Official Report: Monday 13 December 2021


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

Members' Statements

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

Nationality and Borders Bill: Non-Irish EU Citizens

Dr Archibald: The so-called Nationality and Borders Bill is passing through Westminster. The Bill, with its many regressive provisions, is an extension of the Home Office's hostile environment, and concerns have been raised about it for some time. However, it is the particular requirement for non-Irish EU citizens to have to apply online for pre-travel clearance to cross the border that I want to raise.

The proposal has been criticised by parties across this island and by rights organisations. The requirement would undermine the Good Friday Agreement, as well as being in conflict with the protocol around the non-diminution of rights. It is, frankly, ridiculous to suggest that people in the South, particularly those living in border areas, would be subject to pre-travel clearance to go about their daily business.

Thousands of people cross the border every day for work, study, childcare and healthcare, and for family, social and tourism reasons. Those thousands include non-Irish EU citizens. The British Government claim that there will be no checks at the border but have said that there will be ad hoc in-country checks. I fear that that would create a real risk of racial profiling.

The proposed requirement would create unreasonable levels of bureaucracy and unacceptable legal uncertainty for thousands of citizens.

Many people in the South may be completely unaware of the requirement, and penalties if found to be in contravention include a fine or up to six months in prison. Requiring pre-travel clearance would harden the border for thousands of our fellow EU citizens.

The proposal is unworkable and would be unenforceable. The very fact that it has been proposed highlights the complete lack of understanding by those in the British Administration who came up with it. It is clear that they do not have a notion about daily life here. The British Government need to listen to the objections and concerns that are being raised across this island and go back to the drawing board. The proposal needs to be scrapped. There is also an onus on the Irish Government and the EU to make it clear to the British Government how fundamentally unworkable and unacceptable it would be.

Nurses: Recruitment and Retention

Mrs Erskine: I urge the Minister of Health to act to reform our health service. We need to support the workforce that we have. We also need to put in place a plan to recruit and retain more nurses. Our nurses are brilliant. They are angels, and the huge responsibility of their work takes an enormous physical and emotional toll on them.

Figures that my party has obtained, however, show that health trusts are failing to manage their workforce. Private employment agencies cost health trusts in Northern Ireland up to £736 a shift in some cases. More than £115,800 was spent on nurses covering 188 shifts from Saturday 9 October to Monday 11 October across five health trusts. I have spoken to scores of nurses who are hugely experienced but work for an agency rather than full-time in a trust, as it suits their work-life balance. Although agency work is better paid, there is no pension or holiday pay. We must also remember that agencies take an enormous cut for each shift. It would be wrong to think that a nurse is getting up to £736 a shift. Setting aside the hugely inflated costs for shift cover, I ask this: how does a shift in one trust cost £200 more than a shift in another? We need to ask ourselves why nurses are choosing to leave the health service to work as agency staff.

Recently, in the Health Committee, I heard the stark figure that, in Musgrave Park Hospital, 14 out of 100 perioperative nurses have left. That is one hospital in Northern Ireland in which it would be a very difficult task to get elective surgery up and running to pre-COVID levels. We need to keep the nurses whom we have and build on the workforce. In 2016, the then Health Minister, Simon Hamilton, announced a 15% increase in the annual number of preregistration nurse training places commissioned in Northern Ireland and established a new task group on nursing. There is a lot of stress and poor morale among nursing staff. They are the most valuable resource in keeping our health service going. Trusts have become all too dependent on agencies. Since the figures given were published, the Royal College of Nursing has stated that the situation is unsustainable. Why are we not giving incentives to the health workforce at present? Golden cuffs already in force in other parts of the UK are beneficial. Those incentives are retaining staff in the health service. We need to take a serious look at doing that in order to equip staff appropriately —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mrs Erskine: — to do the job in hand. I have asked the Minister to bring forward proposals —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mrs Erskine: — that will hugely mitigate the inefficient use of agencies and make the job better suited to the needs of the workforce.

Mental Health

Mr McCrossan: I will speak about the mental health pandemic that is having dire consequences throughout each and all of our communities and that is having a particularly severe impact on young people. Many people are struggling. Particularly at this time of year, we can see how much people have found, and are finding, life tough. Even in more normal times, and, in the midst of the pandemic, we are far from being in normal times, people struggled.

Unfortunately, on Saturday 4 December, young Michael McGinty went missing in Strabane. He was 20 years of age.

His mummy and daddy died not so long ago, and they were both quite young. Michael had clearly struggled and battled. Unfortunately, on Saturday a week ago, he went missing and was found just this Saturday. There have been dire consequences and effects on local people. Unfortunately, we are seeing an increase in the levels of suicide in our communities and people who are struggling and battling every day. What I have seen in Strabane over the past week has been heartbreaking, but we have also seen the community come together in their search for Michael's body.

The local search and rescue groups do fantastic and invaluable work and make a huge contribution to help and support families in the most difficult of circumstances. The same can be said of all our communities. This week, I saw that with the Three Rivers Search & Rescue group, the Community Rescue Service and Foyle Search and Rescue. In very difficult circumstances, in torrential weather, they searched day and night for Michael's remains. That brought considerable comfort to his family. Thankfully, his body was found on Saturday.

This week, there is a great sense of sadness and heartbreak in the Strabane community as this is the third young person who has died. Aaron Harkin, who was 26, died in a car accident. He had a young family. Emma Harpur, who was 10 years of age, sadly, died with cancer, and also Michael McGinty, who was found on Saturday. This is a tremendously difficult time of the year for people. I urge all those who are struggling in our communities and battling with their mental health, who need help, who need support and someone to reach out to, to do so. There is help out there. It is OK not to be OK; you are not on your own. Please, this Christmas period, as all of us sit down together, let us think of those who are struggling and battling in very difficult circumstances.

Historic Heritage

Mr Beattie: I do not want to minimise the very tragic story that has just been outlined about mental health. We are all on the same page on that issue. I want to raise the issue of our historic heritage, which is slowly being undermined as we all concentrate on very important, big political issues such as the protocol, COVID and health.

I have stood here before and talked about Knock Iveagh, a neolithic site that is older than the pyramids. Hundreds of years ago, it was the coronation place of Irish kings, and it has been destroyed by a wind turbine having been placed on top of it, which is against the proper planning permission. I can reflect on the Ballintaggart stones, also known as the giant's gravestones, that date back about 5,000 years. They were ripped up 13 years ago and now lie in storage that is open to the weather. It is another piece of our historic heritage that is being slowly degraded and ruined. I reflect on the grange and rath in Waringstown, in my constituency, that dates back to 1659, which, again through bad planning, has been completely destroyed and cannot be recovered.

My last example is the Newry canal. The Newry canal is the oldest summit canal in the United Kingdom and Ireland, dating back to 1742. Yet it sits in disrepair, especially the summit part of the canal between Markethill and Armagh, and it is in desperate need of restoration. In fact, all our historic heritage is in desperate need of protection. Of course, we have the historic environment division (HED), which sits in the Department for Communities, but many of the issues that I am speaking about are to do with the Department for Infrastructure and planning.

The HED should be situated in the Department for Infrastructure so that it can look at the planning laws that are falling by the wayside and allowing our heritage to be destroyed time and time again. This is happening not just in Northern Ireland but throughout the whole island of Ireland. It is important that we look at our history, not just recent history but our historic heritage, and not just for ourselves but for those who are coming after us.


12.15 pm

Kinnegar Logistics Base

Mr Muir: I want to raise the future of Kinnegar logistics base in Holywood and to urge central and local government to grasp the opportunity presented by the recent decision, by the Ministry of Defence, to delay disposal by two years from 2022 to 2024. Kinnegar was previously a busy base, employing up to 1,000 civilian staff at the height of the Troubles, but the future need for this 54-acre base has changed. I welcome the commitment given by the Ministry of Defence that no job losses will occur and those currently employed there will be redeployed to other barracks.

Whilst the site is currently the location for the temporary resting place — and that must be kept in place for as long as it is, sadly, required — Kinnegar logistics base offers a huge wealth of potential that could be utilised, but it must be done in close consultation with local people. Kinnegar is already busy with traffic and, with its being built on sand dunes and needing robust flood protections, consulting with and securing the buy-in of local residents is essential in relation to plans and to any works that may be undertaken. The opening up and utilisation of the access road from Airport Road is a critical part of any plans. Additional vehicles cannot be squeezed through the esplanade.

As we have unfortunately seen at other sites across Northern Ireland, far too often assets close down, people move on and all that is left is a site turned into nothing more than an eyesore while public bodies dither and debate its future. In this context, in early 2018, I proposed, and the council agreed, the pursuit of a mixed-use master plan for the site in close consultation with local residents, businesses and other key stakeholders. I was, therefore, very disappointed to learn that, with £31 million of investment and over 1,000 new jobs on the horizon, some parties came together two years later, in February 2020, to defund this master planning work. I urge the council to rethink that in the context of the recent MOD announcement and put in place the necessary funding to safeguard its rates revenue from the site and also be part of efforts to boost its rates revenue and the significant jobs and wider investment that are possible.

The Department for Communities must also step up to help ensure the acquisition of the site for regeneration using some of the powers that were meant to devolve to councils but never did. Indeed, the Ministry of Defence must also speed up its work to enable the future development of the site. Crucially, the Ministry of Defence needs to reconsider its disposal policy and work with the Department for Communities and the wider Northern Ireland Executive to align its previous disposal arrangements with other bases.

Kinnegar logistics base has been part of the Holywood landscape for years and must be utilised, in close consultation with local residents, to create jobs, deliver homes and help keep Holywood on the map as somewhere to live and do business.

Victims of Terrorism

Mr Allister: For many of us, Christmas is a joyous family time, and understandably so. For some, particularly victims of terrorism, it is a time of remembrance, heartache and the empty chair at the dinner table. And yet some in our society think that it was not enough to make victims; it is also necessary to deride them and to visit great hurt upon them. We had another example of that in recent days through a particularly sick video by Gerry Adams, glorifying the slogan of a murderous organisation, poking fun at people "not having not gone away, you know", which was directed quite clearly at the victims of terrorism.

One of those victims, Austin Stack, whose father was shot and fatally wounded by the IRA, said:

"This is one sick, sick video, many, many families have an empty seat at the table this Christmas."

Ann Travers reminded us that her young sister had been murdered by the IRA, and she said:

"She never got to celebrate any further Christmases and it was never the same for us. Just like thousands of other families Anybody who thinks this is funny lacks emotional intelligence".

Yet we had commentators, like Chris Donnelly, who is deployed from time to time to pontificate on the BBC, asking what was offensive about it. It was wholly offensive and, indeed, sick. It demonstrated that, for some, making victims is not enough; they also have to deride and tramp on their graves. Shame on those who promoted such a sick video at this time of year.

Petroleum Licensing

Mr Carroll: At the weekend, I stood with environmental activists from the Youth Climate Association, Extinction Rebellion, Friends of the Earth and trade unions to raise opposition to the granting of petroleum licences here. Despite all the talk recently from Executive Ministers about the climate and the destruction caused by increased emissions, primarily through the use of fossil fuels, the Executive have failed to act to ban petroleum licensing.

As I understand it, the Economy Minister intends to bring through a policy options paper for Executive approval that will not specifically recommend the banning of fossil fuels but that, essentially, will OK the granting of licences. That is, obviously, very worrying in and of itself. The Assembly has repeatedly passed motions and Bills calling for urgent action to stave off climate chaos, but, here, we have an attempt to sneak in through the back door policies to which people have made their opposition repeatedly clear at a time when people are preoccupied with other things and cases of the new COVID variant are rapidly increasing. The cynic in me believes that the paper is being brought forward precisely at this time for those reasons.

I will say this categorically: if we are to prevent climate change from occurring, as a bare minimum, we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and the Department should not proceed to grant approval for any petroleum licences under whatever guise they are presented. At the launch of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the UN Secretary-General said that there should be no new exploration for fossil fuels and no more subsidies for fossil fuel companies and that we should move to renewables as a matter of urgency. Activists have expressed to me their concern and belief that there is a revolving door policy of people working on strategy and policies for Departments then moving into the polluting and extractive industry.

The University of Exeter report of March this year raised serious concerns regarding the governance in the Department for the Economy specifically and the heavy influence from those in the fossil fuel industry, with the suggestion that the Department facilitates those organisations and refuses to suspend its policy to promote gas while it reviews policy on licensing for exploration for the extraction of gas. That is hardly a neutral position from which to start in the first place. There are already serious concerns that not all the recommendations made in the University of Exeter report may have been implemented and that there is adverse and inappropriate influence from industry on the petroleum licensing policy options being brought to the Executive.

Fermanagh and Omagh District Council passed a motion last week that called for a public inquiry in regard to the findings of the University of Exeter report, the industry's influence on the Department for the Economy, especially in regard to policy formation, and issues around governance and the maintenance of the Department's strategy to promote gas. I fully support the council's call in the motion that was passed. My understanding is that the serious environmental concerns and opposition to petroleum licensing have not been given their place in the report and, probably, its recommendations. The Economy Minister should not bring a policy that green-lights petroleum licensing as communities rise up and say no to that practice. However, if it is brought to the Executive —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr Carroll: — Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance need to vote against it. No petroleum licensing —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

[Inaudible]

that practice.

Avian Influenza Outbreak

Mr McAleer: This afternoon, I will speak about avian influenza. Unfortunately, over the weekend, we learned of two more suspected cases of bird flu in Tyrone and Armagh, where almost 30,000 birds and ducks will have to be culled. Last week, two cases of the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza were officially confirmed in a commercial block in Aughnacloy, where 25,000 ducks had to be culled humanely, and in a backyard flock in Broughshane. We are witnessing the largest ever outbreak of avian flu here, which, if not controlled or mitigated, could pose a very serious threat to the poultry industry and international trade. The impact is not only financial but mental and emotional. DAERA, with its partners, must continue to provide financial support to all those who have been impacted.

There have also been four confirmed outbreaks in Monaghan and Cavan, and the control zones surrounding those outbreaks extend into the North. A cross-border approach is vital, and we are glad to note, from the briefing that we received on Thursday, that DAERA is working collaboratively with its colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) in the South.

The native wild bird population has been affected by this strain, which was carried here by migratory birds, so it is imperative that bird keepers, whether of commercial or backyard flocks, do everything that they can to separate kept birds from wild birds. I reiterate the advice from the Minister and the Chief Veterinary Officer, Robert Huey, that poultry farmers must act now. If bird keepers have not already done so, they should download the biosecurity self-assessment toolkit from the Department's website. Practical steps, such as keeping birds inside in order to prevent transmission, placing a net over outdoor coops, fencing off ponds, ensuring that there is no shared drinking water between kept birds and wild birds, washing your hands, changing your boots, and using disposable boiler suits, can play a huge part in helping to stop the spread of this deadly disease.

I acknowledge the work of DAERA officials to date and underline the importance of a joined-up approach between the Department, councils, the Public Health Agency (PHA), DAFM in the South and bird owners. Given the cold weather that we are experiencing, it is likely that avian flu will be with us until the spring. So, I implore everyone to be on their guard and to take the appropriate mitigation measures now.

Road Safety

Mr Middleton: I want to take a few moments this afternoon to speak about the issue of road safety, particularly as we enter the Christmas period. On Friday night, I took part in a remembrance and celebration event for those who, tragically, lost their lives in road traffic collisions. The event was hosted in the Guildhall by Life After, which is a charity that supports bereaved families who have, sadly, lost loved ones in road traffic collisions. The event on Friday night was to remember the 43 lives that were, sadly, cut short as a result of road traffic collisions this year. As each of the names was read out, and the pictures were displayed on the screens, the devastating impact of the loss of those lives on the families and loved ones who were in attendance or watching online was so evident. Sadly, on Saturday, the number rose to 44, with the devastating news of the tragic loss of 12-year-old Aaron Webb, who died following a tragic accident the day before. My thoughts and prayers are with each of those families, and the family circles of those who lost loved ones.

As we enter the Christmas period, I urge everyone to be careful on our roads, and to be aware of other road users, pedestrians, and their surroundings. Just last year, 280 people were arrested for drink-driving during the PSNI's Christmas enforcement campaign. That is a shocking number of people. I urge people to not drink while driving, to not take drugs while driving, and to do the extra bit to ensure that our roads are as safe as they can be.

Those losses on the roads are not just statistics. Real families have lost loved ones, and the impact goes beyond the families. It affects first responders who are on the scene and causes them trauma. I reinforce the message to people to ensure that our roads are safe in the coming Christmas period.

Irish League: Funding for Ground Improvements

Mr Chambers: There have been conversations in this place since 2011 about making funding available to local senior Irish League football clubs for ground improvements. In many local football grounds, a ladies' toilet would have been a novelty then, and even the basic gents' toilet facilities left a lot to be desired. The clubs were living a week-to-week existence and were running up debt in order to survive. Many of them had nothing more than the odd coat of paint applied around their grounds by volunteers, who also gave their time to raise funds to keep the clubs afloat.

Sport, in general, in this country has played an important role in bringing people together during the disturbing years of the Troubles, and it continues to do so, but it has not received the credit that it deserves for that. Participation in sporting activities has always provided a distraction for our young people from the many undesirable activities that would suck them in and destroy their lives. Given the society that we now live in, the distraction of sport has never been more important for our young people.


12.30 pm

In 2015, a subregional stadia strategy was announced with funding of £36 million. A total of £10 million was earmarked for the Oval in east Belfast, with the rationale that it was the second-biggest football stadium in Northern Ireland. Other Irish League clubs with a ground capacity of over 5,000 could tap into a pool of £17 million. Championship clubs would share £3 million, with £6 million intended for a high-quality junior facility and a national training centre.

The clubs and fans have been asking: where is this money? The Minister for Communities indicated during the summer that it was only weeks away from being released. The quality of the football package has improved in Northern Ireland. The international team and the green and white army have created positive impressions of our country around the world. The ladies' international squad is now emulating the achievements of their male counterparts in qualifying for major competitions, with a limited squad of players compared with other countries.

Now is the time to encourage all this positivity by releasing the funds promised in 2015. Some people, rightly or wrongly, suspect that the increasing costs of the Casement Park project are contributing to the £36 million remaining locked in the Department's bank account. The Minister could dispel these suspicions by signing off on the immediate release of the money to help to maintain the current momentum of football in Northern Ireland. I respectfully call on Minister Hargey to do so without delay.

COVID-19: Schools

Mr Sheehan: I want to speak about COVID in schools. Schools are so important for children having their social, educational and developmental needs met. Every school day is precious if the environment in the school is safe. As we approach the end of this school term, it is quite clear that the Minister must act on a range of measures if schools are to reopen and to remain open safely in the new year.

Over recent weeks, principals have been open and honest as they described the deterioration of the situation in many schools. A lack of appropriate guidance and adequate safety mitigations, a light-touch contact-tracing policy and a lack of substitute teachers have put schools in difficult positions, with many having to resort to partial closures. The omicron variant may also present new challenges, so I urge the Minister to revisit her approach to COVID in schools.

We need to see a comprehensive strategic plan from the Minister that puts high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in all classrooms and sets out a contact-tracing policy in which teachers and families can have confidence. We also need to see the urgent redeployment of qualified teachers from non-pupil-facing positions to the classroom.

The Minister keeps telling us that she wants to keep schools open. We agree, but she has to be willing to do what it takes, and she must get on with the planning urgently.

Mr Speaker: That concludes Members' statements. Will Members please take their ease for a moment or two?

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

Ministerial Statements

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Speaker has received notice from the Minister of Education 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 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 in the Chamber must also do this but may also do so by rising in their place as well as notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly.

I remind Members to be concise when asking their question. This is not an opportunity for a debate, and long introductions will not be permitted. I also remind Members that, in accordance with the long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the question period thereafter.

Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education): I wish to make a statement to the Assembly on the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland (GTCNI) and the outcome of an independent effectiveness review of the council and its committees.

The GTCNI was established in 2002 to enhance the status of teaching and to promote the highest standards of professional conduct and practice. Under its founding legislation, its functions are to establish and maintain a register of teachers; to approve qualifications for the purposes of registration; to regulate teachers in relation to serious professional misconduct; and to provide advice to the Department and employing authorities on registration; the professional learning, career development and performance management of teachers; standards of teaching; and standards of conduct for teachers.

As currently constituted, the council should have a membership of 33, the majority of whom are teachers. Fourteen of its members are teachers elected directly by the profession. A further five members are nominated by the Northern Ireland Teachers' Council (NITC), which is the representative body of our teaching unions. Ten members are nominated by other education stakeholders, including higher education institutions, employing authorities and other agencies, while four members are appointed by DE under a public appointments process.

GTCNI is a non-departmental public body (NDPB) of my Department, a status reflecting the intention that, as the regulator for the teaching profession here, it should have a distinct identity and independence from DE, strengthening its ability to speak freely on behalf of all teachers. In practice, GTCNI has not fulfilled its responsibilities and been the voice for the teaching profession that it was intended to be. It has broadly met its responsibility for teacher registration, helping to protect the quality of our teaching workforce, although that has not been without its challenges.

Owing to weaknesses in its legislative base, GTCNI has not been able to exercise regulation of the profession as intended. While it has provided some policy input to the Department, it has failed to develop any clear leadership and advocacy roles for teachers and the wider profession, instead focusing an inordinate amount of its time and effort on nugatory internal discussions and disagreements, alongside personal and, at times, bitter infighting among its membership. On that point, it is noteworthy that, since the commencement of the council's current mandate in October 2019, 13 of its members have either resigned or been withdrawn by their nominating organisation, with some citing the divisive and toxic atmosphere in the council as one of the principal reasons for their actions. Those withdrawals have significantly impacted on the overall skills and experience in the council and have left several of its committees struggling to be quorate.

Collectively, those problems have manifested themselves in repeated and sustained failures by the organisation to meet normal governance and accountability requirements for NDPBs; repeated failures to progress agreed business objectives in a timely and efficient matter; and an extremely heavy and sustained volume of complaints and correspondence received by successive Education Ministers and by officials at all levels in DE. I can categorically state that, for many years, GTCNI has consumed a level of departmental time and resource that is entirely disproportionate to its size and the complexity of its functions.

Faced with those challenges, the Department has placed GTCNI in special measures on two occasions: from December 2015 to September 2017 and from November 2019 to the present day. On each occasion, we have sought to facilitate the council's efforts to address the performance issues, staffing concerns, governance weaknesses and multiple unsatisfactory audit findings that it has faced. On two occasions, we have seconded in departmental staff to serve as interim chief executive. In addition to what might be considered normal departmental sponsorship activities, we have repeatedly provided access to departmental expertise in areas including finance, business case preparation, information management, data protection and workforce planning.

In October 2020, with no tangible improvements and in the face of further council correspondence simultaneously alleging that departmental interference and departmental inaction were entirely to blame for GTCNI’s difficulties, my predecessor, Peter Weir MLA, decided that an independent board effectiveness review of the GTCNI council and its committees should be commissioned. The review was intended to provide a clear and objective evidence base on which decisions regarding the future of the council could be taken. Following an open public tender, a contract for the review was awarded to Baker Tilly Mooney Moore (BTMM) on 22 April 2021. Baker Tilly Mooney Moore is a consultancy firm with extensive experience and expertise in this type of work. In making their assessment, the consultants drew on extensive desk research, direct observation of council and committee meetings and interviews with current and former council members. Those discussions were supplemented using a standard board members' self-evaluation survey that the consultants have routinely used in undertaking organisational reviews.

The Department received a final report from Baker Tilly Mooney Moore detailing their conclusions and recommendations on 12 November 2021. In the consultants’ assessment, GTCNI has an inadequate governance framework and has failed to hold itself to account; it has committees that are not functioning effectively or observing any limitations on their authority; there have been systemic failures in its registration function, including information and systems management weaknesses that have directly contributed to data protection failures; it has suffered a breakdown in working relationships within the council; it has suffered a complete breakdown in the working relationship between the chair of council and its chief executive officer; it has ineffective working relationships with DE, with repeated attempts to draw the Department into operational matters in which DE has no remit or authority to act; there is a general lack of open and effective communication; there has been a long-running failure to adequately identify, monitor and address business risks and identified audit concerns; and there are a significant number of council members who lack an understanding of good governance practices and lack the knowledge, skills and experience to contribute effectively at board level.

That deeply troubling assessment was pointedly underscored by the council members’ self-assessment survey that every GTCNI council member completed. That confirmed that the members themselves clearly recognise that there is a strong sense of polarisation, distrust and dysfunction in the council; that a significant number feel that they lack the experience, skills and knowledge to contribute effectively and confidently to council business; and that a clear axis of division exists between those supportive of the chair of council and those supportive of the chief executive. Having undertaken approximately 640 previous effectiveness surveys, Baker Tilly Mooney Moore have pointed out that GTCNI is the first organisation in which board members have rated themselves in the lowest quartile under every performance metric used in the survey. The consultants also highlighted that members’ feedback on working relationships in the council were the worst that they had ever encountered.

The report presented to the Department reflects an NDPB in organisational failure, with a majority of its members acknowledging that it is failing in multiple areas. Following on from their analysis and considering recommendations for improvement, the consultants have concluded that the review demonstrates a council that is functioning but not functional and that is not providing leadership or advocacy to the profession. Baker Tilly Mooney Moore also concluded:

"It is our opinion that GTCNI is irretrievably broken and there is no prospect of recovery to any form of adequate performance and as such we believe that DE should move to dissolve GTCNI with immediate effect."


12.45 pm

Having received that stark analysis and given the report careful consideration, I fully accept that recommendation. The Department cannot ignore the evidence Baker Tilly Mooney Moore has presented of systematic failings across so many of the council's roles and responsibilities. The review confirms that, despite the continuing support of the Department, little, if any, progress is being made and the underlying problems in the council are not being addressed and are, arguably, only becoming more deeply embedded and pernicious with the passage of time. Given the findings of the review, I cannot allow that situation to persist, and it is incumbent on me to take swift and decisive action. As a consequence, I have instructed my officials to begin work immediately to bring forward a Bill for the dissolution of the General Teaching Council.

As Members will be only too well aware, the education sector and the teaching profession are currently facing many pressing challenges as we continue to respond to the COVID pandemic. I do not consider that GTCNI's council, divided and lacking trust between its members, can contribute constructively to meeting any of those challenges, and I am unwilling to waste further time and effort in propping up such a deeply dysfunctional body. I have therefore also decided, in line with Baker Tilly Mooney Moore's recommendation, to stand down the current GTCNI council with immediate effect. I have tasked my officials with bringing forward at the earliest opportunity a public consultation exercise to identify those functions currently assigned to GTCNI that are critical to the sector and must be preserved, and to seek views from the public, the teaching profession and key educational stakeholders on how those can be delivered efficiently and effectively.

The Department has already identified teacher registration as one such function that must continue to be taken forward, and arrangements are already being put in place to ensure that GTCNI registration, which is a legal requirement for all Northern Ireland teachers, continues without interruption. It is essential that suitably qualified individuals wishing to teach here do not face any unnecessary barriers or delays in entering our workforce, particularly given the current pressures facing schools. Whether they are newly qualified teachers graduating from our local universities and colleges or teachers returning from outside Northern Ireland, it is essential that they can start their careers in Northern Ireland as quickly and smoothly as possible.

The Department will therefore take on immediate oversight of GTCNI's executive team, allowing its staff to continue the work processing new teacher registrations and registration renewals. The current chief executive has served notice that he will stand down from his position in April next year, and so the Department will begin work immediately to identify a new interim chief executive, who will direct the staff team until final decisions can be taken about the delivery of all GTCNI's essential functions.

I return briefly to the planned public consultation. I have no clear preference at this time for how any of these critical functions should be delivered in future. It will be important for us to consider whether they require the establishment of a replacement body or can be best delivered through some alternative mechanism. There are already a range of alternative models for teacher registration and regulation in use across the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The consultation process will help us to examine the strengths and weaknesses of those different systems and allow us to develop a robust future model that reflects the unique needs of the education system in Northern Ireland. Any decision on a replacement for the current council will naturally need to be included in the drafting of a GTCNI dissolution Bill. We will also want the Bill to address all of the issues that have prevented GTCNI from exercising teacher regulation in the manner originally intended. Even with those additional complications, however, we intend to introduce a GTCNI Bill early in the new mandate, following next year's Assembly elections.

In concluding, I specifically wish to reassure GTCNI's employees, for whom this statement will naturally raise concerns. Your jobs will not change as we work through the various steps that I have outlined today, and your employment rights will be upheld as we eventually take our final decisions on how those critical parts of GTCNI's work can best be continued. Had the report concluded that the council had some failings but that those were fixable, I would have been pleased to accept that assessment, and the Department would, in good faith, have sought to support those actions in any way possible. However, I am clear, and legal advice has confirmed, that I would be failing in my responsibilities as Minister of Education if I did not take rapid and decisive action having received such a stark indictment of the council and its leadership. I trust that Members will concur that my actions are necessary, and I am happy to answer any questions that they may have.

Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for her statement. The report presents a dossier of dysfunctionality in relation to the GTCNI that is entirely consistent with the damning evidence that the Education Committee has received over a number of years. It begs the question of how on earth such a depth of organisational failure was allowed to develop, and the focus must be on the urgent delivery of a fit-for-purpose, professional regulatory body of which teachers and the people of Northern Ireland can be proud. Can the Education Minister give a timescale for delivery of a replacement body? What format might that new body take? Is the Department of Education able to fulfil some of the important functions, such as the regulation of serious misconduct, while that body is being put in place?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Chair of the Committee for his question. I am aware that the Committee has received a number of briefings over the past year and a half on GTCNI, and, like me, the Committee will have received a bagful of correspondence on GTCNI. He asked why this has been allowed to happen, but he will be aware that the Department did take action on a number of occasions in respect of putting the GTCNI into special measures in 2015 and again in 2017. Obviously, at that point, the Department had felt that perhaps the GTCNI may have been on the road to recovery, but, clearly, that was not the pathway that it took. A catalogue of issues has come to light, particularly over the past number of months when the review was being undertaken.

It is my intention that a consultation document with regard to a new model will be published in advance of purdah and that, following that and subsequent to the next Assembly election, a draft Bill will be published. At that point, there will be Committee scrutiny, and consultation will take place on what the new model will look like. As I indicated in my statement, I have no set view on how that may look. Obviously, there are a number of models that are being exercised across the other regions and which may be looked at as potential solutions. Again, that is very much something that we will look to. I am very clear that, whatever comes out of this, it needs to be effective and efficient and to work in a means that supports our teaching staff.

Mr Sheehan: Systemic failures in its registration function, an inadequate governance framework, complete breakdown in working relationships and data protection failures: the list goes on and on when it comes to the General Teaching Council. It is a body that was established to regulate the teaching profession here but completely failed to deliver on its functions. The evidence that the Minister has provided in her statement reflects what the Committee has heard over a protracted period. Given the critical need for teacher regulation, can the Minister outline how she intends to ensure that those vital functions are carried out, both in the short term and in the long term?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. He summarises quite succinctly the number of failures in GTCNI. As he will be aware, there have been issues for GTCNI from a legislative perspective with the fact that there are gaps in place with teacher regulation. Obviously, we have reviewed the legislation and the regulations, and DSO has advised DE of a significant number of concerns that go beyond and which, obviously, affect teacher regulation. It is my intention that any future Bill will address those gaps and weaknesses in the legislation, which will help to solve the problems.

Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for her statement and for taking decisive action. Minister, you said that:

"GTCNI has consumed a level of departmental time and resource that is entirely disproportionate to its size and the complexity of its functions."

Will you outline the type of support that the Department has had to provide to GTCNI in past years?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. The Department has been supportive in a range of activities, including arranging mentoring support for the chair following his election; providing regular advice and supporting staff training on information management; providing guidance to council staff on business case completion; providing support through participation in project meetings; providing advice and guidance during committee and council meetings; providing written advice to the chair on numerous issues; providing quality assurance checks of draft corporate documents; securing joint legal advice; using minutes of meetings (MOMs) and regular bimonthly meetings to offer advice and suggest solutions to emerging problems; and liaising with other DE branches to ensure that they prioritise and engage constructively with GTCNI on issues within their remit.

As the Member said, a disproportionate time has been spent on dealing with correspondence within and from outside the council. In the past two years, we have had to respond to FOI and subject access requests, each of which were complex and required several hundred hours of staff time to address. That does not include the email requests that DE has received, the numerous pieces of formal correspondence from the previous chair of GTCNI or the significant number of additional correspondence cases that have been received from other council members.

DE has also had to respond to a high level of whistle-blowing complaints regarding GTCNI. Those ultimately required DE's internal audit team to undertake a lengthy whistle-blowing investigation, once again consuming several hundred hours of staff resource in DE and GTCNI. In comparison with other arm's-length bodies of a similar size, the difference in the time that has been spent trying to resolve and respond to the volume of correspondence regarding GTCNI has been tremendous.

Mr McCrossan: I thank the Minister for her statement. I have no doubt that the report is damning and points directly to the serious concerns that the Committee for Education and, indeed, the SDLP have had for some time about the function, or rather, dysfunction, of the GTCNI. Looking to the future, Minister, can you assure us that you and your Department will leave no stone unturned in putting in place a professional body that can represent the excellent teachers that we have in a way that befits the profession? What is needed is a professional body that all stakeholders can have confidence in. Minister, will you assure us that that is your objective for the days ahead?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I can be brief in answering that, because I absolutely agree with what he said. That is my intention.

Mrs Barton: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I declare an interest: in my former life I was a teacher, and I was a member of the council in the early 2000s. Minister, you will be aware that teachers pay a registration fee to belong to the GTC. That fee was approximately £33 per year, and I am sure that it has built up considerable reserves. Will the registration fee continue to be paid to the new body? What is going to happen to the reserves?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her questions. The fee is now £44. It remains a legal requirement that teachers register with GTCNI, and, under the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland (Deduction of Fees) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2004, they pay an annual fee to maintain their registration. Those requirements cannot be changed without amending legislation, so fees will continue to be a requirement, at least until the Assembly legislates to dissolve GTCNI. Ultimately, a new model may change that, but, in the meantime, the fees will continue.

The GTCNI has around £2·1 million in reserves. The bulk of those — £1·7 million to £1·8 million — has been allocated to fund the replacement GTCNI teacher registration database and to meet the potential pensions liabilities for its staff. Therefore, there is not a large reserve that could be used or released for any other purpose.


1.00 pm

Ms Brogan: I thank the Minister for her statement. Minister, the report is withering, and it outlines huge failures on a number of levels. The General Teaching Council was meant to be a regulatory body with responsibilities in our education system and to our teaching professions, our children and their families. It is clear that it has not lived up to those responsibilities. In the wake of the report, how does the Minister intend to ensure that there is appropriate accountability and that something like this never happens again?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. The action that I took today should start the process of resolving it. As the Member will know, the council has been dissolved. The chief executive and the staff will continue in their roles under scrutiny from my Department.

As I said, I intend to go out for consultation on a new model, hopefully in advance of the dissolution of the Assembly. The new model will obviously be designed in consultation with stakeholders. I hope and intend that that will ensure that this does not happen again.

Mr Harvey: Minister, during my time on the Education Committee and as a constituency representative, I have not heard anything positive about the GTCNI. However, now that a decision has finally been made, it might prompt some support for it. Does the Minister anticipate any challenge to her decision?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. I do not expect there to be a challenge to the decision that I announced, but time will tell.

Over the past 18 months, there have been numerous exchanges between departmental officials, members of the Education Committee and representatives of several teaching unions and other major representative bodies. They all expressed their deep concerns about the GTCNI and its numerous difficulties. I understand that there is widespread apathy among the wider teaching profession towards the GTCNI, an organisation that, for many, failed to have or to make a positive impact on their lives as teaching professionals. In itself, that is quite damning.

While the council may feel somewhat aggrieved by the report and my decisions, I hope that it will recognise that the self-assessment survey in the report clearly demonstrates that a sizeable majority of its members recognised that the council is deeply divided and has been failing in its responsibilities for quite some time.

Given the broad consensus and our commitment to consult widely and to follow best practice in replacing the current organisation, there would seem to be little basis for challenge of the Department's actions. I am hopeful that that will be the case.

Mr Delargy: Minister, thank you for your statement. It is not too often that we agree on things to do with education, but this is definitely one such occasion.

Over the last number of weeks, scores of principals have contacted me. They are deeply concerned and are finding it extremely difficult to get substitute teachers. The whole House agrees that we need to keep schools open, but that simply cannot happen if substitute teachers are not available. On that basis, what contribution does the Minister think that the systemic failure of the GTCNI made to the lack of availability of substitute teachers?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. Given the times that we are in, he may look for a correlation between the two. However, I understand that the GTCNI was able to work through any backlog. Therefore, I am not sure whether it had any direct impact.

The Member will know that between 7,000 and 8,000 substitute teachers are on the Northern Ireland Substitute Teacher Register (NISTR). Daily, 3,000 or 4,000 of those substitute teachers could be allocated posts. There is probably a different issue with NISTR, which is not naturally connected to the GTCNI. On the GTCNI, we need to make sure that there is no delay in teachers becoming registered. We also need to ensure that teachers are supported to be encouraged into and retained in the profession.

Mr Humphrey: As a former member of the Committee, I am sure that the statement cannot have come as a surprise to the House. It is clear that the GTCNI is dysfunctional, deeply divided and not capable of giving leadership. The Minister said in her statement that Baker Tilly Mooney Moore carried out a board-effectiveness survey and that the feedback on working relationships in the council was the "worst" that it had ever surveyed. Is the Minister in a position to share further information about the survey with the House?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. The self-assessment exercise was based on National Audit Office (NAO) guidance and best practice for effective boards and governing bodies. BTMM has used it for around 645 organisations in the public, third and corporate sectors. It secured a 100% response rate from council members and, based on their honest feedback, found that 88% of respondents disagree or strongly disagree that the current council structures are working effectively; only 25% consider the GTCNI subcommittees to be increasing the council's effectiveness; 89% believe that the council is too large; and 60% feel that the council has too many representatives and is too disparate in its composition. Members were asked a series of questions on council leadership and culture, and their comments confirm that the council is divided and unwelcoming, has lost focus on its purpose and remit and is inward-looking and consumed with internal disagreements. In members' opinion, council leadership is not effective, business is not transacted efficiently, and meetings are often poorly organised and poorly run, meaning that effective use is not made of their time. In comparing the GTCNI with the 645 other bodies that it has similarly surveyed, BTMM reported that the GTCNI members' self-assessment placed it in the lowest bracket for every performance indicator in the survey, which is a situation that BTMM had never before encountered.

Ms S Bradley: I thank the Minister for her statement. Although it is damning, it is not surprising. I, too, declare an interest, in that I am a former teacher who was registered with the GTCNI.

The Department has rightly recognised the obvious need to uphold the process of teacher registration, particularly at this time. I hope that that runs smoothly and without impediment, because schools are struggling. The GTCNI was left with a further management role, which was to manage professional misconduct. What assurance can the Minister give that immediate cover will be provided for that area so that no misconduct will go unreported during this upheaval? Has she given any thought to the possibility of a requirement for there to be a retrospective audit of the cases of professional misconduct that may have been upheld by what has been described as a very ineffective council?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her question. As a former teacher, she has an interest in the situation. There have been allegations of teacher misconduct that have, in some ways, not been investigated as they should have been. As Members will be aware from previous comments, there have been issues with the GTCNI's legislative standing in order to carry out some of its functions. It is our wish that that will be addressed during the progress of the next Bill, which will not only dissolve the GTCNI but put its replacement on a much firmer legislative footing, ensuring that we have a model that best suits the profession. In the meantime, we will seek legal advice on the outstanding issues, which perhaps cannot be looked at under the current legislative model, to ensure that guidance is given to teachers and the profession.

Dr Aiken: I thank the Minister for her statement, and I declare an interest as a member of my family is a registered teacher, or, should I say, is trying to register as a teacher, and has had many difficulties with GTCNI, as have many other teachers across the piece.

It has been obvious since 2015 that there was something substantially wrong with GTCNI. There has been a catalogue of failures. Indeed, the consultants' report is one of the most damning reports, outside that on the renewable heat incentive (RHI), that we have heard about in the Assembly. Minister, my question is quite simple: why is the chief executive still there? Why is somebody who has stood over that complete debacle and brought the whole organisation into disrepute still in position? Why do we still have to have people like that? Where are the criteria that allow us to sack people who are not capable of doing their job?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. At this point, I do not want to get into personal issues relating to the chief executive or others. The Member will note from my statement that the chief executive has issued the Department with his intention to step down in April. For continuity, and given the fact that he has corporate knowledge of the organisation, it is useful to have him there for a transition period.

Mr M Bradley: I thank the Minister for her statement. Minister, you have outlined the basis for the action that you are taking. Will you outline the key findings of the review that prompted your decisive action?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. The consultants reported that there is inadequate governance infrastructure; the organisational culture is dominated by internal disagreements; the organisation is being driven by widely divergent agendas; there are widespread breakdowns in relationships and trust; GTCNI has lost focus on its remit and purpose and has become almost entirely inward facing; and it is failing to act as an advocate or strategic leader for the sector. They also found that the legislative basis for GTCNI's operations is weak, which hinders its ability to meet its regulatory functions; its governance framework is inadequate, leading to a failure to meet expected standards of governance or adequately hold itself to account; information flows are insufficient to inform decision-making; council subcommittees are not functioning effectively; there is an inadequate approach to organisational performance and a fundamental lack of understanding of good governance; and council business is regularly disrupted in pursuit of divergent agendas and narratives.

The consultants concluded that the council:

"is not cohesive, unified nor corporate".

In their assessment, GTCNI is functioning at a very low level, is not meeting its statutory obligations and is not providing any leadership to the profession. They have categorised it as a body in which:

"relationships are fractured and trust irretrievably broken".

In their view:

"Its energy is spent, [it] is at war with itself and is damaged beyond repair."

Mr McGrath: I thank the Minister for her statement. If something is broken, it has to be fixed, and it is fairly obvious from the report that something is badly broken.

Minister, you said that teacher registration will be subsumed by the Department so that the process can take place quickly. I know, from other Members, that there is an urgent need for that, given that there can be delays. Will you give an assurance that it will be a seamless transition that will occur straight away, or will you tell us whether there will be any delay in the Department's taking on that responsibility, so that people can get registered as quickly as possible and get out on the ground to work where necessary?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. There may be a little confusion about that. Maintenance of the register is an operational function. Responsibility for it will remain with the executive team, which will report directly to the Department. There will, therefore, be no change to that; only the oversight will change. There should be no difference, or rather, hopefully, it will mean that things will be swifter. There should not be any undue delay as a consequence of it.

Mr Catney: Thank you, Minister. Will you assure the House that lessons will be learned from this whole, sorry affair and that those lessons, as and when they are learned, will eventually be applied to the solutions?

Miss McIlveen: Again, I can give a brief response: absolutely.


1.15 pm

Mr Allister: Apart from the Executive of which the Minister is a part, the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland must be the most dysfunctional and polemic organisation still in existence. From much of what you read from the Baker Tilly Mooney Moore report, I thought I was listening to an obituary for the Executive.

I will ask two things, if I may. In your statement, you referred to an operational issue that has impeded registration since August. What is that? Secondly, what assurance is there that those who have been found so wanting will not just move to the next awaiting quango? What restrictions exist on people who are found so wanting so that they cannot move on to that next body and inflict the same failure there?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. There were issues with data sharing in August that have been resolved. As was referred to in a previous question, we are looking to upgrade the database. Somewhere in the region of £1·7 million to £1·8 million is being spent on updating processes to ensure that those issues do not happen again.

The majority of members of the council came from the teaching profession and were elected to that body; thus they were not necessarily public appointments. There were DE representatives on the council, however, some of whom have already resigned.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That concludes questions to the Minister on her statement. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Speaker has received notice from the Minister of Finance that he wishes to make a statement.

Mr C Murphy (The Minister of Finance): Thank you for the opportunity to make a statement on the Executive's draft Budget for 2022-25. I provided Members with a written statement on Friday, and my statement today is accompanied by a draft Budget document. The publication of the document launches a 12-week consultation that will run to 7 March 2022.

As Members will be aware, the majority of the Executive's funding is based on the spending review outcome that was announced on 27 October. I have provided a separate statement setting out the funding that is provided by the spending review, and, while the review outcome is not as bad as feared, it did not provide enough funding to meet the pressures that the Executive face.

Some additional funding has been confirmed by the Secretary of State from the confidence-and-supply and New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) financial packages. That includes £75 million for the medical school at Magee. The profile for the medical school is not aligned to the anticipated expenditure profile, and discussions will take place with Treasury on ensuring the most appropriate profile going forward. However, the draft Budget must reflect the profile as set out by the Secretary of State. At the time of the NDNA agreement, there were just under 4,000 students at Magee. Ulster University has recently indicated that it is actively making changes to increase the numbers to 6,000 over the period covered by the Budget. The Executive remain committed to increasing student places to 10,000, as outlined in 'New Decade, New Approach', including providing the necessary funding.

Unfortunately, the Secretary of State did not confirm the funding requested in relation to the protocol or the funding due to be provided under confidence and supply in 2022-23 for mental health and severe deprivation. We anticipate that funding being confirmed in-year.

I turn to regional rates. The COVID pandemic and the cost of living crisis create significant financial pressures on businesses and households. Therefore, the Executive have agreed that the domestic and non-domestic regional rate will be frozen over the Budget period. A further £50 million has been set aside to provide rates support for businesses. Legislation is being enacted that removes the ability of businesses to appeal their NAV on the grounds of COVID-19. Over the last two years, companies here were instead compensated for the impact of COVID-19 through rates holidays and grants. Next year, in recognition that all sectors are set to lose their right to appeal, all businesses, with the exception of larger food stores and utilities, will receive a one-month rates holiday. As some sectors have been harder hit by the pandemic, retail, tourism and hospitality, leisure, childcare and airports will receive a total of three months' rates relief. In 2023, a revaluation that will take into account the impact of COVID-19 will come into effect. This provides a much more comprehensive package of support to businesses than the appeal mechanism, which was not designed for a general pandemic.

The Executive have also agreed to consult on increasing the rates liability of vacant properties from 50% to 75% and removing the domestic rates cap of £400,000. Having been delayed by the pandemic, a consultation will allow those policies to be delivered early in the new mandate.

I turn to departmental allocations. Even before the pandemic struck, the returning Executive agreed that health would be their top priority. That commitment was confirmed as discussions began on agreeing the draft Budget. Therefore, the focus of the draft Budget has very much been on providing significant additional resources for transforming our health service and reducing waiting lists on a permanent basis. With the funding provided by the Chancellor's spending review falling short of what was needed to fund the Executive's priorities, prioritising our health service means a proposal for other Departments to contribute 2% of their opening baseline. That contribution would provide an additional £523 million over the three years, which would form part of an overall general allocation of £1·9 billion. That could be used at the Health Minister's discretion to help to address the significant funding pressures identified. On top of that, the draft Budget would provide £120 million, £182·4 million and £255·3 million over the three-year Budget to meet in full the Health Minister's bids for elective care, cancer and mental health rebuild strategies. It is also proposed that the transformation funding provided under New Decade, New Approach of £147 million over the three years be allocated in its entirety to Health.

While the Barnett consequentials are unhypothecated and may therefore be spent at the Executive's discretion, it is worth highlighting that the proposed draft Budget settlement provides the Department of Health with a budget allocation that is significantly in excess of the funding received from the Barnett consequential on health and related allocation in the spending review. This year, the opening budget for Health was £6·452 billion. Under the draft Budget next year, it will be £6·782 billion. Health will also receive the first £50 million available in the 2022-23 monitoring round. In 2023-24, the budget will be £6·947 billion, and, in 2024-25, it will be £7·109 billion. It will be important for the Health Minister to provide more detail on how that funding will be used as part of the draft Budget consultation.

Of course, the major challenges in health and social care remain, and the Health Department could spend more. However, the draft Budget strikes a balance between prioritising health and protecting other public services. That is a difficult trade-off, but it is the financial reality that must be faced up to.

I turn to funding for other priorities and pressures. In setting out the departmental budgets for consultation, the underpinning assumption has been that Departments will find the proposed 2% reduction required to provide additional funding for health from efficiencies in existing budgets. That is challenging, but, in a three-year Budget, it creates opportunities to plan better and identify genuine efficiency savings.

A number of allocations for specific departmental strategic issues have been proposed in the draft Budget. They include the continuation of welfare reform mitigations, with proposed allocations of £128·5 million over three years, and the Shared Future programme providing £36 million over three years. Funding is also proposed for victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse and victims' pensions. We remain in dispute with the British Government over the funding of the latter. However, it is important that that dispute does not impact on the delivery of payments to victims. Funding is therefore included in the draft Budget. The Executive have also agreed a number of recommendations that have arisen out of the work of the truth recovery design panel on mother-and-baby institutions, Magdalene laundries and other workhouses. Funding to take those forward has also been provided to the Executive Office as part of the draft Budget. In total, it is proposed that over £419 million be provided to the Executive Office for the three schemes over the Budget period.

The draft Budget proposals also include additional allocations that will be ring-fenced for specific purposes. Full details are provided in my written statement. However, over the Budget period, those include £66 million for holiday hunger, £24 million for Supporting People, £37 million for Northern Ireland Water's price control determination and over £44 million for PSNI staffing. As well as those ring-fenced allocations under the draft Budget, Departments will receive general allocations that, along with their baseline funding, may be spent at the discretion of Ministers. The effect of those ring-fenced and general allocations is that no Department faces a reduction on its opening baseline position. However, they will be worse off than if funding not been diverted to Health. Tables summarising that proposed resource department expenditure limit (DEL) outcome are attached at annex A in the tables accompanying the statement. Given the range of pressures facing Departments and the fact that those cannot be funded in full, it would be for Ministers to allocate budgets on the basis of their priorities, taking into account the commitments set out in 'New Decade, New Approach'.

My written statement set out the capital funding that is available to the Executive. As Members may recall, departmental capital allocations are determined from a zero baseline. Given the need to maximise investment, the Executive have also agreed that borrowing be accessed to increase departmental capital allocations. However, we must also be conscious that the funding needed to compete projects that have commenced should also be affordable. Therefore, the proposal is not to access the full amount of borrowing available in the first two years. The proposed draft Budget capital outcome would access reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI) borrowing of £140 million, £194 million and £200 million over the three years.

The draft Budget also sees the first allocation of funding for city and growth deals, with some £316 million being allocated over the Budget period. As part of their deliberations on the draft Budget, the Executive have agreed the allocation of the first tranche of funding from their city and growth deals complementary fund. The allocations agreed are set out in the table provided at annex B. There will be a further opportunity for city and growth deals to submit bids as part of the second tranche of that funding.

As Members will be aware, a number of flagship capital projects were agreed by the previous Executive. The draft Budget proposals honour the commitment to provide funding for those projects, which include regional stadia projects, the mothers and children's hospital, the Fire and Rescue Service training centre, the A5, the A6 and the Belfast transport hub. Given the importance of green growth and sustainability, particularly the move towards net zero, the draft Budget proposes allocations of £304 million of capital for that purpose. While those will not be ring-fenced, Departments can provide more detail on the green growth projects that they intend to take forward as part of their draft Budget consultations.

With the exception of ring-fenced funding, such as for city and growth deals and flagship projects, Departments will be provided with proposed capital funding envelopes within which Ministers may fund their priorities. Again, it is important that NDNA commitments are progressed as much as possible. Details of the proposed capital outcome provided for each Department under the draft Budget is set out at annex C in the tables accompanying the statement.

The spending review also provided £162·8 million, £66·4 million and £62·2 million of financial transactions capital (FTC) over the Budget period. That may be used only for loans to or equity investment in private-sector bodies. It is proposed that, over the Budget period, £159 million be provided to the Department for Communities for housing, with £24·9 million going to the Department for the Economy. There will be £50 million provided to the investment fund in 2022-23. Those proposed allocations will leave £57 million available for allocation in 2022-23.


1.30 pm

As Members will know, amendments made to the NI Act 1998 following the Fresh Start Agreement require me to set out how the Executive's Budget reconciles to the funding provided by Treasury. I provided a statement to the Assembly on 4 November that set out the funding notified by the Secretary of State. The tables at annex D show how the departmental allocations set out in the draft Budget reconcile to those amounts.

The move from single-year Budgets to a three-year Budget provides an opportunity to plan, reform and improve health services. Nevertheless, the reality is that the funding available does not allow us to do everything that we wish to do. While no Department faces a cash reduction against its opening baseline, they are undoubtedly worse off than they would have been had Health not been prioritised. Managing within the proposed draft Budget position will provide significant challenges for all Departments, including mine. I will continue to work with other Ministers to find solutions to those challenges, but the reality is that more money for other public services means less money for health. As an Executive, we have publicly committed to making health our top priority. The draft Budget honours that commitment.

Dr Aiken (The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance): I thank the Minister for his oral and written statement and for meeting me and the Deputy Chairperson this morning to discuss the main points of the draft Budget.

The Committee will certainly welcome a three-year Budget when it is agreed and the vital clarity that will be provided on capital and resource and, indeed, key projects including the vital health transformation, city deals and other Executive commitments. The Committee will also welcome the prospect of a further three-month rates holiday for the hard-pressed businesses that recently lobbied the Committee, as well as what looks like a proposed increase in funding for PSNI staffing and the interim arrangements for the victims' pension scheme.

Will the Minister clarify whether the rates holiday is contingent on the passage of the Non-domestic Rates Valuations (Coronavirus) Bill? Will the Minister also clarify what will happen to waiting lists and overall health transformation if other Departments and parties decline to provide additional funding from their budgets? Finally, RRI spending has dropped considerably during the current financial year. Will the Minister explain the reasoning behind the increase in RRI spending to £200 million in the draft Budget in the last year of the spending review period, as it seems to be profiled?

Mr C Murphy: I thank the Committee Chair for his questions and observations. I look forward to working with the Committee over the consultation period and ensuring that it has the opportunity to give its view on the draft proposals.

With regard to rates bills, if the legislation were not passed at Westminster, the Barnett consequential would not arise from that and, in effect, that would be lost. I have not received any sense that the legislation will not pass at Westminster. We expect it to pass fairly soon and that the consequential will become available to us.

The difficult and core choice at the centre of the Budget proposal is that, if we are trying to get to grips with a year-on-year increase in health spending over the three years to get the necessary reforms and tackle some of the big issues, this is the opportunity to do that. In a finite Budget where we have not got all that we wanted in order to do all the things that we wanted to do across every area of public service, that means that some tough choices have had to be made to divert funding to Health. If the final outcome is that the Executive change their view on that or the Assembly changes its view and decides not to do that, Health will not have the money necessary for the transformation.

We have had many conversations about RRI spending. The Member knows the approach is that we are not maximising the potential of our RRI spend, particularly in a three-year Budget that is challenged in the latter years; capital budgets are very challenged in year 2 and particularly year 3. We need to access any additional opportunities that we have and be as imaginative and flexible as possible, and that is why we intend to press Departments to access the full amount of RRI borrowing by year 3.

Mr Gildernew: I thank the Minister for his statement. I very much welcome the prioritisation that the Department of Health has received in the draft Budget.

Minister, as you said in your conclusion, the opportunity to plan, reform and improve public services is nowhere more relevant than it is for Health. A 10% increase in the Department's resource budget is a significant allocation. Can you outline how that will impact on the current difficulties that the health and social care system faces?

Mr C Murphy: To tackle the current difficulties, the Department of Health presented us, some time back, with costed propositions for dealing with elective care in order to reduce waiting lists and to deal with cancer services, which have become ever more acute since the pandemic hit, and the strategy for tackling mental health issues. Those propositions will be funded in full by ensuring that the Department of Health has that money going forward. They will also make sure that the money provided for transformation is given to Health in full over the three-year period and that there is a significant amount of other money to be spent at the Health Minister's discretion.

The Executive agreed a number of meetings back that the Health Minister will be asked to provide, over the 12-week consultation period, a step-by-step update on the spending, what it will achieve and what the outcomes will be so that, when it comes to the vote on the final Budget, the Executive will have a very clear picture of what is intended to be transformed over the three years, of how the funding for acute pressures around waiting lists, cancer treatment and mental health treatment will be spent and of the staging points at which that will be achieved over the period. We are looking for a very clear plan from the Department of Health. As I said, we have already agreed that that will be done over the 12-week consultation period. When it comes to the final Budget, the Executive will therefore have a very clear picture.

Mr K Buchanan: I thank the Minister for meeting the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and me this morning. I, too, welcome the additional support for businesses through the additional three-month rates holiday, as well as the one-month rates holiday for other businesses.

We are talking about the antecedent date for the revaluation being 1 October 2021. Does that allow for a broad enough snapshot in time in order to get a true reflection of the difficulties that businesses are experiencing, bearing in mind that, by picking 1 October, we are picking a period in time. Can we do anything to create a wider snapshot to assist businesses that shows the true difficulties that they are experiencing?

Mr C Murphy: The revaluation always operates on the basis that a date is picked. You could argue for any date in this past year to demonstrate what the experience has been, but 1 October takes into account the experience of the pandemic and the period leading up to that date. Even with the new variant and an increase in concern, we hope that the worst of the lockdown situations that businesses have experienced are well behind us. We repeat the message for everyone to get the vaccine and the booster and to follow the guidance so that we do not end up in a lockdown situation. That date should be able to capture the pandemic experience for businesses. When it comes to the publication of the revaluation lists in 2023, we will then have an assessment that goes back over the whole period.

Mr O'Toole: Minister, I, too, welcome the prioritisation of funding for the Department of Health. My party and I have consistently said that we wanted to see Health prioritised. We also want to see a detailed plan for how that prioritised money is going to be spent.

May I ask about the decision made not to prioritise any other Departments out of the 2%? If we accept that Health was going to be prioritised, there was a second choice to make a 2% cut across the board. What prioritisation exercise did your Department do before deciding simply to apply a salami-sliced 2% cut to every other Department in the absence of a Programme for Government?

Mr C Murphy: A Programme for Government is not something that I can deliver as part of the Budget. I have a legislative requirement to do the Budget within a certain time frame. Ideally, the two documents would sit beside each other, but I still have a requirement to go ahead with the Budget.

We were in conversations with Departments from the summertime about an across-the-board contribution to the Department of Health. We teased out a number of scenarios, including a 4% and an 8% contribution. From dialogue between officials, the feeling was that 4% or 8% was much too serious a challenge for Departments to meet. Once you move away from the chosen proposition to a 2% reduction for some Departments, a 4% or 6% for others and perhaps no reduction for others, you increase the reduction in some Departments and decrease it in others.

Certainly, there was a clear sense that a level of reduction higher than 2% in any of the Departments would prove to be very significantly challenging. It is very challenging to achieve 2% — we accept that — never mind impose a higher level on some other Departments.

That is where the idea for a reduction across the board came from. It followed a lengthy period of consultation and dialogue with Departments, and we want to ensure that the balance is struck. I have always said that it is a balance, because we have an awful lot of public services that we want to deliver, but we do not have the resources available to do all that we want to do. We want to prioritise health, and we were very clear about that. We talked about a range of other areas of priority, such as green growth and skills. Of course, Departments have discretion to prioritise those areas themselves and to prioritise them across Departments, if that is appropriate. That is where we got to in the discussion in relation to that and to the recognition that, for some Departments, a reduction of more than 2% would prove to be beyond their means to deal with. To try to take nothing from some Departments and to increase the burden on others would have been too challenging.

Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for coming to the House in relation to the draft Budget. I think that we will all agree that we should prioritise Health, but my party has concerns with what has been presented and the fact that it is not aligned with the Programme for Government and cross-cutting, outcome-based approaches. When it comes to the draft Budget, what attempts will be made to ensure that we tackle both the causes and symptoms of ill health?

Mr C Murphy: The causes and symptoms of ill health are beyond the Health Department, so we have a responsibility to ensure that other Departments prioritise those. The funding for Health is not the entirety of the Executive's commitment to better health for our population. Obviously, a range of Departments have a contribution to make, and we need to ensure that everyone is playing their part in that regard.

While there is a significant degree of discretion within departmental budgets, we have said to people that Health was the number-one priority for the Executive, but other areas, such as skills, green growth, recovery, sustainability and tackling inequalities that have health outcomes attached to them, are priorities for the Executive. I imagine that any funding that might become available later on, as we have suggested, would be regarded as being for the likes of housing and other areas that contribute to good health. I am sure that, if funding becomes available, particularly in relation to monitoring rounds, the Executive will recognise that there is a range of other priorities and that it is not simply the Health Department that contributes to good health.

Mr McHugh: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis go dtí seo. Minister, too many lives have been lost on the A5 in my constituency of West Tyrone. Last week, we had another tragic accident on the A5. I offer my deepest sympathies to the immediate and wider Harkin family. What provision does the draft Budget contain for major works on the A5, which are badly needed?

Mr C Murphy: In the New Decade, New Approach agreement, the Irish Government reaffirmed their £75 million commitment to the A5 project. The Department for Infrastructure's draft budget for 2022-25 proposes capital allocations for the A5 of £7·4 million, £25·3 million and £80·3 million over the three years. The Dublin Government's contributions are shown as financing that item and reflect income of £7·4 million, £25 million and £25 million that is anticipated in 2022-25.

I recognise the Member's point about the safety of that road and the loss of life that has been consistently experienced along it. I am very confident that, with that funding in place, despite the hurdles that are there, if the Infrastructure Minister makes a bid for the funding of that project, the funding will be there for it, although, obviously, the Department for Infrastructure will have to overcome any hurdles that remain.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Finance Minister for his statement to the House. I note that he talked about the importance of the Health Minister when it comes to the ability to provide more detail in how the uplift in health funding will be used as part of the draft Budget consultation. Would it not have been more appropriate and transparent for that plan to have been brought to the Executive and agreed prior to the consultation being published? What mitigations are in place to ensure that that funding contributes to the much-needed reform of our health service, along with workforce planning, rather than plugging any gaps or allowing money to disappear down a black hole?


1.45 pm

Mr C Murphy: The Budget process is, and always has been, that the Executive agree a draft Budget to go out for consultation, but that is not the final agreement. In our discussions on health, when the proposition was first put forward to give this level of additional funding and the impact that it would have on other Departments, people rightly wanted to see how that would do what we wanted it to do in the time ahead, and that, in three years' time, an Executive would not be having the same discussions. So there was an undertaking to provide that over the 12-week consultation period.

It is quite often that matters are not finalised as part of the draft Budget. That is what the period of consultation is for. The Executive can take the Budget back and change things as a consequence of the consultation. So there is no final agreement, and there never was intended be, nor is there ever, when it comes to producing a draft Budget. The final agreement comes when it comes back to the Executive to decide what Budget they intend to put before the Assembly for legislation.

It is in that period of time that the Health Department has agreed to bring forward the proposition for how that money will be spent and how it is intended to do what we intend it to do. It is also the staging post by which the incoming Executive can measure that over the next three years. They already have costed and funded plans in relation to elective care, cancer strategies and mental health strategies, so those are all there. The only remaining piece is around transformation and how that money will be spent. There is nothing unusual in an Executive agreeing a draft Budget and to have more material looked at. I will be having dialogue with other Ministers over the next 12 weeks, and there will, perhaps, be some additional changes to come before the final stage. That is the purpose of consultation.

Ms Dolan: I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome last week's announcement by the Communities Minister, Deirdre Hargey, of her plan to build 100,000 homes over the next 15 years. Will the three-year Budget provide the funding that will enable that major social housing programme to commence?

Mr C Murphy: Yes, it is budgeted in. The Communities Minister has announced a very ambitious plan, and we want to ensure that that is the case. That is why, as part of this, I have recommended that the Executive should consider prioritising. In year 3, when our capital budget is most challenged for everyone, there is always a return of capital, because there are always projects that do not go ahead. There is a very strong anticipation of more capital coming into the system in year 3, and there should be a priority around housing in order to make sure that the Department for Communities, whoever the Minister may be at that stage, has the funding to continue on. That plan for 100,000 houses is over 16 years. This is the first three years, and we want to make sure that it gets off on target and on schedule in the early years of that particular strategy.

Mr Clarke: Before I ask my question, I will put it on record that I am a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

I appreciate that there are difficulties in setting a Budget, given the financial constraints on the Executive and their commitment to supporting Health. There is a welcome line in the statement in relation to confidence and supply and a financial package whereby we get additional funding. However, having read the statement, my concern is that there is no additional support to fulfil one of those commitments in relation to the PSNI complement of 7,500. The PSNI is currently aiming for a complement of 7,100 but, by any indication that we have had from the Policing Board, this Budget will reduce that figure. How do you, Minister, square the circle in relation to the commitments that your party and others signed up to in NDNA, one of the premises that brought us back here? This Budget will fall short of fulfilling the complement of 7,500 police officers.

Mr C Murphy: I have stressed to all Ministers that we should be striving to deliver on every NDNA commitment. We have had the two-year interruption of the pandemic, but the NDNA commitments still stand, and I still want to see Departments delivering them. I have had a number of conversations with the Justice Minister about that particular commitment in relation to policing. We will try to give whatever support we can. I have no doubt that I will have more conversations with the Justice Minister between now and the final approval of the Budget. There is, however, a significant degree of discretion in each departmental allocation, and the papers for all of those departmental propositions will be produced alongside a draft Budget to go out for consultation. I have emphasised that Ministers should prioritise NDNA commitments within their own allocations, and I expect that the Justice Minister will do so.

Mr Catney: Thank you, Minister. Minister, can you explain the rationale for not ring-fencing the green growth fund? Surely the importance of the issue, and the huge amount of work required to meet our net zero targets, would warrant the ring-fencing of that fund, bearing in mind that we said that health was a priority, and I am sure of the 2%. What work has your Department done in order to find that 2% from Departments? This is a missed opportunity for green growth.

Mr C Murphy: We actually did ring-fence the green growth money in an earlier version of the draft Budget. It was as a result of a request from the Departments involved to have more flexibility over the three years to manage their budgets that we took the ring-fencing off it. I was quite happy to ring-fence that and to ensure that green growth is and continues to be a priority within the Executive, but we also have to give Departments the flexibility to manage their budgets over the three-year period, and some asked for the ring-fencing to be removed. That does not dilute in any way the commitment to green growth across a range of Departments.

Mr Nesbitt: Let me start as positively as possible. I welcome the achievement of a multi-year draft Budget. I welcome the commitment to the health service, and I welcome the £44 million-plus to the Police Service of Northern Ireland for staffing. I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board. However, the police have told me that, over the three-year period, to achieve the NDNA commitment to have 7,500 officers, the cost would be £74·6 million, which is £30·2 million less than is being allocated in your additional funding. Therefore, the questions to the Minister are these: have you had any discussions about the implications for the headcount of the PSNI, and do you know how many additional officers the £44·4 million that you are allocating will achieve?

Mr C Murphy: It will be a matter for the Department of Justice to work out with the Policing Board what additional staff will be achieved by that. I do not have that detail to hand. I have had many discussions with the Justice Minister about meeting that particular NDNA commitment. The proposition at the core of this, which is to give the additional allocation to Health to tackle what everyone around here has long said is our number-one, comes with additional pressure on every Department, including my Department of Finance. When there are priorities and commitments that need to be met, it is our responsibility to look to our own Departments to see how we can prioritise those against other spending in our own Departments, because this is, as the Member understands, a finite Budget. We cannot give additionally to Health and find it from somewhere else; it has to come from other Departments.

I have offered and am absolutely committed to engaging with Ministers over this 12-week period to try to find ways to meet the challenges that they have, and we will give every assistance that we can. Some of the issues around ring-fencing came from those engagements over the last number of weeks. I am quite committed to doing that, but it will be up to each Department to prioritise commitments, should they be NDNA or other commitments, within its allocation.

Ms Brogan: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire fosta. Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I welcome your announcement that over £65 million will be ring-fenced to tackle holiday hunger. A light has been shone on the issue during the pandemic, and that funding will provide vital support to tens of thousands of families. Will the Minister please confirm that the funding is intended to support children and their families during all school holiday periods throughout the school year and not just during summer holidays?

Mr C Murphy: The contribution is on the basis of a bid from the Department of Education. That allocation was on the assumption that payments should be the same as the average cost to provide a free school meal in that setting, which is £2·70 per child. The draft Budget includes a specific allocation of £22·1 million a year for holiday hunger. The Education Minister, I think, has to carry out an economic appraisal to determine the appropriate value of grants to provide to families rather than relying on the long-term cost of providing meals in the school setting.

We recognise that it is a challenging issue. It is one of a number of pressing social issues that the pandemic brought to the fore. We have allocated funding specifically for it, and we will look to the Department of Education to work through the detail of that to make sure that all children who need that support are provided with it for the time that they need it.

Mr Weir: Will the Finance Minister clarify whether, apart from his party colleagues and the Health Minister, any other Minister has signalled support for the content of the Budget as opposed to simply supporting it going out to consultation?

Mr C Murphy: As a former member of the Executive, the Member should know that the Budget process is such that the draft Budget is put out for public consultation and that no Minister has to put their hand up to say yea or nay until the final Budget is produced before it goes into the Assembly. Asking people to do a final yea or nay on the draft Budget is not a process that we have ever followed. The Executive — the majority of Ministers, with the exception of those from your party — were content for the Budget to go out to public consultation. Everyone recognises that the purpose of having a consultation is to create space for changes to be made between now and the final Budget stage, if that is required. Consultation will continue with other Ministers over that period as well, so the sense that this was a final vote on the Budget is misleading, perhaps deliberately so. It was always misleading, because everybody who has been on the Executive knows that you agree to put the Budget out for consultation and that you only have a final vote on it at the end before we bring it to the Assembly.

Mr Lyttle: How will an unreformed education system in financial crisis be able to function under a proposed 2% budget reduction? Why does this Budget make no clear commitment to honour the subregional football stadia fund, which is overdue from 2015?

Mr C Murphy: The latter point is, I understand, part of the Department for Communities' bid, and it is up to that Department to satisfy that. I have had that raised with me in recent times, and I understand that the Communities Minister is very clear about fulfilling the commitment to subregional stadia.

As I said, we recognised at the outset of this process that the proposition to increase funding for Health was going to be very challenging for all Departments, particularly, I expect, for Education. If we had the money that we need to prioritise all the things that we need to do, I am sure that Education would have come a close second after Health. In financial allocations, Education has always come in second place to Health. We will look to continue to support the very clear pressures in the education system over the course of the three years, but we cannot make a proposition to prioritise one area without every other area having to make a contribution to that. That creates additional stresses and pressures, and I have heard about all those from various Ministers over the last number of weeks. However, those are the choices that you have to make when you have a finite Budget and you want to give priority to a specific area. The additional funding is not just for the health of the population, which is important, but there is a clear recognition that, if we do not make the changes that we need in the health system, the costs will continue to grow year-on-year, which will have a longer-term impact on the budgets of all other public services.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, Question Time is due to commence at 2.00 pm. I propose, therefore, that Members take their ease for a few moments to allow the Assembly to be organised for that. After Question Time, we will return to questions to the Minister of Finance on his statement.

The business stood suspended.


2.00 pm

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Oral Answers to Questions

The Executive Office

Mr Speaker: Question 8 has been withdrawn.

Mrs O'Neill (The deputy First Minister): With your indulgence, a Cheann Comhairle, I would like to briefly sign, given that this our first Question Time with sign language.

[The Member signed: "Hello. I am pleased to use sign language in the Assembly for the first time today."]

Hopefully, I have communicated with our deaf community to let them know that we are an inclusive Assembly and we represent their interests.

The travel agents scheme 2021 was one of a number of support initiatives that the Executive agreed to support vulnerable but viable businesses that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although TEO took forward the travel agents scheme, we have no statutory or policy responsibility for travel agents or the travel sector, other than the delivery of the one-off coronavirus support scheme. The travel agents scheme has now concluded, and, in total, 165 — 87·3% — grant payments were made to applicants, totalling £1·208 million.

While no consideration is being given to a further specific scheme for travel agents by TEO, the Executive have funded in full the Department for the Economy’s comprehensive economic recovery action plan for this financial year. The Executive have also agreed the COVID recovery plan, which is designed to accelerate economic, health and societal recovery to deliver sustainable economic development for all.

Any further scheme would be a matter for the Department for the Economy to consider.

Mr M Bradley: I thank the deputy First Minister for her response. Undoubtedly, recent restrictions will have an impact on consumer demand and the travel agents' recovery. I know of one travel agent who is on his own and runs his own business: he has had to pay back £50,000. In lieu of that, can the Minister's Department influence the Department for the Economy in order to rejuvenate the scheme that it once had?

Mrs O'Neill: I concur with the Member and understand the depth of the challenge that is faced by the travel sector. That is why, given that no scheme was brought forward by the Department for the Economy, we intervened and brought forward a scheme. I am glad that we were able to pay out £1·2 million. It would have helped individuals such as the gentleman to whom you refer.

It has been so difficult throughout the pandemic. At best, we can only mitigate its worst effects. We have not been able to compensate everybody entirely. That is the challenge. Other supports have been open to the gentleman to whom you refer and to the industry. They include everything from rate relief to the £10k and £25k schemes, the microbusiness hardship fund and, more recently, the COVID restrictions business support scheme.

The case is well made, and it is the policy responsibility of the Department for the Economy to step forward and bid for a scheme. The Executive have funded the Economy Department's strategy for the way forward.

I hope that there is the ability to support the industry, particularly given that we again face increased travel restrictions, which impact on people's decisions on whether to travel.

Mr Sheehan: The pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on sectors in the community that were already disadvantaged, including children and young people, women, those on low incomes and those with disabilities. Does the Minister agree that tackling inequality and disadvantage must be at the core of any recovery?

Mrs O'Neill: I absolutely agree with the Member that tackling the high levels of poverty, inequality and disadvantage across our communities must be at the core of the Executive's approach to recovery. I am particularly aware, as we all are, of the societal and economic impact of the pandemic, especially on women, many of whom are in low-paid, precarious employment or have lost their job. We have all seen and heard about at first hand the impact of the rising cost of living on families who already struggle day-to-day to make ends meet. They now have to make difficult choices about heating their home and about the food that they purchase. I am certainly committed to doing all that I can with Executive colleagues to support people through this difficult time.

The cost of living crisis flags up the need for us to address societal inequalities and to look after the most vulnerable, those who are lonely, people in housing need, those in poverty, the families of those with a disability and workers on low incomes. Looking after those in greatest need must be at the core of future recovery planning. That means that we will have to do things differently, work more effectively and listen to people. We owe it to all our people to make that happen, and I am committed to working with Executive colleagues to do that.

Mrs D Kelly: I ask the joint First Minister, given that the staycation voucher scheme is not now going ahead and that the money for it will not be used, how will decisions on recouping the money from overpayments, payments that should not have been made or, indeed, payments that were unable to be spent be debated at the Executive? What is the methodology for making decisions on the way forward?

Mrs O'Neill: The scheme that you refer to is, again, the responsibility of the Department for the Economy and falls under its policy remit, so I do not have a say or an input into what it will do now as a result of not going ahead. The funding was found from within the Department's budget, so I assume that it will now reallocate it under the normal departmental financial practices.

Mr Nesbitt: I will go back to the travel agent scheme. Can the Minister confirm that the original scheme was predicated on a return to normality by last spring and that, as we are not there, the logic is that support is due again?

Mrs O'Neill: That was done at a point time. As we know, we have paid out considerable funding not just to that sector but to many sectors and rightly so, but, as I said in answer to the supplementary question, there is no way that the Executive can mitigate the worst impacts of the pandemic. All that we can do is do our best to support people.

Given that there is an ongoing situation with travel, particularly with new travel restrictions as a result of the omicron variant and the impact that that will have on the industry, I encourage the Economy Minister to come forward and have that discussion, if there are things that we are able to do. I will be realistic, however, and point out that, last year, we had COVID moneys that we were able to deploy to support businesses and that, this year, we are not in the same scenario, unfortunately. I assure everybody that the First Minister and I are speaking to Treasury and making the case strongly for COVID moneys, should we need them again.

Mrs O'Neill: We note the concerns that the Members of Congress expressed to Secretary Blinken in their letter of 10 November about the British Government's proposals announced on 14 July this year to introduce legislation for dealing with the legacy of the past. We also oppose the present legacy proposals.

Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a Aire. Minister, thank you for your response and that unequivocal rejection of the British Government's self-serving legacy plan. Will you join me in commending the family of Francis Rowntree, an innocent 11-year-old boy killed by a British Army rubber bullet, after they succeeded in their civil action against the Ministry of Defence? That measure of truth and justice simply would not be possible under British Government plans.

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for his question. Of course I commend the Rowntree family as they, like so many other families, have campaigned for nearly 50 years, seeking answers on the British Army killing by rubber bullet of their 14-year-old loved one, Francis, first, through their inquest in November 2017, which found that there was no justification for the use of lethal force, and now through the civil action against the British Ministry of Defence. However, with the publication of the British Government's Command Paper of 14 July, such outcomes would no longer be possible because, as well as providing for an amnesty, the intention is to halt inquests, civil cases and investigations. We know that those proposals, if legislated for, signal an intent to close down legal avenues to justice, and, in truth, they are a real affront to all victims and survivors.

I have no doubt that denying truth and justice to families like the Rowntrees is the desired intent of the proposals, and, as Members know, the British Government's proposals are a major unilateral departure from the Stormont House Agreement and are worse than the mechanisms deployed by Pinochet's military dictatorship in Chile. That this British Government are, as you say, wilfully ignoring the voices of victims despite the universal opposition to their amnesty proposals is a cause for real concern, so, without further delay, the British Government must withdraw the amnesty proposals and implement the Stormont House Agreement in a human rights-compliant manner. I will continue to make that point directly to Brandon Lewis.

Mrs D Kelly: I concur with the joint First Minister in her total rejection of the British Government's legacy proposals, but can she give us any insight into what commitment has been given by terrorist organisations about holding themselves to account and giving truth, justice and accountability to the far too many victims of the Troubles as a consequence of their actions?

Mrs O'Neill: First, let me say that we all have a role to play in providing our own political leadership to make sure that we heal the wounds of the past and understand that we are dealing with a society where hurt has been caused to many, many people and where people are sitting at their dinner tables without their loved ones. It is harrowing, and you would not want to be in their shoes. There is an onus on all of us in political leadership to work together to heal the wounds of the past and to properly deal with the past. If the British Government think that, by pushing it under the carpet, it will go away, that is not the case. We all know and can point to many examples of intergenerational trauma as a result of conflict. We must deal with the past and not burden the young people of today with yesterday. Let us build for a better future together.

Mr Buckley: While I welcome the US Secretary of State's letter opposing the amnesty proposals from Her Majesty's Government, will the deputy First Minister agree that there are those in the United States who simply cannot wash their hands of culpability in relation to the legacy issues that we face, as many of them funded illegal organisations such as the Provisional IRA for many years?

Mrs O'Neill: The British Government clearly are not listening to the victims and survivors, political parties and civic society across this island, because we are united in saying that the British Government's proposals are wrong. The British Government should pull back from their proposals to place state forces above the law through an amnesty. We have made and will continue to make that clear to Brandon Lewis. As I have said to the Member before, I would much prefer that he would join me in trying to build a better future for all of the people who live here.

Mrs O'Neill: With your permission, Mr Speaker, junior Minister Kearney will answer this question and question 6 with it.

Mr Kearney (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): The FICT report was published on 1 December 2021. The commission tackled a range of complex and challenging issues. The report has identified potential pathways forward both through its recommendations and through its careful consideration of the issues. The FICT working group will continue to meet to consider issues in relation to the report, including implementation.

Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, junior Minister. My concern is about some of the discourse in the media last week that the working group was not really able to make significant progress up to this point on a joint action plan. What more can be done at this stage to advance the recommendations in the report?

Mr Kearney: Mo bhuíochas leis an Chomhalta as an cheist sin a chur. In fact, the working group received a report and an implementation plan drafted by officials that was prepared in the period between 25 March and the end of April.

A draft implementation plan exists. The working group has not met since 28 July, but I remain absolutely committed to meeting the requirement that the necessary scaffolding be put in place to ensure the phased implementation of the recommendations in the report.


2.15 pm

Mr T Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his answer. We have a report here that is based on tolerance and respect. When will the junior Minister and his party step up to the plate and show some tolerance and respect towards the unionist community and its identity, culture and tradition in the House, which they have sought to trample under foot by their actions on previous occasions?

Mr Kearney: I thank the Member for his question. We are in absolute agreement on one point: the Good Friday Agreement sets out the requirements for parity of esteem and equality to be conferred on each tradition in this society, with due and equal recognition of the British identity and the Irish identity. We live in a divided society, as the Member knows. As political leaders, we need to create the context and use the available frameworks, such as the Good Friday Agreement and, indeed, the FICT report, to ensure that we give expression on an equal and shared basis to all the traditions and identities in this society, by my giving respect and due regard to your tradition and your identity and you likewise giving due regard and respect to my tradition and my identity as an Irish republican and an Irish citizen.

Ms McLaughlin: Junior Minister, do you think that the £800,000 was well spent?

Mr Kearney: Inevitably, a piece of work such as this has a price tag. The report has been very costly to compile, but the issues were complex and challenging, and the commission — your party was represented on it, along with the other main parties represented in the Assembly and on the Executive Committee — did due diligence in addressing the entire suite of challenges.

My big concern is that, having spent that quantum of funds on the report, which I believe has given us an effective road map for moving forward and dealing with the issues on a phased basis — a first phase where we can deal with the many challenges that are within our control, and then a second phase in which challenges remain but which gives us the bandwidth to work out how, in the mid to longer term, we can tackle those issues also. The fact is that we have that all in place. As I said in answer to an earlier question, we have an action plan. The disgrace is not so much that we spent that quantum of funding on the report but that we now actually have a report and are not being allowed to implement it. The test of the money spent will be the degree to which Members allow the report to be implemented.

Ms Sheerin: Looking over Hansard, I am reminded that the Minister spoke about the FICT report at Question Time on 28 June and 27 September and at the TEO Committee on 29 September. I have asked questions about it. Minister, will you outline your assessment of the delays and why the implementation plan that you referred to was not published along with the report?

Mr Kearney: Mo bhuíochas leis an Chomhalta as ucht an cheist sin a chur. The FICT draft plan and recommendations could and, indeed, should have been published along with the report. For the record, on 25 March this year, the Executive Committee approved proposals, including plans for engagement with Departments and work on a draft implementation plan. The outworking of that decision was that TEO invited Departments to nominate officials to engage in the process, assess recommendations relevant to their remit and provide feedback. Information was received from Departments and added to the existing analysis by TEO officials to inform the drafting of the actual implementation plan that I have referred to in my answers. That was a comprehensive process, including a phased approach to implementing all 45 recommendations in the FICT report.

I set that out because significant work on a draft action plan was completed in advance of the planned special Executive meeting in early May. However, a decision was made by the other side of TEO to block progress on the implementation plan. The approach adopted went against the clear position of the entire Executive Committee, and the special Executive meeting that was due to take place in May never took place.

Why no implementation plan was published alongside the FICT report is a question that other Ministers in the Executive Office must answer. The last meeting of the FICT working group took place on 28 July. That was the last meeting that they agreed to attend. If we are to make progress on all those issues, that type of blocking, delaying and obfuscation must be brought to an end.

Mrs Barton: Junior Minister, temporarily setting aside the issues that we cannot find collective agreement on, do you believe that the areas that were agreed could be implemented?

Mr Kearney: I thank the Member for her question. Yes, I absolutely believe that that is possible. Work can be taken forward, effectively and systematically, on the implementation of the FICT report. We have the draft implementation plan — the scaffolding — that would allow us to do that as a united Executive and, I hope, as a united Assembly. However, the DUP needs to stop blocking the adoption of that implementation plan. Its actions have not only frustrated the taking forward and implementation of the action plan but have prevented the entire collective Executive from discussing the issues of division and sectarianism that, I believe, the FICT report successfully addressed.

Mrs O'Neill: The First Minister and I were unable to attend the summit, but we were represented by Minister Poots and Minister Hargey respectively. On 30 November, Minister Poots made a statement to the Assembly on the discussions at the summit, and a copy of that was provided to all Members. The statement outlined the main theme of the summit, which was indigenous and minority languages in early years education. Other topics of discussion were COVID recovery, future relations with the European Union, the recent COP26 conference, and building on the value of the British-Irish Council as a forum for cooperation and the exchange of information.

Mr Speaker: I call Patsy McGlone.

Mr McGlone: Perhaps —

Mr Speaker: Tá brón orm. Sorry about that. [Laughter.]

I call Liz Kimmins for a supplementary question. I was ahead of myself.

Ms Kimmins: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the joint First Minister for her answer. Whilst it is welcome to see the work of the British-Irish Council progress, does the Minister agree that the public have a right to see similar work progress in the North/South Ministerial Council and that it is long past time that the DUP stopped denying them that right through its unlawful boycott of that all-Ireland institution?

Mrs O'Neill: I absolutely do. Playing politics with the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement by threatening this institution and blocking NSMC business whilst attending the British-Irish Council in Wales speaks to the DUP's hypocrisy and dysfunction. At a time when our healthcare workers, local communities and families are looking for certainty, particularly in the midst of a global health crisis, to say that the approach of threatening to walk away from this institution is reckless would be an understatement.

The public have the right to and want a functioning Assembly. They also want the all-island institutions to work alongside the east-west institutions. Functioning government and political stability are vital to managing our way through what are unprecedented times with the global health pandemic. However, as the Member knows, the blocking of NSMC meetings is also unlawful. It represents a failure to comply with the law and the ministerial code, which requires Ministers to participate in the three elements of institutions in the Good Friday Agreement.

I will continue to provide steady, responsible and progressive leadership and will focus on the issues that matter most to all our people.

Mr Speaker: My apologies to Liz Kimmins.

Mr McGlone: Mo bhuíochas fosta leis an chomh-Chéad Aire as ucht a freagra. An ndéanfaidh sí cur síos dúinn ar an dul chun cinn atá déanta go nuige seo ar chearta na teanga Gaeilge anseo sna Sé Chontae? I thank the joint First Minister for the detail that she has given us so far. Will she give us some detail on the progress that is being made on rights for Irish language speakers in the North?

Mrs O'Neill: I thank the Member for that question. Obviously, language rights were blocked in the Assembly, for some time, by the DUP. However, I am very glad that we found a way to go around that, and we now have a commitment to delivering the language and culture Bill. That is the whole package, because the whole package is important: the cultures and identities of us all need to be respected. Our officials have had a technical briefing from the NIO officials, and we continue to raise the issue with the Secretary of State. We expect, and want, to see progress on the issue in the coming weeks. It is important that the political commitment is delivered on. I congratulate groups like Conradh na Gaeilge that continue to keep the issue high on the agenda with the British Secretary of State.

Mr Buckley: The deputy First Minister's script seems to have forgotten the three years in which her and her party tore Stormont down for their own political end. But anyway.

Talking about the British-Irish Council meeting that was hosted by the Welsh Government, the deputy First Minister rightly outlined that COVID recovery was a key part of the discussions. The deputy First Minister may be aware of the huge burden that has been placed on businesses by COVID certification and of the fact that the hospitality trade is talking about its Christmas takings being down by over 40%. Should those businesses receive compensation or assistance from some form of scheme to help them through what will be a very difficult time?

Mrs O'Neill: I have always recognised the challenge that the pandemic has presented for all our sectors, particularly hospitality and tourism, which are the sectors that were impacted on particularly throughout the past, almost, two years. There is no doubt that it has been a challenging time. As I referred to earlier, we have tried our best to mitigate the worst impacts — certainly, the worst financial impacts — but, unfortunately, we could never replace all the money that those businesses would have made in their normal run of business.

I very much support what has been proposed by the Department of Health. I am on message with the Health Minister on how we are trying to keep businesses open and safe. It is about safety for the business owner, but it is also about safety for the wider public and giving them the comfort of knowing that, when they go into a premises, there will be a safe environment. Your party is absolutely out of kilter with the rest of the Assembly, who are behind the public health message. If ever there was a time for a united front on the public message, it is today, because we face a very difficult period in the weeks ahead with the new variant coming on stream. We are probably about two weeks behind what is happening in England and Scotland, and they are getting into very difficult territory. We are going to be overwhelmed with the new variant very, very soon.

My priority is keeping businesses open and safe; I want to keep every door open, but I also want to make sure that there is a safe space behind it for people to enter. We will continue to work with hospitality and every other sector to support them as best we can, whether that is practically, by way of guidance and advice, or, where we can, financially. I spent the weekend speaking to representatives of the Treasury in various meetings. We are making the case, very strongly, for financial support, because we want to have the resource to provide that.

Mrs O'Neill: Holocaust Memorial Day is a poignant commemoration. It is a time to remember the millions of people who were persecuted during the atrocities of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides, and, importantly, it is a reminder to all of us of the need to end discrimination and bigotry in all its forms. The Executive Office leads on Holocaust Memorial Day on behalf of the Executive. A commemoration event will be held at Belfast City Hall on 26 January 2022. That event will be delivered by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, with support from the Executive Office and district council colleagues. Due to the pandemic, in-person attendance will have to be limited, but the event will be streamed live to ensure that it is accessible to as many people as possible. Executive Office Ministers will participate in the event, and the First Minister and I will also contribute to the commemoration event that is taking place in London on 27 January 2022.

Mr Dunne: I thank the deputy First Minister for her answer. It is important that lessons continue to be learned from the Holocaust, including among our young people. Unfortunately, antisemitism continues to be a reality here, and we saw a number of instances, earlier this year, of Jewish graves being attacked. What more can her office do to ensure that we do not see a repeat of such attacks? Will she commit to assisting the Jewish community, which cannot get kosher meat into Northern Ireland due to the protocol?

Mrs O'Neill: We have to support all traditions and cultures. The Member referred to the Jewish community and the issue with kosher meat, which is, of course, something that we want to ensure that we get a resolution to.

That is why conversations and dialogue are important and why I absolutely encourage there to be a positive outcome to the talks between the British Government and the EU. Of course, we would not be having those conversations if we did not have Brexit, which was championed by the Member's own party. We are where we are, however. I hope for certainty, progress and stability. That is what our people want, and it is certainly what our business community wants. I spent the past days speaking to business leaders, and the clear message from all of them was this: provide us with certainty and stability. They want an agreed way forward. They certainly do not want the triggering of article 16.


2.30 pm

On tackling antisemitis