Official Report: Monday 15 March 2021
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: Miss Rachel Woods has been given leave to make a statement regarding the death of Sarah Everard, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should rise in their place and continue to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. Before we begin, I remind Members that there are possible sub judice issues related to the matter. I do not want to inhibit comments, but, in accordance with my responsibilities under Standing Order 73, I caution Members to be particularly careful that they say nothing that may prejudice the outcome of criminal proceedings. As ever, no points of order will be taken during this item until it is concluded.
Miss Woods: Thank you, Mr Speaker. The death of Sarah Everard has brought violence against women and girls into sharp focus. This is not a single death, a single incident or a single tragedy. It is not a rare event. We know that domestic abuse has worsened since the start of the pandemic. Many women cannot stay at home and stay safe because of domestic abuse, and we know that women and girls are not safe on our streets. That will not stop when restrictions are lifted. The problem will remain. Where are women safe?
The death of Sarah has sent shock waves throughout society. Public debate has ensued throughout the UK, and women and girls in Northern Ireland have spoken out to say that they do not feel safe and have had experience of violence and threat visited upon them. It is our turn to listen. Last Monday, many MLAs spoke of their experiences as elected politicians. The harassment, misogyny and, at times, abuse are something that we mostly shared, but this is not about us. This is about every woman and girl who has experienced violence or fear of violence against them. According to the WHO, one in three women globally, which is around 736 million, have been subjected to physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. How many of us have been told not to walk home alone at night? I certainly have. My grandmother used to offer to pick me up from finishing my shift in the bar at 2.00 am to leave me literally up the road, and my mother used to do the same when I started in the bakery at 6.00 am.
How many of us have been groped, touched, told that we were asking for it, assaulted or verbally abused? How many of us have been given a rape alarm? How many of us have been followed home? How many of us have been told, "Don't run at night. Stay in well-lit places. Don't get into the front seat of a car"? How many of us have texted our friends when we got home after a night out or made sure that our friends were safe? How many of us have been victim-blamed or heard that it was our fault that something happened to us? We are not the reason we get attacked.
We are the only part of the UK that has does not have a violence against women and girls strategy to take male violence seriously. Despite my attempts in the Domestic Abuse Bill and the lobbying for many years by the women's sector, this is still the case. It is not for just one Department; this must be a whole-government approach. As I said last week, on International Women's Day, there is a worrying trend in government policies to neutralise gender and the realities that we live in. If we fail to recognise the gendered nature of specific societal issues, we will fail to deal with them, and it is my firm belief that the blind pursuit of policies that neutralise gendered issues is a failure of government. Gender is not neutral. Societal problems like domestic abuse and sexual violence are gendered issues, and, if we fail to recognise this in our government, we fail to effectively tackle such issues. We cannot bury our heads in the sand any more. We need evidence-based strategies to deal with these issues head-on.
My thoughts are with Sarah's family and friends and with every single person who has been a victim.
Miss Woods: These are our streets, too, and we will reclaim them.
Mrs Cameron: The death of Sarah Everard was an appalling and tragic act. It has, understandably, reignited the debate about how we tackle violence against women and girls and ensure that they are safe on our streets, in their homes and in society. The dignified acts of individual remembrance for Sarah in Portstewart and Londonderry, among other places, over the weekend highlighted the extent of the outpouring of grief for this young woman. The reality is that this could have been any one of our daughters, sisters or mothers. Communities and households across Northern Ireland stand with the Everard family in their fight for justice and in the determination to drive out unhealthy and violent attitudes towards women in our society. Government need to consider the kind of strategy needed for these issues, and my party will reach out to organisations such as Women's Aid in Northern Ireland to talk to them about what is a very important subject.
Ms Kimmins: I send my condolences to the family and friends of Sarah Everard and express solidarity with all the women and, indeed, men who have come out over the past number of days to share their shock, anger and sadness at the events surrounding Sarah's death. As others said, last Monday, we all came together to celebrate International Women's Day. This Matter of the Day is in stark contrast to everything that that day represents and everything that we celebrated.
It is important to recognise the stark gap created by the lack of a gender-based strategy to deal with violence against women and girls, with the North being the only area in these islands that does not have such a strategy in place. It is time that we get that in place immediately. Gender-based violence has a devastating impact on the lives of thousands of women and children in the North every year, and, as others have said, the COVID pandemic has heightened this to frightening levels. This will continue long past COVID, and it is important that, if we truly want gender equality for all, we put a strategy in place now and try to eliminate it.
I also want to point out the disproportionate response from the Met to the peaceful vigil over the weekend. People showing solidarity in a peaceful way to try to send comfort to the friends and family of Sarah should be allowed to do so without being treated in that way.
Mrs D Kelly: I, too, want to be associated with the condolences to Sarah's family. I have five sisters and three daughters, two of whom are roughly the same age as Sarah. I cannot even begin to imagine the heartbreak of her mother today.
Miss Woods is right about the strategy. Women's Aid warned the previous Executive that the strategy was not good enough, that it was gender-neutral and that it did not recognise that women and girls were more likely to be the subject of violence and abuse from men.
At the Policing Board's performance committee meeting last week, we heard from a senior police officer about the past year's crimes against women, including sexual assault and domestic abuse. Over 65% of those crimes were committed against women and girls. The remainder were against men and cases involving children abusing parents. It is nuanced, but the stark fact is that domestic violence is more likely to be against women and girls. That is why I support the call of Women's Aid, which launched a petition last week calling on the Executive and the Justice Minister to put forward a strategy. We have a sterling report by Judge Gillen that is sitting on a number of Ministers' bookshelves. Money is required to bring forward the recommendations that Judge Gillen listed. Some of the steps will not cost much money, but there has to be collaboration right across government. That is what we should all be asking our Ministers to get their head around. They need to roll up their sleeves and say, "Enough is enough".
Mrs Barton: I, too, send my condolences to Sarah's family at this very sad time. I also have a sister and a daughter. My daughter is slightly younger than Sarah, so I empathise in many ways with what her family is going through at the moment. Sarah was a young woman going about her daily business. She disappeared off our streets without sight and without trace. Nobody saw it happen. Sadly, it is not the first time that that has happened. Women should have the right to walk our streets, to feel safe on our streets and in our countryside and to go out for walks alone. They should not be terrorised. They should not go out with fear in their mind. It is very concerning that, in a UK poll recently, 80% of women reported having been harassed in public and 97% reported having been sexually harassed. That should not be allowed. It cannot go on. Violence is wrong. Catcalling is also wrong.
We have just had International Women's Day. We listened to examples of the abuse that women have to tolerate, from social media abuse to the asides and comments that are made as they walk along the street. We need to drive out those unhealthy attitudes towards women. A strategic plan must be worked on here in Stormont and put in place post-haste for the betterment of everyone.
Mr Blair: It is right and proper that we are discussing this Matter of the Day. I believe that a number of Members submitted a Matter of the Day on the issue. I, too, send my condolences to the family and friends of Sarah Everard and to all victims.
A nation has been reflecting for over a week now on the matter of violence by men against women. There has, of course, also been much analysis of the Metropolitan Police response to women and their supporters taking a stand on the matter at the weekend. The Matter of the Day before the Assembly, however, is to highlight the fact that, generally, men are the culprits and women are the victims. We, as an Assembly, need to address that fact and tackle that issue before we can move forward with this debate. We cannot address concerns for women's safety without putting men at the centre of the discussion. The collective socialisation of men has led to some becoming predatory. That is why we are at a tipping point. We need to ask what we, as men, can do to protect brothers, partners, friends and colleagues from becoming a perpetrator and a statistic themselves. Research from the femicide census, information collected on men's violence against women, calculates that, across the UK, 1,425 women were killed in the 10 years up to 2018. That is one killing about every three days. Of those killers, 90% were men. Of all women killed by men, 62% were killed by a current or former partner.
My hope is that legislation such as the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Bill, which was recently passed in the House, will go some way towards tackling male violence against women at home.
As the police investigation of the disappearance of Sarah Everard ramped up last week, local women were warned to be careful about venturing out alone. When a police officer was arrested and subsequently charged with Sarah's murder, the head of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, acknowledged that women in London and beyond will be worried and may well feel scared. She said that a woman being abducted in the street is an "incredibly rare" event. The fact is that it is not an incredibly rare event, and nor is it an issue that is localised to London. On 16 August 2020, Susan Baird was murdered in her south Belfast home. She is the fifth woman to die in suspected violent circumstances in Northern Ireland since the start of lockdown.
Sadly, violence against women is not incredibly rare in this country, and it is very much not just a local issue here. The case of Sarah Everard is the tipping point. It is our George Floyd moment, a catalyst for change to end male violence against women. Women should be able to walk the streets free from harm, fear and threat. We should also acknowledge, up front and openly, that women of colour and trans women are particularly at risk.
I hope that the discussion continues in the Assembly and that we have the opportunity to debate further what more men can do to be better allies, which includes addressing and challenging the problematic behaviour of fellow men. I look forward to working with colleagues to address the issue further.
Ms Bailey: I, too, extend my sympathies to the family of Sarah Everard and to the families of the five women in Northern Ireland who, we know, have been murdered in their own homes since lockdown began.
Last Monday was International Women's Day. Yesterday was Mothering Sunday. The images being beamed across the world and across social media really show how we as a society respect and value women. Legislation is not enough. If it is not resourced, it is simply legislation. If it is not understood, it is simply legislation. Male violence against women is endemic in our society and is largely accepted.
My grandmother suffered the same as I would have. My mother suffered the same as I would have. I have grown up and suffered as every other women has. I am now teaching my daughter how to keep herself safe, how to report and how to stand up and be heard. I do not want my grandchildren to repeat the same behaviours. In the UK, 97% of sex crimes are committed by men, and 90% of murders are committed by men. It is time for men to step up and address why that is.
As an Assembly, we have much to do. We know that the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which carried out a full inquiry in the UK, including Northern Ireland, made a series of recommendations about how we need to step up, yet we have done nothing. The Gillen review made plenty of recommendations about how we can step up, yet we have done nothing. The pilot domestic violence courts showed us where we need to step up, yet we have done very little. The Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) recommended what we could do to step up, yet we have done nothing. Women's Aid, Nexus NI and the charity sector have all been dealing with the fallout, yet we continue to reduce their access to resources. We had an Executive gender strategy that did not even mention the word "woman".
We have much to do, so let us commit to being human rights-compliant and to stepping up to protect women at every opportunity. Today, let us commit to stop being gender-blind.
Mr Carroll: I thank the Member for bringing the important Matter of the Day to the House. I offer my sympathies to Sarah Everard's family and friends following her tragic killing. It goes without saying that what happened last week was disgusting and should never happen to anybody: not to any woman in any circumstances. The fact that a woman can be attacked and killed while trying to get home reflects the danger that women are in in today's society.
I also offer my solidarity and sympathy to all the women who have spoken out in the last week as they have been impacted by this devastating and awful news. We have a problem with male violence towards women in our society. It needs to be stamped out and eradicated. Women should be able to walk, run, cycle or use public transport at any time of day or night without having to fear for their safety or their lives, as, tragically, so many do.
The tragedy puts a focus on the need for states and political systems to stop criminalising and targeting women and instead to put the resources into protecting and defending women. There has been a common thread throughout the COVID pandemic that, when people who are oppressed and want to peacefully and safely protest their disgust at injustice, they are met by the repression of police. That should be called out whether it is in London, Belfast or anywhere else. On Saturday, it was outrageous to see people who were standing against the murder of Sarah Everard and against violence against women being targeted in a dangerous and violent way by the Met Police. It is cruelly ironic that women who are not protected or safe when they are alone are then, when they are standing in unison, intimidated and arrested by the people who, they are told, are there to protect them.
It is disgraceful to hear the police say that the protests are unsafe when daily life for women is unsafe. Oppressed people, be they women or people who are subjected to or impacted by racism, have a right to organise and protest. Disgracefully, we are seeing an attack on that not only at the weekend in London but as the Tories try to ram through legislation that will criminalise protests. The Tories' disgraceful new legislation aims to ban protests that are noisy or disruptive. That is exactly what protests are and should be. They are places where people who are shut out of mainstream society have their say. They are designed to disrupt the normal running of things and to force those in power to rethink their positions and actions. Solidarity with those impacted by this awful murder. Let us redouble our efforts to fight for a world without sexism or misogyny.
Ms Sugden: I offer my condolences to the family and friends of Sarah Everard. My thoughts are also with every woman who has felt fear because she is vulnerable in a way that she should not be.
On Friday, I spoke out about the incident. I deliberately edited my comments, knowing that people would come back on me and say that this is not just about women. We need to face the fact that this is disproportionately about women. When we talk about violence against women, we should also look at violence against men. Do you know what the common factor is? Men tend to commit these crimes against both men and women. We need to call that out. I ask every man in the Chamber to stand up for this issue and recognise it for what it is. Of course we know that it is not all men. That is not the point. The point is that it is a disproportionate issue. I call on the Minister of Justice immediately to bring forward a strategy to address violence against women and girls; indeed, I call on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to do it, because it is a gendered issue, and that falls within the remit of their Department.
I was pleased to hear the First Minister talk about this last week. We really need to shine a light on it. Yes, I appreciate what people say about the need to protect ourselves, but we need to get to the root cause of the problem so that that does not need to be our first consideration. We need to understand why it happens, and we need to address it in that way.
I was triggered by some of the commentary at the weekend. I was really saddened when I thought that this would never change until we genuinely recognise where the issue is. I call on every man in the Assembly; I call on every man in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland and every man across the world to recognise this for what it is. Women are disproportionately victims of this type of violence. Violence that happens against men is disproportionately perpetrated by men. We need to get on top of it now if we genuinely want to address the issue. Otherwise, we will have to edit our comments. Otherwise, even smaller parts of the issue do not get heard. It worries me that we are not focusing on the right issue. That is a really important message to come from the Assembly today and across the UK.
Ms S Bradley: I too put on record my condolences to Sarah Everard's mother, family and friends. I simply cannot begin to imagine the pain that they must be going through at this time.
In addition to that, the appalling scenes that we all witnessed over the weekend in London cannot have offered any comfort to those people who are so deeply grieving.
In the context of Northern Ireland, I want to register my absolute disgust at the lack of support that we have been able to offer women, especially those women who were murdered during lockdown. Their families have been left grieving in an absolute void of silence, where there is nothing happening to support them.
During our hearings on the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Bill, we repeatedly heard quite distinctly about the different crime that is targeted towards women. Rightly, I accepted the argument that, at the very highest level of legislation, there was a need to be gender neutral, but that does not allow us to walk away from the responsibility that we have in this House to understand the gender crime that is targeted towards women, which is horrific and persistent.
It is one thing for us to stand here in unison and call for a strategy, but it must be fully understood and resourced, with all the training and back-up that is required. This is an ask about keeping women safe and keeping women alive.
Mr Speaker: As with other similar motions, this motion will be treated as a business motion and there will be no debate.
That Mr Gary Middleton replace Mrs Pam Cameron as a member of the Business Committee. — [Mr K Buchanan.]
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Finance that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members in the Chamber that in light of 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 by way of rising in their place as well as notifying the Business Office or the Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. This is not an occasion for debate and long introductions will not be permitted. 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 after.
Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance): I wish to update the House on further schemes that my Department will deliver to provide financial support to businesses that have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In my written statement of 25 February, I noted that if funding remained unallocated, my Department would bring forward contingency plans to ensure that the funding that is available is used. The Executive have now agreed to a number of financial support schemes for businesses, which my Department has brought forward. Those schemes will be implemented rapidly to make use of the remaining COVID funding within the current financial year.
I bring forward three schemes of financial assistance for business, worth £178 million. These schemes will provide a lifeline to over 19,600 businesses, as they continue to confront the challenges of COVID-19. The proposals will help some businesses that have not received any grant funding so far during the pandemic, as well as some businesses that have experienced a significant reduction in trade because of the recent restrictions but which cannot access one of the Executive’s current support schemes.
The first is a scheme that will provide a one-off grant of £50,000 for certain businesses that occupy premises with a net annual value (NAV) over £51,000 and are eligible for the 12-month rates holiday. Those businesses were not able to access grant funding during the first lockdown. Examples of the kinds of business that will benefit are shops, car showrooms, garden centres, gyms and fitness suites, equestrian centres and caravan parks. Businesses will have to apply for the grant. It is estimated that approximately 1,125 businesses will benefit, and the cost of this scheme is estimated at up to £56·3 million.
The second scheme will provide a one-off grant of £25,000 to industrial businesses operating from premises with a total net annual value between of £15,000 and £51,000. Again, those business received no financial support during 2020. Approximately 1,100 businesses will benefit, and the cost of the scheme is estimated at £27·9 million.
The third scheme will make an additional payment to businesses that received either the £10,000 small business grant or £25,000 grant for retail, hospitality, tourism and leisure in the first lockdown but have been unable to access financial support over the autumn or winter from one of the Executive’s current support schemes. Although those businesses have been permitted to continue trading during the most recent phase of restrictions, many have experienced significant reductions in their trade and revenues. Those who received the £10,000 grant last year will receive a further payment of £5,000, while those who received the £25,000 grant will receive a further payment of £10,000. It is estimated that almost 17,500 businesses will be eligible for this payment.
The schemes will be delivered by my Department. Using the exceptional circumstances powers under the Financial Assistance Act 2009, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have designated my Department as the relevant Department to provide the assistance. My Department will urgently bring forward regulations for the schemes. I ask Members to note that payments can be issued only after the regulations are made.
These financial support schemes for businesses will be implemented rapidly to make use of the remaining COVID funding in the current financial year. Achieving that speed means that the risk of errors cannot be eliminated. There will, by necessity, be a trade-off between rapid delivery and quality assurance, but the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. In the absence of other Departments coming forward to spend this money, the choice facing me, as Finance Minister, was between using the available funding rapidly on these schemes, with the risks that that entails, or surrendering it to the Treasury. Having said that, I assure Members that lessons have been learned from the previous grant schemes and measures are being put in place to prevent previous errors from reoccurring. In particular, wind turbines and constituency offices, previously paid in error, will not receive the additional payments.
Given the time available, it has not been possible to undertake the detailed analysis and economic appraisal that would normally underpin schemes of this nature to inform a determination on value for money. My accounting officer has informed me that delivery of the scheme cannot be recommended without bringing her into conflict with her duties under 'Managing Public Money NI' and that, as such, she will require a ministerial direction to proceed.
As an Executive, we have been obliged to introduce severe restrictions on businesses as part of our efforts to control the pandemic. It is incumbent on the Executive to make maximum possible use of the resources available to them to mitigate the economic impacts. Therefore, I will provide a ministerial direction to implement the Executive’s decision.
The Executive continue to respond to the rapidly changing and highly challenging environment that COVID-19 places us in. The schemes that I have announced will contribute to our aims of supporting businesses and assisting with our economic and social recovery and will provide a welcome lifeline to many businesses that have been struggling with the impacts of the pandemic. In protecting businesses, many of which are small, locally owned companies, we protect their workers and the families that rely on the income that workers provide.
I commend this statement to the House.
Mr Frew (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance): On behalf of the Committee for Finance, I thank the Minister for his statement and for meeting me this morning. That was much appreciated.
The health pandemic and, indeed, the economic and societal lockdown have been long and painful for individuals, families and businesses. Those new schemes, along with the extension of the business rates holiday, are good news, which will, I know, be welcomed by hard-pressed businesses up and down Northern Ireland. It is important to acknowledge the provision of support packages to some of the smaller sectors that felt left out of previous support packages. Hopefully, lessons were learned from errors there.
Will the Minister advise the House whether, after the roll-out of those schemes, he expects to have to return any money to Westminster for 2021? The Minister indicated that, owing to the compressed timescales, a value-for-money evaluation cannot be completed, thus ministerial direction is required for the schemes. When will the necessary value-for-money evaluation be undertaken and when will he revise the transparency process and publish all ministerial directions when they are given?
Mr Murphy: I do not expect to return any unspent money. There still remains, relatively speaking, a small amount of unspent COVID money, which, as the Member and Committee know, has to be spent out within this financial year. There are a number of allocations that I hope to bring to the Executive next week in order to finalise that, but that was to take up a significant proportion of that remaining funding.
Some Departments may return money even at this late stage; we always anticipate some return. However, there is a carry-over capacity in the normal circumstances of carrying over unallocated money, so we do not anticipate or intend to return any money to the Treasury. Trying to spend out at the end of the financial year is not the best way of conducting budgetary processes, but there is an opportunity through the scheme to provide support to businesses that previously did not get it.
This is one of a number of schemes that required ministerial direction from a range of Departments. Of course, we want to make sure that the background to those directions are published. We intend to improve transparency in all that, and we will get that out as quickly as we can.
Mr McHugh: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle, agus ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghlacadh fosta leis an Aire as a ráiteas. Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I commend the Minister for the expediency that he has shown in bringing forward proposals. Constant demand was out there for all Departments to bring forward proposals, and the Minister assured us that, at the end of the day, if they did come forward, he would be in a position to respond.
Minister, has a time frame been established for when people can apply for the £50,000 grant, given that it is not paid automatically? Secondly, in the event of that time frame being established, how do you hope to communicate that to the public in order to ensure that the funds go to those who deserve them?
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call the Minister, I remind Members of my remarks at the opening of the debate about having focused questions. I gave a little leeway to the Deputy Chair of the Committee, as I would have to Dr Aiken had he been here, but we should try to focus.
Mr Murphy: Yes, there is an application process for the larger figure. We cannot start making payments until the regulations are made, so we will be working closely with the Member and the other Finance Committee members in order to make that happen as quickly as possible.
Even though, as he correctly identified, we waited to give other Departments the opportunity to bid for some of the unspent COVID money, we were in the background developing contingency plans. We had to step in at the end to make sure that we could put some support out there. There will be an application process. Some of the other payments are automatic, but, for the larger payment, there is an application process. We will get that information out as quickly as we can, but we cannot pay out until the regulations are made.
We are confident that we will do this within this financial year and that the money will be allocated within this financial year, so spending will be approved on that basis.
Mr O'Toole: Minister, I welcome the fact that that money will be spent rather than simply handed back to the Treasury, but it is clear that we are now, unfortunately, in the 'Brewster's Millions' phase of our budgetary process.
Money is being sent out without there being clear data on the sectors that most need it and the people who have not had support yet. Notwithstanding that, as I said, it is good that more support is happening. What specific research are his Department and the Economy Department doing to find out exactly what the impact of that money will be? That information will be critical to understanding where our economy is. At the minute, it seems as though we are flying blind with regard to what will greet the high street when it reopens in the weeks and months to come.
Mr Murphy: I do not think that the Member is correct about how the money is being given out. It is not an ideal way in which to do it, and we have always acknowledged that. Every Member has acknowledged that our budgetary system puts us in a position where we end up trying to spend our underspend at the end of the year. Obviously, the support will be valuable and welcome for an awful lot of businesses across the North, particularly as it is targeted to reach those that did not get support previously or during the autumn and winter and to give them some support as we move into the phase of reopening and economic recovery.
The process is underpinned by data. We had done analysis through the Ulster University, and we did that again. Any data on rates and on how businesses have been affected by the pandemic and on schemes that we ran previously has been put in to inform future rates decisions and make sure that some of the mistakes in previous schemes, including when businesses got support that they did not require, were weeded out. There is data. I accept that the schemes are not ideal, given that we are spending significant amounts, but I am sure that most people on the ground will pleased that we are allocating money to them, not sending it back to London.
Mr Stewart: I thank the Minister for his statement. It is, undoubtedly, good news for those businesses. The process will never be perfect when we have to work within the current time frame, but I acknowledge that that money will go out to them.
I want to raise two aspects, if I may. First, can the Minister clarify whether the extension of rate relief to retail businesses will also apply to close-contact services, including salons and hairdressers, given the impact that COVID has had on them? Secondly, we are waiting for information on the COVID restrictions business support scheme (CRBSS), which is run through Invest NI via the Department for the Economy, to see whether it will be extended past 1 April. The concern among businesses that have availed themselves of the scheme is that they are unsure whether it will be extended if restrictions continue. Can the Minister give some assurances that the scheme will continue?
Mr Murphy: The statement released last Thursday evening addressed the point about rate relief. Premises that availed themselves of rate relief during the eight months of the past financial year up to this point can avail themselves of it for the 12 months. That includes close-contact services.
On the Department for the Economy's scheme, I have made it clear that, as long as restrictions apply, the localised restrictions support scheme (LRSS) will continue to pay out. We have set aside contingency COVID money for the next financial year to do that. Obviously, the sooner we are out of restrictions and lockdown, the better it will be for everyone. While all those businesses very much welcome any support, all they want is to get back to trading; in essence, that is what they want to do. I have said to the Economy Minister that I believe that the scheme that she has run should continue as long as restrictions are in place. There is money there to support that, so I hope that it continues to run.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for his statement. I particularly thank the Minister for the action for those with a net annual value of over £51,000. They have been banging their heads off a wall trying to get support for the past year. It is good to see that coming forward.
How can we ensure that value for money is associated with the £10,000 and £25,000 grants and with the £5,000 and £10,000 grants to businesses? Will there be, for example, an honesty box to enable those who do not need the financial support to return it? From what I have read in the statement, it seems that there will be no application process associated with those grants.
Mr Murphy: Lessons from the previous experience have been applied. Certainly, some things that were designated as "businesses" did not require that support. There has been a deliberate approach to ensure that they are not included again. Those lessons have been learnt.
With regard to receipt of the grant, there is a notice to tell businesses that, if they wish to pay it back or are not entitled to receive it, they should pay it back. There are clear instructions on how to do so. With all the schemes, given the timescales that we are working in, the question is this: do we try to make them absolutely perfect and risk not getting the scheme done in time to spend that money in this financial year; or do we try not to make perfection the enemy of the good and get some support out where we can?
I would be surprised if there is not some slippage. We have to try to manage that and recoup that, as the Department has done in conjunction with the Department for the Economy with previous schemes, and we have to learn the lessons from those, as has happened with this scheme. I hope that we see fewer problems with this scheme than we did with previous ones.
Mr Buckley: I welcome the statement insofar as I agree with the Minister that it is a lifeline to many thousands of businesses that are struggling at this time. Sadly, despite the statement, some business sectors will still feel that they have been totally excluded throughout the entire COVID-19 pandemic. Minister, as you know, I approached you in person and through written communication about the plight faced across Northern Ireland by the owners of dog and other animal kennels, which have had no access to funding throughout the pandemic. What comfort can those industries take from today's statement?
Mr Murphy: The Member will know that, in the absence of other Departments bringing forward schemes to target support at and tailor support to certain business sectors, including the one that he mentioned, we are obliged to operate off the rates base. That is the only vehicle available to the Department of Finance. We are not a business support Department. That is not really our function. I certainly hope, once this scheme and rate relief for next year are done, that we will be out of that game and that responsibility will go back properly to the Department for the Economy and other Departments to continue to support businesses in the time ahead as we get into economic recovery mode. As I said, that is not a function of the Department of Finance, and I had to take additional powers to do the schemes so that we could get some support out.
Some people who look after animals may have rateable premises and some may not. We can devise schemes only around the rates base, so we are restricted in that regard. I recognise that people whose businesses rely on other people going on holidays, travelling or going off to do other things have not been able to do their normal business. We have tried to use these schemes to reach some businesses that have suffered from a lack of footfall this year, by which I mean businesses that were not required to close but that clearly could not trade to any level at all. We have done that through the rates scheme, but we are restricted in what we can do and in what sectors we can reach. I brought forward that scheme in the absence of other Departments bringing forward more specific schemes for other businesses.
Dr Archibald: I thank the Minister for his statement. The money is going to some business sectors that have had no specific supports and that I and others have been highlighting for months. I am really glad to see the Minister put this support scheme in place, because I have been frustrated at the lack of further business supports being proposed by the Economy Minister, despite the need and despite the funding being available.
Minister, the previous business grant schemes last year — the £10,000 scheme and the £25,000 scheme — were jointly administered by the Department of Finance and the Department for the Economy. What role does the Department for the Economy play in these schemes?
Mr Murphy: We have engaged with that Department, because, as I say, we had to learn some lessons from the way in which schemes were rolled out last time. We have taken the power in that regard this year, and we asked the Executive Office to give us the power to do so. The Department for the Economy has said that it is busy with a range of other schemes that it is rolling out. That Department is moving more into economic recovery mode than continuing to pay out, so we have taken on the role of being responsible for this. We will work closely with the Department for the Economy to identify businesses that require support and businesses that perhaps should not have received support through the previous schemes, and we are trying to reach some of the businesses that, as you identify, we did not manage to support over the year.
Mr Catney: Thank you, Minister. I welcome the statement. I am still aware, however, of many businesses that have been refused support. In order to fill the funding gaps and better tailor future support schemes, is your Department reviewing the data from the sectors that are still impacted on by the pandemic but have not yet received support?
Mr Murphy: The Member will know, as a member of the Finance Committee, that there are parameters within which we can do schemes. We can really only use the rates base to identify businesses. I am sure that he has engaged with and knows of sectors that have not received support. I waited and encouraged people to bid and develop schemes to target businesses that had yet to receive support or did not receive sufficient support. I am sure that the Member has heard me say that on many occasions over the last number of months. At the end of the day, if bids do not come in, I can only allocate accordingly. In allocating through this scheme, we have hit some sectors that previously did not receive support. It will not include all the people that the Member has, correctly, identified, and I know that because I have engaged with many of those businesses. We do not have the wherewithal to reach all of them, and I am sorry about that. However, it is the responsibility of other Departments. As we move into the economic recovery phase, I hope that businesses that need more assistance to recover economically can be given more attention in the time ahead.
Mr McGuigan: Minister, I welcome the announcement today of £178 million of support for businesses. I also welcome your statement on Friday that announced a £230 million allocation for rate relief, and that will be welcome news to many businesses. The allocation means that businesses across many key sectors will have benefited from a rates holiday for two full years. Minister, can you detail the total amount of rate relief funding that has been provided to businesses since the start of the pandemic?
Mr Murphy: The Member will be aware that there was an initial four-month rates holiday for all businesses. On the back of some research and data gathered by the University of Ulster's economic policy unit, the support was tailored more closely to businesses that were going to suffer most as a consequence of the pandemic. In doing that, we took large food stores out of the scheme, and that policy proved to be correct because those stores returned rate relief money in England.
Between the four-month rates holiday that was extended for a further eight months and this scheme, there will be rates support for two years. Some people will have a complete two-year period without paying any rates, which is a huge benefit to a lot of businesses. This scheme takes rate support to over £0·5 billion.
Ms Dolan: Minister, thank you for your statement. The announcement of the £25K support grant for manufacturers will be warmly received by that sector, particularly as manufacturers were not included in previous grant support schemes. How many manufacturers will benefit from this support grant?
Mr Murphy: In the statement, I said that over 1,000 manufacturers will benefit. It applies to businesses that operate from industrial derated premises with an NAV between £15,000 and £51,000. As you say, the manufacturers were not covered by the business support grants paid last year. However, LPS can readily identify those businesses, having recently extended the 12-month rates holiday, and that was a late add-on to the 12-month rates holiday last year for the manufacturing sector. Those payments will be made automatically without the need for an application. From my original statement, the figure was 1,100 businesses.
Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for his announcement. A number of businesses missed out last year because of the complexity of the rating system, as a portion of their rates was determined as industrial derated or small business rates relief. Will those businesses be picked up by the grants this time around?
Mr Murphy: Yes, if the businesses meet the established criteria. If any business owner is in doubt about the criteria, nibusinessinfo.co.uk is the place to go, even though the regulations need to be made before the Department can pay out. However, people can get early information to see how they fit into the scheme. Of course, as I said in my previous answer, we did revisit the previous scheme and included the small and medium manufacturing base later in the year and backdated the rates holiday for that sector. Some of those that are eligible will come under this scheme, but if anyone is in any doubt, they can visit the nibusinessinfo website to get a clear picture of the businesses that are included.
Mr Dickson: Minister, somewhat uncomfortably, you have had to acknowledge in your statement that you had to proceed under a ministerial direction and your chief accounting officer had to point that out. Do you agree that you have, unfortunately, had to deploy a rather blunt instrument to distribute these funds at the end of the financial year? Would the grant scheme not have been done better, throughout the whole year, with better strategic planning with other Departments? What action will you take for the next financial year to ensure that actions are more strategic and more in cooperation with other Departments?
Mr Murphy: The Member is correct. However, as I said in my statement, I had the choice, as Finance Minister, between returning unspent money to Treasury — people have identified many sectors here that have not yet received any support — or giving it out and giving direction to the accounting officer in my Department to do that. Of course, that is not the ideal way to do any of that.
We received money late on. We were told last summer that what we received was the guaranteed Barnett outcome for the year, but that was added to at least another three, and possibly four, times. Doing it that way has not been ideal. The money has been very welcome, and a lot of Departments have stepped up admirably to deliver support where they could. There is a huge amount of extra money. Including the money given to the health service, we will have spent an additional £3·3 billion this year.
Next year, we will want to improve. We have a sense of the amount of funding that we will have available next year. We have already identified rates support so that we could make an early announcement about a 12-month rates holiday for people next year. We also have an economic recovery plan that the Department for the Economy has brought forward, and we have identified money for that. We have also identified money for Health and Education and for social support. A number of things have been identified.
If we get additional money throughout the year, we will probably be in the same scenario of trying to find ways to spend it. We are trying to identify, as far as possible, the amount of extra money that we will have next year, which I think is about £900 million. That has improved from the Chancellor's Budget statement last week. We were originally looking at £0·5 billion, so you can see that that has changed already. We will try to identify it and spend it more strategically. If other money comes throughout the year, we will have to fit it into the strategic plans as best as we can.
Ms Anderson: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I thank the Minister for his statement. Minister, on behalf of the near thousand businesses in Derry, I want to thank you for the grant support that they have received. It has been a lifeline. The owners of the businesses that previously received £10,000 will deeply appreciate what they heard. Will you give more details to the owners of those businesses that were not eligible before for any of the grant schemes but who will now be eligible? They would deeply appreciate getting more information.
Mr Murphy: The north-west — Derry city and Strabane — was the first area to go into lockdown when the localised restrictions began last autumn. In that regard, businesses there have been in lockdown restrictions longer than anyone else. Some larger businesses were not included in previous grant schemes, including shops, car showrooms, garden centres, gyms, fitness suites, equestrian centres and caravan parks. I am not sure how many equestrian centres there are in Derry city, but I am sure that a number of businesses will be able to avail themselves of that funding.
We know that LRSS has been paying out in a substantial way and at about double the amount that businesses in England have been able to avail themselves of. On average, people at the lower end of the LRSS grant will have received about £10,000 or £11,000 during the restrictions, and some of the larger businesses in the larger payment schemes will have received up to almost £40,000. The purpose of today's announcement is to give some assistance to businesses that have not received that support. Some of them were not obliged to close down, but, in effect, lost all their footfall. Businesses in the city centre in Derry have suffered from a drop in footfall, even though, as essential businesses, they were able to remain open. They will welcome the support that the grant provides.
Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for his statement. Will he provide clarity on a couple of points? Will he tell me about applications where a business has multiple properties and where there may be multiple applications? What does he advise in that instance? Will he also consider widening the scope of the localised restrictions support scheme to ensure that sports clubs, such as GAA and social clubs, are not left behind?
Mr Murphy: I would very much have liked to address businesses with multiple premises as part of this statement. However, the Department for the Economy is involved in an ongoing legal case on a previous scheme that involved the paying out of money to multiple premises. We were not able to include multiple premises because that legal action is ongoing, and to take any action contrary to that would cut across that case.
The Member has asked the question about payments to clubs many times and has been given the same answer many times.
The GAA's Ulster Council was involved in designing the very programme to support GAA clubs. That was the programme that it encouraged all its clubs to go for. It was involved in the co-design of that programme, as were the Irish Football Association (IFA), Ulster Rugby and all those other sectors.
Mr Murphy: The Member is mumbling away. I cannot quite pick him up.
The sports clubs and their sporting authorities worked with the Department for Communities to devise a scheme to provide support for them. The Member keeps asking me to put them into a scheme that was not designed for them. It may have paid out more frequently and may have paid out more money, but it was done on the basis of what those sporting organisation bodies did. They devised and co-designed the scheme for their clubs and have encouraged their clubs to avail themselves of that scheme, and that is the one that is for them. The Member keeps trying to fit a square peg into a round hole here no matter how many times I give him the same answer, but I hope that the penny will drop eventually.
Miss Woods: I thank the Minister for his statement. So many businesses and people have been unfairly excluded, so I welcome the support that they have been given.
The Minister refers to lessons learnt from the previous scheme. Is there any legal basis for recalling grants that may have been given in error?
Will the Minister outline whether dry-cleaners will be eligible for the third scheme that he announced, as they have had to take loans over the last year?
Mr Murphy: In answer to the last question, we are trying to target the businesses that were not obliged to close because they were considered essential. However, in effect, some dry-cleaners managed to get support because they were considered to be part of the supply chain for the tourism industry. People who worked with hotels and restaurants and so forth have managed to get some support from the Department for the Economy, but others clearly have not, so it is about trying to provide some support.
On the legal side, the Department for the Economy was responsible, working with Land and Property Services (LPS), for trying to get back any money from people who were paid incorrectly. I am not sure of the legal enforcement powers that it has in that regard, but I can find that out and give the Member some update on it.
Mr Allister: I would like clarification of an earlier answer about the first scheme and the £50,000. That is rates-based per premises, but the Minister seems to be saying that an independent retailer who has multiple premises or more than one, for example, will get only the one £50,000. That group has already been discriminated against in previous grants. Is he really saying that, on a rates-based qualification, you will just pick and choose between which premises will qualify because a particular business might have more than one premises? Surely, that is grossly unfair. Does the same apply to the third scheme? In the third scheme, how are there 17,500 businesses? Have we really had 17,500 businesses permitted to continue to trade?
Mr Murphy: With regard to the first scheme, as I said in response to a previous question, I would have liked to be able to pay multiple premises because I recognise that that is a situation where, you could argue, there is an unfairness. In Scotland and possibly in Wales, they have developed a scheme where they have a reducing scale going from one premises down. If somebody had 25 premises and was getting five £25,000 grants, that would be a substantial amount of money, but there could be a sliding scale down to a number of premises. The Department for the Economy is involved in legal proceedings, and we were not able to cut across those by devising a scheme that contradicted that legal action in relation to previous schemes. While I would have liked to pay and find some formula to address multiple premises, that was not possible.
We all know that small businesses that have been open in tourism facilities and in train stations have suffered from a huge lack of footfall and that small convenience kiosks and the like have been open and have not really received any footfall. Businesses in Belfast city centre that rely on office traffic were not obliged to close and were not entitled to LRSS, but, in effect, they were closed. The figures have been provided from the rates base. If the Member has a particular question on that, I am sure that I will hear from him, and I will ask LPS to give him some sense of where those businesses are and how it identified that number.
Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for his statement. My question relates to the fact that there are still issues with smaller companies not getting access to business support grants while bigger companies get grants when they do not need them. There are small businesses in my constituency that, despite meeting the criteria for support during the first round of funding and doing everything that they had to do — applying and appealing multiple times — got no support at a time when MLAs’ offices were given financial support and assistance. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that those businesses, which were eligible but did not get any support, will get it? If he needs it, I am happy to provide him with further detail on that.
Mr Murphy: If the Member has specifics on businesses in West Belfast that have not received funding, I am happy to receive that information. I assume that he is referring to the LRSS. More than 98% of those cases are now resolved, albeit that some were told that they were not eligible. There will be businesses that are not eligible to apply, but, if someone has looked at the criteria and feels that they are entitled to support, there are appeal mechanisms for that. I am happy for the Member to forward any details to me so that I can make sure that that is addressed.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Thank you, Members. That concludes questions on the Minister of Finance's statement. I ask that Members take their ease before we move to the next item of business. If you are leaving the Chamber, Members, do not forget to wipe down the area where you were sitting and to adhere to social-distancing regulations. Thank you.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Mr Speaker: Members, I wish to make a few remarks before we proceed to the Bill. I remind Members of our standards of debate: good temper, moderation, courtesy and respect. I raise that because I did not think that some elements of the discussion last week on the Standing Order 34 motion provided, in all aspects, the best start to consideration of the Bill. We are discussing an issue on which, as we all know, there are strong and deeply felt opinions. Members will have the ability to express those views, and there is absolutely no problem with that. Members will be aware that the issues that we are talking about today are highly emotive and that how the matters are discussed can exacerbate the experiences of people on any side of the argument that we are addressing. I therefore appeal to Members to be mindful of not just those in the Chamber but all those who may be watching the debate and have been affected by the issues. I appeal to Members to be mindful of their language and their tone. If Members follow that guidance, there will be no need for the Chair to intervene. It is particularly essential that Members respect the right of others with a differing view, no matter which side of the House they come from, to be heard. I personally think that how this debate is addressed sets a marker for the integrity of the Assembly. This is a serious and sensitive debate, and Members should approach it in that manner. I am confident that I can look to the sponsor of the Bill to set the tone for the debate, so thank you.
That the Second Stage of the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill [NIA Bill 15/17-22] be agreed.
Mr Speaker: In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated any time limit to the debate.
Mr Givan: I am delighted to bring the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill before the Assembly today. The Bill tackles disability discrimination and how the law perpetuates stereotypes. No one expresses that better than Heidi Crowter, and I express my sincere gratitude to her as she tirelessly fights for the rights of those with disabilities. I think that we all agree that she is an incredible and passionate young woman, whose contribution to our society is immeasurable. It was in May last year that Heidi called on the Assembly to make it clear that we did not accept the abortion regulations that Westminster had imposed on us, which make it legal to abort on the basis of non-fatal disabilities right up to birth, while affording non-disabled babies a far higher degree of protection. My party responded to Heidi's intervention when we tabled the motion:
"That this Assembly welcomes the important intervention of disability campaigner Heidi Crowter and rejects the imposition of abortion legislation that extends to all non-fatal disabilities, including Down's syndrome."
That motion passed by a simple majority. Sinn Féin, at the time, tabled an amendment to the motion to make it clear that it did not wish to reject the regulations in any respect other than their imposition of abortion on the basis of non-fatal disability up to birth. The impact of its amendment on the DUP motion would have meant that it read:
"That this Assembly welcomes the important intervention of disability campaigner Heidi Crowter and rejects the specific legislative provision in the abortion legislation that goes beyond fatal foetal abnormalities to include non-fatal disabilities, including Down's syndrome."
Thus, in the space of two votes on 2 June, 75 out of 90 MLAs voted to make it clear that they did not support the regulations to the extent that they made provision for abortion on the basis of non-fatal fetal abnormality. The Bill before us today is very much the outcome of that process.
The Bill has one clause of substance, which gives expression to the determination of an overwhelming majority of Members, representative of our whole community, to reject the provision of abortion on the basis of non-fatal disability. At this stage, let me put on record my thanks to colleagues in other political parties who support the Bill on that basis: Robbie Butler MLA, Dolores Kelly MLA and Trevor Lunn MLA. All three have publicly endorsed the Bill, and I pay tribute to them for doing so.
The Bill makes it clear that there is no place for disability discrimination in Northern Ireland in 2021. Regulation 7(1)(b) of the abortion regulations permits abortion up to term in cases of non-fatal disability for conditions such as Down's syndrome, cleft palate and club foot, something that is not permitted in relation to preborn babies of the same gestation who do not have a disability. It thereby perpetuates the myth that people with non-fatal disabilities such as Down's syndrome have less to contribute or are expendable. That sends out the message loud and clear, as Heidi has eloquently demonstrated, that the lives of people with disabilities are less valuable and less worthy of protection than the lives of people without disabilities. A law that fosters that thinking in 2021 is completely unacceptable.
Last June, I described regulation 7(1)(b) as being years out of date and:
" a regressive and backwards step in the campaign against discrimination and equality for people with disabilities." — [Official Report (Hansard), 2 June 2020, p77, col 2].
That is why I have introduced the Bill, which, through clause 1, deletes regulation 7(1)(b). The purpose of the Bill is to tackle the disability discrimination that is so obvious in our current abortion regulations and right a wrong that the Assembly acknowledged in June last year.
There is no way that you can allow abortion on the basis of a severe fetal impairment such as Down's syndrome without perpetuating stereotypes about people with disabilities. It is desperately sad that it is perceived that the birth of a child with Down's syndrome or another non-fatal disability is something to be avoided. That does not reflect how people with Down's syndrome see the world, and nor does it reflect the particular joy that individuals like Heidi bring to their communities.
Let me tell you some different stories. Let me tell you about Lily, who has Down's syndrome. Her parents say:
"The last 20 months have been the hardest, most challenging time of our lives. They have also been the best, most rewarding, loving, funny, busy, amazing time of our lives."
Let me tell you about Daisy, who has spina bifida. Her parents say:
"she’s just perfect and we can’t imagine life without her. She lights up any room we enter and is our absolute hero."
Let me tell you about Kirsty, who also has spina bifida. She says:
"My mam was told I'd never go to a mainstream school nor walk. I have achieved both and now I am in university."
Kirsty now has a baby boy of her own. Let me tell you about Clara. He mum says and says honestly:
"hearing that your unborn baby would have a special need was very, very frightening."
"[t]he love we have for Clara is immense, she is her own little character, she’s funny, happy, mischievous, and knows what she wants!"
Let me tell you about Aiden. His parents say:
"[w]e feel so lucky to have Aiden in our lives and can’t imagine a world without him. Aiden is Aiden, Down Syndrome does not define who he is."
Those individuals bring such richness into our community and society, and I do not want to have or to imagine a world without such individuals.
If we do not repeal regulation 7(1)(b), however well intentioned our decision may be, the message that we will send to those with non-fatal disabilities is clear. I do not want to be part of a society that describes such children as a "diagnosis" or a "risk", and nor do I want to be part of a society that communicates the worth of a person’s life on the basis of their perceived ability. That is not what we intend, but, sadly, the lived experiences of individuals tell us that that is the legacy that screening with a view to termination can leave. Too many women have spoken of the pressure that they felt to terminate, and individuals and families have spoken of the attitudes that persist. Our Assembly should not tolerate that.
After years of campaigning for equality and the eradication of disability discrimination, we must not permit the existence of laws such as regulation 7(1)(b). The similar provision in Great Britain was introduced to the Abortion Act in 1990. That was more than 30 years ago. It is hopelessly out of date and is, of course, being challenged by Heidi Crowter in the High Court.
One of the issues that have been raised with the Bill is the perception of the struggle that parents may face as they navigate the challenges associated with disability. Might we recognise that part of the struggle that parents may face is not about their child but about our misconceptions? One of the things that can make life harder for parents of a child with Down’s syndrome is the belief that a particular health condition or delay is normal for those who have Down's syndrome. Those assumptions can lead to a failure to diagnose accurately or to provide timely and needed medical care. That is called diagnostic overshadowing.
In 1900, the normal life expectancy for a child with Down's syndrome was just nine years old; now, people with Down's syndrome live into their 50s and 60s. That shows that what is normal depends massively on environment and standards of care. The Bill is about tackling the attitudes and myths that lead to failures to provide high-quality support and care. The Bill is about ensuring that attitudes towards disability are not based on fear.
The support from many people in the medical profession for the Bill speaks volumes for the positive attitude within our health service to providing the best care for families and preborn children. Members will just have received an email, and the number cited in that continues to rise. Almost 200 doctors have now challenged the inaccuracies contained in the briefing paper circulated to Members last week by the political adviser of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London. Those doctors are calling for MLAs to support the Bill. That includes doctors and consultants in Northern Ireland who practise in obstetrics and gynaecology, sexual and reproductive healthcare, palliative medicine, psychiatry, general surgery, emergency medicine and general practice, to name but some areas. Let me quote Dr Claire Sinton, a paediatrician working in the Royal Belfast Hospital:
"As a paediatrician I have cared for many babies and children with disabilities. The lives of these children are no less valuable or meaningful because of their differing levels of mental or physical ability. To offer additional access to abortion for babies diagnosed antenatally with non fatal abnormalities sends a clear signal that we, as a society, place less value on the life of a disabled individual. I feel strongly that to be human is to have intrinsic value, regardless of gender, race or ability. I oppose a law that seeks to single out disabled babies as being less worthy of protection or even the opportunity to live."
John Wyatt is emeritus professor of neonatal paediatrics at University College London. He says:
"As a doctor who has cared for many newborn babies and older children with disabilities I strongly support this Bill. It is absolutely right that the law recognises that an unborn baby with a non-fatal disability deserves the same protection as an unborn baby without a disability. We should be a society which welcomes and celebrates the lives of children with disabilities rather than exposing them to the threat of abortion."
We are richer for the presence and contribution of individuals like Heidi in our society. I think about my great uncle Samuel. I have enjoyed listening to the many stories about him. He had the condition Down's syndrome, but he has made a profound impact on my family, and his legacy lives on.
In 2011, the 'American Journal of Medical Genetics' published a series of articles about Down's syndrome. One of those covered a study of people with Down's syndrome who were older than 12 on information that could be shared with new and expectant parents of children with Down's syndrome:
"Among those surveyed, nearly 99% of people with DS indicated that they were happy with their lives, 97% liked who they are, and 96% liked how they look. Nearly 99% people with DS expressed love for their families, and 97% liked their brothers and sisters."
Another article surveyed the views of siblings:
"96% of brothers/sisters that responded to the survey indicated that they had affection toward their sibling with DS; and 94% of older siblings expressed feelings of pride".
Seventy-nine per cent of parents said that their outlook on life was more positive because of their child. Does that not show that those individuals have value and contribute? What value do you want Northern Ireland society to place on those individuals?
Allow me to talk about real people rather than statistics. Edwin and Karen Wilson from County Fermanagh, whose daughter Hannah has Down's syndrome, describe their parenting journey as:
"a roller-coaster of emotions, from elation at attained milestones, to frustrations at well-meaning bureaucracy. We always believed that Hannah’s greatest hurdle in life, would be other people’s attitudes and this has proven to be correct. As a family, we are adamant that we would not change anything about Hannah. God has entrusted us with a unique young lady, who has so much to give society, her warmth, compassion and generosity of spirit are qualities we all need more of, and we thank God for the blessing that Hannah is to us".
I firmly believe that we should not accommodate laws that contribute to a negative attitude towards those with disabilities. We should ensure that legislation affords them the same level of protection as that afforded to babies without a disability. Let us think about the message that we are sending to such parents as Edwin and Karen, or parents who have just received the news of a Down's syndrome condition, or another non-fatal disability. As Belfast mother Laura Denny, whose son Nathan has Down's syndrome, so aptly reminded us:
"It wasn’t until my son Nathan was in my arms that I realised I had a baby and not just a diagnosis".
This is our opportunity to ensure that babies such as Nathan receive the protection that they deserve. It is tragic that, in 2018, a survey conducted in Great Britain revealed that, of parents who received an antenatal diagnosis of Down's syndrome, 69% were offered a termination on receiving news of the diagnosis. After advising that they were continuing with the pregnancy, 46% of women were asked again if they wished to terminate. It was only at the beginning of this year that St George's University Hospitals and various charities developed an alternative care pathway for an antenatal diagnosis of Down's syndrome that is not simply an offer of an abortion in Great Britain. We want an alternative pathway for families in Northern Ireland.
I commend my Bill to the House, and I urge Members to join me in sending a clear and unequivocal message that, in Northern Ireland, people with disabilities are equally valued.
Ms Hargey: I am speaking in a private capacity from the Back Bench as a Sinn Féin MLA. It is clear that this debate is an attempt by the DUP to distract from the fact that women are still being denied the compassionate healthcare services that were promised with the introduction of legislation over a year ago. One year on, women are still being failed. Whilst there is deliberate blocking of attempts emanating from the legislation to commission modern and compassionate healthcare services for women, the DUP is also intent on unpicking the legislation. We must not allow the debate to detract from the fact that women are still being denied services. Women are still being denied care. Women are still being forced to travel to England, which is inhumane and traumatic, especially in the midst of a global health pandemic. That is not compassionate healthcare for women.
The DUP has talked about rights, yet it is the DUP, aided by others, who have consistently opposed the extension of rights to people in society. This Bill is a crude attempt to pit vulnerable women and couples against people with disabilities. It is a crude attempt to roll back on the legislation that is in line with international human rights requirements.
In spite of the law being enacted to advance women's healthcare, it has not been implemented by the Health Department or the Minister. In my capacity as the Minister who has responsibility for taking forward the strategy on gender equality, I will be raising the issue at this week's Executive meeting and calling on the Minister to commission the services without further delay. If the DUP is seriously telling us that it cares about rights, will it support my proposal for an urgent commissioning of the services without further delay? Will the DUP address the long-standing human rights gaps that still exist, the tackling of which were committed to in the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements? Or, will it continue to block the rights and services, forcing women to travel?
The current position disproportionately impacts women who suffer from socio-economic disadvantage, thus compounding their hardship and further denying their rights. That cannot continue. Sinn Féin's priority is about ensuring that women receive compassionate healthcare, which they are entitled to under the law and have been for over a year. Those services must be commissioned now.
Ms S Bradley: I begin by thanking the Member for Lagan Valley Mr Givan for bringing this Bill to the Floor of the House. In preparation for today's sensitive debate, I listened to the Health Committee discussion and wish to note the informative and very helpful contributions of Lynn Murray from Don't Screen Us Out and, I have to say, the mightily impressive campaigner Heidi Crowter and her mum, Liz. Thank you. I will take a moment, if you do not mind, Mr Speaker, to congratulate Heidi and her husband on their marriage.
Heidi, in her presentation to the Committee, said that the law tells her and people with Down's syndrome that they are worth less than those without disabilities. Sadly, Heidi is correct. The law, as it stands, does just that. Furthermore, the legislation that was imposed on us from Westminster gave no consideration to the lack of support that should accompany women through any pregnancy. How can we have arrived at a point where we debate the rights and the wrongs of abortion up to birth when there has never been a concerted effort to address the absence of the critical support needed by women who feel that they are in crisis? Where is their support?
On 19 January this year, the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) identified that more investment and training is needed to enable midwives and maternity support workers to offer better mental health support for women throughout pregnancy and postnatally. It reported that as many as a fifth of new and expectant mothers are likely to experience some form of mental health problems and that at least half of women cannot access the help and support that they need. The RCM says that there are barriers such as women fearing that they may be judged as being unable to look after their baby or not recognising that they need help. Poor service provision is also a factor. That must be addressed so that women can get the support that they often desperately need. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Westminster did not choose to deliver on this for the women of Northern Ireland. Abortion has been offered as the solution.
Turning to the technical part of the Bill, the current legislation offers some safeguards for some children at 24 weeks. Regulation 7(1)(b), however, denies those safeguards to children who have physical or mental impairment. It specifically profiles the child on the grounds of disability and sets them apart as not deserving equal treatment due to their disability. In the absence of those safeguards, the profiled disabled child, unlike the child with no known disability, can be aborted at any stage. We could debate, and courts might engage in determining what the definition of "seriously disabled" might mean, and we might never agree, but to dwell on that detail today, in my view, is to miss the point of the Bill.
The crux of the matter is that current legislation profiles and separates children based on their having or not having a disability. Surely, that is the very definition of discrimination, discrimination that is, unless we change it, legislated for and delivered in a calculated and targeted way. We cannot claim to be supporters of the Disability Discrimination Act yet ignore this blatant breach of the principles in the current abortion regulations. To my many constituents who have shared emails with me in the lead-up to this Bill, I thank you. I thank you for the personal content that they contained and the show of affection and love, where they recognise the disabled person in their family and the love that they bring to that family.
I wish to put on record today that I choose to see your ability, not your disability. I will therefore support the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill.
Mrs Barton: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to express my wholehearted support for the Bill today. I add my voice to those who have commended the work of the disability campaigner Heidi Crowter and a number of others, including Edwin and Karen Wilson from my constituency, who have bravely spoken about the impact of discriminatory abortion laws on their lives. What a joy Hannah is to the Wilson family.
For anyone who remains unconvinced about the disability discrimination problem that the legislation has been designed to address, imagine, if you will, that you or your partner are just three weeks shy of the long-anticipated arrival of a much-wanted child. I appreciate that, for some of us, that may be more of a distant stretch into our past than for others. Imagine that heady mixture of excitement and not a little fear as you prepare for life as you know it to be turned upside down. Imagine the checklist of the preparations that are to be made running through your mind. Now imagine sitting with the nurse at the maternity unit, and these questions then come: "Are you sure? Do you know that we still terminate up to term in cases like this?" How do you think that it would feel for that woman and her family to realise that the maternity team that will care for her during those very vulnerable moments is contemplating, just weeks prior to birth, the possibility of a termination? How confident do you think that she and her family will be that their child will be given the best possible chance at life and the highest standard of care?
Sadly, we know that some women and families do not have to imagine. Women in England and Wales have sat with the clinicians involved in their antenatal care and, just weeks before their due date, have been forced to consider their pregnancy ending with the intentional death of their much-wanted child. Cheryl Bilsborrow is one of those women. She said:
"at 38 weeks, when I went for a scan, the sonographer said: 'You do know we abort babies full term with Down's syndrome.'
Shocked, I replied, 'I'll pretend I didn't hear that.'"
She was offered an abortion just three days prior to giving birth to her little boy Hector.
For quite some time now, in those jurisdictions, termination of pregnancy has been the only pathway for unborn children with an antenatal diagnosis of Down's syndrome. Therefore, it is unsurprising that those are the questions that clinicians regularly ask. How do we expect those women to feel reassured about their baby when the default pathway for their antenatal care is the deliberate ending of life? One woman, Emma Mellor, described her experience by stating:
"At 38 weeks they made it really, really, really clear, that if I changed my mind on the morning of the induction to let them know, because it wasn't too late".
She was offered 15 terminations. Many women have shared similar stories. In January of this year, St George's University Hospitals in London, working with two leading Down's syndrome charities, introduced at a regional level an evidence-based best-practice pathway for the care of women whose babies are diagnosed with Down's syndrome prenatally. That is the first pathway to be introduced in an NHS trust anywhere in the UK. It is an indictment of our culture and laws that it is groundbreaking in 2021.
Let us not think that the impact of those discriminatory laws stops at birth. Dr Elizabeth Corcoran, from the Down's Syndrome Research Foundation, said:
"Research into the health issues affecting people with Down's syndrome has been hampered and blocked by the ingrained belief that the only way to help the Down's syndrome community is to reduce their numbers. Millions (of pounds) in funding has been poured into running and refining the screening process whilst only £5·33 per person per year is spent on research that could improve the lives of people with Down's syndrome."
That mindset has no place in the 21st century, nor is that a culture that we want to tolerate here. The Bill that we are debating today sends a very clear message that people with Down's syndrome or any other disability are equally valued members of our society, as the friends and families of those with Down's syndrome will testify.
I will close by reminding Members of the comment by the special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disability. The rapporteur said of the UN Convention on the same:
"Article 10 recognizes and protects the right to life of persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others, which is critical for contesting legislation, policies and practices whereby the lives of persons with disabilities have been put at risk because of perceived low quality of life. The right to life includes the right to survive and develop on equal basis with others. Disability cannot be a justification for termination of life."
Today, we have an opportunity to uphold that right and to celebrate children like Tess and courageous women like Heidi by removing from our laws a provision that perpetuates discrimination. I implore Members to vote for the Bill.
Ms Bradshaw: I recognise that this is, in broad terms, a matter of conscience. I am reserving my position on the general issue until I have further guidance on the legal and human rights aspects of the Bill, specifically its legal compatibility, its human rights compliance and, most notably, whether legislation is, in fact, the most appropriate way to deliver the outcome sought. By outcome, I mean, essentially, the outcome desired by the Don't Screen Us Out campaign, which wishes to ensure that people with Down's syndrome are and feel equally valued.
While I reserve my position on the issue, I cannot do so on the Bill. As presented, it is utterly inadequate. Leaving aside its obvious incompatibility with primary legislation at Westminster, as contained in section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, it has been presented without consideration of the human rights implications, with no thought given to the practical outcomes or unintended consequences and with no clarity on what its actual effect would be. At best, it is a lazy attempt to play off rights against each other as part of what is, in fact, fundamentally, an attempt to incrementally reverse abortion liberalisation.
It is clear from what we have heard in the Health Committee that the proposer has approached this process without any serious engagement with the key people or on the key issues. Are we content to pass a Bill, the main effect of which will be to force women to take action, rather than our supporting them? Regardless of our position on the issue, we may be sure, because it breaches the requirements of that primary legislation from Westminster, that, if we pass the Bill simply as it is, it will be reversed in the courts as it breaches the Westminster legislation that puts into law the UK's human rights obligations.
Mr Wells: You have to take a point of order; you have no choice. Sit down. You have no choice.
Mr Stalford: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It seems to me that the Member for my constituency is veering dangerously close to questioning the decisions of the Speaker's office.
You, sir, determine whether items of legislation come before the Assembly. Can you speak to that?
Mr Speaker: The Bill has passed all the admissibility tests, as you are aware, and that is why we are having the debate. The fact that the Bill is on the Floor for debate tells its own story: it has passed the admissibility tests. I make the Member aware of that. After the Bill has concluded its passage through the Assembly, whatever happens in other places will happen.
Ms Bradshaw: I apologise, Mr Speaker: I misheard. I thought that the Member was asking for an intervention. I was not questioning your authority over points of order.
The point that I was making is that it is highly likely that this will end up in the Supreme Court, where it will be reversed.
If we are genuine — [Interruption.]
Excuse me, please. I did not interrupt anybody else.
Ms Bradshaw: If we are genuine about the disability rights issues that have been legitimately raised by Heidi Crowter and others, the Bill, on those grounds alone, will clearly not deliver.
To be clear about my position, which others intentionally misrepresent, I am keen to explore whether we may be able to do something arising out of the debate along the lines of much of what the Don't Screen Us Out campaign is requests. I will take the opportunity later to put on record some of the issues that we need to consider urgently in that regard. A priority among them is support for mothers taking pregnancy to term. That is something that the Bill does absolutely nothing about. That is because the Bill is not really about disability discrimination. If it were, it would surely take a different form. There is no trace at all of any serious attempt to gather evidence. The Bill is really about the ongoing denial of women's rights. It sets out to pit disability rights against women's rights in a divisive manner rather than to recognise that they are parts of the same human rights standards.
It has been a long struggle for women to get the same right to choose as has existed in the rest of the UK for half a century. Of course, certain parties fought that every step of the way and continue to do so; indeed, had they not played a part in bringing down the Executive, it is likely that parties in the Assembly would still be working to deny women full or even any bodily autonomy. Even though I do not like how it was done — I believe in devolution — one of the few advantages of having had the Assembly in cold storage for three years is that a historical wrong was put right.
The Bill is about chipping away at the newly won right for women to choose. If it were to pass, no one should doubt that that is how it would be presented. That refusal to trust women and, indeed, specialist medical professionals is not restricted to one party by any means. We see an ongoing refusal by the Health Minister to commission services, as required by law. That is not the only failure on women's reproductive rights. We have also seen, for example, failures to ensure access to IVF on the same basis as in the rest of the UK. It is a pity that, over the decades, unionists were so unconcerned about an Irish Sea border when it came to women's rights.
Let me move on to abortion principles. It is worth emphasising that we also have to judge the Bill on its content. There, it becomes rather interesting. The Bill accepts the abortion law as it appears in the regulations that it seeks to amend. Far from seeking to abandon all those regulations or even to amend most of them, it leaves almost all of them completely untouched. I hear claims that this is not about pro-life and pro-choice, but let us be clear: passing the Bill will be claimed by some who are pro-life as a victory. It will, however, merely reinforce the fact that the law in Northern Ireland has been liberalised and that an incremental attempt at repealing it is bound to fail.
Nevertheless, let us leave the pro-life and pro-choice designations aside and focus on the Bill. It seeks to confuse the grounds on which abortion may take place late in pregnancy, and nothing else. Everyone in the House would like to get to the stage at which abortions do not take place late in pregnancy; indeed, none of us is pro-abortion. This is about women's rights and women's autonomy, not about wanting to see abortions take place.
Ms Kimmins: I thank the Member for giving way. I respect her comments about not getting into the debate around pro-life and pro-choice.
I ask the Member and others in the House whether they share my condemnation of the anti-abortion protest that has been happening at the John Mitchel Place clinic in Newry over the past number of weeks. It is a clinic that provides a range of services for women and children, including speech and language therapy, health visiting, family planning, and support and counselling for women who have suffered miscarriage and stillbirth. Over the past number of days, particularly in the lead-up to the debate, I have been flooded with messages from women who have been impacted by the horrific imagery and disturbing slogans being displayed by protesters who claim to be pro-life. I want to read out a message that I received yesterday from a lady who has had to deal with those protesters every day on her way to work.
Mr Speaker: Sorry. I am afraid that you are not able to do that in an intervention, so could you simply wind up your remarks? Thank you.
Mr Wells: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It is a well-known precedent in the Assembly that a point of order is a short intervention —
Ms Kimmins: Apologies. I just want to highlight the fact that we are talking about rights — the rights of everyone. Surely, the rights of the women accessing services, for whatever reason, should be respected as part of the conversation. If we were not having this conversation and if the services that have been legislated for had been commissioned, those women would not have to endure the disgraceful scenes they face every day. I am glad that the Member —
Mr Speaker: Mr Wells, just remain seated. Could I ask you to conclude your remarks? It is an intervention, and an intervention should be much shorter than you have made it. Thank you.
Ms Kimmins: OK. Thank you, and apologies, Chair. I just wanted to raise that because it is a pertinent issue, particularly in this conversation and discussion. It has caused a lot of tension and concern in my constituency in particular, and when we are —
Ms Bradshaw: Is it not interesting how, last week, I was heckled and disrupted and, this week, another woman who is trying to stand up for the rights of other women is heckled and disrupted? It is absolutely ridiculous, and it speaks to the behaviour of the Members behind us.
Mr Speaker: Please make sure that it is a point of order.
Mr Wells: I want to make it absolutely clear that I would have made exactly the same series of interventions had the contributor been a male Member of the House.
Ms Bradshaw: I put on record my support for my colleague Councillor Michelle Kelly, who is seeking, through legal services at Belfast City Council, to outlaw the graphic imagery that is used in the high street. What they do to women who have miscarried, had abortions or any sort of trouble with their pregnancies is very triggering and brings back the trauma.
What the Bill does nothing about, despite its stated intent, is the need to address the key issue of support for women taking pregnancies to full term where possible when they are told about severe fetal impairment. There is a question about whether that support should be given a legal footing, but the Bill does not touch on that. I can well understand the bewilderment of pro-life groups seeing the proposer introduce a Bill that fundamentally reinforces the law on abortion and, indeed, highlights the need for it. Maybe he would like to make further attempts at chipping away at women's choice and bodily autonomy, but he will always be the proposer of a Bill that reinforced a Westminster law that would never have been passed had the Executive in which he served not crumbled.
What bewilders me and should bewilder all of us is why a Bill that is supposedly about disability rights and ensuring that support for people with Down's syndrome is equally valued would focus solely on abortion regulations. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been widely quoted, and we would do well to adopt the convention into law. We would also do well to interpret it correctly. The chair of the committee has stated:
"I am very concerned that opponents of reproductive rights and autonomy often actively and deliberately refer to disability rights in an effort to restrict or prohibit women's access to safe abortion."
Let us talk about what happens during pregnancy. Here, some of us have a clear idea, and some of us have no idea. The diagnoses come at around the 20-week stage of much-wanted pregnancies. What is presented by proponents of the Bill is a society in which women, finding out that the fetus they are carrying is seriously impaired, decide, solely in their own interests, to opt for termination. What kind of ogres do proponents of the Bill think we women are? Do they seriously think that a woman who has begun to develop an emotional attachment and connection with a fetus would be so utterly callous? We need, once and for all, to end the nonsense that a woman faced with a complexity or crisis in her pregnancy will simply want abortion on demand. That is a scurrilous phrase, which completely misrepresents how decisions are made in practice. Again, I have to add that the proposer has made no effort to understand the situation by engaging, for example, with women's groups, a wider range of disability campaigners or medical professionals. At the Committee for Health, he admitted to having been selective and — I quote — engaging with whom he wants to engage with.
Moving on to disability, we need to consider whom we trust on sensitive issues like this. Most of us watched on with dismay, for example, when a man who had openly mocked a disabled reporter was elected leader of the free world. For most of us, that appalling mockery should have ended his campaign. That said, others among us actively supported that campaign, cheered his election and even advocated his re-election. Others can judge what that tells us about their priorities.
With regard to disability rights, we need to look at the general lack of support for people with disabilities and, indeed, mothers who have been given a diagnosis of what is now termed "severe fetal impairment". Again, the question arises of why other action to support them has not been taken. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) report is clear that mothers who choose to take their pregnancies to term must be supported, yet the Bill seeks only to force them to do so, not support them. That speaks to a particular set of priorities. I wonder whether the Health Minister has given thought to the outworkings of his failure to deliver on the commissioning of the full contents of the abortion regulations: probably not. I want to add at this point that, given the current rightful focus in the media on gender-based violence and the need for respect for women, that intransigence on the commissioning of those services has also delayed the requirement for appropriate, science-based relationships and sexuality education (RSE) in schools. That is still outstanding. The Health Minister needs to consider that.
Mr Allister: Can the Member tell us where in the regulations there is a compulsion to commission services?
Mr Speaker: As Question Time starts at 2.00 pm, I ask that Members take their ease for a few minutes before we move to the next item. When we resume this item of business, the next Member to speak will, obviously, be Paula Bradshaw.
The debate stood suspended.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Mr Weir (The Minister of Education): I thank the Member for his question. My focus is on achieving a return to face-to-face education for all children, and I must reluctantly accept that some activities associated with schools that have a somewhat higher risk due to mixing within and between year groups, such as school sports, must remain paused at the moment. Those activities will therefore remain paused until public health advice permits them to recommence.
There are many issues around the return to school, including sport, and they will form part of the wider Executive considerations. Indeed, the next stage of that will be tomorrow. The resumption of sport forms part of the Executive's pathway out of restrictions. Opportunities for children and young people to participate in school sports help them build upon the knowledge and skills they develop through the PE curriculum. Schools often build effective relationships with the communities that they service through the medium of sport. Community use of school sports facilities makes an important contribution to community cohesiveness as well.
I recognise that participation in physical activity, both inside and outside of school, makes an important contribution to the well-being and personal development of all our young people. That is why I am very keen to see a return to sport as soon as possible.
Mr McGrath: I welcome some of the Minister's remarks. Sports are done outdoors, are good for physical and mental health and provide an opportunity to mix in a socially distanced way. Is any planning taking place to see whether sports could be introduced in a safe manner? It does not automatically have to be team-based sports but could be sports that allow people to participate. However, at the same time, it could happen a bit quicker.
Mr Weir: I take that on board. Maybe they are looking to this House. We are not always on the same team. Team-based sports are always a little bit of a dubious issue in that regard.
The broader return to education will, in part, be done on the basis of a range of mitigations that we will put in place, and the same can be done with sport. Perhaps there is a slight misunderstanding among some people, because, when the pathway document was produced, it put school sports specifically at strand 4, but the wider sports side was put at strand 2. Those two can move along together, and it is important that, if we see a movement in sport in general, that should also include school sports. That is why, when reference was made to the issue of spectators, a particular provision was included in the pathway document to allow a level of spectators at school events. It is important that there is a balance.
From that point of view, it is important that we move as quickly as possible to the resumption of sports activities. Whatever mitigations need to be put in place can be examined and will be dependent upon what information the Executive receive from the Public Health Agency and the Department of Health on those mitigations. There is interlinkage between the two. Part of my old school song was "sana mens in corpore sano", which means a healthy mind in a healthy body, and the interlinkage between the two is important, not just for the physical advantage of our young people but because the impact on mental health and well-being is critical.
Mr Lyttle: The impact of school closure and the closure of youth sport has been severe on children and young people, so I welcome the planned resumption of outdoor sport training and games without spectators in phase 2 of the Executive's COVID recovery plan. Will the Education Minister work with his Executive colleagues to ensure a coordinated response to the resumption of school and club sport as soon as possible?
Mr Weir: As well as being Chair of the Education Committee, I know that the Member has a strong interest in sports and comes from a very strong sporting background. Sport is very important to give a wider context to our young people. Everything that we do should be coordinated as much as possible and use a level of cooperation. Clearly, with sport and education, there is a strong nexus between the Departments of Communities, Health and Education. Therefore, I am happy to commit to work towards a coordinated response. Whatever sport we follow, many of us associate St Patrick's Day as a great school sports occasion. Unfortunately, that will not happen this year, but the sooner that we can resume sporting activities to benefit all our young people, the better.
Mr M Bradley: I welcome the Minister's announcement about the return to sport. Can I ask the Minister about the possibility of opening the schools estate to youth clubs and community organisations that work with children over the summer months? Sometimes children attend the same schools and clubs, and it will make sure that the time lost in physical education can be made up over the summer months.
Mr Weir: Yes, very much so. I know that there is good interaction and working between our schools and community organisations. In particular, we see that interaction in the sporting context. Often, school sports grounds are linked with community sports facilities. I will bring proposals to the Executive on a wider recovery package for our young people and their education. While there will be a focus on the academic side, there will also be a focus on broader mental health and well-being.
Physical activity, particularly over the summer, will be critical. As part of the overall package that will, hopefully, run throughout the year, there will be specific activities targeted for the summer months. By that stage, I hope that the vast majority of restrictions will have been lifted. Coordination between the community and schools can happen, particularly on the sports field. I am acutely aware that activities can be delivered through a sports club or a community-based organisation that can take sport over and above what can be directly delivered in schools. I know that sporting initiatives have happened down the years, and I am keen to see those embraced during the summer months.
Mr Weir: The intention of the Addressing Bullying in Schools Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 is to provide greater consistency in how schools respond to bullying incidents and allegations and to ensure that all pupils are protected to the same best-practice standards. The Act is an important piece of legislation that builds on schools’ existing duty of care for their pupils and strengthens the protection that pupils can expect if they experience bullying in school.
The Act, which will commence on 1 September this year, will provide a common definition of bullying; require all schools to centrally record incidents of bullying, the motivation and outcome; and require each school’s board of governors to take greater collective responsibility for the development, implementation, monitoring and periodic review of a school's anti-bullying policies and procedures. The recording requirements of the legislation will allow schools to monitor patterns and trends of bullying and ensure that instances of bullying are addressed promptly and effectively.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister for his answer. I am sure that the Minister will agree that bullying is a scourge on our society and, particularly, in our classrooms. Bullying has a devastating and long-lasting impact on a child that can go on throughout their life. Can the Minister elaborate on the duty that the Act imposes on boards of governors?
Mr Weir: I thank the Member for his question. I agree with the Member on the longer-term impact that bullying can have on individuals. Sadly, we are seeing a difficulty with bullying that happens entirely outside the remit of the school, and that is beyond the reach of any legislation. We can see what happens on social media. Specifically, boards of governors, as a corporate body, are legally responsible for all the decision and actions taken in their name by individual governors, the principal, or by committees to which they have delegated functions. The Act will place a statutory duty on boards of governors to determine the detailed measures that are to be taken at schools in order to prevent bullying and to ensure that the measures are properly implemented and are kept under periodic review. They should be reviewed at least every four years in order to ensure that they are fit for purpose. The legislation will require a review at intervals not exceeding four years.
Governors will be actively involved in developing and monitoring the effectiveness of their schools' anti-bullying policies. It is important that those policies do not simply sit on a shelf but are directly implemented. Governors will also be better informed when supporting or, indeed, challenging how staff handled an incident.
In many ways, as I mentioned, this is about dealing with best practice. Most schools will already have policies on bullying in place, and it is important that that is the case. A lot of schools are very proactive on that front, and these duties will just create a situation in which that best practice is shared across the system.
Ms Flynn: The Minister mentioned some of the guidance and direction for schools. Will any additional support be given to schools and principals on how they should fulfil their obligations in implementing the legislation? I ask that given the challenges and pressures that school environments are under with the pandemic.
Mr Weir: I understand that. We will give as much support and guidance as we can. Guidance has been developed and designed to accompany the Act. It is important to say that this is not something that is just imposed from on high. On the input, we have done a considerable amount of work in working out the implementation with, for instance, the teachers' unions to ensure that the guidance is fit for purpose. There will also be significant input from teachers and wider educational professionals so that what is there is fit for the present. For example, while there are opportunities for schools to develop the methodology for the recording requirements, a bullying incident recording system has been developed and will be available on C2k should schools wish to use it. The Education Authority has also provided training and online resources for schools and their governors.
While we should have a strong system and one that protects our young people, it is important that we also ensure that recording bullying incidents does not become an additional administrative burden. We believe that the online recording of incidents means that it can be done in such a way that does not add any significant administrative burden to schools.
In many ways, it is about taking a belt and braces approach. We believe in trying to create a very similar approach because the vast bulk of schools will have procedures in place already anyway. Hopefully, we will simply be building on good practice.
Mrs Barton: Minister, while an abhorrent action, bullying often masks underlying issues with perpetrators. Given that victims unequivocally deserve every support, what steps will be taken to reform and educate the perpetrators?
Mr Weir: I think that we will have individual cases. It is important that, first of all, levels of support are given to victims of bullying. There will not always be a one-size-fits-all type of situation, and individual interventions will need to take place. Clearly, one of the things that will need to happen is good education in the classroom to help to prevent bullying in the first place. Again, rather than trying to deal with the consequences of something, we should try to ease it at the start. That will also not only go down in the guidance but will play to the actions that schools will take in the policies that are developed by governors. Teachers are wise enough to know what levels of interventions are there.
Also important and why, for instance, motivation is one of the areas that will be recorded, is that it is important for schools to see where there are potential trends. If, for example, they see particular problems with racism, misogyny or whatever, they will be able to have a bit of a data capture. At least they will be able to see where the bullying is coming from and, hopefully, be able to target any actions to directly deal with the problem.
Mr Weir: I thank the Member for his question. My Department already operates a policy of maximum class sizes for children in the foundation stage and Key Stage 1 as well as for practical subjects in the curriculum.
The available evidence on educational attainment suggests that, except in the very early years, class size reduction does not have a significant impact on student outcomes and that the main driver of the variation in pupil learning at school is the quality of teaching provided. Small reductions in class size are unlikely to be cost-effective relative to other strategies. Other interventions such as individual or small group tuition provided to those most in need through my Department’s Engage programme are likely to have a greater impact.
Using normal formative assessment approaches in the classroom, schools will work to understand where pupils are in their learning after the period of remote learning. I am confident that schools will identify and support the pupils who are most likely to experience difficulties in engaging with learning. However, I fully recognise that there will be a need to plan for and to fund ongoing, evidence-based interventions to support schools to limit the long-term effects of the current disruption. I plan to bring proposals to the Executive shortly for a further support programme for a range of educational settings. That will build on the work of the Engage programme in 2021, subject to Executive agreement and availability of funding.
Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for his answer. His assertion that smaller class sizes do not have an impact on education may be disputed. They are important in protecting people from the virus, they can enhance learning, they allow for more one-to-one assistance, and they can be better for those with learning disabilities, sensory issues and so on. I and many others would say that they are better for education overall. Will the Minister commit to looking at international best practice, given that other countries have smaller classes, to see whether we can implement those measures here?
Mr Weir: I did not say that there was no impact at all. However, if we are looking at interventions, particularly on the academic side, there is limited evidence that, outside of early years, smaller classes make a significant difference.
Where there are learning difficulties and issues with special educational needs, there is a process that allows one-to-one interventions, particularly for somebody who is statemented. With that statement, intervention for an individual will be retained. That may mean that a particular classroom assistant is assigned to an individual, and that, I think, is the right way to tackle it.
As for the broader issue of class sizes and looking at best practice, I will try to ensure that we get the best results with the levels of investment and resources that are available. However, a move to much smaller class sizes would require a high level of resource-intensive commitment. Ultimately, I can allocate only what is in the Department of Education's budget. While we are still in the draft Budget stage, the overall Education budget for next year, outside the COVID interventions, is likely to be fairly close to being flatlined in cash terms, meaning there will be no radical change.
I am also looking at where interventions will take place in the best possible way. By the summer, we are due to have the report of the expert panel on educational underachievement. I will study closely its recommendations and try to ensure that, as much as possible, they are implemented as well.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank Gerry for asking the question. Minister, as part of your priorities in bringing proposals to the Executive, will you confirm that you will look at prioritising capital expenditure on children, particularly those who are statemented, who are being educated in Portakabins that were supposed to be temporary but have been there for decades?
Mr Weir: With COVID, it is likely that that will be a resource rather than a capital issue. However, the overall capital Budget for the Executive is likely to be smaller next year than this year. That means that the overall quantum of the draft allocation that is made directly to schools for the capital programme will be smaller. However, there have been indications from the Department of Finance that it is looking to supplement that through the reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI). As part of that, part of our bid for next year will look at not only where we are with the mainstream baseline capital build but at what capital funding can provided through RRI. That is likely to concentrate particularly on additional quick intervention for special needs education.
The Member is right to say that, where we can, moving from Portakabins to more permanent structures is better. The only caveat that I will add is that, as anybody who has been around schools will know, Portakabins now are light years away from what they were when the Member opposite and I were at school.
Mr Weir: — have dreamt of the prospect of Portakabins. Some of us, however, take a slightly old-fashioned attitude to how we see them. The modern mobile classrooms that are provided tend to be of a very high quality. However, the aim, as far as is possible, is to move towards having permanent structures.
In a more general sense, if there is capacity in the industry to deliver it and there is finance, there is always at least twice as much that could be done on capital builds. As with anything else, in education it is about choosing between good projects rather than between good and bad projects.
Mr Humphrey: Minister, thank you for your visit to the excellent Springfield Primary School last week. In 2005, it had 67 pupils; it now has over 200. The school has had an extension built, but it is no longer big enough. I ask the Minister to consider that school for any future investment in new buildings.
I ask the Minister what flexibilities schools have with class sizes and numbers.
Mr Weir: I was delighted to be at Springfield during the week. I value the professionalism of the staff, but the joy of the returning pupils showed the direct benefits of face-to-face teaching. I congratulate the school on the success that it has had.
Speaking directly about the COVID situation, I will say that class sizes have to be set in line with health and safety requirements. In post-primary schools, necessary assessments are carried out to allow flexibility of class sizes for practical subjects. Strictly speaking, while there are limits placed on what is allowed for the early years of primary school, there is more flexibility with the limits for P5 to P7.
We know that, particularly in years 1 to 4, smaller class sizes can have a positive impact on outcomes. The law in that circumstance requires that class sizes for the youngest children be kept to a maximum of 30. Flexibility for post-primary class sizes tends to be for subjects such as science, art and design, and PE. That level of flexibility has been in place unchanged since 2004 for class sizes that are in excess of 20 pupils, up to a maximum of 26. That also applies for years 8 to 10 and years 11 and 12 for practical subjects such as home economics, music, and design and technology. Some of that can mean an opportunity for schools to ensure that they are able to use their budgets as effectively as possible. There is a level of flexibility, but the health and safety of pupils remains paramount. Any school's board of governors must be content that any practical arrangements reflect that.
Mr McCrossan: Minister, they say that hindsight is a wonderful thing. Given the level of infection in classrooms when schools have been open and the huge numbers of pupils who had to isolate, if the Minister could go back in time, would he do anything different about classroom sizes? Would he have put in extra resources or, if possible, split the size of classrooms?
Mr Weir: With respect, we did not have those huge impacts. The position was very similar to what happened elsewhere. I make no apology for trying to ensure that we got the maximum number of pupils in.
The reality is that there is flexibility on class sizes, as has been said, for all schools, and some schools have been able to use the opportunity, where they can split classes and use extra space. The principal constraint is that, from a teaching point of view, if we simply disperse large numbers of children across the piece, there will be an issue with the number of available teachers. It is simply not an effective way of teaching. There will be barriers because of the volume of substitute teachers. A number of schools, particularly at primary level, are having difficulty getting substitute teachers, so there are restrictions on that. Obviously, I am always keen to take lectures on the basis of hindsight from the Member opposite.
Mr Weir: I thank the Member for her question. Ardnashee School in the Foyle constituency was announced under a major capital works call and is in planning, with an approved business case of £33·92 million. The school is due on site this summer. As well as the major capital works, three projects are progressing under the second call to the school enhancement programme (SEP2). Those projects are Chapel Road Primary School, Greenhaw Primary School and Holy Child Primary School. Each of those projects will see an investment of up to £4 million to improve the schools. In addition to that, there are four voluntary Youth Service schemes directly through the schools that received capital funding of £4·5 million under the two youth calls that have been made.
Ms Anderson: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer. Minister, as you know, the Finance Minister has made social value a mandatory component of procurement contracts. Can you confirm that there will be social clauses in the procurement contracts coming on stream and that social value will be an integral part of the capital funding for Derry?
Mr Weir: Certainly, for any contract, we comply with the position across the Executive as a whole. There is no particular issue with that. As for the detail of what is in a contract, I am probably not in a position to comment directly on that. We want to ensure that, across the Executive, we produce a consistent approach to that.
Ms Armstrong: Given that we are talking about major capital projects, I am keen to hear from you about the roll-out of Fresh Start and how well that is performing across Northern Ireland. It seems to be extremely slow at the moment.
Mr Weir: We are confident that the full amount will ultimately be spent, and we will write to the Member on some of the detail. As she will be aware, and I think that this was tackled in the last mandate, one of the issues historically with the Fresh Start money was that it was largely agreed at prime ministerial level, without Treasury really wanting a penny to be spent. That meant that there were discussions with Her Majesty's Government about the detail, and a range of conditions was put in that had to be considered by my predecessor and me and will, indeed, have to be considered by my successor. First, everything has to be a completely new project, so, for example, Parkhall Integrated College, which had been announced at that stage, could not avail itself of Fresh Start money. Secondly, it has to be a complete new build, so SEP was effectively knocked out of the picture. Also, schools that, for instance, did not exactly fit with integrated status but had a high level of mixing — there is a small number of "super-mixed" schools, as they are called — were also excluded. At that stage, there was a bar on spend between years. That was successfully negotiated on by way of the confidence-and-supply arrangement, and it has been continued. There is some progression. That means that there will be peaks and troughs in the funding, but we are confident that the overall £500 million will be absorbed in the 10-year period.
Mr Weir: It is question 5 rather than question 6.
Mr Weir: Currently, BTEC qualifications through the medium of Irish are facilitated by a contractual arrangement between the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) and the awarding organisation, Pearson. Towards the end of 2019, the Pearson awarding organisation had given notice of its intention to end that agreement and no longer provide the qualifications. While CCEA continued its discussions with Pearson about the decision, the school that was offering those BTECs was advised to consider and identify alternative qualifications. Unfortunately, in the past couple of weeks, Pearson has confirmed its intention to withdraw from the arrangement, withdrawing level 3 qualifications in September 2021 and level 2 qualifications in September 2022. Pearson's decision has been taken in the context of a significant change to all level 3 BTECs this year. Pearson 2010 BTECs are being withdrawn fully across the UK in September 2021, and the new style 2016 BTECs will be the only BTECs available to any school, be it in the medium of English or Irish. The new-style BTECs introduce external assessment units, making them more like A levels in their assessment arrangements.
CCEA provides a range of applied A levels that are available in the medium of Irish. A total of 13 applied A levels are offered by CCEA. Other vocational qualification providers may wish to make their qualifications available in Irish, and CCEA has contacted other providers to explore that option. CCEA will continue to explore what further actions might be possible to address the matter.
Mr Lynch: I thank the Minister for his answer. I am sorry for the confusion, Minister. What I have asked you to do is to step up your engagement with the qualifying bodies to ensure that those qualifications are there for Irish-medium students.
Mr Weir: There are two aspects to that, and obviously the direct engagement is with CCEA through Pearson. Pearson is the only group that directly offers BTECs, and, as it is an awarding organisation, we have no means of directly compelling it to do things. It could withdraw entirely from the Northern Ireland market, and we want to make sure that there are no particular barriers.
It is not helpful when there is a narrowing of choice, but there are awarding organisations that also provide alternative vocational qualifications. CCEA is working with them and will step up to the mark to provide qualifications. The problem is that we are very much in the one boat with Pearson when it comes to BTEC.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That ends the period for listed questions. We will now have 15 minutes of topical questions to the Minister of Education.
T1. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister of Education whether he agrees that standardised relationships and sexuality education (RSE) is fundamental to promoting appropriate behaviour and to preventing serious sexual offences against women and girls and to state the action that he has taken to implement the Gillen review recommendations, including a school sexual offences awareness campaign, particularly in light of the fact that the outpouring of pain and anger in response to the heinous murder of Sarah Everard and in relation to male violence against women and girls has been palpable. (AQT 1101/17-22)
Mr Weir: We are working closely on that issue and met on Thursday specifically to discuss it. I join the Member in condemning and expressing horror at what appears to be the brutal murder of Sarah Everard. It is a clear sign of the terrible criminal action to which too many women have been subjected. We all stand in solidarity on that issue.
There are a number of aspects of the Gillen report that are related and where there is an interconnection between education and justice. Last Thursday, the Justice Minister and I met to discuss the implementation of those issues. That relates to what is taught in the classroom and to issues in the iMatter programme, what provision can be made for the CCEA's RSE Hub and work on ongoing teacher training on the issue. We had a productive meeting, and our two Departments will continue to work together to ensure that there is full implementation of the Gillen recommendations.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for his update. Further to his meeting with the Justice Minister, Naomi Long, will he review the minimum content order to ensure that all fundamental matters, such as consent, are included in standardised relationships and sexuality education in schools?
Mr Weir: The Northern Ireland curriculum is not prescriptive, which can have advantages by providing flexibility, agility and ability to take on orders. As part of the meeting, we agreed for my officials and the Department of Justice officials to work together on that and other issues, such as consent, which is critical to education on that front. Another important issue among others is trying to break cycles of abuse, particularly domestic abuse, because we know that one of the added problems is that those who have experienced abuse as a young child have a greater propensity to be involved with abuse at a later age. It is important that that is addressed.
Under the current legislative position, imposing direct curriculum changes on any subject would require a change in primary legislation. Schools should be in a position to step up to the mark on these crucial issues. We all have to realise, particularly from a Justice point of view, that we are in a fast-moving environment. Issues that seem tangential at the moment may become central in one or two years' time. There has to be flexibility to ensure that we create as safe an environment as possible for everyone.
T2. Mr Middleton asked the Minister of Education whether, at tomorrow’s Executive meeting, he will urge his ministerial colleagues to ensure that children can go back to school as soon as possible, given that many parents who have children in P4 and above are very much in the dark about when their children will return to face-to-face teaching. (AQT 1102/17-22)
Mr Weir: There will be wider discussion in the Executive tomorrow. I would have preferred it if decisions could have been made earlier, but we are where we are. Last week, we were able to agree that there would be no interruption to the education of P1 to P3 pupils and those of preschool age. That was an important step forward, but we will reach something closer to normality only when we have all students back, particularly those at primary level. I can understand that, when those at primary level see a younger sibling perhaps heading into school, they are confused as to why they are not. It is important that we bring a level of certainty tomorrow. I will certainly push for that return as soon as possible, in line with whatever public health mitigations need to be put in place. From the point of view of the academic side, where families are at and the mental health and well-being of young people, it is critical that we return to face-to-face teaching as soon as is practicably possible.
Mr Middleton: I thank the Minister for that response. Minister, we hear from a lot of teachers and school leaders who want that clarity to be able to move from remote learning to face-to-face learning, but they need as much time for that as possible. I join him in urging all the other parties, which are doing a lot of shouting, to support our young people and students in getting back to school —
Mr Weir: That was like the old GCSE or A level question with the word "Discuss" at the end. I hope that the Executive will be able to unite around positions where we all value education and the role of our young people. While the focus has been on schools, I am acutely aware of the importance of a phased return of, for example, generic Youth Service provision. The very rapid return of child-centred activities like Sure Start, which concentrate on areas where there is disadvantage, will be critical as well. I hope that the Executive, in considering all those things at our discussion tomorrow, will make our young people a priority.
T3. Mr Easton asked the Minister of Education for an update on a potential new build for Holywood Primary School. (AQT 1103/17-22)
Mr Weir: I thank the Member for the question. I have been at Holywood Primary. There is nothing proposed for Holywood Primary currently. It was not successful in any of the previous calls. On the need for new build, the aim is that, later this year, there will be a fresh call for major capital works. Those circumstances require, first, the managing authority to agree that Holywood or, indeed, any other school goes forward. Those schools are then evaluated and, as part of that, ranked according to the level of support that is required. There will be that opportunity for Holywood and others to apply. I also hope that, within the next year, there will be a further call for the school enhancement programme, which, particularly for primary schools, is often the best route.
Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for his answer. Minister, does your Department ever look at other types of funding, rather than just capital funding, for potential new school builds?
Mr Weir: We look at any opportunities to draw in additional money. If it is a new build, it is, by definition, capital money. However, as I indicated, there are sometimes different strands of capital money. We operate major new builds. We also look at the school enhancement programme and minor works. Apart from the directly baselined money, as was indicated earlier, we can also bid for RRI money. Schools can apply in various ways. Major capital builds for primary schools tend to be a much longer and expensive process. The Member will know that a site search, for instance, will need to be done, as with Bangor Central Integrated Primary School, so it will be a longer process. The school enhancement programme can spend up to £4 million within that. When the streams are announced, there is nothing to stop any school applying for either or both of them, but, obviously, it can benefit from only one of them at a time.
T4. Mr Buckley asked the Minister of Education for an update on the new-build plans for Portadown College, given that although the college is an educational jewel in the crown in Upper Bann, its current building is long past its best, with significant infrastructure issues that affect its ability to provide educational excellence, albeit a new-build scheme was proposed as far back as 2006, with a debate in the House in 2009, when the Education Minister, Caitríona Ruane, said that it was estimated that a replacement school would be completed by 2012-13. (AQT 1104/17-22)
Mr Weir: At present, there are no direct plans for that. Primary and post-primary schools are on separate lists when assessments for capital builds are carried out. I assure the Member and the Member who asked the previous question that there will not be direct competition between Holywood Primary School and Portadown College.
In the previous round, Portadown College was ranked at, I think, 15 among post-primary schools. At that stage, a high level of assessment was given on the basis of where mergers were taking place, and that disadvantaged schools that were not involved in a merger. One of the advantages of the previous occasion is that, as a result of that announcement, half a dozen schools were taken off the list. That means that, when a new capital build call is made, the potential rivals to Portadown and others for the money will have been removed, and they will be able to bid.
There was an expectation, in 2006, that capital finance would go up and up and up, but, unfortunately, we had the crash, and a lot of promises that had been made to schools had to be withdrawn. I assure the Member that, from my point of view, if Portadown, Holywood or wherever is announced on a capital list, it will happen.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister for his answer. The need for a new build at the location was identified in 2006. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the issues and the infrastructure have got worse since. Will the Minister agree to visit Portadown College with me to see at first hand areas in which we need urgent investment?
Mr Weir: I am always keen to visit schools and will be happy to go to Portadown College, if the Member sends me an invitation. It is important to see the issues at first hand. To some extent, opportunities to go to schools have been greatly reduced by the COVID restrictions. As restrictions ease, there will, hopefully, be greater opportunities. I will be happy to see at first hand the issues at Portadown. There is no lack of willingness to provide support for schools. Obviously, the one constraint will be available budget, and therefore any capital call will tend to be a competitive process, as it is on any occasion.
T5. Mr Clarke asked the Minister of Education what he believes would be best for children in relation to returning them to school, their education and their mental health, given that many people, whether the public, politicians or teachers, have offered their opinion. (AQT 1105/17-22)
Mr Weir: I have always made it clear that I want to see children in school, getting face-to-face teaching. I want that as soon as is practical, given the public constraints.
Quite often, the focus is on academic catch-up, and there is no doubt that, despite the brilliant work that has been done by schools, teachers, parents and students themselves on remote learning, it is, at best, a secondary substitute for face-to-face teaching. To some extent, it is easier to put investment into achieving academic catch-up.
What is a more difficult issue is the mental health and well-being of our young people, and that is why we need to see children back as soon as possible. I saw that at first hand amongst the very young children at Springfield during the week. Simply, the biggest single thing for, in particular, those P3s was seeing some of their friends who they had not seen during the lockdown and having that opportunity for interaction. The long-term damage that has already been done to mental health and well-being concerns me, so, for a range of reasons, including physical health, the sooner that we can get back to a situation where all children are directly in school, the better.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That is the end of our period of questions to the Minister of Education. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments until the Minister of Finance is ready.
Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance): The Department of Education has submitted bids of £4 million for summer schemes for 2021 relating to primary, post-primary and education other than at school (EOTAS) settings as well as £5 million for the Youth Service summer scheme programme 2021 for consideration as part of the Budget for 2021-22. Those bids will be subject to consideration in light of available funding and competing pressures. No bids have been received from the Department for Communities for that purpose, and neither are any such bids expected, as this is not within its area of responsibility.
Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for his answer. Minister, you may or may not be aware that eminent educational psychologists here in Northern Ireland and across the UK have called for the absolute need to integrate and assess our students before they return to full-time education. Will there be scope in your Department to meet any further funding bids that may be made from either Department in order to make sure that our kids get off to the best start post-COVID?
Mr Murphy: The Member will know that next year's Budget is a flat-cash Budget, which means that Departments will get a stand-still rollover of the money that they had this year. That is very challenging, particularly for Departments, such as Education, that have a huge salary base. COVID money was available for the end of this year, and COVID money will be available into the new year. The Department of Education has bid for and been earmarked for some of that. I suppose that it will be up to the Minister to prioritise it. I listened to him as I was waiting to come into the Chamber, and I agree with his view on the benefits, particularly for younger kids but for schoolkids generally, of being in the school setting and with what he said about the absence from that setting and the pressures that that has created. There will need to be a close look at how they get back into the system again, and, if there are supports that we can provide for that, I will be more than happy to consider them.
Mr McNulty: Minister, you will be aware that some kids are participating in homeschooling on their mobile phones. What resources have you allocated throughout the pandemic to bridge the digital inclusion gap for young people in education via the provision of expanded IT support for schools and IT equipment for all children who do not have adequate IT at home for schooling?
Mr Murphy: The Member will know that it is for the Department of Education to provide such resources. Over the year, it bid for various COVID-related funds, some of which were to be used to support kids who were struggling with home learning. Of course, he knows, as I do, particularly given the constituency that we both represent, about the difficulty in accessing broadband. That is a matter for the Department for the Economy, which is rolling out Project Stratum. It has been very challenging for families and young people to try homeschooling in good circumstances, but it is even more difficult in circumstances in which the IT support is not there.
My Department has digital responsibility for the broader Civil Service. We have an initiative for rolling out IT support for vulnerable people, but not for the school scenario; that is the responsibility of the Department of Education. We have run a pilot scheme, which was oversubscribed. I am glad to say that we will continue to provide that support.
Mr Murphy: My Department has prepared an ambitious draft programme of phased uplifts to the energy efficiency requirements of building regulations for inclusion in the Executive's forthcoming energy strategy options consultation. We will refine that further and consult as appropriate as part of our ongoing work. Officials are focused on an urgent uplift to the current requirements for new buildings, which we plan to bring forward within this Executive period, if possible. Officials are engaging with the Department's building regulations advisory committee and its specialist subcommittees on the details. Further uplifts will take into account technological advances and policy developments in other regions over the coming years. It seems likely that revisions made after 2025 will anticipate that all new buildings will routinely have very high building fabric standards and low-carbon heating.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for his detailed reply. A short while ago, I submitted a question for written answer to the Minister about whether his Department would take the lead in ensuring the removal of unsafe cladding from buildings in Northern Ireland. The Minister's response stated that he had recommended a building safety programme and supporting fund to the Executive but that he was still awaiting the outcome of his proposals. Will the Minister provide an update on that?
Mr Murphy: The responsibility for those matters rests across a range of Departments. Although there may be some merit in having a discussion on having a single home for all of them, it would be very difficult to extract from various Departments the associated responsibility. There is an urgency in trying to do this. I have brought propositions to the Executive to try to get an agreement, under the head of the Civil Service, across all Departments on where each responsibility lies and on a coordination function. I have also said that, if there were a retrofit-type scheme to address some of the issues that arose from that, I would be very happy to look at that proposition. We want to ensure that the proper degree of coordination across all Departments and all those responsibilities is brought to bear in these matters. Given the experience that he referred to, these are very serious issues, and they need to be addressed urgently.
Dr Archibald: Will the Minister, following on from Mr Muir's question, provide an update on the progress being made on the recommendations of the Grenfell Tower inquiry?
Mr Murphy: We will have to be cognisant of that and look at the recommendations that come from it. Some proposals have already been developed to look at buildings across Britain, and we have looked at whether Barnett consequentials will flow from that. Clearly, there are very serious issues with building materials and with the approach to and verification of testing. A wide range of serious issues throws up questions for a range of Departments here. As I said, one of the difficulties is that the responsibility for various aspects of this lies across a range of Departments. We need to ensure that we coordinate as best we can across those Departments. We need a central authority to ensure that that coordination works and that all the component parts play their part and are resourced to do so, so that we do not have any such tragedy here.
Miss Woods: Has the Minister or his Department considered the 'Energy Governance for the Northern Ireland Energy Transition' research report, which was commissioned by the Northern Ireland Executive? What is his position on the recommendation that a new Department for Climate and Energy Transition be set up?
Mr Murphy: I have not considered the report. Given the position of our Budget for next year, starting a completely new Department would probably be challenging and involve more resource than the Executive have. Arguments around setting up a completely new Department probably fit into the context of a longer-term strategic plan in the time frame of the Programme for Government and a multi-year budget, and I am certainly happy to look at that. Between now and the end of the mandate, with a rollover flat-cash Budget, we want to quickly bring our standards of building up to the highest level of environmental efficiency and other efficiencies. We have acknowledged that we have to catch up. We want to do that as quickly as we possibly can, but, for the longer term, the strategic projects to which the Member refers will more than likely be a matter for an incoming Executive beyond this mandate.
Mr Murphy: With your permission, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I will answer questions 3 and 15 together.
On 23 February, along with the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Minister of Justice, I met the Secretary of State to discuss funding for the scheme. At that meeting, I pressed him on the need to resolve the matter urgently so that victims can get the payments to which they are entitled. I highlighted the need for the British Government to make a fair contribution to the cost of the scheme in recognition of changes that they made to it.
I have since written to the Secretary of State to confirm that I am content to recommend that the Executive meet the full costs of a scheme, as envisaged in the Stormont House Agreement, as well as any implementation and administration costs. We were due to meet the Secretary of State again last week, and I hope that the meeting scheduled for tomorrow goes ahead as a matter of urgency.
I remain absolutely committed to resolving the question of funding for the scheme. It is important that victims have the certainty that they deserve about its longer-term funding. The Government Actuary’s Department's report on the potential cost of the scheme is being produced for the Executive Office and not my Department. It will be for that Department to decide whether to release it.
Ms Dillon: I thank the Minister for his answer. Has the Secretary of State indicated whether there is any intention to fund your Department in relation to the scheme, which would assure victims right across the North and across these islands that they will get payment when the scheme starts?
Mr Murphy: I have not had anything firm from the Secretary of State. I was told that the meeting that we were due to have at the latter end of last week was postponed so that he could have some discussions with the Treasury. I sincerely hope that that means that they are beginning to accept their responsibility for a scheme that they devised and legislated for and that goes well beyond the scope of the scheme that the parties had agreed to at Stormont House.
If those arguments have begun to land with the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office, that is progress, but I have nothing firm to report in that regard. We look forward to the meeting with the Secretary of State tomorrow evening, which was postponed from last Thursday. That meeting needs to happen as a matter of urgency. As the Member knows, the courts and, most importantly, the victims await the outcome of those discussions.
Mr Nesbitt: As I understand it, the Government Actuary's Department has greatly increased its assessment of the cost of the scheme from several hundred million pounds to over £1 billion. Will the Minister explain why that is?
Mr Murphy: The report was produced for the Executive Office and not the Department of Finance, so I do not have the detail behind that. It varied from £600 million right up to £1·2 billion. I suppose that it depends on the number of people who come into the scheme and whether people want upfront or longer-term payments. The substantial expansion of the scheme under a previous Secretary of State created many uncertainties. That is why we have argued that we want to make sure that victims get the payments that they need. We are completely committed to making sure of that.
The Government need to work with us. As, I am sure, the Secretary of State will remember from the Stormont House talks, they took an original scheme on which we were having discussions about responsibilities and who would pay for that proportion of the scheme. We and the Government then talked about pre-1998 issues and the Executive's responsibilities from 1998. We ended up with a substantially larger scheme that brought in a whole range of new people. I am not disputing whether or not people are entitled, as that is a matter for somewhere else, but I am responsible for finding the resource to do that.
Given the state of our resources over the next year, the Executive want to make sure that they can meet the requirements of victims. That is why the Government need to work with us. Thus far, they have not. There are some indications that the Secretary of State and the NIO are beginning to engage, and I hope that they will have something to offer us tomorrow evening.
Mr Frew: Minister, when you meet the Secretary of State this week, even if an agreement is achieved and funding secured, what lead-in time will be required before victims receive money?
Mr Murphy: The Department of Justice will operate the scheme, so that is really a question for it to answer. The Executive have made funding available for its administration, which I proposed. We have already, on a number of occasions, made funding available for the administration and implementation of the scheme. When it begins, there will be an assessment made of whether people are looking either for upfront payments or for a pension-type scheme. Those things are unknown until the scheme opens. As I said, it will be for the Department of Justice to manage that. We want to ensure that, through our work with the Government in London, there is sufficient resource for the scheme so that, when it does open, we can meet whatever costs there are.
Mr Allister: Now that the Lord Chief Justice has directed that the Department of Finance should be a party to the ongoing legal proceedings, there really is shrinking ground on which to avoid the issue. Last week in the House, the First Minister gave a guarantee that the money will be paid, when due, to qualifying victims. Will the Minister give the same guarantee?
Mr Murphy: First, there has been no attempt to avoid the issue. The ground that has been created around it has been created by the Government in London. That is very unfortunate, because it is not the place in which any of us wanted to be. The Government in London took it upon themselves to expand significantly the scheme's scope. They added to the scheme interests that came from the Tory Party Back Benches. They therefore have a responsibility to meet the costs from those. Of course we are absolutely committed to making sure that funding is available for the scheme. The Executive have made that clear time and time again, and the First Minister reiterated that.
Mr Murphy: With your permission, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I will group questions 4 and 14. As of the afternoon of Friday past, 12 March, the total value of payments made from the localised restrictions support scheme is £221·65 million. The amount paid to businesses in the Derry City and Strabane District Council area is £18,462,477. The total spend to date in the Mid Ulster District Council area is £17,950,305.
Mr McHugh: I thank the Minister for already having adequately answered my supplementary question.
Ms Sheerin: I, too, thank the Minister for answering my question. I place on record my appreciation to the Department and to the team in Land and Property Services (LPS), in particular Leona Lees, Ian Snowden and Lenny Peden, who, at this stage, must see my name and sigh. Minister, when can businesses that have not received it expect to receive their payment for the final phase of the scheme?
Mr Murphy: I hope that we are in the final phase of the scheme. If restrictions continue, we might be into further phases, and, if so, I am sure that we will hear from you many more times. [Laughter.]
Mr Murphy: We are down to a small handful of businesses that meet the terms of the scheme, and we are working our way through them. Some businesses will be disappointed, because they were not found to be eligible for the scheme and thus will not be getting a payment from it. I hope that the announcement that I made earlier today will help some of those businesses.
The businesses that have not yet received payment will receive it as soon as we can make it. Over 98% of cases have now been dealt with. It has been a very challenging scheme, because, as you and other Members will know, LPS is a rate collection agency. We have had to turn its role around and re-profile it as a grant-giving body. We have changed the payment schemes a number of times. The number of times that they have changed escapes me now. We have three different payments, and, at times, people have fallen under the wrong payment scheme, and we have had to go back and fit them into the correct one.
There have therefore been a lot of challenges. Nonetheless, I think that most people will accept that it was a very commendable scheme that provided a vital lifeline to a lot of businesses and kept them in a position from which, as hopefully we now move towards the ending of restrictions, they can get back to what they want to do, which is to start to trade again.
Mr Blair: Businesses will face many additional challenges as we move towards COVID recovery. Will the Minister detail any plans for restart grants to assist businesses when they are eventually able to reopen?
Mr Murphy: The Department for the Economy has put together a package for economic recovery. There are other aspects to recovery, such as social recovery and the recovery that was discussed earlier in relation to schools. A very broad recovery piece is needed. That Department has put together a package that I propose to deal with in our final Budget paper, which should come to the Assembly very shortly. I am not certain whether restart grants are included in that. It will be a matter for the Economy Minister to bring forward such proposals.
For our part in the Department of Finance, as I said earlier in response to some questions on my statement, I hope that this is the end of our involvement. We have done the rates relief for another year. We have a package of business grant support measures going out. Finance and LPS, in particular, are looking forward to getting back to doing what they do on rates and managing the money.
Mr Murphy: Recognising the importance of the social economy sector, I appointed Colin Jess, director of Social Economy NI, as an adviser on the board. The board is working as a first priority to develop an enhanced model for delivery of social value in public procurement, which is linked to Programme for Government outcomes. The board has also agreed to work to build more capacity and resilience in local supply chains to ensure continuity of supply in future public contracts. Those initiatives and Colin’s contribution will increase the opportunities for local social enterprises to bid for public contracts both as a main contractor and as part of the government supply chain.
Ms Anderson: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer. I appreciate what has happened with regard to the appointment of Colin Jess. It is deeply appreciated by those who work in the social enterprise industry. As you know, Minister, 94p of every pound that is spent by the social enterprises is kept in the local economy in places like Derry. Minister, will you engage with representatives more widely? I am thinking of John McGowan in Derry who is very keen to explore additional ways for social enterprises to increase their capacity to compete for public contracts.
Mr Murphy: Part of Colin's function is to represent the social enterprise sector on the Procurement Board. It is a two-way street, not just to bring his experience into the board but for him to engage with the wider social enterprise sector. He will do that; he has been doing it. I know that the person from Derry whom you mentioned has been talking to the Department. I am very happy to engage with people to develop the best possible policy in the time ahead. We want to see opportunities for the social enterprise sector to engage with tendering and the provision of services, because, in my experience, where those have been provided by that sector, it has brought added value in respect of the communities that it works with. The broader government sector wants to engage with this as part of our Programme for Government commitments. I want to see that work progress as best it possibly can in the time ahead.
Mr O'Toole: A couple of weeks ago, the Finance Committee took evidence from the Construction Employers Federation. A concern was raised about clarity for firms here, particularly construction firms, on bidding for tenders in the South. They felt that there was not enough clarity. Ironically, with regard to protecting the all-island economy, that was not in the Ireland protocol in enough detail. They are concerned that Northern businesses — Northern construction firms — could be at a disadvantage. Will you ask your Department to look into that and, if possible, make representations via Dublin, London and Brussels to clarify that?
Mr Murphy: I am happy to do that. I am not sure whether it is the same issue or similar to one that we dealt with a number of weeks ago when we got clarity for building firms with a foot on both sides of the border. Their capital, or the value of the company, was being judged only on one side of the border and, therefore, that had an impact on their ability to bid for higher contracts. That anomaly was something that had not been considered pre-Brexit, and it was rectified. Sometimes, these things are a bit like the experiences with Brexit and the protocol; they are problems that either no one had envisaged or someone is misapplying what they think are regulations, which do not exist, to certain sectors. If the Member can give me the detail of that, I will be very happy to look into it and come back to him.
Mr Nesbitt: I understand that public procurement is worth around £3 billion per annum. Does the Minister have a figure in mind as to what the social enterprise sector should be pitching for?
Mr Murphy: That is part of the debate that the Procurement Board is having at the moment. Part of the value of the board, which was reconstituted just before Christmas, is that it brings the various sectors in rather than having the permanent secretaries: that is no disrespect to the permanent secretaries. We had the construction people in, as well as the social enterprise people and the small and medium-sized enterprises. We had the centres of procurement excellence from a number of Departments, and there was a kick around to say, "What is the balance and where does it lie?". That figure is currently under discussion. The social enterprise sector is giving advice as to what it thinks it could step up to achieve, and there are others who think that it might be a challenge for them. I hope that, in the near future, those discussions, which have been very productive and mature, will allow us to see where the balance should be now. We should, and we will always, have an ambition to do better, but let us get off to the right start.
Mr Murphy: The dormant accounts fund is being delivered by the National Lottery community fund, and it opened for applications on 12 January 2021. Phase 1 involves a flexible and responsive grant programme whereby individual organisations, including social enterprises, can apply for up to £100,000 to be able to adapt to future challenges and to be more financially resilient. The first phase will also support larger investments that will enable collaboration and will develop new and creative approaches to sustainability. It is expected that the first grant awards will be announced shortly.
Ms Flynn: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will any more money be made available to social enterprises from the dormant assets scheme?
Mr Murphy: That will happen in the next phase, and I very much look forward to that. The dormant accounts fund has only just opened, but very substantial amounts of money are available to social enterprise projects to make them more financially sustainable and to encourage their growth. The last one I visited was a very progressive social enterprise in Colin, in the Member's constituency in West Belfast. The dormant accounts fund will assist people who have had to focus a lot of their time on sustainability, on access to finance and on trying to generate more money so that it is not always a question of trying to get more money in every year in order to stay alive, if you like. The dormant assets scheme is a much bigger fund, and we are waiting for more detail on that to come through. I hope that, on the back of the dormant accounts programme, the assets scheme will provide a substantially bigger boost to the social economy sector.
Mr Murphy: I want to place on record my thanks to the Civil Service for its hard work and flexibility in response to the many challenges of maintaining and delivering services during the pandemic. I have met the recognised trade unions about the Civil Service pay award, and my officials have had negotiation meetings with the unions. In considering the pay award, I aim to strike the difficult balance between recognising Civil Service colleagues for their work while managing public money carefully in the face of the most challenging economic position for many years. Although the pay award is for 2020, it will, obviously, have consequences for the future overall cost of the very large Civil Service pay bill, so affordability is more critical than ever. I have therefore been considering a range of different options. I have circulated an Executive paper, and the agreement of the draft paper will enable an offer to be made to the trade unions shortly.
Ms Dolan: I appreciate that the Minister has to strike a balance. Will the pay award prioritise those who are on the lowest pay?
Mr Murphy: I am fully committed to the New Decade, New Approach aim of the Executive becoming a living-wage employer. Department of Finance officials are working to realise that aim for the Civil Service. I have also asked that other public-sector employers consider how pay awards can be targeted to ensure the payment of living-wage foundations. I am also considering ways in which the pay award for the Civil Service can deliver a better outcome for lower-paid workers.
Mr O'Toole: I will be brief. Minister, I appreciate that there are constraints, as you have just laid out. Do you accept that, given some of the last-minute spending allocations and the delay in announcing details, there is real frustration among ordinary civil servants, particularly those on low pay and those who have had to work extremely hard over the past year to keep public services going? A lot of them are very frustrated that there has been a delay in confirming a settlement.
Mr Murphy: They understand, as, I am sure, most Members do, that we have been grappling with a huge range of issues. The pay award for the public sector is not linked to the money that we are spending at the moment. Nonetheless, I want to get to a point of agreement quickly. I have put a paper to the Executive and hope to get agreement on it quickly. I will make an offer as soon as I can to the unions. I want to see the issue resolved to everyone's satisfaction.
Mr Muir: Like Mr O'Toole, I believe that it is important that the issue be brought to a conclusion. A number of months ago, the announcement was made about the £500 payment to Health and Social Care (HSC) staff. A recent update said that the costs associated with National Insurance and PAYE would also be covered. Can the Minister update us on when those payments will be made?
Mr Murphy: They are a matter for the Department of Health. The Department asked for more money to assist it in meeting those costs, because the British Government refused not to treat them as a taxation issue and a welfare receipt issue, so they intended to extract their take out of the £500 payment. We have assisted the Department of Health in moving that up to the level that will account for that.
As I say, it is a one-off payment. What we are talking about here is the pay settlement award, which will be an ongoing payment for civil servants. Nonetheless, we were happy to assist the Department of Health, but it is responsible for the roll-out.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That is the end of the time for listed questions. We now move on to topical questions. I advise Members that question 3 has been withdrawn.
T1. Mr Blair asked the Minister of Finance whether he will lead on a green new deal strategy for Northern Ireland, given that there is no doubt that the pressing issues of the climate emergency and environmental protection require interdepartmental strategy actions and budgeting. (AQT 1111/17-22)
Mr Murphy: I certainly hope so. The Member knows that we face a challenging Budget next year, which means that the possibility of new initiatives has been absolutely frustrated, because Departments have been able to carry over only the same amount of spend as they had in the previous year. To meet all their pressures and requirements will be a challenge.
I hope that we get to that stage and that Departments collaborate. When we move to a multi-annual Budget, aligned with the Programme for Government, we can plot ahead and get into that type of territory. A lot of things can be done in the Departments' current spend, with the level of collaboration that they should be trying to achieve with one another, to improve environmental outcomes. I certainly hope that we get a green new deal strategy as quickly as possible.
Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for his answer. Is there merit in requiring all Departments to review their baseline budgets and spending priorities with a focus on the climate emergency?
Mr Murphy: That is a matter for the Executive. I assume that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs would, perhaps, bring a proposition to the Executive asking all Departments to do that, but it is a matter for the Executive to decide.
T2. Ms P Bradley asked the Minister of Finance, after thanking Land and Property Services for all the work that it has done to assist her office with many enquiries over the past year, whether there is any redress for clubs that although they should have applied for the sports sustainability fund — they are sports clubs — were led to believe that they would get localised restrictions support scheme (LRSS) money, but, when the mistake was realised, it was too late for them to apply for the sports sustainability fund, albeit she knows from correspondence that decisions have been overturned for some social clubs that have since received the LRSS money. (AQT 1112/17-22)
Mr Murphy: We had a discussion some time back with the Minister for Communities and some of her senior staff to make sure that the situation that you describe did not arise. We had a similar arrangement with the Department for the Economy when working between the schemes that we were running and it was running. People would apply to the wrong scheme and then find they were out of time when they eventually realised that they needed to go onto a different scheme. We tried to pick those up so that we could consider an application to one in time as an application to another. That was the objective of the discussions. I am told that some progress was made between officials, so I hope that there is not a situation where people think that they are on the right scheme but then find that they are too late for the other. The overall number of applicants for both schemes would be relatively small, so I am hopeful that we will be able to pick those up.
A multitude of schemes have gone out between our Department, Communities, Economy and Infrastructure, and it is hard for the public and the organisations that need support to navigate their way through them. We should be flexible in order to make sure that nobody misses out.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for his answer, and he has probably answered my supplementary. Many sporting organisations were really good and got out to their members quickly to say, "You need to apply for this", but others were absolutely dreadful and did not do that. One was lawn bowls, where there are lots of bowling clubs now —
Ms P Bradley: — facing closure. Will you continue to have those conversations with the Minister for Communities and, if possible, open a second tranche of funding for the clubs that missed out the first time around?
Mr Murphy: I am not sure about the latter part because that could take you into issues where somebody else missed out, and then you are into a legal challenge about favouritism or somebody being in early but having the wrong information and perhaps not being approved.
I think that you are right. The parent bodies of most of the organisations were good at advising their club members on what they needed to do and when. Sometimes, by default, they went through to the LRSS, which was paying out earlier and in a more consistent way, and that encouraged others to try the same route. We do not want people to suffer as a consequence of going to the wrong scheme if they were entitled to money from the other scheme, so we will continue to work together on that.
T4. Mr Muir asked the Minister of Finance, after declaring that his mum is a retired member of the health and social care system, to outline, following his announcement on Friday of the appointment of members to the fiscal council and the fiscal commission, his plans for the relationship between those bodies and to ensure that the fiscal commission takes into account how we currently spend our money when considering tax-varying powers. (AQT 1114/17-22)
Mr Murphy: The Member will know from the membership of both bodies that there are people in them with substantial experience and ability in these matters. Of course, there is an interconnection. The fiscal commission is a time-limited body, and, when it completes its work — hopefully, by the end of this calendar year — and presents a report to me, that report will become part of the ongoing work of the fiscal council. Should an incoming Executive decide to take up some of the issues on the transfer of tax-varying powers, that will clearly become a matter for the council. There is an interplay between them.
I intend to meet the chairs of the council and commission this week and the membership next week. I would like to see them as early as possible given the circumstances that we are all in to begin that level of engagement with this institution, the Finance Committee and others to discuss their business.
There is a widespread welcome for the establishment of both bodies and for some of the personnel that we have been able to attract onto them. I look forward to working with them, and I am sure that Members also look forward to that engagement.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for his response. I congratulate him and the officials in the Department for the signings that he managed to secure for the council and the commission. How will the Minister ensure that the professional advice of the individuals whom he has managed to recruit to the council feeds into the budgetary process so that, when the Assembly is analysing the legislation, through which he often sits for days on end, it is taken into account?
Mr Murphy: That is the function of the council. It is not just for the Finance Department but for the Executive's finances as a whole. However, if we have a responsibility for managing those, there is a key relationship with our Department, and that is why it will bear the cost and administrative support of the council and the commission.
As the Deputy Speaker will recognise from our many conversations, I look forward to having a much simplified Budget process; to having the time to do it properly because we have had more timely announcements from Whitehall; and to having a multi-annual Budget that we can plan and to which we can align a Programme for Government. In that scenario, a fiscal council will have an important supportive role in not only advising the Executive but informing us all generally about public finances and how best to manage them.
T5. Mr O'Toole asked the Minister of Finance, after admitting that he is slightly geeky about this subject, to give a timeline for when the legislation referred to in his statement regarding the fiscal council will be introduced and to clarify that the council will be fundamentally independent from the Department of Finance, which is critical given that, at times, the council will be required to say difficult things in order to do its job properly. (AQT 1115/17-22)
Mr Murphy: As I said, the experience in other jurisdictions has been to establish a fiscal council before legislating to underpin the work that it needs to do. I hope that, if that is required and it gets off to a good start, we will be able to do that in this mandate. If that is required, I would certainly like to get to work on it. I have had discussions with the Chair of the Finance Committee. I know that he cannot purport to speak for the whole Committee, but he said that it would be keen to see that happen and is willing to work with us in the time ahead to make sure that it is done.
Although the Department is providing the budget and some back-up resource for the fiscal council, it will have absolute independence from departmental control. As I say, the people who will be involved in the council, such as Robert Chote, have broad experience in the matter and will know how to manage that line between the necessary resource and support that it gets from government and providing an independent advice service to government.
Mr O'Toole: I thank the Minister. Further to that, first, can he confirm that both the fiscal commission and fiscal council will have resource for independent economic forecasting? It is mentioned in the statement, but it would be helpful if he could be specific about that. It might be the same for both in the sense that it might be the same people who do it. Secondly, can the Minister be clear that, when the fiscal commission reports, it will report not just to him or to the Department but to the public and the Assembly?
Mr Murphy: In relation to the commission, yes. It is much better if it is a public debate. For the debate to be public, the commission will have to go out and engage with Members of the House, business organisations and other people and organisations with an interest in the matter. Such a report will come to me in the Department, but it is my intention to have a public airing of that. A debate on the report in this institution would be appropriate at that time. It will be in the run-up to the end of the mandate. It is important for people to be able to speak on these matters. The context of the next election — I do not mean that it is an election matter — and the creation of the incoming Executive, it would be helpful to understand the public mood and the public debate on these matters.
As regards the resource for the council or the commission, what we have put forward is the establishment of both bodies. We are happy and determined to work with them to ensure that they can do the job that they need to do. We are happy to consider whatever support they need.
T6. Mr M Bradley asked the Minister of Finance, after welcoming the reform of property management project, which is focused on making a more efficient use of the government estate, and the Minister’s commitment to promote regional recovery and regeneration in areas across Northern Ireland, to give his rationale for excluding Coleraine as a hub and, in doing so, preventing the people of the north coast and the north-east of Northern Ireland from being part of the recovery and regeneration. (AQT 1116/17-22)
Mr Murphy: Forgive my geography, but I thought that Ballykelly was on the north coast. That is one of the first schemes that we are rolling out. We are not excluding anyone from the scheme. We are not saying, "These are the 10 that are under consideration, and that is it". The Member is right to say that we added a criterion on being able to support local economic development, and it is important that central government does that wherever it can in locating its services. People from various parts of the North travel into Belfast, so we map the travel routes of Civil Service staff who come in and out of here every day and see where the figures are highest. We are then able to work with local government or, indeed, any part of the central government estate that is readily available to do all of that.
There are a number of factors involved in the consideration of that, and, if the Member is keen that Coleraine be considered, I ask him either to engage with the council down there — I am sure that there is engagement with Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council — or to engage with officials in the Department of Finance to get an understanding of how that criterion was set and how it will apply in the future. This is not about excluding anyone, as this is not the end of the programme. We want to roll it out in the areas that meet the most criteria. I anticipate that it will be successful and that other areas will follow suit.
Mr M Bradley: Thank you very much, Deputy Speaker. I will be brief. I thank the Minister for his answer. I remind the Minister that County Hall in my constituency is a building that once held several Departments. It is currently half-empty. During this rationalisation of the government estate, does the Minister have any plans to utilise that seven-storey building in the heart of East Londonderry?
Mr Murphy: I am sure that the officials who are tasked with working on this — some staff from the Strategic Investment Board (SIB) were tasked to work with us and with local government organisations on this — will look at the entire Civil Service estate and all other public buildings across the North to see what can be utilised. It will depend on what state a building is in and on who is using it.
This is not being done to relocate jobs but to allow people to do the job that they do here in Belfast closer to home a couple of days a week. It will mean that they can have a better work-life balance and can spend their money in the local economy while they are there. It will also cut carbon emissions from transport in and out of Belfast. We want to ensure that the facilities are ones that people want to go into, so there will have to be investment in them to make sure that they have all the connectivity that they need and that the surroundings are conducive to attracting people to work in them. I ask the Member to engage with the officials involved and put the case for County Hall in Coleraine.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That concludes time for questions to the Minister of Finance. I invite Members to take their ease for a few moments until the Minister and Members are in the Chamber for the next item of business.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Mr Colm Gildernew has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Health. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise in their place continually to indicate that they still have a question to ask. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask the first supplementary question.
Mr Gildernew asked the Minister of Health whether the ongoing roll-out of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is under consideration due to recent concerns expressed in other jurisdictions.
Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): As the House will know, the Northern Ireland health service administers COVID-19 vaccines under the expert direction of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). The MHRA is the internationally respected UK regulatory body for medicines and approves vaccines for public use only when it is satisfied on grounds of safety and effectiveness. While my Department is aware of the decision of the public health authorities in some other jurisdictions to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine as a precautionary measure, I will, in this instance, again be led by MHRA experts. They are very clear that members of the public should continue to come forward for their vaccination. Despite what individual EU member states are doing, it is also important to remember that the statement issued by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on Thursday said that the available evidence does not confirm an association with the vaccine. It is also very clear that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh any risks. The World Health Organization has also stated that countries should continue to use the vaccine.
I recognise, however, that any talk about the safety of vaccines can be very worrying. I want to take the opportunity to reassure everyone listening that the evidence, as reviewed by the MHRA, shows no correlation between the vaccine and the reported blood clot events. To date, 11 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine have been administered in the United Kingdom, including 310,000 doses in Northern Ireland. The evidence available from the UK's very large data set shows no unusual correlation between receiving the vaccine and the frequency at which blood clots occur naturally. I therefore urge the people of Northern Ireland to keep their appointments.
In line with the MHRA guidance, the roll-out of Northern Ireland's vaccination programme will continue. As you may now be aware, as of this morning, we have expanded the programme to everyone aged 50 years and over. I can confirm that, within the first three hours of today alone, a further 30,000 people booked a vaccine. That is very reassuring, and we should take it as an indication that the vast majority of the local population have confidence in the vaccine. We are now looking to add slots.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is helping to protect the most vulnerable in our community from COVID-19, saving lives and reducing hospitalisation levels. I urge everyone to look beyond the actions of others and have faith in the extensive evidence that the UK already has. The vaccine works, so I urge people to keep coming forward and ask all in the House to support me in that call.
Mr Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat, Minister, for coming today and for your answer thus far. I am sure that the Minister shares my hope that everyone eligible will get and accept the vaccine when it gets to their cohort. I am delighted to say that I fall into the 50-to-59 age group, and I am one of the 30,000 who has booked a vaccine appointment for this week. I will be delighted and will ensure that it is an appointment that I will not miss.
Minister, what plans do you have to communicate the safety of the vaccine in order to maintain public confidence?
Mr Swann: The Chair of the Committee will know that I believe that actions speak louder than words. This morning, we saw the Chief Medical Officer come forward to take his vaccine. I now hear that the Chair of the Health Committee is going to take his vaccine. Those actions and displays of public confidence in the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and the vaccination programme should be a sign to the people of Northern Ireland that the people who set this out are setting the example and taking the vaccine.
Unfortunately, I must say to the Chair that I do not fall into that cohort [Laughter.]
However, I am looking forward to the stage when we can move down to the next age cohort. I can assure the Member that I will be in that line.
Mrs Cameron: I very much welcome the fact that the Chair of the Health Committee has booked his vaccine. I hope that it will not clash with his Committee on Thursday morning.
It is an important question. I very much welcome the success of the vaccination roll-out in Northern Ireland. I am delighted that we are taking an evidence-based approach to the concerns about the vaccine. Obviously, both the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the European Medicines Agency have reiterated support for the AstraZeneca vaccine, highlighting that the benefits continue to greatly outweigh the risks. Does the Minister agree that politicians need to be mindful of their language and the effect it may have on public confidence? Politicians should not allow themselves to be dragged into any anti-vax arguments that could harm the uptake of the vaccine.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for making that point. Today, I ask all Members to choose their words carefully. We are all laypeople, after all, and we must remember that the rash and uninformed words of some could have consequences and add fuel to the fire of the anti-vaxxers. The assessment of a vaccine's safety and efficacy is best left to the professionals and experts. That is why we have always followed the evidence-led advice that the Chair of the Health Committee rightly acknowledged.
Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for coming before the House. As I said when I was speaking to you outside, Minister, I recognise and appreciate the huge success in the roll-out of the vaccination programme. That is a huge credit to all those involved in delivering it, and huge thanks should go to them. The security that the vaccine has given to so many people and families is phenomenal and cannot be overestimated.
Given the success of the vaccination programme roll-out, when do you and your Executive colleagues feel that you will be in a position to recommend the recommencement of youth and non-elite sports? It has been too long since too many children have had a ball in their hands or a puck at the end of their stick. Youth and non-elite sports need to recommence. When can that happen, given the success of the vaccination programme roll-out?
Mr Swann: I know that the Member is passionate about that. He will also know that the Executive are due to meet tomorrow to discuss regulations. I am sure that he knows that I do not make those discussions or any of our recommendations public until the Executive have had the chance to debate and decide on them as a whole.
Mr Chambers: Minister, it is perhaps disappointing that you have been called before the House this afternoon in what is undoubtedly a period when the demands on your time must be considerable.
It is clear that there is little evidence to suspend the current successful vaccination programme in the light of concerns that have been dismissed not only by all the local and national experts but by the World Health Organization. I can only guess at the major public concern that a suspension would cause the hundreds of thousands of our citizens who have already received their first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Will the Minister reassure all those who have availed themselves of the vaccine that there has been no evidence of anyone locally being placed at greater risk of developing blood clots as a result of receiving the Oxford vaccine and that, rather than being a cause of concern, there is only cause to celebrate the protection that it offers against the COVID virus?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. He rightly acknowledged the statement from the World Health Organization, which has published a further statement today appealing to countries not to pause vaccination campaigns. It stated that its
"advisory panel was receiving reports relating to the shot and would release its findings at soon as possible",
but that it was "unlikely to change its recommendations". Its spokesperson also said:
"As of today, there is no evidence that the incidents are caused by the vaccine and it is important that vaccination campaigns continue so that we can save lives and stem severe disease from the virus".
On the public messaging, the MHRA was clear when it came back to a request from us yesterday following the decision of the Irish authorities. It stated that it was:
"closely reviewing reports but given the large number of doses administered, and the frequency at which blood clots can occur naturally, the evidence available does not suggest the vaccine is the cause."
The MHRA again advised people that they should still get their COVID-19 vaccine when asked to do so.
Ms Bradshaw: Minister, will you please outline whether your Department has carried out any research into how many lives would be put at risk if there was a delay in our vaccination programme?
Mr Swann: That is not information that I have readily to hand for the Member. One of the benefits that can be seen from the vaccination programme is the number of care homes that we are supporting through outbreaks. In February, the number was 150; today it is 14. We can already see the benefits of the vaccination programme. Unfortunately, with the noise that was created by the announcement yesterday, what was missed was that we reported zero deaths for those who had tested positive for COVID-19. That is a big step for us. We have not been able to make that announcement since October of last year, and it shows the direction of travel that we are taking. That is not just because of the regulations; having a vaccination programme is a direct benefit and correlation to that.
Ms Bailey: I thank the Minister for coming here today. Like Mr Gildernew, I fall into the bracket and welcome making the phone call to get my vaccination. If they offer me the AstraZeneca one, I will gladly and happily take it, as others in my family have done. Minister, if people are uncomfortable about taking that vaccine when they go for their vaccination, will they be able to request a different vaccine?
Mr Swann: There is no opportunity to pick and choose vaccines in our current programme. Due to the supplies of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, we are migrating some of our regional vaccination centres across to that vaccine, so there will be a dual process whereby some centres will run a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine while still running first doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
I welcome the Member's commitment to and thankfulness for our vaccination programme. We should also acknowledge the large numbers of our health workers and volunteers who are coming forward to deliver this extensive programme across Northern Ireland.
Mr Allister: I congratulate the Department on the exemplary roll-out of vaccinations. We have heard much talk during COVID about the need for cross-border collaboration. Therefore, how and when did the Minister know that it turned out that the Republic of Ireland had issues with this vaccine?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his point. While not wanting to make a political issue out of the matter, the first that I became aware of it yesterday was through the media. I have asked my Chief Medical Officer to review the terms of the memorandum of understanding because it is disappointing that that is how we found out. When we took the decision to announce that we would continue, I communicated that to my counterpart in the Republic of Ireland, Stephen Donnelly, so that he knew of the steps that we were taking.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. I have been increasingly concerned about the amount of misinformation and, frankly, fake news that has been circulated in Europe about the AstraZeneca vaccine. It appears for some that we have moved from vaccine nationalism into the dangerous territory of vaccine jealousy.
I believe that, on Friday past, the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, was in contact with AstraZeneca calling for more vaccinations. Will the Minister reiterate the clear, strong and consistent scientific and medical evidence surrounding the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine? Will he agree that it is important that Governments tread carefully in politicising a particular vaccine, as that, sadly, will result only in further delay in getting that vaccination to constituents?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his comments. I will refer back to comments that I made from supporting commentary that has been received not just from the MHRA but from the World Health Organization advising countries not to pause vaccination campaigns because of the difficulty that that would bring and of the importance of vaccination campaigns continuing so that they can save lives and stem severe disease impacts from the virus.
The Member will be aware that, as I said in my opening comments, the European Medicines Agency has also given its consent to the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, but we have seen many political challenges from a number of nations regarding the utilisation of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. My Department and I have always been guided by the expert advice that comes from the MHRA, and that comes from the initial guidance that we got that the vaccines were right to use for the purposes that they were designed for and from the guidance on the intervals between the first and second doses. So far, the MHRA advice and guidance has stood us and the United Kingdom in good stead.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Minister for being here today. Is he aware of the number of cases of thrombosis that have been recorded since the start of the vaccination programme? I, too, am in that age bracket, and I will be getting my vaccination soon, hopefully, in Belfast. I have been offered the chance to go to Fermanagh, but there you go.
Mr Swann: I would not have believed that you are in that age group, Carál. [Laughter.]
According to one of your colleagues, Fermanagh is a good day out for unionists [Laughter.]
When the travel opportunity opens up, if she wants to go to Fermanagh for the vaccine, I am sure that they would be willing to support her.
With regard to her question, as of 14 March, the MHRA had received fewer than five reports of blood clots. As the Member will know, being a member of the Health Committee, fewer than five indicates a number that we cannot report.
Mr O'Toole: I echo the words of those who underlined the importance of people signing up for their vaccination when the slots for their age group come up. Obviously, I am a couple of decades too young for that to happen yet, but I will not rub that in, Members. It is very important that, when we get called for the vaccine, we take it.
Today's news that booking is open to the over-50s is welcome. Can the Minister indicate by when, if that goes well, the entire adult population will have been offered a vaccine? I urge people to take whatever vaccine is available to them, whether that be Pfizer, AstraZeneca or anything else. Does the Minister have an update on when supplies of the other vaccines that are coming online, such as Johnson & Johnson, will arrive and be deployed in Northern Ireland?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. As I said in the initial update that I gave the House on the vaccination programme, in being part of the UK, we were part of the forward buying of seven different vaccines. At the minute, the MHRA has approved two: Oxford-AstraZeneca and Pfizer, so those are the two that we are using. We received a significant delivery last week, which has been dispatched around our GP centres and regional vaccination centres.
I am sure that the Member is aware that we hope to open, on the 29th of this month, another regional centre, at the SSE Arena. I hope that this will coincide with the greater availability of vaccine and our moving on to a different age cohort being eligible to be part of our vaccination programme, which, as the Member rightly indicates, is a great testament to the people working in the National Health Service and the volunteers who are coming forward.
Receiving 30,000 bookings in the first three hours after opening up to the over-50s shows confidence not just in the vaccines but in the programme that we are delivering.
Miss Woods: I thank the Minister for coming to the House today and for his answers so far. I thank those involved in the roll-out of the vaccine. I am not in the new cohort but look forward to my turn.
I was contacted by a person currently in my constituency about access to the vaccine. From Scotland, he is in Northern Ireland temporarily and cannot return due to the restrictions. He is eligible for the vaccine because of his age. However, he has been told that he is not entitled to a temporary GP registration or vaccine appointment because he is a permanent resident of Scotland, not Northern Ireland. Can the Minister outline what advice I can give him so that he can get his first jab?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. We are seeing a number of peculiarities such as that case. If she wants to forward the specific details to my private office, we will get a response to her. However, the nature of our booking nature system is that we insist on anybody who wants to receive the vaccine having a medical insurance number. If there is anything that we can do between us and the rest of the UK, I would consider looking at that. However, no clear pathway is yet established to allow mutual support for individuals living in another jurisdiction.
Ms Flynn: I thank the Minister for coming here and answering questions. I welcome the fact that the Minister is seeking to strengthen the memorandum of understanding with the South. Hopefully, he will not have to face those communication issues into the future. Will the Minister outline or detail what proposals he made, or intends to make, to Minister Donnelly to achieve a strengthening of the MOU?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question. The Chief Medical Officers of both jurisdictions sign the MOU on the sharing of information, best practice and communication on our test, trace and protect systems. There is a mutual sharing of information. As I said before in the House, unfortunately, I was disappointed that we did not have at least some heads-up about the announcement that was made. There is still a challenge in sharing the passenger locator form data. That is now a serious issue. We have been continually raising that, and it is becoming an issue with those travelling from England, Scotland and Wales. People are travelling through Dublin Airport using the common travel area, and some are avoiding the process of quarantining in hotels that they are asked to adhere to.
Most of the ongoing conversation that we are having is productive and positive. However, the latest announcement showed a weakness, and I have asked the Chief Medical Officer to make sure that neither jurisdiction is blindsided by such announcements in future.