Official Report: Tuesday 15 June 2021
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: Members, I have received notice from the Minister for Infrastructure that she 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 participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members present in the Chamber must do that by rising in their place as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the period for questions after.
Ms Mallon (The Minister for Infrastructure): Members may be aware of the recent Court of Appeal judgement relating to procurement competitions in 2015 that were awarded by the former Department for Regional Development (DRD) and of a new legal challenge served on the Department for Infrastructure that has prevented the award of the 2021 resurfacing contracts in four areas. The purpose of the statement is to update the Assembly on the impact of those legal challenges and the work in train to ensure that my Department can progress new contracts for resurfacing our road network in the areas affected at the earliest possible opportunity.
Members will be aware that a challenge was lodged by Northstone (NI) Ltd against the former Department for Regional Development’s handling and determination of a tender process for road resurfacing contracts in 2015. The Court of Appeal found, in April 2021, that there had been a manifest error in the Department’s approach to the award of multiple, term-type maintenance contracts across Northern Ireland. The judgement concluded that the Department’s post-tender evaluation and scoring interaction with one of the tenderers, McQuillans, and the resulting related contract award decisions were not in accordance with the governing EU legal rules and principles and were not permitted by the competition rules.
As I stated in the House on 26 April 2021, the judgement is a cause for concern for me, not least because of the potential impact of its findings on current and future public procurement practice, and I have been considering the matter very carefully in order to understand the implications of the judgement for my Department and future competitions.
This consideration has included detailed discussions with my Department’s legal advisers. My permanent secretary has also highlighted the judgement to Construction and Procurement Delivery (CPD) colleagues in the Department of Finance, and to other permanent secretaries, to ensure that our assessment took account of any risks for wider public-sector procurement.
A key consideration for the Department was whether parts of the judgement presented so many practical difficulties with accepted procurement practices that a further appeal to the Supreme Court may be required. On a fine balance, however, and after careful consideration, I have concluded that the Department should not appeal the Court of Appeal judgement.
Having considered various advice from our senior counsel and related information from my officials, I met with a senior solicitor from the Departmental Solicitor’s Office and senior counsel last week to discuss the actions taken by officials at the time and since; the legal issues and complexities associated with this case; the difficulties that the judgement created for future competitions; and the courses of action available to my Department, to limit the risk of future successful legal challenges.
By its very nature, the judicial process provides not only a detailed independent investigation of all the processes and documentation relating to this particular process but a detailed and independent outcome from that scrutiny. The Northstone judgements, therefore, present for Members and the public all the salient facts in this particular case.
It is essential to ensure that the Department, and others, learn from those judgements, and I have asked my officials for options so that I can consider how best to do that, with the purpose of designing revised procurement strategies and processes for my Department that can help in reducing the risk of successful legal challenge when contracts are awarded.
It is also essential that I understand how this situation arose and the action that has been taken since to address the problems from when they were first highlighted. I have, therefore, asked that an independent investigation is carried out, and I am consulting with officials and our legal advisers on how best we do that. I am conscious of the need to be fully respectful of the court proceedings that have taken place and the judgements handed down and that we do not do anything that would undermine those. It is important that we keep a focus on learning to ensure that this is never allowed to happen again.
While it is my intention that the independent investigation will look internally within the Department for Infrastructure in relation to procurement, I will also be keen to work across government to ensure that any learning is shared as widely as possible to help everyone involved in public procurement.
The important thing to remember in all this is that public procurement is not simply a process. It is through procurement that we award contracts that get public services delivered for the people we serve. It follows, therefore, that procurement has to be able to withstand the toughest scrutiny in a fast-moving and incredibly complex legal context, otherwise it can pose a risk to the delivery of those critical public services.
That takes me to the second important matter on which I wish to provide an update. It relates to the impact of a new legal challenge that has prevented the award of resurfacing contracts in four of our council areas.
Members will know the strength of my commitment to addressing the impact of previous underinvestment in the structural maintenance of our roads network, a commitment that I was fully expecting to translate into action in this new financial year.
That is now at risk due to the legal challenges that are in play. It is an incredibly frustrating situation in view of the budget that I worked hard to secure for resurfacing across the road network, the improvement that that would have made to the condition of our road network and the boost that it would have provided to the economy and our local communities.
By way of background, Northern Ireland is covered by 12 term contracts for asphalt resurfacing work. Generally, there is one for each council district, but there are two in the Fermanagh and Omagh council area. A procurement competition was run to replace expired contracts in four areas: Newry, Mourne and Down; Mid Ulster; Derry and Strabane; and Omagh. After running a process that was designed in conjunction with the construction industry, letters providing notice of a decision to award four contracts were sent to tenderers in early March 2021. Writs of summons were subsequently issued on behalf of three of the unsuccessful tenderers in the four areas, thereby preventing the Department from awarding any of the four contracts. Officials engaged closely with departmental legal advisers to consider options for addressing that. However, on the basis of very clear legal advice that was provided by senior counsel, the DFI Roads and Rivers centre of procurement expertise (COPE) took the decision to discontinue the competition on 4 June 2021. That is a seriously concerning situation for me as Minister and for all road users as, at present, there are no contracts for resurfacing in those areas. That means that badly needed capital investment will be delayed. I assure Members that officials are rapidly developing a new interim procurement strategy for resurfacing contracts, working closely with legal advisers and procurement experts in the Department of Finance to endeavour to reduce the procurement risks in relation to that area of work and release new tender competitions to the market as quickly as possible. That is an absolute priority for me as Minister.
It is clear from the Court of Appeal judgement on Northstone that the judges concluded that parts of the process that were employed in that procurement were not fully in accordance with the public contracts regulations that were in place at that time, not detailed in the competition rules that were set and hence not transparent to other bidders. Since that time, officials advise that the procurement regulations have changed and that the Department's procurement processes have been reviewed and updated significantly, including improved pre-market engagement, revised tender documentation and assessment processes, and enhanced preparation for members of the tender evaluation panel.
It is important to keep in mind that, although the focus is always on the legal challenges, the Department successfully delivers hundreds of diverse contracts for works, supplies and services across many functions. Its status as a centre of procurement expertise is subject to independent review and re-accreditation at regular intervals. I am pleased to inform the Assembly that a review by the Civil Service's professional auditors, which was completed just last month, provided assurance that the centre of procurement expertise has in place established appropriate structures, robust management information systems and adequate policies, procedures and strategies, and that operational tendering, contract management and monitoring arrangements are appropriate to control procurement activity. Although an overall assurance has been provided for the COPE as a whole, there are, as I have set out, lessons to be learned, and I am determined that they will be learned.
There are limits to what more I can say about our resurfacing contracts given that they are subject to ongoing legal proceedings, but I felt that it was important to come to the House in person to provide this update, given the importance of these issues to me, all Members and the people whom we represent. I reassure Members that taking forward those pieces of work and fixing the problem is a priority for me. I will ensure that Members are kept updated. The situation brings into sharp and stark focus not only the complexity of the landscape in which public procurement takes place but the everyday impact on ordinary people living their lives when public contracts are delayed. That impact is unacceptable.
I assure Members that my Department will continue to take all possible steps, working collaboratively with other procurement experts and with our legal advisers, to find new approaches that allow us to move forward as quickly as possible and to award contracts that can allow much-needed resurfacing work to take place.
Mr Buckley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure): I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. I put on record my willingness to work collaboratively with her in my role as Chair of the Committee.
Will the Minister explain more about the independent investigation that she intends to put in place? When can we expect a report? Further to that, will she advise how those issues will impact on budgeting for the year ahead and whether contingencies are being put in place?
Ms Mallon: First, I congratulate Mr Buckley on his appointment as Chairperson of the Infrastructure Committee. I look forward to working with him.
As I said, I am consulting officials and our legal advisers on how best to carry out an independent investigation. For me, it is very important to understand what action was taken by officials at the time and since. It is important that we have a focus on learning to ensure that this situation is never allowed to happen again. I have not yet defined the terms of reference for the investigation. I have asked for options to come forward. As soon as I have the terms of reference, I will have more clarity on the timeline.
Similar to my approach to the issues that arose with the lifts in the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA), my intention is to keep the Committee and the House fully updated on issues as the situation progresses. That is why I was very keen to come to the Assembly in person to update Members on the issue and give that reassurance.
On the budgetary implications, officials are still working through the ramifications. My intention is that they will work at pace on a new interim procurement strategy. At the same time, we will have an approach that enables us to issue smaller contracts so that we can get critical resurfacing work done in the affected areas as quickly as possible.
Mr Speaker: Before I call Cathal Boylan, I remind Members that, if they wish to speak, they need to put their name down.
Mr Boylan: Cuirim fáilte roimh ráiteas an Aire. I welcome the Minister's statement and the fact that there will be an investigation. Will she give the House an assurance that the process will be open, transparent and fair? Will she ensure a zero-tolerance approach to the mismanagement of public spending on these types of contracts? Will she also indicate how much has been spent on legal fees for disputes up to this point?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I can assure him that, in the same way as I deal with all matters, I will deal with this in an open and transparent manner. That is why I have come to the Assembly in person. As I said, the judgments have caused me very serious concern, and I want to be absolutely satisfied that all the corrective actions that should have been taken were taken at the earliest opportunity, as soon as the problems were identified. As I said to Mr Buckley, I will, of course, keep the House and the Committee fully updated on that.
Will you repeat the second question?
Ms Mallon: I am sorry; it was about costs. At this stage, the damages are still to be determined by the court. The advice from my officials is that that may take some time to complete.
Mrs D Kelly: I am sure that the Minister will remain open and transparent, as she was during the DVA lifts crisis. Unfortunately, this has been a difficult year for everyone. However, it seems that a number of things were waiting in the Minister's in-tray when she assumed her portfolio. How did the process go so terribly wrong in the first instance?
Ms Mallon: The two court judgments provide significant detail on the complexities of the case. As I said, I want to investigate further so that lessons, including for future procurements, can be learned. I intend to seek further information from an independent investigation of the actions taken by the Department at that time and since. I will discuss the approach further with my officials and legal advisers because I am very keen that we get the independent investigation under way.
Dr Aiken: I thank the Minister for bringing this matter to the Assembly's attention. I declare an interest as the Chairperson of the Finance Committee and because the Minister of Finance now chairs the Procurement Board.
There are questions for both Ministers.
My main question is whether the Minister was fully aware of the issue when she received her first-day brief. Bearing it in mind that the procurement process was not in accordance with public contracts regulations, was not detailed in competition rules and was not transparent, the other fundamental question is this: why was the Department trying to defend the indefensible? There seems to be a pattern in the Department for Infrastructure of taking on legal cases that, it knows, it has no legal basis to continue with. There is something fundamentally broken that needs to be fixed and fixed early. Will the Minister answer those questions?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his questions. The issue was not in my first-day brief. I assure the Member that, as soon as it was brought to my attention, I gave it careful consideration. I read at length and repeatedly all the information and advices that were available. That is why I came to the House today to announce the course of action that we will take.
I assure the House that the Department carefully considered the initial decision to appeal the original Northstone judgement and gave considerable thought to how the application of the decision would affect the future conduct of public business. The legal advice obtained by the Department considered the Department to have a reasonable prospect of success and that the judgement on appeal might assist the Department in its understanding of what was expected in future competitions.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for coming to the House today to give her statement. It is a serious matter, and it warrants an independent investigation. It is so serious that the court ruled that the Department:
"engaged in a secret, bilateral and unrecorded process with one of multiple bidders. In short, McQuillan's was accorded special treatment in a clandestine and purely bilateral process, and, in consequence, the level playing field was distorted for other bidders."
That is very serious. The Minister got a 29% increase in her capital budget. Will she outline what she will do to ensure that that road resurfacing can take place across Northern Ireland? If it cannot take place in the areas that are affected by the judgement, will increased investment occur in other areas to ensure that that investment gets used on the ground and that the judgement does not affect it?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I have said that, after careful consideration of the judgement and detailed consideration of advices and the information provided by officials, I am clear that there needs to be an external investigation.
In respect of the impact of this on the budget, my approach is, I suppose, threefold. The first is accepting the judgement and then, through an external investigation, understanding what happened and what action was taken then and since to address the problems as soon as they were highlighted. The second piece of work will be on revised procurement processes to mitigate the risk of further legal challenges. The third piece of work, which is key for me, will be to ensure that we work as quickly as possible to deliver the capital investment for the resurfacing that is required on our roads.
I assure Members about the approaches that we are taking. As I said, officials are working at pace to devise an interim procurement strategy for the asphalt resurfacing. For Members' information, the planned timeline is to undertake pre-market engagement during the summer and to bring the first contracts to market in the autumn, with contracts to commence in early 2022. I am not at all content with the situation, but I want to make sure that, while that process takes its course, we do everything that we can to ensure that we can resurface our roads. In addition to that procurement work, the Department plans to progress at pace one-off contracts and bundles of contracts for release and award later this year so that we can get roads in the affected areas resurfaced as quickly as possible.
Mr K Buchanan: In Mid Ulster, the rural west is being hit once again with a lack of investment in infrastructure. I appreciate the reasons why. Can smaller contracts that are in place there be increased somewhat to get some of the money spent? The road users and the engineers who are trying to repair the roads will see the outworkings of the situation when the winter comes, when we will all see the negative effects of the lack of investment.
Ms Mallon: As the Member has correctly identified, Mid Ulster is one of the four affected areas. I assure the Member that surface dressing, patching and gullies work will continue. However, as I said, I am looking at moving forward a larger number of tender opportunities, so that we have a continuous pipeline of tenders. The focus is that, while we work on the new procurement strategy, we are able to initiate smaller contracts as quickly as possible, so that we can get the work on the ground in Mid Ulster at the earliest opportunity.
Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for her statement. The fact that the legal challenge has prevented the award of resurfacing contracts in Newry, Mourne and Down, Mid Ulster, Derry and Strabane and Omagh is totally unacceptable. I can speak best about my constituency, where the roads are in a dire state, particularly in the rural areas.
I was going to ask about a time frame, but you have outlined that. It is concerning that it will be 2022 for a lot of the roads. Will the areas that are already part of a huge backlog be prioritised for interim repairs to improve the quality of those roads until the contracts are awarded and proper resurfacing can be done?
Ms Mallon: I assure Members that roads will continue to be inspected and repairs carried out in line with policy in all of the affected areas. While the current timeline for the interim procurement strategy for asphalt resurfacing is expected to commence early in 2022, as I have said, I have asked officials to work simultaneously on delivering one-off contracts and bundles of contracts to try to get the resurfacing works carried out in the affected areas as quickly as possible. The time frame for that is later this year.
Ms Sheerin: I thank the Minister for her statement. I put on record my thanks to the local division office. We have a lot of issues in south Derry with road surfaces, and it is a massive bugbear for constituents.
It is concerning that the six contracts were allocated to a single company that reportedly did not have the necessary resources to undertake the work. Can the Minister provide clarity as to whether the Department knew that fact at the time of making the decision? Is your Department now taking the required steps to ensure that firms have the resources to do the job?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. She has highlighted an aspect of the judgement. I have taken the decision not to appeal that judgement. The reassurances that I seek as a Minister provide a rationale for initiating the independent investigation. I want to be satisfied that I understand what happened in this instance, what action was taken by officials at the time and, importantly, as I have said in response to other Members' questions, what subsequent action was taken to adopt learning and correct problems from the first moment that they were highlighted. While the terms of reference have yet to be finalised for the independent investigation, it is important that I, as the Minister for Infrastructure, have full understanding and reassurance but also that Members across the House and the public are reassured.
Mr McNulty: The Minister's statement is honest and frank. Her openness with the Assembly is welcome and appreciated.
Minister, I drove from Crossmaglen to Silverbridge, then to a meeting in Newtownhamilton and on to Armagh, and, on parts of the road, I felt like I was travelling over the Himalayas. You will know from the local papers, that, every week, we have a list of Sinn Féin Members and councillors attacking you on roads issues and then claiming the resurfacing works that have been done, taking the people for fools. Can you tell me that the works will be undertaken through other procurement mechanisms to ensure that roads will be repaired and people will not feel like they are driving over the Himalayas in parts of south Armagh?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. As I have said, I want to reassure Members. I am adamant that my Department will take all possible steps to find new approaches that will allow us to move forward as quickly as possible and get resurfacing work on the ground in Mr McNulty's constituency and other affected constituencies. Officials are working at pace to devise an interim procurement strategy for asphalt resurfacing. As I have said, it is planned to have pre-market engagement during the summer to bring the first contracts to market in the autumn. In the meantime, I want to make sure that we do what we can to get resurfacing works on the ground.
That is why, as a mitigation of any delay in the interim procurement strategy for asphalt resurfacing, it is planned to progress one-off contracts and bundles of contracts at pace for release and award this year.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister for coming to the House in such an open and transparent manner. In his judgement, Justice Horner said that officials had committed "a manifest error". Can the Minister inform the House of the potential implications for those officials and for the officials who, RHI-style, did not take any minutes of a crucial meeting in September 2015 and, indeed, the implications for the centre of procurement excellence, given the failure to perform such a basic function as minute taking?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. As I have said, I am very concerned by the judgement and the salient facts that have been outlined. That is why I am initiating an independent investigation. It would not be appropriate for me to pre-empt the outcome of that investigation at this stage.
Mr Lynch: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas seo. I thank the Minister for her statement. My question follows on from Mr Nesbitt's. It seems that the contracts were given out without written records, and the same issue of written records came up with the DVA faults. Can the Minister indicate that that is no longer accepted practice in the Department?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. As soon as I took up post as Minister for Infrastructure, the situation with the DVA lifts arose and I became aware of it. In my response to that, I initiated two independent reviews. One was to establish exactly what happened, who knew what and who was responsible. The second piece of work was to ensure that we had clearly identified all the actions that should be taken to prevent that happening again. Of course I am concerned about any situation where there is not a record of meetings held. I have no doubt that that will feature as one of the issues examined as part of the independent investigation.
Mr O'Toole: I thank the Minister for coming to the House and giving the update. It is a serious matter. I share the Minister's concerns, particularly about how it happened. I welcome her commitment to finding a way through in the interim. Can she offer us some more detail and assurances on how road repairs will be progressed? I know that she has said something about that already, but it would be helpful to have a little more detail on how those will be progressed in the meantime.
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I reassure Members that surface dressing, patching and maintaining gullies — small-scale intervention work — will continue to be carried out in the affected areas. While the Department's officials are working at pace to find an interim solution to the procurement contract, the clear focus for me is making sure that officials do what they can to get resurfacing work done on the ground in affected areas at the earliest opportunity. That is why we are looking to plan one-off contracts and smaller bundles of contracts. All those issues are being explored so that we can get those contracts out this year and get that critical service delivered on the ground this year.
Mr Beggs: I thank the Minister for coming to the House to update us on the issue. Insufficient resurfacing has resulted in increasing levels of emergency pothole repairs, increasing numbers of compensation claims and deteriorating roads, resulting in additional costs as well. The difficulty stemmed from the initial tender process in 2015. What were the values of the tenders at that stage? Who exactly approved the contracts at that time? Which Minister was in place? Why on earth have we not learned from the mistakes at that time?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. He is right to point out the historical element, first, around the state of our roads, which is a result of historical underinvestment. The Member is aware of the Barton report and the fact that it objectively identified the requirement of an investment of £143 million per annum to maintain the current road network. As the Member rightly identifies, the Northstone judgement applies to the 2015 contract award process. Obviously, the judgement is there for all to see. The Member has highlighted a number of issues for which I have asked officials for timelines. This is also part of the rationale for my asking for the external investigation.
Mr McGrath: I am sure that the Minister is concerned about this deeply troubling issue. Members will have made reference to work that needs to be done but now is not happening. Will the Minister provide assurances again, especially for the people in my area of South Down — the Newry, Mourne and Down part — as to how works may take place, going forward, to assist them with the road network in the area?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I appreciate that this is an issue of utmost concern to Members, who want to see this critical service delivered in their areas. I share in the ambition to improve the surface of our roads. That is why I made a significant bid and a significant allocation in my capital budget. I wanted to translate that commitment into action. It is hugely frustrating to find myself in this situation, but, as I have said, I am trying to understand, through an external investigation, what happened and the actions that were taken subsequently.
Officials are working at pace to devise an interim procurement strategy. I have set out the timeline for that, but I am also reassuring Members that I have said to officials that we need to do everything possible to ensure that we get resurfacing work on the ground at the earliest opportunity. That is why we plan to progress one-off contracts and bundles of contracts at pace: to get that much-needed work on the ground this year.
Mr Allister: The Court of Appeal judgement was a shocking indictment of the Department, its relevant officials and its processes. The Minister is not prepared to tell us whether, in consequence, any staff will be disciplined. Is she prepared to tell us whether the Department is still relying on the legal advisers who told it that it had a worthwhile appeal and wasted further public money? Is the Department aware of further pending challenges apart from the one referred to in the Minister's statement?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. With respect to the issue of staff, I am clear that I am so concerned by the situation that I am instigating an external investigation. It would not be appropriate for me to pre-empt or pre-conclude what the findings of that investigation might be.
I reassure the Member that I have asked officials exactly that question about pending challenges. I am waiting for information so that, if it is the case that there may be further pending challenges that will affect the Department and the delivery of its services, I have a clear understanding of what they may be.
Mr Carroll: The Minister said that we needed to learn from the judgement. That is obviously true. I cannot help but agree with Mr Nesbitt that the ethos of RHI ran across Departments and the Executive. The Court of Appeal ruled that the Department engaged in:
"an egregious breach of the principle of transparency".
That is a serious charge. How much was this an isolated case, or how much of it happens in the Minister's Department or across other Departments or happened in the previous Department? We spend at least £1 million a day on PPPs and PFIs, so I would be seriously concerned if a lot of that money or some of it was being wasted on unsound practices, to put it lightly.
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. He references the scandal that was RHI. I reassure the Member and all Members that I take my role as Minister for Infrastructure extremely seriously. I am there to represent the people of Northern Ireland, and I will not shy away from going to the difficult places. That is why I have asked for an independent investigation. I want to be reassured around those matters, and I want Members to be reassured about them.
At the same time, as I have said, while that work takes place at pace, it is a priority for me that we do absolutely everything we can to ensure that critical resurfacing work takes place on the roads that need it in the affected areas.
Mr Speaker: That concludes questions on the statement. Members, please take your ease for a moment or two.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak on an issue that, I believe, is the highest priority for government in Northern Ireland.
On 27 May, our latest hospital waiting time figures were published for the quarter ending 31 March 2021. Those figures are nothing short of appalling. More than 330,000 patients are waiting for their first consultant-led outpatient appointment. More than 110,000 people are waiting for inpatient or day-case treatment. Around 130,000 patients are waiting for a diagnostic test. Our waiting times are the worst of any UK region. It is simply not acceptable to me that the people of Northern Ireland receive a lower standard of care than those in other parts of the UK.
The numbers of those waiting are shocking, but it is the experience of the patients who are waiting for care that is truly heartbreaking. Behind the statistics are real-life stories of people waiting for far too long in pain and discomfort. There are people on waiting lists who are living in continuous pain. There are people whose condition makes them unable to carry out their jobs, which results in loss of income. There are people whose overall physical health has deteriorated severely and permanently because they have waited too long for a simple operation. There are people whose mental health suffers from the anxiety and uncertainty of a long wait for diagnosis or treatment. There are people who get into serious levels of debt due to their desperation for treatment. Waiting times in Northern Ireland are so long that our emergency departments (EDs) and other urgent pathways have increasingly become the default entry point for patients requiring treatment. That is due either to patients waiting so long that their condition becomes urgent or to EDs being seen as the only realistic way of accessing diagnosis and treatment.
We have a health service that prides itself on being available to all and free at the point of access, but the scale of our waiting times is creating a two-tier system whereby those who can afford to pay privately receive diagnosis and treatment, while those who cannot afford to pay languish on never-ending waiting lists. That is abhorrent. There is little or no doubt that long waiting times will exacerbate and perpetuate existing health inequalities.
I have said on many occasions that the pandemic has had an immense impact on our health service and will continue to do so for a long time. Even before taking into account the number of patients requiring hospitalisation and treatment during the pandemic, overall hospital capacity has been reduced by the necessity to introduce strict infection prevention and control measures.
While everyone in our health service, be they doctors, nurses, other health professionals or managers, has done everything they can to ensure that any negative impact on patients has been kept to a minimum, waiting times have continued to grow to a level that will take years to address. Health service staff are working harder than ever, but the situation keeps getting worse.
Let us be clear that this has not just been caused by the pandemic. Prior to 2005, Northern Ireland's waiting lists were the longest in the UK. By 2009, the situation had broadly stabilised and remained relatively stable for a period before, once again, worsening steadily. The budget allocated to the Department of Health was simply wholly insufficient to keep waiting times at an acceptable level. Waiting times in Northern Ireland were already on the brink of crisis before COVID-19, and the pandemic has simply pushed them over the edge.
Four years ago, in 2017, the Department published an elective care plan that set out proposals for the reform and transformation of elective care services. That has not been delivered. There has been a great deal of work carried out to improve how we provide elective care in Northern Ireland, and the evidence suggests that that has helped to prevent an even worse situation. However, the necessary levels of investment did not follow. Additional funding has been uncertain, temporary and piecemeal. That is a major part of the problem that we face. Demand for health services is growing every year, and it will continue to grow. Meanwhile, we have not increased the Health budget to meet that demand. Our one-year budget cycle also contributes to the inefficiency in the system as it does not allow us to plan services properly. Above all, we need a commitment to multi-year funding for the health service. Short-term, non-recurrent investment does not allow us to invest in our vital workforce. It does not allow us to invest in our infrastructure. It does not allow us to transform our services in a meaningful and sustainable way. It does not allow us to build capacity in the health service, and it limits our ability to get the best value for money from external providers. Short-term funding will only ever produce short-term solutions.
The issue transcends politics. Five Ministers from three different political parties have held the Health portfolio in this period, but it will require political will from all the parties in the Executive to fix it. For the past year, rightly and unavoidably, our resources have been directed towards patients requiring urgent and emergency care. However, our focus must now be on tackling our shocking waiting lists. I am pleased to publish the framework today. It is a road map for tackling the scourge of Northern Ireland's hospital waiting lists. We owe to it the patients and our Health and Social Care (HSC) staff to push ahead with the painstaking process of rebuilding our health service. That must include a relentless drive to bring down waiting times.
Tackling our waiting lists and stabilising our Health and Social Care service will be challenging, and it will undoubtedly take time. However, we need to think big and think differently about how we provide our health and social care services now and in the future. The pandemic has shown what the HSC can do in a crisis. We need to learn from our experiences and take the same sort of imaginative and innovative approach to new ways of working. There is also no question that, to do that right, we will require a commitment to major sustained investment for at least the next five years.
It is in that context that I have published the elective care framework today. The framework sets out a five-year plan with firm, time-bound proposals for how we will systematically tackle the backlog of patients who are waiting longer than ministerial standards and how we will invest in and transform services to allow us to meet the population's demands in the future.
Perhaps the most critical aspect of delivering sustainable reform in elective care is our workforce; in fact, our health service is our workforce, and we owe it to the staff who deliver the services to provide them with the resources that they need to care for patients. The framework is clear that, to support the delivery of long-term improvements in waiting times, the system needs to be fully resourced and have the right number of staff with the necessary skills and support.
The framework contains a range of short-, medium- and longer-term actions. I will now highlight points from each of those sections.
For immediate actions, I am introducing enhanced rates of pay from next month for staff who are working in targeted shifts and delivering priority elective activity to maximise fully internal HSC capacity. Today, I am announcing the establishment of a new cross-border healthcare scheme to allow patients to receive treatment in the Republic of Ireland’s established private sector and then to seek reimbursement up to the cost of the equivalent treatment to the HSC in Northern Ireland. This scheme will be operating within weeks. Mega clinics for orthopaedic outpatients, cataract assessments and a range of pre-operative assessments will be developed and in place by September. While such clinics may entail some patients being asked to travel slightly further than they otherwise would, they will improve the numbers of patients seen and, very importantly, the speed at which they are seen.
For medium-term actions, there will be detailed proposals for a rapid diagnostic centre, or centres, for Northern Ireland by March. Similarly, there will be a redesign of endoscopy services, including the possibility of a new regional endoscopy centre to deliver high-volume scopes. There will be an important, specific focus on reducing missed appointments — the so-called DNAs. Although, of course, there will always be reasons that an appointment is missed or a procedure no longer suits, every slot that goes unfilled in theatre or with a consultant robs someone else of the opportunity. We need to be more agile in proactively identifying such slots. That is why I will introduce a new policy in which the trust booking teams will contact all patients prior to surgery to ensure that all slots are fully utilised.
For longer-term actions, there will be a clear movement towards a seven-day working week for our hospital theatres. With such appalling waiting lists and serious demands on theatres' operating times, we need to realise that, as long as staff are properly supported, there should be no difference between a Monday morning and a Saturday afternoon. I have taken the policy decision that Northern Ireland will move to the new and much more transparent referral to treatment (RTT) waiting times measurement. That mirrors the waiting times process that is already in place across the rest of the United Kingdom. Digital innovations such as electronic prescribing in primary care will be rolled out in order to deliver maximum benefits to elective care services.
There has been debate in the past about whether or not the HSC should routinely use independent sector providers to deliver HSC care. We are beyond the point at which that debate is helpful or relevant. We will need all the additional capacity that we can get, in-house and in the independent sector, for the foreseeable future.
The theatre capacity available from local independent sector hospitals during the pandemic was vital in enabling many hundreds of urgent and time-critical patients to be treated. We have also used privately recruited teams of clinicians to provide services for HSC patients using available HSC infrastructure, which is known as insourcing. That approach is being used successfully to deliver endoscopy and cataract procedures at weekends.
Where theatre capacity is not actively used and HSC activity cannot be delivered — for example, at evenings and weekends — I have asked the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) to make recommendations by December this year on medium-term contracts to lease theatres to independent providers to treat HSC patients. I have also asked the HSCB to bring forward, also by December this year, proposals for medium-term use of independent sector providers to address backlogs where it is demonstrated that those providers can provide value for money and the same standard of service as the HSC. That is subject to early confirmation of multi-year funding.
In order to increase HSC capacity, we will require an investment in our workforce and significant engagement with our staff. In order to increase the additional capacity that can be provided in-house, my Department will support HSC staff to deliver greater in-house elective care activity by increasing the use of existing bank and on-call arrangements. As I announced earlier, that will include the introduction, by July 2021, of temporary enhanced rates of pay. It will take each of those components to make inroads into the backlog of patients waiting for treatment.
In July 2020, I established the first regional day procedure unit at Lagan Valley Hospital. That centre continues to operate very effectively as a green site for day-case procedures across the region, as it has done throughout the pandemic. It has responded rapidly to changing regional priorities and continues to deliver regional access to day-case theatre lists. Building on the success of the day procedure centre at Lagan Valley, the framework sets out how my Department will establish a new elective care centre management team to oversee the planning and expansion of regional elective care centres. The new team will make recommendations on the expansion of the elective care centre programme, with the next phase to be announced in October 2021.
In line with the cancer recovery plan's recommendations, the framework provides for the development of one or more rapid diagnostic centres. The experience in Wales has shown that those centres can have a major impact on waiting times for diagnostic services.
Endoscopies are a vital part of diagnosis and treatment. Currently, we spread our endoscopy service too thinly. We need to redesign and enlarge our service. That is why the Health and Social Care Board is urgently reviewing wider endoscopy services.
The vast majority of patients on waiting lists are outpatients. Transformation of our outpatient services is key to improving the productivity and sustainability of our elective services. The aim is to ensure that patients are seen by the right person with the right information at the right time in the right place.
We will continue to develop opportunities to consolidate and transform our outpatient services in order to reduce waiting times and improve patients' experiences. That will include the delivery of condensed clinics, so-called mega-clinics, for outpatient assessments and preoperative assessment clinics by September 2021. Mega-clinics are a way of bringing multidisciplinary staff teams together to ensure much higher throughput and access to clinical assessment for key specialties such as orthopaedics and cataracts. They allow more patients to be seen, and they can short-circuit unnecessary delays in treatment.
Sustainable reform of elective care is not possible without the HSC workforce. It is clear that, to support the long-term delivery of long-term improvements in waiting times, the system needs to be fully resourced so that it has the right number of staff with the necessary skills and support. Therefore, it is vital that we look at the skills mix required to deliver services. That involves designing the roles and responsibilities of a team around the needs of the patient to ensure that staff have the right skills at the right level to meet those needs. During the pandemic, certain parts of the HSC system, by necessity, radically changed the way in which they were staffed to ensure sufficient capacity was available to manage the demand for essential services. There is much that we can learn from that approach to ensure that we have the appropriate skills mix in the workforce to deliver high-quality care and value for money.
We need to grow all aspects of our service. We need more nurses, allied health professionals, consultants, GPs and administrative staff, and we need them to work together to provide the best service to the greatest number of patients possible. The framework includes a series of proposals to increase opportunities for a skills mix and to ensure that everyone involved is using their individual skills as effectively as possible. I stress, however, that the performance gains described in the framework will be fully realised only if the necessary recurrent funding is made available. Significant investment is required: more than £700 million over five years. I realise that that is a big ask at a time when there are many demands on the public sector, but we should have no illusions: this is a crisis.
Currently, almost 190,000 patients have been waiting more than a year for their first outpatient appointment. That is almost five times as many as when the 'Elective Care Plan' was published in 2017. There is a growing gap between population need and the health service's capacity to meet it. Without additional funding on that scale, there is no realistic possibility of reducing waiting times to acceptable levels.
The framework sets out what it will take to tackle waiting lists. Above all, it is about creating better services for two groups of people: those who require treatment and those who deliver it.
Investment and reform are now required: targeted investment to get many more people treated as quickly as possible; and reform to ensure that the long-term problems of capacity and productivity are properly addressed. It is essential that we invest now to ensure the future of the health service. If we do not eradicate the gap between demand and capacity, the backlogs in care will keep reoccurring.
If the Northern Ireland Executive commit to and deliver that level of investment to the health and social care system, my clear commitment is that, by March 2026, no one should be waiting more than 52 weeks for a first outpatient appointment or for inpatient or day-case treatment, or more than 26 weeks for a diagnostics appointment, and that, by March 2026, we will have eradicated the gap between demand and capacity for elective care.
In conclusion, as I have said before and will say again, I cannot do this alone. I need the support of the House and my Executive colleagues. I view today as a staging post in the long struggle to turn around our health service. The crisis has been building for years. We must put it right, however big the challenge. We need to create sustainable long-term solutions. Fundamentally, we have to bring back hope and confidence. We must restore hope to all those who languish on waiting lists. There is a heavy responsibility on all our shoulders. We must live up to it and deliver better public services.
I have said it before about waiting lists, but it bears repeating: I cannot think of a more important issue that faces not just my Department but the whole Executive and the Assembly. I commend the statement to the Assembly.
Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): I thank the Minister for bringing the statement to the House. It is an area of huge importance for us all. I welcome the statement and thank the Minister for discussing it with me earlier.
I also take the first opportunity that I have had to extend my support to the Minister over the disgraceful comments that were made before the weekend. As a father of two young children, I fully appreciate and understand the impact that such comments have on the people for whom they are intended and also the people around them. They were unacceptable.
The Minister has identified the levels of funding and scale of planning that are needed. What funding is currently available in the Department of Health budget for the framework? What discussions have been held with Executive colleagues? Crucially, given that the Minister has outlined how we arrived at this situation — because of austerity Budgets over a number of years — what discussions have there been, or will there be, with the British Government on providing that additional funding? What will happen if the funding is not made available?
How many mega-clinics have been identified? Can the Minister tell the House more about the criteria for where they will be located, and how people who may face challenges to travel to those larger centres will be supported to do so?
Mr Swann: I thank the Committee Chair for his comments about our engagement on the statement this morning. I also thank him for his words of support and encouragement to me and my family. While people were appearing on stage last week, I was working on this, because I will not be distracted from the job of work that I have to do. That is also clear in the commitment shown by my departmental officials, health and social care trusts, a number of royal colleges and different actors to bring together the proposal.
The statement does not cover the entirety of the funding that is available in the framework document. On page 48 of the document, I lay out clearly where that £700 million can be spent over the next five years and the level of assessments and treatments that it can deliver. I am currently relying on in-year monitoring rounds even to start some of that work. The Committee Chair will be aware from the presentation that my finance officials gave to the Committee the week before last that the current bid that has gone in for June monitoring has increased significantly — by £30 million — for the work that we intend to do on elective care. That is because of sequencing and that piece of work being put together.
I am reliant on in-year monitoring rounds to start what is much-needed work to further reinvest in our health service. The Member's party and many parties across the Chamber have been alert and supported my call for a multi-year budget for Health. That includes the Finance Minister, and I am aware that he has had conversations with Rishi Sunak about a multi-year finance Budget. However, I need a commitment from my Executive colleagues, when we can meet to discuss the details of the proposal, about what funding can be made available to me to deliver that. Until we get the certainty of that recurrent budget over five years, this is a framework, but, with the funding, we can deliver and maintain it.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I remind Members that a particular allowance is granted to Chairs of Committees. I encourage Members to make a brief preamble, if they wish, and then come to their question.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister for bringing the statement to the House. It is a stark statement that addresses the very worrying challenges facing our health sector. I agree entirely that this is the most important universal issue facing the Assembly in the days ahead.
The Minister spoke some very encouraging words regarding workforce and rates of pay and conditions for staff. Will the Minister elaborate on when details will be made available to the nursing staff who can avail themselves of that enhanced rate?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for the point. We have started conversations with the trade union sector and the trusts, which are the employing authority, on how that can be developed and what rates can be settled on and supported. Through COVID, we were able to step outside Agenda for Change terms and conditions to target the specific need of our workforce. It involves the support of not just our nursing staff but support for our ancillary staff. In England and other areas, we are seeing that that additional support has to be put into the administrative staff as well. We need to take a holistic approach to tackling the issue. That work is ongoing, and those conversations are being had. I have announced that that will be in place and delivered by the end of July. That will allow us to make the next steps on the rest of the framework.
Ms Hunter: I welcome the Minister's statement. It was very informative. I reiterate my and my party's support for you following the comments last week, which were deeply unhelpful and disgraceful. No public representative should have to endure that.
My question refers to waiting lists. We know about the pain, uncertainty and stress felt by patients and their families. Given that the statistics have been revealed recently and we have seen how horrific they are, will the Minister provide an update on any conversations that his Department is having about psychological support for patients and families throughout this trying time?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. The Member will be aware of the ongoing work on our mental health action plan. I hope to publish it during the summer. It will include psychological supports for the entirety of Northern Ireland, rather than just for those on waiting lists.
The Member rightly identifies the additional mental health strains and stresses that being on a waiting list has on patients and their families. I hope that there is some reassurance from today's announcement that there is a direction of travel, not just from my Department but across the entire health and social care workforce, that this is a target, and that we all want to be part of the solution. I am asking for the support of my Executive colleagues and the House to deliver that.
Mr Chambers: I thank the Minister for his timely statement and for the many new, and some even novel and unexpected, proposals in it. It offers hope to those on waiting lists. I especially welcome the commitment to fully utilise any and all HSC capacity, which, of course, includes our physical infrastructure, wherever that may be. Is he confident that he will have the public support as well as the clinical buy-in that, if people are asked to travel slightly further for more timely treatment or diagnosis, they will do so?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. I have often said in the House that, over the past 15 months, we have seen a change with not just patients but clinicians, surgeons and consultants willing to travel to any part of Northern Ireland where there is available theatre capacity, which is at a premium. I think that we have the support of the people of Northern Ireland in making the changes. They will be challenging. The Chair commented on those who do have to travel, and I apologise for not answering him on that. We will work with the Department for Communities on rural transport where that needs to be provided. There are already a number of offerings there. However, we are currently restricted because of COVID regulations, so there is additional work to do.
It is about getting people to a centre where they will be seen and treated. Sometimes, we think that Northern Ireland is a very big place, but I would rather have people travel than wait. That is what the framework is about: that we can get people seen by the right people in the right time and in the right place. If that means additional travel, I think that people are now willing to do that.
However, I do have a job of work in convincing some politicians that not every hospital has to deliver every service. That is the step and realisation that we have to take maturely and collectively.
Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I would like to associate myself with the condemnation of that outrageous behaviour last Thursday night.
I have two questions. Minister, you talked about the framework for allowing patients to seek and pay for routinely commissioned treatment in the private sector in Ireland and to have the cost reimbursed. Have you thought about a similar scheme for the independent sector here in Northern Ireland?
My second question is to do with a concern that I have about rapid diagnostic centres. They work well in Wales, but there are some rarer conditions that are very difficult to diagnose. How will you deal with that?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for that. The cross-border framework builds on what was already there, which allows someone to travel to a provider outside Northern Ireland, to seek that service and to claim the level of reimbursement that would be available for our own in-house procedure. That means that they will have to pay for travel. They will have to pay up front. They may end up paying more than they will be reimbursed, so it is not a full reimbursement scheme. It is a re-establishment of the cross-border directive that we have rather than its supplementing our private sector here in Northern Ireland.
With regard to specialties, an individual will always be identified by a GP or consultant when they go to those rapid or large-scale diagnostic centres. Skilled and trained professionals will be working in the centres, so they will have the skills, knowledge and ability to pick up on rarer conditions. It is about getting as many people as possible to that point of diagnosis and the investigation procedures that are necessary and that may identify more of the rarer conditions that may go unnoticed or be missed should they spend more time on a waiting list rather than being seen more quickly.
Mr Robinson: Could one of those clinics that was proposed a few years ago be located at the outpatient health centre at Scroggy Road? I have always been of the opinion that such a facility in Limavady would drastically reduce the pressure on the outpatient and A&E facilities at the two local hospitals.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. As I have said previously in the House, I need every square foot of the health real estate. We will look at the entirety of that service when we look at where we locate some of the regional delivery of procedures. However, the Member's point is well made.
Ms Ennis: As someone with a parent who is on a waiting list, I know how important it is to tackle this crisis. It is not just a political priority for me, it is a personal priority.
Minister, of the £700 million that you have identified as being needed to reduce elective care waiting lists, how much of that do you envisage going to the private sector, and how much will be used to retain and recruit staff?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her question, which, as she said, is from the personal standpoint of having a relative on a waiting list. Unfortunately, we have many hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland in the same position. That is why this work is critical and why the funding is necessary.
When the Member gets the opportunity to see the framework as it is set out, she will see that, on page 48, we have broken down, over the five years, where that money will be spent in tackling waiting lists and the number of assessments and treatments.
I do not have a detailed breakdown in front of me of how much will go into the independent sector. However, it is about getting people seen as quickly as possible.
Also in the framework is a breakdown of the funding that is necessary to build our in-house capacity. That is about the workforce and filling the gaps in our nursing, GP and consultant workforces. In the last workforce survey report that I saw, we had 1,400 nursing vacancies across Northern Ireland. That is not because we are not recruiting nurses; it is because they are not there. We have to wait for that skills gap to be filled and for the people who are training to come out the other side.
A five-year programme is also set out in the framework that shows what we need to spend to fill the delivery capacity gap by increasing our workforce. That is estimated to be in the region of £121·5 million over those five years and will allow for both training and recruitment. That £121·5 million will be recurrent funding. Once we train those people and put them in place, we will need to retain them. After those five years, when we have put the investment in to get our waiting lists down to an acceptable level, we will need that workforce to maintain that level.
Ms Flynn: I thank the Minister for bringing this important statement to the House. I sincerely hope that he gets all the support and investment that he needs to deliver the framework. We all understand its importance and what people are living through.
Minister, there appear to be some practical solutions that are missing from the statement, albeit with all the different initiatives that you have spoken about. Will you be putting in place any plans to allow GPs to carry out some simpler procedures? I am thinking about carpal tunnel surgery, for example. Some of those more simple procedures could be done by GPs and might just help to reduce the waiting lists. Is that being looked at?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her points. When I made the statement, I highlighted three topics from each of the immediate-, medium- and long-term plans. When she gets a chance to look at the framework, she will see that there is also a target for using our primary care providers. That is an initiative that has been used in the past and that has worked for us, and we intend to develop it. To put things into perspective, GP services were able to provide vasectomies for over 1,000 men in Northern Ireland over the past period of time. That was the equivalent of 130 theatre slots that we could utilise for other urgent and emergency procedures. The utilisation of both GP practices and community pharmacy is looked at in the recovery plan framework.
Mr McGrath: I welcome the statement. Whilst the remarks against the Minister last week should not have been made, I know that he is thick-skinned. Minister, you can also take courage from the fact that everybody knows exactly whose behaviour was dangerous of late, and it certainly was not yours.
Minister, people and staff get a little uneasy when they hear about the private sector coming onto National Health Service property and using theatres, for example. Whilst there is definitely a place for the private sector in assisting and helping the health service, what assurances can the Minister give that priority will always be given to health service usage and that monitoring will be in place to make sure that the private sector is not given any advantage?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. I am particularly conscious of what is called in-house provision. To put it into perspective, one of the things to come out of this piece of work was that we have in-house provision where a private provider supplies cataract surgery in a certain location. It does 12 a day, and our National Health Service providers are doing seven a day using the same location and doing the same procedures and operations. There has to be a challenge function around how we can increase the capacity of our in-house provision, and we are looking at how we can develop a tariff-based model for our in-house providers in the National Health Service so that they will be adequately reimbursed if they can provide and deliver more procedures. That should be the incentive for our trusts to try to outperform the in-house providers or the independent sector.
We should be under no illusion that I will need to utilise the independent sector in this five-year targeted plan in order to get back on top of our waiting lists while we retain, train and enhance the skill sets in our health service. That is why the framework, as the Member will see when he gets a chance to look at it, also sets out a five-year target plan for investment in staff, which, as I said, builds up after the fifth year to £121·5 million. That is the investment in our staff that we see as being necessary, and it will allow the health service to stay on top of waiting lists.
Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for his statement. I think the House fully welcomes your statement, Minister, especially the suite of immediate and longer-term actions that you detailed. However, it will take a concerted effort to see the ambition converted into delivery, and the driving force for that will naturally come, first and foremost, from you, as Minister. Are you concerned about the current political instability at the top of the Executive and the danger that it could end in a place that detracts from the delivery of the plan? I am getting a feeling of déjà vu, because I remember that, in 2016, when the Bengoa recommendations were announced, three months later, the Assembly was brought into abeyance.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his point. It is a concern, because when we saw this place not functioning for a number of years, all budgets were flatlined, no Ministers were making decisions and there was no strategy, drive or change in direction from what had gone before. We got what had gone before, which was increasing numbers on our waiting lists. This is current. I have heard every political party and a majority of politicians from across this place saying that health is a priority. I have letters from nearly every Member about a constituent of theirs who has been waiting for too long, and they are asking what I can do or how I can help. This is how they help. This is how Members address something that is more than a political crisis in Northern Ireland. This is a health crisis: it affects every one of our constituents, whether they vote, whether they are eligible to vote and regardless of their age, creed, colour, religion or sexual orientation. This is something that we have to come together on to finally resolve and get on top of, irrespective of party politics.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an ráitis. I thank the Minister for his statement. I, too, share concerns about the lack of implementation of New Decade, New Approach (NDNA), particularly given the multi-annual budgets that the Minister is on record saying are needed. It is clear that you need multi-annual budgets to tackle the growing waiting lists. Minister, given that you are on record saying that we have almost 3,000 nursing vacancies, what discussions have you had with your trade union colleagues and staff side representatives on redeploying staff to where they are needed most and on looking at travel and accommodation for staff to ensure that the waiting lists are tackled and our staff in Health and Social Care are supported?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her point. She will be aware that one of the things to come out of New Decade, New Approach was an additional 300 training places for nurses over three years. Thankfully, we have the money to deliver those. We have 1,400 nursing vacancies, so we will have to wait for the training cohort to come out the other end fully trained while retaining the staff that we have to close that gap. Until we close that gap, delivering on that will remain a challenge.
That is why I made the point that the immediate action needs to be on how we reimburse our current in-house staff so that we can meet the demands and gaps in the workforce. We saw how that worked during COVID, when members of staff were given additional supports to do extra duties and take on extra responsibilities. This situation is at the same level as COVID, so we should be supporting our staff in the same way. We have engaged with our trade union side, which has been discussing with us over the past number of months how it wants to be part of the solution. For us to get there in five years and to remain on top of our waiting lists, I need to be working with our trade union side. I am working with our trade union side, because it is part of our solution and part of our healthcare family. That is why I have regular engagement with it.
Ms Armstrong: Thank you, Minister. I am not asking you about carers today. I will leave that for later. You talked about staff, and the other important people in this mix are, of course, our patients across Northern Ireland. How will you communicate with those patients? Much of their stress comes from not knowing when they will be treated. How does this fit in with the rebuild of trusts and those waiting on small but crucial waiting lists, such as access to IVF, or on the larger lists that have now developed because people have not been able to get access to treatment, such as those for the pain clinics?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her questions on those two subjects, IVF and pain clinics. Today's announcement is on elective care and how we start to address that, but one of the targets that we have set, or one of the initiatives that has been developed, is about that communication with patients so that they make sure and are aware of when their appointments are going to be and when they can be seen. In my opinion, the letter in the post is no longer enough because so many other people are using so many other means of communication. That is why we are specifically looking at whether there should be a text message service or a telephone call to remind people that they have an appointment coming up.
Coming out of COVID, we saw that people were sent a reminder to come in for their appointment as their COVID vaccine was due. It is an expansion of what we already know works and of what we have seen work in our system already, where we had consultants and clinics for whom this was normal practice and for whom it was not normal practice. It is about making this a standardised approach across the entirety of our service for people when they are due a procedure or an operation or when they have to come in for pre-operation treatment. As you said, it is about that wider piece of communication with all people who are seeking support and additional treatments from the health service.
Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for this statement, and I really appreciate his efforts in tackling this very challenging issue. I echo the comments of other Members in sharing my support for the Minister in relation to the reckless comments from people who should have known better.
Minister, the statement has a lot of detail in it, and I particularly welcome the update on the cross-border scheme, albeit it is a partial replacement and only for 12 months. As you know, I have been lobbying on that, and it is a welcome update.
As of March this year, there were 4,300 red-flag cancer surgeries on the list. What progress has been made since March on these, and how will the framework impact on the progress on tackling the numbers on the waiting list?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her comments. As I said in the statement, 26% of our operations are for cancer patients. The majority of the red-flag cases that have been identified will now have been seen, treated or received a date for their treatment. We set up a regional programme board to look at those, and one of the things that we saw when those red-flag patients were brought forward was that they were offered surgery anywhere in Northern Ireland where we had theatre capacity. We had other trusts providing theatre capacity for urgent and red-flag procedures on a regional basis. I can get the Member the exact breakdown of where they are now, but the majority of those cases will now have been seen, treated or given a date for treatment.
Mr O'Toole: I welcome the Minister's statement to the Assembly. As he knows, we have been vocal in our support for his determination to get waiting lists down. I agree with him that it is the number-one priority facing us here as we move out of COVID. I acknowledge that he is right to hold us to account in that we are all MLAs.
On the £700 million over the next five years that the statement outlines, will he be seeking and is he seeking prior support in writing from the whole Executive in advance of the Chancellor's expected multi-year UK-wide spending review later this year? Will he be seeking that in conjunction with the Finance Minister?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. I think that he knows me well enough not just to put things like that in writing but to verbalise it. The case has been made in this House.
I will make the case at the next meeting of the Executive, and I will also present this framework to the Executive and explain what the financial ask means. I welcome support from the Member's party colleague the Minister for Infrastructure, who has already indicated publicly that she is willing to sacrifice part of her budget to support the Health budget and work in Health.
Mrs Barton: Minister, thank you for your statement. It is good news on the lengthy waiting lists that we have had to endure over the past number of years.
You spoke about enhancing rates of pay for workers in priority areas. Do you expect that that will include the full range of staff working in those areas — administrative as well as clinical staff?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her support and her question. I have always considered our health and social care workforce to be one body, one unit and one family. Those additional support measures should be applied equally across all the resources that are needed to get on top of the waiting lists. We intend to do so in a specifically targeted fashion.
Mr Allister: I express solidarity with the Minister in facing the bile of the Member of Parliament for North Antrim.
The Minister says that the most important issue facing us is the one that he has addressed today. Unfortunately, half of the Government, of which he is a part, disagrees. They think that foisting Irish language legislation on Northern Ireland, by whatever means, is much more important. Is that not a huge credibility problem for the Executive?
In that vein, I do not read a word in the statement about increasing the number of beds in our health service. Under devolution, almost 2,000 beds and all the accompanying staff have been removed from our health service, and then we are surprised by where we are. Has the Minister a plan to build back in our health service? Whatever happened to the 2017 elective programme?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. I will deal with his questions in reverse order.
This place fell within two weeks of the 2017 programme. The additional moneys that were needed never materialised because there was a recurrent budget, based on the previous year's budget. I am concerned lest the same trajectory happen with regard to this place falling or not functioning, now that this work has been announced. I can set policy and direction, but, unless there is someone to maintain the finance and work on the finances that we need to deliver this framework and agree that procedure, it becomes a failed opportunity, a loss to the people of Northern Ireland and another blight on them that will force them to wait longer for waiting lists to be tackled and for the services that they need.
When I say that the Executive's focus is on this issue, that is what I am led to believe. When I was last at the Executive, and at the last two meetings, they were all very clear about the work that needed to be done to tackle waiting lists. As the Member knows, I have taken the Executive at their word, produced the framework and put in the necessary financial ask to deliver it. The Member's point about increasing our workforce is addressed in the framework, and he will see that when he reads it in its entirety. He will note the proposed increase in workforce and workforce capacity. That will happen when I have the people to man the beds, supply them and make sure that the patients in them are maintained and looked after. That is the nature of the increase that we have seen.
In the past 10 years, some horrific decisions were made about workforce planning and the number of beds that have been removed from our health service. We are now paying the price for those decisions and for underinvestment in our health and social care system.
Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for his statement. These are shocking figures. The two-tier health service to which the Minister refers is appalling. I am concerned that a proportion of the £700 million that he is asking for may go towards funding the two-tier system and keeping it going. We have to challenge and refute the idea that our only two options are to rationalise or to cut the budgets of other Departments. What consideration has he or his new party leader given to pressing for a COVID wealth tax to fund the NHS and our public services? That is not a crazy left-wing idea; the IMF is backing it. Will he commit to raising that in the Executive as a way to fund our NHS, tackle waiting lists and fund the rest of our public services?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member. He knows me well enough to know that I have had those conversations with my party leader in relation to what we have been talking about.
On a COVID wealth tax, this place does not have tax-raising powers to that degree. That power has not been devolved from Westminster. I will seek the funding that I need for the health service from our Executive. As Members have indicated, that might have to be developed into an ask from Westminster as it rebuilds its health service. A reciprocal Barnett consequential might come to Northern Ireland as well. If it does, it should be earmarked and ring-fenced for Health so that any such future Barnett consequential will not be sucked into the middle of an Executive. Rather, it should be applied to the health service over the five-year programme that I have set out. In that way, it can be demonstrated that money is being spent where it should be spent. If a Barnett consequential comes from Westminster from Health, it should be supplied to Health.
Mr McNulty: Minister, I applaud your dignity and composure in light of the reckless and dangerous comments and actions of Mr Paisley. I welcome the detail and thrust of the statement. Thousands of people are waiting in pain, or dying, on waiting lists. They do not need warm words; they need the details of when their operations or diagnoses will take place.
It is positive that you mentioned the cross-border healthcare scheme, which has been reintroduced. How many people do you expect to benefit from that scheme over the next year?
Mr Swann: We do not have a detailed assessment because it has been dormant for a number of months. We do not yet have an indication of the capacity that is available in the independent sector in the Republic of Ireland because that need will also be utilised elsewhere. That is where we see challenges with using other providers in other jurisdictions. We are not alone in having waiting lists increasing; we see that in all health services across these islands. The pressures that the pandemic placed on our health services meant that services, diagnostics and other procedures had to be ceased while we treated COVID patients.
I thank the Member for what he said about the comments from the Member of Parliament for North Antrim. I think that Mr Allister and I are well used to such comments, given some of his statements in the past.
Mr Allen: I thank the Minister for his statement and the actions contained therein. I am sure that the Minister welcomes the broad support across the Chamber for the actions that he has outlined. He previously highlighted the importance of multi-year budgeting, and his statement reinforced that. Does the Minister agree that, by setting out a strategy that has cross-party support in the Executive and spans more than one Assembly term, the actions that he has outlined as being essential to our NHS are more deliverable?
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his comments. That is why we have deliberately set out this framework. It was OK in the past to talk about the unmet financial demand and how much we need multi-year Budgets. The framework sets out not just what the ask is but the number of procedures or treatments that the financial support could give in each of the five years that we are targeting. It is focused.
As I have said before in this place, this is about a five-year plan to tackle waiting lists. As I look around the House, I see many Members who could be standing in this place after the next election. Who knows, Jim, where things could go? That was in my thinking when I asked for the support of Members and Executive parties for this five-year plan. It is a non-party political commitment that is for the good of the people of Northern Ireland, and we need to put this building block in place and start delivering on it.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The next item of business is motions to approve three statutory rules (SRs), all of which relate to health protection regulations. There will be a single debate on all three motions. The Minister will commence the debate on the motions as listed in the Order Paper. When all Members who wish to speak have done so, I will put the Question on the first motion. The second motion will then be read into the record, and I will call the Minister to move it. The Question will then be put on that motion, and that process will be repeated for the remaining statutory rules. If that is clear, we will proceed.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 4) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.
The following motions stood in the Order Paper:
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 5) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]
Mr Swann: I bring three statutory rules to the House today. It has been a while, and I thank junior Minister Lyons and junior Minister Kearney for performing this duty in the past on the Executive's behalf.
The first is SR 2021/130, which is the fourth set of amendment regulations to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021. The second is SR 2021/131, which is the second set of amendment regulations to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020. The third is SR 2021/141, which is the fifth set of amendment regulations to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021. With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will focus my remarks on the key changes that have been made by those amendment regulations.
SR 2021/130, which is the amendment (No. 4) regulations, was made on 20 May. That SR made a number of relaxations to the restrictions regulations that were due to come into effect on 20 May and 24 May. From 20 May, it added an exemption for lawful industrial action to outdoor gatherings that are not subject to an upper number limit. It made provision for the Irish Cup Final at Mourneview Park on Friday 21 May to be used as a logistical and operational learning event, with up to 1,000 spectators in attendance.
From 24 May, the amendment (No. 4) regulations permitted unlicensed and licensed hospitality premises to reopen indoors subject to certain conditions, including a table limit of six people from up to six households or a maximum of 10 people from one household, not including children aged 12 and under. Those numbers will apply indoors and outdoors, but exceptions are made for events to celebrate weddings and civil partnerships. Social distancing was reduced to 1 metre in relevant hospitality venues. Otherwise, social distancing of 2 metres remains in place.
I am pleased that that SR also provided a number of important relaxations for families and friends, which allowed indoor visits between two households up to a maximum of six people, not including children. Where a household has more than six members, an increased limit of 10 people applies. The existing limit of 10 people from two households in a bubble together indoors remains. Those who are in the bubble may now gather outdoors in private gardens with up to 15 persons from no more than three households, ensuring consistency in that regard.
The restriction on overnight stays was removed, which, I am pleased to say, allowed tourist accommodation to reopen for groups of up to six people from two households or for groups of up to 10 people, reflecting the arrangements for indoor visits.
Other relaxations introduced by the SR included permission for indoor gatherings, subject to a risk assessment where numbers exceed 15. Outdoor gatherings were permitted, subject to a limit of 500, with a number of exceptions and a risk assessment where numbers exceed 30. Restrictions on band practice and rehearsals were removed. Indoor sport except for competitive sport may resume, subject to mitigations, and all other outdoor sport may resume. For outdoor sport, like outdoor gatherings, there is a limit of 500 spectators and a risk assessment where numbers exceed 30. Libraries may reopen, subject to mitigations, and those responsible for indoor attractions, indoor sport facilities, indoor swimming pools and tourist accommodation must comply with visitor and attendee information requirements.
Mr Allister: Before the Minister leaves the matter of indoor gatherings, what regulation currently pertains to indoor gatherings where public officials meet? Is there a requirement to wear face masks?
Mr Swann: There is no distinction between a meeting of public officials or public representatives and other meetings. I know that the Member has tabled a question for written answer on where the regulations sit on that.
The second SR that we are debating today is SR 2021/131, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021. The regulations are the second amendment this year to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020. The regulations were made at 4.00 pm on 21 May and came into operation on 24 May. The regulations gave effect to the measures agreed by the Executive on 13 May.
As indoor leisure, entertainment, hospitality and non-essential retail settings are again open to the public, a precautionary approach is being taken, requiring the use of face coverings in enclosed public areas of premises to which the public have or are permitted access. I reassure Members that the restriction can be further relaxed as necessary at some point in the future, if the rate of infection remains low and there is no evidence of increased transmission in those settings.
Mr Allister: In light of the Minister's response to my previous intervention and what he has just said, will he explain to the House why we have all seen pictorial presentations of an indoor meeting of the British-Irish Council last weekend with unmasked individuals participating indoors?
Mr Swann: I am unaware of the photographs that the Member refers to, but I assure him that, in any of the meetings that I was at, we were seated in a socially distanced way in accordance with the regulations. The event was delivered according to coronavirus regulations. If the Member has further pictorial evidence, I am sure that he will share it with not only the House but the media.
I reassure Members that these restrictions can, as I have said, be further relaxed as necessary at some point in the future, if the rate of infection remains low and there is no evidence of increased transmission in those settings.
I thank members of the Health Committee for their helpful contribution to the finalising of the amendment. Following discussions between my officials and the Executive Office, the amendment reflects the Committee's view that a face covering should be required in all indoor settings. The regulations retain the principle that a face covering is required in a "relevant place". The definition of a "relevant place" has been expanded from shops, shopping centres and churches to include all indoor spaces to which the public have access. The exemption for businesses and settings that controlled access by ticketing or appointment systems was removed, because it was incompatible with the principle that people should use a face covering in all indoor spaces to which the public have access. Members should note that the existing exemptions and reasonable excuses not to wear face coverings were retained.
I move to the final SR before us today, SR 2021/141, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 5) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021. The SR is the fifth amendment to the regulations, and it was made at 1.30 pm on 28 May. The amendment provided a further relaxation under regulation 11 to enable the full resumption of indoor competitive sport from 31 May on the basis that relevant risk assessments are implemented. I am grateful to my Executive colleagues for ratifying those decisions at our meeting on 27 May.
The SR also made a number of technical changes that commenced at the time that they were made on 28 May. The changes included the removal of regulation 11(3A) that permitted the Mourneview Park football stadium to be used for the Irish Cup final on 21 May with up to 1,000 spectators in attendance. As that test event has taken place, I will refrain from making any comment on the result.
The SR inserts a definition of a "shop" to provide further clarification to businesses. It is the same as the definition previously used in the face coverings regulations. It provides clarification that up to 500 persons per gathering may attend an outdoor sporting event, rather than 500 people in total per outdoor sporting event. It inserts an exemption under regulation 5 to enable venues used for marriages or civil partnership ceremonies, such as hotels, to permit a couple or persons to move within the premises to view the venue facilities as permitted under regulation 9. That was already permitted, but it was omitted in error when indoor hospitality was permitted to reopen.
Under regulation 17, "Requirement in relation to social distancing", amendment No 4 provided the definition of a "relevant place", and the requirements were applicable to either "a relevant place" or "a relevant hospitality venue". A drafting error in the regulation, however, had not included "a relevant hospitality venue" to parts of the regulation, and a technical correction was made.
As Health Minister, I have the ultimate responsibility for protecting the health of our most vulnerable people and our vital health services. It is my firm belief that the overall restrictions and requirements and those imposed by these regulations continue to be proportionate to what the regulations seek to achieve, which is a public health response to the COVID-19 infectious disease threat. COVID-19 is dangerous.
The COVID-19 cross-departmental working group, led by TEO, continues to meet weekly and to manage the process for bringing forward relaxation proposals to the Executive. I welcome the collaborative work of the various Departments involved in developing those proposals for change in the regulations. My Department continues to provide health advice on the proposals brought to the Executive. Indeed, the new approach and continued engagement with stakeholders has helped to ensure a reasonable balance of easements as we attempt to return society to a form of normality. The success of that approach can be demonstrated by the considerable number of proposals across various sectors that have contributed to the amendments brought forward today.
Our vaccination programme remains a primary line of defence, and I am pleased to report that demand remains very strong. As always, vaccine supply continues to be the limiting factor in the roll-out of the programme.
I hope that Members will agree with me that these three sets of amended regulations bring a welcome set of relaxations for our families and for businesses and recognise that, as we approach the summer period, we can all have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of better weather while remaining cautious about any signs of increased transmission of COVID-19. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): I will make, first, a few remarks as Health Committee Chair and, then, a few brief remarks as the Sinn Féin spokesperson for health.
First, I welcome the fact that, in the North, we now have over 1·1 million people who are vaccinated with their first dose and over three quarters of a million people who are fully vaccinated. The vaccination programme has been a great success and has provided for the gradual easing of restrictions that we are considering today and will consider in the future.
With the ongoing transmission of the delta variant of COVID-19, it is more important than ever to ensure that our population is vaccinated. I encourage all those who are eligible for their first vaccine or have an appointment for their second vaccine to go and get that vaccine. I say to them that the vaccination programme is the road to recovery and will not only provide protection for you and your family but will allow for the easing of restrictions and the recovery of our health systems and the economy, alongside the other public health measures of find, test, trace, isolate and support.
Last week, it was welcome that we had the first day when there were no COVID patients in intensive care. However, at the same time, we heard that hospitals were running at over 100% capacity.
Those pressures were non-COVID-related. It is therefore important to ensure that we take all the actions that we can to protect our health service and not put additional pressure on our staff. It is hugely important to point out that, according to the NISRA statistics, we are at almost 3,000 deaths in our community as a result of COVID-19. COVID has been and remains dangerous for so many people, and every one of those deaths is an individual tragedy.
As a Committee, we welcome the introduction of the rules and the continued easing of restrictions, including those on hospitality, indoor and outdoor gatherings, sporting events and libraries fully reopening. However, again, I outline that this is a process, and I urge everyone to follow the guidance and regulations and not to push or bend the rules at this time, especially given that we are seeing an increase in transmission of the delta variant. It is important that we follow the rules and guidance as they are eased, as that will ultimately allow us to move more quickly to the point where COVID has less of an impact on our lives.
The Committee was briefed on the regulations at its meeting on 3 June. The briefing session from the Department on the regulations gave members the opportunity to discuss them in more detail, and a number of issues were raised. Members asked how the Department deals with new emerging variants of COVID. We also asked questions about live music in hospitality venues. Members sought clarity on the levels of fines and on who has the power to rescind fixed penalty notices issued by the PSNI. Members also sought further information in relation to the Irish Cup final, as you mentioned, Minister, its use as a test event and what learning was taken or has arisen from that event. The Committee will welcome sight of the report on that event when it is available.
Each time I speak on regulations, I raise the issue of the limited opportunity for the Committee to consider the rules. We understand the tight time frames. However, the role of the Committee is to scrutinise legislation, and the process leaves the Committee unable to effectively undertake that role. We would therefore welcome a time frame for when the Department will revert to normal processes for the health protection and travel rules.
The Committee agreed to recommend that the health protection regulations be approved by the Assembly.
I will make a few brief remarks as Sinn Féin's health spokesperson. Whilst I welcome the progress that we have made so far in fighting the pandemic, I continue to urge caution, as the delta variant still poses a considerable risk across our communities. As the restrictions ease, the risks inevitably increase. We all have a role to play in how we move forward so that we can reopen safely and resume as normal a life as is possible in the current circumstances. That responsibility is twofold. To prevent the spread of any variant that comes along, we must all individually adhere to the public health messaging. We must wash our hands, safely socially distance and wear masks where needed. The Department of Health must ensure that a find, test, trace, isolate and support strategy is so well established that it can be triggered effortlessly where and when there is another outbreak. In that context, I welcome the focused operation that was put in place in Kilkeel. That was a welcome step and is the type of quick, reactive and locally focused campaign that will yield benefit, along with all the other measures.
Finally, once again, I welcome the gallant efforts of our Health and Social Care (HSC) workers, who have brought us through these unprecedented times. Their efforts must be rewarded through fair pay and good working conditions so that all staff are working in a Health and Social Care system where they are properly supported, rewarded and recognised.
Mrs Cameron: I support the regulations. It is regrettable that our travel industry remains so badly affected by the pandemic. We must continue to do all that we can to protect our constituents from countries where COVID is still prevalent, given that people incoming from such nations add to the risk. As we move forward, we need to look at how the information about green lists and so on is communicated. We need to ensure that the public have clarity on what travel is allowed, the implications of travel and the impact that it has in terms of cost and quarantine.
We must also look at support for our travel industry. It has been decimated by COVID restrictions, and we need to assess the ongoing impact on it and provide support. Many travel agents, many of whom are self-employed, are in dire straits, with no end to travel restrictions in sight. I urge the Executive to continue to provide that much-needed support. Likewise, we must keep that channel of communication open for our airports, such as the International Airport, which is in my constituency, and meet their ongoing needs. Connectivity is vital to our economic recovery, and, as we have seen this week, that connectivity is fragile. We cannot afford to lose it.
The SRs also indicate a significant step forward in the resumption of normal activity. The reopening of our local hospitality, accommodation, leisure and other sectors is a vital step forward. I commend my colleague Diane Dodds for her work on ensuring that that has happened. It is also worth reinforcing the importance of wearing face masks. While compliance is still very high, I have noticed some slippage in mask wearing. I urge the public to remain committed to the "Hands. Face. Space" message.
Will the Minister outline what will happen with easements and restrictions come Thursday? The public desperately need to move on and should not be penalised by the refusal of the party opposite to nominate to the role of deputy First Minister
In conclusion, I commend the Health Minister for his ongoing work in keeping us safe in the pandemic. I must put it on record that Robin Swann is not dangerous. As we continue to remain vigilant to the new variant, I trust that, at the same time, we can work towards recovery. For me, that will include a full resumption and a transformation of our incredible health service.
Ms Hunter: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the health protection regulations. The amendments, especially amendment Nos 4 and 5, will be a significant step on the road out of lockdown. Whilst the rise in case numbers in recent days and the concerns about the delta variant are alarming, I am hopeful that, by continuing to take the usual precautions regarding hands, face and space, we will avoid a tightening of restrictions or any kind of return to lockdown.
The successful roll-out of the vaccination programme continues to give us hope of better days. I take the opportunity to again pay tribute to all those involved in the programme who have contributed to vaccinating the vulnerable in Northern Ireland. Of course, we must continue to take precautions, such as wearing masks, as mentioned in amendment No 2. They are sensible precautions to help to prevent the spread of the virus while allowing us to go about our daily lives as much and as safely as possible.
My eyes are drawn to amendment No 4, which states that "All outdoor sport may resume" and removes restrictions on indoor sporting events subject to a risk assessment in certain cases. I struggle to articulate how positive that is. For many, sport acts as a tool to combat stress. Many have had their lives turned upside down this year, so I am delighted to see that measure included. The closure of gyms to the public and the lack of team sports and team engagements was incredibly hard for many, including me. For many, our sports clubs are like family; they play a huge role in our everyday lives. They act as a safe space where young men and women — all of us — can open up, build their confidence and engage in community outreach. I am delighted that that hugely important aspect of our society has resumed. With the fear of the new strain, we must remember how crucial fitness and team sports are for our overall well-being and how they contribute to feeling supported, fulfilled and, frankly, alive. We have to make sure that, regardless of what happens in the coming weeks, we keep the doors of the sports clubs and the pitches open.
After many months of successive periods of lockdown and closure, perhaps more than any of us, it is our local business owners who have breathed the greatest sigh of relief at being able to open their doors again. I cannot imagine the stress that the last year and a bit has been for them, but, from meeting with constituents in East Derry, I know that it has been an extremely difficult and worrying time. The Executive's COVID support packages came as a great support and relief to many and helped to sustain them through what has been a difficult time. I urge the Executive to continue to look for ways in which we can continue to support our local businesses as we move forward.
The impact of the pandemic and lockdown will continue to be felt by not only our businesses but all across society in many ways. I think particularly of our young people, the elderly, the vulnerable, those who have to shield and the many who live in rural areas, on whom isolation has, arguably, had the most impact. I believe, as many across the House do, that we have yet to see the full impact of the pandemic on people's mental health or to see the full ramifications for our health service. I continue to urge the Executive and the Minister of Health to work to ensure that correct and sufficient services are in place to deal with that.
I am sure that I am not alone in wanting to ensure that we learn lessons from the pandemic and shape a better world as a result, including what is offered by our public services and how they will work moving forward. The way in which the NHS and our health service adapted to deal with the pandemic was truly amazing. We need to turn that energy and spirit towards addressing the waiting times crisis.
The past 15 months have been tumultuous and difficult, to say the least. While the rise in infection rates associated with the delta variant over recent days is concerning, I remain hopeful that we remain on the path to a post-pandemic world and that all the hard work and sacrifices have not been in vain.
Mr Chambers: I am pleased that the vast majority of the public continues to comply with the precautions that the regulations encourage. The recent local outbreak of the delta variant in Kilkeel should, however, be a timely warning to those who are keen to relax regulations with more urgency than is advised by the medical and scientific advice. I commend the Department's response to the outbreak in Kilkeel, which was textbook.
Most people have adapted to wearing face masks. We may never be able to fully quantify the contribution that that has made to stopping the uncontrolled spread of the virus and resulting untimely deaths. The return to normality will be slow and will, quite rightly, be guided by scientific and medical advice. That is exactly as it should be. No other considerations should come into play. I commend those who continue to comply with advice and, along with them, I look forward to a full return to normal life. The Ulster Unionist Party fully supports the SRs.
Ms Bradshaw: I support the regulations. As ever, we are doing this somewhat after the event, and I hope that leeway will be provided for some general points about emerging issues.
The regulations essentially refer to the reopening of indoor hospitality and the restart of sport. Those are both of particular interest to me, as they, no doubt, are to many in the Chamber and beyond. Given the struggles over the past few months, they have provided a significant boost. The reopening of hospitality has been particularly challenging. The restrictions that continue to exist, notably 1-metre distancing, are backed by scientific guidance, and I suspect that they will remain in place for some time. It can be difficult for business owners to make ends meet in that context, given the limited capacity and the difficulties with recruiting staff. I continue to urge the Executive — not least the incoming Ministers — to consider what support might be available to help the hospitality sector through the coming months, during which indoor capacity and overseas tourism will continue to be restricted.
For many, the resumption of leisure activities and the availability of local facilities will provide not just vital services but opportunities for physical activity and social contact, which are vital for physical and mental well-being. It is essential that we do all that we can not to risk losing those gains. Our general well-being must take priority, and we must ensure that the virus is managed in such a way as to enable us to enjoy physical activity and social contact with friends, colleagues and teammates. It is also welcome that we can use the Irish Cup final as a trial for events with larger attendances. That, too, is a means of restoring the social contact and congregations that are important to so many people.
That does mean, however, that we need to continue to behave cautiously. The tidying-up of the regulations on face coverings is one example of that, and they will finally move us to a position that, in my view, we should have been in since last summer: requiring the wearing of face coverings in all indoor public locations. I repeat my view, particularly with amendment No 6 relating to buffets and carveries now being in place, that all regulations should also apply to service stations, for which surely no exemption is now necessary. We need to recognise, particularly with new and apparently more transmissible variants arriving and potentially still more to emerge, that this is an aerosol-driven virus, and we still need to do all that we can to protect ourselves and each other, particularly indoors, while the vaccination programme is ongoing.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will allow me a moment's leeway to mention a topic around the regulations that is being raised with me: the requirement for proof of vaccination for travel to the EU or to the United States in the case of family or medical emergencies. Residents in Northern Ireland are now at a clear disadvantage as they can access neither the EU system that is open to Irish passport holders who are resident in the Republic nor the NHS app extension that is open to residents in the rest of the UK. That issue has been known about for months, and it is past time that there was a clear resolution.
Into the future, it is essential that the Executive meeting take place this week to reassess the situation in light of what we now know about the delta variant's presence in Northern Ireland and its impact on vaccination. While I do not, for now, advocate significant changes to restrictions, some changes around events such as weddings that are held in domestic settings would tidy things up and earn further public support for the existing restrictions by making them demonstrably fairer. It is time for leadership, not stand-off.
Mr McNulty: I support the regulations. I do so understanding that COVID-19 is dangerous, especially the new delta variant, and we must proceed with caution, diligence and from a place of responsibility, especially those of us who are elected representatives.
A total of 1·1 million people have been vaccinated, and 750,000 have had their complete double vaccination. That is phenomenal. Huge credit must go to the healthcare workers and volunteers who have been assisting with the vaccination programme. I have had only my first vaccination, but, witnessing the spirit of positivity, care and teamwork was a joy to behold, and massive credit must go to all the people involved in deploying the vaccinations.
Sadly, 3,000 people have passed on with COVID-19, and my thoughts and prayers go out to the families who are still dealing with the grief of their loss.
I welcome the reopening of gyms and the resumption of team sports, as my colleague Ms Hunter mentioned. Young people have been most adversely impacted by the pandemic, and that release has been hugely important for them emotionally, physically and mentally.
Businesses reopening, especially in the hospitality sector, has been a joy, and it has been a huge release for us all to be able to visit those places. The staff have shown positivity and warmth in their welcomes and engagements. Everywhere that I have gone has been incredible. I loved walking back into the Shelbourne to get my fresh cream doughnut. It was a joy, and the warmth of the welcome there has been phenomenal.
Some questions remain on weddings. People still want to know what the regs are for weddings, including risk assessment, how many people can attend and whether they can have a boogie and a dance. Young people want to know when they will be able to get back into nightclubs, gigs and festivals. Young people are very keen to get the release that they have not had for so long.
I am curious to know the impact of Boris Johnson's decision to delay lifting final restrictions. What are the implications on travel? If a First Minister and deputy First Minister are not appointed, what will the impact be on attending events like the Ulster Championship, which is scheduled to commence with a big double-D ding-dong battle between Down and Donegal on Sunday week in Páirc Esler in Newry? I am curious to know what the impact will be if we do not appoint First Ministers here.
It has been a huge release for me to go and shout for my team at weekends. Armagh had a great victory against Roscommon, and people are dying to get out to cheer on their team. That release is so important for people. They want to shout for Armagh, Antrim, Down, Donegal or whomever. I want to know what the potential implications are of not having First Ministers appointed here.
Mr McGrath: I support the amendments. It is, after all, the business of legislators to legislate. I do so with an appeal, again, for the clarity that we need to see in the regulations. I have no issue with amendment No 5, nor with amendment No 2 on face coverings. I want to focus on amendment No 4. Paragraph 15, which amends regulation 9(3), details:
"A person may not organise, operate or participate in an outdoor gathering which consists of more than 500 persons".
When the initial restrictions were introduced last year, many people, in addressing that point, were left wondering what defined a "gathering". In May last year, we saw the Black Lives Matter protests across the world and here in the North. They were at outdoor locations where people had gathered in small bubbles. With hindsight, we can agree, I hope, that those protests did not breach the coronavirus restrictions. However, at 11.00 pm on the day before the protest here took place, a new amendment was introduced that allowed enforcement powers to be used, although it still did not define what a "gathering" was. It was not until 23 July that our restrictions introduced clarity on gatherings and exemptions. Those exemptions were for:
"cultural, entertainment, recreational, outdoor sports, social, community, educational, work, legal, religious or political purposes".
Members, into which of those criteria does a protest fit? We have a fundamental right to protest. Some argue that we have a moral duty, at times, to protest. It is natural to raise one's voice against injustice.
Mr Carroll: I thank the Member for giving way. He will note that the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has dropped plans for prosecutions related to the protest. Does he agree that the Executive and the Minister need to do all that they can to ensure that those fines are dropped and that people are reimbursed for the disgraceful fines that were issued that day?
Mr McGrath: Absolutely. If it is now defined that those people should not have received those fines and that, with hindsight, the way in which they gathered was legal, they should be reimbursed. If nothing else, that would prove to them that what they did was right and that they did not breach any of the regulations, as they thought.
Right through last year, in the Chamber, I consistently called on the Executive to ensure that they provided Members and the public with clarity on the restrictions. However, amendment No 4, which we are asked to ratify today, still does not provide that much-needed clarity on whether protests are legally protected. There is still no clarity on whether small, socially distanced groups of protesters are considered to be separate gatherings. While we now allow gatherings of up to 500 people, they require an approved and applied risk assessment. What are the Executive doing to provide organisations, or concerned individuals who are not familiar with that process, with support or assistance?
We know that Prime Minister Johnson is coming apart at the seams and that the public in England, like the rest of us, are beginning to see through his buffoonery and are losing patience with him. You can play the fool for only so long before people have had enough and realise that you are not playing. That will have implications for the Prime Minister as he attempts to ask the public to do their bit to combat the delta variant.
Here in the North, we, too, are in a precarious position. As we enter the summer months, there is a need for an Executive — that requires the DUP and Sinn Féin to wise up and appoint the new First Ministers — to ensure that the public are advised and supported on exactly what the restrictions are.
Somehow, for reasons that we may never know, given that we do not, at present, have a First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Executive Office has just handed back to the Department of Finance £1 million that was previously allocated for communication. What possible reason could the Executive Office have for handing that money back? It certainly was not because the communication strategy was so effective and efficient that it did not need the extra £1 million. I appreciate the confines within which the Health Minister is working, and I continue to offer my support for the work that he is doing, but I make an appeal to him to seek clarity from the Executive Office as to why it handed that money back when so many people in our communities are confused about the regulations and do not fully understand them.
The public have made so many sacrifices over the past year, and we have to do all that we can to support them. I believe that there is an obligation on the new First Minister and the deputy First Minister, and potentially the Justice Minister, to issue an apology to the Black Lives Matter protesters. As mentioned by my friend, there is a need for refunds as well. We need, however, to get clarity on whether protests are legally protected by the regulations, which I support today.
Mr Carroll: I will be brief. I welcome the changes, obviously. I will speak about the amendment concerning industrial action. The fact that the issue of industrial action is being addressed only now — over a year into the pandemic — shows how little that issue and other labour and workers' rights issues are taken seriously by the House. Those are issues that ultimately unite people. Only yesterday, the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill got its Second Stage, and we have a rake of issues agreed and demanded in the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement and elsewhere, but that Bill is the only legislation enhancing or protecting workers' rights that will be progressed in this mandate. That is a real shame.
The targeting of the people who were on the Hovis strike is not just an oversight or omission. Rather, it illustrates how inaccurate that slogan of being "all in it together" really is. Throughout the COVID crisis, when people stood up against the status quo — we have heard about the Black Lives Matter protests — they faced the full might of the law and fines, when others, including some MPs, did not. The Hovis strike fitted in with that. I visited the strike many times. It was an important and brave strike, and fair play to the workers for taking a stand.
The ironic thing is that those workers were inside during the whole pandemic, as front-line, essential workers providing bread, pancakes and so on. As far as I know, there were no police visits whilst they were working inside, where they were at risk of the virus spreading. As far as I know, there were no health and safety visits whilst they were inside, despite issues being raised about the spread of COVID. Once they gathered outdoors, however, the police targeted them. They approached them and were aggressive. Fines were threatened, if not issued. That is a really disgraceful approach to have taken, even though they were spread out, outdoors, wearing masks and so on. I wanted to illustrate the situation that they faced.
Finally, I want to ask the Minister this: if there is no Health Minister in place, who makes the changes to coronavirus regulations? He may not know. I submitted such a question for written answer to his Department today, so perhaps he will get back to me. Is it the permanent secretary or the British Government? Who makes the decisions? I am sure that other people will be wondering that. The Minister does not know. I appreciate his honesty. As much as I may challenge the Health Minister and disagree with him on some issues, I am very concerned that an unelected person could be making those decisions, or, worse, Boris Johnson.
Mr Swann: I welcome the debate that we have had on the three sets of amendment regulations today: SR 2021/130, SR 2021/131 and SR 2021/141. I thank Members for their contributions and words of support.
I will address some of the points that Members made during the debate. The Chair and a number of other Members asked about fixed penalty notices and who has the power to rescind them. Throughout the pandemic, police and enforcement officers have sought to engage, explain and encourage people to comply with the restrictions rather than move straight to enforcement action. The PSNI can rescind fixed penalty notices if they have not been paid or registered with the court as a fine. I hope that that will answer a number of questions that Members asked.
Again, I thank the Chair for his support for our health service workers throughout the pandemic, and for his strong words of support and encouragement, like those of other Members, on the vaccine programme. With the delta variant becoming prominent elsewhere, we have seen that it is actually the double dose of the vaccine that provides double protection: it provides protection for those who have been vaccinated, and also for their families, friends and work colleagues.
The Chair and Mr McNulty raised the issue of live music. Proposals came to the Executive last Thursday. They were delayed until this Thursday, so that we could see better forecasting on where the delta variant may take us in Northern Ireland before further relaxations are agreed. That falls into the area of Mr Carroll's question about whether, if there were no Executive on Thursday to agree those further relaxations, they would not be made at that point. The Executive will still be in place at that point, and the regulations, as far as I am aware, will stand as they are, even if unamended.
Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for giving way. I appreciate that clarity. It is a new and moving situation. Is it true, therefore, that if, for talk's sake, there is no Health Minister in place for the next period, nobody can amend the regulations? What is the update on that?
Mr Swann: I do not have the exact legal read-out, like the Member. We have asked for that with regard to where those regulations will stand, and who will, ultimately, have authority. If there is no Health Minister or Executive in place to make those decisions, we will look to legal recourse as regards what the competent body is that can actually make those changes. We are in uncharted waters in that regard.
It will also have implications for international travel, which was raised by Pam Cameron, and which countries will be on Northern Ireland's red list or, even, green list if there is no Executive to agree recommendations that come forward from me, as Health Minister, and my Department. It will be a challenging and trying time as we see what happens over the next few days.
I will move on to comments that were made by the Committee Chair when he spoke as Sinn Féin's health spokesperson. The community support that we saw in Kilkeel was phenomenal. Over 2,000 people came forward for testing. I await the outworkings of what was the first community-targeted testing that we have deployed here in Northern Ireland, and will share that with the Committee. I want to thank the people of Kilkeel, and also the elected representatives in the area, for their support in delivering that.
With regard to Pam Cameron's comments, the determination and, I believe, pragmatic approach of Diane Dodds as the former Economy Minister are to be commended. She supported the work of her Department thoroughly during her time in the Executive. I am thankful for the way in which she engaged with the Health Department and Executive. At this point, I thank Mrs Cameron for her work as Deputy Chairperson of the Health Committee. She was always there to challenge, but also to support when it was necessary. I thank her for that and for the work that she has done outside the Committee on health issues, in a number of all-party groups and on the private Member's Bill that she is bringing forward. She may have left that post, but I know that her interest will still be there.
Cara Hunter and Justin McNulty mentioned sport. The Executive have always taken a balanced approach to societal, health and economic needs. That is why those amendments to regulations were brought forward. I am glad that Mr McNulty was able to bring about balance between access to the gym and cream doughnuts. An equality is demonstrated in the easements that have been made.
Mr McGrath brought past regulations and how they can be managed into the debate. That relates to the Chair's comments about how fixed penalties could be rescinded if they have not made it to court yet. That issue could be pursued through the PSNI.
Mr Carroll mentioned industrial action. That was an oversight. It was not deliberate in any shape or form. When it came forward, it would have been the first industrial action that had taken place in Northern Ireland since COVID came about. I asked for the picket and the industrial action to be included as a reason for the exemptions under the regulations so that that could take place unrestricted.
I hope that I have answered as many of the Members' questions and queries as possible. In closing the debate, I remind Members that the choices that we make now will be crucial in ensuring that the virus does not begin to spread again. COVID-19 restrictions are being eased. We can meet more people and go to more places. We can cautiously start to return to a more normal way of life. By making safer choices, following public health advice and complying with the regulations, we can all do our part to help lower the spread of COVID-19. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 4) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 5) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 5) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be questions to the Minister for Infrastructure.
The sitting was suspended at 1.02 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —
Ms Mallon (The Minister for Infrastructure): The Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) driving test booking service opened for all customers on 10 May and provides everyone with a valid theory test pass certificate with equal opportunity to book a driving test, regardless of their test history or previous priorities. The DVA has made additional test slots available between now and the end of August, and bookings for September and October have been released to accommodate more learners. From the reopening of services in late April up to 31 May, the DVA conducted 6,700 driving tests, of which 5,500 were category B private car driving tests. That is 35% above the normal monthly average. As of 1 June, there were approximately 13,500 category B tests booked in the system, with around 2,000 slots remaining available across the network of test centres.
The DVA has taken a range of measures to maximise the availability of test slots, including the recruitment of additional examiners and the planned provision of new temporary test centres. Temporary test centres at Cookstown and Omagh are expected to open for appointments later this month. The DVA continues to offer driving tests on Saturdays and, at certain centres, on Sundays, where it is suitable to do so without compromising the integrity of the test. Overtime will be used to rota off-shift dual-role driving examiners to provide further capacity.
The waiting time to get a test date will vary depending on the chosen centre. While there is limited availability between now and the end of August, additional slots will become available as new driving examiners continue to be appointed over the coming months, when tests are cancelled and as more centres are able to offer tests on a Sunday. Due to the constantly changing position and the regular addition of new slots, the advice to customers is to keep checking the booking system for availability. If slots are not initially available at a customer's preferred test centre, they may wish to consider booking a test at another centre.
I remain committed to minimising disruption and ensuring that the DVA's plan for the restoration of services is in hand. However, all driving test services across these islands are experiencing high demand with longer than usual waiting times, and we ask customers for their continued patience.
Ms Sheerin: Go raibh maith agat. Thank you, Minister, for your answer. This is one of the issues that I have received most correspondence about since the beginning of the pandemic. As a representative of a rural area in Mid Ulster with a lot of young people, who have borne the brunt of the restrictions, there is a lot of frustration. They depend on having a driving test to get to work, to study and, obviously, for socialising.
You referred to increased capacity at Cookstown becoming available at the end of this month and to limited availability between now and the end of August. I had a parent contact me on 29 May whose son had passed his theory test that day and went on to book his driving test, and the next practical test that he could get was for October, which is obviously over four months of a waiting time. Is there a difference in the waiting averages across the North, and is there is an imbalance there? Obviously, Cookstown serves a wide area, but I am just concerned at the number of young people —
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. I appreciate the frustration among learner drivers, particularly younger learner drivers. That is why I took steps early on to extend the validity of the theory test pass certificate. As I outlined, we have put in measures to increase capacity through the recruitment of additional examiners, overtime, Saturday and Sunday slots and the provision of additional test centres.
I encourage customers to continue to check availability, because additional slots are becoming available. To reassure the Member, I will say that, since we opened up the driving test facility to all customers, we have conducted over 6,000-odd tests, which is 35% up on our pre-COVID monthly average. To reassure you further, I will say that we are taking all the steps that we can, but please encourage your constituents to continue to check availability online, because slots will continue to become available.
Mr Speaker: Before I call Pat Catney, I remind Members that they should quickly come to their questions.
Mr Catney: Minister, will you update the House on the new test centres, which will help with capacity?
Ms Mallon: The DVA has identified four additional departmental buildings in Belfast, Coleraine, Cookstown and Omagh that can be used as temporary driving test centres if they are needed in their area and there is sufficient driving examiner capacity. Arrangements are being finalised, and the DVA anticipates that the temporary test centres at Cookstown and Omagh will open for appointments later this month.
Mr Clarke: I thank the Member who asked the question, because I agree that the issue has been a main concern for many people, particularly young drivers.
Minister, your Department has responsibility for taxis. What impact is the backlog having on the taxi industry, given that it is having difficulty getting people to come into the industry?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. We opened the driving test facilities to taxi drivers as well, so the test is available to new taxi drivers. I have been made aware of a decline over many years in the number of taxi drivers working in the industry, and I have no doubt that that has been compounded by COVID. I am also of the view that many taxi drivers will not pay for their licences until they are clear on the easement of restrictions and how that will impact on them.
Very recently, my officials met representatives of the taxi industry to hear their concerns, and I am committed to working in partnership with them. I was pleased to provide regulatory and financial support to taxi drivers during the pandemic, and, of course, we will continue to work with the industry as we reopen our economy.
Mr Beggs: I welcome the news that there has been an increase in capacity of 35%. However, given the level of the backlog and the fact that new students will be completing the theory test, what is your estimate for when we will get caught up? How long will it take for there to be a more normal waiting time for someone who applies for a test?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. My DVA officials will attend the Committee this week, I think, so they will be able to go into the detail on that issue with him and other Committee members. It is difficult to estimate the volume precisely because we do not know when those who pass their theory test will go for the practical driving test. However, I assure the Member that, through the recruitment of additional examiners, the additional test centres, an overtime rota and Saturday and Sunday opening, we are doing everything we can to maximise our capacity to minimise the disruption to our customers. Of course, it is a public-facing service, and, as with all public-facing services as we emerge from the pandemic, there will be a longer waiting time than there was pre-COVID.
Ms Mallon: I recognise that there are many unadopted alleyways in North Belfast and, indeed, across other areas. However, given the ongoing budget constraints facing my Department, the main focus is on inspecting and maintaining the public road network that is adopted. I fully appreciate that antisocial behaviour occurs in some privately owned alleyways, which causes significant problems for the residents and businesses that live and work next to them.
Although my Department has no plans, given the resource constraints, to assume maintenance responsibility for alleyways that do not contribute to the transport network, I have offered capital funding to councils to support local communities in taking greater ownership of their alleyways through a greening of alleyways programme. That funding, which is the first of its kind to come from my Department, can be used for unadopted and adopted alleyways.
Mr G Kelly: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for her answer. I understand that there are always difficulties with budgets. As she pointed out in her answer, there are a number of problems in North Belfast with access for residents.
I am concerned that there is not even a list of these unadopted alleyways. I do not think that that would be a huge budgetary problem to deal with. We are flying blind until we get that. Will the Minister bring some sort of list forward? I understand that there are always problems with budget. How will we then deal with this problem? She will know that this is a huge problem in North Belfast.
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question, and I am aware that this is an issue in North Belfast. Very recently, in my capacity, I took a walk with residents from the Waterworks, and this was a particular issue that we discussed. I am very mindful of the impact in North Belfast and right across the North.
The difficulty to date, which has not been resolved by any of my predecessors, has been the fact that the Department does not currently have responsibility for unadopted alleyways and therefore does not have officers recording this information. I am very keen to try to provide some solution in the here and now, which is why we have created the greening of alleyways programme. I encourage MLAs to ask their residents and their communities who are keen to have a greening of alleyways programme to contact their local council so that we may able to work together, in partnership, to transform these places.
Mr O'Toole: On that subject, Minister, I welcome the fact that the greening of alleyways scheme has been set up by the Department. She said that constituents should contact their local authorities to make that happen. Is she confident that all local authorities are aware of the scheme and are actively promoting it to residents? Lots of constituents of mine in South Belfast are keen to lobby Belfast City Council to support this scheme.
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I became aware of the greening of alleyways pilot project in North Belfast through the work of the Ardoyne Association, which transformed a number of entries in Ardoyne — concrete, horrible spaces where people did not feel safe — into green oases. When I took up the post as Minister, I had the pleasure of meeting residents in Rossmore in south Belfast, and, again, I saw what communities did when they came together to transform their alleyways. That is why, as Minister for Infrastructure, I was very keen to try to support their efforts.
Green alleyways deliver multiple benefits. They transform a space. They create green spaces, and many inner-city neighbourhoods in particular do not have green spaces. They also improve community safety. I am mindful that the one in south Belfast was created in response to burglaries in the area. They also tackle social isolation. They brought communities together and built social cohesion.
As I said, I have set up the fund. My officials are working with a number of councils to help them to shape their proposals, and I expect to receive applications for funding in the near future. I encourage communities that want to be involved in this type of project to contact their councils, in the first instance, so that we can work together to deliver this.
Ms Bradshaw: On Friday morning, I was doing a walk around in the Holylands with some residents, who reported that, the weekend before, they found a young couple who were injecting each other in the toes with heroin. That was very harrowing. We are talking about unadopted alleyways, and there are a lot of alleyways where very serious antisocial behaviour is taking place. One solution is to design those out with the incorporation of alley gates. I know that councils have a restricted budget for this, but is your Department putting in any money to support the roll-out of alley gates?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. As she rightly points out, alley-gating schemes come through the councils. I think that there is a role for the policing and community safety partnerships (PCSPs) and perhaps the Department of Justice. I am keen to come in to see where the greening of alleyways programme can assist with that.
A number of issues affect residents of the Holylands. The Minister for Communities has set up an Executive subgroup to deal with some of the issues in the Holylands. I am pleased to say that I am part of that subgroup, and it is due to meet very shortly.
Mr Clarke: Following on from the last question, I support alley-gating. Minister, whilst you refer to the councils' responsibility, has your Department not a responsibility, given that it has adopted alleyways? Whilst this discussion may be about unadopted alleyways, many of the areas that we are talking about are adopted alleyways that need gates. Therefore, there is a responsibility on your Department. What, specifically, is your Department doing about antisocial behaviour in those areas?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I do not shy away from the Department's responsibilities in this area. A number of my officials across Northern Ireland not only attend multi-agency meetings but attend meetings organised by local representatives of all political parties and meetings with community representatives.
The challenges that our communities face in today's society come from a number of strands. Ms Bradshaw talked about drug taking, for example, which is a PSNI issue. Dumping is a council issue, and other issues fall to my Department. We address those problems best when we work together. I am keen that my officials play their part in doing that.
Ms Mallon: I continue to engage with the Union connectivity review, which is aimed at improving transport links across these islands. I understand that Sir Peter Hendy, the chair of the review, plans to publish the final recommendations before the end of the summer, and I look forward to further engagement before that occurs.
I regularly attend DfT meetings with my counterparts in the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales, and we look at ways to improve transport links across these islands.
In addition to that, I work with my counterpart in the South, Minister Ryan, on the all-island strategic rail review, which will allow us to consider our network across this island to view how we can improve it for everyone. We have a shared ambition for rail and a commitment to tackling the climate emergency, and I am keen that we use this opportunity to consider how we can improve our rail network across the island of Ireland. The review will examine how we can connect the rail network to our international gateways, through our ports and airports, which will help to improve connectivity across these islands.
In the past two years, my Department has also provided support to our seaports and airports to ensure that connectivity was maintained during the pandemic and post Brexit.
Mr Allister: The question was about what progress has been made. I did not hear much about progress. I heard a lot of talk about talk, but no action. Indeed, half the answer was devoted to answering a different question about connections on the island of Ireland. The question is about inter-UK connections, and I did not hear mention of the key connection: the A75. Is the Minister still so grossly disinterested in that that she does not even mention it?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. He will have to put questions about the progress of the UK connectivity review to Sir Peter Hendy, who chairs it. The question is, "Why has more progress not been made, and why has there not been greater engagement with and respect for Ministers of devolved authorities across these islands?". Of course I will continue to engage, as I always do, across the islands. I believe that our challenges are best overcome when we engage.
In respect of the A75, I recognise the importance to the local economy of our strategic links with Great Britain, and, as Minister for Infrastructure, part of my role is to provide support for our local businesses through the infrastructure priorities that I set in Northern Ireland and linkages beyond. It is my intention, in the coming months, to engage with the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity in Scotland to discuss issues of mutual interest. My officials are in contact with their counterparts in Transport Scotland and have noted the recent report, 'South West Scotland Transport Study — Initial Appraisal: Case for Change', which has identified the need for improvements on the A75 and A77. My officials will continue to work with their colleagues in Scotland as we transform and improve our infrastructure for everyone.
Mr Nesbitt: Mr Speaker, at the risk of annoying you, may I refer briefly to the MOT question? My car went through a test and retest in Newtownards in recent days, and the professionalism, friendliness and willingness to help of the staff at Jubilee Road need to be recorded as exemplary.
My question is about connectivity and Belfast City Airport. What can the Minister and her colleague the Minister for the Economy do to help the City Airport survive this latest challenge with the collapse of Stobart Air.
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his kind words and feedback on officials. I know that those words will mean a lot, because they have been working in a highly pressurised environment.
My Department is not directly responsible for air connectivity, but I remain committed to working alongside my Executive colleagues the Finance and Economy Ministers, given our different responsibilities for airports, and to consider cases for support from the Executive for the aviation sector. I have no doubt that we will have a discussion on the matter that the Member has raised.
Mrs D Kelly: It is clear to anybody who is listening properly that the Minister is working east-west as well as North/South.
I wonder about the assistance that she has had from London for crucial projects. Will the Minister give us some indication of how much, or little, fulfilling of promises there has been from the British Government, rather than sound bites from them on the matter?
Ms Mallon: The Member raises a very important point. We have all heard the British Government's promises about turbocharging infrastructure, but, unfortunately, the slogans and sound bites have not been backed up by action. The Member will know that that is a source of huge frustration for me and that I have written to, spoken to and met the British Government on a number of occasions to press for that long-promised support for the people of Northern Ireland. It is long past the time that the British Government lived up to their commitments in New Decade, New Approach. In fact, it is long past the time that all of us, as parties that signed up to that agreement, honoured the commitments that we made in that agreement and, importantly, made to the people of Northern Ireland.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for her response. There is a need to engage with our Scottish counterparts on the A75 and A77. That is crucial.
On the issue at hand, there have been a lot of statements from the UK Government, often on a Sunday or when there is a political crisis that they want to distract from, about commitments to UK/Northern Ireland transport. Have the UK Government committed one single penny to the Minister to deliver the infrastructure that is required?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. Funding has been provided for the part purchase of the low- and zero-emission buses, which was part of New Decade, New Approach. As the Member will know, a number of critical infrastructure projects are at the heart of New Decade, New Approach. No funding has been provided for any of those projects, despite multiple representations from me, as Minister for Infrastructure, and despite the multiple promises that continue to be made but that continue to fail to be honoured.
Ms Mallon: The Damolly Retail Park is a private development with access on to the public road network at the A27 Armagh Road. Therefore, the Department has no remit for the existing traffic management arrangements for vehicles within or exiting the Damolly Retail Park on to the Armagh Road. Officials are, however, content to discuss any proposals brought forward by the retail park owners that might help to alleviate any problems.
Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for her answer. I am aware that it is a private development. I have had engagements with DFI officials and the private owner. There is a willingness to deliver. The Armagh Road is particularly busy. I ask the Department to consider any additional remedial measures that it could put in place to alleviate this issue in the meantime. We need something to be done urgently. I am conscious of the fact that planning permission would need to be attained for the owner to do that.
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. I do not know whether she has had a very recent site meeting with my officials. If not, I am happy to offer that. Alternatively, if she has, I am happy to raise that matter with officials and then provide her with an update in writing.
Mr McNulty: Damolly Retail Park's major issue with traffic is because it is a victim of its own success. I am not sure whether the Member who spoke previously expects the Minister to ban cars from using the roads.
There is another issue there, Minister: car enthusiasts, or petrolheads, as they are fondly referred to, often meet there on a quiet Sunday, and residents in Lisdrum, Fairlawns and Larchmont are tortured. Although we all appreciate and respect people's right to celebrate the beauty of their engines, can anything be done to control the noise levels at that retail development?
Ms Mallon: That is a problem not just in the Member's constituency; I am very mindful that it is a persistent problem in areas such as Portrush. It can have a very negative impact on communities. Although the matter falls largely to the PSNI, I am content to raise it with my officials to see whether there is something that we could do, working in partnership with the PSNI and the community, to try to address the issue.
Ms Mallon: Since my announcement in October recommending planning approval for the redevelopment of Casement Park, my officials continue to make considerable progress towards issuing the final planning decision. Departmental officials have been working at pace to progress the required planning agreement, which must be in place before the final planning decision can issue. Anyone who cares about this important project will want it to be processed properly, and that is exactly what my Department is doing and at pace.
The Departmental Solicitor's Office and the GAA's legal team remain in regular contact about the details of the planning agreement, and both parties are keen to reach agreement as soon as possible. I look forward to the final planning decision issuing for the project, as it will give a real boost to sport across our island and to the local economy and will finally give the GAA its home in Ulster.
Mr Sheehan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a freagra. The Minister will be aware of the importance of the Casement Park development and how long it has taken to get to this stage. While I acknowledge and fully support the need for a rigorous planning process, we are still waiting for the application, despite the project having been given the go-ahead for next year. Will the Minister give a commitment that she will ensure that that is dealt with as soon as possible so that much-needed investment is delivered into the heart of west Belfast and that the GAA community gets the ground that it has been waiting for for many years?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. He is right: the GAA has waited far too long to have its home in Ulster. I remain committed to ensuring that my officials progress the application properly and at pace. In fact, I am mindful of the fact that the Member's party and constituency colleague Paul Maskey recently met my officials and thanked them for their hard work on the application.
The application is currently with Belfast City Council for a period of consultation. I am sure that the council will return that to us in the quickest possible time frame. Of course, my officials will then continue to progress it as quickly as possible, in line with all the statutory requirements.
Mr McNulty: The Championship season beckons, Minister, and it would be a terrible shame to think that so many Antrim players, who are on the crest of a wave, having recently been promoted, will not get the opportunity to play on the hallowed turf of Casement Park. It is fantastic that we eventually have a Minister who is passionate about the delivery of Casement Park. Once the statutory processes are complete, how much funding will the Communities Minister have provided for Casement Park?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I know that the issue is close to his heart. Planning remains a matter for my Department, but the question of funding is a matter for the Department for Communities, so he may wish to raise it with the Communities Minister.
Ms Mallon: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 6 and 7 together.
I recognise that there has been historical underinvestment in the maintenance of our road network for a significant number of years and that many rural roads are in need of repairs. In response, I allocated £12 million of my 2020-21 capital budget to a roads recovery fund, of which £10 million was specifically directed towards rural roads. Following the success of last year's fund, I am setting up an enhanced fund in 2021-22 and have therefore allocated £17 million of my capital budget to a roads recovery fund, of which £15 million is specifically directed towards rural roads. Rural roads will therefore benefit from a 50% increase in funding through that initiative, reflecting my commitment to continuing that important work to improve connectivity and benefit rural communities.
Mr O'Dowd: I thank the Minister for her answer. Rural dwellers will welcome any additional funding for rural roads, given the state that some of them are in.
Will that investment be affected by what the Minister had to say in her statement this morning? Will rural dwellers now have to wait longer for rural roads to be repaired?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his important question. Members will be aware of the important statement that I made to the House this morning. I am advised that the legal challenges are not expected to have an impact on my enhanced roads recovery fund of £17 million for this financial year or on the £15 million of that fund that will be targeted specifically at our rural roads.
Mr Buckley: This is undoubtedly an issue that all Members who represent some form of rural constituency will face. The condition of many of our rural roads is substandard at best, and the additional funding is welcome and, indeed, needed. Will the Minister outline timescales for delivery? Quite often, when we see schemes like this, with additional money for rural roads, it is right at the end of a financial year when we face all those pressures. We could put it into a more sequenced roll-out to ensure that we get the best cover possible. How will the works be prioritised?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. I was keen to give as much certainty as possible. That is why I increased the rural roads budget by 50% at the start of the financial year. With regard to the prioritisation of works, we submit to every council reports detailing the roads that will be subject to improvement, and those are then put into the public domain. I encourage the Member to look at those reports, which list all the roads that will be addressed.
Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We move to 15 minutes of topical questions.
T1. Miss Woods asked the Minister for Infrastructure, who will be aware of the many large infrastructure projects that are under way or intended to be within the planning system, whether her Department ensures that such projects are climate-proofed and, if so, how. (AQT 1431/17-22)
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. At her kind invitation, I attended the all-party group (APG) on climate change to discuss the important role that the planning system has to play. At that meeting, we discussed the fact that sustainability is at the heart of the strategic planning policy statements that my Department produces and we work closely with councils. The Member will know that we are undertaking a review of the Planning Act 2011. We are engaged in a number of strands of work. We are also working closely with councils on environmental governance and work streams. It is important that we embed climate action in everything that we do and in the approach that we take at senior level as Ministers, at local government level and as citizens.
Miss Woods: I thank the Minister for her answer and for her time when she attended the APG on climate action. It was very much appreciated. It seems, though, that we are falling a bit behind by not adequately climate-proofing the now, let alone the future, in order to meet our climate needs without redoing how we do planning. What is the Minister doing to improve the statutory duties that will ensure that large infrastructure projects are properly climate-proofed to prevent a scenario where we lock ourselves in to future emissions that could have been avoided?
Ms Mallon: The Member raises a very important point. As the Minister for Infrastructure, I have been clear that climate action is a priority for me. For example, one of the reasons why I undertook the short, sharp external review of the York Street interchange project was to ensure that we future-proofed that and were conscious of the climate crisis. It is also one of the reasons why I believe that we need an independent infrastructure commission in Northern Ireland, to ensure that we bring in the experts and have open engagement with the public, that we build infrastructure that is inclusive and sustainable and that we have a long-term vision that aligns with the ambitions that we should have as a society in tackling the climate emergency. We are trying to come at this on a number of fronts. We have had extensive engagement with Executive colleagues on the need for an independent infrastructure commission. I really hope that we can get to a point where we have consensus to move that vital work on.
T2. Ms P Bradley asked the Minister for Infrastructure for an update on the success of the 20 mph zones at schools. (AQT 1432/17-22)
Ms Mallon: In the past financial year, I committed to providing 20 mph zones outside 103 schools. A number of those are functional; the rest will be fully operational later this year. I am committed to rolling that out to many more schools in the new financial year, and officials are working up details. My ambition is to at least equal the number of schools that were provided for in the past financial year. It is a really good scheme. It creates a safer environment for children to walk and cycle to school. It also helps to get the message out about responsible, safe driving. For all those reasons, we remain committed to it and look forward to rolling it out to many more schools in the new financial year.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Minister for her answer. Has the Minister looked at rolling out 20 mph zones further in residential areas? The Minister and I represent an area where many people do not have a lot of green space and children are out playing in the streets and roads. In the Newtownabbey side of North Belfast, there are 20 mph zones at Vaddegan and Merville, but it is guidance only. Will any of the guidance-only zones be legislated for?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. I have looked at that issue, and the Department carried out two pilot studies on the issues of 20 mph zones in residential areas. The findings of that study strongly indicate that, for the zones to be effective, the 20 mph signage needs to be accompanied by traffic-calming measures, such as speed bumps. I am trying to weigh that up to make sure that we have effective schemes in place. We will continue to analyse the findings of that study to find the best way to take that forward. I am very much focused on putting our energies into rolling out the 20 mph zones at our schools as a matter of priority.
T3. Ms S Bradley asked the Minister for Infrastructure for an update on the Narrow Water bridge project. (AQT 1433/17-22)
Ms Mallon: The Member has been a tireless campaigner for the project. I know that she is passionate about the Narrow Water bridge. I am pleased to update the Member that, alongside my engagement with local stakeholders, I have met councils and continue to work with the Irish Government. The Member will know that the project is a New Decade, New Approach commitment, and it is vital that we all work hard to see it delivered. I am pleased that there is a political will, North and South, to deliver the Narrow Water bridge. It is an exciting, iconic, transformative project for the people of South Down and beyond. It is critical that the positive partnership working continues. I assure the Member of my commitment to do just that.
Ms S Bradley: I thank the Minister for her reply. The Minister is aware that the Narrow Water bridge project is a critical economic stimulus for the south Down region, particularly in a post-COVID environment. Will the project be discussed at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting? Has the Minister any concerns, as I have, that any delay in the appointment of the First Minister and deputy First Minister might hinder projects such as this?
Ms Mallon: I have said this a number of times in the House: not only is it a requirement under the Good Friday Agreement, but we will overcome our challenges only when we work in partnership North/South, east-west and in the Executive. It is deeply concerning that, at this point in time, we do not have our joint First Ministers. Our Executive cannot meet, even though we were due to discuss important issues and to take important decisions on Thursday, not least in respect of the pandemic.
It is concerning that we are not clear on whether we will have a North/South Ministerial Council meeting on Friday. I had hoped that we would discuss the Narrow Water bridge at that meeting. A number of us have highlighted concerns, over many weeks, about the absence of the North/South institutions and the impact that it will have. I sincerely hope that we move back from this point of crisis. People do not want crisis politics; they want their politicians working together, honouring their commitments, delivering on NDNA, tackling the waiting lists, tackling the housing crisis and tackling the climate crisis.
T4. Mr Gildernew asked the Minister for Infrastructure for an update on her work on planning policy and how it relates to the impact on the countryside. (AQT 1434/17-22)
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. We are taking a number of steps in respect of the planning system. At present, we are doing a lot of work with the councils about environmental governance. We have a cross-departmental planning forum that is very much focused on improving consultee response times. We have a new planning portal as well, and we are looking at planning policy. Members will know that I have announced a review of renewable energy planning policy. Officials are also considering Planning Policy Statement 21 (PPS 21), which has a particular impact on the countryside, and that work is ongoing. On top of that, I am committed to doing what I can to tackle regional imbalance. Within that, I have to and will pay particular attention to our rural communities, as demonstrated by the increase in funding for the rural roads fund, in particular.
Mr Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat leis an Aire. Thank you for that. I welcome your reference to PPS 21, which is particularly crucial. Are you planning to take forward any changes to that, and in particular to the limit of only one dwelling house in 10 years, given that clearly there is a need for people in rural communities to be able to get planning permission to stay in their local community?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. Again, it is about balancing sustainable development with the need to have sustainable rural communities, so I have asked officials to do a piece of work for my consideration on how we might take that forward. There are opportunities through the local development plans as well. We have a number of opportunities to help enhance rural living, and I am determined that my officials can play their part in that.
T5. Mr Catney asked the Minister for Infrastructure how much of the £20 million announced today for the blue-green fund will be allocated to Active Travel projects across Northern Ireland, especially given the pleasure that it was to cycle alongside the Minister recently at Blaris in his Lagan Valley constituency. (AQT 1435/17-22)
Ms Mallon: It was a pleasure to meet you at Blaris and watch you vigorously cycle past in your Lycra, Pat — a scene that I will never forget. [Laughter.]
Mr Speaker: You do not need to share that, Minister. [Laughter.]
Ms Mallon: That is everyone scarred for life.
The Member is correct: I have announced the £20 million blue-green fund for this financial year. At the heart of that fund will be an £11 million pot for Active Travel projects across Northern Ireland to get schemes on the ground in order to ensure that Active Travel is a safer and more attractive option for people getting around. I have wanted to see those changes realised since taking up the post of Minister, but, with the added challenges of COVID, the truth is that not enough has been done, and we now need to change that. That is why I am investing and focusing my team on delivery, getting projects on the ground and making sure that active travel becomes an option for many more families across the North. I am pleased to say that this year I am investing more in the Active Travel agenda than I did last year or, indeed, than anyone did in previous years.
Mr Catney: I thank the Minister for her answers. I welcome her investment to get delivery on the ground. I would like more green projects to be taken forward locally, Minister, especially on Active Travel. Will she or her walking and cycle champion meet me to explore options for delivery in Lagan Valley?
Ms Mallon: I would be delighted to meet the member, or, if he prefers, he can meet the walking and cycling champion, so that we can discuss his ambitions for Active Travel in Lagan Valley. I am happy to meet him and work with him in partnership.
T6. Ms Flynn asked the Minister for Infrastructure for an update on traffic-calming measures at the McDonald’s restaurant on the McKinstry Road. (AQT 1436/17-22)
Ms Mallon: I know that the Member cares very deeply about that issue and has made a number of representations to me and my officials. The Department has commissioned its partner consultants to carry out a feasibility study to consider potential improvements to pedestrian facilities at the McKinstry Road roundabout following the opening of the McDonald's restaurant and drive-through.
The feasibility study is taking a two-stage approach. The first stage is a high-level overview of possible improvements, with the second stage focusing in more detail on the preferred options. While a draft stage 1 report has been received by officials, the consultants are still working on more detailed options as part of phase 2. At present, it is expected that the consultants will report back on progress at the end of this month, at which point the Department can consider the best way forward.
Ms Flynn: Go raibh maith agat, Minister, for that answer. There was another car accident on that road a number of days ago, so it is obviously still a major worry. There is another hotspot in the area that we are worried about, right beside Our Lady Queen of Peace Primary School. I know that the Minister's schedule is extremely busy, but, if it is OK, we would love to have the opportunity to get you on-site to show you around some of those areas in order to see how we can progress.
Ms Mallon: I was very sorry to hear about the latest accident. There clearly is an issue on that road. Once we get the report back at the end of this month, I will be more than happy to meet the Member on-site.
Mr Speaker: Time is up. Will Members please take their ease for a moment or two?
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before we begin, I wish to clarify for the record that Mr Keith Buchanan's appointment as Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance does not take effect until 3.30 pm this afternoon, which means that he remains a member of the Commission until that point in accordance with Standing Order 79(6). I am sure that Members appreciate Mr Buchanan's courtesy to the Assembly of ensuring that he was able to answer questions on behalf of the Commission today.
Questions 5, 11 and 13 have been withdrawn.
Mr K Buchanan: With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I will group questions 1, 7 and 12 together, so I will need an extra minute, if that is OK. I thank the Members for their questions.
Members will appreciate that the primary functions of the Assembly are to hold the Executive to account, make laws and represent the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. That has been the key consideration in the Assembly Commission's decision to limit access to Parliament Buildings to permanent pass-holders during the coronavirus pandemic. That decision was taken in order to ensure the health and safety of our staff, Members and other Building users and to minimise the risk of infection so that the vital work of the Assembly was not disrupted.
The Assembly Commission reaffirmed that decision on a number of occasions, most recently on 12 May, and committed to undertaking a further review before the end of June. That further review has now taken place, taking cognisance of the significant easing of public health restrictions and the guidance provided in recent weeks, which have allowed a welcome degree of family, societal and economic normalisation. Given that the Assembly goes into a summer recess on 10 July, the Assembly Commission considers it appropriate that the current limitations on access to Parliament Buildings be removed at that point and that events, tours, public dining and visitors to Parliament Buildings should resume on 14 July, after the public holidays.
The Speaker wrote to all Members yesterday to set out the Assembly Commission's decision. The date of 14 July will allow time for staff to make the necessary preparations for the return of visitors to Parliament Buildings while ensuring the health and safety of all Building users and of the public, and minimising the risk of infection so that the vital work of the Assembly is not disrupted in advance of recess.
While Members may have a range of questions on the outworking of future changes to public health regulations and guidance on events, tours, public dining and visitors to Parliament Buildings, those are matters for the Executive rather than the Assembly Commission. Therefore, it would be unhelpful for me to speculate on what future decisions the Executive will take and how they might impact on the Commission's decision.
Mr Clarke: I thank the Member for his answer. Notwithstanding what he said about the factors that it has to take into account, should the Commission not also take into account the pace, albeit it has been slow, at which the changes the Executive have allowed other places to open and get back to business?
Indeed, in the canteen in this place, we sit almost 3 metres apart, at single tables, but you can now eat out quite freely in a restaurant at weekends or on any night during the week. I wonder why the Commission is working at such a slow pace, given the relaxations introduced by the Executive.
Mr K Buchanan: I thank the Member for his response. I would rather have a slow pace than a risky pace. With respect to your point about the Blue Flax restaurant, given the proximity to the summer recess and the continued emphasis on reducing the risk of infection, the existing 2-metre social distancing will continue to apply in the Blue Flax until summer recess. With effect from 14 July 2021, it will be reduced to 1 metre, or to the relevant social-distancing requirements that are in force at that time.
I reiterate that the Assembly Commission will continue to apply the decisions of the Executive, in line with public health regulations and guidance, in order to protect the health and safety of staff, Members and other building users.
Ms P Bradley: I thank the Member for his answers so far. I welcome the date of 14 July for some easements to the restrictions on the general public in Parliament Buildings. I chair the all-party group on homelessness, and it would like to put an event in the diary. Will the Long Gallery and things like that be open for Members to book events?
Mr K Buchanan: Thank you for your question. Members can approach the Events Office from 22 June 2021 to book those dates. The Assembly Commission will continue to adopt a risk-based approach to the delivery of events and tours in Parliament Buildings. It will move forward cautiously, based on any public health regulations and guidance that are in place at the time of reopening. The practical considerations relating to the provision of events and tours will need to be considered in detail to ensure that they can be provided safely, observing any social-distancing or other requirements. If that cannot be done, they will not be offered.
Mr Catney: Thank you for your answers so far. In light of where we are with the risks of the pandemic, which are still there, how will the Assembly Commission ensure the safety of staff, Members, Building users and the general public?
Mr K Buchanan: I thank the Member for his question. The Assembly Commission will do that based on risk assessment, as it always has done. The director for that area carries out regular risk assessments and feeds that in to the Commission, which then makes a decision based on his or her recommendation. It is purely down to risk assessment.
Mr O'Dowd: Before answering that question, I thank Keith for his contribution to the Commission over the last year or so. Despite a small number of disagreements, we have always worked together on the Commission in a courteous and professional manner.
I thank the Member for his question. As MLAs, we all know that the first few weeks of Assembly life can be daunting for newly elected Members. The Assembly Commission therefore understands the importance of providing those Members with an appropriate induction programme. Indeed, the Assembly Commission implemented an induction programme for new MLAs at the outset of the new mandate in 2016.
In advance of the next Assembly election, the Assembly Commission's Clerking and Member Support Office will expand the previous induction programme. The Member induction and development framework will include a programme of activities that will be available to all Members from the start of the next mandate. The induction aspect of the programme will expand on work that was carried out at the beginning of previous mandates and will include Members being provided with an induction handbook, containing key information and contacts, so that all new MLAs can access all the services that they require within Parliament Buildings to enable them to settle in as quickly as possible.
That is only one aspect of the wider welcome and orientation programme that Assembly Commission officials are developing to assist newly elected and returning MLAs with practical arrangements during the first few days and weeks following their election. The Assembly Commission recognises that induction requirements are multifaceted, and, to that end, Commission officials will continue to provide support to new Members around the role and responsibilities of an MLA. That includes sessions with the Business Office on Assembly procedures and Standing Orders, sessions with the Bill Office on the legislative process and sessions with Committee Clerks on the role of Statutory and Standing Committees. There will be a continued focus on continuing professional development (CPD) to support all MLAs in their roles as legislators and public representatives.
Mr Muir: I thank Mr O'Dowd for his response. I am one of a number of co-opted MLAs, and it would be useful, going forward, to focus on legislation. One of the key findings of the RHI inquiry was about the ability of MLAs to scrutinise legislation properly. As part of this programme, will the Commission consider speaking to some of the MLAs who have come into the Assembly since the last election and take on board any lessons learned about improving the briefing of MLAs and their ability to scrutinise legislation and all its different stages?
Mr O'Dowd: The Member makes an important comment. The Assembly Commission Clerk is here taking notes, and I am sure that she will be more than happy to engage with you on your experiences to see how we fit that into any induction programme.
Ms Ennis: What consideration has the Commission given to the introduction of more family-friendly measures in the Assembly for Members and staff, including childcare provision?
Mr O'Dowd: Those matters, particularly childminding and family-friendly working times and environment, are under consideration. The COVID pandemic put a number of those measures on hold, but the Commission has looked at that area and will want to make progress in order to ensure that our procedures and practices allow for the full involvement of all in the Assembly and its structures.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for her question. The issue of the display of artefacts has been raised by parties on all sides of the House at different times over the years, but it has been difficult to achieve political agreement on it.
At the Commission meeting on 17 February, a paper was considered that proposed a significant and strategic project to take a different approach to looking at the display of artefacts in the Building. The Commission has agreed a set of principles and a framework to underpin the project, which involves officials working with Dr Éamon Phoenix to develop a narrative of the key events and figures connected to Parliament Buildings and the institutions that it housed that should be reflected in the Building. It will seek to ensure that all parts of our community are represented, but it will also take account of the visitor experience and how displayed items are used to inform and educate visitors about our history. The Commission will then be in a better place to determine which of its artefacts can be used to illustrate that narrative and all parts of our community, but it will also consider gaps, which will then allow items to be identified and brought into the Building to fill them.
Officials have been conducting some of the initial scoping work and will engage further with Dr Phoenix this month once activities around this month's centenaries have passed. Officials intend to complete a first phase and to come to the Commission with initial proposals by the end of September. It is an ambitious project, and it is significant that all Commission members have endorsed it.
Ms Sheerin: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as a freagra. I thank the Member for her answer. Does she agree that Parliament Buildings should be reflective of all the people who are represented in this institution and that there is currently a massive imbalance that should be addressed?
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for her supplementary question. I agree that there are communities, not least women, that are under-represented around the House. Women are 51% of the population.
The issue of symbolism and the display of artefacts in Parliament Buildings has been raised with the Commission a number of times since 1998, both by those who feel that the symbolism in the Building does not reflect all parts of the community and by those who have asked for all the Commission artefacts that are currently in storage to be permanently displayed. However, the Commission has, regrettably, been unable to find a way forward for a number of reasons, including the lack of suggestions on alternative items, the inability to identify available items and the difficulty in achieving political agreement. The approach that has been recently agreed is a deliberate attempt by the Commission to change the conversation on these issues and to move forward. It is much more likely to lead to progress that ensures that all sections of the community are reflected in an agreed way.
Mr Allister: I suggest that, this year, under this Commission, we have seen overt oppression of any non-republican expression.
We saw the scandalous refusal of a centenary stone, the refusal to deploy in an exhibition the artefacts that range over many decades — artefacts that are stored away at public cost and never allowed to see the light of day — and the refusal even to light up the Building in memory of innocent victims of terrorism. Why is it that this Commission does nothing that does not fit with the Sinn Féin agenda?
Mrs D Kelly: I was wondering when the Member was going to come to his question, rather than giving his retrospective analysis of the work of the Commission. I have to say that my experience of working with the Commission over the past year has been very productive. I thank Mr Buchanan for his work on the Commission. We have made a lot of changes over the last number of months, particularly in view of the pandemic and some of the decisions that the Commission has been dealing with. We also have to deal with the reality that the Assembly contains a diverse range of political opinions and perspectives.
While the Building was undoubtedly influenced by its early history, it should also reflect more recent developments, including the current Assembly. That approach will mean considering how all the items in storage might add value to illustrating our history to visitors. However, I say this to the Member: not every artefact that is owned by the Commission is necessarily directly relevant to this Building; some may be more relevant to other organisations.
Ms Hunter: I thank the Member for asking this important question. I welcome the Commission's work on the matter. How long will that work take?
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for her supplementary question. The Commission has not agreed a precise time frame at this point, but it recognises that there is a need to balance the significant work involved with the need to deliver early results. Therefore, it is likely that the project will be delivered in stages, with initial proposals presented to the Commission by the end of September. However, the Commission will receive regular updates, and it is mindful of the wishes of Members to make progress in the area.
Mr Butler: I thank the Member for his question. I put on record my thanks to Mr Buchanan for his work on the Commission. I will miss calling him "The boy from Pomeroy", but I am sure that I will see him in the alleyways.
Under section 40 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Assembly Commission has a statutory obligation to:
"provide the Assembly, or ensure that the Assembly is provided, with the property, staff and services required for the Assembly’s purposes."
However, under the 1998 Act, the provision of services to individual Members is not a function of the Commission. As such, the Commission has no role in opening, operating, maintaining or closing down constituency offices beyond administering the allowances that the Assembly has made available for those purposes. Similarly, all responsibilities relating to constituency offices fall to Members, including all aspects of health and safety for employees who work in the offices and the health and safety of the public who might visit them.
The Commission can and does provide advice to Members on a range of issues. That included a note issued to Members in June 2020 that provided signposting advice when they were deciding whether to reopen their offices at that stage. That advice still stands, and the Commission is willing to reissue it now, but the interpretation of the current regulations and guidance as they relate to any decision to reopen a constituency office, with or without an appointment, rests solely with each Member.
Mr Gildernew: Will the Commission update us on the measures that will be in place to protect public visitors to Parliament Buildings?
Mr Butler: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. That is a really good question. My colleague Mr Buchanan probably covered most of the answer to it earlier when he spoke about the assessment that the Commission has made of risk and the importance of ensuring that we act appropriately within the regulations and guidance from the Department of Health and the Executive. There has been some critique today of the speed at which the Commission is operating, but I think that the statement that was made by the Member earlier stands: it is better to be safe than sorry. We are certainly acting in accordance with the regulations and with the guidance from the Public Health Agency, and that will continue to be the case.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Alex Easton has withdrawn his question. Mr Patsy McGlone is not in his place. Ms Paula Bradley's question has been answered. Mr Pat Catney is not in his place.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for her question. The Assembly Commission has a strong commitment to sustainable development, including reductions to its carbon footprint. As such, the Commission first received accreditation to the environmental management standard ISO 14001:2004 in September 2011. That was successfully maintained when the standard was replaced by ISO 14001:2015 in 2017, and it has been retained each year since.
The Commission's sustainable development office works closely with the Department of Finance's energy management unit to ensure that appropriate measures are in place to reduce our carbon footprint where possible. For example, the Commission receives its electricity via a Department of Finance contract, with all the electricity provided being 100% renewable. In addition, since the Commission started formally measuring its usage in 2008-09, there has been an 83% reduction in paper usage, a 34% reduction in electricity usage and a 15% reduction in gas usage.
The Commission also participates in Business in the Community's annual environmental benchmarking survey. Last year, the Commission attained a platinum award — the highest level available — and was named as a responsible business champion in the environmental leadership category.
In order to encourage Building users to avail themselves of sustainable travel, there are four electric vehicle charging points in the upper car park of Parliament Buildings. The Commission also has a cycle-to-work scheme, which is available to all Members and staff. One of the very few bright spots arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and the implementation of measures to facilitate remote working for Members and staff in Parliament Buildings has been a reduction in travel to and from Parliament Buildings. As well as a reduction in the use of fossils fuels to travel, there has been some reduction in utility usage in the Building.
Ms Ennis: I thank the Member for that very comprehensive answer. She referred to the electric vehicle charge points. Has the Commission considered extending their number across the estate?
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for her supplementary question, which is a very valid one. The Commission hopes to meet again by the end of this month. We have particular targets to meet for our carbon footprint across the region, so I will bring the question to the Commission's attention and come back to the Member. It is a valid point to make, because we hope that there will be an increased number of hybrid and electric vehicles on the road in the near future.
Mr Butler: I thank the Member for his question. He will be aware that the Assembly Commission has responsibility only for Parliament Buildings and the area immediately surrounding the Building. Beyond that, the management of the Stormont estate falls within the remit of the Department of Finance and specifically its estates management unit. Since the unit's inception in 2015, the Commission has worked in partnership with it to attain and retain the Business in the Community's business and biodiversity charter for the Stormont estate.
Within the Commission's limited remit, an apiary has been installed at the west side of Parliament Buildings. There are currently three beehives, and trained beekeepers from building services work closely with Veesbees, the providers, to maintain and look after them. Although it has been a challenging year, it is hoped that that resource can again be used as a way in which to educate staff and visitors, including school groups, about the importance of bees for biodiversity.
Within the Stormont estate, the estates management unit has provided a woodland environment with minimal intrusion to protect and expand the habitat for plant and animal life. The Commission, through the events office and the Assembly's education officers, promotes the nature trails throughout the estate and encourages visitors and school groups to make use of the grounds when they visit Parliament Buildings. I am sure that the Commission would encourage Members to do that as well. In that regard, the sustainable development office is a partner of the Eco-Schools group and helps raise awareness of the wildlife on the estate when meeting school groups.
The Commission's sustainable development office continues to liaise closely with the estates management unit in order to promote wildlife around Parliament Buildings.
Mr Boylan: I thank the Member for his answer. Has the Commission engaged with environmental organisations to ensure best practice in any of the programmes that it has brought forward?
Mr Butler: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. It is a good question. There is a partnership approach, but I will ensure that the exact detail of that is given in a written answer, if that is OK.
Mr Allister: If it does not offend the Sinn Féin controllers of the Commission, I suggest that, in the interest of the bees, a rose bed could be planted to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, and then the bees could feed on the nectar that is produced. What could be wrong with that?
Mr Butler: I thank the Member for his question. I take exception to anybody mistaking my meekness for weakness. I assure you that the Commission is not Sinn Féin-led.
Mr Butler: Controlled? It is not. Do not mistake my meekness for weakness.
I am sure that your suggestion will be taken on board and that we will discuss it at the next Commission meeting.
I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments. We have exhausted all of the questions on the list. Thank you.
Mr Catney: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I want to make an apology for being late. I was outside, but I was not sure if there was a place inside. I do not like opening the door, checking and moving in. I cannot move as quickly as I used to.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That is grand; no problem. I ask Members to take their ease. We will start the debate on the motion on carers shortly.
That this Assembly acknowledges the invaluable role unpaid carers have within society; further acknowledges that Carers' Week was from 7 to 13 June 2021; notes that many unpaid carers are unseen and unsupported by public services; further notes that unpaid carers are a diverse group with varying needs; recognises that the COVID-19 restrictions, including the withdrawal of respite and day-care services, have had a detrimental impact on carers and those they care for; further recognises the efforts to provide carers with a COVID-19 recognition grant; calls on the Minister of Health to urgently rebuild respite services, day-care services, and to deliver the carers' COVID-19 recognition grant; and further calls on the Minister to begin, immediately, work on a carers' register that will include all carers in receipt of carer's allowance, attendance allowance, as well as all other carers who are excluded from financial help due to the maximum income threshold limit, and to work with the wider Executive to make carers more visible and valued by public services.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Mr Gildernew: I am pleased to bring the motion to the Assembly on behalf of the Health Committee. I hope that it will attract broad support, given the interest at hand. I want, briefly, to thank the outgoing Deputy Chair of the Committee, Pam Cameron, for her contribution to the motion and, more fully, to the Health Committee in what has been an unprecedented and challenging time. I thank her for her contribution, commitment, knowledge and expertise and for her assistance and support to me.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)
Last week was Carers' Week. Its theme was "Make caring visible and valued". In the debate, we want to support those who have played such an important role over many years, and especially over the past 15 months of the pandemic, to provide support and care to a family member or friend who has a disability, illness or mental health condition or needs that bit of extra help as they grow older.
While we rightly seek to highlight the commitment of our professional health and social care (HSC) workers during the COVID pandemic, in the same manner, we want, now, to highlight the real commitment and work of carers, who have gone above and beyond what would be expected and, in many circumstances, provide care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They have put others before themselves. They have put family and friends first. I want to thank each and every one of them for that.
Carers play an invaluable role in the health and social care system. The help and support that they provide not only supports the family member or friend but plays a significant role in the delivery of the health service. The work of carers frees up staffing and resourcing to other areas of the system. A study at the end of November 2020 outlined that, over the course of the eight months of the pandemic at that time, the value of the care that had been provided was £4·8 billion or the equivalent of £19 million per day. Previous research by Carers NI found that 85% of carers in the North had taken on more care since the start of the pandemic, and, in November, 73% said that they were exhausted and worn out.
There is no doubt that, over the past seven months since November, that figure has increased. Many carers need recognition, help and support through these difficult times. Last week, a publication by Carers NI outlined that one third of people who care, unpaid, for family members or friends feel unable to manage their caring role, and 79% of carers have not had any breaks from their caring role during the pandemic.
After a difficult and challenging year, during which carers have provided many more hours of care for loved ones during the pandemic and have coped with reduced support from health and social care services, unpaid carers are seriously concerned about the support that they will have to help them to care in the future. Fewer than 10% of them are confident that the support that they receive with caring will continue after the pandemic. We need to do all that we can to provide the support and help that carers need to enable them to carry out their caring role.
Last week, Clare-Anne Magee, head of Carers NI, said:
"Carers are exhausted having cared around the clock for more than a year, and do not know how they can continue without a break. ... Without the right support, the stress of the last year could lead to far more carers breaking down."
That is a hugely worrying message. Furthermore, 72% of carers who responded to the Carers' Week survey reported poor mental health, while 67% said that their physical health had also deteriorated during the pandemic. There is no doubt that those are hugely worrying statistics and that there is a need for the Department to address those issues before things get worse.
One of the key ways in which the Department can help carers is to consider how it can restore and improve respite services for carers. A wide-ranging survey has shown that, before the pandemic, carers received an average of 38 hours of support every month. That was support from services, family and friends. Since the pandemic, carers are now reporting that they receive an average of 13 hours per month, mainly from family and friends. That has a huge impact on their health and well-being.
They are reporting that they are exhausted, worn out and stretched beyond breaking point.
Before the pandemic, there were problems with carers accessing breaks, with 44% of carers saying that they did not get the breaks that they needed. The pandemic has only exacerbated the issue, and the problem with respite services remaining vastly reduced or closed needs to be addressed urgently. Although we understand the difficulties of keeping services open during the pandemic, we must now focus on reopening the respite services that our carers need. I call on the Department to prioritise that area over the coming months and provide some much-needed respite for our carers.
I will now say a few words as Sinn Féin health spokesperson. We talk about carers as a large group, but there are many carers and many different needs. A carer is potentially a nurse who has had to give up her full-time contract and take bank shifts because her son has autism and she is struggling to get an assessment or to get services. A carer is also the teacher who is reducing his hours because his mother is being discharged from hospital, but no care in the community package has been identified, so he has to take time off work. A carer is also — I think that this is one of the most worrying ones — the young kid in school who is sent to the principal because he has used his phone, and he is too embarrassed to tell anyone that his mum is struggling because of her caring responsibilities at home and that he is helping to look after his little brother or whoever it may be. So there are a range of carers, and that tells us that we need to have a range of supports in place. We also have sandwich carers. I feel that that is a rather strange term, but it captures in some way the fact that some people are looking after younger people and also parents, and they are trying to juggle both.
I declare an interest as a former social worker, and I will reflect on one case that I dealt with towards the end of my career before I became an MLA. I went out to visit a lady in my constituency who was 87 years old, and she was looking after her 91-year-old husband, who had had multiple strokes. She was providing that care 24 hours a day, seven days a week while struggling with her own increasing age and health conditions. The purpose of my visit was in response to a request from her that she needed more help. When I went out to her, she asked me if she could get someone to sit for one hour a week. I thought that was bad enough, but when I asked her what it was for, she said that she needed that hour to get her own appointments done, to get to the chemist to collect things and, if possible, to get her hair done the odd time. I have to say that I felt ashamed going out to that lady. I had to go back and fight the case to get her that one hour, which I eventually did. We let that woman down. It is not fair, it is not sustainable, and it is not something that any of us can stand over. We have to look at what we are going to do about it.
There are several issues around all that. First of all, there is the issue of who the carers are. We do not have the right information, and, very often, carers are too reluctant to identify themselves, but they need support and they need to be identified and put on the register. They need to get the minimal supports because, often, they just see caring as part of life. The problem is that, if they do not recognise themselves as carers, they do not reach out for help, and they then get into a situation where they can no longer cope.
The impact of COVID on day-care and respite services has been phenomenal, and the lack of services is the single most important issue that carers raise with me. Why are other services back in place, yet we have still not seen the full restoration of those supports in health and social care settings? That is an important issue that we need to return to. I also think that it is important that we see progress on the carers' COVID payment. It is deeply disappointing, and, in some ways, it is only a token, but it would provide some recognition to carers that they were being recognised. I do not think that the financial element will actually compensate in any way, but it has to be considered.
The bottom line is this: we have to give carers a break. If we do not, we will be dealing with broken carers, and if we are dealing with broken carers, we will be dealing with broken care arrangements, and that will put further pressure on an already overstretched system. We need to recognise the work that they have done. We need to improve the supports. We need to work together. The Department of Health clearly has a central role, but we need to work across all Departments and the entire Executive to provide the support that carers so badly need and so richly deserve.
We also need to recognise the fact that the health and social care system does not work without the input of carers every day of the week and often every hour of the day.
Ms Hunter: I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this important issue: the critical role that carers play in society. I speak in my role as my party's health spokesperson and as a member of the Health Committee.
As the motion notes, last week, from 7 to 13 June, was Carers' Week. That was an opportunity for us to acknowledge the great and, indeed, inspiring, work of all our carers here, paid and unpaid. The theme of this year's awareness campaign was "Make Caring Visible and Valued". That was a particularly fitting theme for 2021, given the role that carers have played in the pandemic over the last 15 months. They truly are the best of us.
Whilst the pandemic has given us all a much better understanding of and appreciation for what carers do, there is much work to be done. I hope that last week has gone even a little way to help society to recognise the hard work and dedication of our carers, including young carers, who often feel overlooked and forgotten. Northern Ireland has over 220,000 carers, 4% of whom are under the age of 18. In that 4% are those who choose to make dinner for their family instead of going out with their friends and to support their loved ones while sacrificing many aspects of their youth. That is a selflessness that few of us will ever understand. Nearly 7,000 young people in the North provide up to 19 hours of unpaid care per week, while 960 provide up to 49 hours of unpaid care a week. Those are startling statistics.
We all must ask ourselves this question: who cares for our carers? That is our job. Perhaps the Minister can give us an update on the support for carers fund and whether his Department has considered increasing carer support.
A survey to mark Carers' Week last week found that nearly three quarters of carers in the North said that their mental health had suffered as a result of their caring responsibilities. Nearly 70% said that their physical health had been impacted. That is deeply alarming. Similarly concerning is a statistic in a report by the National Autistic Society entitled 'Left Stranded', which stated that, due to the pandemic:
"One in five family members had to reduce work due to caring responsibilities."
Often, that has a disproportionate impact on women.
As the motion notes, sadly, many of our carers go "unseen and unsupported". They go about their work every day without complaint or any expectation of reward. Their work is often very demanding in a physical sense, but I am sure it is also emotionally extremely difficult.
An important point that the motion makes and that we can all too easily forget is that:
"unpaid carers are a diverse group with varying needs".
Carers come from all age groups. Many are children and young people caring for a parent, working parents caring for a sick or disabled child or an elderly parent or, as the Chair mentioned, an older person caring for a husband or wife. In all those circumstances and more, people must try to juggle their caring responsibilities with everyday demands, whether those are schoolwork, going to work, caring for other children or, in the case of an elderly person, simply meeting their own caring needs.
The motion mentions respite services. Whilst I acknowledge that difficult decisions had to be made about the closure of those services in the early days of the pandemic, I believe, alongside the Chair, that we must urgently reinstate and rebuild them.
Now is the time for us and the Department of Health to take action for our carers, especially because, as life expectancy continues to increase, the demand for carers is projected to increase substantially in the coming decades. Let us make being a carer an exciting career pathway. Let us give our carers an outlet. Let us prioritise their care. Let us prioritise well-being in society. Let us do that today by starting with our carers. With a new and innovative kind of thinking, similar to the kind of spirit and energy we saw in the early days of adapting to the COVID-19 crisis, the Assembly and Executive can together improve the lives of all our carers here.
Mr Chambers: Over 200,000 people across Northern Ireland have some form of caring role. Without the work of those informal carers, the formal care system would be totally unsustainable. They really are the backbone of what is good in our society. Their role has already been brought into sharp focus during the pandemic. Many already provided unending love and care in some challenging circumstances, but, in the context of a global pandemic, which saw such concern about clinical vulnerabilities and meant that it was necessary for many services to be stood down, those pressures were greatly exacerbated.
I was especially glad that the important role of carers was recognised when it was announced that they would form part of priority group six of the vaccination programme. That saw carers, regardless of age, starting to be vaccinated four months ago. That was a very important point from not only a clinical perspective but a psychological one, as it was a clear illustration and marking of the vital caring role that they perform.
I was also glad that, earlier this year, the Minister was able to announce a new £4·4 million scheme to support unpaid carers. He was right to allow the fund to remain agile in what it could be used for rather than being too prescriptive. The Minister is also on record as saying that he wants to see further support beyond the immediate support funds being offered to our carers. There is no doubt that the pandemic has compounded the pressures felt by carers, so I support a further payment. However, the Health Minister has been clear that, whilst that it also his position, the power to do that does not rest with him alone, so it is important that all those speaking today, especially those from Executive parties, realise that that needs to be a cross-Executive priority. It will take more than simply goodwill and agreeable words: we need other Ministers to proactively come on board to help drive it through.
The role of respite and day-care centres has already been raised, and I agree that they provide an almost invaluable service to carers and their families. Whilst many have reopened, their capacity has had to be reduced due to the necessity to protect service users and staff. Trusts have taken steps to maximise capacity wherever it exists, but I would be grateful if the Minister could say what he sees the next period looking like, especially as we continue with the incredibly successful vaccination programme. In the meantime, I expect that the trusts, the Health and Social Care Board and the Department of Health will continue to provide whatever practical support they can to carers. They are a valuable, caring and respected part of society, and I know that the Minister does not take their unstinting goodwill for granted.
Ms Bradshaw: I support the motion. Before I start, I thank the constituents who responded to my Facebook post, about a week ago, that asked them to feed into today's debate. I will quote them anonymously, but their sharing of their direct experiences was very valuable.
The motion follows Carers' Week last week, during which I and others made the key point mentioned in the motion, namely that many carers are unseen and unsupported by public services. Indeed, as has been highlighted already this afternoon, many do not even really think of themselves as carers but rather as people who are simply doing their duty for loved ones. Perhaps, the first thing that we could do is give carers the recognition that they deserve.
Of around 310,000 carers in Northern Ireland, close to one third only joined the ranks during the pandemic. Whether or not they became a carer during the pandemic, the key point, as I said last week, is that they have gone above and beyond in protecting, nurturing and supporting loved ones. From my own household, as my husband is a carer for his elderly mother, I know that to be a carer during the pandemic is to be on call all day every day — the call that there has been a fall just as you are sitting down to a family picnic in the early afternoon; the call at 3.00 am that there is a medical emergency; and the call at 6.00 am that there is a bereavement. From my experience of the past year, I know that that is what life is like for an unpaid carer: constantly on duty and, as carersweek.org put it, "never getting a night's sleep". It is small wonder that the Carers NI document states that carers are worn out: 74% are exhausted, 71% are anxious and 65% are isolated. One parent referred, understandably, to "a lonely, vicious cycle". Almost three quarters of carers say that they get no breaks at all; some do not even attempt to take one.
Those who take breaks do not use them to catch up on physical exercise but to do housework or to meet their own medical needs.
The impact on the mental health of people, potentially those in young adulthood, facing up to the enormity of constant caring for the rest of their lives has not yet been fully researched, but it is difficult to conceive of for those who have never been in that position. For that reason, the Alliance Party prioritised the reopening of respite centres and day centres. Carers must see the light at the end of the tunnel, in their own interests as well as those for whom they care. Day centres are a lifeline, and respite centres are vital. If we do not ensure that they can operate, the exhaustion and burnout experienced by carers will only be exacerbated until they simply can take it no longer. Also, there can be no postcode lottery. Day centres and respite centres are not an optional extra but an essential frontline support. I put on record my concern that day centres still appear to be closing for staff training, given that attendance is still low. I hope that a way can be found for this not to be a necessity.
Carers often do not like to raise another aspect of their role that nevertheless is an absolute priority in practice. The personal cost comes in the strain not only on health and relationships but on finance, which is often indirect. The toll on health can in itself have long-term financial consequences on the ability to work and earn. There can be the most obvious limitations to earning opportunities, given the time commitment and emotional toll of caring. There can be a direct financial hit from, for example, mileage coverage from medical visits, buying groceries and so on. During the pandemic, other costs have arisen such as taking taxis when public transport was not available or buying PPE for people coming in to care in their homes.
People not being able to access carers have to sacrifice opportunities and incur extra costs, and they should not be, in the words of the motion, "unseen". A carers' register would be a good first step towards vital recognition and support. That could assess who is getting carer's allowance and other grants, who should be getting those and what other support can be made available to those who fall through the cracks. Most of all, it may provide a way to ensure that carers access what they so demonstrably need: adequate respite, assistance with their own physical and mental well-being and financial support. One constituent put the requirement neatly by saying, "I do this with love and determination but also with extreme exhaustion and non-existent value, both as a person and in monetary terms. I am far from alone in this".
Ms Bradshaw: I will. Thank you.
Hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland have given care for 16 months without a break, and it is time that we provided them with the support that they need.
Ms Ní Chuilín: I support the motion. I had to nip out to take a phone call. Other MLAs have spoken about Carers' Week, and it is really important that we set aside certain days, such as World Health Day, and weeks for issues of this nature. Given that last week was Carers' Week and the fact that we are coming out of the pandemic, it is important that there is total cross-community support for the motion, as there is in the House, on looking after carers. The issue for a lot of people is that they are at different stages of their lives, but there is a universal sense that you want to do your best. Some of us do better than others. For example, in my family, we are looking after our mother. All of us are working, and we are trying to juggle, but it always falls to one of the siblings. You can see the pressure on them, and, as a family member, you feel guilty about that.
Paula and other Members mentioned the notion of a carers' register, and I think that that is important and would be beneficial. For example, when COVID started last year and a lot of us were out delivering food parcels and looking after people, there was a local register. It showed who was caring for somebody, and it was about getting food, fuel and prescriptions to them. Pharmacists know who the carers are because, more often than not, they get the blister packs delivered to the carers.
Indeed, local shopkeepers know who the carers are. GPs, or staff in their surgeries, know who they are. When it came to vaccinations — the Minister will remember this — there was concern about certain carers getting vaccinated. It would be good if health and social care could wrap itself around those carers and make sure that the register is formalised and updated.
I want to talk about another issue, and I have seen this a lot in my constituency. I am working with three young people who are carers for their elderly grandparents, who reared them. They are looking after their grandparents while trying to finish their education and training. Some of them are trying to hold down part-time jobs as well. You will not hear them say a bad word about their situation. They think, as we all do, that they are giving something back. However, these young people felt really isolated and anxious during the pandemic. In some, because of the way in which things happened, I could also see depression starting to set in. Their network was probably their friends on social media. While their friends talked about doing different things, the young carers acted responsibly and underplayed their caring role.
From my short but important time on the Health Committee, I learnt that there are few aspects of health that carers are not a part of. There is recognition, rightfully so, of the health and social care system, particularly during the pandemic. There was, and still is, an awareness of the role that pharmacists, GPs, nurses and so on played. However, it is important that we recognise the role that carers played pre-pandemic and will continue to play. As we come out of COVID, it is important to recognise their contribution. Trying to cocoon people and keep them safe was the right thing to do at the time. However, I have seen that, as a result, any contact that the young carers used to have, even standing having a yarn, or standing, as we in terrace houses do, at our front door with a cup of tea at night, stopped.
One of the things that I thought was great about the local food bank was that, as we dropped food off, they dropped off Haribos and different things that were more age-appropriate for the young carers, just to let them know that people were thinking about them.
For us as a society, for the Department and for me, the recognition of carers is critical. We must give them additional support.
Mr Weir: I speak as a carer. Another related issue that has been seen during COVID is that those who are cared for, particularly where dementia is involved, find it difficult to understand why they cannot go out, and people not being able to come into the house has also had a major impact on many families and those with caring responsibilities.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, as sin. Peter, thank you very much for that intervention and for sharing your personal experience.
If any financial recognition could be given to carers, it would be much appreciated. As I was saying before the intervention, there are many different levels of pressure on carers, but there is pressure. For people with dementia and Alzheimer's, the pressure is more extreme. As we are aware, the impact that COVID had on such situations was huge. For young carers like Paula, who got in contact with me, even getting a namecheck in the Assembly was good enough.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Sin a bhfuil agam le rá. That is all from me. Thank you very much.
Ms Armstrong: Thank you very much, Minister. You will be sick, sore and tired of me mentioning the word "carers".
I start by declaring an interest. I am, as everybody knows, a carer. I have an elderly father and a disabled brother. Many other carers are just not known about. There is no carers' register, and, as others have said, we absolutely need one.
I did a bit of research into who the carers are. In January, when the Minister mentioned the possibility of bringing forward a payment for carers, I thought about how we would identify them. We know that over 48,000 people are in receipt of carer's allowance. We also know that a heck of a lot of carers are not allowed to receive that allowance. Some may be working.
I then asked how many people are registered with the trusts, expecting the figure to be higher than 48,000, as more people can be registered with trusts, because any carer can register with them. I was absolutely astounded to find out that, instead of there being more than 48,000, only 8,000 are registered with our trusts. Given the fact that carers are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, aunts, uncles and friends of people, it is an issue that cuts across all of society.
Minister, as you know, and we know, many carers are hidden. They are in the background, getting on with what they do. I will give you a slight insight into my world: it involves cleaning their teeth, shaving them, helping them up, getting them dressed, putting them to bed and getting them something to eat. I am lucky that my brother can feed himself, but he cannot wash a dish or his clothes. That is all of the stuff that carers do, day in and day out. Part of the qualification for a carer's allowance is that you have to have broken sleep patterns. That is 48,000 people, whom we know of, who have a broken sleep pattern every night. It is not a nine-to-five job. Rather, it is something that happens seven days a week, 365 days a year. It does not matter what happens or when it happens. There will always be times when sleep goes out the window completely. It could be something as simple as the person being excited, as my brother is, at 49 years of age, for Santa coming. Sleep goes out the window for about a week.
Many things happen, but, until COVID, everybody just got on with it. During COVID, unfortunately, we had no support at all. Even if you wanted respite, it was gone. Day centres were gone. That left us at home with the person whom we cared for. In my family's situation, my dad was shielding home alone with my brother, who is non-verbal, so that was a difficulty. He looked after the person but was not able to speak to anyone. All of that support was gone in an instant.
I talk to carers all the time, as you can imagine. A lot of carers phone me and say, "The pubs are open. Why is respite not? It's not just that I'm absolutely exhausted, but the person I care for is sick looking at me and needs a break from me too". As my colleague Paula Bradshaw said, it is a postcode lottery. I am aware that some tiny parts of day-centre care and respite care are available if people know where to ask for it and if it is available in your trust area. It is not available in all trusts or for all people. In fact, the number who get to use day centres is so limited that the service may as well not be there for most. It also depends on the contacts that you have in the area. Mr Chambers said that funding has been provided for carers. It has been provided for carers' organisations. I can put my hand on my heart and say that the majority of carers are not even in contact with all those organisations, even though the organisations would love them to be. Until I came to this place, I did not know about Carers NI and a lot of the other organisations. Money being invested in organisations is good for those who are able to avail themselves of that support, but it is not so good for the very many others among us who do not get it.
As I said, not all carers get carer's allowance. We need a carers' register. I know, Minister, that that will be a heartbreak for you, because how do you find out the information? We heard all about it when others talked about us throughout the COVID pandemic and when getting vaccinations. I heard members of the public saying, "Sure, they're just making up that they're a carer". Everybody's life is different. The one-off payment was mentioned in January. Carers are holding that up to us, day in and day out. They want to know when it is coming forward. Did the Northern Ireland Executive carry forward unspent money, for which carers were supposed to apply? We need flexible access to respite —.
Ms Armstrong: I will indeed.
We need flexible access to respite —.
Mr Swann: I acknowledge the role that the Member has played in being a voice for carers. That will give her an extra minute.
Ms Armstrong: Thank you very much, Minister. That is very much appreciated.
We need measures to enable flexible access to respite support for all carers, including end-of-life carers. We need to ensure that the needs of carers, including end-of-life carers, are met and that their voices are listened to in the rebuilding of health and social care plans. We need to consider the unique challenges that are associated with caring for people with learning disabilities, dementia or a terminal illness. The Department will, of course, include all those people in the wider work of reforming adult social care.
It is a tough time for carers out there, but we have a Minister who is committed to them.
Ms Armstrong: I thank the Minister for taking his time to consider our carers. They are all pandemic heroes.
Ms Flynn: I am happy to support the motion. It is great that another Health Committee motion has been brought to the Assembly with the support of all the parties that sit on that Committee. It is a good opportunity to show the Committee and the Assembly's appreciation for all carers in our society.
It has been said previously that we already knew that carers were in need of considerable support pre-COVID, and that many carers struggled to have their roles properly recognised and valued by public services. Paula Bradshaw mentioned some of the figures that we got from Marie Curie and the estimate that, of the 310,000 people in the North who may be providing care to a family member or a loved one, almost 100,000 have become carers since the start of the pandemic. The impact of COVID saw respite services and day-care centres pulled almost overnight, which meant that carers' usual coping strategies and support plans also disappeared immediately. As we know, those facilities have been slow to return and many carers continue to struggle. The Chairperson of the Health Committee said that it is getting to the stage where many people will be facing burnout, which is a real concern. Those carers need access to day breaks.
We heard from Kellie about the importance of overnight respite stays both for carers and the person who is being cared for. They also need the full resumption of day centres. The COVID recognition payment was mentioned. Cara has asked the Minister to provide an update, so I hope that we will get some more detail on that. It has been said that, in the grander scheme of things, the COVID recognition payment will only amount to a small contribution but, symbolically, while carers say that they do not feel visible, appreciated or recognised, the gesture of that payment sends a positive message to every carer in our society.
I believe that if the motion is passed and implemented, all of the additional measures that we are calling for in it will go a long way towards addressing the mental health needs of carers, which are often neglected despite many of them experiencing poor mental health. Reports have shown that over 70% of carers have poor physical or mental health. Those mental health problems include emotional distress, depressive symptoms and clinical depression. Cara mentioned the impact on young carers. One of the reports stated that almost 40% of them have reported having a mental health problem, yet only half of that 40% are getting any additional support to try to deal with that mental health distress.
As we know, for many years, carers have been highlighting that, one, they are not getting enough sleep; two, they are providing hands-on help for the person who they care for; and three, they are struggling to manage financially. Those are the three biggest things that are contributing most to their stress and anxiety. When carers go without any additional support to cope with those types of issues, is it any wonder that they go on to suffer from depression, stress, anxiety and strained relationships with their family and friends?
While funding for services is a challenge in the overall context of the health and social care system, the number of people who are in need of long-term care is continuing to increase regardless. It is, therefore, crucial that in any system, including our own, that is reliant on informal carers, practical and financial support is available. The contribution of carers' support to the economy is priceless yet, unfortunately, their health and well-being is not often recognised or prioritised.
Caring can be physically, mentally and financially demanding. Without providing support for carers to look after themselves, we are, essentially, jeopardising their ability to provide that service. A carer's mental and physical health will have a significant impact on their ability to provide support for others, so let us do all what we can to help support them.
Mr Carroll: The first thing that it is important to recognise is that the unacceptable conditions were experienced by unpaid carers for a long time, long before the pandemic.
The pandemic shone a light on the importance of their role, as it did on the importance of low-paid and often unappreciated workers across society. It is right that we deliver the carers' recognition grant and show support for the work that they did in difficult circumstances, when supports were stripped away, relief was difficult to come by and respite was impossible for some to find. I am sure that carers would greatly appreciate whatever support the grant can provide, but, to be frank, I do not think that it goes far enough, and, much as I support the motion, nor do the measures in it.
I missed the start of the debate, so apologies if other Members have already said that, according to Carers NI, unpaid carers saved us £19 million every day of the pandemic, which amounted to £5 billion at the end of last year; that total is undoubtedly higher now. That enormous contribution to society left around three quarters of carers who were surveyed exhausted and worn out as a result, as another Member said.
That contribution is made by unpaid carers, the overwhelming majority of them female, every year. We should absolutely appreciate how much more difficult that was during the pandemic, but unpaid care in the North is rarely a walk in the park in so-called normal times. Unpaid carers face financial strain from having to take up low- or zero-hours contracts, from being unable to jump the pay scale because of their commitments and, for those who cannot work, from receiving a pittance in carer's allowance. Carers report having to cut back on essentials such as food and heating and falling into arrears with housing and utility bills, while others borrow money on credit cards, take out loans or borrow from friends or family. One quarter of carers report that they have been or are currently in debt as a result of their caring role, according to the Carers UK survey.
That is what faces those who save the state billions of pounds with their unpaid work, which, like any other labour, is deserving of proper income and conditions. According to Carers NI, carer's allowance is £62·10 per week for the people who can actually claim it. People find that, in reality, it is a pittance. They feel that they should get something equal to the minimum wage, and I certainly support them in that. For those who cannot claim it because of the strict eligibility criteria, there is little on offer at all. Where are the plans to increase the carer's allowance? Carers NI is calling for a £20 increase. That will not come close to the billions saved by the state every year, but it is not even on the table, as far as I am aware.
So many of our unpaid carers have a long-term health issue or face disability themselves. A total of 20,500 residents with severe long-term health issues or disabilities provided some level of care, ranging from one to 50 hours per week. With the changes to welfare, it is likely that some of those carers will miss out on support for themselves. It cannot be said strongly enough that the state takes advantage of people who very often have to provide unpaid care because of a lack of options. As I said, the state saves billions off the backs of carers every year.
What is offered in return is a disgrace and falls far below the basic standards that should be expected of our society, which generates such wealth. Instead of ending privatisation in our care sector, providing socialised solutions and proper wages for those who work in care, with a living income for those who are currently unpaid and unionising the entire sector, we rely on individualised, privatised solutions to care. Carers are not the only ones who face the consequences; those who are being cared for do as well.
There is a crisis of care in the North. Like waiting lists, it is growing. I have no problem in saying that it is undoubtedly the case that the issue is allowed to fester because it overwhelmingly affects female and vulnerable people. That is not a small group of people. Census 2011 found that some 12% of people were providing some sort of unpaid care in society.
Today, Carers NI estimates that there are 320,000 adult carers in the North and over 30,000 young carers. That is 350,000 people doing work that is often difficult and physical, with long-term impacts, for little or no income, while the for-profit care system grows. Some in the Chamber scoff and laugh at socialist solutions to society's ills: to them I say that this kind of crisis is exactly why I do not have any truck with the current system, which fails not only carers —
Mr Carroll: — but the very many vulnerable people in our society. I am happy to support the motion.
Mr Swann: I am grateful to the members of the Health Committee for tabling the motion, as it has provided a welcome opportunity to highlight and debate a subject that, as many know, is dear to my heart. Last week was Carers' Week, a UK-wide annual event aimed at raising the profile of carers and the challenges they face and recognising the contribution they make to their families and communities. This year, the added focus was on valuing carers and their role. I was pleased to be able to contribute and take part in a number of initiatives for Carers' Week. I have paid and will continue to pay tribute to the many thousands of people in Northern Ireland who help look after a family member or a friend without financial reward. Put simply, the health service could not cope without you, and we owe a debt of gratitude.
Over the past year, I have received numerous letters from carers and public representatives expressing concerns about caring during the pandemic. I know and understand that, for a number of carers, this has been a difficult and challenging period of their lives, and some of the stories are truly heartbreaking. As Minister of Health, I will not shrink from my responsibilities to our carers. There are big issues facing carers right now, and the motion identifies many of them. The one issue that carers repeatedly raise with me is the restoration of short break provision, and that has been echoed by many Members in the Chamber, not just today but over the past 15 months. I want carers listening today and Members of the House to know that that issue has been and will continue to be a priority for my Department and the trusts. I am conscious that families and carers need clarity on when adult day centres and short breaks will return to full capacity. Both services are currently subject to public health guidance that ultimately limits the number of people who can use respite services at one time. I am aware that this has impacted on the mental health and well-being of vulnerable adults and their carers. Trusts and independent sector providers have risen to the challenge by augmenting services, providing alternative supports, ensuring that all alternative places are utilised and providing direct payments to families. They have innovated by redesigning physical spaces within the limitations of Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) regulation, developing digital services and increasing the support that is delivered in the family home. Some of those new ways of working show merit and will continue in the longer term.
As the vaccination programme continues to be delivered at pace and restrictions are relaxed, the expectations of families that day services and short breaks can be restored to full capacity are growing. To that end, I can report to members that the Public Health Agency has been tasked by me to urgently review the risks associated with day centres and short break provision, particularly around social distancing, and to consider the use of lateral flow testing for staff. Additionally, I have asked the trusts to urgently review their reset and recovery plans, and I have reminded them to continue to assess what further innovative or alternative measures can be put in place while day centres and short break provision are provided at a limited capacity. I very much want to see day centre and short break capacity increased to allow carers the break from caring that they very much need and deserve.
I turn to the issue of a one-off award for carers. I said in January and have discussed with the Health Committee that I would like to see our carers provided with an award to recognise their contribution during the pandemic. That work has, unfortunately, proven to be significantly more complex and challenging than originally thought. For example, identifying and verifying the status of unpaid carers is extremely challenging; Ms Armstrong has identified that. There are also substantial legal, operational and financial impediments. We have explored several legal avenues, but it is clear that my Department does not have the legislative powers to make such a payment to carers. There are significant aspects that are in the remit of other Departments, and, as you can appreciate, they are not easy obstacles to overcome. A major difficulty is being able to —.
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Minister for giving way. I know about the work he has done to ensure that the payment is made. Will he agree that the payment must be inclusive and include people like working carers, who may be hidden in the system but nevertheless do a significant job? The payment should also include young carers.
Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her contribution. I have made a couple of scribbled notes about thanking, on this very issue, my two former Executive colleagues who are in the Chamber today. I do not think I have ever spoken out about the conversations that we had in the Executive, but I assure Members that, when the issue of the payment and the difficulties that it presents legally and operationally were raised, I had the support of both former Ministers. They both acknowledged the role that carers play in matters not just in the Department of Health but the Department of Education and the Department for the Economy. I thank personally my two colleagues who are in the Chamber today for the support that they gave to carers when that issue was raised in the Executive.
As identified, and Mrs Dodds raised this, the major difficultly is being able to clearly identify who is a carer. That problem was brought into sharp relief when rolling out the COVID vaccine to carers earlier this year. I briefed members of the Health Committee on that back in February. The trusts each maintain a carers' register that carers can voluntarily choose to join. However, we know that those lists do not offer any true reflection of the totality of carers in Northern Ireland, so they cannot be used as a definitive list to identify recipients of an award and validate any payments, nor can they be used as the basis for vaccination, for instance. I recognise that that position is disappointing. However, I have escalated the issue to the Executive to seek the assistance of all Executive colleagues in taking that forward.
As noted, I was delighted to be able to announce the creation of the support for carers fund at the end of March. The fund, which is worth over £4 million, seeks to provide much-needed financial resources to the community and voluntary sector to support carers. It is now open for applications, and I hope that we will soon see projects getting off the ground that can make a real difference for many carers. I appreciate that that is not the same as a cash recognition to individuals, but it nevertheless represents a very significant financial investment. The funding will be provided directly to support sustained improvement in the lives and experiences of individual carers.
The motion also calls for the development of a register of carers, and I previously expressed my wish for my Department to look into the possibility of developing such a register when current pressures allow. It became very evident during the roll-out of the vaccine programme that we in Northern Ireland do not have a robust method of identifying carers. However, that is not necessarily an easy task, and it would require, again, cross-departmental collaboration to achieve, as well as additional funding for its development and ongoing maintenance. Members may be aware that my constituency colleague Mervyn Storey has a private Member's Bill on the issue.
Members and carers, however, should be assured that my Department and the HSC continue to work for carers. My officials and staff in the board and the trusts have been working very hard to support carers over the pandemic period. In my letter to the Health Committee on 9 December, I gave a very detailed overview of how my Department responded to the pandemic situation to support servi