Official Report: Monday 01 March 2021
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister for Infrastructure that she wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in light of social distancing being observed by the parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members who are participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members who are present in the Chamber must also do that, but they may do so by rising in their place as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking their question. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the question period afterwards.
Ms Mallon (The Minister for Infrastructure): With your permission, Mr Speaker, and in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make the following statement to the Assembly in respect of a joint British-Irish Council (BIC) ministerial meeting of the collaborative spatial planning and housing work sectors, which was held virtually on 25 February 2021.
I co-chaired the joint ministerial meeting with the Minister for Communities, Minister Hargey.
Given the joint nature of the meeting, I propose to make a statement on the spatial planning elements of it. I understand that Minister Hargey will make a similar, separate statement on the housing elements of the same meeting. Members will note that to ensure appropriate community representation at the meeting, junior Minister Middleton was also in attendance, and he is aware that I am making this statement to the Assembly today.
Members will be aware that the British-Irish Council, established in 1999, is a forum for its members to discuss, consult and use their best endeavours to reach agreement on cooperation on matters of mutual interest within the competence of its member Administrations.
The British-Irish Council collaborative spatial planning work sector is chaired by my Department on behalf of the Executive. The group provides a constructive forum for facilitating thematic evidence exchange and the sharing of best practice, and it promotes practical collaboration. The joint ministerial meeting on 25 February focused on the joint work that the collaborative spatial planning work sector has recently taken forward in conjunction with the housing work sector and considered how these work sectors can enable BIC member Administrations to continue to work together on the key areas of planning and housing, particularly in the context of the impact of COVID-19.
As I previously highlighted, Minister Hargey, junior Minister Middleton and I represented the Executive. The Government of Guernsey were represented by Deputy Victoria Oliver, President of the Development and Planning Authority. The Government of Ireland were represented Mr Darragh O’Brien TD, Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and Mr Peter Burke TD, Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The Isle of Man Government were represented by the Hon Tim Baker MHK, Minister for Infrastructure, and the Hon Ray Harmer MHK, Minister for Policy and Reform. The Government of Jersey were represented by Deputy John Young, Minister for the Environment, and Deputy Russell Labey, Minister for Housing and Communities. The Scottish Government were represented by Mr Kevin Stewart MSP, Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning. The British Government were represented by the Rt Hon Christopher Pincher MP, Minister of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The Welsh Government were represented by Julie James, Minister for Housing and Local Government.
Ministers considered and reflected on papers from each of the work sectors that were presented at the ministerial meeting, which included a discussion on challenges and opportunities for the housing and spatial planning sectors. Ministers also endorsed a joint publication prepared by both work sectors on the key spatial planning and housing challenges associated with an ageing population. The booklet, titled 'Creating an Inclusive Future Vision for our Ageing Populations', focuses on the implications of the changing demography of the BIC Administrations and the potential impact of an ageing population on spatial planning and housing. It builds on a symposium event on ageing, which was held in Belfast in November 2019, and aims to provide key advice for those working in housing and spatial planning. It shares some best practice examples of how places, and the housing within those places, can be developed to meet the needs of our ageing populations.
Ministers also noted and agreed the content of a forward work plan for the collaborative spatial planning work sector up to 2023. The forward work plan identifies a number of areas of focus, including the contribution of spatial planning to the revitalisation of towns, the contribution of spatial planning to building better places in the context of COVID recovery, the continued sharing of best practice in relation to national and regional planning frameworks, and the promotion of expert learning and experience sharing across the member Administrations.
The agreement of this forward work plan is particularly timely and aligns with many of the ambitions of my Department to create better places in which people want to live, do business and spend their leisure time. As an Assembly, we have already acknowledged that we need to revitalise our town centres, and, as we start to emerge from the pandemic and the focus moves to a post-COVID recovery, an opportunity exists to consider how spatial planning can support our places to build back better and tackle the climate crisis. In this context, the British-Irish Council continues to offer an essential framework for sharing challenges and best practices across the Administrations.
Finally, I want to place on record my thanks to those ministerial colleagues across the BIC member Administrations who participated so productively in the joint ministerial meeting. I look forward to learning about the outcomes arising from the collaborative spatial planning forward work plan and associated ministerial meeting, which it was agreed should take place in 2023. I am happy to take questions from Members in respect of the spatial planning elements of the joint ministerial meeting.
Miss McIlveen (The Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure): I welcome the principles set out in 'Creating an Inclusive Future Vision for our Ageing Populations'. Over the years, development plans in the UK and other countries have placed a great deal of focus on the young and have largely excluded older people. Cities and towns are not the exclusive property of the young, and it is important that spatial planning policies are developed to be as inclusive of all groups as possible. The constituency that I represent has one of the oldest age demographics in Northern Ireland.
The pandemic has highlighted the great lack of open public space for exercise in some areas, and we all know the benefits of access to green space and nature for mental well-being. Does the new joint approach recognise the importance of green space? Will the Minister take more proactive steps to protect green space in our towns and villages?
With an ageing population, will the Minister look at embedding policies that are not only age-friendly but dementia-friendly? Again, my constituency has not only one of the oldest populations but one of the highest incidences of dementia.
Given that councils are significantly down the road in the development of their local development plans (LDPs), what impact will the new approach have on those plans and their reassessment and adoption?
Mr Speaker: I am sorry about that, Minister. My apologies. I am away ahead of myself. It is Monday. It shows you how eager I am to get the business done today. It was not about hearing his dulcet tones as opposed to yours. [Laughter.]
Ms Mallon: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Chair for her comments and questions. I absolutely agree on the importance of ensuring that as many citizens as possible can access open spaces. As the Chair of the Infrastructure Committee rightly points out, it delivers multiple physical and mental health and well-being benefits. That is one of the things that we have learnt the value of as a result of the pandemic.
The Member will be aware of the investment in our greenways that I announced. She may also know about the £5 million contribution that my Department made to the revitalisation fund, which was a joint venture by my Department, the Department for Communities and DAERA to support councils. My contribution is about ensuring that we can maximise open and accessible spaces for all our citizens.
I agree with her that we face challenges with our population's ageing demographic, and our planning, housing and health sectors will have to adapt to meet them. I also agree with her on the importance of ensuring not just that facilities and spaces are accessible, inclusive and safe but that they are dementia-friendly. That is an area that I have a particular interest in. I have worked with the sector in my capacity as an MLA, and I acknowledge the great work that is being done by some of our councils to make their areas dementia-friendly places. I am happy to continue to support all that work.
As the Member points out, councils are advancing their new development plans. My departmental planning officials have oversight of the LDP programme, so we will be working closely with them to ensure that we "build back better" together, to use that phrase. We all have a role. I have it at strategic level, but a critical role has to be played by our councils in their local development plans and community plans.
Mr Boylan: I am glad that the Minister answered that question. I will follow on from the previous question. The Minister is keen on active travel. Were there any discussions about bolstering active travel? She will know that we have learnt through COVID that there is an opportunity now for people to live more active and healthier lives. As part of any planning process or any planning regulations, will she ensure that active travel is built into any physical infrastructure?
Ms Mallon: I assure the Member that the representations that were made across all the Governments and Administrations were very strong on that point.
They talked about the importance of making sure that we provide more opportunities for active travel for all our citizens and said that, because of the benefits that it will bring, it is a key element of the revitalisation of town and village centres.
We talked about the importance of people-centred place shaping. It was fascinating. We may have different terminologies in the strategies that each of our Governments is moving forward, but there was greater commonality in identifying the challenges and opportunities for embedding active travel and climate action in everything that we do. It is certainly a shared ambition across all the BIC Administrations and something that will be a strong element when the final reports on the forward work programme are being carried out.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Minister for her statement. It is clear that she values the relationships across these islands, east-west and North/South, and the shared learning on Brexit, COVID and climate change. Minister, your statement particularly referenced spatial planning. Fear of crime is a particular anxiety amongst the older demographic. If we are to look at the needs of older people, what was discussed on designing out crime?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. She makes an important point about the need for collaboration and partnership working right across these islands. As I have said time and again, the challenges that we face know no borders, whether on Brexit, COVID or the climate emergency. At the meeting, it struck me how valuable it was to get to listen to other Ministers speak about those challenges. Some of the strategies that they are bringing forward are at a more advanced stage than others. That collaboration was hugely beneficial and is something to which I remain committed.
The issue of designing out crime is very important. It is something that councils and local communities in particular are working on. I am conscious of that in my constituency of North Belfast. We have to be very careful that we do not see designing out crime just as gating up communities. It needs to be much more holistic in its approach so that it is about the design of places, engagement with young people, a policing response and community empowerment. It is about all those things. Planning and spatial planning have a role to play in all of that.
Mr Beggs: I thank the Minister for her statement. It refers to the challenges of COVID, climate change and an ageing population, and it endorses the document, 'Creating an Inclusive Future Vision for our Ageing Populations'. It recommends that, to create opportunities for the future, properties should be developed and residents housed along existing transport routes, where there will be short walks, proximity to urban centres and easily accessible services. Does the Minister feel that there is a need to change any of our current planning regulations and guidance? Is there a need to have additional interaction and discussion with our councils as they finalise area plans?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. There is always room for improvement in the planning system. The Department has undertaken a number of measures. One in particular that I feel very strongly about is improving our engagement with communities. The Member may be aware of the Planning Engagement Partnership (PEP) that I recently announced. It is all about improving communities' experience of the planning process, but it is also about making sure that they can play a much more influential role. One of the things that I am mindful of is the fact that the planning process is difficult to navigate. It has such a huge impact on communities' lives. Communities should be more involved in the shaping of plans and feel comfortable about navigating, objecting and supporting. That is an area that I would like my officials to continue working on at a departmental level.
The Member is right about our engagement with local councils. Through the local development plans and the community plans, there are huge opportunities to do things differently and better.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for her statement. The major legislation that underpins planning in Northern Ireland is the Planning Act 2011. The Minister will be aware that a review is being undertaken of it. Will she provide an update on that? Will she also provide an assurance that nothing will be off limits in the review and that all feedback will be duly considered?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. The review of the implementation of the Planning Act is ongoing. On 15 February, the Department issued a call for evidence to a targeted list of stakeholders and interested parties asking for their views. Responses are requested by 15 March. The call for evidence has been posted on the Department's website, and, although it is primarily targeted at identified stakeholders, anyone who wishes to express views will have the opportunity to do so, which is important.
The focus of the review is the implementation of the legislative provisions of the Act and the extent to which the original objectives of the Act have been achieved. That will inform whether there is a need to retain, amend or repeal any provisions of the Act. The review will also provide an opportunity to consider any improvements or fixes that may be required to the way in which the Planning Act has been commenced and implemented in subordinate legislation. Issues with the planning system that have arisen as a result of the coronavirus pandemic will also be considered as part of that review. That may not always require legislative change. Once the responses to the call for evidence have been collated, the Department intends to engage further with the Committee for Infrastructure before summer recess to set out and discuss the views received and the Department's suggested response.
Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for her statement. I see that the contribution of spatial planning to the revitalisation of towns, as well as to COVID recovery, was agreed as an area of focus for the sectors. It is vital that we help our towns and businesses to come out of COVID on a strong footing. The parklet scheme in Belfast has attracted the eyes of many. It is an innovative way of adapting to the new dispensation and to helping businesses. I encourage the Minister to work closely with councils across the North in the further roll-out of that initiative. I wrote to the Minister, recently, about interest in the scheme for Newry. Was that discussed, on a broader basis, obviously, at the meeting? Has the case for parklets across the North strengthened since the meeting?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. We did not get into a discussion on parklets, per se, but we did discuss the need to reimagine spaces in our town centres to make them better and more accessible so that people come to visit and spend their money in supporting local businesses. It is something that I am keen to continue to work on with councils. The Member referenced the Ormeau Road parklet. It has been a huge success, and I would like to see many more of them developed across Northern Ireland.
Ms Anderson: I thank the Minister. Waste water capacity is one of the biggest issues facing housing and planning in the North. Plans are under way to build a waste water treatment pump at the Derry/Donegal border, for instance, so that the lack of sewerage capacity does not literally block the development of 4,000 housing units in the border area of Skeoge. That could benefit from the collaborative spatial planning that the Minister's statement addresses. Was the collaborative development and collaborative spatial planning development, rather than back-to-back development, with regard to sewerage in such places as Derry and Donegal discussed or raised at the meeting?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. The issue of water and waste water infrastructure was not referenced at the meeting, but the Member is right to highlight it today. There has been historical underinvestment in our water and waste water infrastructure, and, as a result, 116 locations across Northern Ireland are at, or almost at, maximum development capacity. That will, inevitably, have a knock-on effect on development, be that the building of the many new homes that are needed, schools or, once we get through this, hotels. It is a huge challenge. It is a huge challenge when we reflect on the fact that some £2 billion has been identified for capital investment in the next price control period.
I will continue to engage with my Executive colleagues on the matter, because, if we are to realise and deliver on the ambitions and outcomes of our Programme for Government, we have to have significant and sustainable investment in our water and waste water infrastructure, because that is what underpins it all.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for her statement and answers. A Member has already asked about the importance of revitalising our town centres. At the meeting, did the Minister discuss with, or take the opportunity to learn from, her counterparts from other regions anything that might inform her actions to revitalise town centres? Our town centres were struggling, but now many of them face decimation.
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. As I said, I was heartened by the fact that all of the Administrations recognised the importance of the revitalisation of our town centres and our villages. We reflected on the fact that our town centres were struggling pre-COVID, and the reality is that life will change now as a result of COVID and our high streets will take on a different form. They need to be supported to do that. We need to make our town centres attractive places for people to visit and to spend money and time, so I am keen to work and remain committed to working with councils to do that.
One of the initiatives that were discussed at the meeting was the 20-minute-to-town approach by the Scottish Government, which ensures that towns and facilities are within a 20-minute walkway. I certainly think that that will bring huge benefits to citizens, and I want to look at that much more carefully.
Mr McAleer: I note that the Minister has referred to spatial planning in the context of revitalising towns, and I very much welcome that. Our towns are under pressure, and, no doubt, the announcement of the plans to close 15 Bank of Ireland branches throughout the North, in towns such as Strabane and Lisnaskea, will come as another body blow.
Minister, was the issue of rural needs discussed in the context of spatial planning? Hopefully, you will appreciate that, in the rural west, which I represent, we have an historical issue of regional imbalance. If we are to use spatial planning correctly to address regional imbalance, rural needs will have to be taken into account.
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question and share his concerns about the impact of the closures announced today, across the island, by the Bank of Ireland. I can assure him that the needs of rural communities were discussed at our meeting; in fact, one of the agreed areas for the forward work programme around the contribution of spatial planning to the revitalisation of towns makes specific reference to how the sector will explore the urban and rural dimensions of town revitalisation, particularly in the context of post-COVID recovery, and to the fact that this work that will consider how positive place making can support revitalisation in our rural areas and the decarbonisation agenda, which, I know, is a significant challenge for our rural communities, given that they do not have the same access to public transport as other places. Yes, the needs of urban communities and the needs of our rural communities were discussed.
Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for her statement. Minister, in your statement and in answer to questions, you have made much reference to the involvement of the community in the initiative, and that is right. The phrase "involving the community" is often used: what does "community" mean in making decisions around this? Minister, there are groups and bodies that have a particular interest in the development of whatever asset or factor of life for our ageing population. In community development, as development takes place around spatial initiatives, will the Minister give weighted preference to bodies representing the needs of the ageing population?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. He is right to point out that we talk about community involvement to community participation, and sometimes that can be a slogan as opposed to demonstrable action. To reassure him around the planning engagement partnership that I have convened, I say that it is specifically to look at how to enhance the quality and depth of community engagement in the planning process at the regional and local planning levels and to help to improve the planning system experience for users.
The partnership provides an opportunity for sharing experience, good practice and learning gained through the operation of the planning system since the reforms were introduced in April 2015 and for considering what more we can do to enhance community involvement. The cross section of people in the partnership should assist with ensuring that a wide range of experience and views informs the work so that we are not just hearing from the "usual voices". The response to the invitation to participate in the partnership is encouraging, as is the level of interest shown by the general public.
The Member will know that the majority of planning applications are determined at council level, but, as I said in response to other questions, community development plans and local development plans provide a real opportunity to better involve our communities at every level. There is an obligation on all of us to, where we can, try to be creative in reaching out to hear the voices of those who do not feel that they can access processes in the same way. Whether we term them the harder-to-reach groups, there is a responsibility on all of us to try as best we can to listen to as many voices as possible across the community. I always operate from the principle that local people know best. The Member will know that, with the blue-green fund, for example, I was very clear that I am not imposing change from on high. That does not work; it is not sustainable. It is about supporting communities to drive lasting change from the ground up.
Miss Woods: I thank the Minister for her statement and her answers so far, especially on raising the voices of those who are traditionally silenced in the community on planning. We need to have equal rights of appeal in our Planning Act as a starter.
The Minister said:
"an opportunity exists to consider how spatial planning can support our places to build back better and address the climate challenge."
However, there is no mention of climate-based reforms of planning in the forward work programme. Does she agree that it is not a challenge but a crisis that we face and that there is not an opportunity but an urgent need to address climate breakdown? How does she envisage the spatial planning work sector of the BIC playing a role in improving accountability in our planning system when it comes to climate impacts?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. Multiple Administrations were at a meeting, there were many topics that we would have liked to discuss and there are many areas that we would have liked to focus on in our forward work programme, but we had to be targeted. I assure the Member that, under the agreed forward work programme on the contribution of spatial planning to building better places in the context of the COVID-19 recovery, we made it clear that consideration will also be given to how post-COVID place making can contribute to supporting the green economy and the decarbonisation agenda and to improving mental health and well-being. That will be interlinked with our agreed commitments on the revitalisation of our towns and villages.
Mr Speaker: That concludes questions on the statement. I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister for Communities, Ms Deirdre Hargey, that she wishes to make a statement.
Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I wish to make the following report on the British-Irish Council's (BIC) joint ministerial meeting on the collaborative spatial planning (CSP) and housing work sectors, which was held in virtual format on 25 February. It was a joint ministerial meeting, which I co-chaired with the Minister for Infrastructure, from whom you have just heard. I will make a statement to the Assembly in respect of the housing elements of the meeting. Minister Mallon addressed the Assembly on the spatial planning aspects of the meeting. Gary Middleton MLA, junior Minister in the Executive Office, also represented the Executive at the meeting. This report has been endorsed by junior Minister Middleton, and he has agreed that I make the statement on the housing element of the meeting on behalf of both of us.
The British-Irish Council, established in 1999, is a forum in which its members discuss, consult and use their best endeavours to reach agreement on cooperation on matters of mutual interest. The British-Irish Council's housing work sector group is led by the Executive, and it has proven to be a constructive forum for facilitating the exchange of thematic evidence and practical collaboration.
The meeting last Thursday focused on the housing work sector group's programme of work as well as on the joint work that the two groups had undertaken recently. The meeting also considered how the future work of the housing work sector group can enable BIC member Administrations to continue to work together on the key areas of planning and housing, particularly in the context of the impact of COVID-19.
As I said, I jointly chaired the meeting with Minister Mallon on behalf of the Executive. Ministers considered and reflected on the papers from each of the work sectors that were presented at the ministerial meeting. That included a discussion on challenges and opportunities to improve housing supply. Ministers also endorsed a joint publication that was prepared by the spatial planning and housing work sector groups on the key spatial planning and housing challenges associated with an ageing population: 'Creating an Inclusive Future Vision for our Ageing Populations'. The booklet acknowledges that the issue of changing demographics is important and that it needs to be considered in order to increase the supply of social and affordable homes for some of the most vulnerable in our communities. The booklet highlights a number of examples of emerging innovations in the design and completion of housing units, and I am keen to continue working with planning colleagues to maximise the role of the planning system in increasing housing supply.
That work will inform the development of the housing supply strategy that I will bring forward for Executive consideration in this mandate. The strategy will explore and seek answers on how we can increase the supply of quality, sustainable and affordable homes. The key principles and examples of best practice that are outlined in the joint housing and CSP work sector booklet can help to inform that work.
Ministers noted and agreed the content of the forward work plan for the housing work sector group, which identified the group's areas of focus over the next three years. The obvious point is that we all face the same challenges, and there is so much that we can learn from each other.
The first area of focus for the housing work sector group agreed by Ministers is the challenge presented by climate change, which affects us all. Constructing new homes generates pollutants, which accelerate global warming. Similarly, heating the homes that we have as well as the new homes that we build will mean that we end up burning more fossil fuels. About 14% of our greenhouse gas emissions come from our homes. To be carbon-neutral by 2050, that will have to change. We will need to find new ways to ensure that those challenges do not limit the supply of homes, particularly for those who need our help the most. We must all address that issue, and I am particularly keen for my officials to work with their counterparts in the other BIC Administrations to come up with solutions to the challenges that affect all of our society.
The second area of focus is the provision of suitable affordable housing. I strongly believe that housing is a basic need and right for all. Our Executive policy, as set out in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, aims to achieve a fair and compassionate society that supports working families and protects the most vulnerable. Crucial to that is ensuring that every household has access to a quality, affordable and sustainable home that is appropriate for its needs. Housing should be a stand-alone outcome in the forthcoming Programme for Government. I am therefore always interested to hear how policymakers tackle the difficult issues, and my officials engage regularly across the Administrations to share experience, knowledge and information.
Ongoing engagement through the British-Irish Council and the delivery of the work plan will be helpful in informing my ambitions for the housing agenda, which will, amongst other things, seek to expand the range of affordable intermediate housing options available.
The final area of focus is housing's role in health and social care, and I am particularly pleased to see that being considered as part of the forward work plan. Throughout the pandemic, I have seen at first-hand how an effective, joined-up, collaborative approach from the housing sector, health professionals and the third sector can make a huge difference to those in acute need of support. That work has been critical and has provided support and refuge to those who might otherwise have been left to face a truly desperate situation. For example, my Department has worked closely with health and social care professionals to support the chronically homeless, who are some of the most vulnerable, and, at the start of the pandemic, I was very concerned that they would be left exposed. The work included the Department of Health housing rough sleepers with no right to homeless assistance. I thank the Minister of Health for providing assistance so that everyone on our streets was able to come inside and comply with the Government's guidance on shielding, self-isolation and social distancing. Collaboration like that makes a real difference to people on the ground. Unfortunately, that issue is common across all the BIC Administrations and was discussed at last week's meeting. Collaboration on it and other issues where housing impacts on health and social care will be further explored as part of the ongoing work programme.
Finally, I put on record my thanks to the ministerial colleagues across these islands who participated productively in the meeting. I look forward to a further meeting on the housing work sectors in 2023.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call the Chair of the Communities Committee, I remind the House that I have quite a lot of Members on my list, and there is an hour for questions. The Committee Chair will get a bit of leeway, but I ask Members to be succinct in their questions. I said, "a bit of leeway", Ms Bradley, not "too much leeway".
"how we can increase the supply of quality, sustainable and affordable homes."
Councils have been asked to submit their draft community plans, which detail, amongst other things, GP surgeries, libraries and many other services, yet planners and developers do not seem to look at those services when future-proofing, especially when it comes to affordable housing. They think that affordable housing should be the housing that is stuck out in the middle of nowhere. How can you ensure that our councils' community plans are used for any future social and affordable housing and that such housing is in areas that are suitable for lifelong living, given that we have an ever-increasing ageing population?
Ms Hargey: That is a critical area when looking at housing supply, waiting lists and, indeed, where homes are being built. My primary focus is on increasing the supply of social homes. Affordable homes also come into that equation. I am looking at a housing supply strategy to start to deal with those issues. That has to be mapped to the availability of publicly owned land, and the local development plans that councils are exploring come into question around that. We are doing a fresh mapping exercise across Departments, and, indeed, across local government, to see what land is available in the time ahead. I am looking at introducing ring-fencing in areas with the highest housing need and longest waiting lists. It will be a combination of all of those.
The Minister for Infrastructure and I have discussed and looked at the changes that need to be made to the planning process. Councils need to take responsibility as well, and I know that many have done so. They all have ambitions for growth, but that growth has to be sustainable. Housing needs to be prioritised. That has caused debate and conversation in many councils. Many have come forward with public inquiries into local development plans that included thresholds or limits for social and affordable homes. I want to work with local government in the time ahead to ensure that they prioritise such housing as they develop their local development plans and identify other public land that they or other parts of government own.
Creating more homes is the quickest way of dealing with some of the issues around homelessness and all the vulnerabilities that we have listed. As we move forward with the strategy on housing supply, we will start to identify what we need to do in the time ahead.
Ms Mullan: I thank the Minister for her statement. Can the Minister provide an update on her plans to increase the stock of social and affordable housing?
Ms Hargey: The statement on revitalisation of the Housing Executive was made by Carál Ní Chuilín when she was temporarily the Minister at the end of last year. That looks at the financing issues and the ability to build social housing again. I am looking at the supply strategy, and we are working on that at the moment. We are also looking at the right to buy, and there will be a consultation on that, because of the loss of social homes over the last few decades. As I said, we are also looking at public land for public housing and doing a remapping exercise of available land that we can identify for housing.
Work will take place with the Minister for Infrastructure on the waste water and sewerage infrastructure and what we need to do in terms of future connections. That was brought up earlier. We will also look at new work on how we can build homes more quickly; for example, building off-site and looking at new methods of construction. We will engage with the Housing Executive, housing associations and others as we start to bring the plans forward. They are at an early stage of design, and I hope that, over the coming months, I can bring more intensive discussion papers on what I propose to do in the time ahead. The ultimate aim is to be more ambitious with our housing development programme for the social housing that we can bring forward. We are looking at the issue of intermediate rents and at affordable housing as an option for people.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for her statement. The Minister has referred to the plans announced by her predecessor and party colleague to reclassify the Housing Executive's landlord function to a mutual or cooperative designation to enable it to borrow and build. I may be mistaken, but I believe that the transfer of 85,000 public homes would be the largest ever on these islands. Has the Minister had an opportunity to discuss with her counterparts from elsewhere the impact that such transfers in their jurisdictions have had on rents and security of tenure?
Ms Hargey: There was no direct discussion of that at the meeting last week. However, obviously, the supply of housing and increasing social and affordable housing is a key work programme that we are looking to do in the time ahead. The statement last year on housing — it was welcomed by all in the Chamber — said that something needed to be done as our current housing system is broken. I think that people across these Benches recognise that we need to see change, because those on housing waiting lists demand it, and ensure that we can increase and be more ambitious about the supply of homes. At one point, the Housing Executive owned more than 240,000 homes, and that has been reduced to just over 80,000 homes, as the Member said.
We need to deal with the fundamental issues. Allowing the Housing Executive to be able to build and to have the finances to do that will be crucial. I am exploring whether I can find a way of doing that while keeping the function as it is at the moment. There are other options, such as a cooperative. I am clear that any change will be in consultation with tenants, those on the waiting list, the Housing Executive and others. I am also ensuring that there will be ownership, so that, if it is a different model from the one in place now, tenants will have a central role in the ownership and in where we will take this forward. We are still at an early stage in looking at the reports and drawing up the plans.
Part of that will be looking at other jurisdictions and at models of best practice. The incoming chief executive of the Housing Executive has extensive experience across this island and, indeed, across the islands. I will work closely with Grainia and others as we meet the challenges in the time ahead.
Mr Allen: I thank the Minister for her statement, which refers to 'Creating an Inclusive Future Vision for our Ageing Populations'. I have been contacted recently by some of our ageing population in Knocknagoney who are being uprooted from their homes. Minister, what do you intend to do as part of that vision to ensure that people who have lived in our communities all their life are not uprooted and forced to move to other areas?
Ms Hargey: The big thing to say about future housing supply is that we are becoming an ageing population. People are getting older, and that presents unique and specific challenges. I want to maintain traditional communities. I think that it was Paula who said that it is not just about building homes but about the services and the infrastructure that go with it to make sustainable communities.
I want to look at a co-design approach, working with communities and with the various age groups and sectors as we start to look at the future trends and the needs of our communities. That will be done on a geographical basis as well for communities that are already there. We will look at their future needs to determine how they can grow and develop. We will consider what social housing provision and affordable homes will look like. That may mean that, if people want to upsize or downsize, we need to look at that in a longer-term way.
It will also mean working with councils. Councils have ambitious plans for growth in the local development plans. What will those look like in the time ahead if we start to utilise more town and city centre spaces that have traditionally not been built on in the past 30 to 40 years? There is a real opportunity to do that, particularly when we look at the economy, at future working trends and at office accommodation and other unutilised buildings.
Is there an opportunity to look at having, for example, more city centre living? That should not happen at the expense of displacing people or forcing them of their home. That should not be what it is about; it should be about choice. It should be about where people want to live and the type of accommodation that, they feel, meets their needs. We need to start planning more for the longer term to meet those needs. I am talking not just about the next year or the next five years but about the next 20, 30, 40 and 50 years. What will that look like? How do we ensure that we design housing, communities and infrastructure to go along with that? Even climate change and its impact need to be considered. I sit on a recently established cross-departmental working group with the Department for Infrastructure, the Department for the Economy and DAERA. It is to look at the challenges and at what we need to do over the next 20, 30 and 40 years.
Sorry, Andy. If you have a specific question about Knocknagoney, I am more than happy to come back to you on it or to speak to you after this.
Ms Armstrong: Minister, I am delighted to hear your reflections on the flexibility of tenure to ensure that people can stay in their community when the house that they live in is no longer fit for purpose as they grow older.
I want to come back to this point. While we can talk plenty about the growth and development of new housing, we still have 85,000 houses in the Housing Executive and many of them require significant investment and retrofitting to enable our zero-carbon targets to be met by 2050. We could meet those earlier. Have there been any discussions about how we will make the homes of existing social tenants fit for purpose?
Ms Hargey: That is key to the revitalisation statement made in the House last year. The Housing Executive faces financial challenges not only in investing in new homes and having the ability to build again but with existing stock, some of which is in poor condition and needs upgraded. We have some of the highest fuel poverty numbers not just across these islands but across Europe. There are specific challenges that we have to face over the next couple of years and, indeed, over the next few decades.
As I said, I sit on the working group to look at the challenges of climate change along with the Infrastructure, Economy and Agriculture Departments. One area that we look at is the work that needs to be done to replace boilers and retrofit properties. Obviously, that will have a huge financial impact, but it can also build the green economy. We are looking at job creation in that sector and how we will make sure that we design the new houses that come on-site so that they are fit for purpose for the next 20, 30 or 40 years. We are not just looking a couple of years ahead; we are ensuring that we look a few decades ahead with regard to climate change. There is a target.
The cross-departmental group has had only one meeting. There will be a follow-up meeting. From that, a specific work stream will look at boiler replacements, retrofitting properties and changing housing build standards in the time ahead; indeed, building standards need to be upgraded desperately. Obviously, more families, particularly children, now live in the private rented sector rather than in social housing. I will also look at legislating during this mandate on health and safety conditions in the private rented sector to ensure that landlords upgrade properties and ensure that they are safe and provide a good standard of living.
Various work streams are ongoing. As I said, once those start to develop into concrete plans, I will bring them to the Committee and to the Chamber.
Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for her statement. She mentioned climate change, building new homes, the fact that 14% of greenhouse gas emissions come from our homes and trying to be carbon-neutral by 2050. As my colleague Kellie Armstrong said, the Housing Executive cannot even sort out social housing. What guarantees can the Minister give the Assembly that we can hold the Housing Executive to account for issues such as cavity wall insulation or roof insulation, for example, that it cannot even sort out now?
Ms Hargey: I thank the Member for his question. It is an important area. We know that the Housing Executive has challenges with historical debt, corporation tax and other issues. The main reason for the housing statement in November 2020 was to start to look seriously at those issues. We have been talking about them for over 10 years, but we have not really looked at or moved on them seriously. Since the statement, that has started to change. We are saying that it needs to be a priority and that, if we want to look at upgrading existing properties and be more ambitious in our house-building projects to build more social homes, we need to deal with the issues of historical debt.
At the moment, the Department is starting to look at that. Work plans are being developed. We are also looking at teams and experts who can help us with that work in the Department. We are working with the Housing Executive and looking at external bodies. I suppose that the role of the British-Irish Council will be to allow us to look at best practice and the challenges faced in other places. We want to bring all homes in the Housing Executive's existing stock up to a good standard. Building regulations also need to change. That needs to happen as well to make sure that new homes are built that are fit for purpose. We have to deal with the historical issues of debt and look at ways to allow the Housing Executive to borrow, so that it can look at a more ambitious house-building programme while maintaining its existing stock.
Tied in with that is the assessment of rents and making sure that, while there is a trajectory for rents, we maintain some of the lowest rents across these islands; indeed, we do that through the Housing Executive. There is an investment challenge. At the moment, work is ongoing, on the back of the statement in November, to look at that more seriously and to put teams on it to come up with proposals for the changes that we need to make. There are ongoing discussions with DOF and the British Treasury on the historical debt and corporation tax issues.
They are ongoing, and, once we have a conclusion on those issues, I will bring the matter to the Executive, the Committee and, indeed, to the Chamber.
Mr Newton: Minister, Mr Andy Allen referred to Knocknagoney Avenue, where, for the last 10 years, discussions have been going on about the future of the maisonettes and the shops. My understanding is — it has been confirmed — that the Housing Executive has made a recommendation to you and is awaiting a decision from you on the future of that block. I believe that demolition was the recommendation.
I welcome the statement, particularly the fact that you are beginning to identify the role of housing and the provision of housing in a much wider sense than just the provision of a house, particularly in the final area of focus. You understand housing's role in health and social care.
Minister, it is my belief that we will never, certainly in the Belfast area, see the provision of bungalows again. I hope that I am wrong about that. There are many folk who, in the future, will look towards a bungalow and will never attain a bungalow, yet they will be offered accommodation in apartments. There is nothing wrong with apartments for a certain age of person, but, when people reach a mature age, many are looking for the peace and quiet that can be established within the boundaries of their own home, and, at that age, that, generally speaking, is a bungalow. Minister, can you give consideration to the provision of bungalow-type accommodation for those whom you are dealing with in the statement?
Ms Hargey: Thanks very much for your question. It is an important one. All options are being looked at the moment. When you look at housing supply and the future needs in population trends and demographics, all those issues have to be considered. Availability of land becomes critical as well, and that is why the local development plans are crucial. We know that many councils have an ambition for housing growth through those plans. They are looking at the ageing population and how future population trends are taken into account. When we are looking at all these plans, it will be important that we engage with people, including those who are on the transfer list, those who are on the waiting list and those who are in housing. We should engage with the different sectors and the different age groups when looking at future housing needs and supply. That all comes into question in terms of the type of home.
I dealt with the issue even as councillor in Belfast. You will know, Robin, that, in the Belfast City Council area, communities that have been there for a long time are used to the area in which they live and they often want to stay in that area, but they want homes to be available to meet their needs. That is why we are looking at those areas and ring-fencing areas of highest housing need to ensure that we are building, where possible, homes where people want to live. I do not want a scenario where people are being forced to move 10, 15 or 20 miles away, because, again, that leads to a breakdown in the social fabric and their support networks. We want to look at that in the time ahead. There is a commitment that that will include different types of homes that meet the needs of older people.
Ms Hargey: Yes. All those options will be considered.
Mr Lynch: Given the positive impact of the initiatives that you mentioned in your statement, Minister, do you intend to increase the level of collaborative work with the Department of Health?
Ms Hargey: That is an important area. Thanks for the question. The pandemic, in many areas, has really shone a light on issues that we knew were there. Some of the good work that has taken place has been done through housing officials in my Department and also with officials in the Department of Health. Real, practical steps have been taken through collaborations to ensure that no one from the vulnerable categories is homeless and on the streets.
We have also looked at those who have no recourse to public funds to ensure that housing was made available to them at the height of the pandemic. If that can be done at the height of a pandemic, it should be done outside the pandemic as well. There is a willingness in my Department and the Department of Health to increase collaboration and to look at cross-departmental working groups on the issue. There is a cross-departmental working group on the anti-poverty strategy and its impact, and housing will be a key component of that.
The answer is yes. We have a memorandum of understanding on accommodation that was agreed between the Departments and the Housing Executive, and we can only increase that collaboration and understanding in the time ahead.
Ms Dolan: Minister, you have touched on this slightly. We have heard of increasing difficulties with costs and conditions for tenants in the private rented sector. What measures can the Minister put in place to address that?
Ms Hargey: I am looking at the private rented sector and will bring forward proposed legislative changes in this mandate to strengthen protections in that sector, including the health and safety checks that need to be conducted. I am looking at letting agents and some of the precarious characteristics and behaviours there. I am drawing up a Bill to strengthen the protections for those in the private rented sector. Again, during the pandemic and as a result of it, we were able to make changes to things like the notice to quit period. All those are being considered, and I will bring forward a Bill to the Executive and the Communities Committee very shortly.
Mr McNulty: Minister, what discussions you have had with the Minister for Infrastructure and the Minister of Finance about upgrading existing waste water treatment capacity to enable the construction of social housing in places like Newry and elsewhere?
Ms Hargey: There have been ongoing discussions through the work streams not only on climate change, which I touched on, but on what we need to do on infrastructure. There is ongoing collaboration between the Departments. On the draft Budget and reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI) borrowing, the two key areas in the draft Budget are housing and infrastructure. There is a recognition that the two issues are linked.
I had a meeting recently with the Minister for Infrastructure at which that was raised again. We look forward to a follow-up meeting to talk specifically about infrastructure and housing needs in the time ahead. Discussions are ongoing.
Those two areas have also been identified in the Programme for Government. Housing needs to be a specific outcome in the Programme for Government. I hope that, on the back of the public consultation, the Executive will agree to that in the time ahead.
Mr Beggs: The statement spoke of spatial planning, the challenges of an ageing population and climate change. The Minister has also indicated that people want to live close to where they grew up. In Larne, two blocks of multistorey flats were brought down some years ago, and the third and final one is in the process of being brought down. Will the Minister reassess the relatively modest plans to build social housing in that public space, given all the assets that come with it, its central location and its access to essential services and facilities for those who are 55-plus and, indeed, anybody else in need of social housing? It meets all the criteria that were spoken about.
Ms Hargey: Thanks very much. I signed off on an answer to a question for written answer about that from the Member last week. The housing development programme is based on where the housing need is.
I recognise that we are not building enough social homes to meet the growing need and demand. That has been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic and its impact on homelessness. We need to be more ambitious in our housing plans.
Work is progressing on projected needs and on how people want to live in the time ahead, in local development plans (LDPs), in the Programme for Government and in engagement with Infrastructure and others. We continuously look to identify public land for housing, but the housing development programme is primarily about housing need and where homes will be developed. Obviously, we need to build more homes. When you look at the housing development programme and the numbers experiencing housing stress in areas such as west Belfast, north Belfast and the Foyle area, we can see that more houses need to be built in those areas.
I wrote to you, Roy, specifically on the issue in Larne, and that will be based on the housing need in that area at that time. If there are other plans such as growth plans, we will link in with the local development plan and look at affordable housing and what that will look like in the time ahead. Those are in the early stages of discussion and will start to pick up pace over the coming months.
Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for her statement and for her ongoing, steadfast commitment to the provision of housing. What work is ongoing in the Department to identify land that is needed to meet housing demand?
Ms Hargey: An initiative for public land for public housing was commissioned as part of an asset management strategy action in 2016-17. A number of housing sites were brought forward as part of that. Developments were built and people are living in those homes. However, we need to be more ambitious in how we look at the issue. We need to work with councils, because local development plans are critical, in particular with public land that is in council ownership and in ring-fencing and targeting those areas for housing.
We are reviewing public land for housing. We are conducting an assessment and engaging with other Departments on the availability of land and matching that against where the need is and the projected growth is for LDPs. I am working with the Department for Infrastructure on infrastructure needs and what needs to run alongside that.
All of that work is being brought up to date and is part of the housing supply strategy that we are starting to devise. Once that is completed, the information and work programme will be shared with Members.
Mr McCrossan: The Minister rightly referred to the blight of homelessness across these islands. However, the pandemic has demonstrated that rough sleeping is not inevitable and is a consequence of political and budgetary choices. Is the Minister exploring other policy initiatives that colleagues elsewhere have implemented? What impact will the Finance Minister's rejection of her bid for homelessness services have on the number of homeless people here over the next 12 months?
Ms Hargey: On the budgetary challenges, it is not a rejection by the Finance Minister, as, I am sure, the Member knows. It is about how budgets are made and how the block grant is given over. We were given a flat budget, which has been passed on to the Executive as a whole and which all Departments face. In real terms, a flat budget means a cut and an impact on services. Collectively, we need to highlight the impact of that to the British Government and the Treasury, particularly in the midst of a pandemic. We need to look at that critical area.
As I said, we have done a lot of good work with Health and housing about how we look at homelessness and at those who find themselves living rough on the streets. That has required resources, and we have managed to do it through COVID moneys. We are reviewing the homelessness strategy and working with the Housing Executive, the Supporting People programme and others.
I see housing as a fundamental right, and that is why it has to be included as a key outcome of the incoming Programme for Government. Then, we need an agenda for how we will address that issue. As I touched on, there are huge investment challenges for the Housing Executive in undertaking housing builds, and some of those may take a bit longer. However, the work has started to fix the broken system that we have at the moment.
We can learn from other areas. At the meeting, we touched briefly on the challenges of homelessness for all of the Administrations. My focus is on ensuring that we increase the supply of social housing, that we produce a renewed homelessness strategy to deal with the issue and that we find the finance for that. I hope that the Assembly, along with all the parties in the Executive, can make representations to and urgent requests of the British Government and the Treasury to change the proposed Budget to a more ambitious one that invests in public services, including social housing.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Unable to see Mr McCrossan, I felt almost as though I was at a seance or something. There was just a voice coming from the Gallery.
Miss Woods: I thank the Minister for her statement and for her specific comments about future-proofing. She will know of my interest in the need for zero-carbon Passivhaus standards, insulation and retrofitting. I also note the mention of collaborative work to address homelessness in light of the pandemic. However, we need to continue to provide permanent housing solutions for people who are homeless, and we need to ensure that those are sustainable. Will the Minister bring the housing supply strategy to the Executive with a budget and resources attached?
Mr McNulty: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.
Ms Hargey: The work on the housing supply strategy is ongoing. We are looking at all of those issues. That work will have to be costed. The Member is right: the fundamental issue for someone who is homeless is to have a home and a roof over their head. People who have complex needs need to be supported. Having a home will not, in itself, do that. We have found that some who get a home may lose it because they have not been able to sustain it. That is a critical issue that we need to fix.
When it comes to the Housing First agenda, we want to work with Supporting People and housing sector organisations such as Housing Rights to look at housing supply issues. I agree that having a house, in itself, will not deal with all of the issues. During the pandemic, our collaboration with the Department of Health has shown that we need to build health and social care. We need to make sure that we are working collaboratively, not in silos, so that the two services are stitched into one another. People have seen the value and the impact of the work that has been done, which has re-energised officials in both Departments. We need to ensure that we continue to step up the work and the focus on that in the time ahead.
Mr Allister: I have heard very few questions or answers arising out of the subject matter of the statement, which is probably a reflection of its lack of substance. However, the statement says:
"there is so much that we can learn from each other."
What has the Minister learned from other Administrations? Is that just a platitude, bearing in mind that the group will not meet for another two years?
Ms Hargey: Other people may do platitudes, but I do not. I was not in the Assembly when the last meeting of the group took place, and the institutions were down for a period after that. Nevertheless, the work programme between officials continued.
There has been collaboration across the different areas. For many Members, it was their first time going to such a meeting, because of elections and everything else that has passed in-between. The issue is around how officials collaborate and engage on an ongoing basis. There has been collaboration about how we respond to the pandemic and to people who find themselves homeless and on the streets. We have had engagement on health and social care and the need to collaborate, and we have shared direct examples with other jurisdictions on that. We have also looked at the issue of public land for public housing and, indeed, sharing and collaboration. If you read the details of the reports and work plans, you will see the work that is being done at the moment. If I put it all in the statement, I would be here for another two hours and the Member would say that I am talking too much. I do not want to be accused of such a thing, so I kept the statement short.
There has been collaboration. My focus now is on the revitalisation programme, increasing the supply of social housing, looking at affordable housing and dealing with the historical debt that has impacted on the Housing Executive. We will engage with the BIC on whether other areas have faced similar challenges and how they have overcome them. We do that as a matter of course with official engagement.
Mr McNulty: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. My colleague Daniel McCrossan will not appreciate the description of his contribution to this important matter as being akin to comments from a seance. The Chair should reconsider those comments.
Mr McNulty: I cannot refer to the Standing Order, but it is completely inappropriate.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Really? Your comments are on the record. The rules on behaviour and courtesies in the House remind Members to be of good nature and good humour at all times. I think that Mr McCrossan will appreciate that that was what it was. Do you wish to make another point of order?
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Well, humour is obviously a subjective matter and is not referred to in the Standing Orders of the House.
Members, please take your ease for a few moments before we move on to the next item of business.
Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice): I beg to introduce the Damages (Return on Investment) Bill, which is a Bill to make provision in relation to the assumed rate of return on investment of particular damages awarded in personal injury cases.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 1 March 2021. — [Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance).]
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The next two motions are to approve the Supply resolution for the spring Supplementary Estimates 2020-21 and the Vote on Account 2021-22. There will be a single debate on both motions. The Minister will commence the debate on both motions. When all Members who wish to speak have done so, I shall put the Question on the first motion. The second motion will then be read into the record. I will then call the Minister to move it, and the Question will be put on that motion. If that is clear, we shall proceed.
That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £22,220,328,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund for or towards defraying the charges for the Northern Ireland Departments, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2021 and that resources, not exceeding £25,124,542,000, be authorised for use by the Northern Ireland Departments, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2021, as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 2(c) and 3(c) of table 1 in the volume of the Northern Ireland spring Supplementary Estimates 2020-21 that was laid before the Assembly on 23 February 2021.
The following motion stood in the Order Paper:
That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £10,081,611,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, for or towards defraying the charges for the Northern Ireland Departments, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2022 and that resources, not exceeding £11,194,733,000, be authorised for use by the Northern Ireland Departments, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2022, as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 4 and 6 of table 1 in the Northern Ireland Estimates: Vote on Account 2021-22 that was laid before the Assembly on 23 February 2021. — [Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance).]
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to four and a half hours for the debate. The Minister will have 30 minutes to allocate at his discretion between proposing and making his winding-up speech. The Chair of the Finance Committee will have 10 minutes in which to speak, and all other Members who are called to speak will have seven minutes. I call the Minister of Finance to open the debate on the motion.
Mr Murphy: As you have set out, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle, this debate covers the Supply resolutions. The first resolution seeks the Assembly's approval for the 2020-21 spending plans of Departments and other public bodies, as set out in the spring Supplementary Estimates (SSEs), which were laid in the Assembly on Tuesday 23 February 2021. Alongside the SSEs, the 2021-22 Vote on Account was also laid. It will be the subject of the second Supply resolution. I will now speak on both of those.
The first resolution before the House relates to the supply of cash and use of resources for the current year, 2020-21. Since the Main Estimates in October 2020, the Executive have continued to manage the public expenditure position, including the allocation of additional funding received from Treasury, as well as the reallocation of existing resources. To date, the Executive have allocated over £2·9 billion in additional resources. Those are unprecedented levels of allocations. The detail of the allocations are a matter of public record and are published on my Department's website.
Before Christmas, the Treasury announced an increase in the amount of COVID funding guaranteed to the Executive in 2020-21 to £3 billion, which provided an additional £200 million of resource DEL. Initial indications were that Treasury would look favourably on requests to carry that over to the next year, and it was therefore not allocated as part of January monitoring. Treasury subsequently advised, however, that that flexibility would not be granted. I have therefore urged my colleagues to bring forward proposals to spend that money on further COVID support.
To ensure that the additional funding from Treasury was not lost, a number of Departments included headroom in their Estimate to provide legal cover for any further allocations. Allocations have already been made to a number of those Departments, details of which have been set out in my written statements to the Assembly. Even after meeting departmental bids, however, unallocated funding remains, and, in the absence of any further proposals, my Department will take forward work on additional grant support.
I had hoped that a broad hardship scheme to support businesses that have not received any support to date would be put in place, but, unfortunately, that has not happened. Once again, it therefore falls on Land and Property Services (LPS) — our rates collection agency — to provide support to businesses. Unfortunately, the rates database held by LPS is not capable of delivering a broad hardship scheme, but, as far as is possible, I will try to incorporate businesses that have not yet received support. I will bring a paper to the Executive on that shortly.
On 15 February, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced that a further £327 million would be allocated to the Executive and confirmed that that can be carried forward in full until 2021-22. That £370 million breaks down into £238 million of resource, £75 million of capital and £14 million of financial transactions capital (FTC).
Given that Departments have been considering ways in which to spend available money beyond the January monitoring round, it has not been possible to introduce the Bill along normal time frames. The recent decision by Treasury on carry-over has meant agreeing allocations at a much later point in the year than usual. Both accelerated passage and suspension of Standing Order 42(5) are therefore required to secure Royal Assent by the end of the financial year.
The COVID-19 crisis has necessitated unprecedented, immediate and extraordinary public expenditure.
The process needs to be expedited to ensure that Departments do not run out of cash. The Bill is essential to authorise all allocations that have been agreed between the Main Estimates and now.
Alongside the SSEs, which are for 2020-21, there is the Vote on Account. The Vote on Account provides authority for Departments to spend in the first few months of 2021-22. I emphasise that the Vote on Account does not represent the setting of the 2021-22 Budget. That is something that the Executive will do in the coming weeks, and I will bring it to the Assembly before the end of March. Rather, the amount for each Department in the Vote on Account is, in most cases, set at approximately 45% of the 2020-21 provision and is designed to ensure that Departments can continue to deliver services until the Main Estimates and Budget (No. 2) Bill, which will be based on the final Budget, are presented to the Assembly for approval in June.
There are a number of procedural issues that I must also address. On behalf of the Executive, I request and recommend the levels of Supply set out in these two resolutions under section 63 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Moreover, as is normal for a Budget Bill, accelerated passage is required for the legislation. Indeed, there is a specific provision for this in Standing Order 42(2). I understand that the Finance Committee has already agreed to grant accelerated passage, and I place on record my appreciation of the Committee's vital role in agreeing this important step in the financial process.
In addition, to ensure that the Bill receives Royal Assent before the end of the financial year, I require the Assembly's approval to suspend Standing Order 42(5) to allow the passage of this Bill in under 10 days. Given the timing of funding allocations and reallocations, and uncertainty around the carry forward of additional Treasury funding, it was not possible to introduce the Bill any earlier. Doing so would have either hindered Departments' ability to use the funding available or resulted in significantly more headroom being included.
I am sure that Members are aware that today's debates on the resolution is time-limited, and I encourage them to use their limited time to focus on the issues specifically related to the 2020-21 Supply resolution before us. Members will have ample opportunity to debate the Executive's 2021-22 Budget, not just when it is announced before the end of March but when I bring the 2021-22 Main Estimates and Budget (No. 2) Bill to the Assembly later in the year.
For now, the focus should be on the Budget Bill and the associated spring Supplementary Estimates, which are essential for the delivery of vital public services such as schools and hospitals, as well as supporting local businesses and the economy. It is vital that we debate the legislation and pass it expeditiously.
I look forward to putting the Executive's final spending plans for 2020-21 on a legal footing through the spring Supplementary Estimates before you today, together with a corresponding Budget Bill, which we will debate tomorrow. I request the support of Members for the resolution for the 2020-21 spring Supplementary Estimates and the resolution for the Vote on Account to allow services to continue to be funded into the first few months of 2021-22.
Dr Aiken (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance): On behalf of the Finance Committee, I thank the Minister for his opening remarks on the Supply resolutions relating to the spring Supplementary Estimates and the Vote on Account. The Minister's officials have kindly provided written and oral explanations of the Estimates and the Vote on Account at a number of Finance Committee meetings. On behalf of the Committee, I thank him for this and express the hope that these useful engagements will continue in a spirit of cooperation, as indeed they have done, for the remainder of this mandate.
The Committee finds these exchanges with officials most instructive. In fact, members learn something brand new every time officials come to speak to us. In tomorrow's debate, I will, with your indulgence, address this further and speak fairly briefly on the issues relating to accelerated passage for the Budget Bill. For now, I will address the Supply resolutions.
To put it mildly, this has been an unusual year. In order to deal with the very serious regional consequences of the global pandemic, our Government have made significant additional sums available to the Executive. There have also been some underspends as various functions have had to stop or be curtailed and the associated finances have had to be redirected. That has made the reconciliation of the Main Estimates and the spring Supplementary Estimates utterly different from previous years, and allocations from the UK Government have been in excess of the £3 billion of resources. The subsequent Executive allocations often had to be made at short notice and outside the usual monitoring round process.
Furthermore, and as we are aware, the Executive apparently find themselves, even now, with a considerable underspend of sums of, perhaps, over £500 million. Thanks to the special carry-over arrangements with HM Treasury, some of that will be spent in 2021-22. However, it seems that quite a lot of money remains to be disbursed in the current financial year. The Committee has recently urged the Minister to work with his Executive colleagues to bring forward new schemes, or bolster existing schemes, particularly for under-supported business sectors, in order to use up the money and to help other good and applicable causes.
In order to allow for departmental flexibility in that regard, the Estimates show a headroom of almost £1 billion, even though the available resource is considerably less than that. Members and, sometimes, officials have struggled to keep abreast of the multiple allocations and to understand the use of headroom in the Estimates. I ask the Minister to provide, in his response, a further explanation of the latter and, perhaps, to issue an epilogue to the Estimates that will provide a final record of where the most recent allocations have been made in 2021.
It is understood that the Vote on Account provides finance to allow existing services to continue in the early months of 2021-22 pending the passage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill. The Department advises that existing services should be read as including not only services for which sums have been appropriated before 31 March 2021, but services in respect of which specific legislation has recently been passed or is under consideration. Thus, the Vote on Account is not always simply a financial float that allows things to continue as they are for the first few months of the next financial year. It can be more than that: it can allow other new services to start. Even if that is not the case this year, the Vote on Account is always worthy of the scrutiny of the Committee and the House.
The Department of Finance has benefited from additional allocations of over £200 million to cover the cost of business support measures, including the localised restrictions support scheme. Members have had concerns about the speed of payments and the limited support for some hard-pressed and, apparently, forgotten sectors. That said, the Committee was pleased by the rapid disbursal of support, well in excess of £100 million, which took place between December and January. The Department retains headroom of £300 million to cover the possible costs of additional support measures. Perhaps, the Minister might tell us a little more, if he can, about what he has in that regard, particularly for the sectors, such as the travel industry and driving schools, that have not yet benefited significantly. Every Member can give examples of small and medium-sized companies that have had difficulties.
It is also important that I, as Chairperson, warmly welcome the rates holiday for businesses and recognise the challenge that LPS has had to rise to in respect of the provision of a programme of rates relief. On behalf of the Committee, I endorse both Supply Resolution motions.
I will make a few short remarks in my capacity as the Ulster Unionist Party spokesperson on finance. During the reading of the Supply Estimates, and at last week's Committee meeting, there was much discussion about support for the victims' payment scheme. One of the issues that has exercised many Members and victims is the matter of when the funding to victims is likely to happen. This month marks the 49th anniversary of the despicable attack on the Abercorn bar. Jennifer McNern, whom some Members will know, is still waiting. We have an opportunity to make sure that victims know when that money is due to come to them. Expectations that were raised last week in the Finance Committee have been changed by comments and clarifications from the Department. It is beholden on us to make sure that that much-needed money for the victims of terrorism gets to them.
Dr Archibald (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy): I intend to speak on the in-year monitoring rounds, the several COVID allocations, unspent funds and the difficulty for the Committee in being able to scrutinise budgets this year. The Department for the Economy has been delivering schemes to help businesses and individuals cope with the impact of restrictions on their livelihoods. I put on record the Committee's appreciation of the hard work and dedication of the Department's staff. All credit must be given for the work that has been done against a very difficult backdrop in order to deliver support.
A Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle, you will be aware that, in the summer, there was an exercise when the Department for the Economy made 32 bids across 13 themes, including assistance to business; skills and youth training; tourism; the energy strategy; and university research. The Department of Finance made a number of urgent allocations to the Department as part of that exercise, including £23·1 million for interventions for apprenticeships and further education safe learning. The Department's 32 bids were considered key to addressing the economic recovery. Those bids and a further six inescapable pressures total £88 million resource deal in 2020-21, with future resource DEL funding commitments of £63 million up to 2023-24 and an ongoing recurrent commitment of over £8 million per annum. The modelling for COVID response measures has been difficult. Over £50 million in underspend was returned to the centre in the summer from the Department's initial COVID schemes. The Committee has campaigned for greater flexibility for movement of funds across COVID relief schemes, and thanks must be given to the Finance Minister for the additional flexibility that has been introduced.
The relaxation of restrictions last summer gave false hope for our direction of travel, and the Department's bids in the summer exercise reflected the belief that a recovery phase approached. However, we now know that that was overly optimistic and again required the return of substantial funds that could not be spent. As late as December, the Minister briefed the Committee that the Department was looking at a shortfall of approximately £140 million in its budget. She highlighted a considerable shortfall of approximately £70 million in funding that would have come from EU sources but is not anticipated to be replaced by the British Government's Shared Prosperity Fund.
By the January monitoring round at the beginning of this year, things had changed. The expectation that a recovery phase was beginning was gone, and we found ourselves in the current restrictions and lockdown. As part of January monitoring, the Department submitted bids of £33·9 million for five inescapable non-COVID pressures; five COVID-19 bids totalling £54·7 million to support economic recovery; and one high-priority bid of £8 million for higher education for quality-related research. Also, £17·6 million of resource DEL easements were identified and utilised in other departmental spending, including £3·8 million towards meeting the European social fund (ESF) shortfall. The Minister sought £16 million for Invest NI to replace any European regional development fund (ERDF) shortfall. Additionally, £93 million that was received for the high street voucher scheme was returned and has been included in bids for 2021-22.
The current lockdown restrictions meant that a number of anticipated spends could not be utilised as planned. A further £12·4 million in COVID support funding was returned to DOF as it could not be utilised during the current restrictions. However, the Department indicated that it would seek over £200 million in annually managed expenditure (AME) for 2021-22 in order to cover commitments that had been made.
A Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle, that perhaps gives some illustration of the financial roller coaster that the Department for the Economy has been on over the past year, and, as you will appreciate, it has made the Committee's scrutiny role very difficult to fulfil. However, the Committee remains committed to providing as much scrutiny as possible.
I will now make some brief remarks as Sinn Féin economy spokesperson. As I outlined, it has been a very difficult and busy year with bids and allocations from all Departments, particularly the Department for the Economy. The Finance Minister will be aware that the Department for the Economy handed back some £54 million in COVID funding in January, and, since then, bids for further supports from DFE have not been forthcoming. That is despite, as the Chair of the Finance Committee highlighted, groups of businesses having little or no specific support. The Finance Minister will be aware of those because they are issues that have been raised with him, and it has been well rehearsed that there is a good case for support to be made available. That includes support for travel agents, who everyone will recognise have been badly hit. They have been out significant sums from returning deposits and have had a lack of any new bookings. There are also independent agents who do not have premises so have had little other support. There are some self-employed people who have been failed by the British Chancellor because they became self-employed too late in the previous tax year to qualify for the self-employed income support scheme and who were self-employed for too long to qualify for DFE's scheme.
That could be rectified by the Economy Minister making a bid for funds to extend the criteria of the existing scheme.
Another sector that has been badly hit is the events sector. It previously missed out on support and is not included in the tourism and hospitality support scheme. Again, that could be rectified by bidding for more funds for that scheme and amending the criteria. With £250 million to be allocated, it is difficult to justify not bidding to support businesses and workers who are struggling. We all recognise and appreciate the significant work that departmental officials are putting into delivering schemes, but there are people out there who are really struggling. It is important that all efforts are made to get support to them while that money is available, especially if it is a case of relaxing or amending the criteria of existing schemes rather than designing new ones. Perhaps the Finance Minister could update us on any discussions that have been had or bids that have been made in respect of further business supports.
The Minister will be aware that the Tory Chancellor is due to make a Budget statement this week. I am hopeful that there will be an announcement of an extension to the furlough scheme. I am sure that the Minister agrees that businesses — some sectors in particular — will require support to continue beyond the end of April. I ask the Finance Minister to continue to make representations and to urge the Chancellor to move finally to support some of those whom he has excluded in the past year.
We will debate the incoming year's Budget tomorrow, so I will keep my remarks about that until then.
Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): I welcome the opportunity to speak today on behalf of the Health Committee and will provide some information on the Committee's consideration of current financial pressures.
We are all aware that this has been a difficult and challenging year. The unprecedented pandemic has meant that a lot of the original Budget planning had to be put on hold and resources directed towards the Executive's response to COVID-19. While we understand the reasons and the need to redirect the Budget and funding, it has left the Department of Health and the wider public in a difficult position. In the coming years, the Department needs to consider how it can recover and restart vital services with considerable and growing backlogs.
We have seen the widespread postponement of elective surgery and services. The recent publication of waiting lists has only highlighted the difficult position in which the Department finds itself. We find ourselves in a position where we have over 320,000 people waiting for their first outpatient appointment, with over 50% waiting for over one year. The target is that no patient should wait for longer than one year for their first appointment. The statistics for inpatient day case and diagnostic waiting times also make for bad reading. We can and should outline the difficulties with COVID, but the situation goes beyond COVID and only outlines the need for the Department to drive forward the transformation programme and ensure that our wonderful and dedicated health and social care professionals have a system in place that is efficient, effective and reactive to the needs of the population. I pay particular tribute to all the health and social care staff who, over the past year, have gone way above and beyond what was or should be expected of them and have striven to ensure that everyone has had the care and support that they needed.
It is concerning that, at a Committee meeting just a couple of weeks ago, the Department's director of finance briefed the Committee and outlined that the funding available did not allow the Department to undertake a transformation programme with any level of ambition and that there would not be enough money in the budget next year.
The Committee received briefings from the Department throughout the year on the 2020-21 Budget. The Department received a number of allocations throughout the year for the response to COVID-19. The Department has advised that, following the Executive's agreement to allocate additional funding of £175 million to purchase additional PPE, the post-January monitoring round position was almost £7·3 billion of resource and £358 million of capital.
The Committee welcomed the flexibility over the past year in allocating spend within the Department, but it raised concerns about the £90 million being surrendered by the Department in the January monitoring round. The Committee would like to see better budget planning and prioritisation over the next Budget period. That has also highlighted the need for multi-year Budgets, which would allow better planning and enable the Department to take forward a number of transformation projects, rather than having to rely on monitoring rounds to fund need.
I will also outline the difficulty that the Committee has in scrutinising the health and care budget, given that the Department of Finance, the Department of Health and the trusts allocate money under different headings, which can make it difficult to follow the funding. I encourage those involved to progress towards a clear line of sight in budgeting, which would increase transparency and improve the scrutiny of a large and complex budget.
If I may, I will make a few remarks as the Sinn Féin spokesperson on health. Many of the challenges that the health and social care sector faces predate the COVID-19 pandemic, although they have been exacerbated by it. It is undeniable that, under 10 years of Tory austerity, our health and social care sector has been starved of the resources that it needs to provide a reliable and efficient system of health and social care. For example, waiting lists are not a new development. They existed long before the arrival of COVID-19 and are the result of long-standing financial pressures caused by Tory austerity. The pandemic has exacerbated the waiting lists, and we now have the terrible reality that life-saving and red-flag surgery and procedures are being cancelled, causing additional intolerable suffering to patients across the North.
To date, there is little evidence that any proactive planning is taking place in the Health Department: for example, there has been none of the workforce planning needed even to begin recommencing many of the non-COVID health procedures that patients have been waiting for for such a long time. Planning for health and social care requires long-term surety of funds. Therefore, rather than relying on monitoring rounds, we need multi-year Budgets that allow the effective, efficient planning and development of a health and social care sector that serves the health needs of our population.
We are told by the Department of Health that the long-awaited and much-needed transformation project will be less ambitious than previously thought because the funding simply does not exist. That is hugely disappointing and does not augur well for an improved health and social care sector.
As I mentioned, it is with consternation that I note the £90 million that was surrendered by the Department in the January monitoring round when so many priorities in health and social care could easily have benefited from that funding. It is worrying that, with the healthcare system showing so many stresses, the Department and the Minister could not identify an area of health where that money could be spent.
Of particular concern to Sinn Féin is that the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the impact of health inequalities across our more deprived communities, where infection and death rates during the pandemic have been significantly higher. As the problems with long COVID surface, time will tell whether the damage done will further impact on the health of our less well-off.
Finally, we in Sinn Féin are concerned that the Department of Health has opted to carry out a high-level screening exercise, rather than a full equality impact assessment (EQIA), of the Department of Health's draft budget for 2021-22. Using a high-level screening exercise is a completely inadequate means of gathering the information needed to assess the relevant equality impacts or opportunities. Therefore, the Department of Health should proceed to a full equality impact assessment.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Thank you, Members. It has just turned 1.54 pm. That being the case, I propose to suspend the debate in order to allow Question Time to take place at 2.00 pm. When we return to this item of business, the next Member to speak will be Mr Declan McAleer, the Chair of the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee.
The debate stood suspended.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)
Ms Mallon (The Minister for Infrastructure): I thank the Member for her question. With the pandemic continuing, private bus and coach operators are, like many others, dealing with an extremely difficult situation, particularly as a result of the shutdown of the tourism industry. I am pleased to have already delivered support to many operators in the sector through my first support fund, which closed just before Christmas. A total of 140 valid applications were received for the first financial assistance scheme, and, to date, most of those applications have been considered, with the one remaining application being processed at pace. Ninety-nine applicants have been assessed as being eligible for the scheme, resulting in payments. The main reason for ineligibility is that some operators are still profit-making despite a decline in business. The scheme, however, was set up to provide funding only when losses have been incurred, in order to help those most in need and ensure value for money.
The evidence presented to my Department has confirmed the ongoing impact on the sector since September. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister have therefore agreed to my request for a further determination and designation under the Financial Assistance Act 2009 for a second financial assistance scheme. It will provide further support for the period between 1 October 2020 and 31 March 2021. I have engaged with the sector on the scheme and intend to launch it in early March.
Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for her response. She will be aware that representatives of the sector have raised significant frustrations with the first scheme, given the high level of ineligibility and the fact that others did not receive full payment. Can the Minister give her assessment of the scheme and say whether she believes that it is serving the needs of industry? Will she commit to engaging with representatives of the sector who believe that their concerns are not being heard?
Ms Mallon: I have engaged with the sector, and my officials have again engaged with sector representatives as recently as last month. We have considered their written submissions and suggestions. The sector articulated its concerns about the first scheme, and I understand the issues that it raised. In developing the second scheme, the £100,000 maximum cap has therefore been removed. Officials are working to ensure that there are no limitations placed on payments owing to state aid rules, and they will also seek to improve communications with operators. Those are three of the issues that the sector raised with us. Many of its other requests have not been taken on board, however, because they do not meet the test of value for money. For example, payments will not be made to profit-making businesses. In addition, administration and scrutiny of claims as well as sign-off by accountants are still needed to protect value for money. I assure the Member that we will continue to engage closely with the sector, because it is in a turbulent time, and, with the ongoing impact on the tourism industry, it will be affected for quite some time.
Mr K Buchanan: Minister, the first scheme had a reach-out to 67% of people in the industry who were eligible. Do you think that that is high enough? Will the second scheme bring in more people? As my colleague across the way said, do you intend to have more dialogue with operators in the next week or two, before the second scheme is launched, to make sure that the eligible percentage rises?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. A total of 140 valid applications were received. That was once the duplicate applications and those bus operators who provided no evidence were disallowed. As of today, I can confirm that 99 applications have been assessed as being eligible for the scheme, while 40 applicants have been notified that they did not demonstrate that they meet the eligibility criteria. That is because they were not making a loss, and this scheme is very much about targeting support at those who need it. As I said, there is one remaining application to be considered, and my officials are working at pace to progress that.
As for taking on feedback and learning from the first scheme, we have made changes to the second scheme that reflect the concerns raised by the sector, and we will, of course, continue to engage with it going forward.
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. The Department uses the GB system of speed limits. Our policy document 'Setting Local Speed Limits in Northern Ireland' is publicly available on the Department's website. It outlines our approach when setting speed limits outside this system. Our system of speed limits primarily uses the presence of street lighting to distinguish between urban and rural environments. Broadly speaking, where street lighting is present, the speed limit will be 30 miles per hour; elsewhere, unless indicated by traffic signs, the national speed limit applies.
The Department considers a number of factors when assessing the need for a lower speed limit on a road, including the average speed, collision history, and the function of the road. The Department also considers the demographics, as well as the needs of local people, including vulnerable road users and the level of community support for a reduced speed limit.
As the Minister responsible for promoting and improving road safety, I want to work actively with partners to reduce the deaths and serious injuries on our roads. Setting appropriate speed limits is part of the solution. However, I firmly believe that attitudes to speeding have to change. Drivers need to view speed limits as a limit, and not as a target. My Department’s public information campaigns repeat the message that speeding is not acceptable. I also believe my commitment to providing part-time 20 miles per hour limits at 100 schools, as well as helping to improve road safety at schools, will go some way to changing attitudes and behaviours, but all road users need to play their part.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister and commend her for the 20 miles per hour initiative. I asked her officials to look at the speed limit at Teal Rocks on the peninsula side of Newtownards. That was following concerns from a young mother about the number of accidents and her belief that a pedestrian may be killed. Your officials said no. However, I understand that, of the nine relevant factors for changing a speed limit, one is reducing public anxiety. Therefore, I ask the Minister to take a personal interest in reviewing that speed limit.
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I am aware of his correspondence on this matter, and my officials will be looking at it to assess the situation.
With regard to public anxiety, it is an important factor that I want to try to address, not just on an individual basis but collectively. The Member may be aware that a number of activities are being carried out through my Department's multimedia approach to address public anxiety, to send a clear message to vulnerable road users that their safety is important, and that the Department wants to do all that it can to make all those who use our roads feel safe.
Miss McIlveen: Like my constituency colleague, I have asked for a review of the speed limit along the A20 Portaferry road, along with the A21, A22 and A23 in the constituency. Despite accidents, none of them has been reduced. Unfortunately, and perhaps unfairly, the Department has a reputation for not wanting to act until there is a fatality. Minister, is it not time to review the national speed limits, with a particular focus on single carriageways in the countryside and on the edge of towns?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. I hope that she will understand that I have to refute very strongly any suggestion that the Department sits back and takes action only when someone is injured. We take our commitments on road safety very seriously.
With regard to changing the national speed limit, there are no plans to change the current system of speed limits, as the Department's view is that the approach has the flexibility to take into account local conditions when determining the appropriate limit. The Department's policy for setting speed limits contains a desire to assess speed limits on the upper tier class A and B road network, the outworkings of which would have informed a possible assessment of the ongoing applicability of the national speed limit and consideration of which was contained in an action of the road safety strategy to 2020. My Department remains committed to doing what it can to address road safety. While there are no plans in this mandate to change the speed limit, I assure the Member of my ongoing commitment to doing what we can to improve safety on our roads for all users.
Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for her answers. While the roll-out of the 20 miles per hour zones is a very welcome development, I know that a number of schools were disappointed that they were not included in it. What assurances can the Minister give that she will prioritise the further roll-out of this scheme as part of her road safety programme?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. I was delighted to be able to commit funding from this year's budget to introduce part-time 20 miles per hour speed limits at some 100 schools, and I am pleased that good progress is being made to implement this programme. I am determined to make the roads around all our schools safer for everyone. Therefore, it is my intention that many more schools will have a part-time 20 miles per hour speed limit outside their gate.
The scale and extent of any future programmes will be dependent on the funding allocated to my Department.
Mr Muir: As the Minister will be aware, the default speed limit in urban areas is 30 mph. In Wales, this summer, they are going to trial a reduction to 20 mph in eight areas. Has the Minister given consideration to trialling that in some areas of Northern Ireland?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I have been very focused on the roll-out of the 20 mph speed limit schemes at 100 schools. I am also conscious of initiatives that are taking place across these islands, and I always ask my officials to monitor any pilots and to ensure that I am updated on feedback and can give consideration to the merits or otherwise of similar initiatives in Northern Ireland.
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. The flying of flags and the attachment of emblems to departmental street-lighting columns is an offence under the Roads Order 1993, and my Department has the power to remove them from its property.
One of my Department's primary considerations is the safety of the public, and where unauthorised flags or attachments pose a hazard to road users, my Department will always seek to remove that danger. Where there is no such danger, my Department will liaise closely with other key stakeholders to seek to develop a solution.
While recognising my Department's responsibility, the reality is that if we, as a society, are to find a sustainable and lasting solution to the problem of illegal flags and emblems, we must all step up. That includes not only me and my Department but other Executive leaders as well as Members of all parties in the Assembly.
This area is being explored by the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition, which was set up as part of the Fresh Start Agreement, and I understand that the report has issued to the Executive Office. I wrote jointly with the Justice Minister on the issue of flags to the Executive Office on 18 September last year, and I have asked for sight of the commission's report so that, collectively, we can make progress on this important and challenging area.
Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, Minister. The Executive Office responded to a question for written answer from me regarding the commission's report, and indicated that the junior Ministers were establishing a working group to look at its recommendations and findings. Have your Department's officials been invited onto that working group, and what role could they play on it?
Ms Mallon: I am not aware of a working group being set up, so I cannot comment on the involvement or otherwise of my officials, but I will certainly look at that. With the Justice Minister, I wrote to the Executive Office on 18 September. Unfortunately, I have yet to receive a response. I am committed to doing what I can to address this long-running problem in our society, but, as I said, we will find a lasting and sustainable solution only when we work collectively.
Mrs D Kelly: It is deeply troubling that the Minister wrote on such an important issue on 18 September, because, in my constituency and others, we have seen the erection of sinister posters of late, and people would question why they are allowed to remain on street furniture. Minister, do you share my concern that the Executive Office is not showing due diligence on and consideration of that report? Why has it not been shared with you yet, given that your Department would play a central role?
Ms Mallon: Unfortunately, I am not in the Executive Office, so I cannot answer questions on its behalf. What I can say is that I am up for trying to trying to address this wider societal problem with all my Executive colleagues, all parties in the House and all councils and communities.
It is a long-running issue; we need to address it. As you say, we have seen the erection of posters on Brexit and the Irish Sea border. We have seen inflammatory messages throughout our history that cause intimidation and great upset. It is long past time that, as a society, we came together and found a lasting solution.
Mr Beggs: The Minister acknowledged, rightly, that she already has the power to remove many banners should she so wish. Since the creation of the border down the Irish Sea, we have a very aggrieved unionist community, and there has been no attempt to gain cross-community support and honour the protections in the Belfast Agreement.
Does the Minister acknowledge that, were her officials to attempt to remove non-threatening banners that were erected peacefully and democratically, it is likely that they will be replaced by many more?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I understand that there is a sense of anxiety in the unionist community. However, that requires leadership and honesty. The truth is that there has been no change to the constitution. I urge people, when they are making comment, not to use terminology like "guerilla warfare" and to be mindful that our words have serious impact. When people are feeling anxious, we should be honest with them and try to address those anxieties.
I brought forward a suggestion in the Executive that we find consensus, as an Executive, to request a three-month extension to the grace period while trying to find pragmatic solutions to the difficulties that businesses face and while working to maximise the opportunities that can be presented. Unfortunately, to date, I have not been able to secure the support of my unionist colleagues to do that. However, I have no interest in causing division or anxiety. All that I want to do is work hard as the Minister for Infrastructure with my Executive colleagues so that we can improve the lives of all citizens, whatever their political persuasion.
Mr Boylan: Following on from that, what is the Department's approach to dealing with the flying of flags and banners? Has she any statistics on the number of times that the Department has been asked to remove such items?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. Where flags have not been attached securely to lamp posts, it is possible that the detachment of flags and other materials from lamp posts and other street furniture could distract or injure road users. Fortunately, there have been no significant incidents of that nature to date. My Department has removed successfully and discreetly a small number of flags and banners over recent years. Records of that are not kept. Records were kept previously, but that practice ceased around six years ago.
Mr Storey: I thank the Minister for her answer. However, I have to take issue with her when she says that her Department takes measures to remove such emblems. Having written to a previous Minister, Mr Kennedy, and raised the matter repeatedly, we still have, in the village of Rasharkin in my constituency, signs from republican organisations that do not have the support of the community. They should have been removed a long time ago. That is a failure by your Department, Minister, to deal with the issue in a village that has been subjected to a lot of intimidation in the past, part of which emanates from those illegal signs.
Mr Storey: When will they be removed? Can I have an assurance that they will be removed?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. Let me be unequivocal about this: I have no support for or any truck with the erection of flags or emblems that cause intimidation to anyone. However, this is the complexity of the issue: in a previous question, Mr Roy Beggs appealed to me not to remove emblems that had been erected in one part of Northern Ireland, and you now request the removal of emblems in another part. The reality is that the Minister for Infrastructure, whatever political party they belong to, will never be able to find a lasting solution to the issue. It requires political leadership. It requires the Executive to come together to address the issue holistically, collectively and responsibly.
Ms Mallon: Last week, I was delighted to announce plans for a new park-and-ride scheme at Dungiven. It will provide around 150 spaces adjacent to the junction of the new A6 Dungiven to Drumahoe dual carriageway with the Feeny Road and will help to deliver cleaner, greener sustainable transport for the local community. My Department will now begin the pre-application discussions with Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council as a precursor to applying for planning permission later in 2021.
Ms Hunter: I thank the Minister for her answer. That is fantastic news for the people of Dungiven. I know that you have worked hard to provide the park-and-ride scheme. On accessibility, will a shuttle bus be provided to take people from Dungiven town out to the park-and-ride facility?
Ms Mallon: I can confirm to the Member that the Department is working closely with Translink to consider operational requirements for public transport through Dungiven when the park-and-ride project is completed. Translink is committed to continuing to provide an appropriate level of service to Dungiven, and we will certainly look at that request in order to assist the local community.
Dr Archibald: I welcome the progress to date and the announcement that was made last week after I met the Minister and raised the importance of the scheme. Indeed, the right public transport infrastructure will help public transport to bounce back after the pandemic. Minister, what is the timescale for delivery of the project, and will it be in place when that section of the A6 is completed? Will cycling infrastructure be put in place to encourage active travel?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. Subject to successful land acquisition, planning approval and procurement, I anticipate that the park-and-ride site could be operational to coincide with the completion of the A6 dualling scheme in 2022. I can also confirm that there will be active travel, through a walking and cycling link, to the park-and-ride site as well, because we need to maximise all opportunities to increase active and sustainable transport and to offer our citizens increased choice.
Mr Storey: I am intrigued by the Minister's commitment to deliver planning for this issue. In light of the unacceptable delays in the planning system, particularly in the Causeway Coast and Glens area, will she look at that issue to ensure that there is a process in place that gives an outcome and not what we have had for too long in that area: delay, delay, delay?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. He will be aware, as a veteran MLA, that we moved to a two-tier planning system, so a significant number of applications fall to councils to be processed. The Member will also be aware of the improvements that my Department is undertaking at a strategic and regional level to improve the planning process and its efficiency. Of course, we will continue to work with councils and support them. I encourage the Member, if he has concerns about the planning processes in his council area, to raise that directly with the council.
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the Union connectivity review in June 2020 with no communication beforehand with any of the devolved Administrations, even though I had previously raised my concerns with Grant Shapps MP, the Secretary of State for Transport.
Following the announcement in August 2020 that Sir Peter Hendy would chair the Union connectivity review, I held further discussions with my counterparts in the Welsh and Scottish Governments to discuss our shared concerns regarding clause 46 of what was then the Internal Market Bill, which would give the British Government the ability to spend directly on projects in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, even if those policy areas normally fall under devolved competences. Accordingly, in September, a joint letter was sent to the Secretary of State for Transport setting out our significant concerns and reminding him that devolution must be respected and that locally elected, locally accountable Ministers are best placed to make local decisions.
I spoke to Minister Shapps again in October to restate my concerns, and I met the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland soon after and reaffirmed my determination that decisions on local infrastructure priorities should be determined by local Ministers. I also provided the Secretary of State with a list of priority infrastructure projects as determined by New Decade, New Approach.
Members will be aware that I met Sir Peter in December 2020 to discuss the Union connectivity review in detail. I outlined my concerns and again affirmed my opposition to any extravagant vanity projects. I heard nothing further on the matter until media reports in February stated that agreement on a tunnel between Scotland and Northern Ireland was shortly to be approved. While my officials got in touch with the Department for Transport and were assured that that is not the case and that news articles had greatly overstated the situation, I made my position extremely clear: I am the Minister for Infrastructure, and devolution mandates me to take decisions that will improve the lives of citizens here.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister for her response. Although I know that the Minister received late notice of the Union connectivity review, there has been a lot of time since June in which the Minister's Department could have become involved and helped. The Minister has form for talking down east-west connectivity, so has she or her Department submitted any written evidence regarding Northern Ireland's need for infrastructure as part of UK connectivity? These exciting projects have the ability to transform the connectivity and infrastructure of the Union. Will she please outline whether she has submitted that information?
Ms Mallon: As I said to the Member, I met Sir Peter Hendy. I have also written to the Secretary of State, Grant Shapps, and a number of Ministers. In fact, as recently as today, I wrote to remind Ministers of their commitment in 'New Decade, New Approach' to "turbocharging infrastructure".
Members rightly raise concerns about potholes and street lighting, yet here we have a proposal for three tunnels and a roundabout under the Isle of Man. Clearly, that is a vanity and distraction project. If money is coming our way, I will ensure that it is spent on infrastructure projects that Ministers across all political parties have committed to and that the British Government committed to in 'New Decade, New Approach'. I think that Simon Hoare summed up the project perfectly when he described it as follows:
"The trains could be pulled by an inexhaustible herd of Unicorns overseen by stern, officious Dodos. A PushmePullYou [sic] could be the senior guard and Puff the Magic Dragon the inspector. Let’s concentrate on making the Protocol work and put the hallucinogenics down".
Mr Allister: The Minister should be better than that. It is quite clear from her first answer that she has expended a great deal of energy on opposing connectivity. I want to ask her specifically about the A75. In an answer to a question for written answer on 15 July, she told Mr Beggs that her:
"departmental officials have not yet had detailed discussions with their Scottish counterparts"
about the 'South West Scotland Transport Study', which includes improvements to the A75. Has she had those discussions yet or is she so besotted with —
Mr Allister: — those other issues that she has not had the time?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I am keen to see the A75 and A77 upgraded. Those key links into Scotland and England are of significant importance to Northern Ireland trade. Upgrading the routes would reduce journey times, improve journey time reliability, increase safety on the routes and complement the relatively recent improvements that have been completed on the strategic links to Larne port. However, while I am supportive, I am conscious that those roads are in Scotland. Therefore, I recognise that that is very much a decision for Scottish Ministers.
My departmental officials are familiar with the 'South West Scotland Transport Study'. One of the key aims of that study is to consider the rationale for improvements to key strategic corridors, including the A75 and A77, with a focus on access to the ports at Cairnryan. My officials remain ready and willing to engage in detailed discussions with their Scottish counterparts about that transport study. Those discussion have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but we expect them to take place very soon, with the study feeding into Scotland's Strategic Transport Projects Review 2, which is expected to report towards the end of this year. The Member will also be aware that I have very regular engagement with my ministerial counterpart in Scotland. I will, of course, continue to raise that issue when we meet.
Dr Aiken: Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. Obviously, we are all against fantasy bridges, tunnels and roundabouts. Will the Minister say why she is still committed to the Narrow Water bridge when, in fact, she should be using that investment to deal with the infrastructure problems on our roads?
Ms Mallon: I will be very succinct, Mr Deputy Speaker. Narrow Water bridge is a commitment in 'New Decade, New Approach', the basis on which your party, my party and the other parties in the Chamber entered the Executive.
Dr Aiken: It did not say that in 'New Decade, New Approach'.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Will Members refrain from making commentary from a seated position, please? It interferes with the recording, and it is also bad manners.
That concludes the period for listed questions. We now move on to topical questions.
T1. Mr T Buchanan asked the Minister for Infrastructure what plans she has to reinstate driving tests for key workers, such as health workers, ambulance staff and Fire and Rescue Service personnel, for whom driving is a key part of their work. (AQT 1041/17-22)
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for raising this issue; it is an important one. The Member will know that, during the initial lockdown period, the DVA assessed requests from key workers to provide them with priority driving test appointments once driving tests resumed. The DVA has received a number of requests from key workers requesting that it reinstate a priority service for them to avail themselves of early appointments. The DVA is actively considering the facilitation of priority requests from key workers whose jobs are ancillary to medical, health or social care services and who are required to drive for the purposes of their work. However, the approach will be based on engagement with the relevant employers, rather than individual learners, in order to provide the DVA with a list of relevant staff who fall within that priority group. I am pleased to report that, in working with the Ambulance Service, we have been able to facilitate a number of driving tests. We are keen to do what we can to ensure that those who need to get driving tests, and who are on the front line putting their lives at risk to save ours, are supported to do so safely.
Mr T Buchanan: I thank the Minister for that response. The Minister said that some ambulance drivers have been facilitated, but can she give any indication of a time frame for when it will be opened up for all key workers who require a licence for their work?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. Our work is ongoing to ensure that, when restrictions enable us to do so, we can open up the driving test facility to all our customers. I am not able to give a definitive date for when it will be opened up to priority workers, however, I assure you that we are working with key employers to address the issue, and I am happy to provide the Member with a further update.
T2. Dr Archibald asked the Minister for Infrastructure for an update on the planning application for Casement Park. (AQT 1042/17-22)
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. I am pleased to advise that, since my announcement, in October, recommending planning approval for the redevelopment of Casement Park, there has been considerable progress towards issuing the final planning decision. Following the council and applicant conferring that they agreed with the notice of opinion to approve the application, departmental officials have been working at pace to progress the required planning agreement, which must be in place before the final planning decision can issue. I look forward to the final planning decision issuing for this project, as I am of the view that the project will give a real boost to sport across our island and to the local economy and, finally, give the GAA its home in Ulster.
Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for her response. The Minister will know that the Casement Park project can have a transformative impact in west Belfast and in the wider Gaelic games community. We all want to see the project delivered. Can the Minister explain why, five months after she made the very welcome announcement, the planning approval process has not yet been completed and is causing further delay?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. The Member will be aware, as will anyone who has a keen interest in this application, that it is extremely complex. However, I assure the Member that my officials are progressing it at pace and properly. Officials remain committed to working on this, and I have made clear my view that I remain committed to doing this. Work is ongoing at pace. As with all planning applications, they must be processed not only quickly but properly.
T3. Mr Beggs asked the Minister for Infrastructure, given that respected EU commentators such as Tony Connelly are advising that a degree of rethinking is going on, whether she agrees that it would be wise not to spend money on capital projects that may not be needed, especially in light of the widening acknowledgement that the current EU trading arrangements with the United Kingdom, along with the Northern Ireland protocol, are causing difficulties for the haulage sector and small businesses. (AQT 1043/17-22)
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I am not entirely sure which capital projects he is referring to. What I am doing is progressing Executive flagship projects. I am also trying to progress, where possible and where funding permits, commitments that we made in 'New Decade, New Approach'. My frustration is that I am not able to progress more capital projects that will be transformative for our citizens. I do not see investment in Executive flagship projects or any of the commitments that we all signed up to as a waste of money.
Mr Beggs: Sorry, the Minister has not picked up my line of questioning. I am talking about the planned infrastructure that is being built at our ports. If changes occur with increased recognition of the difficulties and if, in particular, there is a sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) agreement — I understand that every party in the Chamber except Sinn Féin is supportive of that — much of the infrastructure being built will not be needed.
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I will answer it by going to the heart of the issue. This is about implementing the protocol, and there is a legal requirement on the AERA Minister and on all other Ministers in the Executive to do so. It is imperative that the protocol be implemented. As I said, there are difficulties, and no one is denying that. That is why the SDLP has been proposing an extension to the grace period. Although we are working to address and find pragmatic solutions to the difficulties that, for example, hauliers are facing, we should also work hard to maximise the economic opportunities that are there to be had for businesses right across Northern Ireland.
T4. Miss McIlveen asked the Minister for Infrastructure, in light of the fact that social distancing is likely to be with us for some considerable time, whether she will commit to looking seriously at alternative types of shelter for the Strangford ferry, given that, in answer to a question for written answer on the provision of additional shelter for foot passengers, including schoolchildren, to protect them from inclement weather, she suggested that they wear suitable clothing, albeit the Minister probably would not find it acceptable for anyone close to her to travel around Belfast on an open-top bus in the rain and then go to school in wet clothes. (AQT 1044/17-22)
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. She has a keen interest in the Strangford ferry, so she will be aware of the additional services that we have put on to cater for schoolchildren. The mitigations and measures for the Strangford ferry were put in place following risk assessments, and, in line with the public health advice, we have liaised very closely with the Department of Health. I, of course, do not want to see any child heading to school in the rain, but the challenges that were articulated in that answer to the Member's written question were that we have to balance public health and safety needs against social-distancing requirements. There is also a safety element to a canopy being put on the ferry.
I assure the Member that we are continuing to look for solutions to the situation. We will continue to revise the mitigations for the ferry and other services across my Department in line with the public health advice as it changes and, hopefully, as we move through the restrictions.
Miss McIlveen: As the Minister will be aware, residents of the Ards peninsula use the Strangford ferry as others across Northern Ireland use the bus to go to work. Will she commit to introducing a permanent 7:00 am ferry from Portaferry for workers, many of whom are key workers in the health and social care sector or in construction, who cannot get to work on time at the moment?
Ms Mallon: I can assure the Member that we keep the situation under constant review. If there is evidence of a clear need, we will do what we can to cater for our customers. As I said, we have put on the additional service in the morning for schoolchildren. She will also be aware that, using the blue-green fund, we are making changes to the ferry to ensure that particulates are taken out of the system, thereby improving air quality for its customers. We are therefore always on the lookout to see how we can improve our service.
T5. Mr Allister asked the Minister for Infrastructure whether she thinks that it is sensible that the Planning Appeals Commission does not have powers to revoke permissions that, on reflection, were wrong, particularly the Kells battery energy storage scheme, which was approved on the basis of being non-generating, with the Department now decreeing that such schemes are generating. (AQT 1045/17-22)
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I am aware of an issue with the treatment of energy storage systems in the planning system in Northern Ireland. The Member will know that, following a review of that type of development, my chief planner issued an update on 16 December to clarify the Department's position, which is that, for the purposes of planning in Northern Ireland, the Department considers that electricity storage development falls within the meaning of "electricity generating station".
The chief planner's update is not a legislative or policy change but is, instead, provided as clarification from the Department. Local planning authorities are therefore advised to adopt that position when processing applications for electricity storage facilities such as battery energy storage systems. I am aware that the Member has written to me about revocation of the planning permission. I understand that Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council has decided not to revoke planning permission for the Kells battery energy storage scheme, by way of a discretionary council power under section 68 of the Planning Act 2011.
Mr Allister: Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council did not give the planning permission; it was the Planning Appeals Commission. That is my point, as it is now patently obvious that the permission should not have been given. The council does not want to get involved, but the Department has extraordinary revocation powers. Why does the Department not exercise them? In what circumstances does it exercise revocation powers?
Ms Mallon: While I acknowledge that my Department has revocation powers, they are a check and balance in the two-tier planning system intended to be used only exceptionally and as a last resort. The council, as the planning authority for the area, is best placed to make the decision and is the authority with the responsibility to do so. That is in keeping with the spirit of the then Northern Ireland Executive's decision to transfer local planning decisions to councils and create the two-tier planning system.
T6. Ms P Bradley asked the Minister for Infrastructure when, although it is early yet, the proposed and welcome cycle route along the Cavehill Road and the Limestone Road, which she announced last month, will be completed. (AQT 1046/17-22)
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her support. North Belfast has been left behind with active travel. I am keen to work with councils and with other Departments to address that. At the minute, we are working up some suggestions about the experimental nature of the scheme. We will then move to a public consultation. As I have said before, if you want to deliver lasting change, it is important to do it with communities, so we will consult local residents — local sporting groups, such as North Belfast Harriers, have been in touch — and elected representatives. I am keen to see greater cycle provision in north Belfast at the earliest opportunity.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for her answer. Minister, you and I know that North Belfast is not the flattest of constituencies and does not often lend itself to cycle routes. We go out as far as Glengormley, and people living in the greater Belfast area commute to Belfast to work. We want to see that increase. Will you look further at other parts of north Belfast?
Ms Mallon: We have written to all councils, including Antrim and Newtownabbey, asking them to bring forward proposals and ideas that we can support with resource and capital moneys. I am keen to maximise whatever opportunities there are to enhance active travel provision for citizens across north Belfast. As the Member said, it is a hilly place, but there is always the opportunity to have an e-bike because we have changed the legislation on that. Having used it myself, I can say that it is effortless going up a hill, so I recommend it to the Member [Laughter.]
T7. Mr G Kelly asked the Minister for Infrastructure for an update on the Hightown incinerator application. (AQT 1047/17-22)
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. My officials continue to progress the application in line with planning policy. The applicant voluntarily submitted further environmental information to the Department in October and December 2020. I am keen to bring a resolution to this long-standing application for all involved, but, if a sound decision is to be reached, it is important that the planning system be completed correctly. The necessary administrative processes have been undertaken, including advertising the further environmental information and requesting consultation advice from the necessary interested bodies and public authorities. My officials will make a recommendation to me on the planning application. It is important that I consider it carefully and take all views into account in reaching any decision. In the interim, as, I hope, the Member appreciates, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the individual planning merits or otherwise of the application.
Mr G Kelly: I thank the Minister for her answer. The Minister will be aware, as it is within her remit, that there are 5,000 signatures against this. I understand that she cannot give her decision at the moment, but is she aware of the costs? One in Edmonton, in London, went from £650 million to £1·2 billion. Does she know anything about that? There was full cross-party support for the residents and against the incinerator: has that changed, or has the Minister been lobbied to change that?
Ms Mallon: I am aware of the number of responses to the planning application and the opposition that exists locally. As Minister with responsibility for planning, I will carefully consider all the representations and will consider carefully the recommendation that comes from my planning officials.
Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice): At 1 February 2021, there were around 10,000 criminal cases, compared with approximately 8,100 cases in March 2020. That increase is down significantly from a high of approximately 12,800 cases in the court system in September 2020. Although jury trials have recommenced, the number of new cases coming into the system currently exceeds the number of trials held.
It is not possible to accurately determine the overall backlog of cases for civil business in exactly the same manner as for criminal. However, business volumes in the County Court are currently around 60% of those in the first 11 weeks of 2020 prior to lockdown.
Family court receipts and disposals declined from the start of lockdown. However, the dip in receipts was less marked than those seen in other business areas. Following the reopening of most courts in August, the average number of receipts and disposals has increased significantly and now slightly exceeds pre-lockdown levels.
Mr Harvey: Will the Minister outline how she plans to address the backlog?
Mrs Long: The Member will be aware from previous answers of the work that has already been done in the criminal justice system to ensure that we are able to continue to work our way through the backlog. Court business was initially consolidated into five court hubs to facilitate the delivery of urgent matters whilst maintaining the safety of all court users and staff in line with public health advice. Following a series of COVID-19 risk assessments, significant work has been undertaken to make sure that court buildings are kept safe, secure and clean and that social distancing occurs in line with Public Health Agency (PHA) guidance.
The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) continues to move forward towards full business recovery following the initial peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only three of the smallest hearing centre venues are now non-operational. Those venues will be risk-assessed in due course. However, the initial focus has been on the larger venues, which offer greater flexibility. The reopening of the court estate, along with business directions from the Office of the Lord Chief Justice, has seen the full range of services resumed by the end of September 2020, albeit at reduced capacity due to the necessary social distancing.
Mr Boylan: There was excess funding available in this financial year: did you bid for additional funds to tackle the backlog?
Mrs Long: There are a number of areas where we received additional funding for the court service. However, the current underspend is not something that we could bid for and use in this year, which is the requirement as things stand. The physical measures that were put in place and a number of the other options including, for example, hiring external venues to allow for additional circulation space, such as at the international convention centre (ICC) at the Waterfront Hall, has all been paid for either through additional receipts from the Department of Finance or from the reallocation of funding in the business area of the Department of Justice. Where some of our business was not able to be completed earlier in the year, we have been able to use that money in order to support recovery.
Mr Beattie: I know that an awful lot of work has been put into this over this last number of months. I know that you have been creating COVID spaces for jury trials. Will you let us know how you are getting on with the ones that are due to be finished in April in Antrim, Dungannon and Newry?
Mrs Long: Work is being done in the three smaller courthouses, which are not operational at the moment. They are still undergoing risk assessment, and that work will be completed in due course. However, by the end of the current phase of work, we will have more jury court space available than we did pre-pandemic. We have more courtrooms that are able to operate for jury trials, even with those three facilities closed, than we did at the start of the pandemic. I think that 13 courtrooms will be able to operate for jury trials.
There is an issue with jury trials that is to do not with capacity in the system but with the complexity of the trials. For example, where you have multiple defendants, you will have multiple legal teams and a much larger group of people in the court system. Whilst they can be physically accommodated, trials of that nature run the risk of someone in that trial system being identified as having contracted COVID or of having been exposed to it and needing to self-isolate. For that reason, those more complex trials are much more difficult to schedule. Most of the jury trials that have been proceeding to date have been those that are slightly shorter cases that can be seen in a number of days rather than weeks and those that have single defendants.
Ms Armstrong: Will family courts be able to sit into the summer to allow that critical service to continue and avoid further delays, especially when we hear that so many people have partners who have used COVID to postpone hearings?
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for her question. The family proceedings courts (FPC), in which most family cases are dealt with, are part of the Magistrates' Court tier. Those courts remain open throughout the year. Family care centres (FCCs) at County Court level and the High Court family division normally have recess over the summer; however, judges will be available for hearings at both FCC and High Court level during the summer, as they were last year, where a hearing is considered appropriate.
From mid-April 2020, family cases that have been received and disposed of have steadily increased. Following the reopening of most courts in August 2020, the average number of receipts and disposals has increased further and now slightly exceeds pre-lockdown levels. The number of Children's Order sittings between July and December was 5% higher than in the same period in 2019. Some 13·5% more hours were sat between July and December 2020 than in the same period in 2019.
There comes a point, however, when we need to look at the capacity in the system in terms of the judiciary and others qualified to hear cases, as well as the physical capacity and the time available in the courts. It is about ensuring that there is a proper balance in all that as we go forward. The Criminal Justice Board (CJB) fulfils that role for the work that we do in the criminal courts, but we also work in the civil courts as far as possible. The Member will recognise that many of the control elements are not in the gift of the Department of Justice in civil matters.
Mr Carroll: Over 1,000 magistrates' defendants were received through the court process for the non-payment of TV licences from March to December last year. How fair is that, when so many people are waiting for court cases for instances of serious crime, which you referred to?
Mrs Long: The scheduling of cases in the courts is not a matter for the Department of Justice; it is entirely a matter for the independent judiciary. It is not for me to tell it what should and should not be prioritised, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the Member's question.
Mrs Long: It is my preference and intention that an advertising campaign will start in late autumn to align with the introduction of the new domestic abuse offence. It will involve a multimedia approach similar to the "See the Signs" campaign that has been running for the past three years. It will be important in raising awareness that we reach all sections of society regardless of gender, age or sexual orientation or any other attribute, given that anyone can be a victim or an abuser. The campaign will be externally sourced, but it is important that key messaging is developed in consultation with our statutory and voluntary partners, representing as wide a range of views as possible. Tackling domestic abuse is a key priority for me and the Department, and, along with our partners, we are committed to ensuring that victims and perpetrators are aware of the new offence and that victims are aware of where they can get the help and support that they need.
In advance of any new campaign, my Department, together with partners, continues to deliver a number of initiatives to raise public awareness of domestic abuse. I relaunched the Department’s "See the Signs" campaign at Christmas and into the new year, and, similarly, other organisations undertook campaigns earlier this year to promote the important message that help remains available, including from the PSNI and Crimestoppers. Awareness also continues to be raised through a media campaign run by the 24-hour domestic and sexual abuse helpline, ongoing social media activity and work being undertaken by our statutory and voluntary sector partners, including the policing and community safety partnerships (PCSPs).
Mr McGrath: I thank the Minister for her response. We have welcomed the introduction of the incredibly important legislation and would like to see it implemented as quickly as possible. An important aspect of that is the messaging that goes with it. Will the Minister confirm that no budgetary pressures will hinder the roll-out of the important campaign to make sure that there is full awareness in the community of all aspects of the legislation?
Mrs Long: I expect the cost of an effective three-year multimedia advertising campaign of this type to be around £500,000. It is likely that that cost will be skewed towards year 1 in order to allow the development of materials for television and radio. A campaign over three years will provide exposure to a wider audience and ensure the longevity of the key messages being delivered. I am confident that we will be able to take that forward and that the Department is committed to doing so ahead of the operationalisation of the domestic abuse offence.
Mr Gildernew: Will the Minister give an update on the tendering for an advocacy support service for victims of domestic and sexual violence and abuse?
Mrs Long: As Members will be aware, the tendering for the support service is something on which I have answered questions in the Chamber previously. It is currently out to tender, because, unfortunately, we were unable to get the kind of collaborative approach that we had hoped to have. We have, therefore, gone to an open tender. At this stage, it would not be appropriate for me to say anything further on where we are with the scheme, but I am happy to write to the Member to update him at the appropriate time on where the scheme lies. As Members know, it is our intention to have a single advocacy service that is able to provide useful support to victims and witnesses of domestic abuse and sexual crime. We are progressing on that basis.
Mrs Barton: Will the Minister give a timeline for when the advocacy support services for domestic violence is expected to be launched?
Mrs Long: I cannot, but I will be happy to do so in writing to the Member.
Miss Woods: We have much to do regarding awareness, not least in education, of domestic abuse, coercive control and what a healthy relationship is. What additional budget and resource has the Department allocated to implement fully the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act once it receives Royal Assent this year?
Mrs Long: The Member will be aware, as a member of the Justice Committee, that the draft budgets have been circulated to Committees for consideration. As she will also be aware, there is no additional funding for any Department in the current year.
We are in a flat cash situation, and the same is true for the Department of Justice as is true for other Departments. If she scrutinises the information sent to the Department of Justice, she will see the allocations set out therein. However, it is our intention to continue to work through those issues with the Department of Finance and to make such representations as we can so that any money carried over from this year into future years will be able to be utilised against this and a number of other priorities.
Mrs Long: With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I intend to group questions 3 and 4.
One of my key priorities is ensuring that we do all we can to protect individuals, communities and businesses in Northern Ireland from organised crime in all its forms. Effective collaboration between Governments and law enforcement agencies is key to successfully disrupting and preventing organised criminality. I remain committed, in partnership with my colleague Helen McEntee TD, Minister for Justice, to enabling and supporting law enforcement agencies, north and south of the border, to continue to work collectively and proactively to combat organised crime. Cooperation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and an Garda Síochána and other law enforcement partners is already well established and working effectively.
Now that we have left the EU, a key priority is to ensure continued access to available resources and measures for effective cross-border and international collaboration to pursue organised criminals, including operational collaboration through the joint agency task force (JATF), joint investigation teams, where appropriate, and Europol. We have a good record of working in partnership with our colleagues in the South, including through the operational joint agency task force. This was established following the Fresh Start Agreement as part of a concerted and enhanced effort to tackle organised crime and cross-jurisdictional crime. It comprises a strategic oversight group, chaired by the PSNI Deputy Chief Constable and an Garda Síochána Deputy Commissioner, to determine on an ongoing basis the priority areas in cross-border organised crime. In accordance with the provisions of the intergovernmental agreement (IGA), reports on the work of the joint task force are presented on a six-monthly basis to the meeting of the respective Justice Ministers under the IGA framework on cooperation on criminal justice matters. Following the IGA meeting in November 2020, I made an oral statement to the Assembly that included a substantive update on the work of the JATF.
Mr Catney: I thank the Minister for that very comprehensive answer, and I welcome the cooperation between North and South. Minister, do you foresee any challenges to cross-border cooperation, specifically in the context of the post-Brexit environment?
Mrs Long: The outcome for justice in the trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) that was agreed by the UK and the EU on 24 December 2020 replicates most of the key EU justice measures that the UK had access to as an EU member state. The one key area not included in the TCA is continued access to the Schengen information system, more commonly known as SIS II. The TCA does, however, allow the UK to negotiate a similar arrangement with member states on a bilateral basis through the protocol. We will look to the UK to agree bilateral arrangements, including with Ireland, once the new arrangements have bedded in and a proper gap analysis has taken place.
It is important to recognise that there is also the wider issue of data adequacy. Of course, the decision on that is due to be taken within the first six months of the agreement being signed. Without that, there will, of course, be implications for the live sharing of data and information between police services. However, at this point, because of the derogation for the first six months, that is not yet operational, and there are some planned ways of working through that, should it fall without a proper data adequacy agreement being in place. However, my understanding is that the likelihood of such a data adequacy agreement being agreed is high.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. Has the Minister engaged with her counterpart in the South to ascertain the veracity of allegations and revelations made in the BBC 'Panorama' programme, 'Boxing and the Mob'? Has she, alongside the PSNI and the gardaí, assessed the reach of organised crime here? Her party colleague Stephen Farry raised the issue at Westminster.
Mrs Long: To date, I have not had the opportunity to raise that issue with Minister McEntee. We have not met since the programme aired, nor would it be appropriate for me to speculate on things that are in the media as opposed to assessments that are provided to me by the PSNI. We have a good relationship and work closely together where there are issues. In the priority areas, we have advanced issues on financial crime, excise fraud, human trafficking and drug crime, amongst others. Much of what the Member referred to will be picked up by the work of the JATF and the organised crime task force more broadly.
Ms Dillon: Given the Executive commitment to tackling criminal gangs, including those masquerading as loyalist paramilitaries, do you, Minister, agree that the First Minister's meeting with the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) — [Laughter.]
Ms Dillon: — which purports to represent loyalist communities, although it looks more like it intimidates them — was inappropriate and does not give the kind of leadership that we would expect from a leader of unionism or this House? [Laughter.]
Mrs Long: Far be it for me to opine on how other parties conduct their business; it is not a matter for me, as Justice Minister, in that regard. However, it is a matter for me, as Justice Minister, when all Ministers in the Executive have signed up to the tackling paramilitarism programme. That programme requires us all to ensure that, where we wish to engage with at-risk communities or to hear the voices of those who may be vulnerable to paramilitary influence, we do so through the appropriate legal mechanisms and do not give any credence or validity to members of paramilitary organisations, irrespective of the community from which they emerge. Giving a platform to people who are still in proscribed organisations or who claim to be — it is not for me to know the individuals and their membership, but they claim to be representatives of proscribed organisations — is a matter of concern and sends out a worrying message to those in many parts of our community who still live under the coercive control of those same paramilitary organisations. I appeal to all Members, including those who seem to find the question amusing, to work with the Department of Justice and right across the community to ensure that no paramilitary organisations have any influence whatsoever in the business of the House or of running our communities outside.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Before we move on to the next question, I ask Members to refrain from making commentary or laughing from a seated position. It is not appropriate during plenary sittings.
Mr Nesbitt: With the Chief Constable warning that his police numbers could drop 800 below the 7,500 that was committed to in 'New Decade, New Approach', does the Minister have concerns that that will impact negatively on cross-border cooperation in tackling organised crime?
Mrs Long: It is very clear that, if there is a drop in police numbers, it will have an impact on policing. There is no alternative; in fact, most of the statutory duties that are performed by my Department are heavily reliant on us having the personnel available to provide them. As I stated to the Executive and the Committee, there is very little wiggle room for the Department of Justice when it comes to our budget other than to see personnel reduced. I do not believe that it will impact in the sense that I do not believe that it will be a lower priority for the PSNI, but there will, undoubtedly, be challenges if we find a reduction in the number of officers who are available to the Chief Constable.
Members will be aware, of course, that it is a matter for the Chief Constable himself to decide what his priorities are when he receives his funding from the Department of Justice. If he is so minded, he can put that in to officers or other issues that need to be addressed. I am aware from my conversations with him that he, too, faces a very challenging environment over the next number of years. We will work with him to try to secure the additional finances required in order that such reductions in numbers will not be necessitated. The one thing over which I have no control is the budget that is finally allocated. When we get that budget allocated, we have no alternative but to live within our means.
Mr Allister: I want to ask the Minister about the role of the National Crime Agency in respect of the cross-border task force.
Can she expand a little on how extensive it is? Since that agency does not have a stand-alone budget, all expenditure eats into the budgets of each constituent part. How far is that an inhibitor of involvement in the cross-border agency?
Mrs Long: The work and the intelligence that the National Crime Agency can provide in tackling cross-border crime — not just, I have to say, at the Irish border but more widely — is hugely important. It is important because many of the mechanisms and streams of organised crime exist across those borders and throughout the rest of the UK and their supply chains are spread throughout these islands. It is hugely important that the National Crime Agency works closely with the PSNI, the JATF and the paramilitary crime and organised crime task forces to ensure that there is a joined-up approach on all those issues.
The Member asked about its budget. It is a national agency, and therefore, to some degree, its budget is outside of my control and jurisdiction. Of course, where the PSNI asks for the agency to undertake particular duties, that is a different matter.
Mrs Long: I have recently agreed a number of recommendations flowing from the sentencing review. Work on completing recommendations on the remaining areas of the consultation is at a very advanced stage. An oral briefing to report on the final recommendations is scheduled for the Justice Committee on 15 April 2021.
On sentencing for offences causing death by dangerous driving and in advance of making any public announcements, I recently met the Dolan and McCarragher families, who have maintained an ongoing interest in the review. That meeting was widely reported in the press. I provided a written update to the Justice Committee on 17 February on the decisions that I have reached on sentencing in the case of causing death by dangerous driving. I anticipate that a number of legislative changes will flow from the review that, I consider, are best dealt with in a single sentencing Bill. I intend to continue the preparatory work for that Bill to be introduced early in the next mandate.
Mr O'Dowd: Thank you for your answer, Minister. I understand that, as part of the review, there are proposals to increase the maximum tariff of 14 years for driving under the influence of drink or drugs. Given that the 14-year sentence has rarely been used, how can the Minister assure victims of such crimes that justice will be served?
Mrs Long: The proposal that has been agreed is that we will increase the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving from 14 years to 20 years. As to how that will impact on sentencing, as the Member will be aware, every sentence will be set in the courts, starting with that maximum framework. The courts will then look at the severity of the offence in question and any mitigating factors or, indeed, aggravating factors that need to be taken into account in sentencing. While the Member is correct that the current 14-year sentence is rarely used, the fact that all sentences that are given out are based on the 14-year maximum means that, if it is increased to 20 years, the proportional length of sentencing, even if it is not up to the maximum, will extend beyond what it is currently, once the changes have been made.
It is important to note that that is not the only change that is proposed. We are also agreed that we will have a discretionary life sentence as the maximum sentence available where an offender has a previous conviction for the same offence; that there will be parity in the maximum sentence, as is currently the case, whether it is death or serious injury that has been caused; that we will increase the sentence for causing death while driving while disqualified to a four-year maximum; that the minimum period of mandatory disqualification for those offences should be four years, unless the judge considers that there are exceptional circumstances; that a repeat offender within a 10-year period for a second or further conviction would be subject to a mandatory minimum disqualification of six years; and that a disqualification should not be capable of being reduced below two thirds of the disqualification period ordered by the sentencing court or the mandatory minimum period for the offence, whichever is greater.
A repeat offender for any of the offences will be disallowed from applying for a reduction of the disqualification imposed before the minimum period and before the disqualification has been served. Disqualifications will, in future, take effect from the date of an offender's release from prison rather than running concurrently with their sentence. I believe that, with all those measures in place, the sentencing structure and framework will be much more robust than was the case in the past.
Mr Beattie: Minister, will the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill affect the review?
Mrs Long: No, it will not, because the issues in the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill are being dealt with specifically as Westminster issues. No LCM was able to be agreed as part of the work of the Assembly. Therefore, our sentencing structures and sentencing review will continue unaffected by that, because we were not consulting on those matters that are not devolved.
T1. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of Justice for an update on her Department’s administration of the Troubles permanent disablement payment scheme. (AQT 1051/17-22)
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for his question and for his long-standing commitment to the issue and, indeed, the wider issue of support for victims in our community. Work has been ongoing in the Department to put in place the necessary administration arrangements to enable the Troubles permanent disablement payment scheme to open for applications this month as planned. That includes the development of an application form and an IT system for online applications. Twenty-six members have been appointed and sworn in to the victims' payments board, and Mr Justice McAlinden has been formally appointed as the president of the board, with effect from today.
Capita has been appointed to design a medical assessment service that will assess the relevant level of disablement for applicants, where necessary. The scheme could therefore open this month as planned in order to allow preparatory work on application forms by those who wish to apply. However, the president and the victims' payments board are ultimately responsible for deciding the precise timescale for the launch of the scheme.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for her answer. She has almost pre-empted my supplementary, because I wanted to ask her about the timescale for the application process. When can potential applicants submit an application form?
Mrs Long: The president has advised that, in advance of making an application, he would prefer that applicants have access to full guidance on how the medical assessments will be carried out. He has consulted the main groups representing victims of the Troubles, including the WAVE Trauma Centre, Relatives for Justice, South East Fermanagh Foundation, the Ely Centre, the Commission for Victims and Survivors and the Victims and Survivors Service. On the basis of that engagement, Mr Justice McAlinden has concluded that the scheme should not open for applications until the guidance for carrying out the medical assessments has been fully designed and agreed by the victims' payments board. I understand that it will take a number of weeks for guidance to be completed on the process for carrying out assessments.
My officials will continue to engage with the representatives of the main groups that provide support to victims and survivors, and they will be kept updated on progress with the development of the medical assessment guidance. They will also have an important input to the development of that guidance. Mr Justice McAlinden has also indicated that he will keep representatives of the main groups informed of progress on developments, and I am sure that that will include an indication of when the scheme will open for applications.
While it will be important to take due diligence in developing the medical assessment guidance, I trust that the scheme will open for applications at the earliest possible opportunity. Victims have waited a long time for the scheme, and I am keen to ensure that they have access to it as soon as possible. I fully appreciate that some victims and survivors may be concerned that the scheme will not open for applications as they had hoped, but it is important that we take into account the views of the groups that represent and deal directly with victims and survivors and which have indicated their preference not to have a two-stage process but to delay opening so that a single-stage process can be facilitated.
T2. Ms P Bradley asked the Minister of Justice for her views on a session at a conference last week that focused on violence against women and girls, with a female judge and a female barrister agreeing that the tariffs for domestic abuse need to be used to their maximum in order to give a clear message that domestic abuse is not tolerated in our society. (AQT 1052/17-22)
Mrs Long: My views on that are that there is nobody better than a judge to make such a case. That is because, ultimately, the tariffs that are given for any case in court are down to the judiciary, not the Minister of Justice. The maximum tariffs are placed in the legislation, but it is up to judges to decide whether or not they use them. Therefore, I hope that the member of the judiciary who spoke passionately in that regard will also convey that to her fellow judges.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for her answer. She is absolutely right, but we do need our judges to take the matter of domestic abuse seriously. Does the Minister believe that the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021, which has a maximum tariff of 14 years — although I stand to be corrected — will go some way to assisting with this?
Mrs Long: As I said in answer to an earlier question, it is for the judiciary to decide on whether or not they use maximum tariffs. However, I think that, by setting the tariffs high on these particular cases, it should send out a clear message to the judiciary from this Chamber as to the seriousness with which we treat domestic abuse. I know that training will be provided for the judiciary, through the normal mechanisms, on dealing with the new offence, and, hopefully, that is something that will also be explored during the opportunity that they will have to reflect on the new offence and, indeed, the tariffs that are attached to it.
T3. Mr Easton asked the Minister of Justice for an update on her engagement, which started last August, with relevant key stakeholders and families after the debate on Charlotte’s law. (AQT 1053/17-22)
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for his question. I have met with the families, as have my officials on an ongoing basis for a number of months. We have looked a number of proposals that the families are supportive of, but we are also looking at a number of other proposals that are not part of the Helen's law framework, to which the Member refers, that we believe may be leverage points within the justice system that may be used to further encourage people to disclose where the remains of individuals are held.
I think that it is hugely important and, having met with the families, I am absolutely convinced of it. It is not just a huge injustice on families that they have been robbed of a loved one, but to be further deprived of the opportunity to be able to go to their graveside and to be able to mark their passing in some tangible way is not just an injustice but is an insult and a form of torture against the individuals who are grieving. It is very hard for people to come to terms with their grief in those circumstances. Therefore, we are actively working with the families and with my colleagues in the Department to find a way forward that will deliver in reality what is sometimes promised but not delivered by some of the other mechanisms that are around. It is something that we are looking at very carefully. I hope to be in a position to move forward on this in the near future.
Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for her answer. It is quite positive. I note that her Twitter feed the other day had something about the sixteenth anniversary of the murder of Lisa Dorrian. I believe that she is very genuine on that, just as I am. Can I take from her answer that she is committed to definitely doing something — 100% — about this?
Mrs Long: As the Member will appreciate, I am not going to announce decisions here in the context of questions. However, I am absolutely genuine; I have spoken to both families, who have met and worked with us, about what it is that they want to achieve and what it is that we will be able to deliver for them. It is important that we are honest about the limitations of what we can do, but, at the same time, that we try to be ambitious with regard to what we do. Therefore, I will announce, in due course, our intentions in this regard, but there is a potential opportunity to do something here.
It has to be recognised that some of those who are involved in these crimes, who have disappeared these individuals' bodies and deprived their families of an opportunity to be able to grieve, will not be swayed by anything that we do with regard to legislation or practice. We need to acknowledge that at the outset, because there are some who are still in denial that they even committed those crimes despite the fact that they are serving sentences for them. It is also the case that, in some instances, no one has ever been brought to justice. For example, in the case of Lisa Dorrian, the Member's constituent and the case to which he refers, no one has even been brought to justice. The changes that we make to the justice system will, unfortunately, not benefit that family until such times as someone can be brought to justice.
Given the platform that I have today, the most important thing that I can say to those who are involved, who know where Lisa Dorrian's body is and who know what happened in her final hours is that you should reflect on your conscience, tell the family the truth, report it to the police and allow that family to grieve the loss of Lisa without further obstruction and the further torment of not knowing where her remains lie. What you have done is completely wrong and completely unacceptable, but you can help now by telling the truth and allowing the family to grieve.
T4. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister of Justice what work her Department is undertaking to improve civil justice. (AQT 1054/17-22)
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for his question. Modernisation of an area as wide in scope as the civil justice system is a significant undertaking, and Members will appreciate that it will take considerable time. Reform is also not for my Department alone. While the Department of Justice is responsible for the operation of the justice system, responsibility for substantive civil and family policy rests with the Ministers of Health and Finance. The Department has, however, made good progress in a number of areas. Those include provision in the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 to protect victims of abuse from being directly cross-examined by the alleged perpetrator with the protection of special measures; the launch of a pilot scheme to test a streamlined approach to appointing experts in public law proceedings; development of an action plan to encourage the early resolution of family law disputes; and the launch of a consultation on County Court jurisdiction.
We are, of course, limited by what we will be able to achieve in what is a ridiculously short mandate. I plan to focus on areas where the most immediate benefits for citizens can be realised. Work on a possible work programme for the rest of the mandate is ongoing, but I hope to be able to provide further detail to the Assembly in the weeks ahead.
The Gillen review made a significant number of wide-ranging recommendations. Many fall outside the remit of the Department or would have significant financial, operational and cross-cutting implications, so time will be required to consider the proposals in detail. However, I am determined, in what is left of the mandate, to make further progress.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for her answer. Will she be working to embed efficient and affordable dispute resolution in civil justice, including in the small claims courts?
Mrs Long: Yes, and the Member is correct that the small claims court plays a significant role in quick resolution in the courts.
The Department recently launched a public consultation on increasing the general civil jurisdiction of the County Court, including small claims. A key aim of the consultation is to deliver an effective justice system where citizens have appropriate access to justice, with cases resolved quickly and proportionately, relative to their value and complexity. The Department is seeking the public's view on a number of proposals, including increasing the jurisdiction of the County Court from £30,000 to £60,000 or £100,000; increasing the jurisdiction of district court judges to £20,000 or £35,000; and increasing the jurisdiction of the small claims court from £3,000 to £5,000. The small claims court provides speedy resolution for citizens, which is key. It is a success of the justice system, offering the sort of affordable and efficient dispute resolution that citizens require, so I want to build on that.
The Department is consulting on increasing a limit that was last uplifted over a decade ago. It is important not only that the financial jurisdiction remains current but that we retain the advantages of the small claims system. As Members will be aware, many people who use the small claims court do so as litigants in person. Therefore, it is important that we do not raise the threshold for cases in the small claims court such that those who are defendants may decide to, or may be more likely to, equip themselves with significant legal teams. As Members will know, an inequality of arms in that way could present real challenges for litigants in person.
T5. Mr Dickson asked the Minister of Justice to outline the need for urgency in respect of the Damages (Return on Investment) Bill. (AQT 1055/17-22)
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for his question. The urgent passage of the Bill, which was introduced earlier this afternoon, is required to allow a new stable personal injury discount rate to be set that will end the ongoing delays in personal injury claims and allow those claimants who have suffered serious life-changing injuries to receive the full compensation to which they are entitled as soon as possible.
The current discount rate was set in 2001. Since then, financial investment markets have changed significantly. The rate as it is currently set assumes more of a return than a personal injury claimant is likely to make on their lump sum compensation. The risk to claimants is that, if they settle now, they will be under-compensated. However, if a new rate were set under the current law, the rate would reduce so much that it would be likely to overcompensate victims, with the result that most defendants would not settle. Therefore, while many personal injury cases can be settled by parties without a court hearing, the current delays to the settlement of cases are as a result of uncertainty on the discount rate.
In order to resolve the uncertainty, I want to legislate for a new framework for calculating that rate that achieves 100% compensation. That is my legal duty. I hope that we can work with the Committee, having proposed a short Committee Stage, to allow scrutiny of the Bill to be completed as expeditiously as possible, ideally so that it can complete its passage through the House before the summer.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Mr Speaker: Mr Declan McAleer has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually in their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary question.
Mr McAleer asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to set out the legal basis of his unilateral decision to halt the construction of port inspection facilities required by the withdrawal agreement.
Mr Lyons (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): On Friday, I instructed officials to halt work that is related to the programme for permanent builds at the ports, as well as work on Official Controls Regulation (OCR) charging. That was done on the basis of DAERA having been appointed by the Executive to lead on those matters.
There are a number of reasonable arguments for taking that approach. The first is that there is a lack of clarity on a range of legal issues that need to be resolved in respect of the implementation of the protocol and, indeed, the functioning of the internal UK single market. I am also concerned that we do not have the required certainty to plan, given a number of factors outside the control of my Department. They include the role of the ongoing discussions, including those at the Joint Committee, and the lack of certainty that that presents, the uncertainty around grace periods, and the undeliverable and unworkable requirements for retail consignments if a solution is not achieved. I took the decision on OCR charges because of my particular concerns about section 46 of the Internal Market Act and the requirements that it places upon me.
Mr McAleer: I thank the Minister for his answer, but does he accept that the vast majority of people will see this as another DUP stunt, a very dangerous one that will serve the purpose of inflaming tension within loyalism? Unfortunately, from the past, we know where that can lead us.
Mr Lyons: My concern is for the people of Northern Ireland. My concern is about public money being spent. My concern is making sure that we have what we need in place so that we can serve the constituents whom we all represent. Given all the uncertainty around the legal position and the practical barriers that we have at this time, it is entirely proportionate and reasonable to take this approach. I hope that people will put their views on Brexit to the side for the moment and see what is actually best for the people whom we represent.
Mr Irwin: Given the lack of certainty because of ongoing discussions at the Joint Committee, the lack of a ratified EU/UK trade deal by the European Parliament and the uncertainty about the future of the current grace period, how can your Department plan with any certainty when it comes to infrastructure and the recruitment of staff?
Mr Lyons: That is the difficulty that we are presented with, and, as I have said, that is one of the reasons why I instructed my officials to put a halt to that work. An awful lot of things are outstanding at the moment, and my question to others is this: how do you propose that we continue when we do not have that certainty? I hope that there is a recognition that we need changes and a recognition of the damage that the protocol is doing. That is very clear to most of us, and, in my role, I see the impact that it has had. How on earth are we to plan for the future when there are so many uncertainties? That is why it was a very reasonable step to take on Friday.
Mr O'Toole: Minister, if this was a reasonable step to take, why did you take it late on a Friday afternoon, and why has no official statement been issued by your Department? Furthermore, specifically, was a ministerial direction sought or issued, and is this order live? Is your permanent secretary seeking further legal advice on whether he should proceed with your instruction?
Mr Lyons: I confirm that I had given an instruction to officials. The timing of the announcement has been raised with me a number of times, as though it is somehow inappropriate to do things at certain times of the day or on certain days of the week. That is not the case. After concerns were raised with me, I had been looking at the matter. Considering the circumstances that we find ourselves in, I do not think it unreasonable in any way for me to want to make sure that appropriate action is taken.
Mr Nesbitt: The Minister will be aware that Europe thinks that Northern Ireland has the best of both worlds. Will the Minister agree that it would be an act of great friendship and neighbourliness to lobby to extend that position to our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland? We could then return to the trading arrangements in the UK and between the UK and Ireland that applied last year and a decade ago. There would be no checks at our ports and airports for goods that may or may not end up in the EU; there would be checks at the Republic's ports and airports for goods that are definitely heading to continental Europe. By doing so, the EU would take back control of its inspections, we would solve all unionist objections, and the Republic would benefit. It would be a win, win, win.
Mr Lyons: The Member highlights a very important point, which is that the checks that are taking place are being done in such a way that it causes friction between one part of the United Kingdom and another. That is one of my great frustrations with what is taking place. Goods could be coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland that are at no risk whatsoever of entering the EU single market, yet that fettering of trade is taking place.
The Member mentioned some solutions, as he sees them. We need to have greater discussion about potential solutions and alternatives. Others have shouted those down at every opportunity. People have stuck to the protocol thinking that it is the solution to the problems that we face. It is not; it is adding to the problems that we face. It would be good if everyone around the Chamber could acknowledge that problems exist and recognise that article 14 of the protocol allows us to find alternatives. The protocol does not have to be set in stone forever or to be there always. Let us recognise the problems that are there, not pretend that they do not exist, and find alternative solutions to the issues that we face.
Mr Blair: What discussions or consultations took place between the Minister and the business or sector representative groups relating directly to the decision that he took to cease the construction of necessary infrastructure at the ports? Does the Minister believe that he has any support whatsoever from those sectors on the decision that he took?
Mr Lyons: I can certainly express to the Member that I have had a number of representations from businesses as a constituency Member. Representatives of businesses that operate in Northern Ireland came to see me or corresponded with me because of the number of problems that they face as a result of the protocol. In fact, Members from this side of the House have been in contact with me as well and have expressed the problems that they and the companies in their constituencies face. It is disappointing that other Members across the House refuse to even recognise that problems exist and that we need an alternative to what is going on.
I have had so many representations. So many people are concerned about what we face now and are very fearful about what will come after 1 April. That is why we all need to work together to find solutions.
Ms Bailey: I want to go back to a quote from the First Minister, just a few weeks ago, on 'The Andrew Marr Show', when she described Brexit with the protocol in place as:
"a gateway of opportunity for the whole of the UK and for Northern Ireland".
What has changed in those few short weeks that has lead the Minister to take such action? It is not Brexit or the protocol. Does the Minister believe that the actions and decisions that he took on Friday were cross-cutting across Executive Departments?
Mr Lyons: Unfortunately, we are in the position where we are not able to enjoy the benefits of Brexit to the same extent as others in the rest of the UK. We now face the problem — the growing problem — of being cut off from our biggest market, where we do so much of our trade. I know that people do not like hearing that, but that is the case. We do more trade with GB than anywhere else. We need to face up to that reality.
It is not simply the case that the protocol needs to be tweaked or changed in some meaningless way. We need fundamental change, and, in my opinion, we need the protocol to go. My Department was given responsibility for the area. Given the uncertainty that we face coming towards the end of the grace periods, I think that it was a proportionate and responsible step to take. We need further clarity, and we do not have that.
Mr Allister: I welcome the Minister's move and trust that it was based on a principle of opposition to the protocol and will therefore be carried through with other actions to unstitch the protocol.
Has the Minister heard any suggestion from those who demand rigorous implementation how, under the protocol, he can meet his statutory obligations under section 46 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 to facilitate the free flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and to strengthen the smooth operation of the internal market? How can that be done under the protocol? Can he explain to the House what it means to have stalled the charges and what benefit that will bring to business?
Mr Lyons: No, I have not heard anything from any other side of the House about how I can make sure that I fulfil my duties under section 46 of the Internal Market Act. As the Member will know, that places on me a legal duty to have a special regard for three things: first, Northern Ireland's place in the internal market of the United Kingdom; secondly, Northern Ireland's place in the customs union of the United Kingdom; and, thirdly, as he pointed out, to facilitate the free flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In the House of Commons, Minister Walker, as the Minister introducing this, said that it was fundamental: that is what "special regard" means. It is therefore right that I do all that I can to make sure that I have that special regard and take on board the concerns that are being expressed. That is one of the reasons that it was appropriate to halt the work on OCR charging. I can think of nothing that would fetter the free flow of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland more than charging people to bring their products and goods into Northern Ireland.
Mr M Bradley: The Minister mentioned charging. Will he outline his views on what impact charging for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks will have on business and consumers in Northern Ireland if left as is?
Mr Lyons: Every time that goods are brought into Northern Ireland from Great Britain — remember that GB is our largest market and that a huge volume of trade is done between Great Britain and Northern Ireland — it will have a significant impact on businesses here. Every time something is brought over and every time the ports are used, there is additional cost for businesses and consumers. The other outworking of that is that we end up in a position — this was highlighted in one of our local papers last week — where 64% of retailers in GB are reconsidering whether they want to continue to bring items from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. That would impact heavily on trade here and put a further burden on costs and on consumer choice. In that regard, I need to make sure that I fulfil my duties under section 46 of the Internal Market Act, and that will require close consideration of those matters.
Mr McGuigan: Minister, leaving aside the legality of the decision and the fact that it was made without discussion with your Executive colleagues and has resulted in further unnecessary worry and uncertainty for retail business and trade in the North for those who want to see the protocol work, you will be aware that Ian Friary, my party colleague on Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, was visited yesterday by the PSNI, who told him of a threat to his life after disgraceful sectarian graffiti appeared in Ahoghill village linking him to the Irish protocol. We have seen your decision, the decisions made by your predecessor, other decisions made on unionist-dominated councils and public utterances and comments made by unionist politicians. Do you bear any responsibility for the heightened tension that has seen a rise in threats to elected representatives in recent days and weeks?
Mr Lyons: First, no matter who people are, whether they are in public life or not, it is wrong for them to be targeted in that way because of their views or because of what they may have said.
That is completely wrong, and I have no problem in wholeheartedly condemning it. As someone who has faced concerning actions taking place at my office in the last number of days and weeks, along with the type of correspondence that we sometimes get in our inboxes, I have no hesitation whatever in condemning any such behaviour. However, I fail to see how what I did on Friday could have contributed to that in any way.
We face a time of uncertainty. We do not know what is expected or required of us at the ports. I have decided to get that to stop. I do not quite see how those two things can be linked. Let us be under no doubt: this is a time of heightened tensions, particularly in the unionist community. I recognise that and see it. That is why we should all work together to find solutions that work for people in Northern Ireland and do not cut us off constitutionally and economically from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Mr McGlone: The Minister will be aware of contractual liabilities and commitments in relation to the project and, indeed, others. Has the project been cancelled, or has it been delayed? Has the Minister taken any advice on the legal or financial liabilities associated with cancellation or delay of the project? There is a contract, and the Department is bound by it.
Mr Lyons: At this stage, I have sought further clarity. We do not know what is expected or required of us. However, I want to make sure that we keep value for money and the public purse at the top of the agenda and do all that we can to protect the public purse.
Mrs Barton: The Minister spoke about uncertainty in forward planning. We are coming to a busy time of the year for moving agricultural stock back and forth between GB and Northern Ireland. What reassurances can he give that there will be no hold-ups in that?
Mr Lyons: I thank the Member for her work on the matter. She has raised it with me before. There is a concern that the protocol will have an impact on the movement of livestock, and the consequences are far-reaching. That is why we need to find a better solution than what we have at the moment. I will do all that I can to push the EU and the UK until we find ourselves in a better position than we are in.
Mr Dickson: Business thrives on certainty. A few moments ago, the Minister told the House that he had had discussions with businesses and business organisations. Will he name the business organisations in Northern Ireland that told him that the best course of action that he could take would be to stop the building and stop the recruitment of employees?
Mr Lyons: I have had conversations with businesses, and, of course, it would be inappropriate for me to name them without their permission. However, I am convinced that this was the right course of action for me to take. The Member is absolutely right that businesses want certainty, and that is something that we do not have at the moment [Interruption.]
Mr O'Toole and Mr Dickson might not like the answers that I have given — [Interruption.]
Mr Lyons: Those are the actions that I have taken because I believe that it is in the best interests of Northern Ireland to get the certainty that we require. Here is part of the problem: we have protocol zealots who want rigorous implementation at all costs. It does not matter whether there is an alternative that is better for Northern Ireland or whether we can find an easier way of doing things that impacts less on the people of Northern Ireland. Their concern is for the protocol and the protocol alone.
Mr Harvey: Will the Minister outline what role his Department has in ensuring the free flow of goods between GB and NI?
Mr Lyons: I thank the Member for his question. I refer to my answer to Mr Allister. Under section 46 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, there is a requirement on me to have special regard to Northern Ireland's place in the internal market and the customs union and to facilitate that trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That responsibility is on me. However, it is not only on me; it is also a responsibility on the other devolved Administrations — Ministers in Scotland and in Wales — and, indeed, on all UK Ministers. I have been in correspondence with George Eustice and my counterparts in Wales and Scotland to ask what action they are taking to ensure that they fulfil their obligations under section 46 of the Internal Market Act.
The responsibility is not just on us in the UK. In the protocol, the EU and the UK have said that the measures that they take should impact on the lives of people in Northern Ireland as little as possible. That is why it is so important that they take actions, having seen the consequences and the outworkings of the protocol, to make sure that we have free and unfettered trade. If there is a diversion of trade, that is a problem, and it shows that the protocol is not working because, of course, a diversion of trade is a reason under article 16 for unilateral action to be taken.
Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. Like others in the House and the communities that we represent, I express my frustration around the Minister's stunt on Friday evening. I am not sure who he took his legal advice from. Was it Sammy, Arlene, Jacob or Gregory? It is a smokescreen; it is a farce. You did not halt any building, as building has not commenced. You did not halt the protocol, as there is recognition from the UK and the EU that the protocol is going nowhere. Will the Minister acknowledge the harm and confusion that he has caused? Will he agree that this is a Brexit protocol and a direct consequence of Brexit? Will the Minister acknowledge that the only thing that he has stopped is the publication of his Executive's plan for the opening up of the economy and the return of life to some sort of normality in the weeks and months ahead?
Mr Lyons: No, I do not agree with any of the points that the Member has made. In this country, all too often, we get ourselves het up and wound up very quickly. No action that I took on Friday has, in any way, held up or contributed to a slowing down of the pathway to recovery document's publication. As I have said a number of times, the steps that I have taken are a result of the practical barriers and legal uncertainties that currently exist and have been entirely reasonable. I ask people whether their opposition to what I have done is based on common sense and practicality or on opposition to anything that they do not like about Brexit and the protocol?
Mr Beggs: The Northern Ireland protocol has disrupted trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that it is much better to remove the protocol or, at the very least, install SPS agreements to remove much of that friction? Is he curious why some who claim to want such changes insist on building structures that may not be needed?
Mr Lyons: I thank the Member for his question. I agree: the protocol is completely unworkable. It is contradictory. It does not set out what those who drafted it intended it to do. That is why it needs to go.
The Member hit the nail on the head. We want to see that free flow and ease of trade as much as we can between different parts of the United Kingdom, and I would be interested to explore possibilities on agreements that would limit the amount of friction that may exist. As the Joint Committee has said that it will meet again to discuss some of those issues, I think that it is entirely sensible and only right that we wait and see what comes out of discussions rather than do work that might never be needed or required.
Mr Speaker: Will Members please take their ease for a moment or two?
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £22,220,328,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund for or towards defraying the charges for the Northern Ireland Departments, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2021 and that resources, not exceeding £25,124,542,000, be authorised for use by the Northern Ireland Departments, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2021, as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 2(c) and 3(c) of table 1 in the volume of the Northern Ireland spring Supplementary Estimates 2020-21 that was laid before the Assembly on 23 February 2021. — [Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance).]
The following motion stood in the Order Paper:
That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £10,081,611,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, for or towards defraying the charges for the Northern Ireland Departments, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2022 and that resources, not exceeding £11,194,733,000, be authorised for use by the Northern Ireland Departments, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2022, as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 4 and 6 of table 1 in the Northern Ireland Estimates: Vote on Account 2021-22 that was laid before the Assembly on 23 February 2021. — [Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance).]
Mr McAleer (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I will outline some work that the Committee has undertaken throughout 2020-21 on the DAERA budget. I will start by referring to the additional agri-food COVID-19 funding that DAERA bid for and was successful in obtaining.
DAERA secured an additional £41·7 million of COVID funding from the Executive. Of that funding, £25 million was to provide market interventions in the agri-food sector, £15·2 million was to assist councils with higher waste disposal and collection costs and £1·5 million was provided to the fisheries sector. A further £2 million was received from the Department of Health towards the cost of Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) for COVID testing.
Of the £25 million to support the agri-food sector, the scheme that used up the bulk of the money, approximately £19 million, was paid to 11,300 farm businesses in the dairy, beef, sheep and potato sectors. Work is ongoing to assess and process remaining claims from about 20 growers in the potato and ornamental horticulture sectors. There is also a scheme for the pig and poultry sector.
At the Committee meeting on 25 February, the Committee considered an SL1 to enable those payments. That included a financial support package worth £2·2 million for pig producers who were specifically affected by the temporary closure of Cranswick Country Foods in Ballymena.
Other COVID-19 funding that was allocated over the past year included an initial £145,000 to environmental NGOs. That was allocated in September.
COVID-19 support has also been provided to the sea fish catching sector. At the close of the scheme, 171 payments had been made to vessel owners, totalling £1·32 million. In the autumn of 2020, a further scheme was announced because of continuing depressed markets and prices for landings. The first element involved the temporary cessation of activity by trawlers and dredgers, and that was supported through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund and had total project costs of £1·3 million. Payments totalling £1·1 million to £5 million have been made to 66 vessel owners.
There was also a scheme tailored to the needs of the smaller vessels that fish for crab and lobster. It offered fixed-cost support to vessel owners. The AERA Committee has not yet received the secondary legislation that enables the scheme to be paid. In the aquaculture scheme, the vast bulk of the money — around £125,000 — has been paid.
We also understand that there will be a scheme for the Lough Neagh eel fishermen and fisherwomen. That has raised serious concerns in Committee, as the need for funding was identified in late summer 2020, but as yet nothing has been launched. The AERA Minister is still considering the scheme's eligibility criteria.
Some £3·8 million of COVID-19 funding has been allocated towards waste. Most of that was to help local authorities to cope with the closure of public amenity sites during lockdown and the resultant increase in fly-tipping. A further bid of £11·4 million for local authorities for July through to March was approved in September. To date, 70% of that spend, totalling £2·66 million, from the first tranche of funding has been made to councils.
The next item of major financial concern to the Committee in 2021 is the financial impact to DAERA of preparing for and delivering EU exit. Last week, we were informed that, during January 2021, our points of entry processed 5,807 common health entry documents (CHEDs) for products of animal origin. That is no mean task, and it is amazing that so much has been delivered in such a short time.
The Committee has also considered the funding required for new inspection facilities to be built at Larne, Belfast and Warrenpoint harbours. The contractors have been asked to deliver, design and build the required facilities and the contingency arrangements. It is estimated that, to operate 24/7 in Larne and Belfast, there will need to be 25 vets, 75 portal inspectors and 12 admin staff to undertake the required work. In addition to that, local authorities estimate that they will require some 30 additional environmental health officers, 18 plant officers and three fish officers. The Committee has been informed that most of those local authority staff are in place. All this has to be paid for. In 2021, it cost some £45 million, which includes £5 million of contingencies costs, which comes from the British Treasury.
There is yet another issue with EU exit: future funding to replace current EU funding. I will cover our concerns about the potential shortfalls in that funding in the Budget Bill debate tomorrow.
The final aspect to which I wish to draw attention is that DAERA has made no bids in the January monitoring round. The Committee was informed that DAERA engaged extensively across the Department to determine whether further COVID-19 funding could be used. We heard that DAERA has concerns that it could be sure that there is a demonstrable and evidence-based need, and that any additional funding could be allocated to recipients by 31 March. On that basis, the Department has not yet identified any potential bids. The Committee is not content with that position, particularly as it did not address non-COVID bids.
That is all that I want to say in my capacity as Chairperson of the AERA Committee. I will focus on some issues in my capacity as Sinn Féin spokesperson for agriculture and rural affairs. A couple of things have been a source of contention and concern for us. One of them is the Lough Neagh scheme. It is incredible that it has not been delivered. It is being funded from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. Other schemes that are funded out of the same pot have had their money delivered, but that has not happened for the Lough Neagh fishermen and fisherwomen. That is grossly unfair and is a source of ongoing contention.
The ports contract was spoken about in the discussion on the question for urgent oral answer. It is fair to point out that DAERA appointed the contractors for the design and build scheme on 7 October, so there is an issue. Mr McGlone — Patsy — raised that a while ago. He talked about there being liabilities now that there is slippage and the implications for the contractors who were awarded that scheme. It should be pointed out that, despite the issues that have been raised, some 5,800 certificates were processed through the ports during January and February. That is a £45 million contract. It is a huge contract.
Mr McAleer: I will conclude there and pick up on more issues tomorrow.
Mr Frew: We are here to debate the spring Supplementary Estimates. What a funny year it has been for all of us. It has been a very challenging year for all departmental officials. I put on record my thanks to the officials who came to the Committee. As the Chairperson alluded to, they have kept us informed every step of the way and given us a lot of detail during the year. They have been grappling with the financial figures, and they have been grappling with us. I pay tribute to all of them.
Looking at the spring Supplementary Estimates, we have the opportunity to look back on the financial year. Throughout the year, I have been looking for a joined-up Executive — a cohesive, joined-up, collective decision-making body that will help us to fight this crisis — and I have been shocked and disappointed in equal measure. When I asked the Finance Minister about a strategy to get us out of the health and economic aspects of this situation, he always said that it was about bids coming to him. He said that he would assess those bids and make a decision. A Finance Minister having to wait for bids from other Departments does not strike me as strategic. There is a fundamental weakness in that.
The Department for the Economy made 88 bids, 81 of which were COVID bids. That is the highest number of bids submitted. The Department of Education made 56 bids: 42 COVID bids and 14 non-COVID bids. That was the highest number of non-COVID bids submitted by any Department. Even the Department for Infrastructure made 40 bids, 34 of which were COVID bids. The Department of Finance submitted only one bid. The Health Department submitted 13 bids. However, it seems that less is more in the Health Department's case: its bids totalled more than £1 billion, which is substantially higher than any other Department. What does that tell us? It tells us that some Departments thought strategically and were willing, able and capable of bidding for finance. Of course, some Departments were very successful. The Department of Finance, with its one bid, received that money; Health received 95% of what it asked for; TEO received 93%; and Communities received 89%, despite the fact that it could not deliver the Kickstart programme.
Some Departments were less successful. The Department for the Economy was 36% successful, Infrastructure was 33% successful, DAERA was 31% successful, the Department of Education was less than 50% successful, and the Department of Justice was less than 50% successful. There seems to be a trend. All of these Departments were willing to bring forward bids. I will pick out the Department for the Economy and the Department of Education. It seems that the Finance Minister refused those bids. There may be reasons for that, and the Minister might outline them today, but that does not strike me as a strategic way of doing government in the Executive.
Today, I heard some Chairpersons criticise some of the Departments that I have named. One was the Chairperson of the Economy Committee. Remember, Economy was the Department with the most bids. From that, we see that Sinn Féin criticises other Departments, as is its right. However, when Sinn Féin looks at the Budget, it does not look at itself. As I said, the Department for Communities could not even bring forward the Kickstart programme that would have helped get young people into jobs.
I can remember, a number of months back, asking the Communities Minister why the wider UK scheme had not been adopted, and the answer that I got was, "We are preparing a better scheme". We have no scheme; no scheme whatsoever.
I have heard the Members opposite blaming Tory austerity once more. When is it ever going to end? Of course, yes, those were hard times, but you cannot spend money that you do not have. In fact, the party opposite cannot even spend the money that it does have. It is very important that we consider that. They talk about austerity, but you have to remember that, through the DUP confidence-and-supply agreements, our party brought back, in that two- or three-year period, the same monetary value that we lost in austerity.
Ms Dillon: I thank the Member for taking my intervention. I would like to challenge him on his statement about the party opposite not being able to spend money. I am sure that, like the rest of the MLAs in the House, he has had plenty of engagement with ExcludedNI, and maybe his own Minister will want to consider the money that was given back to the centre that could have dealt with some of those people.
Mr Frew: Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will certainly take the extra minute. You have to remember that the Department for the Economy delivered over 40 financial support schemes, worth about half a billion pounds. Of course people have been excluded, and every single MLA should be fighting for those people and for those sectors, but do you know something? You get to a point in a Department where your capacity is filled, whereas there are some Departments in this place that have not put their shoulder to the wheel one bit.
I will give credit to the LPS. The one scheme that it has administered has been very good, and that is a body that is designed to bring rates in, not to push money out. I am on record as supporting that and supporting that organisation, but the Department of Finance and other Departments, such as the Department for Communities, could have done much more, but they have not, and they have failed the people. What did people out there who are crying out for support want? They wanted a joined-up Executive. They wanted an Executive that would come together and strategise a way out of this, both health-wise and economic-wise. That has not taken place.
I regret that that has not taken place. I refer to the Kickstart failure by the Department for Communities, whose Minister is from the Member's party. Where is the Kickstart programme? Where are those jobs for young people, who were to be supported? It is non-existent. You could not even deliver a scheme. You could not even put a scheme on the ground, yet there was a ready-made scheme in the wider UK context that could have been adopted and used. The party opposite has failed the people in that regard, and it is simply not good enough. We must do better, and, in this year of crisis, it has proven that, when the sovereign Government throw money at us, we do not have the ability or the capacity to spend it, yet we want more fiscal powers.
Mr Frew: Why do we want those powers when we cannot spend the money that we are given?
Mr O'Toole: I support the two Supply resolutions, but, in doing so, I say that we have quite a lot to discuss. In speaking about this year's Supplementary Estimates and the consequential Vote on Account, it is impossible to ignore the unique year that we have just been through. Basically all Members have referred to it. When we debated the spring Supplementary Estimates last year, we were reflecting on updated spending Estimates for a period in which there were no Executive Ministers to take spending decisions and no Assembly to formally legally approve the spending. Whilst welcoming the fact that we were back here to actually scrutinise spending, Member after Member last year highlighted the fact that we needed to improve our long-term budgeting and our scrutiny. You would need to be an especially positive thinker — we are, I suppose, all trying to be positive thinkers at the moment — to argue that our budgeting processes have noticeably improved since these institutions returned. On scrutiny, literally anything would be an improvement on what we did for the previous three years, which was zero.
First, it is important to acknowledge that this has been the most unprecedented of years. It would be deeply unfair to look at the volume of in-year spending adjustments in financial year 2020-21 and simply, in a narrow way, complain about the scale of changes. Clearly, the unprecedented and unpredictable nature of the pandemic meant that large in-year adjustments were inevitable, with new Barnett consequentials being made available and new developments emerging in the pandemic. New realities were emerging all the time that all Ministers, including the Finance Minister, had to react to.
It is also important to put on record once again, as we have done in the Chamber before, my and my party's appreciation of the Herculean efforts that have been made by officials in the Finance Department and across Departments as they have reacted to the bewildering and, I am sure, often terrifying developments with fast-paced and novel policy interventions. That cannot be stated often enough. Lots of officials, especially those in Land and Property Services, really put their shoulder to the wheel to come up with novel ideas and deliver them in very short order. However, I am afraid that that does not mean that the past year has been a success in budgeting terms. Even when we account for the pandemic, financial year 2020-21 has been an object lesson in poor planning and absence of strategy. I find myself, unusually for the week and year that is in it, agreeing with some of what the Member who spoke previously said; it is a nice, pleasant change for me to agree with a Member opposite this year. I do not agree with everything that he said, of course, but we have seen really striking — occasionally shocking — lack of strategy. That is especially the case when we reflect on the fact that, in the absence of an agreed Programme for Government, the Budget process has become the sole tool for strategic planning and priority-setting by the Executive. That is a really critical point.
If you look at the draft Budget document for 2021-22, you see that it still refers to "draft Programme for Government" outcomes from 2016. My God — 2016. I wish that we were back in early 2016. It was before we all had Brexit in our lives, whether you love it, loathe it or are somewhere in between. Some officials are still operating — because nothing exists to replace them — draft Programme for Government outcomes that were never agreed but which still exist in some weird ethereal, hypothetical universe, and the officials need a strategy to work to. That is, clearly, crazy. They have been doing that for the past year, outwith the COVID allocations, in relation to main allocations of spending. Clearly, that is not viable. I am afraid that it is not good enough simply to say, "Well, if it wasn't for COVID, we'd have agreed something more strategic. We'd have agreed a plan". I am afraid that, very often, COVID has been an explanation for some of the way in which we have needed to develop schemes and assign money in a hurried way, but it cannot be an alibi for the complete lack of strategy. One example, of course, is the failure by the Executive Office to appoint a head of the Civil Service. We have not seen any real priority-setting or strategy from the Executive in any meaningful way. I am afraid that, to an extent, it falls on the shoulders of the Finance Minister — he might not like that, and I can understand why — for not just seeking out allocations to make or writing letters asking for bids but seeking to use the budgetary process in a more strategic way that joins up priority-setting for the whole Executive in the absence of an agreed Programme for Government. Given the recent fondness in the past couple of days for the Chinese Government that has been exhibited by some Sinn Féin MPs, one would think that a five-year plan would be in order. I would quite like a five-month plan; it would be worthwhile.
The spring Supplementary Estimates reflect and regularise changes in allocations that were made via the monitoring round process. It is no surprise that we see large increases and movements in those corrections because, of course, we have had such a unique year. From the position at Main Estimates, we have an increased allocation of around £2·5 billion. The largest adjustments are in predictable places, especially the Health Department and the Department for the Economy. However, the Department for the Economy is a study in the particularly poor management of resources over the past year. As has been pointed out more than once in the past year, the Department has naively announced entire initiatives and spending programmes on the basis of completely flawed assumptions. Last summer, it spent its time thinking about getting North American tourists back to Northern Ireland; that seemed to be the priority in the Department. It announced a plan to get people back shopping in the high street in January. I am afraid that, looking back, it is almost darkly comic how completely flawed those assumptions were.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I will soon draw my remarks to a close. We will have a longer opportunity tomorrow to talk about the Budget process for 2021-22 and what we are going to do there. It is critical that, as we look back over the past year, we reflect on what has been, I am afraid, a missed opportunity to set any real strategic priorities. Yes, officials have done a great job in helping us to get through COVID, but, over the past year, we have singularly failed to agree a set of strategic priorities and deliver them. Much good work has been done by Ministers and officials to get us through COVID —
Mr O'Toole: — but I am afraid that we could have done much better. I hope that we will do much better.
Mr Muir: On behalf of the Alliance party, I support both motions and thank the Minister for bringing them before the Assembly. I pay tribute to the Minister's officials, and indeed all officials at all grades across all Departments, for their work over the past 12 months.
As elected representatives, we scrutinise Departments on behalf of our constituents. This year, those Departments have given out more money and supported more livelihoods than ever before. When the stakes are so high, there will, of course, be plenty of criticism. As politicians, it is our job to call it out when people and businesses are excluded from schemes, when money is too slow to get out the door, and when our constituents cannot get updates on their applications. However, it is also our job to recognise the sheer scale of the challenges facing civil servants this year and the stress that they have had to work under. Many have put in countless additional hours to get money out the door to people who desperately need it. It is a thankless task, but it should not be. So, on behalf of the Alliance Party, I thank them for their work over the past 12 months and for everything that will be done in the year ahead as, hopefully, we emerge from the pandemic.
The Supplementary Estimates and Vote on Account are motions for scrutiny and debate rather than mere procedures. We know that the Supply resolutions need to be approved and that the Vote on Account needs to be passed so that Departments can spend money. To do otherwise would be unthinkable. However, given the unprecedented levels of spending that we have seen over the last 12 months, there are two additional areas in which the Assembly must play its full role in scrutinising public finances.
The first is to ensure that value for money is being secured. With so much money available, and a limited amount of time in which to spend it, there is pressure on officials just to get money out the door. It is right that we push Departments to release money to those who need it as soon as possible. We must get money out the door, and there should be no return of funds to Westminster. However, that money needs to be spent efficiently and transparently to ensure good use of public funds. I would be most grateful if the Finance Minister could outline what spending is planned to ensure that money is not handed back and that public funds are spent wisely. For example, is he considering a one-off top-up grant to LRSS grant recipients to enable them to cover the many costs — such as National Insurance and pension costs payable for furloughed employees and adaptations made to enable safe reopening — that current recurring grant payments do not cover? I note with disappointment the Economy Minister's response to me today that she does not consider it feasible to give top-up payments to CRBSS grant recipients. Hopefully, the Minister of Finance can take action where others fail.
The second reason that additional scrutiny is required is that the current demands are stretching the capacity of the Civil Service when we know that it was not in good shape to start with. The Minister of Finance must ensure that a radical plan is put in place to improve the capacity and capability of the Civil Service, acting on the recent Audit Office report. It must become a dynamic, authoritative institution where people want to work and progress their careers.
I turn now to the recovery in the year ahead. As a member of the Infrastructure Committee, I am acutely aware of the need to invest in our infrastructure as part of that recovery. Now is the time to bring forward projects that will help us to build a green recovery. The challenges facing our public transport network and water system have been magnified. We also need to invest in the backlog of works required on our roads network, while rebalancing our priorities towards active and sustainable travel.
Furthermore, building an economic recovery is essential to provide support to our local businesses. The Alliance Party welcomes the rates relief in the next financial year promised to the sectors most affected by COVID-19, but we need to go further. Now is the time for a root-and-branch independent review of the non-domestic rates system, with a particular view to support our high streets and move away from a system that focuses on bricks and mortar.
Finally, while today's Vote on Account ensures that Departments will receive the money that they require, it is shameful that hundreds of victims still have not received a penny of their victims' pension. The Secretary of State must bring forward funds without any more delay.
There will be more time to debate the Budget tomorrow, but, today, we must focus on the motions before us, which I support. In closing, I would like to get confirmation from the Finance Minister about whether he has received any ministerial direction from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in light of his announcement on Friday.
Mrs Cameron: I welcome the opportunity to speak today on the spring Supplementary Estimates. Northern Ireland's Budget and public resources have been stretched to their limits through the COVID-19 pandemic. Huge levels of public spending have been required to respond directly to the health crisis and its many consequences for our society, not least for our economy. Vast sums of finance have been administered to support businesses in Northern Ireland over the past year. Undoubtedly, more support will be needed over the coming months as our economy recovers. On that point, I very much welcome the Economy Minister's announcement last week as she published the 'Economic Recovery Action Plan', which sets outs a range of decisive actions to kick-start economic recovery in Northern Ireland and build a more competitive, inclusive and greener economy.
The pandemic has shone a light on many aspects of our health service that have long been in need of significant investment and transformation. The spring Supplementary Estimates suggest a total cash requirement of £22 billion across Departments. In January, the Department of Health alone recorded having received well in excess of £867 million in resource funding to address COVID pressures. The additional moneys allocated to Northern Ireland, on top of the block grant and the New Decade, New Approach commitments, have further shown just how important our membership of the United Kingdom truly is. It is obvious that that level of public funding would not have been available without it. The financial benefits of the Union are invaluable to all our public services and to the Northern Ireland economy.
We, as a party, recognise the difficult financial environment in which all our Departments are operating, and we understand that there needs to be budgetary flexibility as the direct and indirect challenges created by the pandemic develop and change. Significant headroom is provided in the spring Supplementary Estimates to allow for unallocated spending to be absorbed by Departments on the basis of future Executive decisions before the end of the financial year.
The parties opposite often speak about the need for new Stormont fiscal powers, and of course we need to look at ways of raising revenue. However, it is clear that the Departments need to be much better at using the resources that they have already been given. The saga with the review of welfare mitigations and the recent underspend of hundreds of millions of pounds are just some examples. How can we, as public representatives, explain to our constituents that cancer surgeries have been cancelled when, at the same time, they hear on the news that £90 million in health funding has been returned unspent to the Department of Finance? Ministers from all Departments must put every effort into ensuring that those funds are spent efficiently and not handed back to the Treasury at a time when the need for support in our communities is at an all-time high.
In-year monitoring rounds and one-year Budgets have become stopgaps and temporary fixes, and that culture needs to change. That is important, particularly in respect of areas such as health transformation and implementation of the commitments in New Decade, New Approach. It is deeply worrying, for example, that, on the face of it, only £50 million of the extra £492 million added to the draft Health budget for next year is recurring.
As society begins to emerge from COVID-19, the Executive's focus needs to turn to the key commitments in New Decade, New Approach, none of which is more important than those for our health service. New Decade, New Approach promised to create more stable services and sustainable staffing, to deliver an extra 900 nursing and midwifery undergraduate places over three years and to increase the number of funded IVF cycles to three. Those must be progressed earnestly and factored into departmental annual budgets. As well as the work that is necessary to achieve safe staffing levels, capital investment in our health service to improve dated facilities and increase capacity to meet demand in Northern Ireland in 2021 is vital.
At the heart of my constituency is Antrim Area Hospital, which has treated a significant proportion of Northern Ireland's COVID patients. Many elements of Antrim hospital's infrastructure are now inadequate for the huge demand that it experiences. That applies to inpatient bed capacity, operating theatres, the ICU and the maternity ward. I welcome the fact that the Department of Health has recognised some of that so far in its draft 10-year capital plan. I urge the Minister of Health to commit to much-needed significant investment at the Antrim site.
We should be under no illusions about the monumental task of tackling waiting lists in Northern Ireland. From elective surgeries to the massive backlog of autism assessments, the work to sufficiently recover, even just to pre-pandemic levels, will take time and not insignificant funding. On autism support, the PAC report that was published very recently clearly shows that children with special educational needs and their families:
"had been failed for many years".
Current data reflect that children with autism represent a significant and rising proportion of pupils across the school estate. We cannot continue to pay lip service to that; there must be more joined-up thinking between Departments, particularly between Health, Communities and Education, in order to improve and increase the levels of support that are provided to the autism community. No one should be left behind any longer.
To conclude, following the pandemic, valuable lessons about prioritising funds and maximising the budgets that are available to the benefit of our communities should be learned in all Departments. We have previously argued that the Budget process should start between April to June for the next financial year, with a draft Budget being consulted on in the autumn, in order to allow for a full debate at the turn of the year. That would afford greater detailed scrutiny in advance. The move towards a multi-year Budget must be prioritised. That is not just in the interest of more strategic spending decisions but to allow for more effective scrutiny in the Assembly and Committees. The public of Northern Ireland expect the efficient and transparent use of our resources. Let us ensure that every effort is afforded to use those funds wisely to help our society to recover.
Mr Irwin: This has been far from a normal year. As we know, given the massive and severe impacts of COVID-19 across the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is an integral part, the pressures on finances have been immense and extreme. It must be said that the Treasury has taken action to provide unprecedented assistance to business, employers, employees and the general population in order to try to stave off the worst effects of the lockdown measures. Northern Ireland has certainly benefited to a significant degree in that regard. I know that many businesses in the Province have been grateful for that assistance. It is only right that, with such severe restrictions on our everyday life, financial aid continues to be forthcoming until such times as business can return to a level of normality.
As I said last year, our agri-food industry has not stopped for breath during the onslaught of COVID-19. Even with the associated restrictions and risks to health, our farmers, processors, suppliers and retailers have worked non-stop throughout the period and have ensured that consumers can access food. Despite the initial panic, purchases have kept up with demand without disruption. That is commendable, and, indeed, it demonstrates the resolve and resilience of our farming and food industry. That is why last week in the Chamber I asked the Health Minister to consider that group of people, among others, for vaccination priority, given the importance of their work. I really feel that their efforts are taken for granted, and that should not be the case. I encourage Minister Swann to consider that.
I know that Edwin Poots has been back to work and that he is continuing his recuperation before resuming his ministerial duties. I wish him well on that journey, and I pay tribute to Minister Lyons for his work in stepping in to cover for Edwin in his period of recovery.
There are significant pressures on finances right across the board in our Departments, and it certainly looks like that pressure will continue unabated for the foreseeable short-term future. We will remain in lockdown for some weeks to come, so, on that point, I urge the Executive to provide a degree of clarity to people, especially those who are in business, about a likely timetable. I hope and pray that the situation changes and that our Province can return to a level of normality in the very near future. Of course, as citizens, we all have our part to play in that through responsible actions and an adherence to the advice.
DAERA's remit, as published, is for sustainability at the heart of a:
"living, working, active landscape valued by everyone".
That sums up the Department's remit precisely. Indeed, the word "sustainability" is key, especially as we move away from EU payments and work in earnest to create our own system and support for the industry. Sustainability must be at the heart of the Department's efforts. The Committee has been involved in a number of discussions in recent months on many issues facing agriculture and the environment, not least the impacts of the protocol and the difficulties that that is presenting not only for businesses but for the Department itself.
I think of a recent example involving the supply of trees. An order for many thousands of trees was cancelled due to the onerous procedures and new rules, based on a very damaging protocol. I presume that that will have an impact on the Department's own plans for planting. I urge a response to those concerns as soon as possible.
There are many more significant issues arising for business, and I believe that the Department will require resources to deal with the unfolding difficulties, more so after the so-called grace period comes to a close. Minister Poots, prior to his urgent surgery, was ensuring that the voices of those at the sharp end of those onerous and costly checks were being listened to. Minister Lyons, as his replacement, has also been conscious of the realities of the protocol. Make no mistake: the voices calling for an end to the protocol are growing ever louder.
The Department's spend on diseases and livestock, and compensation — for instance, for TB — continues to place a significant drain on DAERA resources. The recent focus seems to have shifted from the real issues around TB and the £40 million a year cost of that disease. Testing, herd closures and compensation are a huge upset to many farm families, and the impacts are widespread and costly. There is also an understandable issue with an attempt to cut the level of compensation, especially without any clear and recognisable path to TB eradication in which farmers have any confidence. Farmers are doing their part in that regard, but a clear pathway to eradication must be forthcoming. There must be renewed focus on that because the wheel has slowed down in rolling out a workable and adequate strategy to drive down that disease. There is a huge cost implication associated with continuing to drift in that regard to the financial resources of farmers and the Department.
In their focus on farming in the current era and in the future, I encourage the Minister and his officials to redouble their efforts on the launch of the second tranche of tier 2 of the farm business improvement scheme. I know from a recent letter to me from Minister Lyons that he is actively looking at that but states that any scheme would be subject to funding availability, given the necessity of that programme to help farmers to further respond to environmental change and the level of support proposed. I urge the Minister to work hard to ensure that any future direction on ammonia reduction and mitigation are factored into the scheme to further assist farm businesses in adapting. Planning is vital to the scheme, and the manufacturing industry must be able to respond to the potential level of demand that will stem from that measure. I urge clarity on that and for the AERA Minister to put Northern Ireland farmers and, indeed, our manufacturing base on their best forward footing.
On a wider perspective, the start-stop approach of the Budget must change to a much longer-term strategy, with an emphasis on forward planning. We must limit the return of unspent money to the Treasury and maximise spend in a coordinated manner.
Mr Irwin: An end-of-year rush has proved to be ineffective, and it causes spending in a chaotic manner instead of the strategic benefit of prioritising a managed spend.
Mr Catney: Thank you, Minister, for coming to the Chamber and for all the times that you came to the Committee. I thank your officials for coming to the Committee and giving us as much information as possible. I know that it was difficult at times.
A pigeon visited the Committee last week. I am tempted to say, Minister, that this is a turkey of a Budget because there is a lot of gobbledygook, but I will not do that [Laughter.]
The huge changes to the Estimates over the past year have been not only because of the large amounts of extra funding for COVID-related matters but because of the unprecedented position that all Departments found themselves in. This year has shown us the deep need to regularise our Budget process and create more transparency in how Departments bid for funding, which criteria they use to determine whether a bid is necessary and how the Department of Finance then decides which bids to grant and which are unsuccessful.
This year, Departments submitted 263 bids, the bulk of which were for COVID-related matters. Of those, 141 were unsuccessful, and a further 56 were only partly successful. That equates to a shortfall of nearly £1 billion — £966·4 million — between what was requested and what was granted. Four Departments, Finance, Health, the Executive Office and Communities, were allocated more than 89% of the funding that they requested. However, Economy, Infrastructure and DAERA were allocated less than 36% of the funding that they requested.
I know that those figures include multiple bids for the same thing over many monitoring rounds. However, there needs to be a clear understanding of what makes a successful bid and what factors into the decision-making on financing one project and not another. That is not a judgement on decisions that have been made. More clarity on that area would allow us, as Members, to understand better the thinking of Departments. It would also provide cover for the Department of Finance by allowing it to stand over the decisions that have been made.
Over £1 billion of headroom has been built into the spring Supplementary Estimates by the Department of Finance to give the Executive the ability to spend funding that has not yet been allocated. There are clear differences in the amount of headroom that is provided to each Department, which is understandable. Departments need the ability to use any Budget allocation that may come forward. However, there is a lack of information on what a lot of that headroom could be used for. That needs to be cleared up in order to allow further scrutiny of the use of any extra allocation.
The Executive Office has indicated that it has the provision of £13 million for victims and survivors. I would like some clarity on what that provision is for. Does it provide pensions for victims? If not, where is the funding that is required for those pensions? Victims have waited too long for that support. They should not have to wait any longer.
I welcome allocations of funding that will support projects in my area, Lagan Valley. I am sure that all Members will be pleased to know about them and share in my gratitude. Part of the £4·5 million for the flood alleviation scheme will go towards the area of Lisburn along Prince William Road that has been impacted greatly by flooding for a long time. Since my days on the council, I have fought for works to be carried out to resolve the issue. I am absolutely delighted that this work has now begun. There is also work to develop cycle paths at Blaris and other places in my constituency. Particularly during the pandemic, we have seen the benefits of active travel. I hope that more paths will be developed in the near future and that they may be connected with greenways and, eventually, the canal. That will transform our ability to utilise active travel and bring us into line with not only the Republic but many of our European neighbours.
My final point is on the end-of-year surge in spending. I do not want to labour the point. However, going into the last three months of the current financial year, Departments had, on average, more than half of their capital budget remaining. Eight of the nine Departments forecast that their highest expenditure would occur in March. There has been a lot of discussion in the Chamber about the potential for funding to be lost and having to be returned to Westminster. Members are rightly concerned about that. However, another issue is the quality of year-end spending, given that such spending is greatly increased. There is the potential to fund projects that have been rushed through in order to spend remaining budgets. Without clear planning and procedures in place for managing and monitoring budgets, there is huge potential for a lack of value for money in what funding goes towards in such huge end-of-year spikes. Departments must work on creating a better distribution of funding throughout the year, while the Department of Finance and the Committee must continue their work to provide greater flexibility in carry-over budgets from one year to the next. Ultimately, there should be a move to multi-year budgets.
When I was in business, I could not have operated, as we try to do here, with vast amounts of money unless I had projected years ahead. In fact, we tried to work off five-year budgets to do that. That was a small step. I asked about that the first time that I spoke on this subject one year ago, and it still has not been delivered. Minister, I know that you want to get there, and it would be tremendous if we were able to deliver that next year. It is not a big ask.
Mr Storey: I rise in support of the spring Supplementary Estimates and the Vote on Account. I share the Finance Minister's pain, because I sat in his place in 2016-17 and had to go through this process, so I will try to shorten that pain for him, if I possibly can. Those are the famous last words of every Assembly Member when they stand up in the House.
The year that we have left behind will, for us all, be a year that we do not want to see repeated. It has been the most challenging year for us all, as individuals, as families, as communities and as a society. We should pause to remember those families whose lives have been forever changed as a result of the pandemic. For them, no budgetary allocations or spring Estimates will ever change what has happened in their lives as a result of losing loved ones, and that is the same for the many others who have been affected by the pandemic.
As others have said, we should pay tribute to our Civil Service. I am not always a cheerleader for the decisions that are made, but that is maybe more a reflection on the politicians than it is on those who have to enact those decisions. Our civil servants have had to work in the most extreme, difficult and challenging circumstances, and, of course, they have been put under huge pressure to get money out. I say this whether or not I will be back in the Chamber after the next election — that decision will be made by others — but, when there is an inquiry into COVID and the spending on it, I hope that it will not be the civil servants who are made the scapegoats but that those who made the decisions on spending that money will be held accountable for that. Be assured that, when that inquiry comes, problems will be highlighted.
As other Members have said, the structures that we have are totally and absolutely past the point of needing to be reformed. That was an issue when I and others were Finance Minister. Of course, at the heart of that is a five-party mandatory coalition. What other business could be run by sitting in the boardroom with all your competitors? It would not work. The Member who preceded me said that, when he was in business, he had a multi-year plan or would have to plan ahead. We have a system that forces us into government with people who want to spend, spend, spend and have no accountability as to where it comes from. We have seen that in recent days. On one hand, Members opposite are blaming the Treasury, the Chancellor and austerity, but the £4·4 billion would not have come from a new Ireland.
If anybody wants some midnight reading, there is the economic policy published by Sinn Féin. You would have to read it in the dark, and it would not make any less sense if you did. It tells us that the subvention could be reduced because we would not have to spend money on the military or the security forces. It tells us that that would be the subvention wiped out and we would not have to worry about where the money was coming from. It is the politics and the economics of the primary school.
The other reason that we in the House need to take into account is that the system is dependent on what the bids are. I heard what the Finance Minister said and will, no doubt, say again later: it is everybody else's fault. "Bring me bids", he says. On one occasion, the Finance Minister rightly said to the Minister for Infrastructure, when she was dragging her feet about producing an outcome for the coach operators, "Bring forward a bid". Ultimately, however, the decisions on allocations rest with the Finance Minister. My colleague from North Antrim, Paul Frew, rightly highlighted the discrepancies between the total amount of the bids and the allocations made. I agree with the Member who spoke previously that we need to see what that is based on. All that we get is a bid and an allocation: we do not get a rationale for it. We do not get a rationale from the Department of Finance for why one bid was more acceptable than another.
Mr Frew: When we look through the figures, we even see that sometimes bids are partly successful. We have no justification or rationale for why that is the case or how much of it was successful. Was it 50% or 75% of the bid?
Mr Storey: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. We need to have a better understanding of that and of the rationale behind why bids are successful.
I bring Members back to the fact that a huge amount of money was spent this past year on the Department of Health and rightly so. It is right to spend money on our health service, but I remind Members that, in 2016, a former Health Minister introduced the Bengoa report, which committed us to transformation. That was in October 2016. Come January 2017, the party opposite decided to pull down the shutters and walk out the door. It did not care about the health service.
When we look at the figures and are planning for the future, there will have to be a radical change in what we see as priorities. If health is a priority, it will have to be funded. If we put in NDNA that we need 7,500 police officers, it is 7,500 police officers that we will have to get. It cannot be partial or one service over another. It has to be what we said we would do. We have to deliver. If we do not deliver, the people will have every right to question whether this place is fit for purpose to meet their needs.
Mr Sheehan: Speaking of delivery, as the previous Member did, I recall the start of 2020 being very positive. We hoped that 'New Decade, New Approach' represented a new departure for British Government responsibility to the people here. There were numerous pledges in that agreement to invest in public services and a commitment to multi-year Budgets to allow Ministers to plan effectively for the future. Of course, we did not get delivery. Surprise, surprise: the British Government reneged on another deal.
The British Government's bad faith and the pandemic have combined to present us with a difficult financial situation. All of that came on top of a decade of relentless Tory austerity that has ravaged our public services.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. He talks about bad faith and ravaging. Will he take the opportunity in the House to condemn the economic policies of his party and the Provisional IRA who bombed the heart out of the economy of Northern Ireland for 40 years? Take the opportunity. Can he clarify whether Óglaigh na hÉireann still what he supports, as he claims that he was involved in that organisation? Clearly, he has to make a choice.
Mr Sheehan: I thank the Member for his intervention. I will just say to the Member, and I know that he is a believer in creationism, but, let us get away from ancient history. We are living in a new dispensation. There has been a peace process here for over 20 years. Come on; catch up. Get into the 20th century, never mind the 21st. Come on. Let us start working together for the people here.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. Where was he for the three years when he and his colleagues walked out of this place, pulled this place down, pulled the shutters down and blamed everybody else, including the British Government? Where was he then with his rationale about working together? It is a bit late now.
Mr Sheehan: A final word on that: that had nothing to do with RHI. However, in any event, our education and children bore the brunt of Tory party policy. It appears that they are likely to go down the same route again. I am grateful that we have a Finance Minister who works on behalf of the most vulnerable in society. Significant sums have been allocated to the Department of Education. I note that Mr Storey pointed out that it is the responsibility of the Finance Minister to allocate the funding, and he has done that for the most vulnerable. I commend the Minister of Finance for his allocations, in particular, more than £10 million to support children with special educational needs and a further £30·6 million for holiday hunger. This issue got a lot of publicity across the water when Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer, embarrassed the Tories into ponying up for school meals for children during the holidays.
Mr Sheehan: I will give way one more time, but that is it.
Mrs D Kelly: I appreciate the Member giving way, but does he recall that the colleagues of the Members opposite at Westminster voted against the extension of free school meals?
Mr Sheehan: I thank the Member for that intervention. I did not really want to remind them of that, but there you go.
Marcus got a gong for the good work that he did in embarrassing the Tory Government into stumping up for free school meals. I do not know whether "Sir Conor Murphy" has a good ring to it, but he certainly
Mr Sheehan: — deserves the praise of everybody in the House, and particularly that of the most vulnerable in society, for what he has done. Lest we forget, he also made a pay award to teachers.
Even before the pandemic, the education system was on the brink of financial crisis. Starved of investment for 10 years — Mervyn, you should know this because you were the Chair of the Education Committee — the system was dealing with a £400 million shortfall. In NDNA, the British Government committed to investing in our schools to ensure that they would have access to sustainable core budgets. Unfortunately, with the resources that they now provide, that will not happen. This is particularly concerning in the context of COVID, because there will be consequences for children having missed so much time at school, in lost learning and emotional and mental health issues.
Giving evidence to the Education Committee a few weeks ago, the mental health champion, Professor Siobhan O'Neill, agreed with the assessment that there is a tsunami of emotional and mental health issues coming at us down the tracks. Our children have been badly affected by the pandemic because they have missed school and social interactions and so on. Many children will have fallen behind in their school work. In most cases, it will be disadvantaged kids who will be affected by that. I have called on the Education Minister to make a substantial and ambitious bid for some of the £300 million in COVID funding — this is one positive thing — that the Executive are allowed to carry over.
Moving ahead, we need a comprehensive, coordinated and integrated strategy to deal with lost learning and emotional and mental well-being as kids go back to school. It has to be extensive; I acknowledge the £11·2 million Engage programme that the Minister put in place after the first lockdown, but that is not enough to deal with the problems that are going to be coming down the tracks shortly.
I am calling on the Minister of Education to put in place a substantial bid and to make sure that he has a plan and a strategy in place to deal with the issues that children will be facing in schools. He does not have a lot of time to do it, but he needs to involve teachers and their unions, children, the community and voluntary sector, sporting organisations —
Mr Sheehan: — and so on. He needs to make that bid and he needs to do it quickly.
Ms Bradshaw: There is an element of familiarity for me, in my capacity as my party's Health spokesperson, in that we are discussing a motion that we have no real option but to agree. We have never had a year in which the Estimates have diverged so significantly from the original Budget, with 19% extra resource expenditure and 11% extra capital, even discounting the specific COVID-19 spending. That is why it is so frustrating that we have little time to scrutinise it fully, but we are where we are.
When I was in the Chamber to debate the Vote on Account 10 months ago, I mentioned that the current crisis had shown that Health spending concerns all Departments because health is all-encompassing. The impact of the pandemic has been felt across every section of society and every public service. The requirement for assistance is also felt across all sectors, from the need to provide extra public spending to plug gaps, to the need to support the community and voluntary sector to provide vital services at a time when it is most difficult to do so, and to the need to support businesses and those who work in the private sector who cannot, for whatever reason, earn a living at present. That is a reminder that spending must be about practical outcomes, not bureaucratic silos.
A little like when we discuss coronavirus regulations, the timing for discussing the Estimates and budgets is not ideal because of changes that are about to come. We are still uncertain about what lies ahead in the UK Budget. Increasing corporation tax across the UK would, for example, raise the question of whether we wish to accept increased income from such an increase through Barnett consequentials, or ignore it and maintain a lower rate here. That has a potential impact even on how we might wish to spend the headroom money that is allowed for in the Estimates. At all times, we have to consider what lies ahead. Hopefully, we will begin a recovery period in the second half of the forthcoming financial year.
Notwithstanding what I have said about the spending impacts on Health, even with COVID-19 spending, Health is under-represented. The Department's £1·04 billion allocation may be the highest of all the Executive Departments, but it is actually a lower share of the total that is usually allocated in the Budget process. That is, perhaps, understandable in these specific circumstances, but the fact is that that cannot remain the case. If anything, as we rebuild and reform health and social care, any budgetary uplifts to Health will have to be allocated as a proportion of the total. We need not just to address the appalling backlog in waiting lists, diagnostics and treatment but to increase spending on investment and reform. That should have happened a long time ago — the Bengoa report, published a few years back, was mentioned — and we have a lot of space to recover.
There are also some aspects of healthcare that were pledged in the Westminster legislation or in 'New Decade, New Approach' that have still not been provided for, from the three cycles of IVF to back pay for workers in various parts of the healthcare sector. Those are not just pledges that were made on paper; they have real-world impacts in areas that are a matter of urgency to many people who cannot wait for them to be addressed.
Some of the extra funding in these Estimates is very welcome. For example, there should now be no shortage of PPE, given the £175 billion allocation. I put on record some of the key concerns for Department of Health spending heading into the next financial year. For example, long COVID is already a growing pressure on well-being and post-viral services. They will need to be commissioned properly and properly funded in the coming months. Waiting list pressures, as I said, will inevitably need more than the current £1·1 billion Budget allocation. Mental health and well-being, which were also raised in the Chamber this afternoon, accounts for between 7% and 8% of all health spending. Northern Ireland has higher rates of poor mental health than the rest of the UK, and we cannot just rely on Barnett consequentials and remaining confidence-and-supply funding to deliver a comprehensive strategy for that. We need every Member to commit to ensuring that it is properly funded. In particular, I will highlight that we have committed no extra funding, either this year or next, for children's mental health.
I want to turn to an issue that has been live in recent weeks and that is very relevant to the decisions that we have to make in this financial year, namely, the £500 special recognition payment. The Finance Minister pledged last week that that £500 payment will not create complications in tax pensions and credits. It is important to ensure that all key workers, who have been placed under huge pressures and who provided vital services during the pandemic, qualify for that payment. That includes those in the community and voluntary sector. The money is clearly there in the headroom allocation to pay for that.
Our job here today is to safeguard the finances for Northern Ireland and, most of all, for the people of Northern Ireland. We trust that, in voting through these allocations, we are very much helping to do the latter, and we must give them the benefit of doubt despite the rush.
Ms Dillon: I am not going to go over the position that we are in, because other Members highlighted that we are in the middle, or hopefully coming out, of a global pandemic and the very difficult year that we have had. I want to attach myself to Mervyn Storey's comments about the families who have lost loved ones during the pandemic. Our thoughts are with them. Money and finances are one thing, and we need to deal with those and ensure that we recover properly in everything from mental health, education, our health and the justice system. However, for those who have lost loved ones, no amount of money will bring those people back. Our thoughts are with those people, and, no doubt, we will have to put services in place to support them on the other side of this. I have no doubt that they have not had the support that they would ordinarily through the proper processes for wakes and funerals. There is no doubt that we will have to look at investing support and have some type of remembrance for those people who died during this time.
I support both motions as Sinn Féin's justice spokesperson. The wider criminal justice system has come under immense pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic, with restrictions and social-distancing requirements putting new and additional pressures on front-line services. The loss of the £350 million NDNA funding that the Executive received in 2020-21 means that the 2021-22 Budget will largely represent a standstill position. In real terms, it will represent a cut for most Departments, including the Department of Justice. The Department's budget overview and equality screening outline the potential impact of living within its budget baseline without pressures being met, including the potential reductions in police officer and prison officer numbers and an impact on a range of different services and plans, such as a hate crime review, problem-solving justice and supporting victims of domestic and sexual abuse.
In some senses, DOJ is different from other Departments in that a lot of the additional COVID funding was not spent on services or schemes but, rather, represents a loss of income that is not expected to be in place going forward, given the business recovery across courts. However, it is disappointing that an easement of £1·2 million in ring-fenced COVID-19 funding was surrendered, particularly considering the increased backlog of cases awaiting a court hearing.
There is additional money to be spent before the end of the financial year, and, when inescapable pressures have been identified in the draft Budget and the current backlog of cases in the court system has significantly increased in comparison with pre-pandemic levels, more could be done to identify how that could have been addressed as part of the spring Supplementary Estimates. Speeding up justice is a priority for the justice system, and it is vital that the challenges that we face around case times and backlogs are addressed.
DOJ has identified inescapable pressures of £55·7 million, much of which falls to the PSNI. NDNA contained a commitment to increase the number of police officers to 7,500, as was outlined by Mr Storey. Additional funding was granted in 2021 that allowed some increase to the number of police officers, but, with the British Government still not providing the resources required to fulfil that commitment, we could end up in a farcical situation in which police officer numbers are reduced. Last year, when we had no Brexit, the British Government gave us £16·5 million in funding for additional police officers for Brexit, and, this year, when Brexit has happened — we have seen the fallout of that around security and, in particular, loyalist threats — there is a reduction in funding from the British Government for the PSNI.
I have shared my concerns with DOJ officials and share them here again today about the potential impact of such cuts on front-line services and concerns around neighbourhood policing. However, I appreciate that the Chief Constable has outlined that neighbourhood policing will be a priority. I welcome that and have been given the same reassurances by the Department, to which the Chief Constable has also made that point. Neighbourhood and local policing teams have a key role in preventing crime and improving outcomes in many types of crime, including drug dealing, domestic abuse, paramilitary violence, antisocial behaviour, rural crime, child sexual exploitation and many more types of crime.
The cost of delivering the full range of priorities set out in NDNA is far in excess of the funding package provided by the British Government. In October, the Assembly passed a motion that called on the British Government to provide adequate funding to take forward the NDNA priorities, including the commitment to enhanced local police numbers. It is disappointing that they have not yet done so.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. I concur with all her comments about additional police. However, we need to remember that NDNA states:
"The Executive will increase police numbers".
The onus is on the Executive. There is a failure by the Minister of Justice to bring forward a business case on the issue. She keeps batting it back and forward. Let us also remember that, 20 years ago, Patten said that there should be 7,500 police officers.
Ms Dillon: I welcome the Member's intervention. However, I have seen time and time again — it was outlined by my colleague Pat Sheehan — that, when the British Government make commitments, they do not stand by them and do not fund them. They have done the same, as we have seen, with the legacy issue, which I will come to in a few minutes.
The Probation Board's budget represents approximately 1·8% of the Department of Justice's budget for 2021-22. However, its importance in the justice system has a much higher value than that. The upcoming resource for the Probation Board and the difficulties that it will pose are significant, as was outlined to us in Committee, particularly given that a number of commitments and programmes are being rolled out on better engagement with victims. The Probation Board has told us that the budget that it will get means that not only will it not have better engagement with victims but it will have worse engagement than it already has. If we were to speak to some victims, they would tell us that it could not be much worse than it is. That is unsustainable for the Probation Board.
We also have a circumstance whereby social workers in the Probation Board are paid less than those in the health service and other services. Again, that is unsustainable. We need to look at how we can work together to equalise pay. Is there a way in which the Department of Justice and the Department of Health can work together on social workers' pay?
As I said, the funding of legacy is a real issue. The real issue is the failure of the British Government, who have failed to bring forward not only the funding for agreed commitments but the legislation on the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU), which creates a knock-on effect in the PSNI budget.
Ms Dillon: Yes. It falls to DOJ to administer the pension, but it is only the administration. The British Government are failing to fund the legislation that they imposed upon us.
Mrs D Kelly: I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. I recognise that many Members who spoke previously have outlined its purpose. They expressed regret that we are not given sufficient time to explore many of the Budget lines, make the comments that we would otherwise seek to make and interrogate the figures a lot more.
I will f