Official Report: Monday 17 January 2022
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: I advise Members that I have received correspondence from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs advising that, for procedural reasons, he will not be in a position to move the motion on the Single Use Carrier Bags Charge (Amendment) Regulations 2021 that is scheduled for tomorrow. There will therefore be no debate on that item of business.
Mr Speaker: I remind Members that, in light of the health protection regulations that came into force on 27 December, the Business Committee has agreed that the seating arrangement in the Chamber will reflect a social distance of 2 metres for all items of business until further notice.
Mr Speaker: Mrs Michelle O'Neill has been given leave to make a statement on Ashling Murphy, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should rise in their place and continue to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that interventions are not permitted and that I will not take points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.
Mrs O'Neill: Last Monday, I joined Executive colleagues in asking people for their views on a new strategy to end violence against women and girls. By Wednesday, another woman on this island had been brutally murdered. Ashling Murphy was 23. She was attacked and killed while out for a run. There are simply no words to convey the cruelty and injustice of what happened to Ashling. Our hearts go out to her family and to all who loved her.
Regrettably, the truth is that violence against women and girls, the threat of violence against women and girls and the fear of violence against women and girls are all too common. Domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is an epidemic. If we are to break the cycle of male violence against women, we need to develop an enforceable, zero tolerance approach towards misogyny and sexism and to end all violence against all women in all its forms, while also exposing and challenging the everyday sexism that women and girls experience, whether that be online, on the street or in the workplace.
Since Ashling's murder, countless women and girls across this island, me included, will have been reflecting on our safety as we go about our daily lives. The reason why we do that is because, sadly, we know that Ashling's murder was not an isolated incident.
Today, I think of the family of Caoimhe Morgan, a mother of four young children, murdered in her home in north Belfast just before Christmas. She died while being comforted by her children — just let that sink in. This is heartbreaking beyond words. These women are not statistics; they are our mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts. How often do we hear that we are lucky that we were not attacked because we dared to walk a particular route, be out at a certain time or wear a certain thing? We are not lucky; we are angry, because no woman or girl should ever have to face such disgusting attitudes or the threat of abuse that destroys lives. The anger across this island must now be turned into determined action. Together, we must stop violence against women and girls. Together, we must say, "Enough is enough."
Together, as we remember Ashling, we also remember many of the other women who were killed on this island throughout the pandemic years: Caoimhe Morgan, Emma Jane McParland, Katrina Rainey, Natasha Melendez, Patrycja Wyrebek, Katie Simpson, Susan Baird, Karen McClean, Stacey Knell, Ludmila Poletelova, Katie Brankin, Elizabeth Dobbin, Jean Eagers, Seema Banu, Neasa Murray, Anne Butler, Mary O'Keefe, Sharon Bennett, Urantsetseq Tserendorj, Jenny Poole, Eileen O'Sullivan, Fabiole Camara De Campos, Zeinat Dashabsheh. We remember them all.
Mr Givan: All of us across the community have come together in the past number of days to show our revulsion at what happened to Ashling Murphy and to stand in support of Ashling and her family. I think especially of her parents, Raymond and Kathleen, at this time, and we are struck by the last words that Ashling said to her mum, "Mam, I love you", before she left.
All of us, I think, are connecting our stories and families to this tragedy. As the father of three daughters, when we held a vigil in Lisburn last night, I was thinking about them, the type of society that they are growing up in and that, when they get to that age, they should feel safe. They should be respected. They should not be objectified or have to suffer the poor, bad behaviour that is often directed at women and girls. We must all take personal responsibility to change our society and to call out that behaviour for what it is when we witness it.
When we are with a group of fellas who are wolf-whistling, we need to call that out. Men need to step up and challenge that type of behaviour for what it is. We need to get to the root causes of the issues that go to the heart of how people think. That is why the deputy First Minister and I are taking forward as a priority the strategy on ending violence against women and girls. We have to shape government policies to put an end to this because too many people have suffered, and too many people have lost their lives. Unless we collectively make that change and target that effort, we will come back to this, and we should not. I am committed to doing all that I can to play my part in addressing these issues and challenging the type of behaviour that needs to change.
Ashling gave so much for someone who was killed at the age of 23. She had already given so much to our community and society, and she had so much more to give. Therefore, we show our support. We grieve with the families. Whether in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, we have all come together as one community to share in that grief. Collectively, we show our support.
Ms Mallon: After the brutal murder of Caoimhe Morgan in north Belfast and the brutal murders of all the women whose names we have just heard, we are gathered here today because another young woman, Ashling Murphy, has been murdered.
In the modern world, the fact that women are not safe is terrifying. As political leaders across these islands, we must band together to end this violence. As a mother, my heart breaks for Ashling Murphy's family. She had her whole life ahead of her: a new graduate with so many talents, a great love of music and so much to offer her friends, family and community. Ashling was robbed of that opportunity, and our society has been robbed of the positive contribution that, no doubt, she would have continued to make.
What makes the murder so frightening is the casual violence that took place in broad daylight in an area that was busy with people who were out for exercise. It could have happened to any woman, so it represents an attack on every woman. If a young girl cannot go for a jog in the middle of the day in an area surrounded by people, where can women feel safe? Too many policymakers just do not understand how oppressive this environment is for so many people. They do not understand what it is like to be afraid when walking home in the evening or to be worried about who is around you when you are alone in a public place. That is not the kind of society that I want for my children.
We must move away from expecting women to carry rape alarms or take self-defence classes and from putting the burden and responsibility for our being safe on us. We need to take the plague of violence against women seriously and eradicate it. It is scandalous that the only female-only homeless hostel in Belfast is under the threat of closure. Across these islands, we need to get serious about the environment that has been created for women and the kind of society that we have created. I do not want my daughters or my son to grow up in that world. Equally, I do not want to stand here again and again mourning another woman who has been murdered. We have to act now to do all that we can to educate men in order to protect our daughters and sisters, and we have to do it now.
Mrs Barton: I will take the opportunity to speak on the safety of women in our society today. First, on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I, too, express condolences to the parents and family of Ashling Murphy, a young schoolteacher, and my party's revulsion at her murder and, indeed, the other murders of women that have taken place over the past number of years.
While out exercising, Ashling was murdered on the banks of a canal at Tullamore. That dreadful deed has left the Republic and Northern Ireland stunned, and many women now fear the consequences of walking to and from work, taking a leisurely stroll, particularly in areas of limited lighting, or running for exercise in the evening. No woman or girl should have to feel afraid because they exercise on foot or walk to work alone. Women are entitled to feel safe. As a mother of a daughter who often walks to work alone, I, too, have concerns. There has been an increase in violent attacks on women over the past two years, whether through domestic violence or coercive activity. Whether it is that or the leering or catcalling in the street that women experience, enough is enough. All gender-based attacks, whether verbal or physical, must become unacceptable and a zero tolerance approach must be adopted.
Time is of the essence. Serious consideration must be given to the introduction of an educational framework for our young people in school, from the age of four to 18, that increases awareness of violence against women, from the school playground to the workplace and beyond. That must tackle not only general harassment of and verbal assaults on women but sexual and domestic gender-based violence, too. Respect for the opposite gender must be encouraged and young men must accept responsibility for examining their attitudes and take ownership of their behaviour.
Ms Bradshaw: Thank you, deputy First Minister, for bringing this Matter of the Day to the House. It is right and proper that we all stand in solidarity with everyone across the island of Ireland who has been so deeply saddened and angered by this senseless murder. I extend my deepest sympathies, as others have, to the family and friends of Ashling Murphy. The tributes written about her since her death have afforded us all an insight into her wonderful life, which was so cruelly taken away from her.
It is unfortunate that this is another acute reminder of the need to end violence against women and girls. I share the concerns that others have expressed about the escalation of violence against members of the female population. However, we all know that, from an early age, women and girls — of course, I include members of the trans community in this — experience forms of sexism and unwarranted attacks due to their gender. For too long, that has been accepted as a consequence of being born female.
As others said, this tragic death is unfortunately not an isolated incident, and the deputy First Minister read out the names of women who have lost their life. It was heartbreaking to hear that, because we all knew some of those women personally or they were constituents of ours and we knew their backstory.
Before Christmas, during Members' Statements, I raised the concerns that are felt amongst the female student population in the Holylands area of south Belfast about the rise in sexual assaults and of fears for their safety as they are just walking along the streets. There are girls right across this island who live in fear every single day. I welcome the consultation, which was launched last week by the Executive Office and the Department of Justice, into a strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, and I encourage everyone to channel some of their anger into responding to it.
May Ashling rest in peace.
Mr Allister: I join in expressing my revulsion at this shocking murder. The shock is intensified by the fact that it took place literally in broad daylight. That adds to the layers of fear that evolve from a murder such as this. I express my condolences to the Murphy family — to the parents, who have suffered a loss that they will, frankly, never get over.
Indeed, as I spoke to relatives of the victims of the Teebane massacre yesterday, it was quite clear that, 30 years on, the horror and deep pain of murder resonates every day with those who are affected, no matter how long ago it occurred. So it will be, sadly and tragically, with the Murphy family in the days, months and years ahead. The community response will undoubtedly help. If, as I trust will be the case, the perpetrator is found, dealt with by the law as they ought to be and spends many years in prison, that may help with a sense of justice. It will not, however, remove the pain of loss, which is something that the Province knows much about.
We have heard today about those women who lost their life during the pandemic. I think also of those who lost their life in the pandemic of terrorism that some still seek to justify.
Mr Carroll: The murder of Ashling Murphy was a brutal, horrendous and deeply disturbing crime. My thoughts go out to Ashling's friends and family, who are grieving and are doing so in such a public way. Words can often seem meaningless in response to such horror, but we have seen on this island in the last few days an upswell of not only sorrow but anger that says, "No more". It says that misogyny should be consigned to the bin and that women should not be subjected to harassment or abuse or be killed. Too many women and other people have too often said this, clearly and strongly: "No more".
People have said that Ashling was just running. Indeed she was, but it does not matter where she was or what she was doing; she should not have been killed, especially not in such a callous way.
People have been killed at home and on holiday. Women have been killed everywhere. Why is it that I can run at night-time without any fear or worry about my safety? It is because women have been marginalised, stigmatised, oppressed and harassed for too long. Ashling made an impact at such a young age on the pupils whom she taught. Let us make her legacy one that banishes the snake of sexism from this island. My thoughts go out to her and her family.
Mrs Cameron: More women, per capita, are murdered in Northern Ireland as a result of domestic violence than in any other part of western Europe. That incredibly stark figure was provided recently by Women's Aid. White Ribbon NI was formed recently, and the Assembly has supported the organisation by signing the White Ribbon charter. The organisation asks us all to pledge never to commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women and girls. White Ribbon NI reacted to the murder of Ashling Murphy by saying:
"Violence against women and girls starts with ideas, words and thoughts long before it becomes action — if we are to create a society where women are safe we MUST challenge the attitudes and beliefs that lead to violence against women.
The need for preventative and proactive movement forward cannot be overstated.
We believe that men and boys have an important role to play as allies and agents of change.
We ALL must stand together and refuse to stay silent on the issue."
Ashling Murphy was a beautiful, young, vibrant woman. Our thoughts and prayers are with her parents, her family, her friends, her school and the schoolchildren who looked up to her.
Mr McNulty: I offer my heartfelt sympathies and support to Ashling Murphy's family — her parents, Ray and Kathleen; her brother, Cathal; and her sister, Amy — her boyfriend, Ryan; her national school class and colleagues; her Ballyboy Comhaltas friends; and her former camogie teammates and mentors and friends from Kilcormac Killoughey GAA club. The outpouring of grief across Ireland since Ashling Murphy's murder has united people everywhere in a sense of shock, sadness and defiant anger. It brings back terrible pain to all the families who have lost loved ones as a consequence of violence by men. My thoughts are with those families.
This is a watershed moment in the consciousness of our island: that a brilliant young woman who was a teacher of children, a talented musician, a former camogie player, a role model in her community and a pillar of her family was murdered in the most brutal fashion in broad daylight while out for a run in a public place strikes at the very centre of our equilibrium and fills us all with profound despair. Ashling's beautiful soul and her joy, zest for life and wonderful potential are gone. The shocking pain of that senseless bereavement will hit the extended Murphy and Leonard families so hard. I cannot begin to truly empathise with what they are feeling.
Violence against women is far too common in our society. We must dismantle the culture that permits violent crimes against women to take place. A key part of that involves a willingness on the part of men to take responsibility for the role that everyday misogyny and sexism play in keeping this destructive and dangerous culture alive. It requires effort from men in all strands and sectors of life: in professional, personal, sporting and social settings and in boardrooms and on building sites. It will involve having uncomfortable conversations with friends and peers, but, by speaking up against and challenging any marginalisation, denigration and objectification of women when we hear or see it, we will help to break the culture that creates an environment that allows violence against women.
I am so worried about the impact of the murder on women and girls who enjoy exercising in public. Women should not have to forward plan a journey or exercise. They should not have to worry about the chance of being attacked by a man, but they do. Women should not have to make fake phone calls or cross to the other side of the street while walking home, but they do. Women should not have to share live locations, but they do.
Women should not have to fish their keys out of their bag 50 metres from their front door or their car, but they do. Women should not have to guard themselves constantly against the aggressions of men. Men should challenge each other when they see or hear any form of aggression towards women. Men do not realise what a privilege it is not to have to do the things that women must do every day, such as be vigilant constantly and make decisions in order to feel safe. No more.
Dr Aiken: I join my colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party and everybody else in the Assembly in passing on my condolences to the Murphy family. I speak as a father of four daughters and as a soon-to-be grandfather of a granddaughter; indeed, one of my children is a schoolteacher.
The fear amongst our women is palpable. It is there in nearly every aspect of life. As men, we really must ask how we have allowed that situation to occur. How can it be that some of the most vulnerable in society are scared? As my friend has already pointed out, they are scared to go running and to be seen out at night. They worry constantly about what is happening. Indeed, as husbands and fathers, we spend our time looking at WhatsApp and Find My to make sure that we know where our wives and daughters are.
How have we as a society across these islands allowed ourselves to get to a situation in which fear is predominant? That needs to change, and that change must come from within us: men. We must inculcate in our male community that it is not right, in any circumstances, to use casual sexism or misogyny. That has to stop. It has to stop in the absolute sewer that is social media. It has to stop in how we act, communicate and the rest of it. We must get to a position in which women on these islands feel safe. They cannot go around feeling fearful of everything, because that fear is now being instilled in virtually everything that they do. We must get to a point at which people feel able to walk around their streets and communities, to exercise and to do everything else that they want to do without constant concern and fear. We must collectively strive towards that. Our condolences are with Ashling's family and friends.
Mr Blair: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for accepting this necessary Matter of the Day, on which a number of Members had submitted notice. There has been an outpouring of grief across the country following the murder of 23-year-old Ashling Murphy, a teacher who was out for a run on the banks of the Grand Canal in Tullamore. On behalf of Alliance, I speak in solidarity with Ashling's loved ones and the tens of thousands of people who attended vigils in recent days to remember her.
The senseless loss of Ashling has sent shock waves of grief and fear across the island. I feel deep anger that this has happened again: Ashling's murder must be a catalyst for change. The Matter of the Day highlights the fact that men are the culprits and women are the victims. It is as simple as that. Before we can move forward with the debate, we as an Assembly need to address that fact and tackle that issue. We cannot address concerns for women's safety without putting men at the centre of the discussion.
The collective socialisation of men has led some men to become predatory. That is why we are at this tipping point. As men, we need to ask what we can do to stop brothers, partners, friends and colleagues becoming a perpetrator. Last week, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said that he wanted to reassure women that we live in a safe society and that such crimes are rare. The fact is that they are not rare. Last year alone, at least 140 UK women were killed by men or in circumstances in which a man is the principal suspect. Sadly, violence against women is not rare. The tragic murder of Ashling Murphy must be the catalyst for change and mark the end of male violence against women.
Women should be able to walk the streets free from harm, fear and threat.
I welcome the cross-departmental progress to introduce two strategies to tackle domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, which were launched recently. I hope that the discussion will continue in the Assembly and that we will have the opportunity to further debate what more men can do to be better allies, including addressing challenging and problematic behaviour from fellow men.
All of us in public life have a responsibility to speak up and address the issue, even more so if we are men in public life, and I look forward to working with colleagues to further address those issues.
Ms McLaughlin: Women across this island are angry. We are upset about the murder of Ashling Murphy, but, more than that, we are traumatised by it. A criminal investigation is taking place, so we must be careful about what we say, but what I can say is that Ashling Murphy did everything right. She was getting exercise in a public place and in broad daylight. However, even talking about doing everything right, in itself, is wrong. Women have the right to walk safely home at night. They have the right to live with their partner without being hit, kicked or murdered, yet too often that is what happens to women.
In this jurisdiction, we have a particular crisis. More women are murdered in Northern Ireland as a result of domestic violence than anywhere else in Europe, joint only with Romania, as it happens. It is something that we have been continually talking about for years. That is why the work of the Executive Office on a strategy to address violence against women and girls is so very important. We need to understand what is wrong and how we can put it right. However, let us make it absolutely clear: the problem is not with women. We are the victims. We deal with the symptoms of a society that has at its heart something deeply wrong.
Why do some men hate women so much? There is so much hatred that it kills women. There is even a new word for it, and I do not mean "misogyny"; I mean "incel". An incel is a man who blames women for his problems, and, for some of them, that is justification enough for murdering them.
We have particular problems here that relate to the Troubles and the continuing role and reality of paramilitaries and the glorification and justification of violence. The whole world has a problem. It is not just about violent pornography, violent online sexist games, sexist language or the demeaning of women; it is all those things and more.
It is not just a new problem. Some men create problems for all women, not only the women who are murdered or beaten but all women who have to be wary of where we go and when and how we do things. We look to men to solve the problem of those men who abuse, threaten or murder. Women have had far, far more than enough, and far more than we are willing to put up with.
Ashling Murphy, may your beautiful darling soul rest in peace. To the Murphy family, may you find comfort and love from your family and your global community in this horrendous time of grief.
Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the debate, we had many references to the strategy in respect of violence against women, which was launched in a photocall last week. Why was that strategy not presented to the House, which is the proper place for such a strategy to be presented?
Mr Speaker: I cannot address the matter that the Member has raised, but he will be well aware that I have routinely asked the Executive to make their statements and announcements on policy matters to Members in the Chamber, as far as is possible. The Member's point has been made.
Mr Buckley: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Just last week, the Speaker of the House of Commons and, indeed, more worryingly, MI5, issued an alert to Members of Parliament warning them that an agent of the Chinese state, named as Christine Lee, is engaged in political interference on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. Understandably, that has given rise to considerable concern that perhaps Chinese state political interference is more widespread, including in these institutions. Has the Speaker's Office reached out to or received any briefings from the PSNI or other national security organisations regarding the activities of Christine Lee or other agents of the Chinese Communist Party in this institution?
Mr Speaker: The short answer is no. I have not heard anything from anybody, other than what I have seen in the media. The Member has made his point, and I thank him for that.
Mr Speaker: If Members wish to be called to make a statement, they should indicate by continually rising in their place. Those Members who are called will have up to three minutes to make their statement. Members are reminded that statements will not be subject to debate or questioning, interventions will not be permitted and I will not take points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has been finished.
Ms Ennis: I want to stand here and say that the epidemic of violence against women and girls is over and that the outpouring of grief, anger and frustration at the murder of Ashling Murphy will be enough to end all this, but we all know that Ashling Murphy will not be the last. She will not be the last because, in the week of her murder in Tullamore, the scramble to find solutions is seeing the same old suggestions thrown up to keep women safe, such as rape alarms, more police, better street lighting etc. It seems, even now, that some people are determined to keep the focus on the actions of women and away from the actions of violent men.
Victims of rape and other forms of violence need a justice system that works for them, but this is not simply a policing or justice problem; it is also a wider societal problem. The best judicial system in the world will not succeed if we end up with a jury of 12 people who, on some level, think that a woman was asking for it. If we are serious about ending violence against women and girls, we need to start by asking why a woman's non-consent is seen as some sort of barrier to be overcome. That is why the strategy to protect women and girls from violence is crucial. We could be the generation to end the epidemic of violence against women and girls, if we start by changing not women's behaviour but the culture that still allows a woman's very humanity to be undermined. We must ensure that we have a judicial system that is fair and balanced but, most importantly, victim-centred.
Mr K Buchanan: Today, 17 January, marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Teebane massacre, where eight Protestant workers were murdered and maimed when the IRA blew up their minibus at Teebane crossroads on the road between Omagh and Cookstown on Friday 17 January 1992. Their firm, Karl Construction, had been specifically targeted because it carried out work for the security forces. They were honest men doing an honest day's work. Each year, with the exception of last year due to COVID restrictions, the families have gathered to hold a simple service of remembrance. Many in the community that I represent still bear the hurt and carry the pain of that day, and many feel that justice will not be done until those who perpetrated and facilitated those murders are brought to justice. There cannot be a hierarchy of victims.
Innocent victims, survivors and their families must not be forgotten. There are those who now sit in public office who may or may not know what happened on this day 30 years ago. I appeal to those people and others in the community to give any information that they have, and which could bring the perpetrators to justice, to the PSNI. Seven of the men were killed outright and the eighth victim died four days later from his injuries. They were Gary Bleeks, Cecil Caldwell, Robert Dunseith, Oswald Gilchrist, David Harkness, Bobby Irons, Richard McConnell and Nigel McKee.
To those who sat on the hill overlooking the scene, those who planted the bomb, those who planned it, those who watched the workers leave Omagh or those who supported any of those actions, I say that you, too, have families and friends. You may have tragedies in your life, and, when they happen or have happened, ask yourselves whether the actions that you were part of, in which eight innocent men were murdered, played a part in your misfortune. To all those who were involved: think deep and hard about the actions you were involved in, from when you open your eyes each morning until you close them each night. Think deep and hard about your actions.
Mr Catney: When I was first elected, I spoke about my desire to work for one community in Lagan Valley: all of us together. Since then, I have been proud of the work that my little office team has done in Lisburn for the thousands of people who have contacted the office in Smithfield. We have helped people to get the homes, benefits and medical supports that they require. We have tried our best to help with every unique case that has come our way. Yet, when I meet people I do not know, I am completely embarrassed to tell them that I am a politician, due to the long line of elected individuals who have misused the trust that the public have placed in them. Even without the litany of boozy parties held in Downing Street while people were told not to visit dying relatives, I can still see an entire day of examples and the manifestation of running public services low with almost complete incompetence, and misleading the public has now become the default for some.
In that context, it has been reported that the restriction on double-jobbing as an MP and MLA is to be removed. They are calling it the "Jeffreymander": it is a new word in the English language. We have been told that it is important to help to maintain the stability of the institutions. My simple question is this: how? Since being elected as an MLA, I have been contacted by constituents at all hours of the day. I have worked to help people on Christmas Day and on family occasions, and I was delighted to do that, because that is the role that I was elected to do. I am sure that many Members can give similar examples. In addition, we have had debates in the Chamber that have gone on all night; we have record amounts of legislation that need to be considered; we have policy and Budget documents that run to hundreds of pages and require detailed scrutiny, particularly in the post-RHI era.
My work as an MLA is to do all the good that I can, and that requires my full attention, as it did even during the three years when I was prevented from being in the Chamber. How any person from any political party, in this day and age, can feel that they can fulfil their role as both an MP and an MLA at the same time is beyond me. In fact, I say that they definitely cannot do that, and it would be a complete disservice to those whom they represent. I urge the British Government to reject that party-political bung. Our institutions should not be used to dig out the DUP or anyone else. Reject the gerrymander, and let us get on with the important work of doing all the good we can, for all the people we can, in all the ways we can, for as long as we can.
Mr Dickson: I stand today to speak about the death of five-year-old Maggie Black, who was a schoolgirl from Glenarm.
Maggie died after becoming unwell with stomach pains at her home. As her breathing became difficult, her family dialled 999. It took 70 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. Thinking quickly, her parents contacted a family member, a local firefighter, for help. That crew arrived within 10 minutes, but, unfortunately, her condition deteriorated. For that family, the outcome was heartbreaking and utterly tragic. However, as the first responders had life-saving equipment, we know that Maggie was given the best support available. I thank the fire team for providing much-needed support and comfort in such demanding circumstances. The current unimaginable pressure on our health service is a terrifying reality for many people who live in rural locations. For others, it is simply the difference between life and death.
I ask for support for "Maggie's Call" to make it mandatory for the fire service to be despatched in rural areas in life-threatening situations. The reality is that, without systemic and planned change, emergency services are already stretched thin and have been forced into crisis. There are two choices: we can either resist change and slowly deteriorate until the point of collapse or embrace transformation and create a sustainable service, adequately funded and equipped to provide people with proper care, particularly in rural settings. Crucially, work must be carried out to improve medical care throughout rural communities. The Department must now build on the promising co-responder pilot scheme in which fire services are despatched to suspected cardiac emergencies in the local catchment areas of fire stations, in addition to the standard emergency ambulance response.
Upskilling is also fundamental in creating an all-encompassing emergency service that is capable of responding not just to today's challenges but to the difficulties that we will face in the future. Investment in lifelong training for all our emergency staff will transform the learning experience for those vital services and ensure that we continue to have the best people trained to the highest standards to be on hand when our rural communities are most in need. The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service and the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service need to be resourced and funded to deliver a joint response model.
Mr Carroll: Over the past number of days, I have been proud to stand with the workers of the Regina Coeli women’s hostel in west Belfast as they face the prospect of losing their jobs. This is a vital women-only hostel that supports women with addiction issues or who may have been the victim of domestic abuse. Unfortunately, over recent days and weeks, we have seen why women need safe spaces in our communities. Domestic violence and violence against women are all too common in our society, and the hostels provide an important space for women to seek safety to try to rebuild their lives. What distorted message does it send that one of the only hostels that support women with a dual diagnosis and in such critical situations can be allowed to close? It sends a message that women's safety is not prioritised despite what was said in the earlier discussion.
The workers at Regina Coeli, Unite and everyone who has stood up to defend the service have done the right thing. They will continue to fight and keep the sit-in going until the site is protected and kept open. They have my full support in that fight. I say categorically that this is a vital service that is wanted and needed in our community, and it needs to remain open. It is a safe space for women in a safe location. We cannot put that at risk due to some unexplained reason or with no evidence for those who run the hostel. Over the past number of years, my office has worked with countless women from Regina Coeli who have spoken in glowing terms about the support that they have received. It does not bear thinking about where those women would have ended up if they had not had the care and support provided at Regina Coeli. The workers need to be allowed to continue doing their jobs, as they have done for many years. Many former tenants are furious and have turned up to protest to save the site.
The role played by the Legion of Mary and its management board needs to be called out as shocking in this saga. There is not much Christianity in telling women who work in a women's support hostel and those who rely on it that they are out on their ear and the doors are closed. Disgracefully, workers have been suspended on the grounds of serious breaches of safety and security. The charges of safety breaches should be thrown in the faces of those who are ploughing ahead with the closure with no regard to the safety or security of women and where they will go if the hostel closes. It is extreme gaslighting of the highest order. They are closing a women-only hostel and forcing people to transfer to mixed accommodation who knows where.
We need to see an emergency intervention from the Minister to save the service. It is not good enough to use excuses to stop intervention to save the hostel. How many emergency powers were passed during COVID to protect people from the virus? Where is the urgency and emergency intervention to protect women from the epidemic of violence that they face? Excuses will not cut it. The Minister needs to make sure that the site is kept running. She needs to take it from the Legion of Mary and ensure that it is run by the Housing Executive.
Mr Carroll: She needs to ensure that the jobs of the workers who are sitting out are protected and defend Regina Coeli and the service.
Mr Allister: The date of 17 January is a day of infamy in the terrorist record in the Province: the day of the Teebane massacre, when eight innocent, hard-working Protestant men were blown to bits by the IRA. Thirty years ago today. For those men, there was no special ombudsman investigation, no inquiries, no truth, no justice and no apology from Sinn Féin, the spokesmen of the republican movement; rather, there is the continuing glorification of such acts of vile and unspeakable terrorism.
The second issue that I want to address is this: several years ago, for very good reasons — reasons that remain equally valid today — the electorate of Northern Ireland was rid of the selfish scourge of double-jobbing and the insult that it was adequate to be represented in Parliament by a part-timer. Now, at the behest of and to facilitate one man and his party, it seems that double-jobbing is to return. The key question for me is this: what price was paid for that facilitation? It benefits only one party. One has observed a softening in the urgency attending the protocol. No longer do I hear the Prime Minister being told that he must choose between the protocol and Stormont. Why is that? Will a further price be paid in respect of this facilitation? Let me be clear to the House: the protocol is dismantling the Union, check by check. The Poots posts are the very manifestation of the partitioning of the United Kingdom. Any unionist who can come to terms with the protocol is coming to terms with the end of the Union, and, if a deal to obtain short-term party advantage —
Mr Allister: — plays any part in that, so much greater the shame on them.
Ms Brogan: On 27 December 2021, three young men tragically lost their lives in a road traffic accident on the A5 Omagh Road in Garvaghy. All were in their early twenties, as was a fourth man who was seriously injured. I take the opportunity to send my deepest sympathies and condolences to the heartbroken families and friends of those who lost their lives and to those who have been affected by the accident. Their families, friends, colleagues and the wider Beragh and Garvaghy communities have been left totally devastated by the loss. I also wish a full and speedy recovery to the young man who received such serious injuries.
Unfortunately, as we are all aware, that was not the first tragedy or serious accident on the A5. The recent tragedy brings to 42 the number of lives lost on the A5 since 2006, and many more people have been left with life-changing injuries. It is time for that to stop; it is time for action. The will of the vast majority who support the upgrade of the A5 has been repeatedly frustrated by a tiny vested interest. That cannot be allowed to continue. To prevent further loss of life, the planned upgrade to the A5 must be permitted and the legal challenges overcome.
Today, I ask for three things: for immediate action on the A5, with no more delays to road improvements; for the Department for Infrastructure and Minister Mallon to be ready to act immediately following the A5 inquiry; and for temporary safety measures to be implemented in the meantime. Sinn Féin colleagues and I have called for the Department to consider enhancing the safety of the road, and, today, again, I call on the Minister to prioritise the safety of road users. I ask the Department to put lighting along that stretch of the A5 near Garvaghy, because residential housing, a shop and a restaurant are all in close proximity and it is important that motorists are made aware of that in order to prevent further accidents. I also ask for a review to ensure that there are adequate catseyes, reflective arrows and solar lighting along the entire A5. Those measures, although temporary, are vital for road safety, especially on such a dangerous stretch of road.
Mr Clarke: Many Members will not remember where they were 30 years ago, but I remember clearly, this day 30 years ago, getting a phone call to bring my wife to my mother-in-law. I remember the visit from the police about 10.20 pm with the news that many of us did not want: my brother-in-law, along with seven colleagues, had been brutally murdered and six others seriously injured. For 30 years, we have gathered at the same spot, albeit we did not gather last year because of COVID. We have gathered there with family, friends and members of the wider community who have expressed an interest over the years. We have been strongly supported by Rev McCrea and Rev Ivor Smith. To this day, the contractor of the time, Cedric Blackburn from Karl Construction, supports the families every year with dignity.
Yesterday's gathering struck me more than most, and Mr Allister slightly touched on this in what he said about inquiries. I do not expect the Reverend William McCrea's contribution yesterday to get coverage today. There was particular media interest yesterday, but, other than a passing headline, the media have never been interested in the events at Teebane. As Mr Allister said, there have been no ombudsman inquiries, but nor have there been any fancy reports commissioned by the BBC or any other media outlets about what happened that day.
We have garnered a friendship and a bond from those gatherings, and indeed many of us went to a religious service last night. Before I went to that service, I was glad to have an opportunity to speak to one man whom I had never spoken to before. He told me that he was travelling behind the van on the day, before it was blown up. That man has never been interviewed by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). Maybe now, the police and security forces will want to make contact with that man, who worked for the same firm but was never spoken to by the HET. That is a shame, but its timing was stark following what Rev McCrea said yesterday and the lack of interest by the BBC, the HET and others. Maybe it is time now, after 30 years, that they got their act together and brought some form of justice to us and the rest of the families.
Mr O'Toole: First, I associate myself with the remarks that were made earlier about the brutal, evil murder of Ashling Murphy and what it says to all of us about violence against women in Ireland and about how far we, as men and as a society, have to come. I also acknowledge and mark the very difficult anniversary for the victims of the Teebane massacre 30 years ago.
Last week, in the Economy Committee, we heard something shocking. We heard about one of the practical outworkings of Brexit for Northern Ireland and for young people here. It does not just affect young people; it affects all people who need economic policy to be properly funded in Northern Ireland. During the referendum campaign in 2016, one of the arguments frequently made by Leave supporters, including Members on the Benches opposite and one Member on the Bench to my left, was that leaving the European Union would free up £350 million a week for the NHS. We now see that leaving the EU is not delivering more money for public services; it threatens public services and vital funding.
Officials from the Department for the Economy came to the Economy Committee to tell us that there has been a £65 million per year loss of EU funding, primarily the European social fund and the European regional development fund, which funds vital investment in our economy. That money does not fund fancy add-ons; it funds essential apprenticeship training, innovation training and stuff that is completely essential for our economy. That is why, those officials told us, by 2025, there will be a shortfall in their Department. It is not just funding that they have lost; it is funding of £100 million that has been lost and not been replaced by the British Government. That is a shocking indictment of Brexit and the individuals who sold Brexit to people here. They have failed not only the bureaucrats in government Departments but young people who need jobs and places at university.
In that Committee meeting, we heard that one of the things that the Department may have to do is to look at increasing university fees and reducing the number of university places, because it does not have the money to fund the higher education system because of Brexit [Interruption.]
I hear chuntering from Mr Allister to my left; he should not say a word, given the failures for young people. This is a failure by the Brexiteers but, specifically, the Democratic Unionist Party, which runs that Department and has done so for the last decade and a half. It has failed young people, and we hear that its leader is looking for two jobs, yet young people in this society might not be able to get one thanks to its irresponsibility.
I will close with a quote. It is not often that I quote Rudyard Kipling. He was a British imperialist and an Ulster loyalist, so I do not quote him often, but he said one thing on which I want the DUP to reflect. In one of his poems, he said:
"I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?"
The Democratic Unionist Party must understand that defrauding our young people —
Mr Muir: I take this opportunity to speak on the UK Government's plan to reintroduce double-jobbing for MPs and MLAs. The Alliance Party firmly opposes the proposals.
I joined this place, as did many others, because I want to move politics forward, not turn back the clock and bring back a firmly discredited practice. Double-jobbing was banned in Northern Ireland many years ago, and it should remain so. Being an MLA and doing it properly is a full-time job, as is being an MP. People in Northern Ireland deserve MLAs who are firmly committed to making devolution work, not part-time MLAs who are also keeping their foot in Westminster, shamelessly hedging their bets on the future of Stormont and depending on how their party performs and how they want this place to work.
In 2022, we ought to be about enhancing the diverse range of politicians across Northern Ireland who represent the people, whether it be in district councils, the Assembly or Westminster, not about a few hogging multiple top jobs.
When Stephen Farry was elected an MP, he legally had to give up his MLA seat, and that is what happened. I replaced him as MLA for North Down. That was the right thing to do. It was also right that I gave up my full-time job and was disqualified from and gave up my role as a councillor. I am dedicated, on a full-time basis, to making devolution work, and others should be likewise.
The Owen Paterson scandal again shed a light on MPs taking on professional work while being a full-time elected representative. That also needs to be addressed. People should be here full-time, dedicated to the Assembly. Stormont should not be seen as a plaything for some people. Everyone in this place should be focused on the people and on serving them, not on themselves and their party.
I again urge the UK Government to withdraw the proposals. All along, we have been told that nothing in the New Decade, New Approach package could be amended by the legislation in Westminster, despite many worthwhile amendments, but why this? Why now? I think that we all know the answers. It stinks, and the proposals need to be withdrawn.
Ms Sheerin: We are now halfway through January, but it is easy to forget that it is 2022, given that a lot of the political discourse that we have seen so far this year belongs to a much earlier time.
Kate Hoey's concern that nationalists are dominating professional vocations reeks of insecurity and bitterness, but that she would hark back to talk of headcounts and division is hardly a surprise to anyone who knows her politics. However, a suggestion that those from a nationalist background get educated only to promote some sort of an agenda took a more sinister turn when it was endorsed by the leader of the DUP.
The days of "no nationalist need apply" are over. For much of the 20th century in this state, nationalists were disenfranchised and discriminated against. That was official state policy. In fact, as we saw evidenced last week in the release of yet another report detailing state collusion, this time in the murder of 19 people across the North in the 1980s and 1990s, nationalists were targets. Inciting hatred and othering people have consequences. We need to bear that in mind during this conversation.
Jim Wells, estranged DUP MLA, was in the media last week to defend Miss Hoey. He stated that Catholics had traditionally rejected industry. I am from and represent the industrial and engineering capital of Ireland: mid-Ulster. Our local businesses produce 80% of the world's crushing and screening equipment across south Derry and east Tyrone. Many of them are probably nationalists; all are experts in their trade. Nationalists are not a homogenous group, and they never rejected industry, but in many of the organisations of old, the Orange state closed that door for them.
It is not lost on me as a first-generation graduate that two of the victims referred to in Friday's report were Sinn Féin elected reps, including one who was a councillor in the area that I am now very proud to represent, murdered whilst on his way to work in the year that I was born.
Working-class nationalists in years gone by were unable to access things like education, a decent job or the means to put a roof over their children's heads, so they rose up. They fought for their civil rights, and they attained them. They put lunch boxes under their arms, reared their families and gave them the means to get educated if they so wished so that they could walk into courtrooms and lecture halls with confidence, as well as onto building sites, into business or to work as nurses and doctors and all the other roles in between.
It would be much more appropriate for political unionism to raise awareness of and work towards removing the barriers that still exist for many of our marginalised groups. There is still under-representation in our higher education settings, our political spheres, the media and the law of women, people living with a disability, those from our black and minority ethnic communities, our LGBT community —
Ms Sheerin: — and those living in poverty. Nationalists may now apply. Let us work together to build a society where everyone can.
Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up. That concludes Members' Statements. Members, please take your ease for a moment or two while we change the top Table.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Paul Frew has sought leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22. The Member has up to three minutes to speak on the issue.
Mr Frew: In my 12 years as an Assembly Member, this may be my first time presenting a petition. This petition was made up, formed and organised by a group called Liberty NI. It has 10,000 signatures. I cannot think of a more honourable cause for a petition than to record our disgust and abhorrence that an Executive, and, indeed, the Assembly, can pass such a discriminatory measure as vaccine certification, which was brought into reality by a Health Minister using emergency legislation that is both undemocratic and not accountable through the vigorous and rigorous regime of stages of primary legislation.
Vaccine certification is one of a number of cruel measures brought in by the Health Minister, but this one treats people differently based only on whether they have received a medical intervention, namely a COVID vaccine. That measure is designed to discriminate. That measure is designed to isolate. That measure is designed to coerce. It is unacceptable. When you prevent or ban someone from entering a pub or restaurant unless they prove their health by testing for a virus every other day but allow into the same setting someone else who has a certificate on their phone or person simply because they were vaccinated months ago, even though they could well be suffering from the virus, that is discrimination. It is discrimination of the harshest order, because it violates one of the most instinctive and principled norms of the medical world: informed consent.
It has also had a terrible impact on business. It has created dramatic suffering and downturns in those businesses, not only because people are being prevented from entering their premises but because many are refusing to play any part in the practice of certification and discrimination. It needs to end, and it needs to end now.
Mr O'Toole: On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. On such an important public health matter, given some of the Member's assertions and statements, can you advise whether it is in order for the record to be corrected to reflect some of the statements made by the Health Minister, who has responsibility for public health, unlike the fairly extreme, marginal campaign groups that are opposed to vaccines?
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: The Member has put his remarks on the record, but he will be aware that that is not a point of order.
Normally, I would invite the Member to bring his petition to the Table and present it to me, but, in the light of social distancing, I ask him to remain in his place and to make arrangements to submit the petition to the Speaker's Office electronically. I thank the Member for bringing his petition to the attention of the Assembly. Once received by Mr Speaker, I am sure that it will be forwarded to the Minister of Health and a copy sent to the relevant Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 17 January 2022. — [Mr Muir.]
Moved. — [Mr C Murphy (The Minister of Finance).]
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No amendments have been tabled, so there is no opportunity to discuss the Financial Reporting (Departments and Public Bodies) Bill today. Members will be able to have a full debate at Final Stage. The Further Consideration Stage of the Financial Reporting (Departments and Public Bodies) Bill is therefore concluded. The Bill stands referred to Mr Speaker.
I ask Members to take their ease for a moment before we move on to the next item of business.
Moved. — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No amendments have been tabled, so there is no opportunity to debate the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill today. Again, Members will be able to have a full debate at Final Stage. The Further Consideration Stage of the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill is therefore concluded. The Bill stands referred to Mr Speaker.
I ask Members to take their ease for a second.
Moved. — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There are two groups of amendments, and we will debate the amendments in each group in turn. The first debate will be on amendments Nos 1 and 2, which deal with the lawfulness of decisions taken by the Charity Commission and the time frame for appeals. The second debate will be on amendment Nos 3 and 4, which deal with functions to be delegated to staff and the scheme of delegation.
I remind Members who intend to speak that, during the debates on the two groups of amendments, they should address all the amendments in each group on which they wish to comment. Once the debate on each group has been completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill and the Question on each will be put without further debate. The Questions on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we shall proceed.
Clause 1 (Actions of Commission staff treated as Commission actions)
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: We now come to the first group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to also debate amendment No 2. I call the Minister for Communities to move amendment No 1 and to address the other amendment in the group.
In page 2, line 5, at end insert -
"( ) the giving of a direction purporting to be under section 22(3) of the 2008 Act,
( ) a decision, or purported decision, to give a direction under that provision,
( ) administering an oath, or requiring the making and subscription of a declaration of truth, under section 22(4) of the 2008 Act,
( ) the making, or purported making, of an order purporting to be under section 23(1) of the 2008 Act,
( ) a decision, or purported decision, to make an order under that provision,".
The following amendment stood on the Marshalled List:
No 2: In page 2, line 31, leave out "42" and insert "91". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]
Ms Hargey: First, I place on record my thanks to the Committee for Communities and its Chair and Deputy Chair for their assistance in progressing this short but important Bill to Consideration Stage. The Committee's scrutiny has been robust and diligent, and the amendments that I have proposed are as a direct result of its considerations. As a consequence, I believe that the Bill is now better.
As you will know, my purpose in bringing the Bill to the Assembly is to address the impacts of the McBride court judgement, subsequently confirmed by the Court of Appeal. The Bill makes past decisions taken by staff of the Charity Commission lawful, but only in circumstances where to do so will not impinge on the rights of individuals under the European Convention on Human Rights. The Bill also allows for future arrangements to be put in place in respect of how the Charity Commission functions effectively going forward to increase efficiency, public trust and confidence. In addition to and in direct response to the views of community sector representations, I determined that the Bill should also include a power to introduce a registration threshold through subordinate legislation, subject to the draft affirmative procedure, at some point in the future, if the evidence supports it.
Clause 1 of the Bill relates to past decisions taken by the commission's staff that were found to be unlawful due to the deficiencies in the legislative framework. This group of amendments seeks to provide further safeguards in addition to those proposed in the first draft, which I introduced in the Assembly in June of last year. Amendment No 1 is in response to evidence presented to the Committee that there could be a potential breach of an individual's convention rights if the Bill made lawful decisions relating to the collection and storing of data under sections 22(3) and 23(1) of the Charities Act (NI) 2008, which could include personal information. From the outset, I have been clear that nothing in the Bill should impinge in any way on the rights of individuals under the convention. That was the rationale for the provisions for exemptions in clauses 1(3) and 1(5) of the Bill, which mean that decisions will remain unlawful where a court or tribunal have found them to be unlawful, they are the subject of ongoing proceedings where unlawful delegation is one of the issues of those proceedings and where they are specifically excluded by clause 1(5), for example the publication by commission staff of a statutory inquiry report on the suspension or removal of a trustee. In addition and to provide further protections, I am determined that there should be refreshed appeal rights where a decision is to be made lawful by the Bill, and that is afforded by clause 1(7) and 1(8).
There are no rights of appeal under section 22(3) of the original Act, and the rights of appeal in respect to section 23(1) are limited to those who were served with the order to provide the information but do not extend to those whose information may have been disclosed as a result of the order. Taking on board the concerns that were raised at Committee, I have determined that sections 22(3) and 23(1) of the Act should be added to clause 1(5) of the Bill so that decisions taken by commission staff remain unlawful. In addition, I have determined that the administering of oaths or the requirement for the making of or subscribing to the declaration of truth under section 22(4) of the Act should also be added to clause 1(5) and remain unlawful.
During the Committee's deliberations, it was queried whether the Bill might make those decisions lawful but create new appeal rights in respect of sections 22(3) and 23(1) of the Act. I do not believe that to be prudent or necessary. The Information Commissioner's Office, rather than the Charity Tribunal, is the appropriate mechanism for challenging decisions about data processing. The validation of decisions taken under section 22(3) and section 23(1) could hinder a third party's potential recourse to the Information Commissioner's Office, as it would remove a legality argument for such third parties that they could have utilised to argue that any processing of the data was unlawful as it did not have a statutory footing. In addition, if I determined that such appeal rights should be afforded where none previously existed, those rights would have to be extended to all decisions taken under the provisions, not simply to those that would be retrospectively validated by this Bill. However, if the commission was to conduct an inquiry that required the gathering of large amounts of information, it would have the potential to contain the personal data of tens of thousands of people. Such new appeal rights could greatly hinder the commission's ability to conduct its regulatory functions effectively and could generally impact the number of cases in the Charity Tribunal. Therefore, I propose amendment No 1, which will amend clause 1 of the Bill so that decisions taken under sections 22(3), 22(4) and 23(1) of the Act are included in clause 1(5) of the Bill, therefore remaining unlawful and, thus, free to be challenged via the Information Commissioner's Office, the ombudsman or the courts.
On amendment No 2, members will know that, as drafted, clause 1(8) of the Bill stipulates that the fresh appeal rights for appeals arising from the decisions that are being made lawful retrospectively by the Bill be subject to the standard appeals time frame. In setting that time frame, I recognised that it would be crucial to have fresh appeal rights communicated as widely as possible and that the Department should work with the commission, sectoral interests and representative bodies to ensure that that is the case. I also recognised that the Charity Tribunal rules allow for appeals that are submitted outside of the required timescale to be considered if the tribunal deems it appropriate. However, during the Committee Stage evidence sessions, many witnesses stated that 42 days was not enough. During its briefing to the Committee on 16 September, the commission advised that, while it has the facility to contact individual charities to advise them of the implications of the passing of the Bill, it does not have the details of all parties that could be affected — for example, trustees or members of those charities. Therefore, I believe that there is justification in allowing extra time for appeals that arise from the Bill and that that can best be done by extending the time frame from 42 days or six weeks to 91 days, which is 13 weeks. Therefore, I propose amendment No 2, which will amend clause 1(8) of the Bill so that the time frame for appeals arising from decisions made lawful by the Bill is extended from 42 days to 91 days.
Ms P Bradley (The Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): I will speak on behalf of the Committee for Communities in support of amendment Nos 1 and 2.
As I said during the debate at Second Stage, we all know that charities legislation here has a somewhat chequered history. Although the Charities Commission was established in 2008, it did not take on its regulatory powers until 2013. Although the Bill is short, the background that led to the need for it is complex and involves decisions that were taken over a number of years. It impacts on over 7,000 decisions taken by Charity Commission staff, which, at the end of a series of legal proceedings, were finally deemed unlawful by the Court of Appeal in February 2020, leaving many charities and their trustees, staff and financial supporters in confusion.
With your indulgence, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I will say a few words about the Committee's scrutiny of the Bill before I speak on the amendments. We aimed to scrutinise the Bill to ensure, as far as possible, that it protects charities and rights and restores the pillars of the regulatory framework for charities. The Committee focused throughout its scrutiny on potential unintended consequences, as retrospective legislation is an unusual course of action.
The Committee received 19 written submissions from interested organisations and individuals, and we held 12 oral evidence sessions. The Committee then considered and deliberated on the provisions of the Bill and the proposed amendments at three meetings, concluding with its formal clause-by-clause consideration of the Bill on 25 November 2021.
The Committee had to bear in mind the wider work, ongoing at the time, of the independent review of charity regulation. The Committee sincerely hoped that the report of the independent review panel would be published while the Committee was considering the Bill, as its work overlaps in places with several actions permitted by the Charities Bill. That was not the case, and the Committee wishes to put on record that its full consideration of the issue was hampered by the fact that it was able to hear from the panel only in closed session.
The Committee agreed, based on the evidence that it took and on its deliberations, to request that the Department make a number of amendments to clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill, and it agreed clauses 3 and 4 as drafted. The Committee was pleased that its requests were taken forward as ministerial amendments to existing clauses, with one matter being dealt with through ministerial assurance.
I thank departmental officials, the Bill Office and the Committee secretariat for their help throughout Committee Stage. I highlight the good working relationship between the Committee secretariat and the officials.
I will turn to amendment No 1. The Committee sought the addition of references to sections 22(3) and 23(1) of the Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 to clause 1(5) of the Bill, and I thank the Minister for taking that forward in the amendment. Based on evidence that the Committee received, it queried with officials the impact of the retrospective action on sections 22(3) and 23(1) of the 2008 Act. The Committee noted that there are no rights of appeal under section 22(3) and that the rights of appeal in respect of section 23(1) of the Act are limited to those who were served with the order to provide the information and do not extend to those whose information may have been disclosed.
The Minister took on board the fact that retrospective validation of those actions by the Charity Commission has the potential to engage a person's right, under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to a private and family life, and, potentially, to remove a legality argument for third parties that they could have used to argue that processing of the data was unlawful as it did not have a statutory footing. The Minister therefore determined that references to sections 22(3) and 23(1) should be added to clause 1(5), in keeping with her stated policy that the Bill should do nothing that could impinge on the rights of individuals under the ECHR.
In addition, the Minister advised the Committee that the administering of an oath or the requirement to make and subscribe to a declaration of truth under section 22(4) of the 2008 Act should also be included in clause 1(5). The Committee is pleased to support amendment No 1.
I will turn to amendment No 2, which is also proposed to amend clause 1. The Committee sought to extend the time frame for appeals arising from the Bill to the Charity Tribunal from 42 days to 91 days. Regarding the fresh appeal rights in the Bill, the Committee was concerned that 42 days was not long enough for charities impacted by the Bill, as it became clear that the Charity Commission would not have contact details for all charities affected. The Minister determined that there was justification for extending the time frame for appeals arising from the Bill, and she has proposed amendment No 2, which the Committee therefore supports.
The Committee also requested consideration of the extension of the time frame for all appeals to the Charity Tribunal from 42 days to 91 days, either by amending clause 1 or through a consequential amendment to the Bill.
DFC officials worked with Committee for Justice officials to look at that matter. I thank the officials of the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service who patiently briefed the Committee on those legal matters. The outcome was that this could not happen through this Bill. However, the Committee accepted a ministerial assurance that officials would continue to work with DOJ officials with a view to a possible future amendment to the tribunal rules.
Ms Á Murphy: I welcome the opportunity to speak on behalf of Sinn Féin on the Bill. We welcome the fact that the Communities Minister has introduced this legislation, which has been long called for by the charity sector. The Charities Bill came about off the back of the McBride judgement in 2019 and the Court of Appeal judgement in 2020, and it addresses the impacts that arose from them.
The purpose of the Bill is to make past decisions taken by staff of the Charity Commission lawful but to do so only where it will not impinge on the rights of individuals under the European Convention on Human Rights. It will also put in place mechanisms that will ensure greater public trust and confidence.
As we heard from the Members who spoke throughout the stages, along with the contributions from various organisations, it is clear that many in the Chamber understand the importance of the Bill.
As a member of the Communities Committee, which discussed the Bill over several months, I gained many insights. It was important to hear the evidence given by groups and organisations. During Committee Stage, 12 oral witness sessions were held, and 19 written submissions were received from a diverse range of organisations. Many of the issues that came up have already been touched on by the Minister and the Committee Chair, so I will not go into them all now.
The Committee worked closely with the Department and the Minister during Committee Stage to ensure a fluid and transparent process. Committee members suggested recommendations, and the Minister agreed to take those forward. A huge amount of hard work was carried out by the Committee during Committee Stage.
In the first grouping, amendment No 1 from the Minister, which relates to the potential breach of an individual's convention rights, is important. That was picked up at Committee Stage. From the start, the Minister outlined that neither the Bill nor anything in it should impinge on the rights of individuals. The amendment will therefore add additional protections to individuals in respect of the ECHR, and Sinn Féin supports it.
As was stated previously, Sinn Féin will also support amendment No 2. It looks at appeal rights and, in particular, at increasing the time frame given to appeal from 42 days to 91 days. The Minister is already working with the Minister of Justice to explore that matter further and introduce potential future amendments to the tribunal rules.
Mr Durkan: I very much welcome this work, which will bring certainty and stability to the charity sector. It was always my intention to keep my comments brief, but the Minister, the Committee Chair and my colleagues on the Committee gave such a comprehensive overview of the amendments and the rationale behind them that they will be even briefer.
I reiterate our appreciation of the charity sector and the invaluable role that charities play in our communities. It has never been more so than in the past couple of years. Therefore, it is important that we take every step that we can to ensure that their good work is not hampered by an overly onerous bureaucratic process. That is the intention behind the Bill, which we support.
I echo the Chair's commendation of and gratitude to officials, both departmental and Committee, as well as our helpers in the Bill Office. They are much more than that; they were like part of the furniture with the Communities Committee.
While the legislation is, it is fair to say, fairly non-controversial compared with other issues with which we will grapple, it is a good example of how Departments and Committees should work together. We support the amendments.
Mr Frew: I thank the Minister for bringing forward the Bill. I also thank her officials, who came to the Committee and worked hard with us to table the amendments. I acknowledge that the Department listened to the Committee. If there is an example of how a Committee and a Department should work together, it is certainly this case. I therefore thank the Minister and officials. That is what we need, and it is very welcome. I get much more joy out of a Committee when the Department is responsive, and we have further examples of that in the other Bills that we are scrutinising these days.
Let me be negative for one wee minute. Like the Chairperson of the Committee, I regret that the independent panel's report has not yet been made public. That is an example of the fact that we do not have the sequencing right for Bills like this. That is a regret, because we could have got so much more out of it and had more insight into what could have been done. That is a miss and a regret.
The Committee, as I said, pushed for the amendments, so we receive them gratefully. They help the Bill, the context of which is that, even though the previous Bill went through all the ramifications, scrutiny and stages before being enacted, we did not get it right. This is therefore a bit of a "rescue Bill", if there is such a term in democratic language. I am not sure that we have rescued the situation completely, but at least it is progress.
Clause 1 deals with thousands of decisions that were taken by the commission. Eight thousand decisions were taken since the commission's establishment, of which 6,800 were on the registration of charities. What should have been quite a mundane process has had to be rescued, or, rather, repaired — maybe "repair Bill" is a better term to use. Amendment No 1 fixes that situation, so, of course, we were always going to support it, but we also added references to sections 22(3), 22(4) and 23(1) of the Act. As the Committee worked through the Bill with the Department, it was clear from looking at the 2008 Act that those references needed to be added, so that is a good thing.
Amendment No 2, which leaves out 42 days and inserts 91 days, is crucial. It is just good practice to allow good time for these organisations to consider exactly where they are and what they need to do. Forty-two days was so tight, considering that a lot of the organisations do not meet regularly. They certainly do not all meet daily or weekly; some meet monthly. Even if they meet more often than that, it is not to talk about technical issues such as this. The amendment is therefore positive, and we pushed for and support it. The Minister had to go through all the checks and balances to make sure that this change will not have an unintended consequence, and we need that due diligence because of being in the position of having to put forward a "repair Bill" in the first place. That due diligence is therefore welcome.
That is all that I want to say at this stage. I welcome the movement on the Bill.
Mr Dunne: I too welcome the opportunity to speak at Consideration Stage of this important Bill. Although largely retrospective in its rationale, the Bill presents an important opportunity to strengthen the regulatory framework for our charities and to protect our people and communities. Whilst the Bill was formally introduced before my time as a Member, a considerable body of work has been done over the last six months in considering the Bill. I too thank the Committee staff, the officials and the various stakeholders who made valuable representations on the Bill to our Committee.
We are very fortunate to have such a vast range of charities across Northern Ireland. In every town, city and village, many charities make a very valuable contribution, from those that are health based to those concerned with welfare, education, animals and veteran, to name but a few. Many of those charities could not function without the dedicated work of volunteers, and we have seen the incredible value of them over the last two years in particular.
Given the court judgements in 2019 and 2020, it was important to progress the legislation to amend the Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 in order to validate the thousands of charities that are on the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland's register. The provisions in clauses 1 and 2 will end some of the confusion that many charities have experienced over the last number of years. Clause 1 will also ensure that those charities do not have to go through the charity registration process yet again. Clause 2 will ensure that charities receive decisions in a timely way through delegation, which is crucial for allowing forward planning and providing much-needed clarity.
There must be confidence and certainty for charities and for the general public, which is why the Bill has presented a timely opportunity to improve the regulations for all stakeholders. A balance must be sought for charities and small charities. The progress and growth of small charities must not be crippled or stifled by complex requirements and red tape. However, there must be accountability to ensure good governance and transparency and to encourage good practice, including a recognition of the importance of appeal rights. The thresholds included in the legislation will support many smaller charities that do not have the resources that larger and better-funded charities have to meet all of the various requirements.
As has been mentioned, although it is disappointing that the recommendations of the review panel have not been published, it is appreciated that that work is ongoing and that there is a job of work to do to proceed with that. I look forward to the next steps on this important piece of work. Thank you.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No other Member has indicated that they wish to speak in this section of the debate. Therefore, I call the Minister for Communities to make a winding-up speech on the group 1 amendments.
Ms Hargey: I thank everybody who spoke to the amendments. I thank and give recognition to all of the staff for their work, from those in the Department for Communities to those in the Committee, the Bill Office and the DOJ. I reiterate that the work with the DOJ, with its Minister and officials, on tribunal rules continues.
The key part of this was recognising the convention rights and extending the appeals time frame. I completely recognise that, when the legislation was initially brought in, it was bit of a fix, which came off the back of the McBride court judgement and the appeal judgement that followed it. When I came into post in January 2020, that was one of the first areas that I met officials about, because the judgement was made the previous year. We knew that we needed to fix the existing legislation before beginning to review the situation. The pandemic then hit, which caused a delay, but I am glad that we are able to progress this part of the process.
As was rightly said, Dr Oonagh Breen and the others who were part of the independent review of charity regulation have concluded their work. I hope that we will publish their recommendations very soon. The Committee will get a copy of those recommendations in advance of their publication. Those recommendations will look at the other changes that we need to make to reflect the initial intent of the 2008 legislation.
Of course, there is much more work to be done, but, in this shortened mandate, it was important that we tidied up the protections in the legislation, particularly off the back of the judgements that were made. I commend the amendments.
In page 2, line 31, leave out "42" and insert "91". — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]
Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 2 (Power of Commission to delegate to staff)
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: We now come to the second group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 3, it will be convenient to debate amendment No 4. I call the Minister for Communities to move amendment No 3 and to address the other amendment in the group.
In page 3, line 31, leave out "36" and insert "37".
The following amendment stood on the Marshalled List:
No 4: In page 4, line 8, after "Commission" insert
"; and before making the first scheme under sub-paragraph (3), the Department must carry out a public consultation." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]
Clause 2 deals with how the commission will discharge its functions and makes provision for limited delegation to the commission staff where that is clearly stipulated in the scheme of delegation for which a full policy consultation would take place. Members will be aware that proposed new paragraph 9A(2) stipulates that some decisions of the commission should never be delegated to staff. That is the main area in which the types of decision that are taken during a statutory inquiry could have a significant detrimental impact on individuals and their ability to serve in the charity sector.
Section 37 of the Charities Act (NI) 2008 allows the commission by order to direct a person to apply property in a specified manner. Whilst no such orders have been made by the commission or its staff to date, the Committee queried why, when sections 33 to 36 have been included in new paragraph 9A(2) as powers that can never be delegated to staff, section 37 has not. My view, when bringing forward the Bill, was that sections 33 to 36 can have a potentially significant adverse impact on an individual's reputation and their ability to continue to act in the charity sector. Although such orders can be made by staff in other jurisdictions throughout Britain and Ireland and, indeed, here, I took the view that, in order to restore confidence in the process here, such decisions are better taken by the commission or by a committee established by the commission under schedule 1 to the Act. My initial assessment was that the section 37 power did not appear to have the propensity to have the same detrimental impacts on individuals, and the fact that section 37 is not included in new paragraph 9A(2) did not make it inevitable that it would be delegated to staff. However, on reflection, I have determined that there is justification for including section 37 in new paragraph 9A(2), as those decisions could have significant implications for a charity and its trustees. That is reflected in the fact that section 38 of the Act treats section 37 orders in the same way as those in sections 33 to 36 in terms of the notification requirements placed on the commission in respect of the decision and a statement of the commission's reasons for making it. Therefore, I move amendment No 3, which will amend clause 2 to include orders made under section 37 of the Act in new paragraph 9A(2) as powers that can never be delegated to staff. Such decisions account for a small percentage of decisions undertaken by the commission, and having them made by a committee will not hinder the commission's ability to make such orders to any meaningful extent.
On amendment No 4, it was always my intention to consult on any scheme of delegation that I brought forward to ensure openness and transparency and that any proposed scheme would be co-designed by those potentially impacted. However, during the evidence session on 14 October last year, despite assurances provided by officials, the Committee asked whether such a consultation could be stipulated in the Bill. I have listened and have determined that such a stipulation should be included for the first scheme, allowing future Ministers the flexibility to determine whether consultation on amendments to the scheme would be in the public interest. Therefore, I propose amendment No 4, which would amend clause 2 in order to stipulate that there will be public consultation on the first scheme of delegation.
Ms P Bradley: I speak in support of amendment Nos 3 and 4 on behalf of the Committee for Communities.
I turn first to amendment No 3. From early in its deliberations on clause 2, the Committee was concerned as to why the Bill is limited to sections 33 to 36 in 9A(2) and felt that it should include decisions taken under section 37:
"Power to direct application of charity property".
The Committee felt that, if clause 2 is about ensuring public confidence, the Bill should not be limited to sections 33 to 36. During our evidence sessions, we were concerned to learn that, if section 37 were not included in the Bill, one member of staff in a charity could take the decision to remove property from a person. We strongly highlighted our concerns that we would prefer that section 37 decisions were not made by one person. The Committee understood the Department's explanation that, as the scheme of delegation will be subject to public consultation, it is by no means a given that anything that is not in the Bill would be delegated to staff. However, we still felt that the inclusion of section 37 was the safest way in which to proceed. The Minister agreed to take forward the amendment that we have before us. The Committee thanks her for doing so, as it means that the making of orders under section 37 is included in clause 2. The amendment will increase public confidence in actions taken by our charitable bodies. The Committee is pleased to support amendment No 3.
Amendment No 4 also relates to clause 2 and was requested by the Committee. It refers to the making of the first scheme of delegation. The amendment stipulates that the Department must complete a public consultation before making the first scheme of delegation. The Committee felt that that was clearly an omission from the Bill, if one of its aims is to restore confidence in the sector. The Committee thanks the Minister for tabling amendment No 4 and is pleased to support it. We are now content that the public and stakeholders will have sufficient opportunity to share with the Department their concerns and opinions about the first scheme of delegation.
Ms Á Murphy: I will keep my comments brief on amendment Nos 3 and 4 to clause 2 and the delegation of powers to commission staff. Sinn Féin believes that including orders made under section 37 of the Act in clause 2, which would ensure that certain powers can never be delegated to staff, will restore confidence and trust. Amendment No 4 would ensure that the public have a greater voice through a public consultation on the first scheme, if agreed, by a future Minister, when required. We believe that passing amendment No 4 and including a public consultation on the first scheme will put safeguards in place. It is also our opinion that the public should have a say in how the commission makes decisions. We believe that the amendments would provide more clarity for those charities. Sinn Féin supports the amendments.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: No other Members have indicated to me that they wish to speak, so I ask the Minister for Communities to make her winding-up speech.
Ms Hargey: I will allow this to be done quickly. I thank everybody for their contributions once again and reiterate my thanks to the Committee. It shows how working together can make a Bill better. I commend amendment Nos 3 and 4.
In page 4, line 8, after "Commission" insert
"; and before making the first scheme under sub-paragraph (3), the Department must carry out a public consultation." — [Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities).]
Clause 2, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Charities Bill. The Bill stands referred to Mr Speaker.
It is 1.56 pm, and Question Time starts at 2.00 pm, so I propose that Members take their ease for a few moments.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Mrs Long (The Minister of Justice): I have been clear that online abuse and harassment is completely unacceptable. Everyone should be able to enjoy the positive benefits of online engagement without being subjected to vile, abusive and harmful content. Those who seek to harass, bully, intimidate or otherwise cause harm should be aware that such activity, whether perpetrated directly or online, may constitute a criminal offence. I strongly encourage victims of such abuse to report all instances to the police.
As the Member will be aware, telecommunications, including Internet services, is a reserved matter. As such, policy and legislation is developed and led by the UK Government's Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which is taking forward the Online Safety Bill. In that context, my Department has not had, nor plans to have, any direct engagement with social media organisations. I am, nonetheless, committed to doing whatever I can to enhance online safety, and my Department is actively engaging with DCMS on the proposed Bill.
The Joint Committee that is tasked with scrutinising the Online Safety Bill published its report in December. While I may not agree with everything that is recommended by the Joint Committee — I want to take time to consider that in more detail — I agree with the Committee Chair, Damian Collins MP, who, in presenting the report, stated that:
"we need to call time on the Wild West online."
My Department is currently reviewing the recommendations in the Committee’s report and also awaits the UK Government’s response. I will then write to DCMS to set out my analysis of where the Bill could be further strengthened. I have reflected my view to the UK Government, on a number of occasions, that the proposed legislation does not go far enough, particularly in terms of online anonymity. I call on the UK Government to grasp this opportunity to ensure that social media firms and the big tech companies are appropriately held to account through regulation and enforcement.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for her answer. Many in the Chamber, including her, will have been subjected to abuse, far beyond what might be acceptable as political rough and tumble, from cowardly, faceless bullies. While it is never acceptable, it is fair to say that it reached an all-time low with the recent targeting of Diane Dodds, and we offer her our support. While acknowledging that telecommunications is a reserved matter, will the Minister outline what measures her Department is specifically undertaking in order to support and enhance online safety?
Mrs Long: The Member is, of course, right to reference the absolutely heinous abuse that Diane Dodds faced over the Christmas period. Having seen her original, rather pleasant, post with her dogs, in which she wished people a happy new year, descend into some of the most callous and calculated abuse of an individual that I have seen in some time, I think that that will have filled most people with a degree of nausea and anger. I have been in touch with Diane since, to extend my sympathies and solidarity to her, and I reported the incident to the PSNI, which is what I believe needs to happen in such cases.
I have engaged with social media platforms where I have had the opportunity. For example, I engaged with Facebook in 2020 as part of an online event to explore hate crime in a digital context, and I reflected my concerns directly to Facebook about how social media platforms deal with online abuse.
However, this is a much bigger issue than any Department alone can address. It requires not just a UK-wide effort but a much wider one that includes our European partners in order to challenge online abuse and to look at how social media platforms are managed. If we do not have that cooperation, it will be very difficult to move forward.
It is fairly clear, and any of us who have had the misfortune to report abusive behaviour, whether directed at ourselves or others, will often be told by social media companies that it does not contravene their community standards. From that, it is obvious that the self-regulation of online services has failed. Companies must now be held liable for the systems they have created. I believe fundamentally that people have a right to free speech, but that right comes with a responsibility to exercise it in an appropriate way. No one has the right to a platform, and that needs to be taken into consideration by the companies.
Ms Dolan: In light of the recent cruel murder of Ashling Murphy, the misogynistic abuse that women experience online and the sick cyber-flashing incident that happened during the online vigil last night, will the Minister join me in condemning that abuse?
Mrs Long: I absolutely will condemn the abuse. Every time we see those things take place on social media, we assume that we have hit rock bottom, and then along comes someone who can plumb new depths. Last night, the cyber-flashing incident at an online vigil for Ashling was just the lowest of the low. The authorities need to take a particular interest in that individual and deal with them robustly. There were children at that vigil who will have witnessed that incident. There were vulnerable women who have been previously abused who were at that vigil, and they will have been traumatised by that incident. There will be many others who will have been absolutely horrified and traumatised by what happened last night. It calls into question what goes through some people's minds and how they actually operate, but it is interesting that so often, whatever is going through their minds, what we end up experiencing is misogyny, sexism and hate directed towards women.
Mr Blair: I start by associating myself with the comments made by Mark Durkan and the Minister on the vile online abuse towards Diane Dodds and those mourning Ashling Murphy. Does the Minister agree that an inter-agency approach to online abuse is vital? People right across the public service, but particularly those involved in education, youth services, local councils and PCSPs, have a very important role to play in engaging with the Department, the police and, of course, online service providers.
Mrs Long: That is the only way forward, Mr Speaker. There are a number of elements to that. First, there is the issue of how we help people to protect themselves from and deal with online abuse. Too often, we focus solely on that element. Secondly, there is how we deal with online abuse perpetrators. Unless people are made amenable to the courts and put before the law, we will not see a change in direction.
Thirdly, it is about those who platform that abuse. If that abuse was being published in a newspaper or magazine, the publisher would be held accountable. I see no difference between that and Facebook and Twitter, particularly given the sophistication of their algorithms. The fact that they know the age profile of the people they are dealing with and, for example, target ads based on things that they have shown an interest in shows the complexity of their algorithms. The idea that social media platforms do not have the capability to sift out much of the abuse before it ever appears on their platform is just inconceivable. More needs to be done across the board to protect everyone from online abuse.
Mrs Long: Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will answer questions 2 and 4 together.
In doing so, I begin by paying tribute to the staff of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. As key workers, they have shown determination, courage and resilience during the pandemic. Like every other front-line organisation, the Prison Service has seen the impact of COVID-19 and the omicron variant on staff availability. In December 2021, 90 members of Prison Service staff tested positive, and, at one stage, 14·6% of operational staff were absent due to COVID-19. However, that position has significantly improved during January, and last week less than 5% of staff were absent for COVID-19-related reasons.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Prison Service has had thorough and comprehensive arrangements in place to monitor the impact of COVID-19 and to respond appropriately. Northern Ireland Prison Service headquarters and the governor of each prison establishment have been reviewing daily the availability of staff. Governors and their teams have been required to dynamically adjust the regime that can be delivered for people in our care, focusing on safe, decent and secure custody. That has resulted in the imposition of some restrictions on the prison population, particularly in the evenings and at weekends. Those have been kept to an absolute minimum.
The Prison Service has continued to focus on ensuring that healthy regimes can be offered on landings and that prisoners do not spend lengthy periods locked in their cells. The provision of virtual visits has also been a priority. Delivering those priorities means redeploying staff daily. I am grateful to staff for the flexibility that they have demonstrated in very challenging circumstances.
The Northern Ireland Prison Service's executive forum, where the NIPS senior management team, including governors, discusses COVID-19 contingency arrangements, met most recently on Friday 7 January to discuss the challenges presented by and the response to the omicron variant. Throughout the pandemic, the Prison Service has been guided in its approach by advice from the Public Health Agency and the decisions taken by the Executive for the community. The Northern Ireland Prison Service stands ready to begin relaxing the measures introduced in response to omicron as soon as it is safe to do so.
Since the beginning of December, nine individuals have, on committal to prison, tested positive for COVID-19. No prisoners in the general population have tested positive.
Dr Aiken: I thank the Minister for her very comprehensive answer. Has the Minister done a comparison of the impact of omicron and other forms of COVID on the Northern Ireland Prison Service with that on the PSNI? Bearing in mind that we will probably have to deal with future pandemics, have any lessons been identified for how we can support those key staff? Are there any other lessons that we can pass on to the probation service as well?
Mrs Long: There have been pressures right across the justice system. Obviously, I am not responsible for policing and the deployment of staff, but I am aware that, at the beginning of December, the Chief Constable moved to having 12-hour shifts to ensure that any impact on policing would be minimal and that there would be full cover where required. We discussed all those issues at our regular meetings.
Similarly, probation has been affected, not just with staffing but with the logistics of being able to follow up with their clients for support. They have had to find new, innovative and creative ways of working. The flexibility of staff across the justice system in responding to it has been incredible. However, there are always lessons to be learned. The key lesson is that we need to make sure that we keep omicron and any variant of COVID out of our prisons as far as possible, because that will keep our prison officers and the prison population safe.
Mr O'Dowd: With the indulgence of the Speaker, on the subject of prisons, I pay tribute to Father Michael Bingham from Portadown who passed away at the weekend. His funeral is occurring around now. He was a pastor not only to the people of Drumcree parish in Portadown but to many prisoners and their families. He will be a huge loss to the wider community and to prisoners.
I thank the Minister for her answer. Minister, what measures have been put in place to mitigate the inability, during the COVID crisis, for face-to-face visits for prisoners? What support has been put in place for prisoners and their families?
Mrs Long: We have dealt with a number of issues, including the ability to have virtual visits. Initially, prisoners were also given additional time and access to phones. With regard to our partner organisations, intensive work has been done by those who support families outside of prison to ensure that the families' needs are addressed. As you know, we reintroduced face-to-face visiting. The uptake was relatively low in comparison with virtual visits. We reintroduced it for a period but, unfortunately, had to suspend it just before Christmas. We hope to reintroduce face-to-face visiting again as soon as possible. We recognise that good quality connections with families is part of the rehabilitation process for prisoners. It is also crucial to families, and we do not want to suspend it for any longer than is absolutely necessary.
Mr Storey: I thank the Minister for the information that she has provided to the Committee on the measures that have to be taken in the circumstances, and I commend the Prison Service for the way in which it has sought to deal with a challenging situation. Will the Minister assure the House that the budgetary pressure that is faced by the Prison Service will be addressed in a way that ensures that the service has all the resources that it requires for not only addressing this crisis but dealing with the Prison Service in general? We all have concerns about the budget as it stands, particularly in relation to the Northern Ireland Prison Service.
Mrs Long: Unfortunately, I cannot give an assurance that there will be no impact on the Prison Service or, indeed, on the PSNI from the current Budget settlement that is out for consultation. It would be foolhardy of me to do so, because, unless there is a significant step change in the draft Budget, that assurance will not be possible to secure. It is not about just a 2% cut, about which many people may well say, "Well, any Department should be able to absorb that"; it is about a 2% cut coming on top of a 9% cut since devolution and the additional responsibilities that have been placed on the Department over the past two years through the legislation that has gone through the Committee and by the demands on the justice system of more proactive engagement and work to prevent offending.
I have been clear in saying that the Budget as it stands will do direct harm to the justice system. It is therefore impossible for me to give the Member that reassurance, but I can reassure him that we will, of course, take seriously our legal duty to ensure that prisons are safe for those who work in them and those who reside in them as we look at the Budget. However, it is undoubtedly the case that ensuring that prisons are safe may lead to a reduction in the rehabilitative work in which, until now, our prison officers have been engaged. That would be a real shame.
Miss Woods: Will the Minister clarify that prisoners can and do have access to books and magazines sent in to them by family and friends and that no change to that practice has been made in the past year to deal with the pandemic?
Mrs Long: Prisoners have access to books and magazines that have been sent in. There have been restrictions because of the need to ensure that any packages that are sent in to prisoners are properly appraised to ensure that they are not a source of transmission, but there has been no change to the overall policy on what books and materials prisoners are able to access within the prison system. There is an established route for people who wish to access books, be that through the library service in the prison or through the books, magazines and materials that are sent from home as part of care packages. That system has not changed, although there may have been some delays in delivery.
Mr Lyttle: Will the Justice Minister provide an update on access to the Police Rehabilitation and Retraining Trust (PRRT) for former prison officers?
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for his general interest in the issue. Because, in particular, of the challenging work environment past and present, I commissioned and published two reports in 2021 regarding support services for operational prison staff, including those who have left the service. It was recommended that the PRRT should provide a range of services to retired staff. That will be open to former prison staff irrespective of why they left the service. PRRT and NIPS have met relevant stakeholders in January to publicise the available services ahead of the launch on 1 February. We continue to work towards the additional measures in that report to deal with those who currently serve in the Prison Service.
Mrs Long: Jury trials deal with some of the most serious and sensitive cases in the justice system. It is vital that justice be dealt with in a timely way, as it has an impact on the victims and witnesses of crime as well as on defendants. Jury service is a civic duty that is placed on members of society and is an essential part of the justice process. Some workers are excused or exempted from jury service because of the nature of their jobs. However, it is vital that juries continue to reflect the wider population. Even if it were appropriate, a change to the current exemption criteria would require an amendment to primary legislation. Clearly, that is not a practical consideration at this stage.
Jury officers and courts can be expected to consider sympathetically requests for excusal or deferral from key workers and others during the pandemic. The number of people called for jury service this year was increased from approximately 34,700 to approximately 40,300 to deal with an anticipated greater number of applications for excusal or deferral. For members of the public who must attend court, the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS), in consultation with the Public Health Agency, has implemented a range of measures designed to protect all court users and mitigate the risk of COVID-19. The details of relevant COVID risk assessments and court user guides are made available to jurors in advance of attendance.
Ms Sheerin: I thank the Minister for her answer, and I take on board what she said about the importance of delivering justice and the fact that primary legislation is required. Notwithstanding the backlog of court cases that need to be dealt with, we have severe labour shortages due to the omicron variant and complications with Brexit that have seen several industries struggle. Will the Minister consider some workaround to see whether a balance can be struck to allow people to be exempt when they need to be exempted for their work?
Mrs Long: Excusal as of right for key workers would require an amendment to primary legislation, so that is not a practicable consideration. As I said, however, jury officers and courts can be expected to sympathetically consider requests for excusal or deferral from key workers during the current pandemic. If people are able to provide them with evidence of particular pressures in their workplace, I think that they will look favourably on that.
Mr McNulty: Will the Minister confirm whether the potential deficit in jury numbers due to the omicron variant has the potential to further delay cases?
Mrs Long: At this point, as I indicated, we are calling additional jurors for jury service in the expectation that more will seek to defer it. We have not had a problem with filling jury places in order for trials to commence. The Member may be aware that the Office of the Lady Chief Justice indicated that it would be unwise to start trials over the past couple of weeks, when the pandemic was at its peak, that were likely to run to multiple defendants or over multiple weeks and months, as it may be difficult to be certain that none of the jurors or participants in the case would be subject to COVID-19, which could disrupt the trial. For that reason, shorter jury trials have been scheduled over the past number of weeks. Making those scheduling decisions is always a matter for the Office of the Lady Chief Justice, but it is clear from what the Lady Chief Justice has said that it will be kept under review to ensure that there is no increased delay in the court system.
At the moment, the biggest threat to recovery for the court system is lack of investment when it comes to our budget for next year. next. Obviously, recovery will not be completed this year, yet nothing in next year's draft Budget will allow for further recovery in the courts.
Mrs Long: At Justice Question Time on 2 December, I advised Members that, in early July 2021, I wrote to the Education Minister, Michelle McIlveen, seeking a meeting to discuss what steps were being taken by her Department to improve RSE provision. I issued two further reminders on 11 October and 11 November but still await a response.
My request to meet Minister McIlveen followed commitments made in March last year by her predecessor, Peter Weir MLA, that his Department would lead cross-sectoral work to review RSE provision, including its minimum content order. Following that commitment, my Department organised a series of workshops to allow stakeholders to put their views on how, they believe, RSE provision can be improved directly to Department of Education officials. Participants in those workshops also identified gaps in the current minimum content order and made suggestions about elements of RSE that, they felt, should be made a mandatory part of the curriculum for all schools.
While I await the opportunity to meet Minister McIlveen to discuss the progress made by her Department since the workshops, my Department continues to work in other ways to increase awareness of serious sexual offences and to challenge rape myths. In the autumn, my Department ran a public survey aimed at identifying the rape myths that are most prevalent in society. The survey closed on 15 November, and over 2,400 responses were received. Those results, along with ongoing workshops to gather the views of children and people with learning disabilities, will inform the development of phased strategic communications to challenge the most commonly held rape myths. As part of that, my Department has supported the PSNI with its campaign, entitled "You will be supported", which launched on 16 December. That campaign is particularly relevant to marginalised communities, but it includes information for the whole community on subjects such as consent, the importance of reporting sexual crime and where help and support can be found.
Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for her answer. It is disappointing to hear that there has been no response to date, particularly on something so important. We all know the importance of fully implementing the recommendations of the Gillen review. Minister, do you agree that the recommendations on relationships and sexuality education carry particular significance in preventing sexual abuse? Do you agree that it is important that engagement happens between you and the Education Minister on how they can be implemented at the earliest possible time?
Mrs Long: I absolutely concur. This is a complex and sensitive subject, and there is a wide range of strongly held political, religious and cultural views that need to be heard as part of the discussion. However, it is a discussion that has to take place if we are to educate our young people in a way that is fact-based and non-judgemental and equips them for later life on issues around consent, rape and what a healthy relationship looks like.
We all wish that that was something that we could simply leave to parents — perhaps, that is how people see this in many cases — but we know that not every child has an ideal role model to follow in terms of what a healthy relationship looks like. They may not get the right messages either from their peer group or from those around them. Young people have made it clear that they want better RSE because they feel that it is needed.
We want to ensure that we raise young people who are respectful of each other, respect and understand consent and are able to form healthy relationships that do not cause them harm and trauma. The only way we can do that and keep our young people safe is to make sure that every young person has access to that information through school.
Mr Lyttle: It is indeed profoundly concerning and extremely frustrating to hear that the Education Minister has not even responded to correspondence from the Justice Minister on RSE. I last raised the matter with the Education Minister further to the murder of Sarah Everard, and we stand here today further to another heinous act of violence against a woman in our community. Is there anything more that the Department of Justice can do to activate the Minister of Education on the RSE reform that is needed to ensure a contribution to the safety of women and girls in our community?
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for his question. Of course, we will continue to do what we can in speaking to the wider community, but we cannot impose duties on the Department of Education. However, the Gillen review is not just a matter for the Department of Justice; it is a policy direction that has been set by the Executive as a whole. Therefore, it would be expected that all Ministers will participate fully in the delivery of the outcomes of the Gillen review. The review was clear that the development of quality and consistent RSE was a key component in tackling many of the issues that our society faces.
Mr Speaker: I call Paul Frew. You probably will not get a supplementary.
Mrs Long: As Justice Minister, along with my Executive colleagues I continue to fully participate in discussions on the public health situation. It is not my job as Justice Minister to assess the decision-making of the Executive and report on it to the Assembly. I supported the Executive's autumn and winter contingency plan, including the most recent measures agreed by the Executive on 22 December. I hope that those additional measures will curtail the current rate of transmission of the omicron variant.
I acknowledge the dreadful impact that crimes such as rape or assault can have on victims, and I remain committed to doing all that I can to support victims and protect them from being re-traumatised. That includes legislative change as well as additional support services.
On the changes regarding face coverings and proof of exemption, at the time of introduction I raised with Executive colleagues their potential impact on those with hidden disabilities or sensory, anxiety or trauma-related issues to ensure that their needs were considered in their implementation and that any proof protected their privacy, including the reason for the exemption.
The grace period for proving an exemption on medical grounds has been extended from the intended introduction on 7 January in order to allow further work, including engagement with relevant groups, on the logistical issues that are involved in obtaining suitable proof of exemption. The policy is still under active consideration by the Executive. The legal requirement to wear a face covering in public indoor spaces remains unchanged, and retail premises must also take reasonable measures in order to ensure that people in shops comply with the duty to wear a face covering. Everyone who can wear a face covering doing so is a vital measure in preventing the spread of COVID.
Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions.
T1. Mr Frew asked the Minister of Justice, after commenting that, in a twist of fate, he would get to ask his supplementary question, thanking the Minister for her earlier answers and putting on the record his appreciation of her in the light of the fact that she raised issues at the Executive, along with his colleagues, about the wearing of face masks by victims of rape, domestic abuse and trauma, to state how mistakes such as that can be prevented in the future when it comes to emergency regulations and how such regulations are compatible with the Executive's principles, given the Gillen review recommendations, which state that people should be believed. (AQT 1921/17-22)
Mrs Long: Again, I am not here to deliver a verdict on the decision-making processes in the Executive, and it would be inappropriate for me, as Justice Minister, to place myself as judge and jury over that process. There are a range of measures in place, and the issue was the number of people who were abusing the self-certification option for wearing coverings — those who could but would not wear face coverings. The result of that was, for example, people going online and ordering sunflower lanyards, which have been hugely helpful to those who have hidden disabilities or trauma, and abusing that system for their own purposes.
The Department of Health recommended that we make the measure compulsory in order that it could be enforced, because, whilst self-certification is in place, it is incredibly difficult to foresee how such a measure can be enforced. I have been very open about that in saying that I do not believe that racking up large numbers of fixed penalty notices (FPNs) should be the intention of the policy or the direction of travel; it should be to encourage and facilitate those who will wear a mask to do so and encourage those who are reluctant to reconsider. I still believe that that is the best way forward. We were, of course, advised that it would be possible for people to receive notification of an exemption that would allow them to follow that without any difficulty. Therefore, the policy was not to be enforced until 7 January, and that was to allow it to come into effect. When it became transparently clear that that was not going to be the case, the Executive did, I think, the right thing in suspending that part of the policy. I encourage everyone who can wear a mask to wear a mask. When you do so, you are protecting yourself, and, crucially, you are protecting others, particularly those who, for whatever reason, cannot wear a mask.
Mr Frew: I thank the Minister for that. That will provide reassurance to many people who simply cannot wear a mask. There are many people who do not wear masks for other reasons, and they should do so because it is the law, but there are so many who cannot because of trauma that they have suffered. I will repeat the question: what can be done, Minister — she is part of the Executive — to ensure that emergency legislation like this does not lead to mistakes like this in the future?
Mrs Long: Again, I point out that I do not think that it was a mistake. We proceeded on the basis of the information that we had, and it is right for any Government, when information changes, to be willing to reconsider their position. That is exactly what happened with the introduction on 7 January. The matter remains under active consideration by the Executive. In the meantime, it remains the law that, in certain places, people are expected to wear a mask. That is the law, and people ought to follow it. The Executive will work through the detail of those who are currently able to self-exempt in order to see whether there is a more streamlined way in which we can provide them with the protection that they need without exposing the details of their personal issues to members of the public while doing so in a way that does not allow others to abuse the system any further.
T2. Mr Muir asked the Minister of Justice for her assessment of the recent announcement by the UK Home Secretary that the UK Government’s pardons and disregards scheme will be expanded to include any repealed or abolished civilian or military offence that was imposed on a person purely because of consensual same-sex sexual activity. (AQT 1922/17-22)
Mrs Long: First, I welcome the change that has been announced. It is an important step forward. The UK Government tabled an amendment to the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to extend the scope of the pardons and disregards scheme to historical offences that regulated same-sex activity. That would enable individuals to apply to the Secretary of State to have convictions or cautions disregarded for any repealed or abolished sexual offence that either expressly regulated same-sex sexual activity or was used to regulate same-sex sexual activity. That includes any physical or affectionate activity characteristic of people involved in an intimate personal relationship. A disregarded conviction or caution will mean an automatic pardon. Those who die prior to the amendment coming into force or within six months of its commencement will get a posthumous pardon.
I am fully supportive of the policy intent behind the amendment. I considered whether we would be able to use the Bill to introduce similar change here by means of a legislative consent motion, having been advised of the UK Government's intention in late November. However, given the need to identify what offences might fall within the scope of an extended scheme and to make the necessary adjustments to take account of Northern Ireland law, I concluded that it would not have been feasible to secure legislative consent from the Executive and the Justice Committee in the time available. I have instead asked my officials to undertake preparatory work on a review of our current scheme. That work will best determine what legislative changes are required to deliver the same outcome in Northern Ireland.
Mr Muir: I thank the Minister for her response. It sends a clear signal that the Minister and her Department are committed to ending the persecution and intolerance that occurred in the past.
The LGBT community in Northern Ireland has travelled a long distance — not due to the Assembly but despite it — and many advances have been achieved. Does the Minister agree that yet more achievements need to be set out and delivered so that we have a truly accepting and equal society for LGBT people?
Mrs Long: I do, absolutely. It is to the Assembly's shame that, at times, we have been unable to deliver things that were within our gift and instead relied on the courts or Westminster to do so. I am absolutely committed to doing all that I can to create a welcoming and diverse society, including providing protections for LGBTQ+ people who, sadly, are still the victims of hate crime. I am determined to make progress on the hate crime review that Judge Marrinan undertook and will consult on the proposals in that regard very soon.
T3. Mr Lyttle asked the Minister of Justice to state what actions are being taken and what actions can be taken to eradicate violence against the women and girls in our community, given that he cannot comprehend the evil that would take the life of such a live-giving young woman as Ashling Murphy and cannot fathom the grief being experienced by her loved ones, to whom he extends the most heartfelt condolences. (AQT 1923/17-22)
Mrs Long: Like everyone in the Chamber, I was both sickened and horrified by the murder of Ashling Murphy. At this awful time, I am thinking of those who loved her. I am also thinking of the shockingly high number of women who have been murdered over the past 12 months in Northern Ireland, with the latest murder happening just before Christmas. It should be clear to us that urgent and radical action is required. I am determined to do everything that I, as Justice Minister, can, but it cannot be only for Justice. We must move upstream and do the preventative work that is required to stop women becoming victims of abuse.
Last Monday, I was pleased to jointly launch a call for views on two new strategies aimed at tackling domestic and sexual abuse and violence against women and girls. My Department has already taken forward an ambitious agenda of activity and new laws to protect those most at risk of violence, including a new domestic abuse offence, the Protection from Stalking Bill, the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill and changes to implement recommendations in the Gillen review of serious sexual offences. While those will ensure protection for all victims, they will disproportionately benefit women and girls due to the gendered nature of many of those offences and ensure that we are in a better place at the end of this mandate than we were at the beginning. However, it will require a whole Executive and, indeed, a whole-society effort to ensure that we are in the position in which we wish to be.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Justice Minister for her response. Does she agree that education to eradicate misogyny and unhealthy attitudes towards women and girls is another key action needed to put an end to such abuse and, ultimately, the violence to which they continue to be subjected?
Mrs Long: I do. Changing attitudes is a whole-society response, and education has a huge part to play in shaping young people's attitudes and in giving young women the confidence to exercise their right not to consent to sexual activity and to report non-consensual sexual activity. It is hugely important that, as a society, we start with our young people, challenge our older people and continue to change the law to protect victims. Most of all, however, we need to stop women becoming victims. Women are vulnerable in our society not because women are vulnerable but because there are predatory men out there making their life a misery. We need to tackle the perpetrator behaviour and the culture. We must bring about the whole-society change that is needed. Starting by educating our young people is one of the most important things that we can do.
T4. Mr McAleer asked the Minister of Justice whether, given that sexism and misogyny are at the root of crimes against women and that tackling those issues is crucial to tackling violence against women, she has considered making misogyny a new category of hate crime, particularly because he, too, shares the shock and revulsion expressed following the murder of Ashling Murphy and stood in solidarity at a vigil at the Dún Uladh centre in Omagh last week, where Ashling, who was a very talented musician who performed across Ireland and Britain, had played as part of the 2017 Comhaltas Tour of Ireland. (AQT 1924/17-22)
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for his question. It is very timely, because, as I said earlier in response to another question, I intend shortly to go to the first-stage consultation on the hate crime Bill, which we hope will be able to be proceeded with in the next mandate. One of the questions on which we are seeking views in that consultation is specifically whether gender should be a protected characteristic or whether misogyny itself should be recognised as a hate crime. There will therefore be an opportunity for all Members of the House and, more importantly, for victims and the wider community to have their say on that matter and to feed back their views. It is a complex area of law, and that is why we believe that is important that we consult on that along with other issues at this early stage before we have a more detailed consultation in the next mandate in preparation for a Bill to be introduced to change the hate crime laws.
Mr McAleer: I thank the Minister for her response. She will appreciate that good progress has been made through the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act, the Protection from Stalking Bill and, indeed, the Gillen review. The Minister will also appreciate that, amongst young women, confidence in the justice system is at an all-time low, and that impacts on the reporting of crimes and on conviction rates. What more does she think can be done to improve confidence in the justice system and to drive up reporting and conviction numbers?
Mrs Long: First and foremost, I do not accept that reporting of crimes and confidence in the justice system are at an all-time low among women and girls, because we have been in worse situations before. Although I suspect that the number of reports of such crimes is much lower than their prevalence, the number has risen, and it will rise particularly in response to the work that we do on communicating with the public and promoting the new offences. It is hugely important, however, that we never rest on our laurels, because we recognise that, even of those reported offences, the number that will make it to court tends to be very low, as is the number that will end in a conviction. There is also a high attrition rate, which is one of the reasons that, in the Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill, which I brought through the House, I acted to abolish the need for victims to give evidence and to face cross-examination more than once in any trial, because we know that that has an impact on victims of sexual offences in particular. Moreover, we have done work on providing additional support through making sexual offences legal advisers (SOLAs) available through Victim Support. We have also done work on establishing remote evidence centres.
I agree with the Member that a lot of progress has been made. We continue to need to make more, and one of the things that we can do as a society is to make it clear to young women, be they subjected to low-level sexual harassment or serious sexual offending, that they should come forward, that they should speak out, that they will be believed and, most importantly, that the law is fit for purpose.
Mr Speaker: Members, time is up. Will Members please take their ease for a moment or two while we switch the officials at the Table?
Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): I published the future agricultural policy framework portfolio for Northern Ireland on 24 August 2021. It sets out a framework for future policy around four key outcomes, which were developed following engagement with stakeholders. Those were increased productivity, environmental sustainability, improved resilience, and an effective and functioning supply chain.
In December 2021, I launched a consultation on the future agricultural policy proposals for Northern Ireland, which emerged from the already published future agricultural framework portfolio. The consultation includes policy proposals on 14 work streams — eight primary work streams and six underpinning measures. I encourage everyone to respond to that consultation. With your support and input, I hope that we can take full advantage of the opportunity to develop a future sustainable agricultural industry.
Mr McAleer: I thank the Minister for his response. Minister, the policy consultation that you published just before Christmas recognises the under-representation of females in farming in general and particularly at farm leadership level. However, the policy does not outline any schemes or proposals to redress that imbalance. Will we see any concrete proposals from the Department to help to redress that historical imbalance?
Mr Poots: First, the scheme is open to everyone, regardless of gender. I recognise that women contribute greatly to the operation of family farms in Northern Ireland.
In recent years, there has been a significant shift towards more females studying and working in agriculture across Northern Ireland. For example, over half of the higher education students who are now enrolled in the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) are female, which represents a significant and, indeed, very welcome shift. I am cognisant of the need to encourage females into farming and to eliminate any perceived barriers to accessing the industry as a viable career path.
I note that the AERA Committee is working on a report on the barriers for women in the agriculture sector. I look forward to the views of the Committee on the appropriate actions for the Government and the industry to encourage female participation in the industry. There are a lot of opportunities. In particular, with the development of the chicken industry and other industries, where a lot relies on great attention to detail, we are finding that women are excelling in agriculture. We want to encourage more of that.
Mr Poots: The bovine TB eradication strategy for Northern Ireland aims to reduce and eventually eradicate bovine TB by comprehensively addressing all the recognised key factors that contribute to the maintenance and spread of the disease.
The consultation on the Department’s proposed implementation of the bovine tuberculosis eradication strategy for Northern Ireland and the next steps closed on 10 September 2021. That sought views on the increased use of gamma testing, the testing of non-bovine species, a preferred option for badger intervention and possible changes to compensation arrangements. Over 3,300 responses were received. That highlights the significant level of interest in the proposals, and I would like to thank everyone who took the time to respond.
Since the consultation closed, the responses were analysed by my officials and a summary was published on my Department’s website. In addition to considering the consultation responses, my Department is progressing the necessary environmental assessments of the proposed new strategy. I expect that work to be completed shortly. I will be in a position to take final decisions on the way forward once that work has concluded and I have had an opportunity to consider it in detail, along with the responses to the consultation, advice provided by my veterinary and policy officials, field evidence from other jurisdictions and the comprehensive business case. I expect to announce the decisions in February.
Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his answer on this important subject that impacts many farmers right across Northern Ireland. Given the consultation responses, what does the Department plan to do about compensation for farmers?
Mr Poots: There was a fairly hostile response to the proposals to cut compensation. We sought views on the specific question of a proposed compensation cap of £5,000 per bovine removed for the purpose of disease control and a phased reduction in compensation payments to 75% of each bovine's market value. The response was, I suppose, "That would be all well and good if we had a very low incidence of bovine tuberculosis and we could insure our livestock against it, but, in the absence of achieving that, we do not really want to go there". That is a quick summary of what the majority of responses said.
Our real focus has to be on the eradication of bovine tuberculosis. People may not think that that is a serious issue, but it is. It costs the Executive £40-odd million each year to deal with bovine tuberculosis. We have reservoirs of bovine tuberculosis in the bovine population and in the wildlife population, and we need to eliminate both at the same time if we are to ensure that we can move forward and bring down that disease to a much more acceptable level, leading, ultimately, to the eradication of it in Northern Ireland, as has happened in other places.
Mrs Barton: I noted the Minister's reply to Mr Dunne's supplementary question, and I will return to that for a moment. Is it not very unfair to a business that has lost its greatest means of income and still has bills to pay and, maybe, repayments to the bank to make, to cut, annually, the compensation that it is due?
Mr Poots: Obviously, this is a consultation, and I have outlined the response from industry to it. We are in the business of putting issues out to consultation, because, on the one hand, we have a public purse issue to address, and, on the other, we have the expectation of the industry. In the past year, we have been looking at a herd incidence rate of bovine tuberculosis, for the 12 months to November 2021, of 8·93%. I am acutely aware that every bovine TB breakdown has an awful impact on hard-working families and that the financial pressures thereafter can be considerable and, in many respects, life-changing. In arriving at our final decision, we will take all those things into account.
Ms Sheerin: To help prevent the spread of TB, will the Minister consider establishing a capital grant for farmers that would allow them to implement enhanced biosecurity measures?
Mr Poots: We are certainly looking at grant aid. In fact, my last meeting with officials was about the capital that the Department of Finance has offered and about how there is no real prospect of us doing what we need to do and reducing the carbon in the agriculture sector with what Finance has offered us. If the Member has good contacts there, we would appreciate her support in getting more finance to introduce such biosecurity schemes, and also to make the impact on carbon reduction that her party would like to see but for which it is not divvying up the money that the Department of Finance holds.
Mr Blair: Some 481 respondents to the Department's consultation on the strategy disagreed with DAERA's preferred option for what it calls "wildlife intervention". What engagement has the Minister undertaken with those stakeholders since the consultation closed? What consultation is planned, if it has not already taken place?
Mr Poots: Environmental and conservation bodies submitted 10 responses. There were three responses from veterinary bodies and 16 from individual vets. Of the remaining responses, one came from a political party, six from individual politicians and 15 from representatives of non-bovine interests. Other individuals also contributed.
It was a huge response, in that there were 3,300 responses. Obviously, I cannot meet every respondent. We are receiving correspondence from people, which we deal with. My door is always open, and, when I can, I meet groups or bodies that act on behalf of people. I have engaged quite extensively, for example, with one of the bodies, Ulster Wildlife, over the last year. We discussed the badger issue quite extensively with it. I am very happy to continue to meet groups that have a relevant case to make. That is not an issue.
Mr Poots: Mr Speaker, with your permission, I wish to group together questions 3, 9, 11 and 14.
The avian influenza outbreak across the United Kingdom has been ongoing for 83 days since the first confirmation in Worcestershire on 26 October 2021. In total, there have now been 81 cases of avian influenza confirmed across the UK. The breakdown is 68 cases in England, five in Scotland, three in Wales and five in Northern Ireland.
The five confirmed cases in Northern Ireland were located at Aughnacloy, Broughshane, Armagh, Coagh and Ballinderry. Culling, disposal and preliminary cleansing and disinfection has been completed at all sites. As of today, there is one 10-kilometre surveillance zone still in place around the Ballinderry premises, which is due to be lifted on 22 January 2022. All other disease control zones enacted around the other four affected premises have been lifted.
In the Republic of Ireland, avian influenza has been confirmed at six premises. The disease control zones for four of those cases extended into Northern Ireland, and corresponding disease control zones were established here to limit the onward spread of disease. As of today, only one of those disease control zones, which extended into parts of County Tyrone and County Armagh, is still in place.
The confirmation of H5N1 in Northern Ireland has a notable impact on our poultry industry, international trade and the wider economy. Poultry meat from the 3-kilometre restriction zone around an infected premises is excluded from EU trade. That poultry meat must be used in the domestic market only. As international trade is a reserved matter, my officials work closely daily with DEFRA market access colleagues to ensure that trade with third countries is maintained where possible and to minimise the impact on Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
An avian influenza prevention zone has been in place across Northern Ireland since 17 November 2021. The measures in the avian influenza prevention zone include stringent, mandatory, biosecurity measures to help prevent the spread of the disease from wild birds or another source to poultry. In addition, the introduction of mandatory housing orders, effective from 29 November 2021, legally requires all birds to be housed or otherwise kept separate from wild birds. Similar measures including housing orders are also in place across Great Britain.
My officials will continue to meet industry stakeholders frequently to engage closely in regards to the outbreak.
Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for his answer. I understand that there have been no outbreaks of avian influenza since late December. Will the Minister confirm that? When does he expect to make an announcement on the release of free-range flocks to the outdoors again, on condition that there are no more outbreaks of avian flu?
Mr Poots: I confirm that there have been no outbreaks since December, and that is very welcome. We want to ensure that whatever steps we take are appropriate and ensure that we do nothing to contribute to the further spread of that awful disease. The housing order will be kept under constant review. The decision to ease any restrictions will be determined by the level of risk, in conjunction with the industry and in collaboration with our counterparts in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
Mr Catney: Thank you, Minister. Minister, what strategies does your Department have to prevent the high risks of infection from avian flu among commercial bird populations over the next 10 years?
Mr Poots: We have a superb set of veterinary officials looking after the situation. They carry out incredible work to keep avian flu under control. We are also working with people in the poultry industry who are at the leading edge relative to anywhere in these islands. We are therefore quite well placed.
We have a high volume of poultry per square mile of the country, so it is more challenging for us, but we need to meet that challenge. The best means of doing so is by having the best biosecurity measures possible. We can never stop wild birds from bringing in the disease, because birds are migratory and they will travel here. They are welcome, but, unfortunately, some of them will carry disease. The only way of ensuring that that disease does not become a problem is by keeping it outside people's premises. Taking appropriate biosecurity measures, which are extremely stringent and have been advised on by our veterinary officials, is therefore critical. That also applies to people who keep small flocks of birds for a hobby: they also need to apply those measures. I welcome the fact that around 600 people attended a webinar to hear what they needed to do. We lost a hobby flock to the disease. That demonstrates that it is not just about commercial poultry but about all poultry across Northern Ireland. Everyone should be registered for the poultry that they keep.
Mr Stewart: I thank the Minister for his answer. My question follows on from the point that the Minister just made. I am the proud owner of a rooster called Mr Onions and five hens; I will not go into their names at this stage. What more precautions and measures should people like me and the many thousands of other backyard poultry owners take to prevent the spread of avian flu? The Minister has commented on one; apart from getting registered, is there more that we can do?
Mr Poots: Absolutely: you can avoid contact with other birds; ensure that there is no contact with other birds' faeces; ensure that vermin, for example, cannot easily access your property, which is always attractive to them because there is always food there for them; ensure that you wear clothing that can be washed properly after you have been in your poultry house; and so forth. There is advice on the Department's website, and I encourage the Member and, indeed, members of the public to look at it if they are keepers of birds in order to ensure that they can keep the disease at bay.
Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for his response. Having spoken to the owner of the Armagh premises where there was an outbreak, I know that the farmer was very appreciative of the Department's response, help and advice.
The outbreaks were some distance apart. Has the Minister's Department been able to identify the source of the spread?
Mr Poots: Yes. Considerable work has been done on that. Factors have been identified that link a number of the outbreaks, and ongoing discussions on that are being had with the owners. We are not in a position to publish that information at the moment, but we will be able to do so at some point.
For commercial holders particularly, it is not just about what they do: they can take all the biosecurity measures, but someone or something else can cause a problem, whether it is the man who delivers the meal, the electrician or plumber who comes to do maintenance on the bird house, or, indeed, rodents — as I mentioned, it is important to ensure that your house is rodent-proof. All those are key measures that need to be taken. Keeping poultry is many people's bread and butter: their livelihood. They need to protect that livelihood and ensure that nobody else jeopardises it on their behalf.
Mr Gildernew: The Minister knows that there is a large and very valuable poultry industry in my constituency, and this is a worrying time. He mentioned some of the mitigating measures that are being taken. Will he advise the House of any further mitigations for dealing with the impact of avian flu? Do those mitigations include trade restrictions or controls?
Mr Poots: I mentioned that having to put in place a prevention zone causes trade restrictions, and that causes harm to the industry. Keeping this disease out is therefore critical. Good disinfection is also important, and ensuring that vehicles go through the disinfectant pools that have been created is another benefit. It is important that individuals ensure that they do not wear their outside boots inside when entering or leaving houses, that they have different boots for inside, that the concrete area outside houses is always kept well washed and so forth, and that no grain is left lying around the meal bins.
Those are practical measures that people in the industry know very well, and they need to ensure that they implement those measures 100% of the time, because the only way in which the infection will get into your house is if you allow it to come into your house. A lot of the mitigations are therefore in the hands of the people who look after the flocks.
Mr Poots: The private Member's Climate Change Bill will have a very significant and detrimental impact on farmers across Northern Ireland, including those in North Antrim. The UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) indicated that even a 50% reduction in meat and dairy production in Northern Ireland would not get Northern Ireland to net zero by 2050, never mind by 2045. The Climate Change Committee further highlighted, in the strongest possible terms, that a target of net zero by 2050 or earlier for Northern Ireland is not credible, is morally wrong and could undermine efforts to reduce emissions. It could also result in a shift of food production from Northern Ireland to other countries where the carbon footprint of such production is much higher, thereby actually increasing global emissions.
Recently, KPMG published a report on the economic impact assessment of the private Member’s Climate Change Bill. The report reaffirms the evidence presented by the Climate Change Committee and predicts that sector-level herd numbers would significantly fall, with the greatest impact being felt in farms operating in less-favoured areas. Overall, the report concludes that the impact would be beef, dairy and sheep herd numbers falling by 86% and pig and poultry herd numbers falling by 11%. That would represent a 54% decrease in farm employment, with around 13,000 jobs lost in the primary area alone.
Instead of imposing a target that is not credible, we need to ensure that we work collaboratively with the agri-food sector to achieve reductions in emissions through a balanced approach. The private Member's Bill could disengage the very people who are a part of the solution to this issue: our farmers. We must get full buy-in and face this challenge collectively.
Mr Storey: I place on record my appreciation of farmers in North Antrim and across Northern Ireland for the work that they do. I condemn yesterday's attack in a rural constituency, which had a real impact on our farming community in Loughguile.
Will the Minister shed some light on the comments of the TD in the Irish Republic who is the Sinn Féin spokesperson on climate change? Clearly, he speaks with a different tongue from his colleagues in this House, because he made it very plain that there is a serious lack of trust in the Green Party's ability to deliver for the environment or rural communities when it comes to the Bill in that House. Does the Minister recognise that, to ensure the future of farming, the Climate Change Bill cannot proceed on the basis in which it is currently framed?
Mr Poots: That has been debated considerably for quite a period. Over and over again, we have asked for evidence of how that can be achieved without having the damaging impact on the agricultural sector that the KPMG report and the Climate Change Committee, which consists of world-renowned experts on the issue, have indicated that it will have. People make bland statements without having any factual, scientific backing for them.
The Member serves a constituency in which there is a large less-favoured area. The figure that I just quoted to the Assembly on the impact that it would have on farms in less-favoured areas is incredible. We are looking at beef, dairy and sheep herd numbers falling by 86%, and the biggest impact would happen in the less-favoured areas.
I understand where the Green Party is coming from; it is, largely, a Belfast-based party, and it does not get that many votes from the agriculture sector. However, we have a party that is in behind the Green Party on the issue — Sinn Féin — that is saying one thing in the South of Ireland and a different thing here in Northern Ireland. It is abandoning the farmers who live in the hills and the uplands of Northern Ireland. I call on Sinn Féin to reflect on the damage that it is potentially doing to the agricultural industry by backing something that has no scientific grounds.
Mr McGuigan: I have no doubt that the Minister knows fine well that the private Member's Bill has the support of all the parties in here, with the exception of the DUP, and that, across this island, Sinn Féin speaks with one voice.
The Minister will, no doubt, remember the extreme snowfall in the spring of 2013, which resulted in the North, but particularly my constituency of North Antrim, being covered in snow, with drifts as high as 10 feet. That snowfall resulted in the death of 17,098 sheep and goats and 535 cattle, caused much structural damage to many farms and cost the Executive £5 million in compensation. Does the Minister agree that robust and ambitious legislation to address climate change and extreme weather events that may happen in the North is essential in order to protect the future of agriculture and all other sections of society in the North?
Mr Poots: I recall that particular snow experience. I do not recall the one that took place in, I think, 1961, which my mother and father talked about; they were locked in their home for three weeks. Major snow events have occasionally taken place for very many decades. Thankfully, this year, we have avoided them thus far.
The Member talked about the death of 17,000 sheep. Sinn Féin is standing over the death of 13,000 farms and the people who work on those farms not being able to make a living from them. The farmers in my constituency will feel the impact of that considerably less than the farmers in the Member's constituency of North Antrim because there are many more farms there in a less-favoured area. Those are the people whom he is hurting the most.
Sinn Féin is in a different place from the other parties because the other parties backed my proposals at the Committee last week. Sinn Féin stood alone with the Green Party last week on the issue, and it is standing alone against the farming community with the Green Party on it now.
Mr Allister: Is the Minister aware that, shortly before Christmas, local farmers in the Loughguile area of North Antrim invited MLAs to meet them to discuss the issue, and that Mr McGuigan, who styles himself as a co-sponsor of the green Bill, did not trouble himself to attend? If he had, he would have been asked this question by one of the farmers: would you rather that your constituents bought high-quality north Antrim meat, or meat that is produced from the cleared Amazon basin? What is the Minister's view about that?
Mr Poots: When politicians run away from their constituents, it is never a good sign. The fact that I would probably be more welcome amongst the farmers in Loughguile than Mr McGuigan — in fact, Mr Allister might even be more welcome than Mr McGuigan amongst the farming community in Loughguile — speaks volumes. [Laughter.]
I visited a farm in north Antrim with Mr Storey just last week, which has been engaged in work on carbon. That farm is able to demonstrate that the carbon involved in its production of beef is one quarter of that produced on the big farms in North America and South America.
However, those politicians here have a policy, and, because they think that it is populist — some people think that it is populist — they are driving ahead with that policy, which will actually lead to more environmental damage. If they think that a policy is popular and trendy with a particular voter base, they will go after it, irrespective of the consequence, and that is the approach that is being adopted by both the Green Party and Sinn Féin.
Mr Speaker: I will allow a very brief question from Patsy McGlone and a response from the Minister.
Mr McGlone: Will the Minister accept that, whichever climate change Bill is enacted, it will involve significant change and impact not only on agriculture but on agri-food, the wider economy and communities? Will the Minister give us some insight into what sort of just transition measures are being talked about and will be put in place, and will he say if that will be done on a cross-departmental basis?
Mr Poots: I thank the Member for the question. With regard to a just transition, our green growth policy is about taking meaningful actions. We had requested a substantial amount of money. I have to say that the Department of Finance has fallen pitifully short with what is actually needed. We can remove carbon, whether that is through anaerobic digestion, animals' food intake or genetics and breeding to ensure that less carbon is produced. We have identified very clearly that the more efficient farming is, the lower its carbon footprint. We have made proposals. We have put proposals to the Department of Finance to financially support them. That Department needs to put its money where Sinn Féin's mouth is. It is not supporting us to deliver 82%, never mind 100%, with the pitiful offer that has been made to us to tackle climate change.
Mr Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We will now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions. Topical question number 1 has been withdrawn.
T2. Mr Harvey asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to highlight his thoughts on how nutrient management on farms could be used to create energy, including biomethane. (AQT 1932/17-22)
Mr Poots: There is tremendous opportunity for that. We already have a number of farms that produce biomethane. That is being translated into electricity. We can go a step further, and that will involve significant investment. I know of one company that invested £1·4 million in cleaning up slurry so that it can be used as fuel. That is the nature of the costs that are involved. In turning what was once slurry into gas, you remove the methane from the atmosphere and replace a fossil fuel with biomethane to run your vehicles, refrigeration, tractors and to heat people's homes.
There is a win-win in that. It requires investment. A lot of that investment will come from the private sector, but we need to back that up and be able to help the private sector to deliver it quickly, because it will happen much more slowly than by 2050 if we do not give it that support. The necessity to get good capital support from the Department of Finance to deliver on that is critical.
Mr Harvey: Given the impact of COVID on our supply chains, particularly food production, and the energy crisis that faces Northern Ireland citizens, does that not once again highlight the important role that farmers play in our society?
Mr Poots: Food from Northern Ireland has demonstrated over and over again its quality, provenance and traceability. We can demonstrate, and with investment ensure, that we have the highest environmental standards anywhere in the world. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that investment can take place and that we can say to people, "If you wish to buy food from South America, North America, Australia or wherever, you are not buying food that has the best provenance, quality, animal welfare, animal health, traceability and that, importantly, is not the best for the environment, air miles and food miles". We can meet all those requirements and supply to a local market that is largely within a few hours from Northern Ireland. We can do that extremely well.
T3. Mr K Buchanan asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on the farm business improvement scheme. (AQT 1933/17-22)
Mr Poots: I thank the Member for the question. The farm business improvement scheme has been a huge success story thus far. I welcome the commitment of substantial investment in our largest manufacturing sector and the confidence that that gives in the sector, but we want to ensure that the investments that are made are meaningful and will deliver everything that is needed.
For example, the investment in low-emission spreading equipment and covering of tanks etc will achieve somewhere in the region of a 25% reduction in the amount of ammonia. For a number of years, we have been sitting with the Shared Environmental Service (SES) saying, "You cannot build anything", but it has not reduced the amount of ammonia in the atmosphere by 1%. Just stopping and going into paralysis does not achieve anything.
Investment in measures such as low-emission spreading equipment has made a real transformational difference. Importantly, in the year that it is, with the price of fertiliser associated with high oil prices, that has helped to ensure that farms will need to acquire less fertiliser because they will extract more from their slurry. Therefore, such an investment brings a significant benefit to both the environment and the farmer.
Mr K Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his response. Obviously, the financial input is very welcome in my constituency, which is mostly rural. Most of the parties were represented at an Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) event several weeks ago, and, to be fair, took time to go to that and explain to farmers. However, many farmers lack confidence and are concerned. On the one hand, you are giving financial support to buy equipment, which is good and is needed, but they have a sense that they do not know where we are going. The private Member's Climate Change Bill is affecting their business and their mental health, and they do not know where their business is going. What would you say to those farmers?
Mr Poots: I tend to agree. No matter what sector it is, you need some certainty. If you want to make investments, and particularly if that investment involves borrowed money, you absolutely want some certainty that somebody will not pull the rug from under you two or three years into the scheme.
We need to ensure that we can move forward in the House in a way that actually tackles the environmental issues and problems. It is absolutely critical that we tackle those environmental issues head on. So often, there are lots of opportunities out there to turn those problems into an advantage. That is what we need to do in Northern Ireland. Instead of just closing down an industry, we should look at how we deal with the problems that are emanating from that industry and turn them into an advantage. That is why I talk about issues like anaerobic digestion. We can engage in restoring peatlands, tree planting, hedgerow enhancement and different grass management, which uses multi-species sward and so forth. All those things will help us to reduce our carbon footprint but still allow us to produce high quality food here in Northern Ireland. That is what is critical. I do not really want to be buying food from the southern hemisphere in years to come, and I do not really want to be eating plant-based food that has been produced from insects; I would much rather have steak.
T4. Mrs Erskine asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to state the engagement that he has had with councils to promote and enhance biodiversity across Northern Ireland, given that he will be aware of the importance of protecting wildlife in beautiful constituencies such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone. (AQT 1934/17-22)
Mr Poots: Biodiversity is absolutely critical. People talk a lot about carbon but miss biodiversity. A lot of species have been lost over the last number of decades. We need to arrest and reverse that. Some of the work that we are doing on biodiversity with the RSPB has ensured that we have more ground-nesting birds. I visited County Fermanagh and went out on the loughs and to the islands where that work is being done. It is good-quality work, which, in some instances, has involved removing trees so that predatory birds cannot come and take eggs from ground-nesting birds. Some people objected to that, but they did not understand the importance of the project and its ability to contribute to biodiversity efforts taking place in the county.
So many opportunities exist in that area, and, in some respects, our future agriculture policy — enhancing what we do with our hedgerows, creating more wildlife zones, planting more trees and restoring more peatlands — will help with biodiversity. It is important that we work in conjunction with local authorities to ensure that that support comes from as wide an area as possible.
I should say that some councils have put forward really powerful proposals on tree planting. I hope that some others will step up to the plate a bit more and take steps to ensure that we achieve much greater afforestation across this little country than we currently have.
Mrs Erskine: I thank the Minister for his answer. What engagement has he had with the Department for Communities on promoting biodiversity in some of its green spaces through initiatives such as Don't Mow, Let It Grow and through having wildflower meadows in housing estates, for example?
Mr Poots: Very importantly, we launched a pollinator scheme, which was taken up largely by community organisations. Those could have included sports clubs, such as GAA clubs, and local community associations. A wide range of community organisations embraced the pollinator scheme, and, as a consequence of that, we doubled the amount of money that we had initially set aside. We are spending well over £1 million on the scheme because of the success of its uptake.
Pollinators are incredibly important to us, so having schemes that will ensure that there are areas dotted across Northern Ireland where pollinators can thrive will translate into significant and meaningful benefits, which will be evidenced in the years to come.
T5. Mr Stewart asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs whether the proposed increase in the plastic bag levy from 5p to 20p will apply to meat packaging and, if so, to state the impact that that could have on food hygiene and the end consumer. (AQT 1935/17-22)
Mr Poots: Previously, the levy has not applied to meat packaging because of the potential for blood to run from the meat into other foods, thus causing harm to those foods because the meat has not been kept right. Such things will be looked at to ensure that the public health issue is not ignored. The levy is there, but I hope that people are not spending very much per household. My wish is that the levy will lead to a massive reduction in the use of bags. We have already seen that a massive reduction has taken place thus far. That has stalled, however, so I hope that the increase will kick-start another significant reduction in the use of plastic bags and that, consequently, we will have a better environment in which to live.
Mr Stewart: I thank the Minister for that, and I agree that the levy has had an undoubted impact. Some suggest that the number of plastic bags has been reduced by 90% as a result. I wonder whether the Minister has a grasp of how much more of an impact the increase from 5p to 20p will have on plastic bag use and whether he believes that we could use the money raised to educate our young people through environmental schemes and the like. What else might the additional funding go towards in order to educate people?
Mr Poots: The plastic bag levy has been contributing roughly up to and over £5 million a year thus far. That figure has reduced over the years as the number of bags purchased has reduced, which is a positive thing. I anticipate that there will be an uplift in funding, although further reduction in the use of plastic bags means that it will not immediately be reflected through the uplift in the levy. We will, however, have more to offer. The money raised will go to organisations that are dedicated to making environmental improvements. Every year, we give out significant amounts of money to organisations that do real good: not for lobbying but for them to take practical steps that ensure that they can make the environment a better place.
I appreciate the work and support of all the environmental NGOs that assist us to improve the environment that we live in.
Mr Speaker: I call Kellie Armstrong for a brief question and ask for a brief response from the Minister.
T6. Ms Armstrong asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to outline, when discussing the environment strategy with AERA officials, what consideration he gave, if any, to the introduction of a bespoke agriculture Bill for Northern Ireland. (AQT 1936/17-22)
Mr Poots: Obviously, we did not have time to introduce a bespoke agriculture Bill in this mandate, but it will be for a future mandate and Minister to make that decision. Obviously, the future agriculture policies for support measures that we have proposed are very much bespoke. Leaving the European Union has given us the opportunity to have a much more flexible and nimble approach to that.
Mr Speaker: Time is up. Members may take their ease for a moment or two.
Mr Lyttle: I beg to introduce the Fair Employment (School Teachers) Bill [NIA51/17-22], which is a Bill to remove the exception for school teachers from the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998; and for connected purposes.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Mr Speaker: I call Ms Kellie Armstrong to move the Bill.
Mr Speaker: Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There are four groups of amendments, and we will debate the amendments in each group in turn. Members will note that the Marshalled List was reissued and holds the serial number ML 2 in the bottom right corner. It is marked in red print on the front page that it is reissued. Members will have received printed and electronic copies of the document, but additional printed copies are available in the Rotunda if needed for the debate. In addition, the grouping list identifies amendment No 7 as an amendment to amendment No 6: please note that it is, in fact, amendment No 6 that is an amendment to amendment No 5. That will be clearly identified at the point of decision-making in the Bill.
The first debate will be on amendment Nos 1 to 9, 15, 17, 24 to 26, 57 and 61 to 71 and opposition to clause 12 stand part, which deal with definitions and purpose. Within that group, amendment No 6 is an amendment to amendment No 5. The second debate will be on amendment Nos 10 to 14, 16, 18 to 22, 31, 36, 39, 48 and 58 to 60 and opposition to clauses 4 and 5 stand part, which deal with advice, guidance and support. The third debate will be on amendment Nos 23, 27 to 30, 32 to 35, 37, 38 and 40 to 45 and opposition to clauses 6, 7, 8 and 9 stand part, which deal with strategy, implementation and reporting. In that group, amendment No 28 is an amendment to amendment No 27. The fourth debate will be on amendment Nos 46, 47 and 49 to 56 and opposition to clause 10 stand part, which deal with regulations.
I remind Members intending to speak that, during the debates on the four groups of amendments, they should address all of the amendments in each group on which they wish to comment. Once the debate on each group is completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill and the Question on each will be put without further debate. The Questions on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we shall proceed. Members, if it is not, it will become clearer as we move along.
Clause 1 (Meaning of "integrated education")
Mr Speaker: We now come to the first group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 9, 15, 17, 24 to 26, 57 and 61 to 71 and opposition to clause 12 stand part. In this group, amendment No 2 is mutually exclusive to amendment No 1; amendment Nos 3 and 4 are mutually exclusive to amendment Nos 1 and 2; amendment No 5 is mutually exclusive to amendment Nos 1 and 7; amendment No 6 is consequential to amendment No 5; amendment No 7 is mutually exclusive to amendment Nos 1 and 5; amendment No 8 is mutually exclusive to amendment No 1; amendment No 15 is mutually exclusive to amendment No 12; amendment No 25 is mutually exclusive to amendment No 24; and amendment Nos 61 to 68 are consequential to amendment No 2.
I call Jim Allister to move amendment No 1 and address the other amendments in the group.
The following amendment stood on the Marshalled List:
No 1: In page 1, line 3, leave out from "means" to end of line 22 and insert
"is as defined in Article 64(1) of the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989."
Mr Allister: I am content with amendment Nos 2 and 7 from the Minister.
Amendment No 1 not moved.
Mr Speaker: I call the Minister of Education, Miss Michelle McIlveen, to move amendment No 2 and to address the other amendments in group 1.
In page 1, line 4, leave out from "of—" to end of line 10 and insert —
"of those of different cultures and religious beliefs, including —
(a) reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils;
(b) those of other religious beliefs; and
(c) those of no religious belief."
The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:
No 3: In page 1, line 8, leave out paragraph (b). — [Mr McCrossan.]
No 4: In page 1, line 10, leave out paragraph (c). — [Mr McCrossan.]
No 5: In page 1, line 11, leave out subsection (2) and insert —
"(2) An ‘integrated school’ is a school which —
(a) intentionally supports, protects and improves an ethos of diversity, respect and understanding between those of different cultures and religious beliefs and of none, between those of different socio-economic backgrounds and between those of different abilities, and
(b) has acquired —
(i) grant-maintained integrated status, or
(ii) controlled integrated status
under the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989." — [Ms Armstrong.]
No 6: In amendment No 5, leave out "improves" and insert "advances". — [Mr McCrossan.]
No 7: In page 1, line 11, leave out from "intentionally" to end of line 14 and insert —
"is a controlled integrated school or grant-maintained integrated school as defined by Article 2(2) of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986." — [Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education).]
No 8: In page 1, line 17, leave out paragraphs (b) to (e). — [Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education).]
No 9: In clause 2, page 2, line 4, leave out paragraph (b) and insert —
"(b) to promote awareness and appreciation of human rights". — [Mr McCrossan.]
No 15: In clause 3, page 2, line 12, after "education," insert —
"at nursery, primary and post-primary levels,". — [Mr McCrossan.]
No 17: In clause 4, page 2, line 22, leave out "the duty" and insert "a duty". — [Mr McCrossan.]
No 24: In clause 6, page 2, line 37, leave out from "Education" to "when" and insert —
"Without prejudice to the generality of the duty under Article 64(1) of the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, the Department of Education must take account of that duty when—". — [Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education).]
No 25: In clause 6, page 2, line 37, leave out "include provision for" and insert "have regard to". — [Mr McCrossan.]
No 26: In clause 6, page 3, line 1, at end insert —
"(2) The active fulfilment of duties in respect of support for integrated education conferred on education bodies by this Act (or regulation made under it) shall not prejudice or subordinate their duties in respect of promoting shared education involving other school sectors and integrated schools or the due discharge of their continuing statutory duties under other enactments including the Shared Education (Northern Ireland) Act 2016." — [Mr McCrossan.]
No 57: In clause 11, page 6, line 8, leave out "11" and insert "10". — [Ms Armstrong.]
No 61: In clause 12, page 6, line 16, leave out from "omit" to end of line 17 and insert —
"for ‘at school of Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils’ substitute ‘at a controlled integrated or grant-maintained integrated school of those of different cultures and religious beliefs, including (in the case of each such school) —
(a) reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils;
(b) those of other religious beliefs; and
(c) those of no religious belief.’" — [Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education).]
No 62: In clause 12, page 6, line 19, leave out from "for" to end of line 21 and insert —
"for ‘reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils’ substitute ‘those of different cultures and religious beliefs, including —
(a) reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils;
(b) those of other religious beliefs; and
(c) those of no religious belief.’" — [Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education).]
No 63: In clause 12, page 6, line 21, at end insert —
"(2A) In Article 71(8) of that Order (proposal for acquisition of grant-maintained integrated status), for ‘reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils’ substitute ‘those of different cultures and religious beliefs, including —
(a) reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils;
(b) those of other religious beliefs; and
(c) those of no religious belief.’" — [Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education).]
No 64: In clause 12, page 6, line 21, at end insert —
"(2B) In Article 79(2) of that Order (significant changes to grant-maintained integrated schools), for ‘reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils’ substitute ‘those of different cultures and religious beliefs, including —
(a) reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils;
(b) those of other religious beliefs; and
(c) those of no religious belief.’" — [Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education).]
No 65: In clause 12, page 6, line 21, at end insert —
"(2C) In Article 81(3)(d) of that Order (withdrawal of grant by Department) for ‘reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils’ substitute ‘those of different cultures and religious beliefs, including —
(a) reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils;
(b) those of other religious beliefs; and
(c) those of no religious belief.’" — [Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education).]
No 66: In clause 12, page 6, line 21, at end insert —
"(2D) In Article 88 of that Order (management of controlled integrated schools: scheme of management) for ‘reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils’ substitute ‘those of different cultures and religious beliefs, including —
(a) reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils;
(b) those of other religious beliefs; and
(c) those of no religious belief.’" — [Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education).]
No 67: In clause 12, page 6, line 21, at end insert —
"(2E) In Article 92(6) of that Order (proposal for acquisition of controlled integrated status), for ‘reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils’ substitute ‘those of different cultures and religious beliefs, including —
(a) reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils;
(b) those of other religious beliefs; and
(c) those of no religious belief.’" — [Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education).]
No 68: In clause 12, page 6, line 21, at end insert —
"(2F) In Article 97 of that Order (significant changes to controlled integrated schools), for ‘reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils’ substitute ‘those of different cultures and religious beliefs, including —
(a) reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils;
(b) those of other religious beliefs; and
(c) those of no religious belief.’" — [Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education).]
No 69: In clause 12, page 6, line 22, leave out subsection (3). — [Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education).]
No 70: In clause 13, page 6, line 32, leave out sub-paragraphs (iii) to (v). — [Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education).]
No 71: In clause 13, page 6, line 38, after "section 1" insert —
"and words and expressions which are defined in Article 2(2) of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 have the same meaning as in that Order". — [Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education).]
Miss McIlveen: I support the education of our children together. I have stated that throughout the debate and discussion on the Integrated Education Bill. What I do not support is poor legislation. I do not support legislating for one sector at the expense of others, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I absolutely do not support playing party politics with the law that will govern our education system.
I am not standing here today grandstanding or seeking headlines; I stand here on behalf of every child and parent in our education system today and for those who will come through our education system in the future. I have never said that the current system is perfect, but it allows children to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents. The quality of education in our schools is of paramount importance in giving our children and young people the best start in life. It is that quality, rather than sectoral preference, that drives parental preference. I stand for all parents, regardless of their background, and wish to reserve their right to express preferences for their children's education rather than force one sectoral solution. That is my role as Minister of Education.
Mr Lyttle: I thank the Minister for giving way. Hopefully, the questions throughout today's debate can be good-natured. The Minister raised an important point that is often raised in the debate about education on the basis of the wishes of parents. How does the Department identify the wishes of parents and, indeed, those of children and young people?
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his question. That will become clear as we go through the various aspects of the debate, particularly when we discuss parental preference.
At a time when a full and independent review of education backed by the Executive is under way and will examine in a fulsome, objective manner how a single education system might be delivered here, the Integrated Education Bill is not required. At Second Stage, Mr O'Dowd rightly asked why there was a necessity for the Bill. I concur with those sentiments. In my view, the independent review remains the appropriate means to effect meaningful change that can be agreeable across sectoral boundaries. We know that the review will be challenging for everyone, but it should give Members pause for thought when voting on the Bill. The review will engage and consult fully with the whole education system in a way that no one can suggest that the private Member's Integrated Education Bill has.
As Members will appreciate, the Committee's deliberations and the preparation for Consideration Stage, particularly with the tabling of multiple amendments, set against the context of wide-ranging education legislation, mean that what we are considering today is complex. I would appreciate Members' indulgence as I speak through the groupings.
Mr Allister: Before the Minister moves into any detail, may I say that I am struck by the point that she has just made? As I understand it, 'New Decade, New Approach', which was embraced by all the parties of the Executive, endorsed an independent review. Therefore, surely what we have in this Bill is an attempt to gazump that. Is that what it comes to?
Miss McIlveen: That is the point that I was making at Second Stage. I said that I felt that this was a little presumptuous and that we should wait for the review to conclude. There is an investment in the review of approximately £1·5 million. I understand that that is progressing well and that there has been wide-ranging consultation across all the sectors. Certainly, there is a hope that that report will be made within 18 months. At that point, there will be recommendations that should be acted on as a consequence. I feel that that is the best place to be and where we should be regarding this legislation. Alas, however, we are where we are, and we are now at the Bill's Consideration Stage. If Members are content, I will take them through my amendments and reflect on other comments as we move through each of the groupings.
Our debate and subsequent vote on the group 1 clauses and amendments will focus on definitions and purpose. The group covers what will be included in clauses 1 and 2, the definition of integrated education and an integrated school, as well as the purpose of integrated education as described by the Bill. It covers amendments that range across clauses 3, 4, 6, 11, 12 and 13, and some of the amendments are more substantial than others. Those clauses cover various issues, and the way in which they have been drafted raises serious concerns. The clauses lack legal clarity. The definitions, if not amended, will be open to misinterpretation and will therefore result in legal challenge. Indeed, how the Bill as a whole would work in practice and the gaps that it contains with regard to its operation alongside existing education law are a major concern.
The Bill will not create a level playing field, as has been claimed. To promote or support one sector as defined in the Bill above the others is not acceptable to me as Minister of Education, because I value all sectors equally.
The Bill as introduced will put education bodies in an impossible position by placing additional duties on them that will create conflict with their existing duties. There is a finite education budget, which is already stretched. No one who votes on the Bill today should be under any illusion that the Bill, if it is not amended appropriately, will put further pressures on that budget.
We have had the benefit of the expertise of the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC) in relation to drafting throughout the Bill's passage. It was regrettable that Executive approval was given only on 21 December, and that presented a significant challenge to the professional drafters over the Christmas period. None of us will have the same level of competence as the OLC, and we should draw from and take seriously the opportunity that OLC drafting presents to emerge from this stage with legislation that is more workable than the legislation with which we started.
The Bill sponsor may have stated at the Second Stage debate that her Bill had undergone a 12-week consultation almost six years ago during the 2016-17 mandate in the form of online surveys for adults and children. However, where was the specific consultation with schools? No one can legitimately argue that the Bill does not have the potential to impact on schools from every sector, whether it intends to or not. Where is the awareness that the educational landscape legitimately might have changed, that new parents and children are now involved in the education system and that views may have changed in the intervening years before the Bill was introduced in June 2021? Certainly, planning structures, relationships and opportunities exist now that were not there in 2016-17.
As I said at the Second Stage debate, were I, as an Executive Minister, to present legislation to the Assembly that was based on an outdated consultation exercise that is, in my view, limited in scope, I would rightly expect to be laughed out of the Chamber.
Ms Armstrong: I thank the Minister for giving way. I appreciate what you are trying to say about my consultation. However, we had a Committee Stage, and the Committee completed substantial consultation on the Bill. Up-to-date consultation is available, and you can read that in the Committee pack. It is not just me who has consulted on it; a Committee, which has members from your party, also did so.
Miss McIlveen: The Office of the Legislative Counsel, as you will have heard referenced —
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Minister for giving way. I sat through the consultation process in Committee. I probably attended every very long session of that consultation process. Many of those who came to present to the consultation process — I can speak for many of the sectoral bodies such as the controlled and maintained sectors — said that they were surprised that the Bill was presented without further consultation other than the original 2016-17 consultation exercise. Indeed, they were taken aback by that process.
I will make another point. The Committee process itself was deeply flawed. I put my concerns on the record about how we received the legal advice on the Bill on a Wednesday and were asked to make a formal consultation response on a Thursday. I do not consider that to be an appropriate consultation.
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for her intervention. The Office of the Legislative Counsel is the professional drafter of legislation for Departments in Northern Ireland. It is fully objective and separate from any party or specific Department. The professional expertise in drafting law for the entire Executive rests with the OLC. It has no vested interest in policy, and, in this case, educational sectors or school management types. It acts as guardian of the statute book here, and the legislation that it drafts is accurate to the highest degree and legislatively clear, takes account of existing legislation and removes the risk of unintended consequences. Every word is painstakingly pored over to ensure absolute accuracy. As Minister of Education, I thank the OLC for the hours of scrutiny, days of analysis and weeks of drafting since I was given the necessary Executive approval to instruct them on 21 December 2021, which it has invested in the amendments tabled by me in my role as Minister.
I can only urge you to look seriously on the amendments that were drafted for me by the OLC. They represent the Chamber's best chance to make an integrated education Bill that is workable in its entirety and will not drive a coach and horses through the entire education system and the Education budget.
It had not been my intention to propose any new legislation relating to one sector of education in advance of the outcome of the independent review. I have, however, been left with no alternative but to table amendments to mitigate the significant risks presented by the Bill as it sits. As Education Minister and a Member of this legislative Assembly, I could not stand back and allow law to pass that held the potential to have such far-reaching consequences for not only the here and now but future Education budgets. Today is the opportunity for all of us to demonstrate our support for integrated education that is in line with existing statutory duties and that does not operate to the detriment of other sectors or place unfettered pressure on the public purse.
The amendments that OLC has produced, and that I, in my role as Minister of Education for all children, have tabled represent a legally accurate means of delivering the key elements described by stakeholders and the Bill's sponsor as needing to be addressed.
I turn to the definition of "integrated education". I have heard the concerns about how the current definition, which is set out in article 64 of the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, does not reflect people other than those from a Protestant or Roman Catholic background or sufficiently support how they designate according to their fundamental beliefs when applying to an integrated school. The OLC has drafted an amendment to address that.
The clause 1 amendments that I tabled provide for "those of other religious beliefs" and "those of no religious belief" to be able to designate as such when they apply to integrated schools. That definition is reflected in associated amendments to clause 12, which incorporate this amendment into the range of existing provisions in the 1989 Education Order. It also provides greater clarity in legal terms and addresses concerns expressed by a range of stakeholders throughout the process — concerns that I share — about any school deeming itself to meet the definition of an integrated school. It results in a more straightforward provision that meets the stated needs of the integrated education sector, and it avoids the risk of challenges from other sectors that exists in the clause as introduced.
While I appreciate that the Bill's sponsor also tabled an amendment that, in effect, seeks to clarify that existing schools must go through the transformation process, this relates to integrated status via the procedures that are set out in the 1989 Order. OLC relates the definition of an integrated school to the existing legislation, clarifying what a grant-maintained or controlled integrated school is under the 1986 Order. I consider that the amendment that I tabled is the best guarantee that the Assembly has of achieving absolute legal accuracy.
The Bill as introduced and the Bill sponsor's amendments to clause 1 retain words and provisions that are simply not needed. What school in any sector does not provide education for a range of children? What school in any sector does not provide education for children from all social and economic backgrounds? What exactly is meant by:
"those who are experiencing socio-economic deprivation and those who are not"?
What school in any sector does not teach children with "different abilities"?
The problem with placing this wording in legislation is that it is open to interpretation and challenge. Legal advice has, for example, confirmed that retaining wording about different abilities opens up a challenge to how an integrated post-primary school might operate, even in streaming its classes. Logically, that cannot be the Bill's intention, yet it is the reality of retaining the clause as introduced or as amended by the Bill's sponsor.
I turn to ethos, and the Bill sponsor's amendments to clause 1(2) retain wording and provisions that, again, are simply not needed. In defining the ethos of an integrated school, the wording is inconsistent and incongruous with existing legislation. Again, the wording is unnecessary, legislatively unclear and open to challenge. The Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) has advised me that, in its view, ethos changes, develops and is modified in line with the unique context of each school and the mix of people who make up the school community at any given time.
A definition in the Bill could become restrictive, as it cannot be readily changed to accommodate changes in society. Not placing it in the Bill keeps that work on ethos within the sector's control — for example, through the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education's (NICIE) work — which is more appropriate, and, in fact, more educationally sound. I concur with the inspectorate's analysis on that.
Other amendments have been tabled to the clause, but, again, in order to achieve legal accuracy, I urge Members to support the OLC-drafted amendments, which would put in legislation that "others" are an explicit part of an integrated school, and vote for amendment Nos 2, 7 and 8 to clause 1. Amendment Nos 61 to 68, which relate to clause 12, bring the definition set out at amendment No 2 into the relevant provisions of the 1989 Order, as advised by OLC. That means that subsections (3)(b) to (3)(e) of clause 1, as introduced, which you will see amendment No 8 takes out, are not needed, because specific articles are amended in clause 12.
Turning to clause 6, "General duty", the concerns about unintended consequences for bodies such as the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), parts of the Education Authority and the Youth Council for Northern Ireland, which is not currently operational, have been well expressed since the Second Stage debate. Placing a statutory duty in relation to integrated education on top of the statutory duties that those bodies were established and are funded to deliver is not good legislation.
OLC has drafted an amendment, No 24, that clarifies the duties in clause 6 that relate to the Department of Education. Again, I recognise that amendment Nos 25 and 26 have been tabled to clause 6 and seek to mitigate the conflict-of-duty concern. However, the clearest way to ensure that is to look to the drafting that has been provided by OLC. Again, I urge you to support the amendment that I have tabled, which provides clarity and works alongside existing legislation.
There is an associated amendment, No 70 to clause 13, which ensures that any references to education bodies only relate to the Department of Education or the Education Authority. If you support that amendment, no conflict of duties will be placed on CCMS, CCEA or, if it becomes operational again, the Youth Council.
Amendment No 69, which was tabled by the Chair of the Education Committee, takes out the amendment to the Shared Education Act in clause 12. I support the removal of that amendment as it has no legal impact or benefit. I can only reiterate that shared education is a funded programme that is open to all schools in all sectors. Integrated education is a sector that forms part of the school estate. Both may, of course, support the breaking down of community barriers and the building of good relationships, but so do many other schools from across every sector.
Amendment No 71 to clause 13 has been drafted to ensure that the legal definitions in the 1986 Order apply to the provisions of the Bill. That includes parents and children. Who else should an education Bill of any description be about? Again, I urge you to support that amendment.
In conclusion, our job today is to piece together a legislative jigsaw that slots together to make workable legislation. Let us rely on the drafting expertise of OLC to ensure that we deliver that. Thank you.
Mr Allister: I want to take the Minister back. She made a passing reference to where the Bill, if approved, would fit, juxtaposition-wise, with existing arrangements. Tomorrow, as I recall, we are about to see the publication of strategic documents. How would the Bill fit with that strategy in terms of future area planning etc?
Miss McIlveen: If the Member is content, I can come back to him on that specific point and how that might relate to the strategy specifically, depending, of course, on how the Bill is amended and the subsequent clauses that are associated with that.
I have concluded my remarks. Thank you.
Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): I will speak initially as Chairperson of the Education Committee and then as an Alliance MLA, in which capacity I am glad to support the passage of the Integrated Education Bill proposed by Kellie Armstrong MLA.
During the Committee Stage of the Integrated Education Bill, MLAs considered written evidence from 1,118 organisations and individuals. Of those responses, 523 were received via the Assembly's Citizen Space online survey platform, 95% of which agreed with the policy objectives of the Bill and 85% of which thought that the provisions in the Bill would be effective in achieving those policy objectives.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
The Education Committee also undertook 14 oral evidence sessions and held 17 formal meetings as part of a comprehensive and inclusive scrutiny process that engaged closely with a wide range of stakeholders, the Bill proposer and the Department of Education. The Education Committee, therefore, allocated significant time and attention to the scrutiny of the Integrated Education Bill, as MLAs will, no doubt, have learned from the Education Committee report on the Bill. The range of stakeholders consulted and involved in written and oral submissions was considerable. The Education Committee extended both its call for evidence and the Committee Stage, which took place over approximately a five-month period in order to bring as much advice and perspective as possible to bear on that important scrutiny task.
The subject of this group of amendments is the definition and purpose of the Bill. Given the range of views among Education Committee members, the Committee did not agree a position on the amendments. I will, however, speak to Education Committee amendment No 69.
It was evident that the Bill sponsor aims to retain and extend the existing definition of integrated education in a manner that reflects a changing society in Northern Ireland. Many stakeholders supported that change but also sought assurance that any change would be consistent with the existing definition of integrated education, as per section 64 of the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989. The Bill sponsor committed to clarifying that and has accordingly done so by way of amendment.
The Bill sponsor engaged with Committee members on an alternative wording to clause 7. When the Education Committee considered the Bill clause by clause, it was aware that the sponsor intended to amend clause 7 but that drafting had not yet been finalised. Accordingly, amendment No 69 is an Education Committee amendment that is consequential to the removal of clause 7's presumption that every new school should be an integrated one, and I present it to the Assembly.
Speaking in my capacity as Alliance education spokesperson, I will say that it is a privilege to support the passage of the Integrated Education Bill, which the group 1 amendments seek to amend, from the Alliance integrated education spokesperson, Kellie Armstrong MLA. The Alliance vision for education is an integrated and sustainable system that delivers equal opportunity for all children to develop their unique personality, talent and ability together.
The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement of 1998, which is an international peace accord, stated clearly that integrated education is "essential" to reconciliation. 'The Fresh Start Panel Report on the Disbandment of Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland' recommended that the Executive set ambitious targets:
"to measurably reduce segregation in education ... as quickly as possible."
That was in 2016.
A poll on education in 2018 found that good educational standards are the most important factor for many people when they are choosing a school, followed closely by a desire for children to be educated together. Two thirds of respondents supported their school officially becoming an integrated school. The overall view was that:
"political leaders had done little or nothing to facilitate and encourage integrated education".
Some 60% of respondents felt that politicians held up the accessibility of integrated education.
The Ulster University Economic Policy Centre has also established that separation and duplication in our education system have a significant financial cost, which could be upwards of £90 million per year. Yet, the Department of Education states that our education system is in financial crisis. In my constituency of East Belfast, poll results have found that a majority of parents — approximately 76% — support their school becoming integrated.
On the group 1 amendments, I support Kellie Armstrong's proposed definition of integrated education and will not support the Education Minister's proposed narrowing of the definition. I am content to support amendment No 6, as it adds to the definition. I will also support the Education Minister's amendment No 24, as it will strengthen the requirement of the Education Department to take account of its duty on integrated education.
I would really like to hear — I hope that the Education Minister returns to this — how the Department of Education currently encourages and facilitates integrated education and how it identifies, assesses and meets the demand of parents and pupils for integrated education. Perhaps the Minister can also speak to what action the Department has taken to implement the independent review of integrated education, which reported as long ago as 2017.
The lack of information and action on all of those matters is in no small part the motive that has led Kellie Armstrong to propose specific legislation and action to meet the parental demand and the demand of children and young people, which the Education Committee heard quite clearly throughout Committee Stage, for access to integrated education in Northern Ireland.
Mr Sheehan: I welcome the opportunity to speak at Consideration Stage. Everyone wants change of one degree or another, and much has changed here over the past 100 years. That process of change has accelerated since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, but there is still much to do. Sectarianism still exists here, and it is a cancer in our society. The continued segregation of our society is an obstacle to ending and eradicating that sectarianism. In the light of that, it is good to see positive approaches to reducing segregation. New Decade, New Approach commits the Executive to carrying out:
"an external, independent review of education provision?, with a focus on ... moving towards a single education system ...
educating children and young people of different backgrounds together ?in the classroom."
An example of that is the Strule shared education model in Omagh, which will bring together pupils from six local schools, with representation from the controlled, maintained and voluntary school sectors. Each school will retain its individuality and ethos while maximising the opportunities provided through collaboration and sharing. The Bill, if enacted, will enhance the efforts to break down barriers and build a new society rooted in peace and equality. Of course, the segregation in our education system is not responsible for the divisions in our society. Consequently, a more integrated education system will not be a panacea for all of society's ills. However, it can be another building block in helping to heal the divisions that exist.
It is important to state that integrated education will not be forced on anyone. Parents and young people will still have a choice of what sector they wish to attend, be it integrated, controlled, maintained or Irish medium. All of those sectors will exist in the short to medium term; they will not disappear. It is important, therefore, that other sectors are not disadvantaged by the Integrated Education Bill. However, it is important to acknowledge the challenges that exist for the integrated sector.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the Bill sponsor for her work in taking the Bill forward. I thank her and her researcher and policy person, Fiona, on the positive and constructive conversations that we have had throughout the process. Any time that we have sought information about the process of the Bill, the sponsor has been more than willing to facilitate meetings and conversations on it.
I will speak in support of the Bill sponsor's amendment No 5, amendment No 6 and the Minister's amendment No 24.
One of the things about the process in Committee was that we were faced with choices, because a number of amendments were proposed to certain clauses. We went through them all and settled on the ones that we thought were most suitable. In this case, the Minister's amendment No 24 to clause 6 is the best. If that clause is not amended, it will place a contradictory or conflicting duty on the CCMS, which has a statutory responsibility for its sector. Another statutory responsibility — an onerous responsibility — would be placed on it to deal also with the integrated sector. That was a mistake in the Bill's original drafting. Consequent to supporting amendment No 24, we also support amendment Nos 70 and 71, which remove the CCMS, the CCEA and the NI Youth Council from the definition of "education bodies" in the Bill.
Although, in our context here, integrated education has a particular definition — of educating Catholics and Protestants together — society now is very different from what it was previously. I welcome the proposal to expand on the existing definition, with that increased level of diversity, to reference and include those of different abilities and from different socio-economic backgrounds. Encouraging greater diversity in our schools can only be a good thing as we move forward as a society.
Although I welcome the Bill, I am not uncritical of the integrated sector. The sponsor knows that I have criticised it in the Chamber, and my colleague John O'Dowd has always been critical of it. One of the fears is that, in the past, although the integrated sector certainly preached that there was cultural diversity in its schools, that was not always practised. I hope that our debating and discussing the Bill will have an impact on those integrated schools to ensure that there is proper cultural diversity and to ensure that the Irish identity is catered for. I willingly acknowledge that many integrated schools already teach the Irish language, promote Gaelic games and teach a different perspective of Irish history than would have been taught previously. That is good progress, but more still needs to be done.
I am particularly supportive of the part of amendment No 5 that refers to progressing:
"an ethos of diversity, respect and understanding between"
different groups of people. The key concern that comes through our constituency office doors about integrated education is one of frustration that that level of respect for and understanding of the Irish identity is not there. We have the opportunity to address those concerns through the Bill, however.
One of the other criticisms that I have made of the integrated sector — I hope that the Bill will deal with it — is that some integrated schools practise academic selection. That is contrary to the ethos of inclusiveness and diversity and creates another artificial barrier in our society.
I note the Bill sponsor's proposed amendment to the definition of "integrated school". I welcome being able to take part in the debate, and I do not intend to speak at any length throughout it. I will finish on that point.
Mrs Dodds: At this stage of the debate, as others have said, we are to focus on the purpose of the Bill and the definitions employed to define that purpose. The Bill is about the promotion of integrated education, and that is where it stops. The sponsor of the Bill, to be fair, has stated that clearly and has made no apology for it. That is fine; it is completely her right to set the intent and purpose of the Bill.
The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland will, of course, agree that the concept of our children growing up together, playing together and being educated together is something that we can all support; indeed, I am thankful that I — yes, back in the day — and my children experienced education through attending a school in the voluntary grammar sector where everyone was welcomed regardless of faith or background. I am also thankful that that can be experienced in other parts of the education system in Northern Ireland, including the special education sector. I also state my support and appreciation for the many schools that cooperate with each other through their area learning community and the shared education experience part of the curriculum. In Banbridge, for example, pitches at St Patrick's College are regularly used by the whole community, and subjects are taught on a shared basis between St Patrick's and the local controlled high school. Moving our society to a more inclusive basis through education is not simply the preserve of one sector. I would like to see more shared learning by making use of the enormous resource that is further education.
There have been many claims about the Bill and its purpose. In the past few days, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has declared that the Bill will start the end of "education apartheid in Northern Ireland". The Bill will do no such thing. The purpose of the Bill is to support the integrated sector, and it will, in its practical effect, add a further layer to education legislation in Northern Ireland — legislation that will take precedence over existing legislation.
The Department of Education already has a duty to:
"encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education".
It has the same duty towards the Irish-medium sector. It does not have a similar duty towards the controlled or maintained sector. The Bill would lift that duty further, creating a hierarchy in education in which the controlled and maintained sectors would be at the bottom of the pile. Clearly, the Bill will have a radical outworking in the education system in Northern Ireland. Such a change, as the Minister said, should be considered in a more holistic way and should be part of the independent review of education.
I put on record my real concern that the Bill has been allowed to proceed without an up-to-date consultation process. By the sponsor's own admission, the forerunner to the Bill was consulted on in 2016-17. It is now 2022. No Department would proceed with legislation of such import without, at the very least, updating its original consultation.
Clause 1 of the Bill looks at the definition of integrated education, and amendment Nos 1 to 9 deal specifically with that. The clause moves away from the current legal definition of integrated education and widens it with different social and economic criteria. Those criteria, however, could be applied to many schools. Figures provided to the Education Committee by the Controlled Schools' Support Council (CSSC) show that 61% of pupils in controlled schools are Protestant and 10% Catholic and that 39·5% of all newcomer pupils in Northern Ireland — that is, those who come to settle in Northern Ireland — attend controlled schools. That sector will not benefit from any of the provisions in the Bill that will be afforded to the integrated sector, yet it is perhaps more diverse and inclusive than many integrated schools.
Mr Lyttle: In the interests of good-natured debate, does the Member acknowledge that a percentage of the controlled schools to which she referred include controlled integrated schools?
Mrs Dodds: I do of course, and I will have something to say about that at a later stage, as the Chair of the Education Committee knows.
The House should reflect on this as well: interestingly, the figures given to us by the Controlled Schools' Support Council show that 28% of controlled school pupils are entitled to free school meals. That is an area that the House should focus on, and it is the area where the real inequalities in education arise: how those who rely on free school meals access education and how well they do in it.
Amendment No 5's proposed new subsection 2(a) is also problematic. It states:
"An 'integrated school' is a school which intentionally supports, protects and improves an ethos of diversity, respect and understanding between those of different cultures and religious beliefs and of none, between those of different socio-economic backgrounds and between those of different abilities".
While the Bill deals with the integrated sector, how are those not also features of the controlled, maintained and voluntary grammar sectors? To suggest otherwise is a slight on those who have taught for many years in all those sectors.
Amendment Nos 24, 25 and 26 deal with clause 6 of the Bill. In its original form, the Bill sponsor advances the requirement that education bodies, even CCMS, have to include:
"provision for integrated education when developing, adopting, implementing or revising policies, strategies and plans; and designing and delivering public services."
Amendment No 24, proposed by the Minister, clarifies that and would leave a general duty on the Department, but we need to take this amendment alongside amendment No 70, which gives us a support of the definition of "education bodies". This is the core of my argument: complex, radical change, as proposed in the Bill, is not and should not be taken forward by a private Member's Bill but should be given the proper considered debate that it deserves.
As I have said before, we all want to see a society that is more equitable, inclusive and respectful of diversity and that values everyone, no matter what their background. A truly settled and prosperous Northern Ireland will elevate those values. Will that be achieved by the Bill? Is this a panacea for educational underachievement? Will it tackle the inequalities in how education is accessed for certain members of our society? Sadly, it will not. The Bill will create a hierarchy of sectors in the education system in Northern Ireland. Over the period when the Bill has been discussed, I have met many different sectors in education, and there is profound disquiet that the definitions and purpose of the Bill will lead to further inequality and unfairness. The ethos of the Bill — that inclusivity in education can be delivered only in an integrated setting — is strongly contested by other sectors. In its evidence to the Committee, CCMS noted that Catholic schools are rooted in their local communities and that they are successful in building relationships and interacting with other schools, sectors and businesses.
Mrs Dodds: When I have made the point, certainly.
I have given the House figures on the diversity of the controlled sector; indeed, as the Chair of the Education Committee said, the controlled sector has the fastest-growing number of integrated schools in Northern Ireland.
I will, of course, give way.
Ms Armstrong: I ask the Member to point out where the Bill says that no other sector delivers diversity. The Bill is about integrated education; it is silent on other sectors.
Mrs Dodds: The implication is there, in many cases. When I talk to other sectoral bodies, they say that the Bill's implication is clearly that the most meaningful way of delivering diversity is only through an integrated education.
All of that leads me, in finishing, to ask this: why are parties in the House not looking at those aspects of the Bill?
Mrs Dodds: When I make a point.
Why are the SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist Party rushing to support a Bill that will treat around 90% of our school population in a different and unequal way? Surely our young people deserve better.
I will give way, but I want to make a final point. I cannot help but smile at the irony of Sinn Féin, through Pat Sheehan, talking about people coming together and tackling segregation. Mr Sheehan nearly needs to have a conversation with his party colleague from West Belfast, who wants there to be a segregated Irish language community at Queen's University with separate accommodation and separate facilities. That is not the way to encourage an inclusive Northern Ireland or to tackle sectarianism and division in our society.
Mr Butler: I thank the Member for giving way. I give her an opportunity to clarify and correct her remark about the comments that my party leader made in a video. He did not talk about the Integrated Education Bill or about integrated education. Will the Member reflect on the video that she spoke about?
Mrs Dodds: I have listened carefully to the video, and I know that the Member may have had a hand in providing some of the information for it.
Mrs Dodds: Maybe it would have been more appropriate if you had. [Laughter.]
To be fair to the Bill sponsor and those who support the Bill, I accept that it is about only one sector. I state clearly, however, that the Bill — I worry intensely about this — will set one sector against another. As we go through the amendments, I will point out where the Bill sets dangerous precedents and leaves behind other sectors that are important to parents and pupils and for the future of education in Northern Ireland. I will leave it there.
Mr McCrossan: As the SDLP's education spokesperson, I too welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill today. I add my appreciation to the Bill sponsor and her researchers, who have obviously put a lot of work into the Bill over the last number of years and have been extremely patient in engaging with parties on it. I share Mr Sheehan's sentiments that, at all junctures where we needed clarification, sought reassurance or expressed concern, the Bill sponsor was more than willing to engage and consider our concerns.
I affirm the SDLP's long-held support for integrated education. Since our foundation as a party, we have been committed to addressing all the inequalities and injustices faced by our divided society. It must be said that one of those inequalities is that, in the first month of 2022, we find ourselves educating our children according to their religion.
Most people whom you speak to in our society say that they would love to see children educated together and those barriers being eroded. It is simply not acceptable that —
Mrs Dodds: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he also agree that there is a right for parents to choose and that, while many parents say that they want children to be educated together, they make an active choice of a Catholic maintained school, a voluntary grammar or some other part of education, based on academic record? Does he agree that parental choice is an important part of our system?
Mr McCrossan: Absolutely, and I do not believe that the Bill does much to disturb that right. After considerable time spent on the Bill, we are satisfied that it does not undo parental choice. My parents made a decision when I was at a very young age that I would attend the local school. The decision was not that I would attend the local school because I was a Catholic or otherwise. I attended the local controlled school. I am a product of the controlled sector and have grown up, my entire life, knowing John or Sarah as John or Sarah; it did not matter what religion they came from. I was lucky to attend a school that naturally integrated children together, who then grew together. I saw the benefits of that in the controlled sector over many years. I do not think that the Bill undoes parental choice. At the end of the day, parents will make the decision that is in the best interests of their children, and that will not in any way be devalued by the Bill, although I understand why concern has been raised around that.
It is simply not acceptable that, in 2022, our young people are still segrega