Executive, we will never stop promoting the message that our region is a great place in which to work and do business through the Department for the Economy and Invest NI but also through our international offices in Brussels, Washington DC and Beijing.

Ms Ennis: I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree that the wholly negative presentation of the protocol from some quarters is not only inaccurate but irresponsible?

Mr Kearney: Mo bhuíochas leis an Chomalta as ucht a cheiste. I absolutely agree. As the Member appreciates, much of the narrative around the protocol flies in the face of reality, and it is directly contradicted by the fact that many businesses see and utilise the advantages that the protocol provides them with, such as dual market access. There is a lot of dishonesty and fake news about the place. As the Member states, such inaccuracy becomes irresponsible when it is accompanied by inflammatory rhetoric and not-so-thinly veiled warnings. That creates more economic uncertainty and political apprehensions.

I urge all representatives to be responsible. Where there are issues that need to be addressed, let us do that in a pragmatic way that finds durable solutions. The Joint Committee is the forum for how we can find solutions that implement the protocol flexibly. Our businesses, farmers and manufacturers must be allowed to use the opportunities presented by the protocol to create and protect jobs and to attract investment. Our business community now needs certainty and stability, and it needs and wants to get on with embracing the unique opportunity that the protocol provides.

As for the political repercussions, the sabre-rattling needs to stop. Those whipping up tensions should step back from the brink. Let us implement the protocol properly and maintain power-sharing.

Mr O'Toole: On the impact on the economy post Brexit, what impact study has been done by the Executive Office on the catastrophic effect on our economy of the loss of EU labour? Last week, the DUP Agriculture Minister talked about the devastating impact that it was having. Has a study been done? Manufacturing NI, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and every major business group has talked about the cost to —

Mr Speaker: Will the Member come to a question, please?

Mr O'Toole: — the Northern Ireland economy of losing EU labour since Brexit, thanks to the hard Brexit backed by the DUP. What study has been done by the Executive Office of the impact?

Mr Kearney: Go raibh maith agat as a cheist sin a chur. You are absolutely right to pinpoint that fault line. It is essential that we get to grips with the repercussions that we see. If we look to what is happening in the British state, we see the serious repercussions and fallout that are flowing from the impact of Brexit and as a result of it. We are caught in the tailwinds, so it is essential that our power-sharing Executive and all Departments now come together to ensure that we have resilient strategies that ensure that we do not face any more of the difficulties that are already being posed as a result of Brexit and the failure to properly implement the protocol.

Ms Armstrong: What efforts and representations has Invest NI made internationally to ensure the maximisation of the opportunities that could arise from the unique access that Northern Ireland has to the UK and the Republic of Ireland?

Mr Kearney: I thank the Member for that question. The Department for the Economy, alongside Invest NI and InterTradeIreland, continues to engage with many sectors to clarify the terms of access to the different markets that are now available and to encourage and enable export growth that could help to drive our economic recovery. However, our industry is capable of analysing those scenarios in and of itself.

In the next few days, I hope to meet local business leaders to explore precisely such issues. We have already seen reports from Invest NI that, latterly, up to 30 new prospective FDI investors were looking at the opportunities in the North that the landing zone of the protocol could provide to maximise opportunities to do with dual market access: the British market and the single European market.

Mrs O'Neill: The coronavirus regulations fall under the responsibility of the Department of Health, which is best placed to provide an update on their continued requirement. At present and in line with the pathway out of restrictions, the regulations will remain in place for as long as is necessary to protect the health and well-being of our people and to reduce the pressures on the health service, particularly coming into the autumn/winter period, which is predicted to be difficult.

Mr Frew: I thank the deputy First Minister for her answer. I have asked the same question of the Health Minister. Given the draconian nature of the emergency powers, the undemocratic harm that they do and the brutal impact of lockdown measures on mental health, suicide, self-harm and isolation of our people, what work have the Executive undertaken to establish the true cost of their undemocratic decisions?

Mrs O'Neill: There is a bit of irony in that question. The Executive have taken democratic decisions throughout the pandemic. The Executive have sought to work together to protect lives and livelihoods. Every Minister sitting around the Executive table is there to do right by the public whom we serve. It is important that we continue to do that because we are not out of the woods yet; we still have a way to go.

It is important to note that we are making some progress, and I am glad to see that, even at this stage, we are starting to see a decrease in hospitalisations. I hope that that is the trajectory that we are now on, and I hope that it continues. We have set out our pathway to recovery, and we have set out clearly how we will continue to make progress. It must be steady and sustainable progress because none of us wants to go backwards. I certainly do not want us to be in a position ever again where we have to consider circuit breakers or lockdowns. The preventative approach today is crucial to avoid reaching that point. It is crucial that we make sure that we have a health service that can serve the population whom we serve when they need it and make sure that people have access to a GP and hospital services if that is required. We need to work to make sure that our business community can open safely, that staff are safe and that the public who use those facilities are safe.

I am confident that the Executive have been on a democratic journey to take us from dark and difficult days to, hopefully, a brighter future. We have set out a recovery plan that is clear for us all to see. We will have an Executive meeting later today and a further meeting on 7 October that will set out the winter plan for what we do about the pressures that we will see in the health service over the coming months. A large body of work is under way. We need to continue with that work in the period ahead and keep making steady progress. I am mindful of the fact that the health service is in dire straits and that we are dealing with healthcare workers —

Mr Speaker: Time is up.

Mrs O'Neill: — who are exhausted.

Mr McGrath: I welcome the deputy First Minister back after her recent illness. It is good to see her back.

May I ask for details of the legislative timetable going forward? The Business Committee and the Executive Office are keen to see the work that will happen between now and the end of the mandate. May we get a full list of all the legislation that will be tabled in the coming period?

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for his good wishes.

The question was about coronavirus regulations. We have, perhaps, a short legislative window in front of us. I am happy to provide that information in writing.

Ms Ferguson: I thank the Minister for the update on the future of the COVID emergency measures. What is the Minister's assessment of the impact of the British Government's cuts on the COVID financial measures, including the furlough scheme and the universal credit uplift?

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member, and she is welcome to the Assembly. This is the first time that I can officially say that to you in the Chamber. Good luck in your new role as an MLA for Foyle. I do not doubt that you will be a fantastic representative for the people of Foyle and will champion their needs in the Assembly.

There is no doubt that, with energy and food prices rising, the universal credit uplift ending and furlough ending, this is a time of real economic hardship and uncertainty for many families, particularly those who rely on benefits to put food on their tables and to heat their homes. That is why Conor Murphy wrote to the British Chancellor last week to seek an extension to the furlough scheme. That is very important. Also, for the British Government to end the current £20 weekly uplift is beyond crass; it is absolutely offensive for the Tories to consider doing that at this time. I have no other way to describe that action.

Let us be in no doubt that those ideological decisions by the Tories will drive more people further into poverty and through the doors of food banks. Again, if evidence were ever needed, the reality is that Tory Governments do not care about the everyday reality for the people who live here, and that is clear for all to see. We need to see immediate progress on the things that are within our gift such as ending the bedroom tax, as brought forward by the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey. That proposal commands the support of the Cliff Edge Coalition and the wider sector. There can be no more delays and prevarication; we need action to protect the most vulnerable.

As joint head of government in the North, I will continue to challenge Tory austerity at every turn, stand up for families, workers and those who are most disadvantaged in our society and fight for a more equal, fair and just society.

Mr Stalford: In a response to a question for oral answer that I tabled to the Minister for the Economy, I was told that the cost of COVID to the local economy thus far has been more than £6 billion. This week, we have launched a £145 million high street scheme. Does the deputy First Minister agree that, if we enter a situation where there is another lockdown around October time, whether it is called a "lockdown" or a "circuit breaker", the net result will be that the high street scheme will have been money spent in vain?

Mrs O'Neill: There clearly is an economic cost. We have always said that COVID is devastating on a personal basis for families who have had sickness or lost someone whom they loved, and there is certainly an economic cost. We have all engaged with businesses such as those in the hospitality sector that have felt the worst brunt of that. All sectors across the board have faced real challenges at different stages of the pandemic.

That is why we must do everything that we can to prevent having to go backwards. That is why we need to keep making steady progress, moving forward and making sure that that is sustainable. It will never be reversed if we can absolutely avoid it. That should be where all our efforts are focused.


2.15 pm

Recent medical evidence and scientific advice says that the earlier that we can go in with lower-impact mitigations, the better that will serve us and will, hopefully, lead to a point where we never have to go back to the lockdown or circuit-breaker approach. I want to take that approach. I hope that all others round the Executive table will also want to take that approach. In the meeting on 7 October, when we talk about our winter plan, those are the very issues that we will discuss.

Mrs O'Neill: Mr Speaker, with your permission, junior Minister Kearney will take that question.

Mr Kearney: At the NSMC plenary meeting on 30 July 2021, an indicative schedule of NSMC meetings was agreed to take place from September until December 2021. Agendas for NSMC meetings in the various sectors are developed by the lead Ministers from each jurisdiction and reflect the priorities in each sector at that time. NSMC plenary meetings involve the Executive, led by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and the Irish Government, led by an Taoiseach. The task of the plenary meeting is to take an overview of cooperation on the island and of the North/South institutions. The next NSMC plenary meeting is due to take place in December. It is not possible to be specific about what the agenda will include at this stage, but recent meetings have focused on cooperation in the response to COVID-19, as well as other relevant matters, such as the implementation of various New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) commitments that have a cross-border element.

Ms Brogan: I thank the junior Minister for his answer. Does he agree that the North/South bodies are an integral part of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, alongside the Executive and Assembly, and that the DUP boycott of those bodies not only undermines the agreement but does a huge disservice to the people whom that party claims to represent?

Mr Kearney: Mo bhuíochas leis an Chomhalta as ucht an cheist a chur. I agree that the North/South bodies are an integral part of the three-stranded approach to the Good Friday Agreement, as are all the political institutions. They are interlocking and interdependent. One cannot have one without the other. As the Member knows, the North/South all-island cooperation bodies are a fundamental part of the political architecture, they are the bedrock of peace and the political process. I am due to attend sectoral meetings as an accompanying Minister on 14 and 15 October. I expect those meetings to go ahead.

Any DUP boycott of those bodies would be a serious matter. That party should reflect carefully on the implications of such a decision, as the requirement to attend ministerial council meetings is embedded in the ministerial code. Reckless threats to pull down the Assembly and/or the Executive and boycott NSMC meetings place an immediate risk on €1 billion of EU PEACE PLUS funding, which is waiting to be signed off by the Executive and NSMC. That is about supporting jobs, communities and major projects. For the DUP to undermine the required all-island response to the crisis for party and electoral reasons would do a huge disservice to the people whom that party represents and to all the people of the island. To do that while we are still in the middle of a global health crisis, dealing with a disease that does not respect any border or boundary, is beyond belief.

Any threat to disengage from the NSMC is race-to-the-bottom politics. We need greater North/South and east-west cooperation at this time, not less. We need to build greater resilience and strengthen our power-sharing institutions. At this time, we all, collectively, need to double down and commit to delivering a progressive and pluralist —

Mr Speaker: Time is up.

Mr Kearney: — future for all our people.

Mr Stewart: Does the junior Minister agree that the Belfast Agreement was established on the basis of mutual respect and the principle of consent, and that east-west, as well as North/South, relations must be conducted in good faith? Does he also recognise that a trade border between Northern Ireland the rest of the UK runs contrary to the ethos and spirit of the Belfast Agreement?

Mr Kearney: I can agree entirely with everything that the Member said. I am against any type of border that impacts on our people. It is essential that we see the British-Irish Council, the NSMC and all bodies function. We need to see all strands of our political architecture work. That is why it is the height of madness for any political party, for sectional, political or electoral reasons, to threaten the basis of how those institutions work.

Mr McNulty: Can the joint DUP and Sinn Féin First Ministers confirm whether there is a legal requirement on the North/South Ministerial Council to sign off on the £1 billion of Peace funding, as detailed by the Finance Minister, that can breathe life into communities that are falling behind because of the pandemic?

Mr Kearney: I am not sure whether the Member fluffed his lines. He and his party are members of a five-party coalition and power-sharing Executive here in the North. The Executive Office reflects the role of the joint First Ministers — the First Minister and the deputy First Minister — so I am a wee bit confused about where he is coming from with all this, but if he had listened to me earlier, he would probably have heard me — maybe not — make the point that attendance is required under the ministerial code and that we require NSMC sign-off in order to ensure that we access that €1 billion of PEACE PLUS funding.

Mr Allister: Why do the Minister and his party value the discredited protocol above the North/South bodies? They must realise that, if their partners in government are as good as their word, there will be no more North/South meetings as long as the protocol subsists.

Mr Kearney: I thank the Member for that question and barb. In reality, we have the protocol because he and his fellow travellers fought and campaigned for and then secured the hardest Brexit possible. The protocol exists as a way to blunt the worst effects of the Brexit that he championed. I would far rather not see a protocol in place; I would far rather not see Brexit exist at all.

The protocol needs to be used in a way that guarantees that our people can live together on the basis of progress and prosperity. Instead of asking silly questions like that, perhaps the Member could turn his intellect to working alongside the rest of us on how landing zones and solutions can be secured. The protocol is not going away.

Mr Speaker: Question 5 has been withdrawn.

Mrs O'Neill: First, let me say how pleased we are that the scheme is open for applications. It is hoped that the opening of the scheme will have a positive impact for all who have suffered permanent disablement. We also put on record our thanks to the victims and survivors organisations for the support that they have provided to the implementation of the scheme and for the assistance that they are providing to help victims and survivors through the application process.

Funding was provided to the Victims and Survivors Service by TEO in the last financial year and this year to manage the anticipated demand for support and advice regarding the scheme. That funding provides an additional resource of 14 full-time equivalent welfare staff in Victims and Survivors Service-funded organisations and funding for additional administrative support. It will also enable the Victims and Survivors Service to provide ongoing coordination across the sector to ensure consistency of approach, collaborative working and learning, liaison between organisations and the Victims Payments' Board, referral of clients and monitoring and evaluation.

Part of the funding has been allocated to allow for any increases in demand for health and well-being services currently provided by Victims and Survivors Service-funded organisations. Officials will continue to meet a range of sector representatives to support meaningful and productive engagement on the scheme.

Mr Storey: It is so sad that we have come to a place where we have to provide money for people who have permanent disablement as a result of the acts of terrorists and those who endeavoured to take life. It is ironic that, in the House today, there are people who talk about preserving life but were quite happy to justify the taking of life.

Mr Speaker: Will the Member ask a question?

Mr Storey: Will the deputy First Minister clarify whose responsibility it is to run the scheme? It seems as though the Minister of Justice has said, "I have created it, and now it is over to the Executive Office". Is that the case?

Mrs O'Neill: First, it is so sad that anybody suffered in any way at all throughout the course of the conflict. Hurt was caused on all sides, and, whilst we will never agree —.

Mr Storey: You justified it.

Mrs O'Neill: Hurt was caused on all sides, and, whilst we will never agree on the past, we can agree to never drift backwards, to only move forwards, to build a better society for all and to ensure that we do not lumber today's generation with the past. Let us build for a better future, but let us do that together. That is certainly where I will focus all my efforts.

It is really important to note that, after taking a considerable period of time to get to this point, we, in the first instance, welcomed the fact that the scheme had opened. Justice was the Department that designed the scheme and put the practicalities, if you like, together. I am not interested in passing the buck around who is responsible. The work of the Victims and Survivors Service is all done through the Executive Office support scheme, so that is certainly our responsibility. I listened to Question Time last week, during which some of the questioners asked where the responsibility for the scheme now lies. The delivery of the scheme comes under the board. That is independent, in a sense, but supporting the victims through the scheme comes under TEO, and we will make sure that we play our part.

Mr O'Dowd: Will the joint First Minister give us an update on the provision for the funding of the scheme?

Mrs O'Neill: Thanks for that. At the outset, as I said, I am pleased to confirm that we have been able to get the scheme open. In the first instance, that is the best outcome. You will know that the funding of the scheme has put a huge pressure on the block grant, and you know that Ministers are working together. The Finance Minister is continuing the conversations he is having with the British Government on the fact that they took policy decisions that have implications for the Executive and that put huge financial strain on the Executive. Therefore, the Executive Office and the Minister of Justice continue to work together putting on pressure in order to ensure that we have the right funding and that the British Government actually live up to their commitment in their own statement of funding policy, which states that, where a decision is taken by the British Government and is imposed on a devolved Administration, they must foot the Bill.

It is really important that we continue with that, and I can confirm that the Finance Minister has written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer requesting that he reconsider the Treasury's position on the funding of the scheme. He will also look at dispute mechanisms to raise the issue further, so I think that there is a journey to be travelled collectively in the Executive with the British Government in order to try to ensure that they provide sufficient funding to allow us to continue with the scheme.

Mr Nesbitt: One of the main campaigners for the scheme was blown up on 4 March 1972. Can the Minister tell the House that she is certain that that victim will receive a payment before the fiftieth anniversary of their being confined to a wheelchair?

Mrs O'Neill: First, as I said, I am very glad that the scheme has opened, and I think that victims have had to wait for far too long to get to this point. I will not discuss any individual's application in the House. That would be completely inappropriate, to say the least. I will ensure that all victims who have applied to the scheme receive their payment promptly. I believe that, since the scheme opened on 31 August, 421 applications have been received. I hope that they are processed as speedily as possible and that the support gets to victims as quickly as possible. If the Member wishes to query an individual's particular circumstances, I suggest that he does that through the appropriate channels rather than across the Chamber.

Mrs D Kelly: Joint First Minister, many families who have been bereaved are excluded from the scheme. Is any representation being made on their behalf? There is a lot of misinformation and expectation right across the community, particularly among families who have suffered bereavement.

Mrs O'Neill: We are very aware of the issues affecting bereaved families and survivors, and we are very keen to address their needs and, importantly, to acknowledge the loss that has been felt by so many people. We are delighted that the payment scheme for bereaved victims, administered by the Victims and Survivors Service, reopened in April. Again, we encourage all those who are eligible to get in touch with the service, because it can assist them with the process and provide them with additional support, like well-being support, which is also very important.


2.30 pm

Mr Speaker: I call Stewart Dickson. You are not likely to get a supplementary.

Mrs O'Neill: With your permission, again, Mr Speaker, junior Minister Kearney will answer that question.

Mr Kearney: The Executive discussed the FICT report at their meeting last Thursday and agreed that the report should be published. Consideration is being given as to how best to facilitate that.

Mr Speaker: I call Stewart Dickson for a supplementary. Be brief, please.

Mr Dickson: I thank the Minister for his reply. Will the Minister explain, and elaborate on for the House, what is holding up publication of the report? What meetings have been held since the Minister's most recent announcement that the report was in preparation?

Mr Kearney: I thank the Member for that question. The same blockages remained over the summer when I was committed to making progress. I reported on those blockages on 28 June. My efforts to take this forward have, again, been frustrated. A special Executive meeting to discuss the report, recommendations and approved next steps should have convened at the end of April or beginning of May, but that did not happen. Therefore, I formally proposed to the Executive on 8 July that a full report be brought to the Executive by mid-September and that the report and recommendations be published at that time. The most recently scheduled meeting of the FICT working group was due to take place on 21 September, but that was cancelled. During the Executive meeting on 23 September, I called for the procrastination to end and again urged that the report be published, with an implementation plan. The Executive agreed with that position. That is appropriate. It is an Executive report. I intend to ensure that this commitment is delivered imminently. There is no excuse for any further delay or blocking on the matter.

Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We move on to 15 minutes of topical questions. Question 7 has been withdrawn.

T1. Mr Harvey asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, after wishing the deputy First Minister well on her road to recovery, to provide an update on the Northern Ireland Bureau in China, further to the success of the 2017 leaders’ summit. (AQT 1591/17-22)

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for his good wishes. They are very much appreciated. I am glad to say that I am doing well.

I thank the Member for his question. Our bureau in Beijing continues to engage with key economic contacts in our partner provinces and agencies in China to discuss ongoing economic cooperation following the COVID pandemic. The bureau is working with Invest NI, through our partner provinces in the north-east of China, in preparation for a future trade mission. That will include working with a number of our councils and the friendly city agreements that we have in that region.

The bureau has also supported Invest NI, and a number of our local businesses have been able to attend trade shows in China. Ministers, TEO officials and the bureau continue to work with the Chinese consulate here and government departments in China to develop and maintain market access for a number of companies in the agri-food and farming sector, particularly as we move towards more easing of COVID restrictions there. TEO, the Executive bureau in China and Invest NI are working with Ulster University and the Confucius Institute on a research project to provide advice and information to organisations in the early stages of doing business in China, and to encourage organisations to consider China as a target market in the upcoming period.

Mr Harvey: I agree that a link with China is vital for future economic growth locally. What potential is there to further increase the number of Chinese tourists visiting Northern Ireland in the coming years? What can the bureau do to assist that aim?

Mrs O'Neill: The bureau will have a key role to play. We were making real strides before the pandemic. We had a huge — major, in fact — increase in tourism from China. That work will need to continue apace, particularly as things start to open up and opportunities come again. We look forward to the day when we can get back to the tourism sector enjoying a strong economy. There are lots of opportunities for us to maximise the number of tourists from China coming here. It will be key that we work across our councils, the Executive and Invest NI, particularly on the economic opportunities. There is great scope for positive progress to be made in tourism in the years ahead.

T2. Ms Armstrong asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in the light of interesting answers to earlier questions, to state whether, when the FICT report is published, it will be published with an action plan. (AQT 1592/17-22)

Mrs O'Neill: With your permission, Ceann Comhairle, I ask junior Minister Kearney to answer that question.

Mr Kearney: Yes, absolutely: the report needs to be published with scaffolding. Work has been done on an implementation plan, which I have mentioned in the House before and raised at the Executive. We should have the publication of the report accompanied by a specific plan that addresses the 45 areas or recommendations on which there was consensus within the commission.

Every party and Minister has had access to the report. There are 45 recommendations on which there is consensus. There are other areas where challenges remain, and the Executive need to deliberate on how best we address those in order that we move forward in a cohesive way, ensuring that the report is finally published in a responsible and strategic way with the type of next steps and recommendations for action that you spoke of.

Ms Armstrong: I thank the junior Minister very much for his response. We are coming into budget-setting time. Will that action plan be taken into consideration across all Departments when the budgets are being considered? Will that be a direction from the Executive Office to ensure that there is a cross-cutting commitment to that action plan?

Mr Kearney: Yes, the FICT report is owned by the Executive, which means that it is cross-departmental. All Ministers and Departments will have some responsibility for the delivery of the report. Therefore, it follows that we will need to see budgets being profiled to accommodate the particular requirements requested of certain Departments as a result of their shared responsibility for the implementation of the report. Those issues need to be priced into our budgets so that we have the resource to ensure that the actions in the action plan, when we finally publish it, are successful. I hope that it will be published sooner rather than later and have asked for an indication of the deadline for the publication and implementation of the plan by the Executive.

T3. Mr K Buchanan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in the light of some of the deputy First Minister’s earlier answers, which suggested that she is no fan of the Tories, what her opinion is of the commentary from Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour Party, who referred to the Tories as "homophobic", "racist", "scum" and "absolutely vile", which she classed as "street language", leaving him glad that he does not live on that street. (AQT 1593/17-22)

Mrs O'Neill: First, you are right in your assessment that I am not a fan of the Tories, nor will I ever be. Secondly, the reasons for that are purely political and ideological. They prioritise the needs of the few against the needs of the majority of citizens. The stringent cuts that we have had to deal with are a result of budget cuts since the Tories came into power. There are many reasons for the health service crisis, but one of the major contributory factors has been that the budget for health has been cut for far too long. My opposition to the Tories is purely on that basis. In political discourse it is important that we try to be as courteous as we can when making our political points. That is certainly the approach that I take.

Mr K Buchanan: I did not really hear a condemnation of the terms, but I will leave it at that. Everyone's language and actions are massively important to public messaging. Do you feel any regret for destroying the pandemic messaging when you attended the funeral in June last year?

Mrs O'Neill: Here we are, almost at the end of September. We have made huge strides forward in responding to the pandemic, and I want to continue with that progress. I have led us, through the Executive, and taken the right approach to support the health service and support our people by protecting lives and livelihoods. That remains and will continue to be my focus. We continue to make progress, and we need to create a sustainable way forward and bring in preventative measures that take us through the winter months and take the pressure off our health service. That should be the focus of everyone in this Chamber instead of going down rabbit holes again.

T4. Ms Á Murphy asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister why there has been a delay in the Executive’s agreeing to get rid of the bedroom tax, which penalises the most in need. (AQT 1594/17-22)

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for her question. When we talk about the Tories, welfare cuts and targeting the most vulnerable are the issues that come to mind. The implications of all their actions have been to make it so difficult for people just to survive, to put food on their table and to heat their home. It is therefore time to bin the bedroom tax once and for all. Dealing with that issue has been stalled and delayed for far too long. Despite the best efforts, and I mean the best efforts, of the Communities Minister to bring forward legislation that would put it to bed once and for all, the issue has failed to get on the Executive agenda, and that is really not acceptable. It is for those who have blocked the matter from getting on to the Executive agenda to explain the rationale behind their position. I assure the Member that the blockage does not rest with me.

Ms Á Murphy: I thank the joint First Minister for her answer. Does she support the request from the Communities Minister, Deirdre Hargey, for an urgent Executive meeting to agree her proposal to get rid of the bedroom tax?

Mrs O'Neill: In short, yes, I do. As I said, the legislation to bin the bedroom tax and to amend the welfare mitigation scheme by closing the loopholes is ready. The money has been budgeted for it. There is no reason for delay. The Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, is ready to get it done. The bedroom tax is a Tory attack on those most in need, whether they live in Coleraine, Belfast or Ballymena. It affects everybody equally. It is time for the issue to be dealt with. I want to see the Executive make progress on that issue and to see the blockage ended. I want to see the Communities Minister bring forward the legislation and bin, once and for all, the bedroom tax. That is where we need to be at. Some political parties say that that is their public position, but legislation is the way in which to confirm that to be the case.

T5. Mr Durkan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline any details of the discussions that took place when the Climate Change Committee presented to the Executive last week. (AQT 1595/17-22)

Mrs O'Neill: It was very informative. We had a presentation and an opportunity to question the guests who had come along. I am quite sure that the presentation is not a secret and that we can probably send it to Members. I will clarify that, but I imagine that it is OK to do so. It was a very detailed presentation on the opportunities and the need to be ambitious and to support rural communities. All those things were discussed in the round. It was timely that we had that conversation, particularly in advance of the upcoming summit.

Mr Durkan: I thank the deputy First Minister for her answer. I look forward to seeing more detail from that important presentation. The Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon, has won Executive support for a climate summit to be held ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). That summit is to be organised by the Executive Office. Will the deputy First Minister provide an update on when it will happen and confirm that a wider range of stakeholders and experts, including Climate Coalition NI (CCNI), will be invited?

Mrs O'Neill: First, last week's presentation was a direct response to the Infrastructure Minister's ask for a discussion on that issue. Perhaps the —. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order, please.

Mrs O'Neill: It is hard to hear when people are mumbling away.

It is important that we had that discussion. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order in the Chamber, please. Sorry, Minister.

Mrs O'Neill: Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. It is really important that we had that discussion. I am more than happy to work with the Infrastructure Minister, as I have done consistently. If a climate summit is what we should do, I am more than happy to receive a formal proposal, which the Executive Office has yet to receive.

Mr Speaker: Alan Chambers is not in his place to ask his question. The topical question after that has been withdrawn.

T8. Mr McCrossan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in the light of a lot of interesting media commentary of late, particularly from colleagues across the Chamber, about who will be the next First Minister or deputy First Minister, to confirm that it is the case that it is a joint office in which both positions are of equal power and, therefore, both occupants of those positions are joint First Ministers. (AQT 1598/17-22)

Mrs O'Neill: The simple answer is this: yes, I can confirm that the office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister is a joint office. It has joint authority and the joint ability to take decisions. One does not operate without the other, so that is certainly the answer. I note a lot of the commentary around the issue. My only desire is to do right by the public who elect us.

We are here to deal with today's most challenging issues. The issues that are weighing most on people's minds are hospital waiting lists, the health service and the process of getting out of COVID and into recovery. It is about jobs, health and housing. The public want us to be very much focused on those in the time ahead.


2.45 pm

Mr Speaker: I call Daniel McCrossan for a very brief supplementary.

Mr McCrossan: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for her answer. Was the question about the First Minister and joint First Minister, in fact, an electoral ploy by some in the Chamber? Was it not a meaningless question that did not focus on the core issues that we should be dealing with as an Assembly?

Mrs O'Neill: I assure the Member that I will be more interested in my party's approach to the election than I will be in that of others. I will put my manifesto to the public, and I will ask for their support for progressive change and for dealing with issues such as health, housing and jobs. That is how I will set out my stall; it is for others to do what they wish.

Mr Speaker: Time is up. Members should take their ease for a moment or two before we move to the next item.

Finance

Mr Speaker: Questions 7 and 12 have been withdrawn.

Mr C Murphy (The Minister of Finance): With your permission, a Cheann Comhairle, I will answer questions 1 and 3 together, as both relate to the health and social care levy.

My officials are in discussion with the Treasury around the health and social care levy and how it will impact on the Executive’s Budget. However, I understand that there will be a legal obligation for the cash raised from the levy to be directed to health and social care.

For clarity, although the announcement referenced £400 million, that sum included levy-funded spend that is not specific to England, such as vaccine costs, and, as such, that will not give rise to a Barnett consequential. The actual funding provided to the Executive will not be known until the spending review outcome, but the current estimate is that the Executive will receive an average annual amount of £300 million.

The Executive recognise the importance of directing funding to our health service, and that will be a wider consideration in the local Budget process. My recommendation will be that the funding provided by the levy should be ring-fenced for health.

Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for his answer. He has given us tangible figures, which are of a reduction from £400 million to £300 million. Will he expand on that a bit so that we can understand the gap?

Mr C Murphy: Yes. As I said in my response, bringing the figures across each of the devolved areas appeared to indicate that we would receive £400 million. However, some of that spend is not England-specific and does not therefore give rise to a Barnett consequential for us. Rather, some of the spend is on the vaccine more broadly, the cost of which is attributed to all of us. Our estimate, which is yet to be confirmed — it will be confirmed finally in the outcome of the spending review at the end of October — is that it will be more like £300 million.

Mr Harvey: Thank you, Minister, for your answers. As we enter another winter, we are all mindful of the pressures faced by the NHS. What other plans are there to ensure that the health service budget is prioritised?

Mr C Murphy: I thank the Member for his question. We have begun the exercise of planning for a multi-annual Budget outcome. That is what we have been seeking for many years. In order to address the longer-term transformation issues in the health service in tackling matters such as waiting lists, we need recurrent funding to make sure that we have the staff to carry that out. That was never possible under a one-year annual Budget scenario.

Now that we have had it clarified that we will have a three-year Budget, the Executive have already begun planning. I have put a paper to the Executive identifying that health has been our consistent priority right across the Executive since we came back in January 2020. We then need to consider how we would meet the requirements of the Health Department.

Health interests, of course, span beyond the Health Department, but certainly the primary area of acute services would be through the Health Department. We have been talking to the Health Department about its needs and what it thinks it would require in terms of transformation. The Executive will get down to that discussion, hopefully in the next week or so, to begin to match funding or some estimated funding to that priority — we will not know the amount until the end of October — to make sure that we can plan a better outcome for health over the next three years than we have had over the last number of years.

Mr Gildernew: Health and social care is under severe pressure in terms of demand and the provision of services. What discussions have you had, Minister, with your Executive colleagues to ensure that health will be prioritised in the forthcoming Budget?

Mr C Murphy: My Department talked to other Departments over the summer in relation to the Budget outcome and the Budget planning that we need to do ahead of the outcome of the spending review at the end of October so that we are ready to draft and launch a draft Budget and go out to public consultation as quickly as we possibly can.

As I said in my previous response, I have written to Executive colleagues. I spoke to this issue at the Executive meeting last Thursday. I reminded people that our priority has consistently been to support the health service, and that was probably even more acute than when we came in in January 2020. The needs of the health service are now more pronounced than ever. We will need to consider, first in dialogue with the Health Minister and his Department, what the requirements are. The Executive will then have to take decisions on prioritisation.

We do not know what the outcome of the spending review will be. We have no sense that it will be an improved position in terms of our Budget. That may mean that we have to look at other Departments and how we prioritise to meet the health needs.

Ms Hunter: In relation to current pressures on the health service, we want to see health prioritised. I am also mindful that we have seen the biggest cut in benefits by the British Government since World War II. I note the mental stress that this has caused for many people on benefits. Will the Minister commit to working with the Communities Minister to give it back?

Mr C Murphy: That decision was taken at Westminster, and any decision to give it back should be taken at Westminster. It is interesting that there seems to be an attempt to pass the problem to the Executive when it was a decision taken at Westminster.

The Communities Minister has asked for an urgent Executive discussion on all welfare mitigations, including the money that would be lost by the ending of the universal credit top-up. I hope that that meeting takes place as soon as possible. We then have to discuss what we have in our budgets and what we expect in the spending review outcome. That decision should have been fought at Westminster. I understand that it will affect people here, but it is almost as if the problem has been presented as the Executive's problem. The Executive did not cut the top-up. The decision was taken at Westminster.

Mr Allister: At the end of June, the Minister, in a written response to me, indicated that, of the £769 million of Barnett consequential arising from allocations to the Department of Health and Social Care in England, only £504 million went to our Department of Health. Will the Minister give an update, if not today then by other processes, on what the present situation is in terms of the Barnett consequential on health and the actual spend of that consequential on health? There is much talk and concern about austerity, but we want to make sure that we are spending the money that we get for health on health.

Mr C Murphy: It goes back to the discussion about a three-year Budget versus a one-year Budget. If we get a Barnett consequential in year, it has to be spent in year. If it is a substantial consequential, Health may not be in a position to fully spend that. I will get the Member the detail, but I know that, this year alone, we have given an additional £70 million-plus to Health to deal with waiting lists. We are expecting a Barnett consequential of £180 million, which we will allocate as part of the October monitoring round. Health has asked to have all of that, and I would support that request and will make a recommendation accordingly.

With previous Barnett consequentials, particularly those that arrived late in the year, Health may have said that it could not spend such a level of consequential and that it did not ask for all that, but I am happy to get the detail of that and pass it on to the Member.

Ms Bradshaw: Has the Minister had any discussions with the UK Treasury on additional funding for healthcare workers, particularly nurses' pay? Is there an update on that?

Mr C Murphy: As the Member will know, the British Government did not make the type of pay offer that healthcare professionals, nurses and others wanted. Applauding them outside 10 and 11 Downing Street did not mean much when it came to actually allocating them a pay award. The Health Minister has been discussing that pay award and the additional £500 payment. The Department of Health is progressing that at the moment for healthcare workers. The outcome of the pay award for healthcare workers was very disappointing but, perhaps, not unexpected from Treasury.

Mrs Dodds: The Minister started to answer the question that I will try to get at. Can he give the House an update on healthcare workers in the private sector who were promised the additional £500?

Mr C Murphy: I have seen responses. It is not the responsibility of the Department of Finance. As the Member will know from her time in the Executive, we allocate the funding to cover those issues and the Department of Health is responsible for distributing that. That Department seems to have run into some technical procedural issues that have delayed that. The latest responses that I saw were talking about this being sorted in the autumn. I know that people are anxiously waiting for that £500, and I am sure that all Members have received a lot of enquiries about the subject. I hope that that payment is expedited, because I know that a lot of people have been looking forward to that and very much need it in the time ahead.

Mr C Murphy: I was delighted to recently launch the new Civil Service operational delivery apprenticeship scheme, alongside Minister Hargey and Minister Lyons, to recruit 45 operational delivery apprentices. This is the largest Civil Service apprenticeship recruitment to date and offers successful candidates an entry-level route into a career in the Civil Service, allowing them to earn a wage while undertaking a work-based qualification over a two-year period. Apprentices who successfully complete their apprenticeship will progress to the next grade — administrative officer — within the operational delivery profession.

Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for his answer so far. Minister, 45 apprentices out of, as I understand it, a workforce of some 23,000 seems to be a very small number. What qualifications are necessary to gain a place? Will the Minister be mindful of giving consideration to youngsters who have, in effect, been underachieving at school and perhaps find a route into the Civil Service, under this scheme, for those youngsters?

Mr C Murphy: The apprenticeship scheme is only one of a number of options. I think that there are about 100 student placements as well, and people can come in and work for a period and go back to their training. I will get the Member the exact entry requirements.

The Member makes a very valid point — it is one that we have, on occasion, discussed in the Department — about opportunities for people who are not achieving as they might have wished in school and ensuring that the Civil Service is a very broad home for people of all skills and levels of education. I will take that away and report back to him on any progress, but he makes a very valid point about these schemes. I would like to see greater numbers in these schemes. We are changing recruitment and looking at the whole area of recruitment practices as per the recommendation from the Audit Office report.

There are a number of measures, including the apprenticeship scheme, student placement schemes and open recruitment processes, all of which, I hope, will have a transformative effect on the Civil Service. I am certainly happy to take suggestions from the Member about that.


3.00 pm

Mr McGuigan: Minister, given the identified need for change that was outlined in the RHI inquiry report and the capacity and capability review, will you outline the steps that you are taking to improve recruitment in the Civil Service?

Mr C Murphy: The reports asked for a review of recruitment, and that is under way. I have agreed the terms of reference for the review and an independent advisory panel of HR experts has been established to support it.

Officials are developing a proposed overarching policy framework, which will set out the future approach by which the Civil Service recruits and selects to ensure that it is staffed by people with the necessary skills and expertise. While that policy is under development, it will aim to open up recruitment to the Civil Service and to expand its resourcing mix — the routes into the Civil Service, which the previous Member who spoke asked about — through an increased use of apprenticeships, trainee schemes and employability interventions.

Ms McLaughlin: The apprenticeship scheme is extremely welcome, albeit it should probably be expanded. We also need to fix the management staff cliff edge that the Civil Service faces. When will the Minister announce a timescale for an extended resumption of the graduate programme, which the SDLP called for in the 'Make Change Programme' paper that it released a few weeks ago?

Mr C Murphy: It is intended that the policy framework for the elements that came out of the inquiries will be submitted to me for consideration in October. Thereafter, there will be detailed, formal consultation with the trade union side and other key stakeholders. That is obviously a fundamental requirement when undertaking significant work to make changes.

Of course, we want to see the schemes developed, as well as opportunities for more lateral entry into the Civil Service and a transformation within it. We also want to see a contribution being made by the regional hubs, which will allow people to apply who previously would not have applied because of proximity issues. A range of different measures is under way.

I had a discussion with some of your colleagues about the proposals that the SDLP developed. I invited them to engage with the Civil Service team that is working on the matter to see where the policy proposals match.

A range of propositions is under way as a consequence of a need for change and as a consequence of the RHI inquiry and Audit Office reports.

Mr C Murphy: The amount of rates payable by a business is a product of the assessed net annual value (NAV) of the property and the regional and district rate poundages. A 2019 review of business rates highlighted the general feeling in the business community that the rates burden on businesses was too high. In response, I reduced the regional business rate by 18% in 2020 and held the reduced rate for the current year as well. Businesses located in town centres have also benefited from £108 million per year of relief through rates holidays, which has seen many town centre businesses pay no rates at all for two years. That is in addition to the £5·8 million of small business rate relief that was awarded to town centre businesses.

I have asked Land and Property Services (LPS) to carry out a revaluation of non-domestic properties. A new valuation list will come into effect on 1 April 2023 and will be based on the property market in October this year. That will ensure that businesses pay rates that are based on values that take account of the market changes because of the pandemic.

Finally, I continue to urge councils to show restraint in setting their non-domestic rates poundages in order that we can limit business rate increases going forward.

Mr M Bradley: I thank the Minister for that answer. He has probably answered my supplementary question as well. Has he had any assessment of the impact of the 12·5% reduction in the regional rate during 2020-21, the four months of the rates holiday in April, May, June and July 2020 or, indeed, the business support scheme? If those measures turn out to have been a success, does he envisage further help being given to our retail sector in order to regenerate town centres and to keep businesses in town centres rather than out-of-town retail centres?

Mr C Murphy: The Member is right. As I am sure other Members have done, I have been out and about engaging with businesses, and, over the summer months, I took the opportunity to visit different towns to engage with people who had benefited from rates support and rates reduction. The feedback that I got was that it undoubtedly kept a lot of businesses open. Obviously, we wish to keep them open in the time ahead. A lot of the money that paid for that was COVID money that we got from Westminster last year. We have no guarantee of that level of funding, if any at all, in the time ahead. I have asked Ulster University, which did the initial assessment to determine those sectors that most required intervention, to do a further analysis of that to see whether there is anything in particular that we can do when this financial year and the rates holidays that we introduced come to an end.

Mr Delargy: What is the value of the rates support that has been provided to town centres this year?

Mr C Murphy: The total value is over £100 million. I am happy to give the Member a breakdown, town by town. He will be pleased to know that Derry got almost £10 million of support and that Strabane, in his council area, got nearly £1·5 million. I will be happy to provide him with a full breakdown of the support for each town.

Mr O'Toole: This was alluded to in the previous answer, but the business rate — I mean the non-domestic rate — is by far one of the biggest taxation levers that we have locally. It is also, because of the COVID crisis, one of the most insecure. The fiscal commission is looking at that, but what is the Minister's long-term vision for the business rate? Clearly, it would seem to be unsustainable at the moment to have such a high burden of taxation on one area of small business and very little guarantee of it going forward into the longer term.

Mr C Murphy: The Member is correct in that, I think, the rate generates about 10% of the funding and finances that are available to the Executive, which, as he will know, are used to support public services across a range of Departments. It is a very significant income for the Executive. Of course, we want the burden of that to be fairly distributed, and we had been hearing from businesses that they felt that the business rate was excessive. It has been reduced by 18%. Many people did not get the full value of that because we also introduced a rates holiday to cope with the pandemic. We have kept the business rate down by 18%, and we have been speaking to councils about the need to ensure that businesses can recover from the pandemic.

In the longer term, I want to continue to review and engage with business organisations and businesses. One of the other asks on the non-domestic side was for more frequent revaluation exercises so that there would not be a significant jump in the valuation over a longer period and so that the redistribution of that burden having a more severe impact on some businesses than others would be avoided. We have gone for a three-year revaluation exercise for the next one, which is the shortest period between revaluation exercises that we have ever had.

It is about listening to businesses and trying to work through a fair system of rates that takes account of the issues that businesses raise. Of course, however, that income for the Executive is very important for our public services generally. Given that we have faced nine or 10 years of austerity Budgets, we need to rely on those things in order to supplement the income the Executive get.

Mr K Buchanan: The Minister mentioned the rates holidays etc. Those rates bills are going to land on businesses' mats in, I presume, April or May next year. Is there anything the Department or LPS can do to ease that burden over and above what they currently do? Obviously, the bill can be paid monthly over a period of time. Is there anything else that can be done to relieve the shock that is going to hit those businesses?

Mr C Murphy: As I said, the ability of the Department to manage a two-year full rates holiday was due to the COVID money that we received. There is a real sense from businesses, as he will know, that the rates bill is one of their key burdens. As I said, the feedback from the businesses that I have been speaking to is that the rates holiday has been a lifeline for them. They recognise that the only guarantee was to the end of this financial year; beyond that, we do not and have not had any indication that we will get COVID support to the level that we previously got.

We will continue to talk to the Treasury about that. That is why I have asked Ulster University to look at more specific targeting, if it were possible and if the Executive had the resources and agreed to apply them in order to target sectors that were really struggling. We can all try to encourage local people, as we are doing with the voucher scheme, to shop local and support local businesses by spending in our local high streets and our rural businesses in order to make sure that whatever spending power we have goes into supporting our local businesses.

Mrs Dodds: The Minister referred to the very considerable rates support that was given to businesses and all the other schemes that happened through COVID funding. He also allocated £300 million for an economic recovery action package, which has been adopted by the Executive in their fully costed set of interventions for the economy. Some sectors of our economy are still closed, however, because of the restrictions imposed by the Executive. As furlough ends, what provision can we make to support those businesses, should the Executive's decision continue to be to close those particular sectors?

Mr C Murphy: I have written to the Chancellor on a number of occasions, including recently, to argue the case that the furlough scheme should continue, even if in a more targeted fashion. As we, thankfully, emerge from the pandemic, we have been able to open up a lot of businesses and areas, but the economic impact will continue for a significant period.

The Executive have not taken the decision to close businesses, but some of the restrictions mean that some businesses will consider whether or not it is commercially viable to open. My Department and — when the Member was in it — the Department for the Economy were able to pay out on the basis that regulations from the Health Department said that businesses had to close. That gave us the vires to pay support to people in business. That situation does not exist now, but I hope that restrictions can continue to be eased. That depends very much on the transmission of the virus in the community and on people following advice and behaving sensibly to ensure that our health service is not overwhelmed. We are progressing in that direction. We face a difficult time over the winter, and the health service is challenged. However, if society as a whole can continue to cooperate with the advice that we have been given, we will be out of this more quickly, and some of those businesses will be able to open up in a more commercially viable way.

Mr C Murphy: With your permission, Ceann Comhairle, I will answer questions 5 and 13 together, as they both refer to PEACE PLUS.

The budget for PEACE PLUS has been confirmed at almost £1 billion. The Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) is finalising the programme document, which requires approval from the Executive, the Irish Government, the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) and the EU Commission. It is planned that Executive and North/South Ministerial Council approval will be sought in October, before submission to the EU Commission. That would allow the SEUPB to open the programme for calls in early 2022.

Mr Nesbitt: The Minister publicly warned of a grave danger of losing that money if the DUP boycotts the North/South Ministerial Council. My question to the Minister is this: how much EU funding was lost in the three years following Martin McGuinness's resignation as deputy First Minister and the consequent collapse of the North/South Ministerial Council?

Mr C Murphy: The reality is that it was probably none. This is a new PEACE PLUS programme that requires approval to get running. The Peace IV programme, which ran over that time, had all its approvals in place and was able to continue as per those approvals. Therefore, I am afraid that the Member's question is misplaced.

PEACE PLUS is a new programme. In order to get up and running over a seven-year period, it requires initial approval through the British Government, the Irish Government, ourselves and the North/South Ministerial Council, and then to go to the EU Commission for final sign-off. I am sure that the Member will be relieved to know that that was not the case over that period.

Mr McAleer: I have a follow-on question. The DUP leader is threatening the stability of these institutions. What would be the Minister's assessment of the DUP walking out of the Executive? What impact would that have on agreeing and allocating this funding, and getting it out to rural community and voluntary organisations and, indeed, to all the community and voluntary organisations that badly need it?

Mr C Murphy: I do not think that we should be distracted too much by the behaviour of other parties. We all have a responsibility to carry on with the work that we were elected to do. If the North/South Ministerial Council was not able to meet in October, however, it could not approve the SEUPB's proposition for a PEACE PLUS programme, which, as I said, comes with funding that is just short of £1 billion — over €1 billion. The SEUPB allocates on a yearly basis to organisations that apply for that funding. That funding of almost £1 billion is allocated over seven years.

If it is not spent year on year, it is lost. Any delay in approving the programme and allowing it to open for calls in early 2022 would mean that money would be lost annually if it was not up and running.


3.15 pm

Any interference in the North/South arrangements would have a detrimental impact on, obviously, border communities and rural communities but also communities across the North, including working-class communities, community and voluntary sector groups and the many capital programmes that have applied in the past to Peace programmes and will, undoubtedly, apply to PEACE PLUS, which is a significant programme that incorporates not only Peace but previous INTERREG programmes. A lot of groups are waiting for that as the funding from previous Peace programmes starts to run out. Any delay in the implementation will undoubtedly have a negative effect.

Mr Speaker: There are two minutes left.

Mr McCrossan: Minister, PEACE PLUS funds are vital for people in cross-border communities; I know that well as a representative of a border constituency. One of the major issues in border areas is the closure of banks. Brexit has contributed to the complexities of cross-border banking. What has your Department done to protect the cross-border banking sector from the damage caused by Brexit?

Mr C Murphy: The Member will know that we do not have a regulatory function for banks; unfortunately, that resides in London. However, I have met the banks and bank leaders on a number of occasions. I have pressed them not to be in the business of closing branches in small rural towns, which would have a detrimental effect, regardless of the fact that banking practices have changed for people. Undoubtedly, the loss of banks on small high streets has a negative impact. I have asked them to hold back on those decisions until, at the very least, we emerge from the pandemic and have some assessment of the economic damage and what economic recovery can take place. Unfortunately, some banks have pressed ahead with those decisions. We continue to urge them to hold back on negative decisions in relation to the number of branches across Ireland.

Mr C Murphy: A new procurement policy note on scoring social value was published in July following endorsement by the Executive. In support of that policy, training on bidding for government contracts will be rolled out to voluntary and community groups. In addition, I plan to bring a new policy on the procurement of social and community-type services to the Executive. That policy will ensure that, when commissioning social and community services, Departments must engage with communities and service providers to establish whether grant funding is a more appropriate mechanism. If procurement is the appropriate route, Departments will be required to remove unfair barriers for community and voluntary groups.

The policy note provides guidance on reserving contracts for the voluntary and community sector and highlights the provisions in the existing procurement legislation to create markets solely for third sector bodies. Currently, there are only two local examples of contracts being reserved in that manner. That needs to change.

Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions, unfortunately for Mr McHugh.

We now move to 15 minutes of topical questions. Topical questions 1, 6 and 7 have been withdrawn.

T2. Mr McCrossan asked the Minister of Finance, given that although, during the height of the pandemic, the business intervention grants were hugely welcomed and helped a lot of businesses through very difficult and challenging times, some money was overpaid, to state how much money was overpaid, how much was paid in error and how much was claimed fraudulently. (AQT 1602/17-22)

Mr C Murphy: I will need to come back to the Member with all of those figures; I do not have them readily available to me. I know that the margin of error or fraud was relatively small, given, as he will understand, that the schemes were delivered quickly, which is not the norm, particularly for schemes that give out money. There was a relatively low level of error or fraud. There was certainly a significant level of follow-up with Land and Property Services to make sure that, where error had occurred, that was corrected, both in terms of people not receiving what they should have and people receiving what they should not have.

The rules and regulations of that scheme changed so many times; I think that, at one stage, 16 iterations of it had come through. It was a challenging scheme to manage. Nonetheless, as the Member will know — I certainly know it from visiting a lot of businesses and towns over the summer — the interventions were very welcome. They very much kept businesses alive when the consequences would have been bleak otherwise.

Mr McCrossan: I agree with the Minister about the importance of the intervention. Public moneys were paid out wrongfully or were claimed in error or fraudulently, however. What is your Department doing to ensure that that public money is clawed back to the centre?

Mr C Murphy: Where LPS has discovered that money was paid out in error or claimed fraudulently, it will pursue it. A significant amount has been returned. Where people were overpaid in certain circumstances but were due a different type of grant had they not got money from the localised restrictions support scheme (LRSS), we have arranged with other Departments to take it out of the grant that they should have had rather than take the money off that business. They will recover the difference that was overpaid, although, in some cases, the difference is to the benefit of the business itself. There has therefore been a proactive programme to retrieve moneys paid out in error or claimed fraudulently.

T3. Mr Stalford asked the Minister of Finance for an update on the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) commitment to "a review of Arm's Length Bodies with a view to their rationalisation." (AQT 1603/17-22)

Mr C Murphy: We began a programme of work in the Department and produced a paper for the Executive in which we did a desktop analysis of all the arm's-length bodies. I agree entirely that it was not just a review exercise but a review with a view to rationalisation. That means that action will be being taken.

Many of the arm's-length bodies are a product of direct rule Administrations. They were created to try to give a veneer of local democratic input. They are no longer fit for purpose. There is little standardisation among them. In their relationships with Departments, they have a range of functions and arrangements. They have different management arrangements. Some are remunerated, while some are not.

To make sense of all of that and to provide a programme for Departments to say, "You really need to look proactively at the bodies that are your responsibility", we will create legislation, which may not be done in time for the end of the mandate, but we hope that it will. That depends on what time we have left; maybe the Member can advise us on that. We will create legislation that will give Departments the tools that they need to do their own review and to start a programme of rationalisation of arm's-length bodies. I think that we will produce a report annually so that Committees can hold their Department to account and ask them to justify the existence of any body: for example, should it be brought back into the Department, done away with altogether, left as it is or reviewed to have its own functions in some way looked at again? There is a range of approaches to be taken to arm's-length bodies, but we want to get that work done as quickly as possible and to give Departments the necessary legislative framework to undertake that work.

Mr Stalford: I welcome the Minister's response, because it is an area of work that has been left for far too long. I will press the Minister a little further on his time frame for putting legislative provisions in place. In an ideal world, independent of other political considerations, has the Minister a time frame in mind for bringing the process to a conclusion?

Mr C Murphy: As I said, I want to see the legislation done in this mandate, and, if it is possible to do that, we will. I have been holding meetings in recent days and weeks with departmental officials about progressing the matter as quickly as we can. Legislation will give Departments a basis on which to carry out their own, more in-depth review. We have done a desktop exercise to draw to the attention of Departments the number of arm's-length bodies. We have said what we think should happen to them, but that is up to Departments themselves. If we give them the necessary framework to do that, I suspect that it will be in the new mandate before Departments start to conduct reviews. They may do so on a rolling basis, taking some of the more obvious ones and considering them first. One of the benefits will be an annual report, which will mean that the Assembly and its Committees can monitor each Department's activities in that regard.

T4. Miss Woods asked the Minister of Finance for an update on the Northern Ireland Civil Service domestic abuse workplace policy. (AQT 1604/17-22)

Mr C Murphy: I think that I have written to the Member recently about this. If not, I wrote to someone recently about it, but I think that it was her. A number of workplace policies are being reviewed by NICS HR, and that is one of them. I am happy to write to her with the full detail of the review, where it is currently and when we hope to conclude it.

Miss Woods: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree that victims and survivors of domestic abuse in Northern Ireland should be entitled to safe leave from their job, should they need to avail themselves of it?

Mr C Murphy: Yes, we have to be as sensitive as we can to people's individual circumstances. One of the key focuses is the time to which people are entitled to deal with issues of domestic abuse and, if necessary, to readjust their lives, including, sometimes, accommodation and other issues. Policies need to be kept continuously under review to make sure that we have the most appropriate, sensitive and supportive policies for Civil Service staff in the time ahead. That is certainly my intention for the outcome of any review, but I am happy to correspond with the Member. If she thinks that there are issues in the policy that have not been addressed sufficiently, I will be happy to hear from her.

T5. Mr Gildernew asked the Minister of Finance for an update on the RHI inquiry recommendations, which he touched on in earlier answers. (AQT 1605/17-22)

Mr C Murphy: The RHI subcommittee met on a number of occasions following the publication of the report and agreed recommendations arising from it. I have sought to get the Executive to table and approve a report in response to the RHI inquiry. I have not been able to secure that despite submitting a paper on a number of occasions, but I hope to secure it in the near future. It is long beyond time that the Executive made a formal response to the RHI inquiry.

Mr Gildernew: Does the Minister agree that improving recruitment to the Civil Service is crucial in addressing the deficiencies highlighted by the RHI inquiry? Will he outline the ongoing work in that area?

Mr C Murphy: Yes, I agree, but Civil Service issues were only one part of that. There was a range of things, and we have improved things like the codes for Ministers and spads. Some of that work has already been done and brought forward through the Assembly.

There is a range of measures, some of which flow from the RHI report, some from the Audit Office report on recruitment. We have undertaken reviews of that policy and initiated some new measures. We will continue to do that because it was obvious that we needed transformation in the Civil Service anyway, but the RHI inquiry brought acute attention to some specific skills and competencies that are necessary for particular functions in the Civil Service. We need a more agile Civil Service that can recruit the necessary people to do specific tasks at specific times.

Mr Speaker: The next two questions have been withdrawn.

T8. Ms Brogan asked the Minister of Finance whether he will recommend that the Budget gives priority to Health so that the transformation programme can be delivered and waiting lists reduced. (AQT 1608/17-22)

Mr C Murphy: That is the case, and, as I said, the Executive have always prioritised health. When we first came back in 2020, we agreed that, to try to take the politics out of health, we would have a whole-Executive approach to supporting the requirements of the health service. In the time since, those requirements have come into even sharper relief because of the pandemic. After the Bengoa report and other reports, we now want multi-annual Budgets that will allow us to properly allocate the resources to create transformation and tackle issues like waiting lists and other problems in the health service. It is time, as we set Budgets over the next three years, to prioritise and to match those priorities with the necessary resources.

We hope for a better outcome at the end of the spending review. We may not get that. That is why I have asked Departments and the Executive to look at how we will support the prioritisation of health, the health service and health spending generally in circumstances where the Budget outcome is not as good as we had hoped. That might mean asking other Departments to offer support for health provision from the finances that they will have received. Some Ministers have indicated a willingness to do that, and that may well be one of the options that the Executive have to look at over the next couple of weeks.

Ms Brogan: I thank the Minister for his answer. Following on from that, will the Minister give an update on the introduction of the multi-annual Budget process?

Mr C Murphy: My Department spent the summer engaging with other Departments on planning and prioritisation for multi-annual Budgets.

I have written to my Executive colleagues about the matter. At the Executive meeting on Thursday, I spoke about a planning session that we want to bring forward next week at which we will focus entirely on the Budget process.

In some ways, the fact that this Budget is for the next mandate can have a liberating effect on people. They can take off their departmental hat and plan a budget for a Department for which they may not have ministerial responsibility beyond an election. We can have a more holistic Executive conversation about the Budget and agree on the priorities. My view is that Health remains our priority, and that will have to be substantially underpinned with resources. We will agree on those priorities and how they will be matched ahead of the announcement on the review's outcome at the end of October.


3.30 pm

Mr Speaker: I call Pádraig Delargy.

[Long Pause.]

The Member has no question.

T10. Mrs Dodds asked the Minister of Finance, after thanking him for his earlier answers, particularly on the huge project of how we can build a more agile Civil Service and a workforce for the future while responding to all the challenges that we have, to state how he has engaged with the unions on the return of civil servants to in-office working, albeit we are immensely grateful for all the work that has been done to keep us safe and to produce all the schemes that were needed throughout the COVID pandemic. (AQT 1610/17-22)

Mr C Murphy: I agree with the Member's closing remarks on the work of the Civil Service. We are planning a return, as we sensibly should. At some stage, we will get a message from Health that it is safe to return to work. We need to be ready for that. Work will change not only in the Civil Service but right across all large-scale employers. We will plan for a more hybrid or blended model where people will sometimes work at their desks and at other times from a remote location. We must plan for that return in each business area. The nature of a civil servant's job will determine whether they will be required in an office or whether there is built-in flexibility. We will see a very different system. There is an ongoing discussion with the unions to ensure that workers are aware of their rights and that we get the best possible outcomes from the new way of working.

Mr Speaker: The time for questions for oral answer is up. Members may take their ease for a moment before we move to the next item of business.

Mr Chambers: Mr Speaker, I apologise to you and the House for not being in my place when called for a topical question to the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

Mr Speaker: I thank the Member. Members, please take your ease for a moment.

Executive Committee Business

Debate resumed on motion:

That the Second Stage of the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Bill [NIA 36/17-22] be agreed.

Mr Frew: I will apologise straight off to Members in the Chamber, as I have come lately to the Communities Committee and have attended only one meeting. It may be the case that the Committee members who are much more learned on the subject than I am will go into far greater detail than I can. What I bring to the debate on this major issue is life experiences and constituency work. When I read the Bill and reflect on some of those life experiences, the first thing that disappoints me about the Bill is that I see none of the essence of gambling in it. It fails in many ways. What I mean is that, when we look at any legislation, we need to produce the best legislation possible. A Bill will come from any Department, get its airing in the House and, if it passes, will go to Committee. I fear that, on this occasion, the Department has left all the heavy lifting for the Committee.

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

In her opening speech, the Minister talked about the problem that we face in Northern Ireland, but she then went on to say that she is not the one to fix it and that it will be for someone else at another time and in the next Assembly. At a time when people need there to be an air of decisiveness, we ain't getting it in the House from the Minister, from the Department or in the Bill. That aggrieves me because I want to see the best legislation possible produced in the House. We ain't getting it.

I have mentioned the essence of gambling. We can all tell stories about loved ones and friends who are caught up in gambling. Many people gamble socially. If one were to walk into any high-street betting shop, one would see punters who go there, certainly to bet, but almost definitely to socialise. They could be there all day. They could have nipped out of other premises to try to catch a certain race or sporting event. For those people, it is a way of life. Many people manage that, and they do so quite well, to be fair. However, many people fall foul of gambling and fall into gambling addiction. They start to dig deeper and deeper. It destroys them, their lives and their families' lives. It destroys their livelihoods. It can destroy their health. That is what we need to legislate for. Simply welcoming the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Bill just will not cut it. If it is bad law, it just will not cut it. It needs to be different.

People have referred to the eighties and the previous legislation, from 1985, that governs gambling here. I remember being at high school during the late eighties, from 1986 to 1991. I ran about with friends who were, most definitely, addicted to what, in those days, we called fruit machines. It was not about money but what it led to. Those young guys of around the same age as me and in my friendship group, many of them addicted to fruit machines, played machines called "Lite a Nudge" and "Copper Win". We are talking about a 2p or 5p deposit to play the game, bu