Official Report: Monday 06 December 2021
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: Before I introduce Members' Statements, I remind Members that, on Friday, we had, we understand, the first-ever Disabled People's Parliament not only in these islands but far beyond. In fact, there is no record of any of the other parliamentary institutions having held a disabled persons' parliament. I commend all who were involved, particularly our senior officials, in working with the disabled people and their representative organisations to make sure that Friday was a very successful day for the people involved. I thank our officials, who worked with empathy and professionalism to deliver the event. Certainly, the feedback that we have received from those who attended and spoke, and from their representatives, is that they were all very pleased with how it went and look forward to an outcome further down the line from the Assembly and the Executive. I put on record my thanks to all those involved.
Mr Speaker: If Members wish to be called to make a statement, they should indicate that by continually 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 that 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.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I want to speak on behalf of a number of constituents who have contacted me about the lack of data collected on secondary breast cancer. I thank them and acknowledge their commitment and drive to ensure that conditions and much-needed support are better for those with secondary breast cancer, the majority of whom are women, now and in the future.
In England and Wales, it was recently announced that a metastatic breast cancer audit will be funded to collate information on the number of people living with secondary breast cancer. In recent communications with the Minister of Health, he indicated that he had no specific plan for an audit and that data collection, coordination and application are being addressed as a central focus of the draft 10-year cancer strategy.
That is very disappointing news for patients across the North and, indeed, the island who are experiencing metastatic breast cancer. They feel that they have often been excluded. They may now face delays in accessing any treatment or specialist assistance that they will need.
According to Macmillan, secondary breast cancer diagnosis is always at stage 4, which can be treated but is incurable. The Breast Cancer Now consultation reveals that those living with secondary cancers suffer from extreme anxiety and uncertainty. We owe all cancer patients across the North optimal care.
We do not have a breast cancer audit for metastatic breast cancer, and we need to be able to access reliable data. Without an audit, it is more difficult to design and plan for services in an informed way, and, if one is achieved, it will allow us to provide patients with the support that they need. I ask the Minister to reconsider his position so that we can tailor our cancer services and treatment to all patients facing this health crisis and give them the hope that they so rightly deserve.
Mrs Cameron: I will highlight an issue of great concern that will affect the vast majority of pharmacies and hundreds if not thousands of people should resolution not be found.
According to Community Pharmacy NI, around 37,000 patients in Northern Ireland currently receive the service of weekly medicine dose trays and other similar adherence devices. Those trays, which are sorted by pharmacy staff every week, help many vulnerable and elderly patients to manage their daily medication correctly.
Owing to an increasing workload, not least because of vaccinations but also because of mounting financial and staffing pressures on the sector, a large majority of pharmacy owners recently voted no longer to provide the monitored dosage system and similar compliance aids to new patients beyond 1 December 2021.
The service has been underfunded and overstretched to the point that many new patients may be unable to access it until a settlement can be found with the Department. I will point out that a new patient is not just a new patient in the true sense of the word but a patient who may be in hospital and then discharged with a new prescription.
Last week, Gerard Greene, the chief executive of Community Pharmacy NI said:
"As part of this service, we have been assisting patients, often those who are elderly, to safely manage their medicines at home and in the community, reducing the need for patients to be transferred to other settings such as hospitals. It is worrying that by not commissioning this service, there could be additional and avoidable hospital pressures."
Our community pharmacy sector and patients who rely on those services deserve to have them properly commissioned and appropriately funded by the Department of Health. We cannot allow the situation to drag on without resolution. New patients, particularly many vulnerable individuals coming on to the system, will require support to better manage their medicines at home and in the community.
Our community pharmacies have never been busier, remaining open to the public throughout the pandemic and now on the front line administering thousands of COVID-19 vaccinations. We cannot thank those pharmacists and their assisting staff enough for their work over the past 20 months. Their service deserves much greater public recognition. We will always be extremely grateful for that face-to-face support, care and advice that we receive through their services. Recently, I visited the fantastic team at Randalstown Pharmacies as part of Ask Your Pharmacist Week and saw at first hand the patient-, family- and community-focused services that it provides.
To conclude, I welcome the recent ongoing engagement with the Department of Health and the community pharmacy sector to resolve the matter. I urge the Health Minister to ensure that that ongoing engagement with the community pharmacy sector is expedited and that fair arrangement is made to secure the service's long-term sustainability. Any settlement must recognise the financial and time-consuming burden on staff. We must maintain that invaluable service.
Mr McCrossan: I raise the heartbreaking story of the death of young Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. It is a case that has gripped the nation, caused severe heartbreak and resulted in immediate calls for action from authorities across these islands.
When I listened to the news report, I was disturbed to hear that child's cries for food — "Pease, someone, feed me. No one is going to feed me" — and that he thought that no one loved him. The abuse that that child suffered at the hands of his father and his partner was beyond words; absolutely brutal. The six-year-old was tortured and killed. Arthur died of a head injury on 17 June 2020. Emma Tustin, who was his father's partner, shook him and banged his head on a hard surface after poisoning him with salt. I have never seen anything quite like the details of that case. I spent Saturday with two of my nephews, one aged 4 and the other aged 6. I looked at them and thought, "How on earth could anyone harm such an innocent, helpless child?". He was one of the most vulnerable in society. His daddy was supposed to take care of him but he left him to suffer incredibly horrific abuse.
Arthur was found to have 130 injuries after being routinely beaten, forced to stand for hours on his own, starved and dehydrated. Concerns were raised by his paternal grandmother to social services. There were found to be no safeguarding concerns at that point, even though his body was beaten, battered and bruised.
As I stand here, I wonder how many other children there are who have dropped below the radar and we do not know about? How many children in Northern Ireland are in homes where they suffer such horrendous abuse? In the House, we disagree on many things politically, but I know that we stand united in full support of that poor child and his wider family and that we offer them our thoughts and prayers. As legislators, we have the privileged position of being able to change legislation to help and protect people, and save people's lives. I would hope that the House would unite to ensure that we, too, review the safeguarding mechanisms that are in place, respond to the call for greater funding to ensure that there are mechanisms in place, and ensure that no child ever suffers as that poor child did last year.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Ms Ferguson: Today marks the beginning of Homelessness Awareness Week, a day for all in Irish society to recommit our efforts to collaborate and work together with housing and homelessness organisations and charities, Departments and local councils to make housing delivery a priority and, subsequently, end homelessness for good. This year, the theme of the week is Start the Conversation. A host of organisations across the homeless sector, such as the Simon Community, Extern and the Welcome Organisation, will deliver a range of social, educational and awareness-raising events throughout our constituencies and encourage conversation in the workplace, schools and communities.
Four individuals kindly came together to the all-party group on homelessness in November. From listening to the voices of those who are affected by homelessness, it is clear that the line between having a home and not can change quite quickly for a person or family and that the paths in and out of homelessness are never straightforward. The personal stories were all unique, but, collectively, they highlighted the negative impact that homelessness can have on your physical and mental health, family relationships, educational opportunities and life chances. We must all act to improve outcomes for people who are experiencing homelessness in each of our communities. We must all work together to ensure that everyone has a home. That is a universal human right; a safe, permanent and affordable place to live, where one can settle down, feel part of their community and build a good life.
The homeless sector continues to play a vital role in society. Its incredible work and commitment has been particularly evident during the ongoing pandemic as it worked daily to protect homeless individuals, who are among the most vulnerable groups that are impacted by COVID-19. I am also immensely grateful to statutory partners, who, along with Minister Deirdre Hargey, have fully funded the homelessness reset plan and offered all people who were sleeping rough on the streets forms of emergency accommodation. I very much welcome the collaboration that was shown to work during the pandemic. That is a model of good practice going forward. It prioritises the voices of those with lived experience of homelessness and focuses on protecting high-risk groups. They have all shown throughout the pandemic what can be done with the collective will.
However, we know that it is a first step. We must not drive homeless people into the places that we find suitable but help them to find the places that they find suitable.
Later today, at the Homeless Connect event, schoolchildren will speak to us about their views on homelessness. It undoubtedly takes a society to combat homelessness, but, together with a shared political will and commitment, it can be done. It must be done to ensure everyone in the North has a place to call home.
Mr Buckley: I rise to continue with Mr McCrossan's points. While COVID demonstrated the very best of society, equally, what I and other Members have seen in the media in the past few weeks has demonstrated the sheer evil that exists in many parts of society today. First, there is the harrowing case of child abuse that Mr McCrossan mentioned: Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, a six-year-old who was mentally abused and then physically abused. It is absolutely harrowing for anyone to listen to.
As politicians and, indeed, as a society, we should, first and foremost, protect our children, but the cases that we have seen on the news sadly show that there is severe mistrust of the parental relationship with a child in society. I listened to the story of young Tony Hudgell, who was attacked when he was a baby. His fingers and toes were broken and the ligaments in his legs were torn. He is now wheelchair-bound because of the abuse he sustained in his household.
That leads me to the harrowing information that I heard at the Policing Board last Thursday. The National Crime Agency (NCA) director general was there and, for the first time, he revealed the numbers involved in sexual abuse in Northern Ireland. That was harrowing. The fact that very few media outlets reported it caused me a great deal of concern. He stated that there may be up to 23,000 individuals who are deemed as a sexual risk to children living in Northern Ireland. Members, I am sure that we can all agree that that figure is deeply disturbing.
The Chief Constable noted that the figure is equivalent to a small town of people. It is absolutely disgusting; it is harrowing, but yet there has been no condemnation or push for action from many elements of our society. The director general of the NCA said that in most cases, children are more at harm in their own homes and beds than they are on the street. How harrowing. Yet there is widespread silence on this issue. I found it particularly distressing when the director general of the NCA said that children as young as toddlers were being sexually abused in their homes by adults up to the age of 70-plus. Members, we have to do more. Collectively, we must attack this atrocity and protect our young people by placing them at the heart of any legislative programme going forward. We owe it to them. Too many are suffering in silence, and we must be their voice.
Mr Durkan: As we have already heard, this is Homelessness Awareness week. This year's theme is Start the Conversation, so it is appropriate to have the conversation here today to remind us of our duty as MLAs and the work that we have to do to eradicate homelessness.
Homelessness is an issue that can hit anyone anywhere. The average person is just two pay cheques away from homelessness. Many people walk a very fine line and live from payday to payday, and that tightrope has become even more precarious due to the pandemic. It was also during the pandemic that the importance of having somewhere to call home was never more pronounced. Access to a safe and secure home is the foundation that people build their lives on. Nobody should have to sleep on the street, call a hostel room their home or have their family scattered across several locations while they languish on a list.
The impact of homelessness is not only damaging people now; it is risking their future opportunities. We cannot accept that as normal, but it is. This year, from July to September, over 4,000 households presented as homeless, and nearly 2,500 of those were deemed to be in priority need. However, homes were only sourced for 122 of those applicants. That leaves over 2,000 families or households in priority need being failed, not just by a lack of stock but a lack of strategy and ambition. We must never lose sight of the human stories behind these statistics. Families are rendered homeless for myriad reasons, such as overcrowding, affordability, family breakdown, disability or poverty. We cannot tolerate a system or a society that fails people so badly.
The Department for Communities acted swiftly and decisively to ensure that no one slept on our streets during the pandemic, and it deserves huge credit for that, as do the tremendous organisations across the North — Ms Ferguson mentioned a few — that are dedicated to tackling homelessness. However, there is more to doing that than simply putting a roof over someone's head. Supporting People projects should be funded more to help to address the deeper-rooted issues that cause chronic homelessness. We have heard plenty about the Minister's radical housing transformation plans, but, sadly, we have not seen much of it in effect yet. The thousands of families on waiting lists do not have time to wait. We call on the Minister to act now.
Ms Dillon: An issue that is causing serious problems in my constituency is DFI Roads' response to the planners. It is causing serious delays with the planning of individual homes and businesses. A particular case in my constituency, where there will be a massive investment by the council and a new school build, has been put at severe risk because of DFI Roads' failure to respond. I understand that that is due to a lack of human resource to respond to a number of planning applications.
Today, I call on the Minister to look at what resource is available and at future resource planning. This is not an issue within the Planning Service or the council. It is down to the failure of DFI Roads to respond to planning issues. It is impacting on people who are building their homes. We have just heard about the importance of a home and people being able to stay in their rural communities. It is also important for us to develop businesses in a very rural constituency — a constituency that needs all the economic investment that it can get and, most importantly, a new school build for our children. Other Members have talked today about the importance of our children and young people. It is important that they have a proper educational setting as a starting point. I call on the Minister, if she is listening today, to please look at what resource is available. I am not sure whether it is a wider issue across the North. I have not heard about it in other constituencies, but it is an issue in my constituency.
Mr Stalford: We are about to embark on a vaccine passport scheme. All Members will recall that the House was told, certainly publicly if not necessarily on the Floor, that there would be a debate and a vote before the introduction of such a scheme. I checked the business diary for this week and saw no schedule for a debate and a vote on the introduction of such a scheme. I understand the nature of things moving quickly and the Executive having to react to events. Throughout the pandemic, we have become accustomed to granting retrospective approval for measures introduced by the Executive. The measures kick in, and the House votes to approve them afterwards. Given the nature of the scheme being proposed, that is not appropriate. In fact, it is really important that we, as Members, are afforded the opportunity to see evidence that such a scheme will work in combating the threat of the virus. It is really important that these issues are argued and debated on the Floor of the House.
The Northern Ireland Executive are comprised of Members of the House. There are more Members of the House than there are members of the Executive. It is our job to question, debate and argue issues out. Given the fundamentally different nature of the proposal from that which went before it to combat the threat of COVID-19, which we all recognise and want to see tackled, it is essential that we, the Members of the Assembly, whether we are for the idea or against it, are allowed the opportunity to debate it and thrash out the arguments on the Floor of the House. The Minister of Health has a very difficult job and faces a very difficult time over the coming months, but our job is not only to support the Minister when he is right but to question, debate and tease out the evidence. That is why I am very disappointed to see no reference in the business diary to such a debate taking place; it absolutely should take place.
Ms S Bradley: I rise to bring forward an issue that exists across all constituencies. Loneliness was an issue prior to COVID but, unfortunately, has been exacerbated by it. I thank those Members who have joined me on the all-party group (APG) on preventing loneliness, because it is a silent pandemic that is running through our community.
I admit that, on embarking upon my role as the Chair of the APG on preventing loneliness, I had a very swift education on who are most affected. I was guilty, as many are, of taking the default position that elderly people are the most affected, particularly around this time of year and the Christmas season when we are around family. I have learned that that is not the case, and plentiful evidence supports that.
Without a doubt, loneliness really impacts on a person's quality of life. It can arise during any dramatic time in your life when there is a change in your circumstances. It may even be a positive thing, such as the move into married life: when people are moved from their community or routine, they can experience loneliness. It may be after having a baby or moving house, and it can affect children who have recently moved schools. There are lots of pinpoints across a lifetime when loneliness can be, and is, experienced by many.
I am conscious that a lot of legislation is going through the House. I therefore ask all Members, regardless of the field of work or specialism with which they are charged in the House, to take moment and think about any proposals or policy changes that they have in front of them to see whether there is an opportunity to try to work to prevent loneliness. Also, be very mindful about proposing anything that may have the unintended consequence of exacerbating loneliness in society.
I thank those who have carried out significant work in this area, including the Commissioner for Older People and the Commissioner for Children and Young People, who have taken on a lead role. I also thank all members of the all-party group on preventing loneliness and give a particular personal mention to the Red Cross and Age NI, which have helped me.
Finally, I ask Members to be aware that the Christmas season is approaching, throughout which lots of people will, no doubt, feel lonely. I therefore ask all Members to make aware of that all those community groups that can and will help.
Mr Speaker: Mr Jim Allister has sought leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22. The Member will have up to three minutes in which to speak.
Mr Allister: This petition, signed by 3,768 people, represents families across Northern Ireland who have grave grievances over the manner of their treatment by some, but, I stress, not all caravan park owners.
Among the grievances is the fact that they have no security of tenure on a caravan park. They get a licence from one year to the next, and, then, at the end of that year, they are vulnerable, as has happened this year in one park, to exorbitant demands for increases in pitch fees — in one case, a 35% increase, which is unconscionable and unacceptable. The first thing that caravan owners require on their sites is security of tenure. That is absolutely vital.
There has also been the introduction of new rules without consultation with caravan holders, putting an arbitrary limit on the age of a caravan that can be sustained on a site, along with coercive pressure to purchase new caravans from the park owners and limitations on who else you can purchase from. Then, there have been attempts to monopolise the ancillary services — again, sometimes, at extortionate rates. For example, many people who want to place decking by their caravan have been told that they can have that done only by the staff and the contractors of the park owners, and therefore extortionate prices can be charged.
One of the things that go to the very heart of the inequity is a refusal by some caravan park owners to recognise and coordinate with owners' associations. We are at the point where the Caravans Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 is to be reviewed. This is a timely occasion for the caravan petitioners to make the case that the 2011 Act needs to have root-and-branch change, in order to give them security of tenure and protection against extortionate treatment and to ensure that they have a situation that is tenable and fair. That is why the petition is entitled 'Fairness for Caravan Owners'.
Mr Speaker: I thank the Member. He knows that, normally, I would invite him to bring his petition to the Table and present it here. However, in light of social distancing, I ask him to remain in his place and to make arrangements to submit the petition to my office electronically. I thank the Member for bringing the petition to the attention of the Assembly. Once it is received, I will forward it to the Minister for Communities and send a copy to the Committee for Communities.
Could Members take their ease for a moment or two, please?
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)
Moved. — [Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice).]
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Thank you, Minister. As no amendments have been tabled, there is no opportunity to discuss the Bill today. Members will, of course, be able to have a full debate at Final Stage. The Further Consideration Stage of the Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill is therefore concluded, and the Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The next items of business are motions to approve three statutory rules, all of which relate to nicotine and tobacco. There will be a single debate on all three motions. I will call on the Minister of Health to move the first motion. The Minister will commence the debate on the motions as listed in the Order Paper. When all who wish to speak have done so, I will put the Question on the first motion. The second motion will then be read into the record, and I will call the Minister to move it. The Question will then be put on that motion, and that process will be repeated for the third motion. If that is clear, we will proceed.
That the draft Smoke-Free (Private Vehicles) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.
The following motions stood in the Order Paper:
That the draft Nicotine Inhaling Products (Age of Sale and Proxy Purchasing) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]
That the draft Tobacco Retailer (Fixed Penalty) (Amount) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]
Mr Swann: Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I seek the Assembly's approval for the three sets of regulations, which seek to protect children from nicotine addiction and the harms of second-hand smoke.
The Smoke-Free (Private Vehicles) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 will ban smoking in enclosed private vehicles where a child under the age of 18 is present. Protecting the population from exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke is a key objective in the Department's tobacco control strategy. Second-hand smoke is a combination of mainstream smoke exhaled by smokers and side-stream smoke, which is given off by the burning end of a cigarette or cigar or by a pipe. The long-term effects of regular exposure to second-hand smoke include a higher risk of lung cancer, coronary heart disease, chronic respiratory symptoms and asthma. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of second-hand smoke as they breathe more rapidly and inhale more pollutants per pound of body weight than adults. In 2010, a report by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) affirmed that children exposed to second-hand smoke had an increased risk of asthma, lower respiratory tract infections, bronchitis, middle ear disease, bacterial meningitis and sudden infant death syndrome as well as general reduced respiratory function. It is also important to remember that children are likely to have less control than adults over how they travel and whom they travel with.
The Smoking (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 provides the legislative framework for existing smoke-free public places and workplaces. From its date of commencement in April 2007, it has been an offence to smoke in all indoor public places and workplaces. Smoking in shared work vehicles, including all forms of public transport, is also banned under the Order. The Smoking (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 contains two offences, which have been enforced, in relation to public and work vehicles, and they came into effect in 2007. They are smoking in a smoke-free vehicle and failing to prevent smoking in a smoke-free vehicle. The draft regulations will have the effect of extending those offences to include a private vehicle when a person under the age of 18 is present.
The draft Smoke-Free (Private Vehicles) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 provide that a vehicle is smoke-free if it is enclosed, there is more than one person present and there is a person under the age of 18 in the vehicle. In Northern Ireland, the enforcement of tobacco control legislation is the sole responsibility of district councils. That includes the enforcement of the legislation on smoke-free work vehicles. However, the regulations propose that a dual enforcement approach between district councils and the Police Service of Northern Ireland is adopted in relation to all smoke-free vehicles. Under existing powers, PSNI officers are able to request that a vehicle stop if they suspect that an offence is being committed, which would facilitate the enforcement of the legislation. While those powers are not available to district council officers, they will be able to take action if they observe an offence in a parked vehicle or if they are able to obtain licence details from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA).
Decisions about whether to issue warnings or fixed penalty notices or to refer an alleged offence straight to the court to be dealt with will be at the discretion of the enforcement agency. It is proposed that the penalty for both offences — smoking in a private smoke-free vehicle and failing to prevent smoking in a private smoke-free vehicle — will be £50. That mirrors the existing penalty for smoking in a smoke-free public place, a workplace or a vehicle. On conviction for the offence of smoking in a smoke-free private vehicle, a court can award a fine up to a maximum level 3 on the standard scale, which is £1,000. For failure to prevent smoking in a smoke-free private vehicle, a court can award a fine of a maximum level 4 on the standard scale, which is £2,500.
A summary of the consultation on the proposals was published in July 2018. Respondents were largely in favour of the proposed ban. Only three respondents did not support the proposed measures: all three were from the tobacco industry.
At its meeting on 7 October 2021, the Health Committee agreed that it was content for my Department to make the proposed regulations, and draft regulations were subsequently approved by the Committee on 25 November. I thank the Committee for its work on that. It is with the Committee's support and Executive agreement that I bring the draft regulations before you today. Subject to Assembly approval, a period of publicity and awareness raising will take place, and the regulations will become effective from 1 February 2022.
I also seek the Assembly's approval for the Nicotine Inhaling Products (Age of Sale and Proxy Purchasing) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 and the Tobacco Retailer (Fixed Penalty) (Amount) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021, which together will introduce a minimum age of sale of 18 years for nicotine-inhaling products, commonly known as "electronic cigarettes" or "vapes", and certain related parts of such devices to protect children from the risk and associated harms of nicotine addiction. Furthermore, the regulation makes it an offence for an adult to purchase or attempt to purchase a nicotine-inhaling product on behalf of a child. The provisions mirror existing arrangements to prevent the sale of tobacco products to and their use by young people under the age of 18.
The Tobacco Retailer (Fixed Penalty) (Amount) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 will replace the schedule to the Tobacco Retailer (Fixed Penalty) (Amount) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016, and that will allow for the inclusion of the amounts of fixed penalties for offences relating to the sale of proxy purchases of nicotine-containing products.
Since the introduction of smoke-free legislation in Northern Ireland in April 2007, the market for nicotine-inhaling products has grown exponentially. The most common form of nicotine-inhaling products are e-cigarettes. Those products are completely tobacco-free and are made up of nicotine-based liquid that is then vaporised and inhaled. Nicotine is a highly addictive substance, and there are no legal restrictions on the sale of those products to children in Northern Ireland. While research has shown nicotine-inhaling products to be considerably less harmful than tobacco, the long-term effects of e-cigarette use are largely unknown. A 2014 report by the World Health Organization expressed particular concern about the potential for adolescent nicotine exposure to have long-term consequences for brain development. The report goes on to say that e-cigarette use "poses serious threats to adolescents" and recommends that retailers should be prohibited from selling e-cigarettes to minors. Furthermore, while some evidence suggests that e-cigarette use among children is largely restricted to those who have already experimented with tobacco, my Department is keen to ensure that it does not act as a gateway into smoking. The evidence of a potential gateway effect is mixed, but I believe that it is right to be cautious. The Department has made considerable inroads into reducing smoking prevalence among 11-to-16-year-olds from 9% in 2007 to 4% in 2016 and 2019 and does not wish to see that trend reversed as a result of young people having easy access to e-cigarette products.
In summary, the regulations make it an offence to sell nicotine-inhaling products, commonly known as "electronic cigarettes" or "vapes", and certain related parts of such devices to under-18s and for an adult to purchase or attempt to purchase a nicotine-inhaling product on behalf of a child.
An exception is made for products that are licensed by the UK-wide Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Those products will be made available to children only on prescription or if the product's medicine marketing authorisations provide that it is licensed for use by under-18s. At present, however, no such products are licensed.
The new legislation will be enforced by the environmental health staff of the district councils. It is not anticipated that further funding will be required beyond that which is already provided through the Public Health Agency (PHA) in Northern Ireland for the enforcement of tobacco control legislation. Enforcement authorities will have the option of issuing fixed penalty notices for either offence in relation to the sale of nicotine-inhaling products. It is proposed that the penalty amount for both offences — selling nicotine-inhaling products to a person under the age of 18 and the offence of proxy purchasing — will be £250. That mirrors existing penalties for tobacco sales offences. A retailer convicted of selling a nicotine-inhaling product to a person under the age of 18 or an adult convicted of a proxy purchasing offence will be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, which is currently up to £5,000. That level of fine is consistent with the corresponding tobacco age of sale offence.
In addition, restricted sales orders and restricted premises orders, which came into force in Northern Ireland in 2016, will be extended to include offences in relation to underage sales of nicotine-inhaling products. Such an order, if granted by the court, can prohibit a named individual or named premises from selling both tobacco and nicotine-inhaling products for up to three years.
While the Department consulted on the provisions relating to nicotine products in the draft Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill in the autumn of 2014, I gave a commitment that a further consultation would be carried out on the draft regulations that would also provide the public with an opportunity to comment on a draft regulatory impact assessment. That additional consultation ran from 4 September to 27 October 2017, and a total of 28 responses were received from a variety of stakeholders, including local government, the voluntary and community sector, professional bodies and tobacco and e-cigarette manufacturers. The majority of respondents supported the policy aim of restricting the sale of nicotine-inhaling products to persons over the age of 18 and agreed with the proposals as set out in the draft regulations. That support came from across the board and included representation from all sectors. The vast majority of respondents agreed that an offence of proxy purchasing e-cigarettes should be created, bringing those products into line with other age-restricted products such as tobacco and alcohol. Furthermore, the Health Committee, at its meeting on 7 October 2021, agreed that it was content for my Department to make the proposed regulations, and draft regulations were subsequently approved by the Committee on 25 November.
It is with the Committee's support and Executive agreement that I bring the draft regulations before the House today. The regulations are subject to affirmative resolution. After they have been made, a period of awareness raising with retailers and the public will follow, and the regulations will become effective from 1 February 2022. This package of regulatory changes aims to protect the most vulnerable, and I commend the motions to the House.
Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): I will make some brief remarks as Chair. I will then make some additional, even briefer remarks as the party's health spokesman.
The Committee was briefed on this set of rules when it received the SL1s on 7 October. Officials outlined the purpose of the rules and answered questions from members. Committee members sought clarification of a number of issues.
Members raised the issue of the time that it has taken to introduce the regulations, given that they were first discussed in 2014 and the primary legislation was passed in 2016. Officials advised that a consultation took place between January and March 2017, during which time the Assembly went down. Further delays were caused by the pandemic and the involvement of officials in Brexit preparations. Therefore, the regulations could not be progressed until now.
The main focus of the discussions on smoke-free vehicles was enforcement and the fact that the PSNI and councils would be classed as enforcement agencies in the regulations. Officials advised that the key difference between the enforcement powers of the PSNI and the councils is that the PSNI has the power to stop vehicles. Members also sought clarity on who is liable for smoking in cars. We were advised that the driver of the car is always responsible for the offence of failing to prevent smoking in a smoke-free vehicle and that it would be an additional offence where the person smoking is also liable.
There was a discussion about the number of children who would benefit from the rules being in place. Officials advised that, following implementation in England, there was a 72% reduction in self-reported exposure to second-hand smoke. Officials indicated that compliance with the regulations could decrease the number of children exposed to smoking by 20%.
There was a further discussion about the possibility of extending the ban to include the use of e-cigarettes in vehicles. The Committee was advised that there was no power in primary legislation to allow the Department to do that. In follow-up correspondence, the Department advised that it would look at further evidence on the issue in the coming years, when further research had been completed. The Committee also sought some clarification on the rules applying to motorhomes and caravans when they are not stationary.
Members raised the issue of e-cigarettes and vaping being a gateway to tobacco products for younger people. There was a discussion about the information being gathered on young people's usage of e-cigarettes. Officials advised that the most recent young persons' behaviour and attitudes survey, from 2019, showed that 3% of under-16s, some of whom were as young as 11 years old, said that they used e-cigarettes regularly. That is a worrying trend, and I hope that the rules, along with education in schools, will better inform young people of the risks of tobacco products.
There was also a discussion about the lack of evidence on the long-term safety of e-cigarettes and the sometimes conflicting messaging on their use in smoking cessation services. The Committee asks that, as data is collected over the coming years, the Department consider the evidence and bring forward guidance and regulations as required on the basis of that evidence. The Committee agreed to recommend that the regulations be approved by the Assembly.
In my role as Sinn Féin health spokesperson, I indicate that Sinn Féin fully supports the measures to reduce exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke and to prevent young people from inappropriately accessing tobacco products. I welcome the Minister's indication that e-cigarette products will be monitored on an ongoing basis and that, should the evidence become clear, action will be taken.
As the Minister said, where the evidence is mixed, we should err on the side of caution, because we do not get a second chance to act quickly on such matters and on public health matters generally. It is the case that we live in an age of disinformation, but we do not want to see a repeat of the situation in which commercial interests, for many years and even decades, controlled the flow of evidence and information in a way that allowed harmful products to continue to be sold. I welcome the Minister's commitment on that.
I also welcome the reference to a communications strategy. Again, it is particularly relevant to this issue and to public health measures generally. Social and community cohesion, buy-in and understanding of such measures are crucial. The best barometer of the public messaging campaign, as well as the best monitoring and enforcement measure that we can have, is community agreement that certain things are necessary or beneficial and that society largely supports the measures being taken and responds in that way.
Mrs Cameron: I support all three motions: that on the draft Smoke-Free (Private Vehicles) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021; that on the draft Nicotine Inhaling Products (Age of Sale and Proxy Purchasing) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021; and that on the draft Tobacco Retailer (Fixed Penalty) (Amount) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK and Ireland where it is still legal to expose people under the age of 18 to the dangers of second-hand smoke while in an enclosed vehicle, which in itself is enough reason to support the motions before the House. It is not acceptable, and the children of Northern Ireland deserve much greater health protection. It is disappointing that the provision is being enacted only now, despite there having been plans to do so as far back as 2014.
I welcome the fact that the proposed new regulations will extend the current smoke-free provisions to private vehicles where children are present, there is more than one person in the car and the vehicle is enclosed. Also, I welcome that it is proposed that failing to prevent smoking in a smoke-free private vehicle will be made an offence. Giving power to councils and to the PSNI to enforce the laws is a sensible move.
We will, of course, be aware of reports such as those from clinicians. For example, a report from the Royal College of Physicians says that smoking in a vehicle can lead to increased risk of asthma, lower respiratory tract infections, middle ear disease, bronchitis, bacterial meningitis, sudden infant death syndrome and reduced respiratory function.
Whilst it may feel like common sense to include e-cigarettes in the draft Smoke-Free (Private Vehicles) Regulations before us, we have to respect, at this point, that the evidence base for the second-hand effects of e-cigarettes and vaping is less conclusive. That is why the legislation will not include e-cigs and vaping at this time. Perhaps the Minister will advise us on whether he expects to have more evidence in the near future on that subject. Will he confirm that, should that evidence base be there in the coming months and years, he will swiftly move to add e-cigs and vaping to the legislation?
Without doubt, the planned regulations will play an important role in protecting children from the harms of nicotine and tobacco use. Proposals to prevent the sale of nicotine-inhaling products such as e-cigarettes to anyone under the age of 18 will be made under the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act (NI) 2016. That is welcome. Today, we heard during Members' statements about the barbaric abuse of children, and I would argue that forcing a child, especially a small child, to inhale harmful substances is a form of abuse.
The provisions mirror existing arrangements already in place to prevent the sale and use of tobacco products by young people. They are a sensible move forward and recognition of the harm that e-cigarettes can cause to children. Again, we see Northern Ireland playing catch-up, as England and Wales moved on this in 2015 and Scotland in 2017.
The third of the regulations today relates to allowing fixed penalties for the new offences in relation to the sale or proxy purchase of nicotine-containing products to those aged under 18 years. That is another welcome and appropriate move. There will be some who see legislation such as this as unnecessary, but it is incumbent on the House to ensure that there is no doubt about the harm that nicotine causes for all of us as human beings and more so to a child forced to inhale second-hand smoke in a small, enclosed area such as a car. It is important that we recognise that the worth of such legislative changes is not how many will or can be prosecuted; it is about positively affecting our behaviour, given the knowledge that we now have. It is about increased awareness of the danger, and it is about making smoking in cars with children socially unacceptable. Again, I very much welcome the legislation, and I look forward to it becoming law in 2022.
Mr McGrath: I welcome the opportunity to speak today on the statutory regulations. They are timely and appropriate, and we in the SDLP think that they are adequate. If we have learnt anything in the past 18 months, it is that, when it comes to our health and well-being, prevention is critical. For example, we have all heard the stories of those who have ended up in hospital as a result of COVID, have felt its worst effects and then, on leaving hospital, have said that they would not wish that experience on anyone else. That is to say nothing of those who have ended up in hospital as a result of not having been vaccinated and then have come out the other side, thanks to the interventions of our incredible health staff, and said that they wished that they had been vaccinated. The statutory regulations offer us the opportunity to provide positive, preventive measures to ensure better health outcomes for our population and to prevent additional pressures being placed on our health service.
As has already been outlined, the three regulations are to ban smoking in private vehicles while someone under the age of 18 is present, to ban the sale of electronic cigarettes to those under the age of 18 and to establish fixed penalties, should someone be in breach of the regulations.
I have no doubt that some in our society will deem the regulations to be coercive or akin to decisions made by an authoritarian state. In my mind, however, they are essential steps that we should take.
In September, Queen's University Belfast published the most up-to-date cancer incidence and survival statistics for the North. It is a really impressive study, and I urge Members to give it the attention that it warrants. The findings are that, in the last five years, the number of cancer cases per year, excluding non-melanoma skin cancer, has increased by 11%. It is frightening that, while the incidence rate for lung cancer has decreased by 7% for men, it has increased by 16% for women. Our cancer incidence rate is 14% higher in the most deprived areas. The most common cancer to be diagnosed at stage 4 is lung cancer. From those figures, we also see that the survival rate for lung cancer is 11% in men and 15% in women. I would not call this coercion in any shape or form; I call it humanitarian legislation, because those figures are simply not going down.
My view and that of my party is that the statutory rules (SRs) must form part of a wider preventative effort to improve the health and well-being of our population. We are an ageing population, so our preventative measures must be as robust as possible. Our cancer strategy, which is set to be published this month, is part of that. I ask the Minister to ensure that that policy is expedited without delay. I support the regulations and continue to support the Minister. I hope that they are effective tools in our determination to provide positive, preventative healthcare in the North.
Mr Chambers: I declare an interest as part-owner of a family business that sells tobacco products. That said, I welcome and fully support all legislation that provides clarity to retailers who sell tobacco and tobacco-related products. This further control will make a huge contribution to public health, especially that of our young people.
Banning smoking in a private vehicle when a child is present is important legislation that will protect the health of our young people. My party welcomes the legislation, which has been our party policy for some time. We commend the Minister for bringing the legislation to the House today. The harm inflicted by second-hand smoke inhalation should not be underestimated. The evidence for the harm that it causes is overwhelming. My party fully supports the statutory rules.
Ms Bradshaw: I am delighted to support the regulations. We on the all-party group on cancer have been campaigning on this for many years. I thank the officials from the Department of Health for drafting the regulations during the pandemic.
Ultimately, it is about protecting people under the age of 18 from the impact of tobacco and, as the Minister and Mr McGrath have already outlined, from the impact of cancer. The regulations are long overdue. Nonetheless, they are here today. They match those elsewhere in the UK. We note that enforcement falls not just to councils but to the police; that is to be welcomed. In the current context, the regulations give an important sign that we legislate to ensure that people take responsibility not just for their own health and well-being but for that of other people. In this case, those other people are a particularly vulnerable group: children.
As the Chair of the Health Committee indicated, I was slightly concerned about a couple of areas of the regulations. Those areas will be addressed by departmental officials, and they relate to motorhomes and fines. The Minister indicated that the fine is £50 but that can be reduced to £30, if it is paid quickly. I am concerned that £30 will not cause much damage to the purses of some people, and that those people will flout the regulations. Nevertheless, the Nicotine Inhaling Products (Age of Sale and Proxy Purchasing) Regulations are complementary, reinforcing that adults should not in any way be able to make children victims of smoking. Regulation 3 usefully defines the term "nicotine product". That is, of course, always developing, and the regulation has to be updated to stay in line. The Tobacco Retailer (Fixed Penalty) (Amount) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 have been updated to define the fixed penalties involved, and I very much welcome that clarity.
It is important to congratulate all those who have been involved in the campaign for this step. I pick out in particular Cancer Focus; Cancer Research UK; Action Cancer; Chest, Heart and Stroke; and the Stroke Association. They have lobbied for this for many years and will be delighted that we have got to this stage. As a Chamber, we are stating clearly how we expect people to behave responsibly towards the most vulnerable. We have heard today about issues such as asthma and cancer, and we have a duty to those whom we represent to put forward health policy and regulations that protect people's health not just now but in the future.
It is not expected that the smoking in cars legislation will frequently need to be enforced; indeed, in the first four years of application in Scotland, no penalties were applied, and we expect people to go along with it in recognition of the protection that it is designed to offer. I welcome, however, the Department's commitment for a full and comprehensive communications action plan to ensure awareness of the new rules before they come into force. Fundamentally, the regulations are about good public health, and there is no better time than now to bring them in. I strongly commend them.
Mr Swann: First, I thank the Chair, Deputy Chair and members of the Health Committee not just for speaking in the debate but for their support in bringing forward the regulations to the House.
I will address a number of issues that were raised in the debate. The delay in bringing the regulations forward was noted by a number of Members. As the Chair of the Committee indicated, the delay was caused by this place not sitting and by the officials working on issues relating to the pandemic and to Brexit. When the opportunity arose to bring forward the regulations, at a time that allowed my officials to bring them forward and the Committee to engage with them, we did so.
I join Ms Bradshaw in acknowledging the organisations that continued to lobby for the regulations, which bring us in line with the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
The Chair of the Committee and Ms Bradshaw raised a concern about caravans and motorhomes. I draw the Members' attention to regulation 2(2)(6) of the draft statutory rule, which clarifies that:
"(a) a caravan or motor caravan that is stationary and not on a road; or
(b) a caravan or motor caravan that is stationary, is on a road and is being used as living accommodation."
is outside the regulations. That is covered in the front page of the regulations.
The Deputy Chair of the Committee, Ms Pam Cameron, indicated her support and asked that, when evidence is received in the months and years ahead, I give a commitment to bring the regulations in. I will give the Department of Health's commitment in the months and years ahead that it will move when the evidence is presented. I will not make any presumptions about who may be in this office at that point.
I turn to Mr McGrath's comments. I thank the SDLP for its support for the draft statutory rules, which he described as "adequate". I think that they extensively give effect to the policy intent of the regulations over the years that they have been sitting in abeyance. I am glad that we have got here today with all-party support for what needs to be done. As regards Mr McGrath's indication of the importance of the cancer strategy being brought forward in a timely way, it is imperative that we do that.
The Deputy Chair of the Committee raised the issue of when the regulations, especially those on travelling in private vehicles, will come into effect. That is covered on the front page of the regulations. They will be applicable if:
"(a) it is enclosed,
(b)there is more than one person present in the vehicle, and
(c)a person under the age of 18 is present in the vehicle."
All three of those conditions must be met.
I thank Mr Chambers for his contribution. I am thankful for the acknowledgement of his and my party's support for bringing the regulations forward when we had the opportunity to do so.
The final Member who spoke was Ms Bradshaw. She raised a number of points, including the importance of the lobbying of other organisations in making sure that the issue did not drop off the agenda and the work of the all-party group in keeping the issue in focus. I acknowledge the thanks that she passed on to the departmental officials for their engagement in that regard. She also highlighted the importance of the dual approach to enforcement of the regulations involving the PSNI and local government.
Having covered the points made by Members, I hope that we can all agree on the importance of protecting our young people from exposure to second-hand smoke and nicotine addiction. The 2019-2020 health survey showed that 92% of adults who own a family car do not allow smoking in it when children are present. That is an encouragingly high number, but there is no room for complacency. More broadly, it is hoped that the Smoke-Free (Private Vehicles) Regulations will further reduce any misperceived acceptability of subjecting children to toxic second-hand smoke in any private setting. They will also, hopefully, help to prevent children from taking up the habit by further de-normalising smoking.
Protecting our young people from a potentially lifelong nicotine addiction and the as yet unknown impacts of long-term vaping is, without question, an important public health initiative. The 2019 young persons' behaviour and attitudes survey showed that 3% of 11-to-16-year-olds used e-cigarettes regularly, which is once a week. That figure is the same as the 2016 survey and remains relatively low, but, worryingly, one fifth of that age group have tried an e-cigarette at least once. This regulatory safeguard is a vital tool in reducing children's access to e-cigarettes and subsequently reducing the potential for early nicotine addiction.
I beg that the regulations be approved.
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Smoke-Free (Private Vehicles) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.
That the draft Nicotine Inhaling Products (Age of Sale and Proxy Purchasing) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]
That the draft Tobacco Retailer (Fixed Penalty) (Amount) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
That the Second Stage of the Hunting of Wild Animals Bill [NIA 43/17-22] be agreed.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated a time limit to the debate overall but has agreed limits to individual contributions. The sponsor of the Bill will have 30 minutes to move the motion and a further 15 minutes to make a winding-up speech. The Minister will have up to 20 minutes to contribute, and the Chair of the Committee and all other Members who speak will have up to 15 minutes.
Mr Blair: I will proceed by pointing out that Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom without a ban on hunting with dogs. That is despite widespread public support for a ban, including fox and deer hunting. It is my opinion and that, widely, of the public that hunting with dogs is a cruel and unnecessary sport that causes immeasurable suffering to the hunted animals and the hunting dogs, which can also sustain horrific injuries, especially during what is known as "terrier work". Through my private Member's Bill, I intend to reform the legislation on hunting wild mammals with dogs in Northern Ireland to bring it in line with that in England, Scotland and Wales, where the practice has been illegal for nearly 20 years.
A ban on hunting with dogs in Northern Ireland is long overdue. That has been my personal and political stance for many years. It is also the policy position of my party, the Alliance Party. I firmly believe that animals being ripped to shreds by packs of dogs for human enjoyment cannot be considered a sport and that fox and stag hunting have no place in a civilised society.
Between December 2020 and February '21, I conducted an eight-week consultation exercise on my private Member's Bill. There were 18,425 responses to the survey. That is thought to be the largest number of responses to a private Member's Bill in the Assembly, and it shows the strength of feeling on the issue. An overwhelming majority of respondents, 78·16%, agreed with the proposals and said that all hunting, searching, coursing, capturing or killing of wild mammals with dogs should be banned in Northern Ireland. An even greater majority, 79·6%, said that they considered terrier work, which is using dogs to attack to cause a wild mammal to flee its cover, to be unacceptable.
Following consultation and deliberation, I considered that primary legislation would be the best mechanism by which to achieve the policy objectives comprehensively and to introduce appropriate penalties for breaches of the proposed law. Therefore, the Bill will make a consequential amendment to the Welfare of Animals (Northern Ireland) Act 2011 to ensure that a coherent statutory framework is in place.
The Bill aims to introduce a ban on the hunting of wild mammals to death with dogs, and, without introducing legislation, that practice could not be banned. I also intend the legislation to facilitate prosecutions and subsequent penalties to act as a deterrent to future hunting using dogs to kill wild mammals. I am also conscious of loopholes in the legislation in other jurisdictions, such as the use of trail hunting as cover for proscribed fox hunting. Accordingly, provision to address those has been included in the Bill. The legislation will ensure that Northern Ireland would lead the way with a full and comprehensive ban on hunting with dogs. It will not duplicate the exemptions and loopholes that have allowed animals to continue to be chased and killed in the rest of the UK. There is a historic opportunity to tackle the scourge of hunting with dogs once and for all in Northern Ireland. We need to end this brutally cruel activity that has no place in a modern society.
I will now outline the clauses of the Bill. In 2000, a UK parliamentary inquiry into hunting with dogs, commonly referred to as the "Burns report", established and concluded that animals suffer incredible physiological and psychological stress when chased by a hunt and that that suffering occurs regardless of whether they are eventually killed. That evidence led to a ban in England and Wales through the Hunting Act 2004. The Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 protected certain wild mammals from being hunted with dogs and placed restrictions on the practice of hunting wild mammals with dogs. Northern Ireland remains the only jurisdiction in the United Kingdom without a ban on hunting with dogs. Such hunting includes fox hunting and deer hunting. The Bill aims to introduce a ban on hunting wild mammals to death with dogs, with a definition broad enough to include deer, foxes, rabbits and mink.
The Bill also intends to ban trail hunting, which is defined in the Bill as:
"any process in which one or more dogs are induced or permitted to follow the scent of a wild mammal (whether the trail of scent has been laid naturally or by human intervention)."
It should be noted that that activity was non-existent — not even envisaged — when the Hunting Act 2004 was drafted. It is therefore crucial that a hunting with dogs ban in Northern Ireland prevent trail hunting from being used as cover for illegal hunting.
Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Is he aware of a recent court case in which it was found that trail hunting is precisely as the Member describes: a cover for fox hunting?
Mr Blair: I am aware of that, and, coincidentally, I will refer to it a line or two later in my speech.
Loopholes have been exposed in the legislation in England, Wales and Scotland that have allowed hunting to continue under certain guises, including trail hunting. Such exemptions are widely abused and make potential prosecutions difficult. They cannot be justified. It is imperative that Northern Ireland eliminate the loopholes that were highlighted in a recent court case in GB when the Westminster Magistrates' Court found a leading huntsman guilty and ordered him to pay £3,500 for giving advice on how to carry out hunts illegally. It was described as a landmark case. The court heard that, at two webinars last August, he had told members of the Hunting Office to use the legal form of trail hunting as a "smokescreen" for the criminal activity.
In addition to that, the Bill introduces a ban on terrier work, which is defined as:
"a process in which dogs are induced to enter a hole in the ground —
(a) in order to flush out or otherwise force a wild mammal to leave the hole, or
(b) in order to make it easier or quicker to dig a wild mammal out of the hole."
That is a simple description for the purpose of my speech, but I assure Members that the footage that I have seen of the activity is harrowing and makes for uncomfortable viewing. A secondary matter with terrier work that I was made aware of during the consultation process is that terriers can often sustain injuries. It can be the case that professional veterinary care is not sought and dogs are treated elsewhere. I have heard reports of dogs having staples in their jaws and superglue in their mouths as intended fixes. Those injuries also suggest that the dogs impacted in such circumstances are used for activities other than simply flushing rabbits and may have been involved in illegal badger baiting, for example, such is the extent of their injuries.
The Bill allows for exemptions. Hunting is exempt from the prohibition in clause 1 if it is confined to hunting rats or mice or if it complies with all the conditions listed in clause 4. Hunting that satisfies the conditions listed in the exemptions will not be deemed to be illegal. The exemptions cover protection of livestock, crops, biodiversity and hunting that puts food on the table, as well as the established and historical practices that are part of country life.
The Bill permits the hunting of wild mammals for the protection of biodiversity. However, I have to say at this point that hunting with dogs is more likely to have an adverse impact on wildlife, conservation and the wider environment. One of the most obvious characteristics of hunting with dogs as undertaken by organised hunts is the fact that it is based on a large pack of big dogs moving through the land at high speed, followed by many people who are often on horseback. That is bound to have an impact on the land where that occurs, because, naturally, the hounds will not care about disturbing the natural habitat where they are hunting, and those areas will, perhaps, include ground used by nesting birds that are already protected by law. Those consequences of recreational hunting and biodiversity conservation have been supported by a number of reviews and reports.
Members will also note that drag hunting and clean boot hunting have not been included in the Bill's remit. Both practices are non-lethal forms of hunting, and it is my hope that those involved in fox hunting will adapt and move to those animal welfare-friendly alternatives. It is vital, however, that the two activities are not confused with trail hunting. I emphasise that trail hunting is not drag hunting or clean boot hunting. Trail hunting can, however, be used as cover for illegal hunting, which is why it has been included in the Bill's remit. In fact, the exemptions in general have been written to avoid the potential for loopholes, misinterpretation and uncertainty.
In setting the penalties, I followed the highest penalty in section 31 of the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. A person who commits an offence under this Act is liable:
"(a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to a fine not exceeding £20,000, or both;
(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years, or to a fine, or both."
It is my hope that we can scrutinise the penalties further at Committee Stage, including the potential forfeiture of any dog or hunting article used in the commissioning of the offence or in the possession of the convicted person at the time of their arrest.
The interpretation section further defines the remit of the legislation. It states:
"It is an offence to organise or participate in the hunting of a wild mammal with a dog"
and that all willing participants or those otherwise involved in the pursuit of a wild mammal will have caused an offence. In defining the offences, I have not included a clause for recklessness. As trail hunting is to be prohibited, there is no need to extend that hunting offence to cover cases where a person who goes drag hunting is reckless and a live hunt ensues. I have made the offences ones of strict liability, which means that prosecution has to prove only the organisation of or participation in the hunting that I have mentioned. "Participation" carries within its natural language a meaning of deliberate engagement or organisation of a hunt that should, in turn, naturally exclude a person's genuinely inadvertent stumbling across a hunt.
I am grateful to present on the Hunting of Wild Mammals Bill, for the debate on the matter and for the opportunity for the Bill to progress for further consideration and scrutiny. Members will be aware that I represent a largely rural constituency and that, before I joined the Assembly, I worked closely with the country sports sector for many years and tried to ensure that country sports and other outdoor activities were accessible to the public. The Bill is not intended in any way to restrict traditional country sports such as shooting, using gun dogs or angling. The Bill maintains appropriate balance by exempting hunting from the ban in certain circumstances, including avoiding damage to livestock, crops or property and causing damage to the biological diversity of an area. It is therefore not my intention to go further than the scope of the Bill as outlined in the content and described today to Assembly colleagues. It is my hope that the Bill's clearly defined scope, to which I do not intend to add, is also a good reason why the Bill can easily be considered, consulted on and debated in a timely manner within the time limits of the current mandate.
We have a historic opportunity to make a significant difference: a real opportunity for Northern Ireland to not only catch up with the rest of the UK but lead the way in ensuring full, robust protection for animals persecuted for sport and human enjoyment. I look forward to debating the Bill's principles with political colleagues. I hope that they will give the legislation their backing so that we can finally consign hunting with dogs to history, where it belongs. I urge Members to support the Bill.
Mr McAleer (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I welcome the opportunity to outline the Committee's views on the Hunting of Wild Mammals Bill.
The Committee received evidence from the Bill sponsor last Thursday. It recognises that this is a contentious matter and that due consideration needs to be given to the issues before introducing such restrictions. The Committee heard that the purpose of the Bill is to ban the use of dogs to hunt wild mammals to death, including foxes, rabbits, deer, hare and mink. It seeks to bridge a legislative gap here and in other parts of these islands. The Bill goes further, however, by closing legislative loopholes that have been exploited by individuals to continue the use of dogs to hunt under permissible activities.
Clause 1 will make it an offence to organise or participate in the hunting of wild mammals with dogs. The Committee acknowledges that the use of dogs will invariably lead to distress for other animals and potentially cause additional suffering.
The Committee was advised that, in order to bring a prosecution or impose a penalty under the Bill, there will be a threshold test to prove active participation and pursuit of a wild mammal using a dog. Members raised questions about that and were concerned that there may be insufficient safeguards to protect individuals who find themselves in a situation in which their dog independently chases a wild mammal. Related to that, members highlighted the fact that clause 6, which sets out how the Bill's provisions are to be interpreted, has a very wide scope and will potentially lead to individuals engaging in appropriate activity being sanctioned, penalised or restricted unnecessarily.
Clauses 2 and 3 of the Bill will ban the use of dogs in trail hunting and terrier work respectively. The Committee heard that trail hunting, whereby a dog is induced to follow the scent of an animal by artificial or actual means, has been used in some areas by people to circumvent a ban on the use of dogs, so it has been included in the Bill as a way of closing that gap. Terrier work, which involves the use of dogs underground to flush a wild mammal, is likely to cause the hunted animal distress and can also be dangerous to the participating dog, with a risk of injury associated with operating underground.
Clause 4 sets out exempted activities. The use of dogs to hunt rats and mice will be permissible. It will also be permissible to use dogs to hunt wild mammals if all the following preconditions are met: the hunting is carried out to prevent damage to livestock, crops, property or the biodiversity of an area or to obtain meat for consumption; each person who occupies the land on which the hunting will take place has given consent; no more than two dogs are used; and the wild mammal must be shot dead as soon as possible by a competent person. Members of the Committee acknowledged that those criteria are broadly reflective of other laws but consider that greater time and scrutiny will be required to explore the issues to determine their appropriateness.
Clause 5 establishes the penalties that may be imposed through the Bill. An individual who is found to commit an offence may be subject, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for up to 12 months and/or a fine up to £20,000, and, on indictment, to a prison term of up to five years, in addition to a possible fine. Those penalties are similar to provisions in other Acts, but greater time to review them is required in order to consider the proportionality of the penalties in the context of the very low conviction rates seen in England and Wales for similar breaches.
The Committee heard about the significant number of responses that the Bill sponsor received to the consultation, indicating the strength of feeling from members of the public on the issue. Notwithstanding the commitment that the intent of the Bill is to ban hunting with dogs, there is a strong lobby that considers hunting with dogs to be an important economic and recreational outlet, particularly in rural communities. We did not take a position on the Bill, but, should it pass its Second Stage today, we will engage on all the matters raised with the Bill sponsor and various stakeholders.
I will add some comments from my perspective as Sinn Féin spokesperson on agriculture and rural affairs. Sinn Féin does not agree with a ban on hunting. There are elements of the Bill that we agree with, however. The legislation as it stands is unworkable and would require significant additional time in Committee to rectify that. That is time that we do not currently have, given the challenges of other legislation, such as both Climate Change Bills.
I have no doubt that the issue will be revisited in the next mandate when the appropriate time can be set aside to examine it in the round and to work alongside stakeholders to see what legislative changes are needed, if any. It is my view that the process would be best taken forward by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and its Minister in the next Executive, through a public consultation process in the first instance.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Chair for giving way. I realise that reference to Committee business is a significant part of his position, but how many Bills is the AERA Committee considering? I am aware that the Health Committee, for example, is considering multiple Bills at this stage. Surely the pressures on the schedule can be overcome if MLAs put their shoulder to the wheel.
Mr McAleer: The Member will be aware that both Climate Change Bills are taking up the vast majority of the Committee's bandwidth at present. We are also dealing with the Horse Racing (Amendment) Bill and other important pieces of policy, such as the new environment policy and the new agriculture policy. The Bill will require more in-depth and thorough scrutiny at this juncture to give it due consideration.
Mr Irwin: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and record my concerns about the unintended consequences of what, in my view, amounts to bad legislation. As I represent a rural constituency, it will be no surprise to Members that I have received hundreds of pieces of correspondence from people who are deeply concerned about this poorly thought-out Bill. I wish to see it taken off the table.
The correspondence has come from responsible individuals who have taken time to explain to me their real concerns about the Bill. It is my duty to represent the hundreds of people who have contacted me, people who have raised their concerns and, indeed, drawn my immediate attention to the fact that practically every dog owner in the country whose dog may, at some point, chase a wild animal, could, indeed, be committing an offence if this poorly thought-out and ill-advised draft law were actually to come into force.
The Bill is poorly drafted, and its promotion has raised the concerns of many people. The Bill sponsor has unfairly painted a picture of rural life that is simply untrue. That is a regrettable by-product of this bad draft legislation. As a farmer, I am in tune with the rural environment and, indeed, care greatly for the animals that are in my control. I do not, at any time, wish to see any animal suffer needlessly. Indeed, as on my farm, farmers on many farms throughout the country spend heavily each year to ensure that animals are healthy and well. They also spend heavily on maintaining healthy habitats for wildlife, which has important knock-on benefits for the countryside. The control of vermin and pest species is an important part of maintaining the rural ecosystem. Certain species must be controlled effectively to ensure that that important balance is kept.
The Bill is the thin end of the wedge. As we have seen with such attempts at legislation previously, hunting, whilst it is not a pursuit that I engage in, is not the issue here; rather, this Bill is an attempt to create division and, indeed, misrepresent the rural community. The Countryside Alliance has conducted a significant amount of research and consultation on the issue. It makes an important point about evidence and the fact that, in the drafting of the Bill, no attempt seems to have been made to examine the evidence. There is significant research and a huge evidence base out there, following similar exercises on the mainland. It is worth considering that much of that evidence still points to a firm need to control the environment and pest species, and that need will remain.
Mr Blair's consultation has been the subject of much concern. There is a significant question mark over where the responses came from; whether they were from Northern Ireland or whether many were, possibly, generated from overseas. The consultation required only an email address, and of course it is important that any consultation focuses on the views of people here in Northern Ireland and is not open to abuse through organised spam emails. I remain concerned about the consultation process.
The inclusion of a two-dog limit in the Bill is a huge concern. It represents a real threat to how animals can be protected from vermin and pest species, and it would create huge difficulties to farmers with livestock that is susceptible to attack. The Bill would drastically reduce the capacity to deal with such attacks on livestock and, indeed, manage game.
Clause 6 is also a huge concern. It would see a criminal offence being committed if a dog, while out for a run with its owner, decides to chase a wild animal. The poorly constructed Bill is concerningly open in its language in that area. It would have serious implications for a wide range of scenarios, such as a simple day out in the country with your pet dog. It would also have implications for rough shooters, gamekeepers, pest controllers and, indeed, farmers.
I say it again: the Bill is bad for the countryside and risks criminalising ordinary people. Surely, that cannot be allowed to happen in this day and age. Members, you simply cannot be oblivious to the ramifications of the Bill and what it would mean, in legal terms, for the countryside and rural dwellers. You may not have an interest in hunting, but surely you have an interest in the House creating laws that are sensible, logical and, crucially, enforceable. The Bill is none of those. I sincerely hope that it does not progress. It will represent a very backward step and create a legislative nightmare. The resource implications for the PSNI will be significant, and, as we have seen in other areas such as mainland UK, the rate of enforcement is disproportionately low when compared to other offences. On the basis of what is before the House, I cannot support the Bill, given the concerning legal ramifications. I urge the House to reject the Bill.
Mr McGlone: I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue today and thank the Member for affording us the opportunity. The SDLP is deeply committed to animal welfare, preventing the abuse of animals and ensuring that abusers correctly carry the consequences. A lot of work has been done in relation to the register of offenders by my colleague Dolores Kelly, with Sinéad Bradley, myself and councillor Malachy Quinn.
I lay my cards on the table: I am one of the people who engage in country sports. I do not hunt with dogs like this here, but I am one of the 54,000 people who have a firearms certificate for the purpose, and John already knows that. My concern is not flippant or an aside. It is a major concern about section 6, "Interpretation":
"A reference in this Act to the hunting of a wild mammal with a dog includes any case where a wild mammal is pursued by one or more persons and one or more dogs are employed in that pursuit."
That is the draft legislation as proposed at the Second Stage in this Bill. What does that mean? Where I come from, it is not unusual to see a group of people, mostly on a Saturday morning, out with their dogs and shotguns, either after pheasants or on their way to the duck pond or to Lough Neagh to carry out a very legitimate and approved activity. Indeed, I will place on record that many of those people are among the most law-abiding people that there are, because they do not want anything to jeopardise their sport or the retention of their shotgun or whatever they have the firearms certificate for.
The Chair has already mentioned that, under this legislation, a person can face:
"imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to a fine not exceeding £20,000".
I will paint a picture: go back to that Saturday morning when that group of people are going out pheasant shooting or whatever it might be. They will have specially bred dogs for that purpose; they are good dogs such as spaniels. Those dogs get the scent of a wild mammal, and they are off in pursuit of it. The owners will try to restrain the dogs and get them back so that they can get to their destination. In the meantime, a police officer has observed that activity. According to the Bill we have in front of us, that police officer has observed an organised group of people who are in the act of:
"hunting of a wild mammal with a dog includes any case where a wild mammal is pursued by one or more persons and one or more dogs are employed in that pursuit."
Mr Blair: I thank the Member for giving way. I will make two points, and perhaps he can clarify them. So far, he has clearly outlined that he does not have a major difficulty with some of the elements of the Bill that deal with the most brutal and barbaric of country sports. Can the Member clarify his position on fox hunting, for example? However, to clarify the legislative position on police intervention if such a thing happened, I ask him if that is not exactly what currently happens with the legislation that is designed to protect badgers. If a dog instinctively or innocently follows the scent of a badger, that set of circumstances already exists. As far as I am aware, no one has been prosecuted on that basis.
In relation to the police and the legislative situation with badgers, thus far, nothing has happened. We have to trust the police to make a judgement at the time. Other allegations against someone who holds a firearms certificate might also have implications for them, not just this.
Mr McGlone: I thank the Member for that intervention. There is but one difference between the badger and some of those other mammals; the badger is, largely, a nocturnal animal, and, generally, people are not out with dogs at that time of the night.
Mr Stalford: I appreciate the Member's giving way. Surely the issue is about intent. The law is clear about people intending to pursue wild mammals. The issue is clearly about intent. If the Bill passes, I see no scenario in which innocent people will end up being hauled in front of a court over an accident where their dog picked up and followed a scent. It is clear that the Bill is about the intent of the pursuit of wild mammals.
Mr McGlone: I get what the Member is saying, but, if a police officer observes a group of people with a group of dogs in pursuit of a wild mammal, the police officer is duty-bound to assess that situation, as they see it at that moment, be it rightly or wrongly.
Allow me to expand on that. I am sure that other Members have dealt with people who have got into problems, be they alleged, perceived or otherwise, with firearm certificates. Under the interpretation of the Bill, as I read it, the implication is that people will face difficulties and possibly prosecution owing to not only being caught in that scenario by a police officer or officers but being in possession of a firearm. One issue relates to animal welfare, and the other is quite clearly the illegal use of a firearm, as it would be seen. In the context of the legislation, as a consequence of a serious offence such as one relating to animal welfare, their shotguns are immediately scooped and taken into safe holding by the police.
Mr Blair and I had a discussion about that, and those issues can be left to be rectified by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS). We all know the legalities and how the law works. From the initial point of the guns being scooped, to statements being prepared by police, to those statements being passed to the Public Prosecution Service and the Public Prosecution Service delivering a decision, it can take 12,18 or 24 months, and, with COVID-19, it has taken incredibly longer over the last while. Even at the point at which the Public Prosecution Service makes a decision and says, "No, there will be no prosecution", the decision to return that person's firearm is left not to the Public Prosecution Service but to the firearms and explosives branch (FEB). Based on the evidence that it has, including the statements of police officers, it can decide whether that person is fit for the return of the firearm. That is the process. I have been through it with many people over the years, and it is a fair indication as to how things can go, especially when that happens.
I have to pay tribute because some information arrived this morning. Some of the legal aspects and concerns around the Bill have been raised by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC). Some detailed advice around the Bill has come from legal persons. In the intervening 12, 14, 18 months or however long it may take for the PPS to make a decision on the matter and the FEB to return the gun —
Mr McGlone: Yes, thank you, I will wind up now. If that person is in a sensitive occupation, such as a veterinary surgeon, a police officer, probation officer or anyone in social services, their boss may call them in and say, "Here, I hear that you are being investigated for a very serious offence". Those issues around that interpretation really need to be addressed. I appreciated Mr Blair listening to us on Thursday, when we raised those issues, and again on Thursday evening with the party, but I have serious concerns about — I do not dispute that they are not intended consequences — what are unintended consequences of the interpretation under clause 6. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; I hope that I have made the time frame work.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call Rosemary Barton, and I advise the Member that I may have to interrupt her, as we are approaching Question Time at 2.00 pm.
Mrs Barton: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; I will try to keep within the time limits. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this Second Stage debate.
Northern Ireland has no dedicated and specific legislation that bans or regulates the hunting of mammals with dogs, unlike in England, Scotland and Wales, where hunting with dogs is either restricted or banned by legislation. We do, however, have legislation that protects wildlife as its objective, such as the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, which prohibited hare coursing but left the possibility to hunt wild animals. There is also legislation to deal with attacks on people, livestock and other animals.
While there are many who say that hunting with dogs is a necessity to keep predators like foxes under control, others contend that that method of control is very cruel and causes unnecessary suffering before the animal dies. There are swifter and more humane methods of eradicating predators such as foxes, which are a danger to young lambs, free-range fowl and ground-nesting birds.
In considering the Bill, we must remember that its aim is to introduce a ban on hunting wild mammals to death with dogs. It is a short Bill, with 10 clauses, but there are several that need greater clarification as to their intent.
Mr Stalford: I am grateful to Mrs Barton for giving way. At Second Stage, we consider the general principles of the Bill. The further clarification that Members wish for can be provided at further stages. Can we all agree, as a general principle, that the hunting of a wild mammal to death with a pack of dogs is cruel and unnecessary?
Mrs Barton: Yes, that is what I said.
Clause 1 makes it an offence:
"to organise or participate in ... hunting".
There is no clear definition as to what a participant is. Is it an individual on horseback, who is out for a hack with their pet dogs? Is it someone who is out on a country walk, whose dog chases a rabbit?
Clause 2(2) is also ambiguous, in that it suggests that trail hunting:
"means any process in which one or more dogs are induced or permitted to follow the scent of a wild mammal".
A landowner who is walking across their fields with their dogs off a leash, which suddenly pick up the scent of a wild mammal and give chase, must be protected. One cannot prevent the hunting instincts of a pet.
I also have concerns that the current wording of the Bill would end drag hunting, which allows for pursuit by dogs following an artificial scent. Drag hunting could also allow horse riders, who formerly hunted, to continue to meet, socialise and enjoy the countryside.
Clause 3(2) states that terrier work refers to:
"a process in which dogs are induced to enter a hole".
However, there are other animals that could also be induced to enter a hole in the ground in order to force a wild mammal to leave its hole. Is that permissible, as wild animals may have the same ending?
In clause 4(3)(a) and (b), clarification is needed on the definition of "serious damage". That is an evidential threshold: how is the damage measured? In clause 4(3), clarification is also needed on whether the stalking of wild mammals for food is included.
There is ambiguity, again, in clause 6(1). If several people, or even a landowner and his family, are out for a walk and have several pet dogs along with them, those dogs could become involved in the pursuit of a rabbit. An amendment is needed to ensure that ordinary pet owners in Northern Ireland are not criminalised by the Bill.
Were the Bill to become law, and were hunts to come to an end, consideration would need to be given to compensation for the men and women who would lose their jobs. Consideration also needs to be given to the hounds that are specifically kept to accompany hunts. Those animals are not pets, and, therefore, there are limited opportunities for them to become house pets. Furthermore, will many of the hunt horses also be retired? If so, what is their future?
In conclusion, I am content for the Bill to pass Second Stage, but a lot of work and assurances are required on a number of clauses, given that alternative methods of eradicating what the agricultural community refers to as predators can address farm livestock protection issues without being a hindrance to biodiversity.
The debate stood suspended.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for his answer. I do not know if that is exactly the case. Given that there is widespread concern about the environmental impact of petroleum licences on local habitats and people who work on the land, does the Minister accept that we need to keep all fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we are to have a chance of stopping climate change, and does he support a ban to prevent the progression of any future petroleum licences?
Mr Lyons: As the Member will be aware, one of my predecessors commissioned independent research into that issue. That report is being considered as part of the development of policy options for the future of petroleum licensing. The report will be published when the Department is in a position to publicly consult on the future options for petroleum licensing, but of course that needs to be considered and approved by the Executive first.
Dr Archibald: I wrote to the Minister's predecessor in January 2020 setting out Sinn Féin's opposition to petroleum licensing in the North, and I understand that the Department has had the report, which the Minister referred to, since July. The lack of clarity since then is causing anxiety and concern to communities, which have also voiced clear opposition to petroleum licensing. Can the Minister at least provide a date for when the report will be published?
Mr Lyons: I have previously said that I hope to be able to take the report to the Executive by the end of this year, and that is still my intention.
Mr Dickson: Minister, you will be aware that there was recently a leak of information around the report. That is unhelpful in that we need to have the report in front of us so that everybody can see it. Minister, will you indicate now the direction of travel that the Department will be taking in order to assure the public that we will no longer be exploring for petroleum or other carbon-based fuels in Northern Ireland and that those fuels will be left in the ground where they rightly belong? We need a very clear statement from you, Minister, and from your Department on that.
Mr Lyons: Of course, that is not a decision just for me but is, rightly, an Executive decision. That is why independent research has been commissioned. That will be part of the evidence base that we use when we discuss the matter as an Executive, and that report will then be published once we consult on policy options.
Mr M Bradley: Minister, in view of the comments made around the House, are there any live applications in the system that include fracking? Has the Minister approved any?
Mr Lyons: It is a no to both those questions.
Mr Lyons: The policy options consultation included a commitment to publish the energy strategy before the end of 2021, and that remains that case. It is my intention to bring the energy strategy to the Executive at their next meeting, subject to the approval of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The energy strategy has been at an advanced stage, but I wanted to consider it in the context of recent steep global energy price rises, and, through my attendance at COP26, I was able to better understand the significant economic opportunities for Northern Ireland arising from global energy decarbonisation.
Mr Beattie: I thank the Minister for that. It is good to see that it is still on track to be out before the end of the year. Will the Minister consider, in conjunction with the Communities Minister, setting up a fuel poverty task force to deal with that very real issue, which people are facing today?
Mr Lyons: The Member is absolutely right to recognise fuel poverty and the problems that it is causing. It has always been a significant issue in Northern Ireland but even more so now because of the unprecedented price increases and the current cost of gas, particularly the wholesale price.
The Member will be aware that fuel poverty is the direct responsibility of the Department for Communities, and it is right that the Communities Minister leads on it. However, in the medium to longer term, I want to bring forward an energy strategy that addresses those issues in that time frame to ensure that we have an affordable and secure energy supply for Northern Ireland.
Mr Weir: It is right that the Minister paused to ensure that COP26 is reflected in the energy strategy as well as the change in energy prices, which will not be short-term. Does he agree that the key elements of any energy strategy have to be energy security and affordability of the burden placed on consumers and businesses?
Mr Lyons: Yes, that is absolutely the case. Affordability is to the fore of all our minds right now. We recognise the impact that the cost of fuel has on those in poverty, as Mr Beattie stated. All our constituents are affected by this, not only individual constituents but businesses. That is why it is vital that affordability is at the heart of everything that we do. As well as making sure that we have more affordable energy, we can help people by ensuring that they use that energy as efficiently as possible. This will be a key part of the strategy that Executive colleagues will agree. Of course, the cheapest form of energy is that which you do not use at all. We need to look at how we can invest in buildings, in particular, to ensure that we are as energy efficient as possible.
Mr O'Toole: We have asked the Department many times about issues such as fuel poverty, and we have been told to wait for the energy strategy. We have asked about support for microgeneration, and we have been told the same thing. That is understandable up to a point, but you said today that the energy strategy will be published before the end of the year. Will you give us certainty that, when the strategy is published, you will come to the Assembly and allow us to question you on what is in it, so that we can best understand how it will meet the important questions on energy transition and affordability that all Members have?
Mr Lyons: As a Minister, I have always opened myself up to the scrutiny of the Assembly. I am more than happy to take any questions from Members. The strategy will receive broad support. All the Departments have worked together on it. I understand and recognise the role of the House to ask questions, which may be difficult questions at times. I will be open to that.
Mr McGuigan: The Department has already indicated that we will not see any legislation from the energy strategy in this mandate. Others have already indicated the urgency of the issues, not least the need to decarbonise and the massive impact of the rising cost of energy. At the very least, will the Minister indicate what aspects of the strategy will be brought forward, and can he give a commitment that this will be done as soon as possible in the next mandate?
Mr Lyons: I am unable to give any commitment as to what happens in the next mandate. I may not be in this post, and I cannot tie the hands of any future Minister or Assembly. It will be up to them to decide. It is my job to bring the energy strategy to the Executive, and it will be up to them to decide whether to support it. However, we want to move forward with what is in the strategy as soon as possible. That is how we will make a difference and a change that will impact on people's lives, businesses and jobs.
Mr Lyons: The change to the red diesel rebate is being progressed by HM Treasury; it is not a taxation issue within the scope of devolution. I have had limited correspondence in relation to this change, but, as Economy Minister, I am aware of the impact that it will have on the construction industry in particular and the cost that it will add to consumers. There will be an impact here on mining, quarrying, waste management and commercial heating, and that will most likely be passed to consumers.
Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for his response. Does he accept that there will be huge implications? For instance, there are people who drive a mechanical digger all day. They work for farmers in the morning and, in the evening, they are on a building site doing excavation work for a bungalow. How can they change from one fuel to another in a few hours? It is nearly impossible. It would be very difficult to work in that way.
Mr Lyons: The Member is absolutely right. Changes to various industries will take place. For someone who works in farming and construction, and who uses the same piece of machinery in both, it will cause difficulties. I am not sure whether the Government have thought all of that through. I have already raised the issue, in part, with the Finance Minister, who will take the lead on it with the Government at Westminster. That is another example of the difficulties that it may cause. It will create a difficulty for people in those businesses in particular.
Mr Nesbitt: The Minister will be aware that some key installations, not least power stations, have reserves of red diesel in case of emergency. Has the Minister secured an exemption for those installations?
Mr Lyons: The UK Finance Bill will require Northern Ireland electricity generators to replace the rebated fuel with white diesel prior to 1 April 2022. That will result in Ballylumford and Kilroot burning existing stocks of red diesel in advance of the deadline to completely purge and clean storage tanks so that they can accept white diesel. Of course, there are significant additional costs to replace red diesel. I have been in correspondence on that, but no exemptions have been secured for Northern Ireland at this point.
Mr McHugh: Minister, have you had any engagement with Ministers in the Republic of Ireland, given the possible impact that the removal of the red diesel rebate will have on businesses operating in border regions? I think of my region in particular, in which people will potentially be faced with two different sets of regulations.
Mr Lyons: No. I have not had those conversations with any Ministers in the Republic of Ireland.
Mr Lyttle: Is the Economy Department on schedule to meet the targeted removal of red diesel from our roads?
Mr Lyons: I do not think that that policy is an area of responsibility for my Department.
Mr McGlone: I thank the Minister for his engagement on the issue. What measures is his Department attempting to take to mitigate the worst impacts of the restricted use of red diesel? We have heard about the technical aspects, but there is one very practical aspect, and that is the potential 12-week wait to get the redemption on the duty paid. Have representations been made to Westminster on that matter?
Mr Lyons: Certainly, it is the case that that is a taxation issue. As a result, it is the Department of Finance that primarily engages with the Treasury on those issues. I have previously expressed some of my concerns about that. I have since picked up more, so I will correspond further with the Government to ensure that they recognise the implications of the actions that they are taking and to see what mitigations can be put in place to protect us from the worst of those.
Mr Lyons: In my statement to the Assembly on 2 November 2021, I announced that I was to extend the deadline for people to use their Spend Local prepaid card from 30 November to 14 December. That provided a further two weeks for people to use their card. That will provide applicants, especially those who receive their card now, with a fairer timescale in which to use their card. It will also provide additional time for people who have already used their card to spend any remaining balance, no matter how small that may be, to support those businesses that were hit so hard by the pandemic. It remains the case that most people will have had at least four weeks to spend their card, but I recognise that that will not be the case for everyone.
To date, 1,399,877 cards have been dispatched, and 1,350,436 of those have been activated. As of today, over £115 million has been injected into our local economy. I have been very encouraged by the feedback from local businesses, Chambers of Commerce and trade representatives from all parts of Northern Ireland. They have been telling me how important the economic boost from the spend on the card has been and continues to be in helping them to recover from the severest impacts of the pandemic. I have encouraged and will continue to encourage everyone to fully spend their Spend Local prepaid card to support Northern Ireland's local businesses right up to the scheme's closing date.
Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, Minister, for your response. Yes, some of the figures are very encouraging, but there remain some constituents of mine who have not yet received their card. I had correspondence from a constituent today who was advised on 26 November that his details had been verified, but, as of today, he has still not got his card. Minister, there are a lot of people who are relying on this £100, not least the people who lost their jobs during the pandemic. What will you do for the people who have not received their card? Will they be compensated?
Mr Lyons: I am sure that, like the Member, all other Members have constituents who are yet to receive their card. I am pleased that another 4,500 cards are being sent out today. We are now using a next-day delivery service to ensure that those are got out as quickly as possible. That is important, because it is in everybody's interests that they get their card, and it is in everybody's interests that they spend what is on it. MLAs are continuing to get in contact with the Department to assist those who have not yet received their card, and my Department remains ready to help those who need it.
Mr Dunne: Does the Minister believe that the scheme is delivering on its twin objectives of providing an economic stimulus for our high streets and reorienting people away from clicks to bricks?
Mr Lyons: I believe that it has done. We need only look at the figures on the uptake of the scheme and on the spend thus far. It has been very encouraging. As I said, I have spoken to chambers of commerce and local retailers right across Northern Ireland, and everybody is saying the same thing: that they are getting people into their shops, retail premises, entertainment facilities and leisure facilities who perhaps had not been in for a while and would not otherwise have come in if they had not had their card. That is great news, and I thank everybody who has been involved in the promotion of the scheme.
I know that Members across the House have been encouraging people to apply and to spend, and to spend locally, so the scheme is absolutely getting people out and giving a short-term economic boost. Nobody can doubt that. There is also some evidence to suggest that people are not only going once and spending their card but starting to come back again or being brought on to the high street to spend their card and then coming back because they have seen something in another shop. We had some really encouraging statistics towards the end of last week that showed that the footfall on Northern Ireland's high streets is significantly improved compared with that in the other regions of the UK: Scotland, England and Wales.
The scheme is therefore working for both objectives, but I encourage people to continue to spend and to make sure that they use everything that is on their card in order to give as much of a boost to the high street as we can.
Ms Kimmins: Like the Member who asked the original question, I have been dealing with scores and scores of people who have still not received their card. Just over a week out from the deadline, I hope that they receive it very soon.
Minister, one of the other issues about which there have been some concerns is that of people who applied for the card and received it but, for whatever reason, have not activated or used it. Can you provide some figures on the numbers of eligible people who have not applied for the card or who applied for and received it but have not activated it so far?
Mr Lyons: We do not have a list of or figures for the number of people who were eligible to apply but did not. I think that we publicised the scheme very well. Our estimates suggest that in and around 1·4 million people in Northern Ireland were eligible and that in and around 1·4 million have applied, so there has been an exceptionally high uptake rate.
As I said earlier, 1,399,877 people have had their card sent to them, and 1,350,436 have had their card activated. There are therefore in and around 50,000 people who have not activated their card yet. I suppose that you do not need to activate your card until you spend it, but I encourage everybody to do that as soon as possible. Again, I encourage everybody to go out and make sure that what is on the card is spent before the deadline and for everybody to spend not only some of it but everything that is on it. Last week, on average, there was £17 left on every card, and today that is £11. People are using it up, but I encourage everybody to do so before the deadline.
Mr McCrossan: I put on my record my thanks to the Minister's Department for the swift way in which it is has been responding to our offices. It has been very useful and, on many occasions, quite swift. This week, reference was made to the fact that 3,000 phone calls relating to concerns around the scheme are made to the Department each day. Aside from the cost of the cards themselves, what is the actual overall cost of administering the scheme?
Mr Lyons: I do not have that information. I know that it exists, but I do not have it in front of me. I am more than happy to provide that information to the Member in writing. I hope that he understands that I do not have all of that here.
Mr Lyons: Throughout the pandemic, the Health and Safety Executive has sought to utilise the information emanating from the Public Health Agency in a way that will assist employers to keep their staff safe and that will allow them to continue to function. That advice has been offered not only through face-to-face inspections but via email, telephone conversations, social media and regularly updated advice on the Health and Safety Executive's website.
The Health and Safety Executive has no vires in areas such as leisure, retail or hospitality. Its role in ensuring that food production and processing, the transport and logistics sector and key manufacturing sites have been able to continue throughout the pandemic has been critical, however, and it has protected our economy while keeping people safe in the workplace. Since the start of the pandemic, the Health and Safety Executive has provided direction or advice during 1,736 COVID-related site visits.
Mr Beggs: Minister, there have been some superspreading events, which have endangered staff and patrons. Over 200 young people contracted COVID at a disco in The Elk in Toomebridge and took it home to their families. Does the Minister accept that, in such high-risk venues, COVID certificates or proof of a negative lateral flow test reduce the likelihood of the spread of COVID and, ultimately, the pressures on our hospitals? What role does the Health and Safety Executive play in monitoring and enforcing the regulations?
Mr Lyons: The Health and Safety Executive does not have any role in that. It does not have the legal powers or the people to enforce those regulations. That is not a way that we can enforce the regulations.
In relation to the Member's first question, we have no evidence — certainly none has been provided to us — for how COVID vaccine certification would help to reduce transmission of the virus. I accept that negative lateral flow tests could be of some use, because they can tell you about a person's immediate status. My concern about lateral flow tests, however, is that they are self-certified, so there is room for fraud.
The evidence that I have seen, from the University of Oxford and from 'The Lancet', in relation to vaccine passport certification shows that a vaccinated person and an unvaccinated person are just as likely to transmit the virus. The strong evidence that we would need in order to say that vaccine passports will reduce the transmission of COVID-19 significantly, or in any way, is not there. That is why I have concerns about the passports and believe that it is wrong to introduce them.
There will be one big impact, which will be on our hospitality sector. We have heard about the number of bookings that have been cancelled, and we have heard about many people's concerns. In particular, I have received concerns from the hospitality industry about the cost and implementation of such a scheme. That is where the difficulties have come from. A lot of people feel that they will need to deploy additional staff to bring those passports in.
Those are my concerns. It is certainly not a role for the Health and Safety Executive.
Ms Dolan: I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Minister, earlier in the pandemic, the COVID engagement forum helped to make workplaces safe by bringing trade unions, the Public Health Agency and business representative groups together to shape an agreed COVID safety policy for the workplace. Do you agree that there needs to be coordinated engagement on compliance and enforcement?
Mr Lyons: Compliance with the rules that have been put in place is clearly important. Enforcement is a difficult area. In a lot of cases, the question that people ask themselves is this: who will do the enforcement? A lot of responsibility has been left with hospitality and other industries, and that creates difficulty for them. That is where a lot of the concern comes from. It is not a role that the Health and Safety Executive is able to jump into.
I will say — it is often missed — that hospitality and other industries have worked well together and have spent an awful lot of time, effort, energy and money on making their establishments as secure as possible. If you look at some of the statistics on where spread is, potentially, taking place, you will see that they show the relative safety of some of those establishments. I pay tribute to all those who have absorbed that cost in order to keep people safe.
Mr O'Toole: Minister, I agree that hospitality is vital and that it has suffered a terrible 18 months, but I am sure that you will agree that it is critical to the functioning of the Executive in a pandemic that there is a unified message from Ministers on public health measures once the Executive have agreed them. Can you confirm whether you authorised someone to leak to the BBC two days after the omicron variant was first reported, on Friday 26 November, a letter from you that outlined your supposed opposition to COVID certification?
Mr Lyons: There have been many leaks across many months from the Executive. I am not sure who is responsible for those leaks, but they have happened, and I think that they have come from many different people over that period. The Member asks about unity in the Executive. In the past, other Ministers have expressed their concern about Executive policy. Sometimes, they think that it has gone too far; at other times, they think that it has not gone far enough. I was open and upfront with Executive colleagues, and also publicly, about my position. I do not need to hide behind anyone else leaking anything. I have been upfront about my position.
Mr Dickson: Minister, the message from the Executive is that we are all in this together. Do your words today not rather undermine that message by giving mixed messages about COVID certification and lateral flow tests and to the supporting agencies such as the Health and Safety Executive, our public health officers and others? Are we not truly all in this together, and is it not important that the Assembly and, in particular, the Executive speak with one voice?
Mr Lyons: I am here to defend the hospitality industry, which I feel has been unfairly treated. I am here to raise concerns that have been expressed about the impacts of the policies that have been put in place. I recognise that Executive colleagues have taken a different decision. The Executive are united in wanting to make sure that we defeat the pandemic and that we get to the other side of it, but, in my view, we should take measures that are proportionate and evidence-based and that actually deal with the issues. It is right that I express those concerns.
Mr Lyons: The Utility Regulator is responsible for regulating the electricity and gas industries in Northern Ireland, including prices where necessary, and it maintains continuous engagement with energy providers as part of that process. I do not have the power to halt fuel price increases. My officials, however, continue to work with the Utility Regulator and the Consumer Council to ensure that consumers are protected as much as possible through the regulated domestic tariff regime for electricity and gas in Northern Ireland.
Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We will move on to 15 minutes of topical questions. Questions 5 and 9 have been withdrawn.
T1. Mr Catney asked the Minister for the Economy, having just come from a meeting of a task force that the Minister set up to regenerate the high street, of which more businesspeople must become members, to state what his Department has done to tackle the incorrect information that has been sent to licensed premises about their liability and the risk of legal action if they do not enforce the rules on domestic COVID certificates. (AQT 1861/17-22)
Mr Lyons: I am not aware of what the Member is referring to, but, if he wants to illuminate it for me, I will be more than happy to look in to that.
Mr Catney: Owners of licensed premises have written to me to inform me that they have received threatening letters from your Department about not enforcing the rules. I am not sure whether that is 100% correct, but all help should be given to licensed premises so that they can open safely, in accordance with the rules as laid down. Minister, do you agree that the only way in which to keep those businesses open this Christmas is to do all that we can to prevent the spread of the virus, including promoting the roll-out of booster vaccines and the full use of domestic COVID certificates?
Mr Lyons: First, I am not aware of any threatening letters having been sent out by my Department. I am more than happy to —
Mr Lyons: I do not think that you can come in; this is Question Time rather than a debate. I am more than happy to speak to the Member afterwards. If he gives me some evidence of that, I would be more than happy to look in to the matter.
We should do all that we can to prevent the spread of the virus. I have set out quite clearly my position on COVID certification. I look at the evidence and what has happened elsewhere. I look at other jurisdictions that have not taken that proposal any further because of the lack of evidence that it has worked. That is my position. I recognise the concerns that the hospitality industry has expressed, and I want to do everything that I can to help that sector.
T2. Ms Flynn asked the Minister for the Economy what is being done to ensure that those people who, as of today, have not received a Spend Local card will receive a card before the deadline, given that some £6 million was allocated to administer the high street scheme and an email was issued, with a deadline of midnight on Sunday, for people who had enquiries about non-receipt of their card. (AQT 1862/17-22)
Mr Lyons: I thank the Member for her question. This issue was raised earlier. I made the point that we are doing everything that we can to make sure that everybody who was verified gets their card. That includes moving to next-day delivery so that we make sure that people get their card as soon as possible. We have a team in the Department that is going through those emails and trying to get those cards out. We are doing everything that we can. We understand the concerns that exist. Another 4,500 cards went out today. More will be sent out in the coming days. I hope that people will get those as soon as possible so that they can spend them locally.
Ms Flynn: I hope that that will reassure people. We are all getting enquiries from those who have not physically received their card, so, hopefully, that is in process.
The rationale behind the scheme was about creating a stimulus for the economy. Can the Department, even at this early stage, provide any estimates as to how much of a stimulus has been created?
Mr Lyons: We know that £115 million has been spent in our local economy. You will be aware, I am sure, of the figures from Retail NI. When we spend local, 63% of it is recycled in the local economy. It is too early to say exactly what the impact has been, but we know that it has been incredible; it has had a fantastic effect on the footfall in our town and city centres over the past month in particular. It is really important that we have that in place for the footfall alone, but there will be longer-term economic benefits that come from that as well. As I said earlier, people are going back to the high street, including after they have used their card. It is about a short-term economic boost, but it is also about getting interest back in our high streets and showing people what there is on offer. When you go physically in to a shop, you can buy something and take it home that day. There is also customer service. All of that is in one place. The feedback from retail in particular has been fantastic.
T3. Ms A Murphy asked the Minister for the Economy to confirm whether, following his examination of the Hatch report, a ban on petroleum licensing is among the options that he is considering presenting to the Executive, given that because we are in the midst of a climate crisis and communities will suffer if we do not take action now to reduce our carbon footprint, allowing the creation of an oil and gas industry in the North, in the face of overwhelming evidence of the harm that that industry will do, will have serious consequences in our communities. (AQT 1863/17-22)
Mr Lyons: As I said in a previous answer to, I think, Mr Carroll, the Executive will consider all those issues. I hope to take that paper to the Executive in the coming weeks, and it will be up to us to make a decision collectively. We will publish the report then.
Ms A Murphy: Thank you, Minister. We are now six months on from the completion of the Hatch report and its contents have still not been publicly released. What is the reason for the delay in the public release of the Hatch report?
Mr Lyons: The reason is that I want to take it to Executive colleagues first to get a way forward on a policy decision. At that stage, I will release the report to the public.
T4. Ms Bailey asked the Minister for the Economy whether the leaked copy of what is claimed to be the Hatch report, which has appeared on social media, albeit he will be too busy to have kept an eye on it or to have read it himself, though his departmental officials will have, is the same as the report that is on his desk. (AQT 1864/17-22)
Mr Lyons: I congratulate the Member on her ingenuity in asking that question. However, as I said, the report will be published once the Executive make their decision. I will not comment on any leaks before then.
Ms Bailey: Thank you. Will the Minister assure the House that absolutely no farmland in Northern Ireland will be given over to the fracking industry?
Mr Lyons: Those will be decisions for the Executive to make. As I said, I hope to bring that paper to the Executive very shortly. A decision will then be made and the report can be released.
T7. Mrs Cameron asked the Minister for the Economy for an update on the preparations for the holiday at home voucher scheme. (AQT 1867/17-22)
Mr Lyons: Unfortunately, the holiday at home voucher scheme will now not proceed. I had looked forward to being able to bring that scheme through because I recognise the difficult time that hotels, and the hospitality industry more generally, have had over the past number of months.
I brought the scheme to my Department. It considered the business case, but it was unable to confirm that it offered value for money. However, as it would give a much-needed boost and combine private and public-sector money, I believed that it was worth considering. Therefore, I issued a ministerial direction to my departmental accounting officer, which required the matter to be taken to the Executive or the Minister of Finance. Neither the Executive nor the Department of Finance was willing to approve the scheme. Therefore, unfortunately, it is unable to be progressed.
Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for his answer, although it was very disappointing. What more can be done by the Minister's Department to ensure that support goes to smaller businesses in the tourism industry, such as B&Bs, now that the scheme will not go ahead?
Mr Lyons: That is exactly why I wanted to bring in the scheme. I knew that it would create a significant economic boost. We are seeing the huge impact that the £100 cards in the high street scheme are having on our high streets. The holiday at home voucher scheme would have been a little bit different. It would have been open to everyone, but would have required public financing, as well as people using their money. That would have been a really good way to boost the economy and keep the hospitality sector and hotels, in particular, going during the really difficult months of January, February and March.
I have, however, managed to secure an additional £6·5 million of funding in order to enable Tourism Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland to undertake significant additional marketing to promote our tourism offer in Great Britain and internationally during the remainder of the financial year. I hope that, to some extent, that will help those businesses that are struggling in that way.
It has been estimated that around £1·6 million of the high street scheme expenditure has been on accommodation providers and tourist attractions, so I hope that, in some way, it has given that little bit of support. However, I am very disappointed that I was not able to secure support for what could have been beneficial measures during a really difficult time.
T8. Mr McGlone asked the Minister for the Economy whether, in relation to the high street scheme, he has considered an extension to the cut-off date, given that there appear to be, certainly from approaches to his office, quite a few people who have not received their card. (AQT 1868/17-22)
Mr Lyons: My focus right now is on dealing with the applications that are outstanding. As I said in an earlier response, 4,500 cards are due to be sent out today. It is incredible that just a couple of hundred shy of 1·4 million cards have been sent out. It is unfortunate that a very, very small number of people have not received their card, but I am doing everything that I can to make sure that they get their card as soon as possible.
Mr McGlone: Thanks very much, Minister, but have you ruled out the possibility of an extension? Some of the people affected are older and maybe have disabilities. It may not be the easiest thing for them to just turn around the expenditure within a day or two, and we are coming very close to the end of the scheme.
Incidentally, Mr Speaker, with your forbearance, I pay tribute to the staff who have been working at the Department, over weekends and the like, to turn the cards around. I also pay tribute to you, Minister, for your cooperation. I could name some of the staff individually, but that would be inappropriate to the rest of the staff who are working very hard in trying to get the expenditure out the door.
Mr Lyons: That is OK; I can take all the credit, if the Member wants. I appreciate the work that MLAs have done in bringing those cases to our attention. It is in our interests to make sure that everybody gets a card. We will be doing everything that we can to push that on. We will have a better idea tomorrow of where we are on the cards that are still outstanding.
T10. Mr M Bradley asked the Minister for the Economy whether, following his recent visit to the Middle East, he has identified any opportunities for Northern Ireland. (AQT 1870/17-22)
Mr Lyons: Yes, absolutely. The visit to Dubai a couple of weeks ago demonstrated a range of opportunities that exist for Northern Ireland. First, there are opportunities to link our further and higher education systems closer together and to make sure that we make the most of the links that we have established in recent years. Secondly, there are huge opportunities for Northern Ireland companies that are exporting not just to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) but across the Middle East. During our visit, we heard again and again of the real opportunities that exist with Saudi Arabia. I was pleased to meet representatives from Saudi Arabia. The outlook is really positive for new opportunities that exist in cyber, AI, fintech, agri-tech and med-tech. There are many, many opportunities for us there, and it is important that we are out in those markets and that we are making the most of those opportunities.
Mr Speaker: A brief supplementary question in response, please, from Maurice Bradley.
Mr M Bradley: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will the Minister be giving much financial support, especially to the higher education establishments, in order to attract students from Saudi Arabia?
Mr Lyons: Yes, absolutely. We have fantastic opportunities not only to partner with other further and higher education establishments in the wider Middle East but to get in more international students, particularly from that region. The connections that we are building up in the United Arab Emirates will help to get more of those students here in Northern Ireland.
Mr Speaker: Members, time for questions to the Department for the Economy is up. Take your ease until we move on to the next item of business, which is questions to the Department of Education.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)
Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education): On 24 November 2021, the High Court delivered its judgement in a case where some contents of a post-primary school’s admissions criteria for transfer 2021 were challenged by an applicant. In its judgement, the court found that a criterion prioritising boys whose father/guardian attended the school — I should clarify that it is an all-boys' school — was found to be unlawful in that it represented unjustified indirect discrimination contrary to article 18 of the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997.
The drawing up of admissions criteria is a matter for individual boards of governors, and my Department cannot compel schools to use specific criteria. My Department can, however, issue guidance to schools on the post-primary admissions process that schools must, by law, have regard to. In the most recent guidance, which issued in November 2021, my Department specifies the criteria that, it is recommended, schools should and should not use. One type of criterion that, it is recommended, schools should not use is any familial criterion beyond that of a sibling currently attending the school. My Department has now written to all post-primary schools to draw to their attention the court's judgement and to advise that such an admissions criterion or any similar criterion should not be used. Given the timing of the judgement, my Department extended the deadline for submission of admissions criteria by post-primary schools to allow boards of governors to review their draft admissions criteria for transfer 2022 if necessary.
Ms S Bradley: What plans does the Minister have to do an evaluation across the system to be prepared for any disruption that that may cause?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. My Department has written to all the schools that could be affected. I do not anticipate a great deal of disruption, but we have ensured that any lessons learned, particularly in relation to transfer 2021, are reflected in guidance and communication to post-primary schools.
Mr Sheehan: Last year, there were numerous reports of post-primary schools using admissions criteria that ran counter to the guidance from the Department. Despite the distress and upset caused to children and their parents, there is no sanction or repercussion for schools that do not adhere to the guidance. Is it not time for the guidance to be put on a statutory footing so that our schoolchildren are protected and supported?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. With regard to sanctions, my Department has written to schools that had quite a number of appeals upheld. We are evaluating the outcome of that. I expect that action will be taken against boards of governors who continue to go against the guidelines that the Department has issued. The Member will know, however, that the setting of admissions criteria is, by law, a matter for schools' boards of governors, and my Department issues advice. While schools must, by law, have regard to that guidance, the setting of admissions criteria remains a matter for schools.
Uniform admissions criteria would mean that, in many instances, the same children were prioritised by all schools. That would create an additional problem that would have to be reflected.
Mr Lyttle: It is regrettable that it required legal action for schools to follow Department of Education guidance. What action is the Education Minister taking to implement the 'A Fair Start' expert panel recommendation that the "systemic inequality" of academic selection for admissions be addressed as a priority?
Miss McIlveen: The Member will be aware that issues relating to schools that use transfer as part of their criteria are very much up to the individual schools.
Mr Harvey: We approach the end of the transfer test for September 2022 admission. Given that some children may not have been able to sit one or more of the tests because of COVID, is the Minister in a position to outline what may happen in that situation?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. He will be aware that the tests operated by the Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC) are held on one day and there is a supplementary assessment this Saturday for any child who could not sit the first test. The Association for Quality Education Limited (AQE) tests were held over consecutive Saturdays, and it is therefore possible that a child who tested positive for COVID could have missed more than one test. While neither the entrance tests nor the content of schools' admissions criteria are matters for my Department, guidance has issued to schools highlighting the importance of a special provision route in a school's admissions criteria. A special provision route can cater for applicants who have not been able to sit the tests by providing a means of assessing their applications in line with other applications. In a sense, that is no different from other years when illness may have prevented a child from sitting entrance tests. The approach taken will be determined by each school. Parents in that position can see the approach adopted by their preferred schools when the criteria are published on 12 January 2022.
Ms Bailey: What action can you or your Department take in the case of people appointed as board members of voluntary grammars who are found to be acting unlawfully or not adhering to the Teachers’ Negotiating Committee?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. Obviously, there must be something behind that question. I am happy to speak to the Member about that.
Miss McIlveen: We need to be clear: the Gillen report does not recommend a review of the minimum content on relationships and sexuality education. Indeed, it does not recommend greater legal prescription in the curriculum as an immediate course of action; rather, it calls on my Department to encourage schools to include issues around serious sexual offences in their curriculum. Only if that proves ineffective does it recommend mandating legislation.
My Department is taking forward important work to enhance support, resources and training for schools. A wide range of resources has been developed and is available on the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) RSE hub.
That approach is designed to improve confidence and capacity in RSE. Violence against women and girls was specifically prioritised as requiring additional curriculum resources and guidance.
My Department has also been working with the Department of Justice to consider the issues specifically raised in the Gillen review. As a consequence of that work, I have asked my officials to prepare additional guidelines for schools that set out the importance of ensuring that the issues highlighted by the Gillen review, including serious sexual offences and consent, are covered in the curriculum.
In response to concerns about sexual offences mainly against girls, my Department has commissioned the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) to carry out an evaluation of the approaches and challenges in delivering effective preventative safeguarding practices in schools. The evaluation will provide an important evidence base on the teaching of RSE in the curriculum and on the issue of violence against girls. We need to build a clear and up-to-date picture of provision in schools to inform the most appropriate next steps.
Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for her answer, particularly the priority given to the reference to the serious issue of violence against women and girls. In the light of that, has the Minister met the Justice Minister, or is there a plan to do so, and, if so, when might it take place?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. The Justice Minister met my predecessor, Peter Weir, earlier this year. As a consequence, close work has continued between officials, particularly those on the education and awareness working group. I am happy to meet the Justice Minister as that work progresses. As the Member will know, my Department has undertaken considerable work alongside and in conjunction with the Department of Justice.
Mr Newton: The question that has been asked is a serious one, and it requires wide consultation. What consultation have the Minister or her departmental officials had with the Churches on the matter?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. My Department consults a broad range of groups on all aspects of policy. In November 2020, CCEA set up an RSE task and finish group with representatives from my Department, the Evangelical Alliance, Christian Action Research and Education (CARE), Love for Life, the Christian Institute, the Association of Baptist Churches and the Elim group of churches to carry out specific engagement with Christian Churches on the RSE hub project. The group's aim is to ensure that a Christian perspective is developed, promoted and shared on the hub.
Ms Brogan: I am deeply concerned about the delay in taking forward the recommendation for a review of the RSE minimum content order. Children and young people deserve RSE that is fact-based, inclusive and age-appropriate. We should see it being consistent and mandatory across schools. When are we likely to see progress on the issue?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. As I said in my main response, Gillen raises important issues for my Department and, indeed, for other Departments. My Department is working to address those issues. It is worth noting that none of the recommendations in Mr Justice Gillen's report refers to amendments to the minimum content order. As the Member will be aware, there are issues around being prescriptive on a number of those things. What we need to do, however, is ensure that our teachers are given the ability to have appropriate resources and to develop their confidence and competence. My Department has not been found wanting in that regard. It has been working through a number of programmes to give effect to the recommendations of Sir Justice Gillen's review. As I said, we have been liaising with the Department of Justice. We have been working closely with schools and CCEA to ensure that appropriate resource is made available to teachers. The Marshall report on child sexual exploitation was published in 2014; in fact, I contributed to that report at the time. We have been working closely with CCEA to develop the hub and to make sure that there are appropriate resources in place.
Miss McIlveen: My Department’s guidance seeks to balance the need to ensure a safe environment with the need for children to access face-to-face teaching. I have therefore been led by public health advice on COVID mitigations in schools. On contact tracing in schools, we have moved on considerably from the start of the school year, when large numbers of pupils had to self-isolate as close contacts. That caused disruption in schools, with large numbers of children missing school and increased pressure on principals.
In his open letter on 9 September, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) explained that it was the right time for the Public Health Agency (PHA) to lead on contact tracing in schools and to use a more targeted approach to the identification of pupil close contacts. The more targeted approach taken by the PHA in identifying close contacts in school has resulted in improved attendance figures in schools. The PHA leading on contact tracing has reduced the burden on teachers and school leaders, who are no longer required to have a role in contact tracing.
I understand the concerns that some Members of the House and parents have expressed around the current approach to contact tracing. It was not an easy decision. However, I believe it was right that the Minister of Health and I accepted the professional advice of the Chief Medical Officer on the issue. As a result, it has significantly reduced the disruption for pupils, parents and schools. I recognise that the current high number of COVID cases, both in the community and in schools, has been very challenging for schools. At present, many schools are experiencing difficulties with teacher absenteeism and the availability of substitute teachers as a consequence of that.
Mr Boylan: I thank the Minister for her answer. The Executive have made it clear that we need to refocus and redouble our efforts to bring COVID infections under control and avoid further restrictions. Obviously, our school communities have a role to play in that. However, many school leaders feel that they are not receiving adequate support. What further measures will the Minister take to ensure the safety of our pupils, their families and school staff?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I do not underestimate the pressure on schools and the families who have been affected. However, the Executive have been clear that we have to make sure that our young people maximise the number of days that they are in school. The long-term impacts on their education and their mental and emotional well-being are incredibly important, and we need to be mindful of that.
There are mitigations specified in my Department's guidance to schools. Obviously, a range of mitigations will have to be put in place at school level to reflect the individual circumstances of each school. The guidance allows school leaders to be flexible in how they manage COVID risks in their school, and that builds on the learning that has been gained over the course of the pandemic. Schools are encouraged to take a cautious and a risk-based approach to the operation of their school.
In August, the Executive decided that post-primary pupils should continue to wear face coverings, and, obviously, that is based on public health advice and continues to apply. There will also be asymptomatic testing programmes for post-primary, special schools and all school staff. The PHA vaccination programme, as you will be aware, continues to roll out to those aged 12 and over. Schools are also advised to maximise ventilation where possible. The Education Authority (EA) is supporting schools that identify issues with that, including the provision of CO2 monitors. Schools are also encouraged to maintain pupils in consistent groups were possible and to promote good hand and respiratory hygiene practices. Schools are encouraged to facilitate social distancing.
My Department has also issued guidance to schools about remote learning and has allowed them the flexibility to do that. Employing authorities are working closely with schools that are experiencing staffing difficulties to provide additional help and make sure that they have appropriate teaching cover where available. We are mindful of all that and are being responsive to schools when they require assistance.
Mrs Dodds: We will all agree with the Minister that it is of the highest priority to keep all of our young people in school, not just for their education but for their emotional health and well-being. In light of the rising number of infections, will the Minister give the House a flavour of the number of pupils who are in attendance at school at the moment?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. My officials monitor weekly and monthly pupil attendance levels, and that informs all relevant partners of absence trends. It is clear that attendance levels in the current academic year are not as high as we would like. At primary level, overall attendance for September to October was 93·2%. In the same period last year, it was 95·1%, so there is a reduction of 1·9. At post-primary level for the same period, overall attendance was 91% this year, compared with 93·1% for the same period last year, which is a 2·1% reduction. Whilst COVID obviously impacts attendance levels, it is not the only factor. On the basis of the weekly attendance figures for the week up to 22 November, COVID-19 absences accounted for 1·9%; pupils learning from home and therefore present accounted for 1·2%; and all other absences, including authorised and unauthorised absences, accounted for 8·8% of the total. From that data, we can conclude that, while COVID is a factor, it is not by any means the only factor at play.
Ms Bradshaw: Minister, there is a lot of rumour and speculation that you will have a circuit breaker coming up to Christmas. Can you confirm or deny that?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. It was mooted in August, before school started back, that there would be a circuit breaker at Halloween. That did not happen. There have been press queries and statements around that. There are no plans for mass closure or the use of a circuit breaker in schools at this point. The Executive's decision on COVID responses in schools has been and will continue to be guided by the medical and scientific evidence. You will be mindful that there was a statement made on behalf of the Executive last Thursday that reiterated that position in relation to schools.
I am aware of the harm caused to children and young people by school closures. It is in all of our interests that we continue to provide access to classroom-based teaching for all pupils. As a society, whilst we were conscious of watching out for the health service, we need to be mindful of watching out for our schools and ensuring that the behaviour that we have outside of the classroom is reflected in that and that we protect our schools by how we behave in playgrounds and other settings to ensure that schools do not become infected.
Miss McIlveen: Abbey Community College was announced as a major capital works project in June 2014. A business case for the project was approved, with the preferred option being a new build site at Three Mile Water, Newtownabbey. The site is currently owned by Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council. The estimated cost for the project is in the region of £34·3 million. That will provide accommodation and outside play facilities for the school, which has an approved enrolment number of 820 pupils.
RIBA stage 2 concept design approval was granted by the Department on 20 October 2021, and stage 3 detailed design is in progress. A planning proposal of application notice (PAN) has been lodged, and a planning pre-application community consultation event took place on 24 November 2021 by webinar. It is anticipated that a full planning application will be lodged early in 2022. It is anticipated that, subject to planning approval being granted and successful site acquisition, construction work on the new build site will commence in 2023. The estimated construction period is 24 months, with construction expected to be completed for the 2025-26 academic year. It is intended that, following the school’s decant to the new building, the existing school building will be demolished. Thereafter, the Education Authority will consider the future use of the site.
Mr Beggs: It has been six years since the Abbey Community College opened its doors following the amalgamation of Monkstown Community School and Newtownabbey Community College. Does the Minister agree that amalgamations that follow the area plan, which is designed to improve educational outcomes, particularly for young people who have not been reaching their full attainment, should be better supported and encouraged and not experience such delays? Will she ensure that there will not be any further delays and that, in the future, Carrickfergus Academy will not take such a long time to get to that stage?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I agree with him on how the process is. However, we are in a situation in which the amalgamation took place a considerable time ago — back in 2014 — and, as a consequence, it has taken a considerable time. I understand that challenges were presented in identifying a suitable site that provided sufficient space to accommodate the accommodation that was required plus outdoor play facilities. A number of site searches had to be conducted. It followed that a business case was required to test options, and it took several months to complete the business case.
I genuinely do not disagree with the Member when he talks about the time that is required, particularly for amalgamations. I have had those discussions with officials, because similar schools, not only in East Antrim but across Northern Ireland, have found themselves in the same position. Development proposals (DPs) are brought forward, a certain carrot is presented by the prospect of a new school, and it can take many years for that to come to fruition. Certainly, pupils who are in the school at the time of a DP being proposed are unlikely to see the benefits of the new school. I agree with the Member on that, and I think that the system needs to be refined in order to reflect that.
Mr Dickson: I thank my colleague from East Antrim for raising those important issues about Abbey Community College and Carrickfergus Academy.
Minister, while there is a general and important welcome of the planning application for the new Abbey Community College, concern has been raised with me by constituents about the potential loss of a statutory Education Authority youth provision in the existing school building. There is one in the existing school building, but none is planned for the new school building —.
Mr Dickson: Will the Minister outline the plans to deliver the statutory youth provision in the area that may be lost as a result of the demolition of the old school building?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I assume that he refers to the relocation of the Bridge Youth Centre. I understand that the EA youth capital team is considering options for the relocation of that. As it currently operates in the Abbey Community College, a technical feasibility report to identify options and costs for the relocation of the club has been commenced by the EA, and, following its completion, a full business case also needs to be completed to consider and approve the preferred option and anticipated project costs.
For the Member's information, controlled youth capital is a separate funding stream from the controlled schools funding stream, but I understand that proposals for the youth centre at the Doagh Road site may have implications for other providers in the area, and that will also need to be taken into consideration.
Mr G Kelly: The Minister will be aware that Coláiste Feirste in west Belfast is hugely oversubscribed. She is probably also aware, given that she mentioned sign-ups to enrolment, that there is a huge list to get into the school. In light of our statutory duty to encourage and facilitate Irish-medium education, will the Minister detail where we are with the development of an additional campus for Coláiste Feirste?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I understand that there are pressures on the current site and that a capital works programme for additional classrooms is out for tender.
Although I do not have the detail, I understand that my officials have been working very closely for quite some time with the sectoral representatives to identify and examine potential sites and various options in north Belfast and the wider Newtownabbey area. I can assure the Member that work will continue to examine the feasibility of the sites that have been identified and that my officials will look at other options that are brought to their attention. I am very mindful of my duties, as are my officials.
Mr Robinson: After her recent visit to Limavady High School, does the Minister have any update on the school's new sports hall?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Unfortunately, I do not have an update on that. I am happy to come back to the Member on that.
Miss McIlveen: The Safer Schools Northern Ireland app is a one-stop shop, digital library of age-appropriate safeguarding resources for teachers, parents, carers and children and young people. I formally launched the app on 9 November 2021, and in the short time that has elapsed since then, some 50% of schools have now been registered and have access to their new Safer Schools NI app.
The app provides schools with access to contemporary, credible and relevant online safety guidance and alerts. It is helping schools to navigate online challenges, and it is offering advice on how parents and carers can make online devices safer for their children. In cases where school staff encounter online abuse, having access to the Safer Schools NI app, and to the professionals who provide it, will enable up-to-date support to be given to schools quickly. Helping our children and young people to stay safe in the digital world has never been more important. I encourage all schools to register for the app, if they have not done so already, and strongly encourage school staff, parents, carers and pupils to download the app. By doing so, we can help our school communities to be safer online.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I am afraid that that is the conclusion of this element of Question Time. We now move to topical questions, and the first person on my list is Ms Paula Bradshaw.
T1. Ms Bradshaw asked the Minister of Education to advise what schools should do if a CO2 monitor shows a red light, particularly because a constituent who contacted her said that when that happened in a school recently and the school asked for guidance on what it should do, none was available. (AQT 1871/17-22)
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question, which gets into technical detail. I advise the school to contact the EA for support. If that support does not come freely enough, I am happy to follow up on the Member's behalf with the school.
Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, Minister. The school said that when it asked for guidance, there was none. My supplementary question relates to high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. Are you going to purchase those for schools as well, just to purify the air?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. As she is aware, my Department secured £2 million in the October monitoring round for the purchase of CO2 monitors and other ventilation works. I have had conversations with my officials and the EA about filtration units. They are assessing each school as the request comes in. While opinion is divided as to whether those units do what they say they do, the focus will probably primarily be on those rooms that do not have windows. On my visits to schools, I have witnessed more and more storerooms being used as classrooms, particularly for the Engage programme and for counselling, and so on. There are many more rooms that may require something like those units. However, EA is responding to those situations on a case-by-case basis. I draw attention to the fact that although the EA has 10,000 CO2 monitors, only 45 schools have requested them and only 400 have been distributed. I encourage schools that need the monitors to put in a request, because we do have them.
T2. Ms Ferguson asked the Minister of Education for an update on her plans to ensure that schools have access to adequate substitute cover, given that she will be aware of reports that up to 20% of schools have experienced at least partial closure, often owing to staff shortages, with school leaders being left in an increasingly weak position and finding it difficult to access substitute cover. (AQT 1872/17-22)
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. The employing authorities are working closely with schools to address that issue. The Northern Ireland Substitute Teacher Register (NISTR) has between 7,000 and 8,000 teachers registered. However, there are challenges in that maybe 3,000 of them are on longer-term or temporary contracts. It is incumbent on schools and the supply teacher to ensure that NISTR is notified if they are in employment, because it creates a challenge for principals when they have to sit at the last minute ringing around 70 to 100 individuals to see whether they are available to come into their schools.
As I said in a previous response, in the EA's emergency resourcing team, a designated named officer for human resources works closely with schools to try to address the issue. I have looked at other suggested options to see if we could enhance the register. We have looked at the options of student teachers, retired teachers, staff in the Education and Training Inspectorate and the EA, and volunteers. Last year, the Department put out a call for volunteers who could supervise in schools, and there were 1,000 applicants. In fact, I applied to do holiday cover if it was required. We have been looking at various options. Some of the options are a bit more limited, particularly that of student teachers, who have had their own training disrupted or may already be in workplaces. The flexibility to second them is a challenge.
Ms Ferguson: Thank you, Minister. I welcome the fact that there is some plan in place and that you are trying to exhaust a range of measures. Hopefully, that will turn the situation around. At the heart of the issue is the needs of children and young people who have to experience yet another term of unsettledness and disrupted learning. Given that some will have exams, too, it will probably be a difficult time. How does the Minister intend to support exam candidates in the context of the huge disruption that they have experienced to date?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. My priority is for examinations to take place in this academic year. I am very mindful that A-level students are going into their first public examinations, as they did not have the experience of GCSEs or ASs. That, in itself, means that it is an incredibly anxious for them, never mind the challenges that there are as COVID is still with us.
A series of exams ran between 22 November and 2 December. CCEA will look at some of the data coming back from schools on young people who missed those examinations, and will be able to see the reasons why they did not turn up. There will be options to take those modules again later in the year, particularly in February and during the summer series. We will work alongside schools to assist pupils who missed exams at this point in the year.
Very early on, before the summer break, we made announcements to take account of the potential for disruptions to exams this year. Learners will be permitted to omit units of assessment, which will reduce the overall assessment. We have put in place other mitigations and methods of assistance, particularly for GCSE maths. An Engage programme focused on that. We are keeping an eye on what is going on. Any further contingency arrangements that are required will be put in place.
T3. Ms Hunter asked the Minister of Education whether she will commit, today, to meet the Justice Minister to discuss vital and crucial issues that affect our young people, given that in the most-recent Question Time to the Minister of Justice, Minister Long stated that although she would like to work closely with the Minister and her Department on sexual consent education and wider aspects of RSE, she was regretful about the Minister’s level of engagement, albeit she met your predecessor, Minister Weir. (AQT 1873/17-22)
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. As I said in my response to Mr Blair, I am committed to ensuring that work is done to protect women and prevent violence against women, and particularly exploitation of young girls. I have no issue with meeting the Justice Minister, but, as I said in my earlier answer, our officials are working very closely together and the Department is progressing that to ensure that resources and so on are in place in order to assist teachers in raising awareness in schools.
Ms Hunter: Thank you, Minister, for your answer. Can you provide a timeline for the review of consent and of wider RSE in our curriculum?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. That is moving on, and it has been moving on at pace. I do not have a particular timeline, but I am happy to come back to the Member on that. As information comes to the Department, things evolve, and it is very much a moving feast, but I am content to come back to the Member on the main tenet of the work that we are doing.
T4. Mr Butler asked the Minister of Education what steps she is taking to ensure that equal access is a reality for children at all educational facilities, given that she will be aware of the very successful first Disabled People's Parliament that was held in the Chamber on Friday 3 December, at which the contributors raised many challenges for MLAs as legislators, with Christine and Lilia McClements raising the issue of equal access to public services. (AQT 1874/17-22)
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Unfortunately, I have not been able to see the footage from the parliament yet, but I intend to watch it. Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) pupil-specific minor works are a priority for my Department. We have challenging budgets, but that is a priority, and we see that throughout our schools. We need to raise awareness in schools and make sure that all pupils have access to facilities, and I am happy to work with any school in order to provide that.
Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for her answer, and I encourage her to watch the video. It is very good, and lots of challenges were raised. What work can the Department and you, Minister, do in order to ensure that the voices of those parents and children that have that user experience are heard and that whatever they tell us is actioned?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. My Department and the Education Authority work very closely with schools, young people and parents, and if anything needs to be adapted, they will certainly respond to that. We also work very closely with contractors in order to ensure that, if there are requests, they are delivered within a time frame that is useful to the school. I have been in schools that use a variety of methods to make their school accessible, but there are other schools that require quite a considerable amount of intervention. I was at one school recently and heard that, unfortunately, because of the different levels there, in some ways, that puts off young people with a disability. That should not happen in this day and age.
T5. Miss Woods asked the Minister of Education to outline the powers that her Department has over school uniform policy in schools in Northern Ireland. (AQT 1875/17-22)
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. As the Member will be aware, that is a very live issue and is very much in focus, particularly coming towards the start of the new term. My Department issues guidance to schools and will advise on making sure that all uniforms are accessible to pupils.
Miss Woods: I thank the Minister for her answer. Saturday week ago, I attended the Northern Ireland Youth Forum's Have Your Say Day on education, where we heard directly from young people about uniform policy and about their not having the choice to wear trousers and being forced to wear skirts, for example. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that student voices are heard and that pupils have an active part in the creation of school uniform guidance in schools?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. As she will be aware, my Department has now agreed the terms of reference for a review of school uniforms, particularly around the grants but also on its policy aspects. We will take cognisance, probably, of changes that have taken place across the water. As the Member will be aware, school councils now also have quite a considerable input into school uniforms, including on their design, and boards of governors can be more or less responsive to that.
The voices of young people are important. In the review, the views of parents and young people will be taken into consideration
T6. Mr Chambers asked the Minister of Education whether it would have been prudent to have had a plan to deal with COVID disruption in place when schools returned in September, given that he noted in the press over the weekend that her Department is now preparing plans to deal with the disruption being caused by the number of teachers who are unable to attend work because of COVID infections. (AQT 1876/17-22)
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. The situation is fluid, and we will be responsive. We are mindful that there are between 7,000 and 8,000 teachers on NISTR. The pressures on the number of teachers available are the consequence of a number of factors, not only because of COVID but because a considerable number of them are now involved in Engage programmes and so on. They, too, will have been sick or unable to attend work for whatever reason. As the Member knows, the situation is fluid, and we are responding to assist schools where we can.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Minister looks delighted.
That concludes questions to the Minister of Education. Members, please take your ease for a moment while we move to the next item of business.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Debate resumed on motion:
That the Second Stage of the Hunting of Wild Animals Bill [NIA 43/17-22] be agreed.
Mr Harvey: This private Member's Bill represents an attempt to address what is undoubtedly an emotive issue for many. I am sure that, like me, Members across the Chamber have been dealing with a huge amount of mail and engaging with constituents on both sides of the debate.
Since the Bill was first drafted, I very much sympathised with its intent. I am not a hunting man, and that activity, in any shape or form, has never appealed to me, especially as an entertainment. That said, I know many to whom it does appeal, and I also know the benefits that flow from the activity both for those involved and, more widely, for our rural communities. It is no secret that, like it or not, the hunting of mammals using dogs has been employed by farmers for centuries as a method of pest control. The Ulster Farmers' Union and other organisations have drawn attention to the fact that the fox population requires constant management because of the danger that foxes present to domestic poultry flocks and lambs especially. The Member for South Antrim mentioned alternative methods of fox control, such as fox-proof fencing, ultrasonic pest devices and artificial scents, which deter foxes. Those are likely to be considered impractical by farmers in Northern Ireland. Various representations from the sector have already been made to me on that point. In any event, it can be assumed that landowners would seek government support for the funding of alternative methods of fox management, should the Bill be enacted.
It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that hunting with hounds is not seen as a major activity in Northern Ireland. Relatively small numbers of hunt groups operate in NI, and those engaged in the activity usually have long-held family connections to it. Hunts are currently regulated not only by the few registered bodies that conduct them but by external factors: for example, hunts gain access to farmland only with the consent of the farmer or landowner. That means that landowners are able to decide their position on the hunt and its place in the countryside and regulate usage accordingly. Many will be aware that the Ulster Farmers' Union has a long-standing memorandum of understanding with the Countryside Alliance and the Northern Ireland Masters of Hounds Association, meaning that problems can be raised by landowners and rectified quickly through legitimate bodies.
Opponents of the Bill argue that it raises more questions than it provides answers. It will be for the Member, working in conjunction with the Committee, to seek to address some of the practicalities that will be faced by the rural community. Attempts have been made in the Bill to close several of the loopholes that have been in evidence in England and Wales since similar legislation was enacted some 15 years ago, and that is to be welcomed. Even with the inclusion of a ban on trail hunting, however, it is difficult to see how future breaches could be identified and addressed.
Similarly, issues with the scope of the proposed legislation have been highlighted. I note that the Member previously pointed to the threshold of organised use for human entertainment as being an effective tool in limiting the scope of the Bill and ensuring that it does not become so encompassing as to include the "one man and his dog off the lead" analogy. I remain to be convinced of the viability of the legal practicalities of that point, however. Many in our rural communities have serious concerns about the future impact of the Bill on other countryside activities, including shooting and pest control, for instance.
Issues have been raised about the efficiency of the consultation process, and I have to acknowledge my concerns about the process and the results received. I appreciate that the consultation was conducted in accordance with the usual Assembly procedures, but the lack of data from respondents has severely weakened it. The Assembly needs to consider that issue more widely. Moving forward, we need to close down the potential for consultations to be manipulated by lobby groups from around the world, due to the lack of data supplied by respondents, such as, for example, their address.
The motives behind the Bill are understood. Little detail has been supplied, however, on the benefits or, more importantly, the likely effects of the legislation on those who stand to be most affected: for example, gamekeepers, who may lose their job, or those responsible for breeding and training dogs.
It should also be noted that it is not just DAERA that may have a role in the legislation. Input from the Department of Justice, the PSNI and the Department for Communities is likely to be required if workable legislation is to be achieved. Pressures will undoubtedly be placed on police resources to enforce future legislation in the area, when considered against other priorities such as rural crime. I therefore urge Members to bear enforcement issues in mind during their deliberations.
In conclusion, I hope to engage constructively with the Bill when it reaches Committee Stage, and I will be happy to do so. I will, however, not be supporting the Bill today. That having been said, I acknowledge the Member's genuine intent, and, on a personal level, I wish him well in his endeavours.
Mr Stalford: I support the Bill and the provisions contained therein. It is, to me, astonishing that, in 2021, the hunting of foxes and other wild mammals with hounds should continue to be practised in this country. I was not always of the view that I am now on the issue. I very much took the view that I am a town person and that it was not for me to tell people in the countryside how to live and how to operate. I will regale the House with a story of how my mind was changed following an incident that took place in, I think, Newry. Children were playing in the garden with a new puppy that their mother had bought for them, and the hunt tore into the garden and ripped their puppy to bits in front of them. One child asked one of the people on horseback, "Mister, is our puppy dead?". He picked up a bit of the puppy, flung it over a hedge and said to those children, "Looks like it, doesn't it?". If that is the by-product — the indirect consequence — of such a practice, it has no place in our society.
That was an indirect consequence, but, leaving aside the direct cruelty of hunting mammals with hounds, I think that it is also unnecessary. I do not have a sentimental view about foxes. I accept the arguments that foxes are vermin. I am therefore not taking a sentimental view on the issue, but there are other ways in which to deal with a fox problem, if you have one. You do not need to make a sport out of it. You do not need dozens of people on horseback tearing across the countryside with a pack of dogs, in many cases damaging that countryside and damaging fences and things like that, to deal with the problem. That is sport, not pest control. I do not even think that it is sport, so let us call it what it is.
There has been a lot of obfuscation in the debate thus far. First, Mr Blair has been attacked on the basis that the consultation was not thorough enough, that it did not ask the right questions and that lobby groups were able to influence it. I can share with Members the fact that, as some will recall, during the general election of 2017, a suggestion was raised that the Conservative Party, if it formed a majority, would reverse the Hunting Act. An opinion poll was carried out on that, in which 85% of people surveyed were against the repeal of the Hunting Act. The idea that there is therefore some silent majority out there in favour of the maintenance of hunting with hounds is nonsense and is not borne out by any measure at all of public opinion. The majority of citizens in this country want hunting abolished.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. I know that he has a particular opinion on the Bill. He will realise that one of its most controversial aspects is clause 2, which provides for a ban on trail hunting. Does the Member know the difference between trail hunting and drag hunting, one of which is to be made illegal in the Bill and the other of which is to be kept legal? If he does, can he explain to the House how the police could differentiate between the two?
Mr Stalford: If the Member wishes to include it in the Bill, I am happy to vote for that too.
Mr Stalford: If the Member wishes to have it included in the Bill, I am happy to vote for it too. The recent decision that was taken by the National Trust on trail and drag hunting —
Mr Stalford: — demonstrated, as did the recent High Court judgement on the matter, that trail hunting is used as a cover for the hunting of wild mammals.
Mr Buckley: What is the difference between trail and drag hunting?
Mr Stalford: Will the Member cease chuntering from a sedentary position? You will have your turn.
The fact is that the National Trust took the decision that it took because it recognised that trail hunting and drag hunting were being used as a cover for the hunting of wild mammals with dogs.
I do not, for one second, accept the premise that this is a town versus country argument. It is not. Many people who live in rural communities are as opposed as I am to the hunting of wild mammals with hounds. There is an attempt by powerful lobbying groups, such as the Countryside Alliance and other groups like it, to portray this as a case of ignorant townies — city slickers — imposing their will on country people. That is simply not the case. The majority of people, whether they live in towns or in the country, are with me in opposing the continuance of this cruel and unnecessary practice. I welcome the Bill. I welcome the clauses, particularly that in relation to terrier work. I see no purpose or reason for that sort of activity to go on.
Someone mentioned during the debate the possibility of troubles with enforcement. Their logic appears to be that we should not pass a law for fear that we will have to enforce it. That is why the legislative Assembly exists: to pass laws. It exists so that where we see practices that we wish to end, they can be ended, and where we want to initiate new initiatives, they can be initiated. This practice should be ended. I support the Bill.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I remind Members that the maximum time for a contribution is 15 minutes. There is no limit on the length of the overall debate, but the limit on any individual contribution is 15 minutes.
Mr Lyttle: I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of the Hunting of Wild Mammals Bill, as proposed by my Alliance Party colleague John Blair MLA. The Bill gives every MLA an opportunity to stand up for animal welfare and to ban hunting with dogs in Northern Ireland.
The pursuit and killing of wild mammals by hunting dogs for the purposes of enjoyment is cruel and unnecessary. Quick kills are rare. Many animals suffer a prolonged chase and a painful death. No animal should be chased to the point of exhaustion or rupturing of organs, to then be ripped to shreds by the pack of hounds that was pursuing it. That is blood sport: a practice that should be consigned to history, where it belongs.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom without a ban on hunting with dogs, despite widespread public support for such a ban. I commend my Alliance Party colleague John Blair MLA for introducing the Bill. The Bill will reform legislation on hunting wild mammals with dogs in Northern Ireland, if MLAs give it the opportunity to do so, and it will bring our legislation into line with that of other jurisdictions where the practice has been illegal for nearly 20 years.
I note the 18,000-strong response to the public consultation, 78% of which is in support of the proposals. That must be unprecedented; it is a remarkable consultation response by any assessment. I note that there has also been widespread public support and some political backing for the introduction of a ban on fox hunting in Ireland. Indeed, it is my understanding that Sinn Féin's party president, Mary Lou McDonald, quite clearly set out an intention for Sinn Féin to vote in favour of a ban on fox hunting at the earliest opportunity. That opportunity is presented today by this Bill.
I commend campaigners, including Janice Watt from the League Against Cruel Sports, for their tireless work on the issue of animal welfare. Although Janice Watt recently suffered a bereavement, as well as facing health challenges, she has been no less strident in her support. I know that she is watching today. I commend her for all the work that she has done over the years in relation to animal welfare and specifically in support of this Bill.
A ban on hunting with dogs in Northern Ireland is long overdue. It is cruel and unnecessary and causes the hunted animal immeasurable suffering, whether or not it is eventually killed. As public representatives, we are responsible for legislating for the people of Northern Ireland, and it is indisputable that the majority of the public are opposed to hunting with dogs and deem the practice completely unacceptable. I have consistently been contacted on the issue by my constituents in East Belfast, which has seen some of the most horrific incidents of animal cruelty in Northern Ireland. There is strong support for the proposal from the people of East Belfast, and I am glad to be able to speak about it today.
Many political parties seek to position themselves as being in support of animal welfare. There is a clear opportunity to demonstrate that support today. The task at Second Stage, as has been mentioned by other MLAs, is to set out your position on the principles of the Bill: a ban on cruel and unnecessary hunting. No MLA or party can —
A Member: Will the Member give way?
Mr Lyttle: — vote against — I will make progress; sorry — the principles of this Bill at Second Stage and legitimately claim to support the principle of a hunting ban. Any MLA or party voting against the principle of this Bill can expect their support for animal welfare to be legitimately challenged hereafter. I encourage all MLAs and parties to carefully consider the import of allowing the Bill to at least pass to Committee Stage today. That is, after all, the task before MLAs.
As the Bill's sponsor stated, we have a historic opportunity to make a significant difference to animal welfare in Northern Ireland and to lead the way in ensuring full, robust protection for our animals that have been persecuted for sport and human enjoyment. I ask all MLAs to support the progress of the legislation to Committee Stage and, ultimately, to end brutality against animals and consign hunting with dogs to history, where it belongs.
Mr Buckley: I begin by placing on record my membership of the all-party group on country sports. Be under no illusion, however, I speak on this issue today as a representative MLA and a keen conservationist and country sports enthusiast.
During my lifetime, I have had the opportunity to meet huntsmen and huntswomen and conservationists from Antrim to Kerry, Down to Donegal and everywhere in between. Hunting and countryside management have been an intrinsic part of the rural way of life across these islands for many years. I hope that, in the time afforded me today, I can correct some of the vile attempted character assassinations on many in the hunting community. I thank the Countryside Alliance, BASC and many others for their engagement with me on the Bill.
The reasons for proposing legislation along the lines of the Hunting of Wild Mammals Bill appear to be as vague as they are misguided. Has the Member not witnessed the turmoil that has taken place in England, Wales and Scotland as a result of the two laws that seek to ban hunting with dogs — something that is still not resolved all these years later? Has he not listened to judges, legal experts, veterinarians, senior police officers, animal welfare experts, senior civil servants, countless country people and the Prime Minister of the day, who shares his name, all of whom have criticised those laws? Does he casually dismiss the view of the senior parliamentary counsel who was asked to draft the Bill that became the Hunting Act 2004? He said:
"All government legislation ought to be about pursuing a public policy that the party in government is pursuing because it forms part of their policies for the betterment of the state, but this wasn't that. A moral judgement was being imposed on a minority — and I thought we didn't do that, except in extremis."
Does the vast cost to the taxpayer in police and court time not make the Member think again about following that path, or does he believe that an opinion poll that supports his Bill, in which, literally, anyone, anywhere in the world, could take part, and which received a paltry 18,000 responses, is a sound basis for enacting legislation? I saw responses from as far away as Arizona in the United States of America and from other European cities. Do they understand the unique circumstances and nature of the Northern Ireland countryside? I ask Members to think about that.
To argue that a ban on the use of hunting dogs is somehow justified simply because the rest of the United Kingdom has enacted similar disastrous laws is as pointless as it is ill-founded. We should be learning from the mistakes that other parts of the United Kingdom have made, not blindly following for some dubious virtue-signalling reason. However, the legislators here in Northern Ireland resolved the issue many years ago, when legislation that protected animal welfare and the right to hunt coexisted. The law permitted the prosecution of anyone, including hunt supporters, if unnecessary suffering to an animal had been caused. It is highly significant that, during those years, not one prosecution was brought forward. It has been argued by the Alliance Party and others that that was because the legislation was flawed, but how? If the evidence of unnecessary suffering, such as what we have heard today from some in the House, had existed, there would have been no bar to legal action. Could it be — I dare to suggest it — because the scientific and veterinary evidence against hunting with dogs simply does not exist? I know that some Members might not like to hear this, but the veterinary evidence is in support of hunting. The Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management states:
"Hunting is the natural and most humane method of controlling the fox population. It is humane for a number of reasons; perhaps the most important is that it is intrinsically certain and leaves no wounded survivors."
Hunting with scented hounds adheres perfectly to the aims of genuine wildlife management. It leaves a smaller but healthier quarry population and achieves that in a way that is natural for the hunter and the hunted. The Bill ignores all those points. Quite frankly, it is so poorly drafted that, under it, every dog owner in Northern Ireland could become a criminal for simply letting their dog do what dogs do. In other words, the Bill attempts to legislate against a dog's most basic and natural instinct: to scent and hunt.
The Bill also ignores peer-reviewed research that shows that flushing foxes to guns using a full pack of hounds is more effective than using just two dogs, as the Hunting Act in England and Wales demands. That point was emphasised by the law lord Lord Bonomy in 2016, when he commissioned the Scottish Government review of the law there. Why it was ever thought that limiting that process to just two dogs was better than three or four dogs, or, perhaps, a pack, is unclear. There is certainly no scientific or veterinary basis for that number, apart from the very obvious fact that it curbs the use of hounds.
Dogs are used in a variety of country sports. The Member said that he has no desire to stop any activity other than the killing of wild mammals by dogs. I take his sincere point in that regard. However, the Bill, as drafted, bears no relation to that promise. Shooting will be affected through the work of gamekeepers and dogs, which are used in numerous ways in other sports. The Bill seeks to ban trail hunting, which was the point that I tried to raise to my colleague and friend Mr Stalford. Quite how the police will be expected to distinguish between the different types of scent that are used by a legal drag hunt and an illegal trail hunt is anyone's guess. That point has not been explained in the House today.
I speak directly to Members and to country sports enthusiasts across Northern Ireland: today, by means of this Bill, the anti-hunting lobby seeks to ban the huntsman and huntswoman and their hound.
Next, it will be the man or woman with their gun and their dog, followed by the angler and their rod. I realise that that may not be the intention of Mr Blair, but I assure the House that that is the very intention of some of the advocates of the Bill. The only reason that the rat — the common rat; vermin — has been excluded from the Bill is that, frankly, it was not deemed cute and cuddly enough to be included. It did not fit the narrative. As Members, we must do what is right. We must look at the legislation and deem whether it is fit for purpose. If the principle of the Bill is that sport or recreation has no place in the management of wildlife, then, clearly, shooting, falconry and angling will all be on the list for banning in the near future. Make no mistake about that.
I come to an important point. All that I have said up until now would be diminished or, indeed, irrelevant if the welfare of the animals that were previously hunted in England, Wales and Scotland had improved. Yet, with all the significant sums of money that have been spent on campaigning for laws to ban hunting and the subsequent cost to the public purse for police and court time, not a single penny — not one — has been spent by any anti-hunting group to assess the impact of those laws. That, in itself, speaks volumes. Surely, such critical and crucial research would put an end to the hunting controversy once and for all. Do those groups suspect what is really happening to the wild animals that they supposedly care for and that their case is fundamentally flawed? Such evidence that we have indicates that previously hunted species in many areas are viewed very differently by farmers and landowners, with the result that a community-based conservation process has now just become one of pest control, often with healthy animals being killed instead of the weak, injured or diseased and in far greater numbers. That is not productive wildlife management; again, it is virtue signalling.
The hunting bans in the rest of the United Kingdom are not only detrimental to animal welfare but damaging to conservation. I can well understand why members of the public, who, in the main, are unfamiliar with hunting and might not like the idea of that activity — Members may not like it — will sign petitions or respond negatively to public opinion polls. However, such surveys only reflect a perception and do not explain other methods of wildlife management or pest control, which would inevitably increase and which the public would find equally offensive. The job of an MLA is to analyse the issues in detail, study the Bill in detail and legislate on the basis of evidence and fact, not prejudice or perception.
Members, I support legitimate, law-abiding hunting activity.
Mr Buckley: I equally support — you will not say "Shame" to this point, Mr Stalford — robust police action against those who partake in illegal forms of hunting, such as the example that you noted in your contribution. I can tell you that law-abiding huntsmen and huntswomen across this country equally condemn those in full measure. It does not have to be a debate in which one side wins and the other side loses. That is a situation that certain campaigning groups want us to be in.
Mr Buckley: I will if I have time at the end of my contribution.
There will always be people on each side of the argument who will never agree, who will never see the opposing point of view and who will never compromise. However, those are two minority groups. The vast majority of people on both sides feel strongly about animal welfare, but they also realise that wild animals need to be controlled and that that must be done in the most humane ways possible. The BiIl would seriously restrict the ability to manage wild animals whilst doing absolutely nothing for animal welfare. I therefore urge colleagues to vote against the Bill. If we need to address the issue in the future — as I have mentioned, there have been times in the past when the Assembly has got this right — I urge Members to do so on the basis of evidence and principle, with the collective aim of addressing animal welfare rather than controlling human behaviour.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for introducing the Bill. Like my colleague Patsy McGlone, I rise in support of the Bill. The SDLP has had a policy of wanting to ban fox hunting since 1995. As many have said, the primary objective of the Bill is to stop fox hunting as a sport.
Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Earlier in the debate, reference was made to the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management. It sounds benign, does it not? However, we were not told that the previous name of said group was Vets for Hunting.
Mrs D Kelly: I appreciate the Member's clarifying that point. In his very impassioned contribution to the debate, Mr Buckley talked about no winners or losers, but, frankly, there will be winners: the many wild mammals that will not be torn to shreds by dogs. I, for one, and, I am sure, the majority of people who have been quoted during the debate, do not need to see much scientific evidence or research to know that such actions are inhumane and cruel. We know that. It is interesting to note that, coming out of COVID, many people are talking about building a kinder society and being kinder to each other. Hopefully, we will be kinder to nature because of the climate challenge and kinder to our animals by controlling and preventing that type of sport.
Patsy McGlone outlined that we met the sponsor of the Bill only last week and that we raised a couple of areas on which we were seeking further clarification. As a party, we are keen to work with the sponsor of the Bill in looking at some minor amendments, particularly to clause 6 and the interpretation and the outworkings or, if you like, the potential unintended consequences of some of the points in that clause. Some of those amendments will be around questions like these: what if a third dog joins the rampage, if you like? What happens if a farmer does not have a gun and he or she sends dogs off to chase foxes away from the sheep? Will all farmers have to carry a firearm certificate?
Much has been said about the Bill. I want to be very clear that the SDLP is supportive of the intent of the Bill. There are a few areas around which we seek further clarification, but we look forward to working with the Member at Committee Stage in bringing forward or in supporting his amendments to the Bill on those points of clarification.
Mr Weir: It is clear that hunting and, broadly speaking, animal welfare and animal cruelty issues cut across different sectors of society. There are people from a unionist background and people from a nationalist background on both sides of the argument. If I am interpreting correctly the Member who has just spoken, she and the previous representative from the SDLP who spoke are on a different page, in the same way that I am on a different page from the Member from the DUP who has just spoken. It is also the case that there is not a uniformity of position amongst country people or townies, as they might be classified. There are those from an urban background who are supportive of hunting and those from a rural background who are hostile to it, and vice versa. I also suspect that there will be differences of opinion within the broader veterinary community.
Those of you who were Members about 11 years ago will remember that those differences were displayed when we were debating a piece of legislation. We had a Division that cut across different party perspectives on hare coursing, which the House voted by a majority to ban.
I remember having an exchange with Mr Boylan, a representative who was supportive of hare coursing. I was and remain opposed to hare coursing, and, for want of any doubt, I am opposed to hunting and will support the Bill. I also speak as a former chair of the all-party group on animal welfare. Mention has been made of whether this is about the welfare of the animals concerned; again, without stating the obvious, if I were able to avoid being chased across a field by a pack of dogs, my welfare would possibly be somewhat improved. We can draw a conclusion from that.
Mr Weir: I will not give way, but I will praise one of Mr Buckley's remarks. He is right that, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the controversy that there has been over the issue for a long time, there are people who feel passionately about it. There are probably minorities on both sides of the argument who take an extreme view. Those circumstances tend to lead opponents or proponents, at times, to overreach. Sometimes, supporters of such a Bill will make claims for it that do not necessarily follow through, and sometimes its opponents will overemphasise aspects of and see demons in it that are not necessarily there. When we look at the Bill, therefore, perhaps as a starting point and before we get to the Bill's principles, it is important to indicate things that are not in the Bill.
I concur that, while I am on a different page from many of them, a lot of people involved in country sports are some of the strongest conservationists in this country and play an important role in conservation. I freely acknowledge and support that. Indeed, before he reminds me, I recently —
Mr Weir: I would hate to think that any of my words were lost for posterity, Mr Deputy Speaker. Thank you for the reminder.
Those from a country sports background make a strong contribution to conservation and biodiversity, so, in supporting the Bill, I do not impugn their honour.
Similarly, even some of us who support the Bill would acknowledge that, as is almost inevitable with any Bill, not every element in it is perfect and precise, as the previous Member to speak indicated. If, as is the way of such things, the Bill progresses to the next stage — judging the mood of the House, I question whether it will receive a majority today, but we shall see — that will be the opportunity to interrogate and make changes to it.
One of the issues raised — I address this comment particularly to the Bill sponsor — was that mentioned by Mr McGlone on the set of circumstances in clause 6. That has been indicated fairly consistently in correspondence from opponents to the Bill, drawing attention to those who, for example, might be out walking their dog when the dog goes off its leash and gets involved in an activity where a mammal is being chased, and asking whether that would criminalise the people concerned. I do not believe that that is the Bill's intention or is implied by its wording. If that is a concern, however, it is important that there is clarification. I ask the Bill sponsor whether, if the Bill reaches Consideration Stage, he would be willing to support amendments to tie it in with an intention to hunt or wilful hunting. I do not know whether the Bill sponsor wants to comment at this stage or will do so in his winding-up speech.
Mr Blair: I thank Mr Weir for giving way. Hopefully, it will shorten my winding-up speech if I address a number of points at one time.
I can give an assurance that I am happy to work with others on clause 6 and the terminology around willing participation and numbers of dogs. The inclusion of the word "willing" might well make a difference.
Mr Weir: I welcome that clarification. If the Bill reaches Consideration Stage, that would be the type of amendment that those of us who support the Bill would like to see. If the Bill sponsor does not table such an amendment, others will.
Mr Weir: I am trying to get through this, but I will give way briefly.
Mr Allister: Which Mr Blair does the Member think we should listen to? Is it the one who has just spoken or the one who told the Agriculture Committee that he had:
"made the offences themselves ones of strict liability so that the prosecution has only to prove the organisation of or participation in the hunting."?
It is clearly a strict liability offence. That is the principle that he has put in the Bill, and that is the principle that the Member now asks him to resile from.
Mr Weir: The House will have the opportunity to make changes to the Bill. I question whether a majority in the House will vote for it to pass its Second Reading. There would, however, be a very clear majority for those sorts of changes.
The Member asked which Mr Blair we should listen to. Earlier, a Member quoted Tony Blair as one of the apparent advocates of concerns about the position in England. I think that I am correct in saying that he had concerns about the legal position. I would be a little bit worried that bringing in Tony Blair as an advocate in defence of a particular position makes the case for the other side. Some of us have had that experience.
One of the other arguments is that this is the thin end of the wedge. I am sure that some will want the legislation to be widened much more, but that is not what is in the Bill. If someone were to seek much greater widening of the Bill, the House will have the common sense and the opportunity to look at that. I, for one, do not believe that we should look to restrict other activities, be they wider aspects of fishing, shooting etc — I support the right to take part in country sports — and that is not in the Bill.
Those of us who support the Bill are not in some sentimental haze of ignorance. The proposed Bill reflects that we accept that it is not a question of simply being sentimental about everything in the countryside and that there is a need for pest control, protection of livestock and methodology that can help biodiversity and conservation. One of the contradictions in what is argued by those who oppose the Bill today is this: when it comes to methods of controlling the animal population to ensure that such conservation takes place, hunting with dogs is undoubtedly one of the least efficient.
Mr Weir: In terms of the frequency of hunts, it is quite often the case that a good huntsman does not catch the hare; it is all about the chase. Getting a large number of horses and hounds to chase one fox does not appear to be a particularly efficient means of doing things.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way briefly. The sedentary Member seeks evidence of hunting's inefficiency in wildlife control. The Westminster Government inquiry into hunting with dogs concluded that the overall contribution of traditional fox hunting within the overall control techniques involving dogs is almost insignificant in the management of the fox population as a whole.
Mr Weir: That is clear evidence. It stands to reason that it is not a particularly efficient way of doing it. At Second Stage, we are asked to deal with the principles of the Bill. I respectfully disagree with some others in the House, in that, to my mind, the key principle is that hunting with dogs remains a cruel, inefficient pursuit. As a society, we have to make a decision on what is and is not acceptable when it comes to animal welfare and animal cruelty. We must do that from a point of principle, in the same way that, down the years, various other activities that were at one stage accepted in our society have now been banned. Perhaps the most recent one here was hare coursing 11 years ago, but there has been a range of other activities banned.
It is not the mark of a civilised society to embrace hunting with dogs. There are other, better, less cruel ways of maintaining biodiversity and conservation. The Bill, if it is successful today, will undergo scrutiny. I appreciate the point that was made earlier about the pressures that are on the Committee, but many Committees are having to deal with a large number of Bills. If that is truly an important consideration, quite a number of private Members' Bills will be dropped accordingly. Indeed, as the party opposite said, a number of the private Members' Bills emanate from it. There therefore has to be consistency of approach.
I welcome the proposal brought forward. If the Bill is successful, it will be subject to a level of scrutiny, and that is the point. There is a key challenge for what we, as a society and as an Assembly, consider to be acceptable. I believe, personally and on a point of principle, that hunting of that nature is abhorrent to society. Consequently, I support the Bill's passing its Second Reading.
Miss Woods: Unsurprisingly, on behalf of the Green Party, I support the Bill's passing its Second Stage. I thank the Member for introducing it. Sadly, as we have learnt, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without a ban on hunting with dogs. The outlawing of those horrific practices is long overdue. Hunting with dogs is cruel and unnecessary. The hunted animal suffers immeasurably.
Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. One thing that has struck me in the debate is the argument about minority rights: that hunting is a minority pursuit. It may well be, but I am sorry: you do not have the right to be cruel to animals.
Miss Woods: I thank the Member for his intervention. I welcome his contribution. I also welcome his party's support for all minority rights issues going forward in the House. [Laughter.]
The Green Party Northern Ireland strongly objects to the obsolete and inhumane practice of hunting wild animals with dogs. We have been at the forefront of objecting to it for many years. In 2010, then MLA Brian Wilson introduced legislation to adopt the same prohibition on hunting foxes with horses that was introduced in England, Scotland and Wales. It was disappointing that that Bill did not pass. I have to say that the Official Report of that debate makes for some interesting reading, especially because many of the same arguments have been made again today, a decade later. Those arguments are still found wanting. They do not reflect public opinion. It is important that Members reflect on that. If anything, public opinion against hunting has only increased. According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a poll that was carried out by Survation in 2019 found that the overwhelming majority of the Northern Ireland public want to see the hunting of deer, foxes, hares and rabbits with dogs made illegal. As Mr Blair outlined, 78% of respondents to his consultation said that the hunting of, searching for, coursing of, capturing of or killing of wild mammals with dogs should be banned here. Public opinion is strong on the matter, and it has clearly strengthened in recent years.
I will touch on a few things in the Bill. I thank the Bill sponsor for meeting me prior to Second Stage and for his engagement and work on the Bill with the all-party group on animal welfare. He will be aware of our discussions on the need for enforcement. We have also discussed puppy farms, licensing and the role of local councils. I raise that for the purposes of clause 4, which, as well as clause 6, has caused some debate. Previously, I discussed with the Member whether he had considered licensing prescribed areas in those clauses. I discussed with him whether local councils could handle and be part of that to take the pressure off the PSNI, which seems to have come up as another excuse to vote against the Bill at Second Stage. Under clause 4, can there be appropriate monitoring of hunts when they take place? How do we ensure that public land is effectively monitored and that the law is enforced? It brings us back to the question of whose task is the enforcement of that, and the Member has outlined a role for the PSNI and the criminal justice system. As a member of the Justice Committee, I look forward to commenting on the Bill as we outline amendments.
If the Bill passes its Second Stage, I would encourage the Committee to look at the resourcing and number of animal welfare officers in Northern Ireland. It is a matter that many of us have discussed and raised, not only on constituency matters but in relation to the inadequate resources that are in place to tackle puppy farming. Perhaps the Committee can look at that too — not that I want to give the Committee any more work to do. However, should the Bill pass Second Stage, it is something to consider and discuss with local government and the Justice Minister, as it will need to be resourced.
As many Members will know, there has been a lobby against this Bill, and many constituents have raised concerns about its scope. However, for me, the Bill is tight. It will not criminalise a situation where a dog runs after or follows a mammal or an animal when a person is engaged in other activities such as angling. I do not see that in the Bill at all. It is my understanding that that does not constitute an offence under the Bill, but of course should the Member want to give solid clarity on that matter, those who have raised such concerns will welcome that.
I raised the matter of the exemptions in clause 4 with the Bill sponsor, who explained that there would be a loophole if all the conditions were not required to be met. I have been assured that all the conditions in clause 4 must be met. Again, perhaps that is something that the Bill sponsor or the Committee can look at to make sure that it is obvious to the reader and clearly understood in the explanatory and financial memorandum. Maybe the Bill sponsor will take the suggestion of a friendly amendment that the Department must produce guidance on clause 4, as it is quite important for people to understand the legislation.
It is worth noting that the Bill includes a ban on trail hunting that does not already exist in the rest of the UK, and that is because trail hunting, as we know, has been used as a cover for actual hunting in England. It is welcome that the Bill closes that loophole. I will answer Mr Buckley's question: drag hunting is where artificial scents are laid, and it is permitted under this Bill.
It is worth mentioning in this debate the possibility of a ban on hunting with snares. That is something for future consideration and legislative change. Snaring is a cruel and painful practice, which causes unnecessary suffering to animals. The Welsh Government recently announced their intention to introduce a ban, and I believe it is time for Northern Ireland to follow suit. I raised that with Minister Poots last month, but I am disappointed that he has no immediate plans to reform the legislation to ban the sale, manufacture and use of restraints in Northern Ireland.
Similarly, the debate is an opportunity to raise the need to strengthen and enforce the Wildlife Order and the legislation on animal welfare, which is completely lacking. It is also an opportunity to call for an end to badger baiting. However, I understand the need to focus on the Bill, given its purposes and the timescale available to us in this mandate.
I believe that fox hunting, stag hunting and hare coursing have no place in a civilised society. We need to go further on a lot of these barbaric practices and put a stop to them. I do not accept that this Bill will ruin anyone's way of life, and hypothetical arguments around pest control do not hold sway; they are simply not rooted in fact. Hunting with dogs has no place in our society. Seeing wild animals tortured and killed in such a cruel way should not be considered a sport or deemed to be entertainment. As we heard from Mr Lyttle, the arguments about controlling the fox population do not stand. It is not countryside management, and just because something was once an acceptable thing to do does not make it legitimate today. Therefore, I am pleased to support the Bill at Second Stage.
Mr Allister: First, I apologise to Mr Blair and to the House because I was not in the House for his opening remarks and the early parts of this debate. I had to attend a family funeral earlier today.
The Bill is ill-considered, needless and, in some parts, it is very poorly drafted. It really is a triumph of prejudice against some country pursuits.
I think that, if I may say so, it is overreach on the Bill sponsor's part with regard to imposing his view of the world on country communities in particular.
When looking at any legislative proposal, a good starting point is asking this question: is the current law adequate? In Mr Stalford's last intervention, he made the point that:
"you do not have the right to be cruel".
Indeed, that is exactly why one of the last Acts of the old Parliament in Northern Ireland was the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1972, followed through with some updates by this House in 2011. For those 50 years, it has been a criminal offence to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal in any circumstances, including in the course of hunting. Cruelty itself is defined in that legislation as "unnecessary suffering". From listening to some in this debate, you would think that we were entering into the novel territory of suddenly embracing the concept of avoiding cruelty to animals for the first time. However, the Bill is not about targeting cruelty; it is about targeting hunting per se. That is the target in the Bill.
Mr Allister: I will give way at the end, if I have time, because time is limited.
There does not even have to be a kill to create illegality under the Bill. It is the chase that is to be criminalised by the Bill in a way that is wholly oppressive, because clause 1 creates a strict liability offence, as Mr Blair intends. The starting point and the finishing point in the Bill is that you shall create a strict liability offence. What is a strict liability offence? It is one in which you do not have to bother with showing intention, for which there is no excuse and which, if it happens, is an offence, no matter the circumstances. Let us take some examples. Driving with no insurance is a strict liability offence. It does not matter that you forgot to renew or thought you had renewed your insurance. It does not matter that you told the wife to renew it and she did not do it. It does not matter. No excuse will stop a prosecution for driving with no insurance, for the good reason that it is critically of public interest importance that you do not allow any leeway for circumstances in which other members of the public can be injured by your acts. Therefore, you cannot have any excuse for not having insurance. Strict liability offences are few and far between in the law. Another example is statutory rape. If someone has intercourse with someone aged 14 or under, it does not matter what consent, excuse or belief as to age there was; it is statutory rape. It is a strict liability offence. Mr Blair seeks to create the strict liability offence where, if you are out walking a dog and that dog chases a mammal, it is an offence. I say that because of the marriage between clause 1 and clause 6(3). Clause 6(3) is clear. The proposed section 1 makes it a strict liability offence to participate in the hunting of a wild animal with a dog. Clause 6(3) states:
"In section 1 the reference to participation in the hunting of a wild mammal with a dog includes a reference to participation in another activity ... in the course of which a dog hunts a wild mammal."
The other activity could be walking the dog. Many's a Sunday afternoon, when I had a golden retriever, I walked by the banks of the Kellswater River. Under this legislation, had my dog run off and killed a rabbit — not even killed it but chased and hunted it — I would be guilty of an offence. How absurd is that?
It is not just loose, careless drafting. Clause 6(3) is there for a purpose. It is there to underscore the strict liability of clause 1. It is there, deliberately and consciously, to make it a strict liability offence if you are engaged in an activity such as walking your dog and your dog merely chases or hunts a mammal. In that instance, you have committed an offence.
What happens to a farmer in the community when he is convicted of an offence such as that and he holds a firearm certificate? The first knock at the door will be from the PSNI on foot of a criminal conviction, asking him to hand over his shotgun, all because Mr Blair thinks that it is right to create a strict liability offence out of a dog doing the natural thing of chasing a rabbit. That is why I say that this is absurd legislation in its reach and in its intent. As Mr Blair told the Agriculture Committee, he wanted to create a strict liability offence. That is what he wants the House to vote for — to create such a strict liability offence. That is why I will not vote for the Bill.
Mr Stalford: Thank you, Mr Allister, for giving way. You say that the Bill is about not the targeting of cruelty but the targeting of hunting. However, the fundamental issue at stake here is that hunting is a form of cruelty, and that is what the Bill targets. No matter about the hypotheticals that have been outlined about dogs chasing rabbits across fields, the fact of the matter is that what we are talking about is a practice whereby packs of dogs chase animals and, if there is a successful conclusion, the animals end up dead and ripped to pieces. That is a form of cruelty.
Mr Allister: No, Mr Stalford, we are talking about much more. I could begin to understand the Bill if that is what it was talking about. The Bill is talking about any chase, anywhere, by any dog, of any mammal. That is what the Bill is talking about. If the intent was what Mr Stalford says and what Mr Blair might later tell us really was his intent, why was it not drafted that way? Why was it drafted in that wholly inclusive way, that means that it becomes a strict liability offence for a dog to chase a rabbit?
Mr Allister: I will start here and work round, if I have time. [Laughter.]
Miss Woods: I thank Mr Allister for giving way. I just want to clarify what may be a technical point about the interpretation of clause 6(1). It is in relation to your comments about clause 6(3). I appreciate that Members have given examples of hypotheticals, but would there not need to be a person and a dog in pursuit for that to be met?
Mr Allister: If the Bill stopped at clause 6(1), yes; but clause 6(1) is then superseded by clause 6(3), which is the point that takes you to the position where the man is walking the dog, the dog is off the lead, and the dog runs away and chases. That is all it takes. If it hunts a rabbit, the offence is complete, because the man has been taking part in an activity, as clause 6(3) states:
"in the course of which a dog hunts".
Not "in the course of which a man and dog hunt" but:
"in the course of which a dog hunts".
The actus reus of the offence is the dog hunting the rabbit. You do not need any mens rea or any intent. That is it. End of.
Mr Stalford made a point about the cruelty, but I do not hear talk about some of our diminishing species. Take the curlew, to which foxes present a real threat. I am sure that, when the fox catches the curlew and pulls it to bits, it is pretty cruel, but, in this situation, the only interest is in who catches the fox. How can that be right?
Mr Stalford: The difference is that we are human beings endowed with conscience, whereas a fox that kills a bird is going about what is natural to it. We can exercise our conscience not to be cruel.
Mr Allister: The dog that chases the rabbit is not doing so out of a call of conscience; it is doing it out of natural instinct. Yet, we want to make natural instinct a criminal offence.
Mr M Bradley: I thank the Member for giving way. I, too, have reservations about hunting foxes with packs of dogs. However, like the Member opposite, I have had dogs all my life, mostly golden retrievers. As the Member himself will know, you cannot keep them out of water and you cannot keep them from chasing wild animals; it is their natural instinct. My last dog was a Newfoundland, which is a heck of a bit bigger but a dog that is more in love with the water.
I have reservations about the Bill and cannot support it in its current form. I agree that it is cruel to chase an animal to exhaustion and rip it apart if you catch it — that is cruel — but what about the damage that the fox does? You mentioned curlew, but there are also lapwing, grouse, corncrake and plovers: all ground-nesting birds that are taken by foxes. Ask anybody in here from a country background like me what a fox can do if it gets into a henhouse. It does not kill for food; it kills every hen in the henhouse. That is cruel, but it is the fox's instinct. We are making legislation to curb animal instinct but not that of the fox. The fox has no natural enemies that I am aware of; it has to be culled. It is a pest. The grey squirrel is a pest and rats and mice are pests, so I cannot understand why the legislation is trying to protect a fox. Yes, I have reservations about hunting with packs of dogs, as does everybody of a right mind, but the issue is the damage that foxes do to the countryside.
If Mr Allister and I had walked our dogs across the countryside and they took off because they were not on the lead, we are country people —
Mr M Bradley: Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I shall be brief. [Laughter.]
Neither he nor I would be here today because we would be in jail.
Mr Allister: I can only respond by saying that the Member is correct. This, to put it shortly, is pro-pest legislation. Save the pest; criminalise the dog walker.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member support the principles of the Bill? Will he table amendments at Committee Stage? Does he acknowledge that there are other methods of control, such as fencing, non-lethal traps, removal and noise and scent repellents? There are ways to control wildlife other than that which is being put forward today.
Mr Allister: Yes. I am sorry that Mr Lyttle was not listening to me. I made it plain that I do not support the principle of the Bill because it is to criminalise walking my dog. I cannot accept that.
Ms Sugden: I rise to support the Second Stage of Mr Blair's private Member's Bill. I concur with Mr Stalford and other Members who spoke earlier in the debate. Generally and on the point of principle, I fully support what Mr Blair is trying to do through the Bill, because this type of "sport" is barbaric. Having listened to the previous contributions, I see a differential in defining what we mean by "sport" and what we mean by "instinct". It is almost the difference between prevention and encouragement. The Bill is trying to stop humans encouraging their animals into this type of animal abuse.
Members who raise interesting points that are in conflict with the proposed legislation do so on the basis of detail rather than principle. I am not sure at this point whether it is necessary to amend Mr Blair's Bill to address those points, while giving effect to stopping this form of animal cruelty. However, we should look at that where there are genuine reasons why people are uncomfortable with the Bill.
I appreciate Mr McGlone's contribution. For about five minutes a number of years ago, I was the Minister of Justice, and I met Mr McGlone and a delegation of those involved in country sports. They are not sports that I have ever been interested in or that I am particularly familiar with, so I reflect their experience and expertise in the area. When Mr McGlone is raising concerns, we have to be cognisant of some of them. I will not be disingenuous. I support the Bill because the abuse needs to stop. However, if we can reassure or satisfy, even at the stages to come, those who raise valid concerns about the unintended consequences, I would be happy to look at those, as others have indicated that they would.
Specifically, Mr McGlone raised issues about firearms certificates. Again, in my previous role, I had experience of that. Mr McGlone is right that the firearms branch of the PSNI is responsible for granting and revoking licences. In cases of appeal, the process sometimes ends with the Minister of Justice, so I have read my fair share of firearms appeals. Mr McGlone is correct that a criminal offence is not necessarily required to remove a firearms licence; it can be removed for other reasons. That is fine if those reasons are informed, unbiased, proportionate and thoughtful of risk, but human nature is such that error and bias are inevitable in some cases, and perspective has a —
Mr Stalford: I appreciate the Member giving way. There has been reference to clause 6, and Mr Blair will be able to address this. I suspect that the reason why that clause is included, particularly the provision that Mr Allister referred to, is the deceitfulness that we have seen from hunts in England and Wales, where trail hunting and drag hunting have been used to try to get round the law that exists there.
Ms Sugden: I thank Mr Stalford for his intervention. I will draw it back to the point that I was making. Yes, human nature is such that people will do those things, but, at the same time, that does not mean that we should not write good law. I fully support the Bill, but, if we can make it better, is that not where we all want to be?
The point that I was trying to make was in response to what Mr Stalford said earlier about intent. Is it enough to assume intent, given all the potential variables that alter perception, or do we need to strengthen the law so that the unintended consequences that Mr McGlone and others speak of are not reached? To clarify, I support the Bill, but, if it needs to be strengthened, we need to do that. Let us take it to the next stage, and let us get the Bill to a point where we can stop the abuse and address Members' concerns.
Like all Members, I have received a lot of correspondence from constituents on both sides of the debate — to the extent that John has his own folder in my email inbox. Anecdotally, I have probably received more messages from those who support the Bill, but there are many reasons why that could be the case, so I do not intend to focus on the numbers but rather the reasons outlined. Overwhelmingly, people see this as cruel, unnecessary, outdated and barbaric. I agree, and the counterarguments do nothing to persuade me otherwise. I have received correspondence, as, I am sure, others have, describing this activity as "traditional", "social" and "harmless". My goodness, it is not harmless. It can only be described as "harmless" in a world where animal welfare is disregarded. That is the not the world that we live in. I am sure that, in some areas, it is, but it is not where need to be in 2021. It is interesting to hear that, when a similar debate happened over 10 years ago, some of the same arguments were made then. Northern Ireland can exist in its own bubble, but this one really does need to be burst, because abuse, sadly, can be considered social. It is most definitely traditional, but that does not make it right or, indeed, a behaviour that we should continue to accept because it is what we have always done or, to put it crudely, because it is someone's hobby.
Similar to the points raised by Mr McGlone and others, there is the concern, as we heard recently from Mr Allister and others, that:
"a person participating in any activity where they have a dog and that dog pursues, chases or follows a wild animal, then that person engaging in that or other activity is participating in hunting for the purposes of the Bill and, therefore, that could make them a criminal".
I did not interpret that from the draft legislation, but I am not legally trained. Mr Allister is, so maybe he raises a valid point. On the point that Mr Allister made about a strict liability offence, that is the offence as drafted. Can we mitigate it in some way so that it does not put that strict liability offence on to those people and so that it is not the case that, if you are walking your dog, you will potentially be committing an offence? Let us not make this an excuse not to do something that is right.
Another usually compelling argument for me in this type of debate is that we are the only region of the UK not to have this law. We do not always have to fall in line with other regions of the UK or, indeed, Ireland. However, other areas of the UK and Ireland that are broadly like-minded with us and have similar circumstances and environment have now set a standard against animal cruelty. Why, then, do some in the House want to be at odds with that? Why are they opposed to positive legislation and/or policy that wants to remove a form of animal cruelty? That is a really odd key message. I appreciate that, if it is in the detail, let us work on it, rather than throwing out something positive for Northern Ireland that quite a lot of people, probably the majority, want to see ended. Again, I will reference Mr Stalford. This is the Second Stage. Surely the principle is to stop this type of animal cruelty, and I really do not understand how anyone would be opposed to that.
I will turn to what is perhaps a notable justification that was made by other Members, which was that there is not enough time in the mandate to get the Bill through. That is a really poor argument for not supporting the legislation. It will be really interesting to see if those Members apply that same rationale to other Bills in the mandate, particularly Bills from their own party. Let the process fail the Bill, let three years of no government fail it, but do not fail the Bill through mealy-mouthed tactics to ride both sides of the argument because you are worried about an election next year. If the practical concerns really are your driver, at least send a key message that this form of animal cruelty is wrong by supporting this stage of the Bill.
Mr Blair: I thank all Members for their participation in and contributions to the debate. It has been a respectful debate, even in its livelier moments. As I outlined at the start — I want to repeat this; it has been said by others, but we need to re-emphasise it — Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom without a ban on hunting with dogs. Legislation in other jurisdictions has been in place for two decades or so. There is a chance here and now to do better. Before I conclude on our opportunities to do better, I will take a few moments to reflect on Members' comments. I apologise in advance if I do not get through them all due to time constraints.
The debate began with the Chair of the AERA Committee, Declan McAleer, talking about the evidence given to that Committee, the further Committee consideration on matters impacting rural areas and the Committee's process to scrutinise the Bill. He then separately informed us that he would not, as a Sinn Féin member, support that further scrutiny and would, with his colleagues, vote against the Bill. I will make more comments on that later, separate to my reference to the AERA Committee.
William Irwin is also a member of the AERA Committee. It felt like a meeting of the AERA Committee during the contributions of the first five or six Members who spoke, perhaps not unusually. William Irwin talked about dog walkers. That was to be a recurrent theme throughout the debate, and I hope that I can give Members some reassurance on that. For the present, I will concentrate on some other issues. Mr Irwin referred to existing legislation on badger baiting. Therein lies a comparison: there is existing legislation on badger baiting. Whether or not badgers are nocturnal animals, there is still a scent. I repeat what I said earlier: I know of no circumstance where a dog walker has been criminalised because their dog followed the scent of a badger.
I will return later to further examinations and conversations with people in further scrutiny.
Mr Allister: Where is the strict liability in respect of badger baiting?
Mr Blair: That is a fair point. I did not say that that was there. I said that the legislation existed.
Mr Irwin alleged — I seek to give an assurance; this is not a criticism — that there was a misrepresentation of the rural community. He is not here at the moment, but I think that he would accept my assurance that that was not intended. I represent a rural constituency, as he does. That is not at all the intent of the Bill. In fact, the intent of the Bill is fairly clearly defined in a relatively limited number of clauses.
Patsy McGlone, who spoke as an AERA Committee member and an SDLP member, talked of his commitment to animal welfare and his interest in country sports. Patsy made specific reference to his concerns about groups of people hunting. The clause 6 discussion started properly when Patsy spoke. I give him an assurance at this point that I am happy to have further conversations about that. I will relate later that commitment to having further conversations about any allegation that I am involved in any kind of doublespeak, because I am willing to talk to people, to have further discussions and to participate in the Committee's scrutiny.
Rosemary Barton, who spoke as an AERA Committee member and a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, said that she accepted the Bill and supported its moving forward to Committee Stage, for which I am very grateful. Rosemary referred to the fact that she would like further clarification. We met before today's sitting, and we, as AERA Committee colleagues, will have opportunities for discussions in Committee. I give a commitment here to discuss issues separately with Rosemary or other colleagues if required.
Harry Harvey spoke of the process that the Bill will go through, with further Committee scrutiny. Unfortunately, however, he clarified that he does not support the Bill continuing to that stage. Christopher Stalford, who followed him, spoke in support of the Bill. He made it clear that he was not always of that view, but he gave some specific examples of what had contributed to his change of mind on the issue.
My colleague Chris Lyttle spoke in support of the Bill, for which I am grateful. Chris referenced an official from the League Against Cruel Sports — Janice Watt. I also want to put on record my appreciation to Janice for her work on this issue and a whole raft of animal welfare issues, as well as her work in the interests of animals.
Jonathan Buckley commented that he is a member of the APG on country sports. The conclusion was that he is of a different mind than I am on most of the legislation. He said that there may be an attempt to impose moral judgement on minorities. Rachel Woods subsequently stole a line that I might have used in response to that. I am very familiar with that position, and that is not my intention. Jonathan Buckley acknowledged once or twice that he did not think that I had any hidden agenda with the Bill and that I had been fairly upfront and straightforward about my intention. I can assure him that the Bill's intent is to address the hunting of wild mammals with dogs, where dogs are used to kill. There is no intention to go wider and look at any other aspect of country life or country sport. I am happy to repeat that. If I have to continue to repeat that, I will do so. That does not cause me any problem at all.
Dolores Kelly spoke of the SDLP's existing party policy and said that, hopefully, we will be living in a kinder post-COVID era when we look at how we should deal with those issues legislatively. Peter Weir, who also spoke in support of the Bill, talked about the differences across communities and the fact that people were categorised in that regard. There are differences of opinion among rural communities, political parties and lots of other categories of people, which he referenced. He, too, spoke of the need for further examination of clause 6. In an exchange with Mr Weir during his speech, I gave a commitment to at least have discussions about the inclusion of the word "willing" in terms of participation in or organisation of a hunt, if that clarified matters. That is not a commitment to change it. Those discussions will depend on the willingness of others, given the numbers in the House.
Rachel Woods spoke in support of the Bill. She said that she had some concerns about clause 4 and matters of enforcement, which she and I had discussed separately, as she referenced. I can repeat here that I have already undertaken work quite separate from the Bill about how the role of council animal welfare officers interfaces with the PSNI welfare and wildlife section and the DAERA business area of animal welfare, based in Ballykelly. I am trying to get further clarification on how all those groups of people interface, react and provide services across our areas, including council areas, and how we can make that better. Given that Rachel Woods has committed to taking some of those matters forward with the Justice Committee, which I welcome, I should probably clarify that some of the work that I have undertaken may well end up at the AERA Committee.
Finally, Claire Sugden spoke in support of the Bill. She referenced some of the complications that she faced during her time as Justice Minister. She also referred to the need to have further conversations. I have not left Mr Allister out and will come to him in a moment. I am happy to give Claire Sugden the assurance that those conversations will take place, as I said, before the Committee, with parties or with individuals. I hope that I can give Mr Allister the assurance that there is no doublespeak or double standard in my position of "hoping" to do that or "pledging" to do that. I cannot be sure of Mr Allister's capacity for compromise and flexibility, but I can assure him of my willingness to seek to do that if it achieves the overall aim, a portion of the aim or most of the aim, which is to serve the interests of animal welfare in this regard.
Mr Allister: The Member indicates that he anticipates putting the word "willing" before "participation" in a hunt. I suggest to him that that solves nothing because, in clause 6(3), the participation is not in the hunt but in the activity from which the dog then hunts. So, mere willing participation does nothing to diminish the problem. The problem that the Member has with this is that, deliberately, he sought to make it a strict liability offence. Unless he relinquishes that, he will not make amends on this. If he is relinquishing that, the proper thing to do, since that is the cornerstone of the Bill, is to withdraw the Bill and come back with one that does not have that cornerstone.
Mr Stalford: Does the Member agree that much of this debate has been characterised by an obsessive focus on technical issues? That is part of our job, of course. At the core, those who are pursuing that route simply want hunting to continue, and it cannot.
Mr Blair: I will respond to both interventions, and I thank the Members for them. I am, of course, prepared to listen to the points put forward by Mr Allister, but Mr Stalford made a very valid point. Ultimately, there is a clear difference between those who support the continued practice of hunting with dogs where dogs are used for the kill and those who do not. I am sure that Members have guessed that I am one of those who do not.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Member for giving way. I appreciate the positive way in which he has engaged with us in the debate. Clause 2 deals with trail hunting. As the Bill sponsor, the Member will be able to clarify that the Bill seeks to make illegal trail hunting but not drag hunting. That is my understanding. Can the Member define for the House the differences between the two? Some in the House did not know that when they spoke earlier. On that point, how would the police differentiate between the two? Have you given any thought to that?
Mr Blair: There would be evidence: there are differences in the scents used in the various types of hunts — drag hunting, clean boot hunting and trail hunting. I go back to a point made earlier: trail hunting was created to overcome the ban on the hunting of wild mammals with dogs in other jurisdictions. We have seen, as demonstrated in recent legal actions and outcomes in the court in Westminster, that it was clearly exploited to overcome illegal hunting and that a loophole had been created. There are differences there. All are practised, and the reason why clean boot hunting and drag hunting are not included is that they have been proven to be less lethal, with many fewer reports and much less coverage of any incidents; therein I draw the distinction.
Some Members, during their contributions, may have gone off the scent a bit. [Laughter.]
I have waited all day to say that — it feels like all day. They raised the concern that, if the Bill were to pass, dog walkers could be criminalised. That is not the intent. I referred to this earlier, but, given the nature of the issue, I think that it warrants a few additional comments. I have covered the issues around badgers and existing legislation. I have also covered the interpretation of the Bill in further conversations. I am, however, keen to look at it again and to engage with party Members and independent Members. I reached out to all parties before today, and I will do the same after today. I am happy to be approached at any point. More than anything, I want to reassure Members that I am happy for that issue and other issues to undergo further scrutiny at Committee Stage. Additional issues may well be raised following today's debate, and I will be of any assistance that I can be regarding Members' concerns.
I repeat my commitment that the Bill as it stands is as it is intended to be. I have heard the points made previously that it is the thin end of the wedge. I do not think that those points were made with ill intent, but I want to make it clear that I do not wish to add any other form of country sport to the Bill. With that in mind, and given the chance for a change in the interests of animal welfare that will address public concern to be made, I appeal to Members to support the Bill at its Second Stage. That will allow for further scrutiny, including discussion of the concerns that Members have raised.
Finally, I appeal to Sinn Féin in particular to make good on its party commitment: the commitment that its party president Mary Lou McDonald made in February 2020, when she told animal welfare charities in Ireland that Sinn Féin would vote for a ban on fox hunting "at the next opportunity", if it could. That opportunity is here. In the limited time remaining in this mandate, this is the time to seize the opportunity, not to seek reasons for equivocation. In addition —
Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for giving way. Is he suggesting that Sinn Féin is not only not opposed to hunting with hounds but not averse to running with hares? [Laughter.]
Mr Blair: I will not seek to be any more mischievous than I already have been.
In addition to my point and to the Member's intervention, I would like the Members to whom I referred to consider an additional factor. If the Bill succeeds at this time, it will be easier to pick up on the legislation in the new mandate that Mr McAleer referred to earlier. If the Bill fails at this stage, it will be more difficult to pick up on the issue in the new mandate. I ask Sinn Féin Members, and all Members, to consider that when they vote and to find the support for the Bill that I sought earlier.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Question will be put again in three minutes. I remind Members that they should continue to uphold social distancing and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come into the Chamber.
Before I put the Question again, I remind Members that, if possible, it would be preferable to avoid a Division.
Question put a second time.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before the Assembly divides, I remind Members that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly currently has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. I remind all Members of the requirement for social distancing while the Division takes place. I ask Members to ensure that they maintain a gap of at least 2 metres between themselves and others while moving around in the Chamber or the Rotunda, and especially in the Lobbies. Please be patient at all times, observe the signage and follow the instructions of the Lobby Clerks. Clear the Lobbies.
Ayes 38; Noes 45
Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Blair, Ms P Bradley, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Carroll, Mr Catney, Mr Chambers, Mr Dickson, Mr Durkan, Mr Easton, Ms Hunter, Mrs D Kelly, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McNulty, Mr Muir, Mr Nesbitt, Mr O'Toole, Mr Stalford, Mr Stewart, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Bradshaw, Mr Lyttle
Mr Allister, Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Mr M Bradley, Ms Brogan, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Mr Clarke, Mr Delargy, Ms Dillon, Mrs Dodds, Ms Dolan, Mr Dunne, Ms Ennis, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Mr Frew, Mr Gildernew, Mr Givan, Ms Hargey, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kearney, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Lyons, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Ms A Murphy, Mr C Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr Poots, Miss Reilly, Mr Robinson, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Mr Storey
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Boylan, Mr Harvey
Question accordingly negatived.