Official Report: Tuesday 15 February 2022


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

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: Before commencing today's business, I advise Members that the Business Committee was advised last week that the Minister for the Economy would not be available to answer questions today, even though Members had submitted their questions and they had been published. The Business Committee has agreed to reschedule his Question Time, and it will now take place on Monday 21 February. Members who had been successful in the ballot were given the option of retaining their original question or submitting a new one.

Members' Statements

Mr Speaker: If Members wish to be called to make a statement, they should indicate that 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 their statements will not be subject to debate or questioning and that interventions should not be taken. I will not take points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.

Social and Affordable Housing: West Belfast

Ms Flynn: Building more social and affordable homes for workers and families is a priority. I was born and raised in social housing, like many people in our communities and many of my constituents. Everyone should have a safe and secure place to call home. We need to build more social and affordable homes in West Belfast, but we also need to improve and modernise existing homes.

Communities Minister, Deirdre Hargey, has a plan to build 100,000 social and affordable homes over the next 15 years. That will come alongside the biggest shake-up of housing in decades, which will see the Housing Executive being given the power to start building homes again. That is transformative and will make a huge difference to people's lives.

Sinn Féin has been to the fore in delivering social and affordable housing in my constituency of West Belfast. Large projects such as the Glenmona, Blacks Gate and Glen Road developments will see around 1,000 homes being built in the area. That will not only deliver much-needed homes but create new communities and services for the people of West Belfast.

In areas such as West Belfast, houses formerly owned by the Housing Executive are increasingly moving to private hands. As a result, many of the houses have fallen into disrepair, and there is no onus on private landlords to improve the conditions for renters.

One example is the Riverdale area, where vast amounts of housing was bought by a private company. In the ownership of that company, the condition of the houses deteriorated, but, thanks to ongoing lobbying by Sinn Féin, it has been possible to return those homes into public hands. As a result of that move, the tenants of Riverdale will see a £25 million investment that will transform and upgrade their homes to a decent home standard.

I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for Communities for her hard work and the dedication that she has shown by way of her focus on housing and her Private Tenancies Bill. The Minister will leave a lasting legacy of improving people's rights. I hope that, in the next mandate, we will build upon the foundations that she has laid so far and further progress the fundamental change that she has begun. That will make a massive difference to the lives of people in West Belfast and across the North.

Antrim Area Hospital

Mrs Cameron: A key issue that I have raised on a number of occasions, in the Chamber and at Committee, is the need for further investment at the Antrim Area Hospital. At the outset, I thank the Minister, the Department and the management of the Northern Health and Social Care Trust for their efforts in building business cases to greater develop facilities on the site. The new state-of-the-art mental health inpatient facility, for example, is in design stage and would be a huge boost to service provision. From responses that I have received from the Minister to questions for written answer, I am aware that the Northern Trust has also submitted a range of proposals as part of its recent capital planning review exercise. Those proposals include the development of a new women and children's unit, a permanent 48-bed ward and an ICU block, as well as the upgrade of the site's electrical infrastructure. All are much-needed projects.

It is a well-known fact that Antrim Area Hospital does not have enough beds and operates, consistently, over its established bed numbers. That can impact on patient safety and the quality of service that is provided to patients. Currently, patients can be delayed for many hours in the emergency department, waiting for a bed to be freed up in the hospital. The trust has developed a proposal to bring two modular wards on to the Antrim site, which would give the hospital another 48 badly needed beds, although that is only part of the overall capital investment that is required on the Antrim hospital site to meet current and future service demands.

I understand that the trust and the Department have been working through that business case, and I urge the Minister to ensure its rapid approval so that those beds can be delivered as quickly as possible to help to alleviate the considerable ongoing pressures and anxieties that are felt by patients and staff. We need to ensure that the required capacity is there to provide the best services possible for the public and that the hard-working staff in our trusts have the facilities that they require to enable them to deliver those services. Approval of the proposal for an additional 48 beds would be a significant step forward to achieving that.

Kilcoo GAC: All-Ireland Championship

Mr McGrath: I offer my congratulations to Kilcoo GAC on its historic win at the weekend as its senior team secured the AIB All-Ireland Senior Club Championship. That win is a testament to not only the team and management but the entire club, their family members and all in the community who have supported the team, stood with them all the way through the journey and dealt with the defeats of the past before they managed to secure this wonderful victory. It is a great recognition for the entire community in Kilcoo. Kilcoo GAC is synonymous with victory, but it is also synonymous with culture and providing a great resource in the local community in which everybody can be involved, play a part and be active.

In leading the club on Saturday, Mickey Moran showed the determination that a good leader needs to show, and it was evident that he had trust from the team. For those of us who were following the match, it did not look as if it was going to go the way of Kilcoo, until towards the end when they got the equaliser in the last few minutes, which brought them to extra time. I am sure that that had everybody in Croke Park on the edge of their seats, as it certainly had for everybody in the community of south Down.

Leadership, dealing with adversity and trying to overcome all the obstacles that exist are lessons that the House could take from Kilcoo as we try to make sure that we can stabilise and have a Government and Executive for the people.

I take the opportunity to congratulate the whole team on their win, to wish them well in their victory and to congratulate the club and the people of Kilcoo.

Ukraine

Dr Aiken: Events on the other side of Europe may seem far from the Assembly, but, in this interconnected and integrated world, the Russian pressure on the Ukraine will have and already is having a direct impact on us. With Russia positioning significant land, air and maritime forces on the borders and in the vicinity of Ukraine's sea and air lanes, the potential for major war on our continent is now very real. The energy crisis and the pushing of many of our most vulnerable people into fuel poverty is also a direct result of fears of a Russian invasion of its neighbour. That the threat of a hybrid conflict involving proxies in eastern Ukraine, Russian nationalists, cyberattacks, violence and more is being ramped up is unmistakable. The fact that the attack is on a precarious democracy seeking closer association with the EU, NATO and the West and will indeed disrupt energy supplies or worse should be a wake-up call for all European and Western allies to double down in responding to Putin's tactics. Instead, we have seen President Biden's misspeaking, the German Government's representative refusing to supply arms and suggestions by some that we should back off and show Putin some respect. As lessons from history show, following any policy of appeasement leads only to further and wider conflict. There is more than a whiff of Munich in the air. The only person who is drawing comfort from any of this is the occupier of the Kremlin.

Here in the Assembly we need to realise that not only has our nation already been directly attacked by Russia twice with chemical and radiological weapons but our health service and critical infrastructure has been under constant cyberattack, much of it by Russian hackers. We need to realise that our and, indeed, Ireland's energy security has already been challenged and that we are not immune from conflict on these islands. We should stand strongly with our Defence and Foreign Secretaries as they call for stronger action. Given that we hear so often from some quarters in the House about the benefits of the European Union, the European Union should be called on to act cohesively, for once, against Russian aggression. The mixed messaging from Paris, Berlin and Budapest does not send the resolute response that is needed. It is also notable that Russia has challenged the Irish to avoid calling for sanctions. Ireland appears to be driven by whatever the EU response is. Maybe, for once, Ireland, as a temporary member of the Security Council, can also take a strong leadership stance and encourage its fellow EU nations to realise that appeasing dictators never leads to good outcomes.

Anti-Semitic Hate Crime

Ms Bradshaw: In late January, I was shocked and appalled to learn that an individual had spray-painted anti-Semitic graffiti at Newforge Lane in my constituency, an area where people frequently walk. Actions like that have a heavy impact on our Jewish community, and I was saddened that such issues remain today. Thankfully, it was not just members of the Jewish community who contacted me about it but other right-thinking members of the public. I duly reported it, and I am grateful to Belfast City Council for promptly removing it. It is our moral duty to defend and support those who are victims of such shocking ignorance and prejudice. I heavily condemn those acts, and I extend my thoughts to all those who were affected by it.

Offering our thoughts will simply not cut it, however. Between 2020 and 2021, the PSNI investigated 39 hate crime incidents against the Jewish community. Six of those occurred in south Belfast. The issue is now far more prominent, and, unfortunately, it is still conspicuous in our communities. The consequence of such hatred is held closely to our hearts, particularly during Holocaust Memorial Day, the day on which the graffiti appeared. It should be a day when we remember the six million Jewish people who were subject to genocide in one of the most appalling atrocities in human history. It is more important than ever that we highlight the effects that such ignorance and hate have on our communities and realise that we have work to do to overcome them. Such acts only encourage conspiracy and hate.

My colleague the Justice Minister Naomi Long has recently outlined her vision for a new hate crime Bill, and I encourage everyone to participate in the public consultation, which closes on 22 March.

The Bill will pave the way for new, much-needed hate crime provisions that will protect victims to a much larger extent. Through the Bill's specifically defining acts of hate crime and the role of the perpetrator, victims will see better support and are ultimately more likely to see justice.


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That having been said, the main objective must be to stop hate crime occurring in the first place. Expressions of anti-Semitism, for example, have a grievous impact on a community that already feels vulnerable here. We must take responsibility for promoting, at every turn, awareness raising, compassion and, most importantly, respect. We must all resolutely support our local Jewish community and be clear that this is their home and that they are cherished here.

Air Quality in Northern Ireland

Miss Woods: My statement is on air quality in Northern Ireland, and I bring to Members' attention a recent publication that showed that officials knew for decades about the seriousness of air pollution in Belfast. We knew in the early 1990s that there was a major problem with air pollution and that emissions needed to be urgently addressed, yet, for over 20 years, it was somehow deemed acceptable that we did not have appropriate legislation in place to tackle it. Dr Gabriel Scally's public health report of 1993 described the air pollution in Belfast as "appalling".

It is not acceptable that we are still in this position. Air pollution costs lives and billions of pounds. It is the biggest environmental threat to health in the United Kingdom. Between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year are attributed to long-term exposure, and there is strong evidence that air pollution causes the development of coronary heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease and lung cancer and that it exacerbates asthma, yet we still have no air quality strategy for Northern Ireland.

We have smoke control zones that are not enforced, we have breaches of air quality management areas, and we are not monitoring enough. Particulate matter, which are the tiny particles that cause the most serious health problems, are derived from the burning of wood and oil and from industry and traffic. The WHO says that there is no safe level of exposure to particulate matter (PM) 2·5. It recommends guideline targets that limit the harm to human health, but our legal limit for PM2·5 is not as strict as the level recommended by the WHO; it is more than double that. Whilst other particulate matter, PM10, is monitored in North Down, at Holywood, PM2·5 is not, and we have no PM2·5 monitoring in Bangor.

Frequent exposure to high levels of nitrogen dioxide can cause increased acute respiratory illness, especially in children and those with asthma. We need indoor air quality monitoring too — that is barely referenced in the Department's public discussion document on a clean air strategy for Northern Ireland. In 2019, we in the Green Party did our own air quality monitoring across Belfast and north Down. We installed tubes that monitored nitrogen dioxide around key sites outside schools and health centres. The monitoring equipment was the same as that used by councils and the Department, and the results were independently tested. We did not want to identify breaches, but we did. We identified 28 breaches of national air quality objectives in Belfast and one in north Down. You would expect that to be in a town centre, but no; it was outside a bus stop frequently used by pupils who were going to a local school.

Dirty air does not always capture people's attention, because we cannot see it. That is not the case for everything that we breathe, and we breathe every second of every minute of every day, so we need widespread calls for action. We need to monitor more areas —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Miss Woods: — under stricter limits.

Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland: Human Rights

Mr Allister: Later today, the Assembly will debate matters touching upon human rights. There will be those who will have lots to say about that, but they will be the very people who have nothing to say about EU colonialism in Northern Ireland, which is presently the biggest travesty of political rights affecting Northern Ireland.

Colonialism is often vilified as that which involves the imposition on a people of the laws, ways of life and ethos of others, whereby they are imposed upon the object or the subject.

That, of course, is exactly the position that Northern Ireland is in under the protocol. Other people's laws — foreign laws that govern the foreign single market, foreign customs code and foreign VAT regime — under which the protocol puts us are imposed on Northern Ireland with no say, no right to quibble, nor any right to change or amend. It is the very personification of colonialism at its worst.

Here we have a situation in which, because we are in that foreign single market etc, subject to the foreign laws of that foreign market, overseen by a foreign court, the people of Northern Ireland, in all those aspects of our economy, are governed by laws that we do not make and cannot change. Yet, today, some will talk loudly about human rights but will be prepared to trample into the ground the right of the people of Northern Ireland to be governed by the laws that we make in our own nation. I want to call out the hypocrisy of that.

I hear talk about a landing zone for a settlement on the protocol. Any landing zone that keeps Northern Ireland in that position — subject to a foreign single market for goods, customs code and VAT regime — is not a landing zone that can deliver what we need. The ill-gotten sovereignty of the EU over Northern Ireland must be abandoned if the matter is ever to be progressed: nothing else will do.

University and College Union: Strike Action

Mr Carroll: This morning, I was proud to stand with the University and College Union (UCU) at Queen's University as the union began the first of 10 days of strike action. The strike is about a number of issues, but it is primarily about lecturers, higher education workers and teaching assistants pushing back against attacks on their terms and conditions. Pensions are being attacked and undermined by Universities UK, which will make retirement more difficult for current workers and future generations when they retire. The strike is also about the union's four fights, on which they took action last year around issues such as casualisation, the gender and racial pay gap and the disgraceful fact that staff are not paid for the work that they complete and the hours that they do. Institutions here are trying to hide behind this being a "national dispute", but some of them have hundreds of millions of pounds in reserve and have the power to act on terms and conditions without the need for national agreements. I call on Ulster University and Queen's University to make that happen. I also implore the Minister to act beyond words of regret about the action. He needs to intervene and ensure that those institutions step up.

It is not just about friends in UCU being on strike but about creating a momentum in society, with workers and unions being on the march and engaging in combative action to defend those ground down by poverty and inequality. We have a cost of living crisis, while the Executive implement below-inflation pay offers across the board. We have the biggest increase in energy prices in decades, while people are being left to the wolves. If UCU win the dispute, hundreds of thousands of workers will have improved conditions, and it will give confidence to workers and people who are ground down here to take on their employers and the Government.

I extend my solidarity to the UCU workers who are engaging in action today and in the weeks ahead.

Future Agricultural Policy

Mr McAleer: I take the opportunity to raise concerns about the future agricultural policy, the public consultation on which will close tomorrow. Farmers have been waiting anxiously to see what plans the Minister and the Department will put in place in the wake of Brexit and the loss of EU funding. One of the proposals in the future agricultural policy document is to increase the minimum claim size from the current 3 hectares to 10 hectares. We have concerns that that will have a serious impact on the less-favoured areas (LFAs) and areas of natural constraint (ANCs). We believe that it could have an impact on up to 5,000 small farms, effectively putting them out of business because they would then not be eligible for the proposed resilience payment, which is the successor to the single farm payment. That will be devastating for the businesses affected. Members from rural constituencies will know that one of the only ways to get planning permission in rural areas is to have access to an active farm business number. We believe that it could deprive rural areas of up to 5,000 planning permissions for domestic dwellings in the country every 10 years. That would have an knock-on impact on rural services such as schools and clubs.

Another aspect of the proposal that seriously concerns us is the absence of sheep support. There are no plans in the scheme for sheep support measures. That would leave us at a serious disadvantage compared with the South of Ireland, which has sheep support measures in its policies. The same is true of the area of natural constraint payment. No ANC payment is planned in the new policy. Again, we are seriously disadvantaged compared with the South of Ireland and the rest of the EU.

With regard to generational renewal, there are no concrete proposals for a replacement for the young farmers' scheme. The policy also refers to the historical reference period for getting quotas; however, if you are a new entrant or a young farmer, you may not have that historical reference period, which disadvantages you.

On the role of women, we discovered through a recent AERA Committee inquiry that only 5% of businesses have a woman as the principal farmer. That is a very bad statistic and one that we need to redress. Future agricultural policy should have a role in redressing it, but it has, so far, fallen short.

Concerns have been raised with us that cattle imported from the South may not be eligible for suckler payment. That could impact on the quality of the suckler herd in the North. We also have concerns that, if the South were to refuse to take sheep from the North, that could subsequently impact on the sheep trade. For us, the South and the rest of the EU is the biggest market.

I am disappointed that the Minister did not agree to my requests for an extension to the consultation period. There was only a six-week consultation period, which opened two days before Christmas, when people were distracted by the festive period. I encourage farmers and rural communities to respond to the consultation by —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr McAleer: — tomorrow's deadline.

Fuel Poverty

Mr Frew: I remind the House that our people are being affected by not only high levels of fuel poverty but increases in the general cost of living. People have died over the last number of months, and people die every year because of this issue. We do not take it seriously enough, nor do the Departments. The Department for Communities is responsible for fuel poverty. I do not suggest that everything rests on that Department; there should be a more rounded approach.

Two schemes have been pushed through to help people in fuel poverty. One is for people in crisis. By that stage, in many cases, the damage will already have been done in other factors of their life, including their health, welfare and fitness. The other scheme is for people who qualify through other benefits, and that is a way of catching those people. I understand that that is a slick way of doing things, but there is a swathe of people who work hard, are just about managing and cannot afford to heat their homes. This is about the price of electricity and gas, and those people have to make tough choices.

I note the moves in England by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on rates relief. Some £150 million is coming to us to assist with the issue, and it strikes me that rates relief is a good, sensible way of getting money across the board to assist everyone in that situation. I hope that the Minister of Finance and the Minister for Communities will look at that seriously and sensibly and will try to get that money on the ground as soon as possible.

Fuel poverty is already causing demographic change in my constituency. The rising price of gas means that young people who are fortunate enough to own their home are considering moving back home with their parents and renting out their property. That will have a catastrophic effect on not only those directly affected but society. We need to make sure that we cut this off at the pass, probably for the first time in our history, and get support on the ground as quickly as possible.


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Daisy Hill Hospital

Mr McNulty: I wish to speak in support of Daisy Hill Hospital. On 20 January, the Southern Trust announced the withdrawal of emergency surgery from Daisy Hill. That has come as a sore blow and has brought a degree of fear to the people I represent, as we are faced, once again, with an attempt to dilute services at our hospital.

I am fully committed to health service transformation and the need to rationalise our health service. I will refer to a paper that was published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine on 21 May 2021. That study demonstrates that time is associated with all-cause 30-day mortality for patients who remain in emergency departments for more than five hours after their time of arrival. One extra death occurs for every 82 patients who are delayed for more than six to eight hours.

I am open about the fact that I am speaking on behalf of not just the people I represent but the medical staff at Daisy Hill who have come to me confidentially with their concerns about the impact of the proposals on Daisy Hill and on patient safety. I feel humbled by the trust that they have placed in me, and I feel a sense of responsibility to represent their views and concerns. They have reminded me that the median waiting time, which was published last week, for admission to Craigavon Area Hospital is 14 hours and 24 minutes. They pointed to the fact that approximately 40 patients per day are admitted to Craigavon Area Hospital. Their bottom line was that that median wait time, when combined with the finding that one death occurs for every 82 patients who are delayed in emergency departments for more than six to eight hours, means that, every two days, a patient who would have survived if they had been on the ward will die in Craigavon hospital's emergency department. How will redirecting patients from Daisy Hill to Craigavon do anything but add further pressure to Craigavon hospital?

Patient safety has been cited as a central consideration for the trust in deciding to withdraw emergency surgery from Daisy Hill. The argument is that Daisy Hill cannot offer a safe surgical service and that, consequently, the service will be consolidated at Craigavon. By its own admission, the trust has said that that will result in an increased demand for ambulance transport. Diverting to Craigavon's emergency department those ambulance patients who have problems that might require surgery will increase the burden on the Ambulance Service and on Craigavon's emergency department. How does putting further pressure on the Ambulance Service increase patient safety for a child in Kilkeel who is having a prolonged seizure? What about the safety of vulnerable elderly patients in Cullaville for whom surgery is not required but who, due to the nature of their illness, should be looked after by a surgical team?

Daisy Hill Hospital has been treated like it is located at the end of the world. Well, I have news for some of the establishment thinkers: the world does not end at Newry. Daisy Hill is primely and centrally located on the eastern seaboard in order to serve the wider hinterland of the border regions of Armagh, Down, Louth, Monaghan and Cavan. In view of that, I have had a constructive engagement with the Department of Health in the Republic, and the Minister there has expressed a willingness to work with the Minister up here in order to solve those issues. Can the Minister work with him? There has been too much of people saying, "Last to get, first to lose", and we are sick of it.

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr McNulty: The Minister needs to work with the Health Minister in the South to solve those issues on a cross-border —

Mr Speaker: The Member's time is up.

Mr McNulty: — and rational basis.

Apology to Victims and Survivors of Historical Institutional Abuse

Mr Nesbitt: I wish to discuss the proposed — correction: the promised — apology to the victims and survivors of historical and institutional abuse.

It was on 20 January 2017, at the conclusion of his public inquiry, that Sir Anthony Hart published his report. One of his recommendations was that the victims and survivors deserve an apology. It took another five years to the day before the Executive announced that that apology would be made next month, on 11 March. That apology is now in doubt through the lack of a First Minister and deputy First Minister.

There is a workaround. There is a precedent, going back a few years, when, during the hiatus when there was no Executive, the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU), of all things, was bidding to host the Rugby World Cup. At a certain point, it needed the Executive to sign off on certain assurances. Without the Executive, the head of the Civil Service came to the leaders of the five parties that were entitled to be at the Executive and encouraged them to sign a letter saying to the effect of, "We are entitled to be in the Executive, and if we were and it was meeting, we would sign to underwrite the financial guarantees". The same thing can happen with the five party leaders today in order to ensure that the apology is made on 11 March. On 11 March, they can stand shoulder to shoulder with the remaining Executive Ministers, and possibly even the Secretary of State, and make an apology, at an appropriate time, that is essential to the mental health and well-being of those people who suffered physically, mentally and emotionally through no fault of their own.

I am reminded of the words of Charles Dickens, writing in 'Great Expectations'. He speaks of memorable days in people's lives, by which he means a day that shapes the rest of your life and wraps you in a chain, sometimes of glorious roses but sometimes of thorns. The victims and survivors of institutional abuse have been wrapped in chains of thorns for their long and brutalised lives. Here is an opportunity to do something that will mean the whole world to some of those victims and survivors. They do not want money or help; they simply want somebody to say, "Sorry. You were hurt through no fault of your own, and that has impacted the rest of your lives". I encourage the five leaders of the Executive parties to come together and make the apology that the victims deserve.

Assembly Business

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 14 February 2022. — [Mr O'Dowd.]

Mr Speaker: Members, please take your ease for a moment or two.

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

Executive Committee Business

General Teaching Council (Directions) Bill: First Stage

Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education): I beg to introduce the General Teaching Council (Directions) Bill [NIA 54/17-22], which is a Bill to empower the Department of Education to give binding directions to the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call the Minister of Education, Miss Michelle McIlveen, to move the Consideration Stage of the School Age Bill.

Moved. — [Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendment has been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single amendment, which deals with review. I remind Members that, once the debate on the amendment is completed, the Question on the amendment and the clause stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we will proceed.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): We now come to the amendment for debate. I call the Minister of Education to move the amendment.

Miss McIlveen (The Minister of Education): I beg to move the following amendment:

After clause 2 insert—

"Review
 
2A.—(1) The Department of Education must, before the fifth anniversary of the commencement of this Act, review and make a report on the effectiveness of the definition of ‘deferred case’ contained in the amendment made by section 1(2).
 
(2) The Department must lay a copy of the report before the Assembly."

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I invite the Minister to open the debate. I remind Members that there is no time limit on the debate, as we are dealing with legislation.

Miss McIlveen: I am pleased to introduce the amendment, which will insert a review clause into the School Age Bill. It states:

"The Department of Education must, before the fifth anniversary of the commencement of this Act, review and make a report on the effectiveness of the definition of 'deferred case'".

The Department must also:

"lay a copy of the report before the Assembly."

It is an extremely important amendment, committing to a review of primary legislation.

At Second Stage, some Members commented on what they perceived to be the relatively narrow nature of the Bill. That is a totally mistaken description. My Bill represents the biggest change in our approach to the school starting age in a generation. A "deferred case" is defined in the Bill as a person who turns four between 1 April and 1 July and who does not start full-time education until the age of five. That provides flexibility to children born between 1 April and 1 July, as they will be able to commence primary education in the September following their fourth birthday or defer entry to primary school until the September following their fifth birthday. The Bill also ensures that children who defer do not reach the lower limit of compulsory school age until after their fifth birthday, which removes the requirement to provide home education for them in the year before they start primary school.

The Bill amends the definition of the upper limit of compulsory school age so that children who defer will continue to receive 12 years of education and will not be able to leave school at the end of year 11, midway through their qualification courses. It is crucial that we ensure that no child is denied the right to complete important qualifications that will impact directly on their life chances in adult years. As I noted earlier, some Members commented on what they perceived to be the relatively narrow choice in, and nature of, the Bill. Giving real choice, however, to the parents of the many thousands of children born in April, May and June each year is in no way narrow or limited reform. Rather, it is unprecedented in its scale and scope. The parent of every young-for-year child in Northern Ireland will have the automatic right of deferral of preschool and primary school for their child. That is one of the most wide-ranging and progressive approaches internationally, and one that is firmly based on the evidence around attainment for young-for-year children.

I also take this opportunity to respond to the comments of some Members at Second Stage as to why deferral was not being extended to children with special educational needs. I remind Members that, under current legislation, children with a statement of special educational needs are already permitted to defer primary school through the policy of overage retention, which permits a second year of preschool, if that is the most appropriate educational approach for their unique educational needs.

At Second Stage, a number of Members also mentioned deferral for children who were born prematurely. I emphasise that my Bill permits deferral for every premature child who is also young for the year. In recent days, however, I have held discussions with TinyLife and others, and they have also made the case for premature children who would have been young for the year if born at term. Those are children who, owing to their prematurity, are born between December and March but had been due to be born between April and June, or even in the summer months, if born at term. Advocates have noted particularly the case of children born at 24 or 25 weeks in late March.


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I have been impressed with those arguments. That is why my officials have worked with the Office of the Legislative Counsel to prepare an amendment that will extend the definition of young-for-year children to those who would have been born between 1 April and 1 July, or, indeed, later except for their premature birth. Subject to the satisfactory completion of this stage, I will table that amendment for the Further Consideration Stage immediately after this debate. That approach enshrines fairness and equity, as it means that no child is further disadvantaged and excluded from the young-for-year category due to their prematurity. It focuses on the expected birth date and whether they would have fallen in the young-for-year category if they had been born at term.

In a small number of cases, there will be very premature babies who were born in late March and would have been part of a younger chronological year group had they been born at term. The amendment that I will table at Further Consideration Stage will reflect an approach that representatives of premature children have advocated for many years; one that is based on expected birth date. No longer will any child in Northern Ireland be required to start school a year earlier due to their premature birth. That is very much in line with the evidence around the double disadvantage of being both premature and young for year, and with the broader intent —

Mr Delargy: I thank the Minister for giving way. On that point of clarification, I am really glad that that will start in September. Can you confirm whether the parents of children who are currently in preschool or nursery will be able to apply for another paid year of preschool or nursery for their children?

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his intervention. I will return to that issue in my remarks, but, to clarify, yes, that will be the case.

The intent is to avoid a situation where children who are separated in age by almost two chronological years are educated in the same school class. The legislation will give Northern Ireland one of the most progressive and evidence-based approaches in the world.

With regard to preschool, the Bill also amends the regulations to facilitate deferral of preschool education. That means that children who are born between 1 April and 1 July will be prioritised for admission to preschool, either in the year after their third birthday, as is the case now, or, alternatively, if their parents choose to defer preschool admission, in the school year following their fourth birthday.

Preschool is an important stage of early education, with many benefits to long-term educational outcomes. It provides a rich variety of challenging play-based learning activities in a stimulating environment, and helps to prepare children for primary school. The Bill's provisions will ensure that children who defer have the benefit of a high-quality preschool experience in their immediate preschool year prior to starting primary school. I have heard from many parents of young-for-year children who do not want their children to start preschool until the year after their fourth birthday. Parents will, therefore, usually decide to defer prior to preschool, with the child then starting preschool following their fourth birthday and primary school after their fifth birthday. That provides important continuity between preschool and primary school.

However, I wish to clarify for Members that I recognise that some parents will have concerns about their child starting primary school only once they have begun attending preschool. Deferral will be available for those children. Young-for-year children who are enrolled in preschool will also be able to apply for a second funded year of preschool. However, they will not be prioritised above the target-age children who are applying for a first year of preschool. That will ensure that all children have equitable access to preschool provision and that my Department can continue to provide a year of high-quality funded preschool education for every child whose parents want it.

Some parents of young-for-year children who are currently attending preschool and are due to commence primary school in September 2022 are particularly anxious. I confirm that, subject to the Bill receiving Royal Assent, those parents will be able to apply at second stage for a funded preschool place for September.
Turning to the review as proposed by the amendment, I emphasise that it will ensure that our policy with regard to school starting age remains effective and up to date, taking account of all emerging research in that area. I wish to formally record for the Assembly my clear intention that that will be a wide-ranging review to consider whether deferral should be further extended to children who are not young for year, including all premature children, multiple-birth children and children who are looked after, or done on the basis of an assessment of exceptional need.

The review will be led by a senior official in my Department and will include consideration of the views of parents and all key stakeholders and interest groups. I fully expect that work on the review will commence well in advance of the fifth anniversary of the Act and that full consideration will be given to all future options in the best interests of our children.

I also wish to explain the proposed time frames to Members. My revised policy on school starting age commits to putting in place effective monitoring arrangements that will inform evaluation of the effectiveness of the current proposed changes and any need for further intervention. That will include a detailed independent research study to examine the impact of the Bill on young-for-year children who defer and those who do not.

There needs to be an opportunity to consider the experiences of those children through preschool, the Foundation Stage and into Key Stage 1. That will provide a robust evidence base on the impact of the policy in our system. The experience of pupils in our education system must be an integral element of the review. The proposed review amendment provides that a firm commitment to active review is enshrined not only in my Department's policy but in law. I trust that Members will support the amendment.

Mr Lyttle (The Chairperson of the Committee for Education): I thank the Minister for her remarks. The Education Committee has supported deferred school starting age for a considerable number of years and, as such, welcomes progress on this important provision.

I raised the matter of deferred school start age in my first-day meeting with Education Minister McIlveen, and I welcome the work that she has done to achieve the provision before the end of the mandate. The Education Committee accepted that an exceptional and accelerated approach would be the only way to achieve the legislative reform in this mandate. For those reasons, the Education Committee has played a constructive role to progress the Bill by engaging with the Minister, departmental officials and key stakeholders and by making proposals for amendments that would enhance provisions in the Bill, such as the inclusion of prematurity as a ground for deferred school start age.

We look forward to debating that amendment at Further Consideration Stage, and also the legislative duty to review the operation of the legislation and to report to the Assembly on the effectiveness of its provisions. As such, we welcome the amendment in that regard that is being proposed today.

The new law to permit a deferred school start for children born in April, May or June or, we hope, further to Further Consideration Stage, prematurely, is overdue, but it is the right thing to do. It is significant legislative reform that will provide children born in those circumstances with the option to defer their school start age to help their education and developmental pathway. It is a good example of how an Education Minister, an Education Committee Chair, Deputy Chair, Committee members and key stakeholders can work together to deliver law that will make a positive difference to the lives of children and families in Northern Ireland.

Some matters will need further review, such as the operation of that funded second year of preschool and, indeed, special educational needs provision, but we welcome the provisions that have been made in the Bill for in-depth, expert review of those matters. I therefore thank the Minister and officials for the opportunity to work together on this important matter. We do not always agree on everything, but I hope that the next Assembly will see more examples of this positive endeavour on behalf of families in Northern Ireland.

In closing, I pay tribute to Belfast Mum, TinyLife and Early Years, who led much of the campaigning and informing on this vital issue.

Ms Brogan: First, I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate this afternoon. I am pleased that the Assembly has granted accelerated passage for the Bill. Whilst it would be preferable for the legislation to have gone through Committee Stage and to have had in-depth scrutiny, in these circumstances, because we are so close to the end of the mandate and because the legislative change will have a real-life impact on so many young people and their families, it was important that there was no delay to bringing it forward.

When I became an MLA, one of my first meetings was with an organisation that was battling to ensure that there was flexibility with the school starting age. I am pleased for that organisation and the many advocates who have worked hard to bring this change into law, including Belfast Mum, who I have also met. Belfast Mum has been instrumental in bringing the issue into focus and highlighting the need for legislative change. I am pleased for those organisations that this legislation is progressing.

The Bill is certainly a welcome first step in creating the necessary flexibility for parents and children starting their journey through education. The Bill provides an option for the parents of children who, under the current legislation, would be the youngest in the class to defer starting school for a year. There is evidence that some young-for-year children carry a disadvantage for exam grades, but that is not the case across the board. The Bill allows parents to assess their child's readiness for school if they fall into that young-for-year category. Children born prematurely or those with developmental delay who fall into the young-for-year category will also be able to start school a year later. It also means that preschool placement can be deferred for a year to ensure a smooth transfer to primary school.

The Bill also protects a child's right to 12 years of education, regardless of deferral, so children who start late can continue at school beyond the age of 16. I am glad that the Minister has proposed an amendment to review the effectiveness of the definition of "deferred case", which will allow any evidence to support the widening of the option of deferral beyond young-for-year children to be gathered and considered. I also welcome the amendment that the Minister is due to table for the Further Consideration Stage, which will allow babies who were due to be born between 1 April and 1 July but were born prematurely to be included in the legislation. I thank the Minister for that.

I am happy to support this legislation's passing through to the next stage of the process.

Mrs Dodds: First, I place on record our thanks to the Minister for introducing this legislation. As the Chair of the Committee has said, it is a good example of the Minister and the Committee working together to progress things that are good for our children. However, I will also add that it is an example of a Minister who has listened and acted as quickly as possible. We thank the Minister for that.

I also place on record our support for the Bill and for the amendment, which allows for review and report. The Bill will have a big impact on children and families in Northern Ireland, and, as the Minister said, it provides real choice for parents of children who are young for year. Currently, Northern Ireland is unusual in that we have no flexibility for those children who are due to start school. This Bill will bring welcome changes and will not just bring us into line with the other nations of the United Kingdom but give us the most progressive, evidence-based position of all the four nations.

Parents often find that children who are born in the latter part of the qualifying period are immature and not prepared for school. The Bill will address the issues of children who are young for year. I am also glad that the Minister has clarified that the Bill already addresses the issue of children who are born prematurely and who are also young for year. A further amendment at the Further Consideration Stage will deal with those who are born very prematurely before April but whose expected birth date would have been within that period. Those are important changes for families.

The first clause of the Bill deals with the circumstances and terms of deferral. Currently, children who turn four on or before 1 July reach compulsory school age at the beginning of September that year. Children who turn four between 2 July and 31 August do not reach compulsory school age until the following year, when they are five years old. That means that the youngest children in the year start primary school aged four years and two months, while the oldest start at five years and two months. The law also states that, if a parent whose child has reached the compulsory age is not sent to school, then the child's parents are responsible for the child's education. Clearly, not a practical option for most parents or children.


1.00 pm

The Bill will allow children born between 1 April and 1 July to commence primary education in the September following their fourth birthday or to defer entry to primary school until the September following their fifth birthday. The Bill will also change the upper limit of compulsory school age for children who defer entry to primary school, ensuring that they receive 12 years of compulsory education like all other children. The Bill will ensure that children who defer will receive preschool education in the year following their fourth birthday. I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that the Bill will be operational in September this year and that children who avail themselves of the change this year will still be able to attend preschool provision.

The Foundation Stage of the Northern Ireland curriculum, where children learn through play, provides flexibility to meet a range of abilities. It is adaptable and appropriate for the vast majority of children, even those who are young for year. Nevertheless, for a small group of children, it is appropriate for them to have a little longer before the commencement of formal education. While many young-for-year pupils do well in their initial year at school, there is much research to say that children born later in the academic year have a more difficult time in starting their education. That gap, of course, narrows as children get older but can still be a factor at later school age. The decision to defer is rightly placed with the parents, who can make the right judgements about their children.

I am pleased that the Minister has clarified that her amendment to review and report, which we welcome, will ensure that the Bill remains relevant, is effective and allows for any further follow-ups and additions to the policy, as deemed necessary. I am pleased that there is consensus in the House about the need for the Bill, and I assure the Minister of our support as she works to ensure its passage.

Mr Butler: Today is a good day. We are not getting the Bill right through at this stage, but today is a good day, because the Minister brings to Consideration Stage a valuable Bill that will be life-changing for some young children and families. Fair play to the Minister. Later, Minister Swann will bring the Adoption and Children Bill. Hopefully, that will give the people out there who are listening today some hope that these institutions have serious value and that, when we debate and progress legislation, we can change people's lives. I hope that politicians are also listening to that today.

Mr McNulty: I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member agree that the crucial contribution from Belfast Mum, as has been mentioned a few times already, has been amazing and that we have to pay tribute to their determination, their ferocity and their commitment to the issue?

Mr Butler: Absolutely. I am sure that Belfast Mum's cheeks will be red. She has been relentless over this past while. It is not just Belfast Mum; it is Tiny Life and Alison McNulty. I pay tribute to a Lagan Valley constituent who has been bending my ear for some time, Rosalind Bloomfield. She will similarly be embarrassed.

Minister, credit to you for introducing the Bill and for the manner in which you did so. In a previous debate, we touched on the fact that accelerated passage is not normally appropriate, but, in this instance, it absolutely is. I accept your position on the Bill's ambition and some of the things that have been set aside. I recognise the amendment that you have tabled for today, working with the Education Committee. That brings serious value and gives a safeguard to measure the terminology that is used and the effectiveness, and the time frame is absolutely right.

I am glad that you have allowed us the opportunity to talk about the potential for further amendments at Further Consideration Stage. From my perspective, I have been passionate about the issue, in particular, with regard to premature babies. Studies have said multiple things, but having provision in the Bill that allows us to empower parents, perhaps in conjunction with professionals, to avail themselves of a facility is something that we need to be excited about. I sincerely hope that, in the near future — it is not within the scope of this Bill — we can look at the ambition and perhaps expansion of the Bill to build on the things around SEN and the second funded year. It is not in our gift at the moment, budgets are constrained, and we have lots of things to think about.

I welcome the amendment and the Bill. I look forward to its getting on the statute book. Thank you, Minister.

Mr Newton: I support the Bill and the amendment. I thank the Minister. During a previous debate, the Minister promised that she had taken note of some of the queries that were raised. I thank her for her prompt action in tabling the amendment on a review and for the her words, which provided a detailed outline of how the review will be carried out, the approach and the methodology that she will use and the need for it to be carried out by a senior member of her Department. All that is extremely welcome news.

Others have said it, but it is worth repeating that it is clear that children who are born prematurely need additional support and intervention in the education system. I am pleased that the Minister has recognised the need to increase the awareness, understanding and support across the education system for the particular needs of premature children and that the Department aims to ensure that all our children receive appropriate support during their early years — Mrs Dodds referred to that — and that children with additional needs or disabilities who are at greatest risk of poor longer-term outcomes receive additional support at the earliest opportunity.

The Minister indicated that she had had 755 responses to her consultation. The largest number was from parents. It was mentioned during a previous debate that the Bill has been driven from the grassroots — from parents and from organisations made up of parents and concerned about children. It has been a grassroots-driven initiative to which the Minister has responded. Indeed, it is worthy of mention that, of those who responded, 93% strongly agreed that there should be more flexibility in our education system for some children to defer school starting age; 90% strongly agreed or agreed that deferral should be available on parental request to any young child born between April and July; 75% strongly agreed or agreed that, in most cases, applications for deferral should be made at the usual time of applying for preschool; 75% strongly agreed or agreed that children who defer should receive one year of government-funded preschool in the same manner as other children in the year group; and 86% thought that deferral should also be available for premature children who are not young for year. Seeing such a positive response, such initiative and the Minister and the Department responding in such a way speaks well for the future of the Bill and our children's education.

A multifaceted win has been created. It is a win for the child or the pupil, who will get the best possible start to their education. It is a win for the parents, because the Bill will provide the additional early years support and address the issue of supporting the child or pupil in their development. It is a win for the Minister and the Department, which responded so positively to parental concerns; indeed, they supported those concerns by introducing the legislation. It is a win in that the implementation of the legislation will be based on best practice in other jurisdictions, learning from experience elsewhere, and it is a win in that the amendment provides the opportunity to improve the legislation on the basis of what will be experienced and learned from its operation.

It is not often that something of such good value comes to the House. It is good value in that the explanatory and financial memorandum tells us that the Bill can be implemented with limited financial implications. This is a good day, as others have said. This is a good day for the Assembly, for parents and for the education of children who were born prematurely.

Miss McIlveen: In concluding the debate, I thank all Members who spoke to this important amendment. I also thank them for their supportive remarks. It is clear that there is widespread consensus on the need for greater flexibility for young-for-year children. My Bill provides a unique opportunity to benefit our children. No longer will there be a one-size-fits-all approach to starting school; rather, parents will decide the right approach for their child.

All young-for-year children and all those born prematurely who would have been young-for-year if born at term will have the option of deferral. The Bill will give them time to play, to flourish and to start school at the best possible time for them. My Bill will sit alongside other important Bills passed in recent days as a valuable legacy of the work of the Assembly on behalf of society.

I emphasise that the proposed review amendment will ensure that the scope and nature of our approach to school starting age are kept under active review by the Department of Education. Prior to my taking office, many parents and stakeholders had lobbied on the issue for a significant number of years. The amendment means that a firm commitment to active review is enshrined not only in my Department's policy commitments but in law. The Department will review all new evidence, including, most importantly, evidence on the impact of deferral in our education system. I commend this important amendment to the House.

Amendment agreed to.

New clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That concludes the Consideration Stage of the School Age Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker. As Further Consideration Stage is scheduled for Monday 21 February, I highlight to Members that the deadline for amendments is 9.30 am on Wednesday, so there is a limited period for any further amendments. I just wanted to draw that to your attention.

I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.


1.15 pm

Adoption and Children Bill: Consideration Stage

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call the Minister of Health, Robin Swann, to move the Consideration Stage of the Bill.

Moved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I advise Members that, when the Bill was introduced, the front cover had a reference to section 63 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. That was affixed in error and will be removed from the Bill when it is reprinted after Consideration Stage.

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 three groups of amendments, and we will debate the amendments in each group in turn.

The first debate will be on amendment Nos 1 to 2, 22 to 46 and 48 to 60, which deal with review, regulations and consequential matters. The second debate will be on amendment Nos 3 to 13 and amendment No 47, which deal with access to support services and disclosure of information. The third debate will be on amendment Nos 14 to 21, which deal with Children Order amendments and opposition to clause 143 stand part.

I remind Members who intend to speak during the debates on the three groups of amendments that they should address all 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. If that is clear, we will proceed. I remind Members that there are no time limits.

No amendments have been tabled to clauses 1 and 2. I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group those clauses for the Question on stand part.

Clauses 1 and 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): We now come to the first group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2, 22 to 46 and 48 to 60. Members may wish to note that amendment No 58 is a paving amendment to amendment No 59. In this group, amendment No 60 is consequential to amendment No 52. I call the Minister of Health to move amendment No 1 and to address the other amendments in the group.

Clause 3 (Adoption authority)

Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): I beg to move amendment No 1:

In page 4, line 6, leave out from "are" to end of line 7 and insert—

"are to its operational area as specified under paragraph 3A of Schedule 3 to the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1991."

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In page 4, line 9, leave out subsection (5). — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 22: In clause 144, page 89, line 10, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 23: In clause 144, page 89, line 36, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 24: In clause 145, page 89, line 39, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 25: In clause 145, page 89, line 40, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 26: In clause 145, page 90, line 3, leave out "Regional Board’s" and insert "Department’s". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 27: In clause 145, page 90, line 5, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 28: In clause 145, page 90, line 6, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 29: In clause 145, page 90, line 8, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 30: In clause 145, page 90, line 9, leave out subsection (4). — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 31: In clause 146, page 90, line 20, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 32: In clause 146, page 90, line 21, leave out subsection (3). — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 33: In clause 147, page 90, line 25, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 34: In clause 147, page 90, line 27, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 35: In clause 147, page 90, line 36, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 36: In clause 147, page 90, line 37, leave out from "Regional" to "Board" in line 38 and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 37: In clause 148, page 91, line 10, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 38: In clause 148, page 91, line 28, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 39: In clause 148, page 91, line 34, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 40: In clause 148, page 91, line 38, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 41: In clause 149, page 92, line 19, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 42: In clause 150, page 92, line 40, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 43: In clause 155, page 94, line 18, at end insert—

"(aa) section 9 which include provision made under section 42;". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 44: In clause 155, page 94, line 20, leave out "or 148" and insert ", 148, 149 or 150". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 45: After clause 157 insert—

"Review
 
157A.—(1) The Department must review and make a report on the implementation of each provision of Part 1 and of each provision of Part 2—

(a) as soon as practicable after the third anniversary of the commencement of that provision; and

(b) at least once in every five years after the making of the previous report on the implementation of that provision.
 
(2) The Department must—

(a) lay a copy of each report under this section before the Assembly; and

(b) having done that, publish the report.
 
(3) The Department may by regulations provide that subsections (1) and (2) are to cease to have effect on the date specified; but the regulations may not specify a date which is earlier than the tenth anniversary of this Act receiving Royal Assent.
 
(4) Regulations under this section are subject to negative resolution." — [Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health).]

No 46: In clause 158, page 97, leave out line 14. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 48: In schedule 3, page 107, line 32, at end insert—

"The Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1991
 
14A. In Article 10A (definition of ‘social care and children functions’), in paragraph (1)(e), for ‘Adoption (Northern Ireland) Order 1987’ substitute ‘Adoption and Children Act (Northern Ireland) 2021’." — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 49: In schedule 3, page 117, line 33, leave out from "for" to "appropriate" on line 35 and insert—

"for the words from ‘or an’ to the end of the paragraph substitute ‘or an appropriate’". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 50: In schedule 3, page 117, line 37, leave out from "for" to "appropriate" on line 39 and insert—

"for the words from ‘or an’ to ‘(N.I.22)’ substitute ‘or an appropriate’". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 51: In schedule 3, page 120, line 4, at end insert—

"65A. In Schedule 2 (civil legal services: excluded services), in paragraph 6, at the end insert ‘or the Adoption and Children Act (Northern Ireland) 2021’." — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 52: In schedule 3, page 121, line 36, at end insert—

"The Health and Social Care Act (Northern Ireland) 2022
 
77A.—(1) Schedule 1 (transfer of the Regional Board’s functions) is amended as follows.
 
(2) Omit paragraphs 102 to 120.
 
(3) Omit paragraph 193(2)(b) and (3)(b).
 
(4) Omit paragraph 195(2)." — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 53: In schedule 4, page 133, line 29, leave out "or the Regional Board". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 54: In schedule 4, page 133, line 31, leave out "or the Board". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 55: In schedule 4, page 133, line 34, leave out from "or" to "Board" in line 35. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 56: In schedule 4, page 133, line 38, leave out "or the Board". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 57: In schedule 4, page 133, line 41, leave out "or the Board". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 58: In schedule 4, page 135, line 29, at end insert—

"The Adoption (Hague Convention) Act (Northern Ireland) 1969
 
7A.—(1) Despite the repeal of the Adoption (Hague Convention) Act (Northern Ireland) 1969 (‘the 1969 Act’) the following provisions of that Act continue to have effect—

(a) section 5(1) (recognition of foreign determinations) so far as it applies to a determination made by an authority of any British territory outside the United Kingdom in respect of a convention adoption order and to which subsection (1)(b) of that section applies,

(b) in section 6 (annulment etc.)—

(i) subsection (1) so far as it applies to convention adoption orders, and

(ii) subsections (3) and (4) so far as they apply to determinations,

(c)in section 8 (registration)—

(i) subsection (3) so far as it applies to convention adoption orders or any entry or mark erroneously made in pursuance of subsection (2) of that section, and

(ii) subsection (4).

 
(2) Despite the repeal of the 1969 Act, the following provisions of that Act continue to have effect so far as they are necessary for the purposes of sub-paragraph (1)—

(a) section 7 (provisions supplemental to section 6),

(b) section 9 (nationality),

(c) section 10 (supplemental),

(d) section 11 (rules),

(e) section 12 (interpretation).
 
(3) In this paragraph—
‘the 1969 Act’ means the Adoption (Hague Convention) Act (Northern Ireland) 1969,
‘convention adoption order’ means an order under Article 12(1) of the Adoption (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 made in accordance with section 1(1) of the 1969 Act,
‘determination’ means a determination that has effect by virtue of section 5(1) of the 1969 Act." — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 59: In schedule 5, page 136, line 5, at end insert—
"







The Adoption (Hague Convention) Act (Northern Ireland) 1969

The whole Act.
 

 
". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 60: In schedule 5, page 138, line 38, at end insert—

"







The Health and Social Care Act (Northern Ireland) 2022

In Schedule 1, paragraphs 102 to 120, paragraph 193(2)(b) and (3)(b), and paragraph 195(2).
 

 
". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

Mr Swann: Mr Deputy Speaker, I am pleased to be able to open the debate and move amendment No 1. I thank you for permitting me to do so remotely, not least because the Bill has been long-awaited by all who are involved in the adoption process and by those who seek improvements for children and young people in and on the edges of care. The moving of such a significant Bill at Consideration Stage marks a further key milestone in its progression. I firmly believe that it will make a real difference to the lives of adopted children and adults; their adoptive parents and birth relatives; children in care; children on the edge of care; and care leavers.

Members will be aware that Ms Dillon and I tabled amendments to insert new clauses aimed at ensuring the preservation of records relating to women and children in mother-and-baby institutions, workhouses and the Magdalene laundries. Those new clauses were intended to give effect to the truth recovery design panel's recommendation that immediate action be taken to create a statutory requirement on all relevant record holders to preserve and not destroy such information. The records that the new clauses sought to protect are a significant source of information and evidence for the future statutory public inquiry and the permanent comprehensive independent repository of historical institutional and adoption records and other records on children in state care. Unfortunately, those amendments were not selected for debate today as they were deemed to be outside the scope of the Bill. Members will be aware —

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I remind the Minister not to debate amendments that were not selected. I invite the Minister to continue.

Mr Swann: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am conscious of that, but I thought that, while speaking on this group, it is important to establish where we are. That is not in any way to challenge you or the Speaker’s determination; it is to inform those who have taken an extreme interest in the Bill. I wanted to update Members, as well as the Committee, that my party, along with others, is assessing whether it would be possible to take those clauses forward by way of a private Member’s Bill in the absence of an Executive, because that is now the only option available in this mandate. It would be extremely challenging on the ground, given the time available alone, although I have initiated the process.

Members are aware that that is an issue of grave significance to victims and survivors of the institutions. I am sure, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you will agree with me that we, as a legislature, should do everything possible to try to enshrine in law the preservation of relevant records related to the institutions as quickly as possible. I would welcome other Members' support if we get to the point of a private Member's Bill. If it is not possible to pass a standalone Bill before the dissolution of the Assembly, it will be a matter for the incoming Minister of Health to decide how best to give effect to that panel recommendation in the next mandate.

I place on record my thanks to the Chair, the members and the staff of the Health Committee for the extremely thorough and efficient manner in which they conducted their scrutiny of such a substantial Bill. The Committee's report, published on 28 January, is testament to their hard work, given the pressing nature of the timetable as we fast approach the end of this mandate. The timely conclusion of the Committee Stage is such a significant achievement that it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge their work. While many of the amendments that I propose are technical in nature, a number of them are as a direct result of the Committee's scrutiny and engagement with stakeholders, and I believe that they will enhance provisions in the Bill. The amendments were drafted by the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC), working closely with my officials, and I thank them both for delivering those within such a challenging timescale.

In this group, as well as amendment No 1, I will speak to amendment Nos 2, 22 to 46 and 48 to 60. I propose to deal with amendment Nos 1, 2, 22 to 42, 46, 48 to 50, 52 to 57 and 60, which are amendments that relate to the dissolution of the regional board. As Members will be aware, the Health and Social Care Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 makes provision for the Regional Health and Social Care Board to be dissolved. The Adoption and Children Bill needs to be amended to remove references to "Regional Board" where they appear. Amendment No 2 will amend clause 3 to remove the regional board from the definition of an adoption authority, although Members should be assured that each health and social care trust will continue to be the adoption authority in its area. As a result of amendments to be made by the Health and Social Care Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 to the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1991, the Department will no longer need to make a power to prescribe, for the purpose of the Bill, the operational area of each health and social care trust. Instead, any reference to the operational area of a trust will be as specified under paragraph 3A of schedule 3 to the 1991 Order. Amendment No 1 will provide for such changes to be made to clause 3.

Amendment Nos 53 to 57 will amend transitional provisions in schedule 4 to the Bill. Again, they are to remove references to the regional board from the powers to enable elements of the new adoption support services framework to be implemented in advance of the Bill's full implementation.

Clauses 144 to 150, which relate to the Northern Ireland Adoption and Children Act register (NIACAR), will also be amended to substitute references to the "Regional Board" with references to the "Department". Amendment Nos 22 to 42 provide for that, and, as a result, the Department will be responsible for establishing and maintaining the register.

The definition of "Regional Board" will be removed from the interpretation clause — clause 158 — on the basis that, on dissolution of the board, such a definition will no longer be required. Amendment No 46 provides for that. The remaining amendments — amendment Nos 48 to 50, 52 and 60 — will make consequential amendments to the 1991 Order and to the Health and Social Care Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 and, once enacted, will repeal some of the provisions in the 2022 Act. Those are technical matters that will be required as a result of the eventual repeal of the Adoption (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 by the Adoption and Children Bill.

I turn now to amendment Nos 43 and 44, which amend the procedure under which regulations must be made to ensure that they are subject to a higher degree of Assembly scrutiny. In her report on the Bill's delegated powers, the Examiner of Statutory Roles suggested that the Committee may wish to consider whether the required level of Assembly control should be altered from negative to affirmative resolution for certain regulations to be made under seven of the Bill's clauses: clauses 24, 42, 52, 77, 130, 149 and 150. I am proposing amendments to four of those clauses, three of which fall within this group of amendments. The other clause falls within the amendments to be considered as part of group 3.

I will deal first with clause 42, which provides a power for my Department to prescribe in regulation:

"the matters to be taken into account by an adoption agency in determining, or making any report in respect of, the suitability of any persons to adopt a child."

That is in accordance with clause 155. The negative resolution procedure would apply when making those regulations.

Amendment No 43 will amend clause 155(2) to include regulations made under:

"section 9 which include provision made under section 42"

in the list of regulations. As a result, clause 42 regulations will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, and that will be consistent with the approach being taken with similar regulations. I thank the Member for North Antrim for drawing that to the attention of the House in the Bill's Second Stage debate.


1.30 pm

I turn now to two other clauses. Clause 149 provides for regulations to allow for the search and inspection of the Northern Ireland Adoption and Children Act register by prospective adopters who are suitable to adopt a child to enable them to identify a child on the register for whom they might be appropriate adopters. Clause 150 provides for regulations that relate to searches and inspections of the register by adoption agencies.

Other regulations that relate to the NIACAR are to be made under clauses 144, 146, 147 and 148. Those are to be made by the affirmative resolution procedure, given the nature of the information contained in the database. Having reviewed the position, I consider it appropriate that any regulations made under clause 149 or 150 are subject to the same procedure. That will ensure consistency of approach for all regulations that relate to the NIACAR.

Amendment No 44 will amend clause 155 to include in the list of regulations those that are subject to affirmative resolution procedure in subsection (2) and the regulations that are made under clauses 149 and 150.

I consider that the regulations to be made under the remaining clauses — clauses 24, 52 and 57 — are mainly procedural in nature. On that basis, they should remain subject to negative resolution procedure, and I have not, therefore, proposed any amendment to those clauses.

Amendment No 45, which was tabled by the Committee for Health, will place a requirement on my Department to review and report on progress on the implementation of the Bill's provisions. The requirement would not apply until as soon as practicable after the third anniversary of the commencement of each of the provisions in parts 1 and 2 and at least every five years thereafter. Again, in relation to each of the provisions that have been commenced, the Department will have the power to specify in regulations a date for the requirements to cease to have effect at any time after the tenth anniversary of the Act's Royal Assent.

In its report on the Bill, the Committee notes that this legislation has been delayed a number of times over the past decade. In order to provide the Assembly, the Committee and stakeholders with assurance that implementation of the legislation is a priority for my Department, the Committee felt that there should be a requirement on the Department of Health to report on the implementation of this legislation.

We are all aware of the many challenges and delays in bringing this Bill forward. However, my Department has continued to prioritise the Bill, and I can assure Members that that will continue to be the case during the implementation process. In line with best practice in relation to any policy changes or legislation, the intention is that departmental officials will conduct an ongoing review of whether, and the extent to which, the Bill's intended outcomes have been met following the implementation of the relevant provisions. That process will then inform any report that is required in order to meet the new statutory duty, and I do not, therefore, intend to oppose the introduction of a statutory duty on the Department to report on implementation.

I do, however, have one concern, and that relates to the fact that the duty to report will only cease to apply if the Department makes further regulations and that it may only do so after 10 years have elapsed since Royal Assent. Even if all the provisions were implemented much earlier than that, it would be more appropriate to include a sunset provision so that the duty would automatically cease to apply after a specified period. So, should amendment No 45 be agreed to, I intend at Further Consideration Stage to table a technical amendment to the proposed new clause to introduce a sunset provision.

I turn now to amendment No 51, which makes a consequential amendment to the Access to Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2003. Paragraph 6 of schedule 2 to the 2003 Order provides that legal aid services will not be funded for the provision of advice, assistance or representation to any guardian ad litem for the purpose of proceedings under the Children Order. It does not include any equivalent exemption in relation to a guardian ad litem currently appointed for the purpose of adoption proceedings under article 66 of the Adoption Order 1987. Article 66 of the 1987 Order will be repealed and replaced by clause 106 of the Bill. Under that clause, a children's court guardian, which is the new title for the guardian ad litem introduced by the Bill, will be appointed for applications for the making, varying or revocation of an adoption placement order; the making of adoption order applications for the making, varying or revocation of any order for contact during placement for adoption; and the making of an order under clause 84 that gives parental responsibility prior to the adoption board.

My Department has agreed with the Department of Justice that a consequential amendment should be made at paragraph 6 of schedule 2 to the 2003 Order. The amendment will provide that legal aid services will not be funded for the provision of advice, assistance or representation of any children's court guardian for the purpose of proceedings under clause 106 of the Bill. Amendment No 51 will provide for that and will ensure that there is consistency of approach to children's court guardians, whether they are appointed under the Children Order or the Adoption and Children Bill.

Finally, in this group, I turn to amendment Nos 58 and 59, which deal with the repeal of the Adoption (Hague Convention) Act (Northern Ireland) 1969. My Department has determined, based on legal advice from the Departmental Solicitor's Office (DSO) and the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC) that outdated legislation giving effect to an international adoption convention that is no longer in operation — that is, the Adoption (Hague Convention) Act (Northern Ireland) 1969 — should be repealed. Amendment No 59 will insert a provision in schedule 5 to the Bill to repeal the 1969 Act, and amendment No 58 will amend schedule 4 to insert savings provisions to ensure that the future rights to anyone adopted through a convention adoption order under the 1969 Act will not be negatively affected by its repeal.

I thank Members for bearing with me, and I look forward to hearing their views on the amendments in the group.

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I seek clarification that is more likely to be relevant when the Minister comes to sum up. The Minister is addressing us remotely: is there a facility to intervene on him?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): There are practical, technical limitations, and, unfortunately, that is not the case. If Members wish to make a point, they should do so, and the Minister will have an opportunity to come back to it when he winds up at the end of the group of amendments.

Mr Allister: Further to that point of order, I have to accept what you say, but, in these debates, I very often find that the most useful moment is when one is able to ask the Minister who is winding up to clarify a certain point. If we are to be denied that opportunity, the debate will be the poorer for it.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has put his point on the record. The Assembly has a decision to make as we go through each point. If Members are not satisfied, they can determine that accordingly. We are following the best procedures, as agreed by the Business Committee.

I advise Members that, although I allowed the Minister significant leeway during his contribution, when they make their contribution to the debate, it should be on the amendments that have been selected by the Speaker for today's debate.

Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): Before I begin, I send my best wishes to the Minister, in the light of his having tested positive for COVID, and I wish him and his family all the very best for a speedy recovery and limited impact.

During the debate on this group, I will give a brief overview of the Committee's scrutiny of the Bill and make some further comments on the Committee's view on some of the Department's amendments. In the subsequent debates on groups 2 and 3, I will provide further information on the Committee's reasoning and consideration of its proposed amendments. At the outset of the debate, I declare an interest as a qualified social worker currently on a career break.

The Adoption and Children Bill is long-awaited, and its introduction was welcomed by the Committee and the sector. It is a large Bill with 160 clauses and four schedules. It is probably one of the most important Bills that the Assembly and our Committee have had to consider, given the vulnerabilities not only of young people in particular but of their families in this area of life. Those are some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our society, and it is important — and, as has been noted repeatedly, quite overdue — that the Bill is approved.

The Bill was introduced on 20 September and passed Second Stage on 5 October. It seeks to reform the legislative framework governing adoption, making it more consistent with the principles and provisions of the Children Order 1995 and with international human rights requirements. The aim of the Bill is to make the adoption process as efficient as possible by eliminating unnecessary delay in the system. The Department has said that the child will be placed at the centre of the process, and the Committee welcomes that. The Bill also aims to extend and strengthen provision in the 1995 Order so as to enhance the services provided to children and their parents and carers and to improve outcomes for looked-after children, including the reintroduction of the special guardianship order.

Due to the limited time that was available to the Committee to scrutinise such a large and complex Bill and the Committee's workload with six other Bills, the Committee agreed to issue its call for evidence at the end of July, prior to the Bill's introduction in the Assembly. The Committee undertook early consultation, following confirmation from the Speaker that the Bill was within legislative competence and confirmation from the Department that there were no planned changes to the Bill. Due to the size of the Bill, the Committee was briefed by officials on the principles of the Bill over two weeks on 23 and 30 September. The call for evidence closed on 8 October, which allowed for a longer consultation period and meant that organisations had sufficient time to provide detailed responses to the call for evidence. The Committee received a total of 18 written submissions from organisations. I thank each and every one of those organisations that provided written evidence to the Committee.

The Committee held a total of eight formal evidence sessions on the Bill and was briefed by the Commissioner for Children and Young People, the Human Rights Commission, the NSPCC, Barnardo's, Family Care Adoption Services, Family Routes, Adoption UK, the Fostering Network, the British Association of Social Workers, Action for Children and Home for Good. I place on record my thanks and those of the Committee to all those organisations for providing us with their views on the Bill. Many of the issues that were raised in evidence have been reflected in the Committee's tabled amendments, and we thank all those organisations for their input. I will cover some of the evidence that they provided when I look at the particular amendments in each group.

I will say, however, that in all the submissions that we received and during the oral evidence sessions, the organisations outlined the importance of the Bill's passing in this mandate. The organisations stated that it is important that the Committee should scrutinise in detail the sets of regulations that will come in the next mandate in order to implement the Bill. The Department said that over 20 sets of regulations will need to be brought forward in order to implement the Bill. During its evidence, the Department said that it is planning a phased approach to introducing the regulations, which will take place over a three-year period starting in the 2023-24 financial year. The Committee has requested sight of the timetable and recommends that the incoming Committee closely follows and scrutinises the implementation of the regulations that will give effect to this Bill.

The Committee also conducted a number of informal sessions in order to discuss issues relating to the Bill directly with those who will be most impacted by it. The Committee thanks all those parents and young people who took part in the sessions for sharing their expertise and experience with us; we found it extremely useful. I particularly want to thank the young people who provided advice and shared their experiences with us. We heard some very heartening messages around the work that has been undertaken and also some issues of concern, which we have tried to reflect in our report and in our amendments.


1.45 pm

The informal sessions highlighted common themes that the Committee would like the Department to consider in implementing the Bill. All three groups that we met highlighted inconsistency in social work practice within and across trusts. The Committee understands that there is considerable pressure on social work staff and that that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. However, the Department needs to consider the current workforce and to ensure that there are sufficient social care workers to provide the help and support that children and families need and ensure that there is a consistent approach to engagement with children and young people across the board.

The groups that we met highlighted the good work of charities in the sector and the support, training and programmes that they provide to children and young people and their families. The Committee also welcomed the input from the community and voluntary sector in that regard. The Committee encourages the Department to look at the support and programmes provided by the sector and to consider providing resource to expand the programmes that are currently delivered.

The groups all agreed that there needed to be a better link between social care and education and that the lack of engagement between the two causes problems for children and families. The Committee would like to see better engagement between social care and schools to provide the necessary support for children and young people in their journey through education and training. The Committee hopes that the clause to promote, facilitate and support achievement and development in education, training and support will provide that link.

The young people whom the Committee met all highlighted the importance of their voice and views being heard when decisions are made about their care and their future. It struck me when one of the young people said to members, "Give us options. When you have options, you have a voice". That is a really poignant and important point to consider. The Committee would like to see a change in processes that will ensure that the voices of children and young people are clearly heard, taken into account and acted on when decisions are made about their care and future arrangements.

The Committee welcomes programmes such as Going the Extra Mile (GEM) that provide support to young people and families after the age of 18. However, we ask the Department to consider how additional support can be provided to young people over the age of 18 who want to stay in the current care arrangements. That was a key issue raised by young people, and it would provide them with the support that they need to transition into adult life.

I pay tribute to all foster carers and their families and all adoptive parents and their families for the love, support and care that they provide. I thank them for all that they do to provide a safe home and to support our most vulnerable children and young people. The Committee thanks Adoption UK, the Voice of Young People in Care (VOYPIC) and the Fostering Network for their help in organising those useful sessions. Members commented positively on the quality of the engagement with all the groups, and they hope that the next Committee will continue that engagement in the next mandate as regulations are brought forward and the Bill is implemented. Those who are experts by experience should continue to have their voice included in the conversations.

North/South issues were raised by members during their consideration of the Bill, particularly in relation to kinship care arrangements. Although kinship foster care arrangements are in place under a cross-border protocol, concerns were raised at Committee about the practical challenges stemming from the fact that adoption on a North/South basis is currently treated in the same way as any other inter-country adoption, even though the prospective adopters may be relatives and may live, as we know in this place, on the same road, field or farm as someone who would be a good kinship carer. The Committee sought the views of the Human Rights Commission on the issue. The commission stated in its response that it is currently not clear how the Bill will meet the needs of children for whom adoption is not appropriate but who would benefit from kinship placement across the border. The Human Rights Commission also highlighted that the UK's withdrawal from the European Union had raised additional complexity in the area. The Committee agreed to seek assurances from the Departments of Health and Justice that the loss of the Brussels IIa framework has not adversely impacted how the cross-border placement of children is managed.

The Committee also agreed to ask the Department of Health whether consideration is being given to whether placing children under special guardianship orders (SGOs), overseas or cross-border, may warrant a distinct form of regulatory framework for domestic cases; for example, a bilateral agreement between Britain and Ireland to pre-empt any difficulties that may arise. The Committee looks forward to a response from the Department on that issue.

The Committee recognises the importance of keeping children in existing family structures where possible. In certain circumstances, that may require placements to be made across the border. The Department must ensure that there is sufficient support for cross-border placements, including assessments and the provision of services when applicable. The Committee recommends that the Department undertake a review of cross-border care arrangements, including the consideration of a regulatory framework for cross-border cases.

On the amendments, I will speak first on the Committee's amendment in group 1, which is amendment No 45. It would place a duty on the Department to:

"review and make a report on the implementation of each provision of Part 1 and of each provision of Part 2—
(a) as soon as practicable after the third anniversary of the commencement of that provision; and
(b) at least once in every five years".

The amendment also allows the Department to make regulations to remove the requirement to report but not before the tenth anniversary of the Act's receiving Royal Assent, as the Minister has flagged. The Committee recognises that the Bill is significant legislation that has been delayed a number of times over the past decade. In order to provide the Assembly, the Committee and stakeholders with an assurance that implementation of the legislation is a priority, the Committee agreed that there should be a requirement on the Department to report on the Bill's implementation. I am grateful to departmental officials for indicating that the Minister is content with the amendment.

The Department's amendments in group 1 are largely to do with tidying up and removing references to the Health and Social Care Board. The Committee agreed that it was content with the Department's amendments in the group.

The Committee welcomes the changes proposed in amendment Nos 43 and 44, which amend the Department's regulation-making powers and change the Assembly's scrutiny of regulations from negative resolution to draft affirmative resolution. The Committee continues to have a concern, however, that, potentially, other regulations under the Bill should also be subject to draft affirmative rather than negative resolution. The Committee is considering tabling amendments at Further Consideration Stage that would bring regulations in clauses 24, 55 and 77 subject under the draft affirmative process. That follows the Committee's consideration of the Examiner of Statutory Rules' report on delegated powers, which highlighted a number of clauses where the Committee should consider whether the negative resolution process was the most appropriate.

Clause 24 enables the Department to make regulations to set out:

"(a) the steps required to be taken by an agency that is exercising its power under subsection (2)"

and to refuse to allow contact that would otherwise be required by virtue of a contact order under clause 23. Clause 52(1) enables the Department to make regulations applying with modifications or disapplying certain provisions of the Children Order where:

"(a) an adoption authority is authorised to place a child for adoption; or
(b) a child who has been placed for adoption by an authority is less than six weeks old".

Clause 77(3) provides:

"a person is not entitled to have a certified copy of an entry in the Adopted Children Register relating to an adopted person who has not attained the age of 18 years unless the applicant has provided the Registrar General with the prescribed particulars."

The Committee agrees that those clauses provide for regulations on significant issues and that it would be appropriate for those regulations to go through the draft affirmative procedure. Members will be keen to hear the Minister's views on those clauses.

I am sure that everyone will be glad to hear that I am almost at the end of my remarks. As Chair, I want to thank a few people in relation to the amendments in group 1. I thank the Minister and his officials for their engagement with the Committee. Officials have been very good at providing information to and briefing the Committee on what is a technical and complex Bill; indeed, they provided the Committee with an informal briefing on the adoption process and with further information that the Committee had sought. On behalf of the Committee, I thank officials sincerely for the way in which they conducted their work. It is worth noting that many stakeholders highlighted officials' proactive approach to engagement with the sector on the Bill. I welcome that, because it lends itself to achieving more broadly agreed outcomes, as has been demonstrated here. That was welcome, and I urge the Department to continue that proactive engagement as regulations are brought forward in the coming period.

I also thank Committee members for their work on the Bill. As I said, this is a detailed and complex Bill that was considered during an extremely busy period for the Committee in which six other Bills were being considered. The Committee has come forward with solid, sound and good recommendations that will strengthen the Bill. Before I finish this section of my comments, I record my sincere thanks to the Committee team and the Bill Clerk for supporting members through the scrutiny of the Bill. Every member of the Health Committee recognises the fantastic work that our Committee staff have done throughout our tenure as a Committee, particularly in relation to some of these very detailed Bills. They have provided us with information, support and advice at every step of the way. We recognise the amount of work that goes into that, which is often unseen, and we thank all of them.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, as Question Time is due to commence at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House take its ease until then. This debate will continue immediately after Question Time. I ask Members to note that the debate will resume at 2.45 pm, when the next Member scheduled to speak is Pam Cameron.

The debate stood suspended.


2.00 pm

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Question 12 and topical question 7 have been withdrawn.

Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): I updated the Assembly before the Christmas recess on the preparatory work for the review of the Caravans Act, and I am happy to update the Member on that in order to reiterate the origins of the Act and the Department's involvement in it.

The Caravans Act was introduced in the Assembly as a private Member's Bill. Initially, the Bill was to replicate the protections for residential occupiers on protected sites, as in other jurisdictions. Subsequently, protections were included for caravans in the holiday sector in the form of a seasonal agreement.

In taking forward the review, a cross-departmental working group was established with representatives from the Department for the Economy and the Department for Infrastructure, which are also responsible for elements of the Caravans Act. Although my Department has responsibility for residential caravans and has a mandatory duty to review the provisions relating to that sector, the Act also contains provisions relating to holiday caravans, which is the policy responsibility of the Department for the Economy, with the licensing of holiday sites, as outlined in the Caravans Act 1963, being the responsibility of the Department for Infrastructure. That is why the decision was taken to look at the Act in its entirety.

I acknowledge the concerns that have been raised by not only many MLAs but constituents. To that effect, in reviewing the Act, I have launched a consultation and engagement exercise with key stakeholders. That remains open until 8 March. It will allow all interested stakeholders to engage, and the cross-departmental working group will then assess the findings from that.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for her answer. She will know about the injustice that is felt by some caravan owners in caravan parks right across Northern Ireland due to their having few to no rights, excessive pitch fee rises and threats of eviction looming over them. Will the Minister step up to the plate and ensure that there is a fairer deal for our caravan owners?

Ms Hargey: As I said, the responsibility under the Act for me is with the residential sector, which is people whose caravan is their home. The responsibility for those you are talking about with holiday caravans is with the Economy Minister. I did not want just a review, because I completely understand the impact that is being felt by those who have a holiday caravan. We saw it when we were going through the pandemic. I agreed, in that context, to review the whole Act, but I need Economy and Infrastructure to work with me. They are working with me through the establishment of the working group. We are consulting at the moment, so, if you know anybody who has concerns, I encourage you to ask them to make sure that they respond to the consultation, which has its closing date on 8 March.

Ms Armstrong: Thank you very much, Minister, for saying that you have started a consultation and that people can respond to it up until 8 March. Are you concerned about the staggering replacement caravan costs that are being forced by site owners on people who live in their caravan? Will that be dealt with in the Caravans Act or a future caravan Act?

Ms Hargey: Definitely. We have seen some of the articles in the press about how some people who own caravans have been treated. I know that, through the stakeholder and engagement exercises, officials from all three Departments are engaging with people who have been impacted. It was not set in the original Act, which is why further amendments will have to be made to the legislation.

It is important that the consultation takes its course. I encourage anyone who has not yet responded to do so, to ensure that we get a completely full picture. As I said, the Economy Minister will have responsibility for how that Department takes forward aspects with regard to people who have caravans as holiday destinations. I hope that it can do that in the context of listening to those people who have been impacted over the last period.

Mr Allister: Last week, I was grateful to have the opportunity to lead a delegation of caravan owners to meet the working group, and found that to be a constructive exercise. Can I suggest to the Minister that the easiest and most efficient way to give security of tenure and basic rights to holiday caravan owners is to extend the protections that already exist in Part 1 of the Caravans Act to holiday caravanners as well?

Ms Hargey: That is part of the review. At the moment, I do not have the ability to extend that. That would have to be done by the Economy Minister, who has responsibility for holiday caravan owners. I hope that the review will start to take forward some of those concrete recommendations.

Ms Á Murphy: Can the Minister outline the stakeholders that the cross-departmental working group intends to meet as part of its review?

Ms Hargey: There is a variety of stakeholders, including those who have caravans, those who own caravan parks, those who offer services in and around the management of caravan parks, local councils, Members and elected representatives beyond the Assembly. The consultation is open to a wide range of people. There have been ongoing engagement sessions, as the Member who asked the previous question mentioned. Again, if anyone in the Chamber or outside it has concerns or thoughts and has not already responded to that consultation, I urge them to ensure that they do so before the deadline closes on 8 March.

Mr Durkan: The consultation and ongoing work is welcome. The Minister has, quite rightly, outlined the cross-departmental nature of the issue. While I, therefore, do not expect it to fall fully at the door of the Minister for Communities, does she envisage or accept the need for a cross-border approach, as well as a cross-departmental approach, to afford and ensure protections to caravan owners from the North who have caravans in the South?

Ms Hargey: I have not heard that issue come up yet in the review. Obviously, the legislation pertains to those who have caravans here in the North. If anything comes up as part of the consultation response that refers to any issues that you may have, I am sure that it will be brought up and looked at. However, as you said, this piece of work is being taken forward by all three Departments. We will, collectively, look at the responses and decide how we move forward to address the Act in its entirety and shape it to ensure that it meets the needs of citizens now.

Ms Hargey: That is an important project to both my Department and, indeed, the people of Bangor. It was actually one of the first projects that I visited when I came into the Department as Minister. The Department for Infrastructure's Rivers submitted an objection to Ards and North Down Borough Council on the developer's planning application. In assessing the planning application, the council considered that the concerns that were raised by DFI Rivers, which related to the reservoir flood area, were outweighed by the significant regeneration benefits to an area that has been long neglected and in need of positive intervention.

On that basis, the council set aside the DFI Rivers objection. The Department for Infrastructure is considering the council's granting of the planning permission in the context of the objection that was lodged, and has the power to call in the planning application for a full review. It is, ultimately, the responsibility of the Infrastructure Minister to decide whether the application should be called in. My officials continue to engage with all stakeholders in an effort to progress the development of that transformational scheme.

Mr Chambers: I want to place on record my disappointment with the apparent lack of urgency that has been shown by two Departments on this important matter.

The problem with Clandeboye lake was identified over a year ago, yet it is only in recent weeks that a report has been commissioned on the remedial work that will be required. I have been informed by the Minister for Infrastructure —

Mr Chambers: — that she has no powers —

Mr Chambers: — to compel a private owner to conduct any —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Order. I have tried to call the Member to order. He is in danger of giving a speech and not asking a question. Can we have a question, please, Mr Chambers?

Mr Chambers: What action will the Minister's Department take to push the planning application along?

Ms Hargey: My officials have been engaging with key stakeholders to progress the project as quickly as possible. Ards and North Down Borough Council is working closely with the reservoir manager to seek completion of the reservoir engineer's inspection report. Indeed, my Department has provided funding to ensure that the report is expedited, and as soon as possible, so that the project might have an impact on the broader regeneration of Bangor.

We have been working very closely to try to get the scheme progressed, but, as the Member will understand, another Minister has a separate set of powers in which I cannot intervene, so I have to wait on the outworking of her decision.

Mr Dunne: I acknowledge the work done by departmental officials over many years. Will the Minister commit to working with her colleague the Infrastructure Minister to get delivery of the project, which has been running on for over 30 years?

Ms Hargey: I have written to my colleague in the Department for Infrastructure to highlight the project's importance to my Department and the wider area and the impact that it would have on those in the council area. We are just waiting on the outcome of the Minister's decision on whether the Department will call in the application.

As I have highlighted, we are continuing to work with the council on any outstanding reports. We have put resource into that to make sure that it is done as quickly as possible, but I cannot overstep my bounds into another Minister's portfolio, so I have to await the results of a call-in procedure, if one is to be enacted.

Mr Muir: Over £10 million of public funds have been spent on the scheme, and there will be £50 million of economic regeneration if approval is given. Will the Minister consider requesting a meeting with the Infrastructure Minister to ensure that the project gets the green light? Bangor has been waiting for far too long.

Ms Hargey: I have communicated with the Infrastructure Minister on the importance of the scheme. As I said, it was one of the first projects that I visited as Minister, and I could see the need for regeneration and investment in the area and the knock-on effect that regeneration would have for local businesses and for housing for the inhabitants of the area. I cannot stray into another Minister's remit, however, particularly in planning circumstances. The Department has to make a decision on whether to call in the application.

As I said, I have put resource into working with the council to make sure that any study that needs to be completed is done as quickly as possible, and I will continue to lend my support and call for the scheme to be done as quickly as possible.

Ms Ferguson: I welcome the development and the hard work undertaken so far around the commitment given to Bangor and to the regeneration of our town centres. Regeneration will make a huge difference, particularly given the pandemic. Will the Minister outline the benefits of this type of regeneration project for town centres?

Ms Hargey: As was stated earlier, over the past 10 years, over £10 million has been invested in the development. The overall development represents £50 million of investment to bring about a massive transformation of the Bangor seafront. It would bring in a hotel, resulting in overnight stays that would have an impact on the local economy. It would also see the construction of 137 new homes, 70,000 square feet of office space, a destination and cinema space, and indoor and outdoor activity space. It would make a huge contribution by transforming the area not only physically but socially and economically. It would act as a catalyst for further investment in transforming Bangor and the surrounding areas.

Ms Hargey: With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 3 and 4 together.


2.15 pm

The subregional stadia programme provides a real opportunity not only to address the needs of soccer but to benefit respective communities with societal, economic and cultural enrichment. You will be aware of the history of the programme, including the public consultation back in 2015 and early 2016, and I share the frustrations expressed by some Members that the programme is yet to be implemented since its original endorsement in 2011. However, as I have stated, with the passage of time from the period when I came into post, there was a need to refresh and re-engage with clubs and organisations on the ground. Officials had carried out a club survey and engaged in strategic discussions with key stakeholders who oversee the game, operate facilities and support the game at all levels. Collaboration has taken place through the advisory working group, which provides expert insight on facility needs for soccer at all levels. That group includes the Irish Football Association (IFA), the NI Football League, Sport NI and the Department. There has also been engagement with councils, which provide pitches across the board for clubs at a local level.

Some notable changes have been identified to date, including a significant increase in participation in grassroots sports and a rapid growth in the female game. Obviously, all the evidence gathered is under consideration. I suppose that it is important to highlight that I will not be able to progress the scheme as it is at the moment, because the agreement was always that I needed to take any proposals to the Executive for approval and for sign-off on the programme and the funding. With no Executive, that cannot be done.


2.15 pm

Mr Weir: It is disappointing to hear that. Why would she need sign-off when the money was initially allocated specifically for the programme? It is something that is entirely within the scope of her Department. Why can the announcement not be made and funding be made available during this mandate?

Ms Hargey: The proposal was always to go back to the Executive for final sign-off and for the funding to be committed. That had not been done. It is not my fault that people walked out of the Executive. I had aimed for that to be done before the end of the mandate, but unfortunately, because some chose to walk away, decisions cannot be taken by the Executive.

Mr Robinson: Minister, no ifs or buts, you had plenty of time to release the funding long before the horrific protocol was implemented. You have heard at first hand from Coleraine and Limavady United football officials the absolute need for the long-awaited funding to help transform their grounds —

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Robinson, can you get to the question?

Mr Robinson: — for their spectators, players and wider communities. Minister, can you give us a definite date for when the funding will be released?

Ms Hargey: The questionnaires that were filled out by local clubs across the board demonstrate the need. As I said, there is a changed need for grassroots sports and the involvement of women. Unfortunately, I cannot give a date because there is no Executive to sign off and commit to the final budget.

Miss Reilly: Minister, is the reckless decision by the DUP First Minister to walk away from his responsibilities and the inability of the Executive to meet because of that, likely to impact on the subregional stadia programme for soccer? If so, how?

Ms Hargey: I remain fully committed to delivering the programme within the mandate. Obviously, the mandate is still running, but the absence of an Executive will add further delays to the programme.

Mr Lyttle: Association football empowers children and adults of all backgrounds at all levels across Northern Ireland in some of the most chronically underfunded facilities in our community. It is absolutely devastating to hear of this complication. It is 11 years since the process was announced, and there have been three DUP and two Sinn Féin Ministers since then. Will the Minister commit to doing all that she can to find a way to unlock that vital funding for our community in this mandate?

Ms Hargey: I will try to find every way possible, but, if the restriction is that the programme and the remaining budget need sign-off, I have to bring that to the Executive. If there is a way round that, I will certainly do it. Of course, that is also tied into the Budget discussion: if a Budget cannot be signed off for the next financial year, there will be implications for the programme.

Of course, I will continue to find a way. I completely recognise the role that football has at the grassroots. We saw the IFA work with Ulster Rugby and the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) throughout the pandemic. We saw the impact on mental health and well-being when sport was taken away because of the restrictions. I have also seen, through a small capital grants programme, clubs coming forward and looking for additional resources. This would have been a brilliant programme to get out before the end of the mandate, but, unfortunately, with no Executive, we are not able to do that.

Mr McNulty: It is disappointing, Minister, that that funding will not be made available for the subregional stadia programme as a consequence of those who walked away from the Executive. I am encouraged by your commitment to try to resolve that and find a way around it. It is good to hear that.

Minister, have the recommendations, identified as part of your Department's refresh and re-engagement exercise, been presented to the Executive?

Ms Hargey: No. I intended to present that to the Executive. They need to sign off on the new engagement programme and my proposals for how the money will be utilised. I am unable to do that until an Executive is up and running again.

Ms Hargey: Last year, just over 22,000 PIP reviews were processed. Therefore, it is important to allow a maximum period for reviews to be completed to prevent any risk of a person’s existing PIP payment running out. That is essential as the end of a PIP award can impact on other benefits currently in payment, such as carer's allowance and income-related benefits. The review process begins only when the form is returned, and anyone who needs more time to complete the form, including help to fill it in, will be given it if they contact the Department. In addition, last April, I introduced the completion of PIP award reviews in-house where sufficient evidence is available.

All PIP review forms are scrutinised immediately on receipt by the Department to establish if a PIP can be awarded again, either at the same rate as before or at an increased rate, if there has been a change, without the need for an assessment. Currently, close to half of the PIP reviews are determined in-house by the Department, meaning that claimants can be notified straight away of the outcome of the review, and, where appropriate, awards are increased immediately. All processes are continually kept under review.

Mr M Bradley: Thank you for your answer, Minister. The issue is that review forms are being sent out about 10 months in advance of a PIP award coming to an end. The form is completed and returned, but, by the time the person is assessed, their conditions have changed and the form is no longer relevant. What is the Department doing to reduce those times and make the PIP process less stressful for applicants?

Ms Hargey: As I said, the reason we try to seek the information earlier is just the time it takes for the assessment process and to look at any new information or evidence. We want to avoid taking it too close to the end of the assessment period because, if the review is not completed on time or someone does not turn up for an assessment, that could stop the payment, which would have a knock-on effect on other benefits that I listed.

As I said, nearly half of the assessments are now done in-house. I want to continue to increase the number of assessments being done in-house. For some of those with longer-term awards, we are trying to turn those over to ensure that a bigger percentage goes through, and 81% have been given an award of five years or more. Of those who are paid PIP, around 63,000, which is 39%, receive the maximum amount payable.

We continue to keep it under review. It is important that the applicant gets any new or additional information in as soon as possible so that it can be assessed. If we can do that through a desktop exercise in the Department, we hope to do that to speed up the process.

Ms Brogan: Will the Minister provide an update on the extension of payments that protect people from the bedroom tax and other cruel Tory welfare cuts?

Ms Hargey: We have recently passed regulations around extensions. Those are working their way through at the moment, with all claimants being notified as soon as possible.

Mr Blair: Can the Minister give any further details on the plans to bring PIP assessments in-house, including in particular whether she will consider using the Royal College of Occupational Therapists model when considering assessments and applications? That model considers the whole person, including the impact that mental health has on the day-to-day activities of that person.

Ms Hargey: I have already given a policy intent that I want those services to be brought in-house again. I want to make sure that that is done, but, in order to do that, I need to work with the Department of Health. Obviously, we have been looking at the Scottish model and others to see the approach that they take, working through local health trusts. The closer we can align the assessments to health professionals who know the individuals, their injuries and their physical or mental disabilities, the better an assessment that will make. When you look at the appeals, you see that it is the new evidence that is presented at the later stage of the appeals process that overturns the original decision. It is about front-loading all that as much as possible.

I made a case to the Executive for additional funding to do that. Unfortunately, it never made it on to the Executive table to be discussed. I have already communicated with the Health Minister and the Department of Health to see how they can work with us and to look at a date on which we could start to bring those services in-house or, at least, pilot that approach in each health trust. Those discussions are ongoing. Once I have more definitive information or dates, I can provide those to the House.

Mr Durkan: The PIP process causes people a lot of stress, and its faults were laid bare by the ombudsman's report. The Minister spoke about her work with the Minister of Health. It is right that we should look at every way to take the stress out of the situation for people. Has there been any work with the Department of Health around information sharing, given the delays and difficulties that many people have in accessing their medical records for assessments?

Ms Hargey: That is part of the discussion that we have been having. I welcomed the NIPSO report, and we continue to work with the ombudsman on the recommendations that she laid out around making changes. We have already started to bring more of the assessments in-house, and that is part of it. I have already signed off on my policy intent to bring that service in-house again.

Part of the difficulty, as I understand it, is that there is no single database in the health system that holds all of that information. We hit that problem when we looked at food access during the pandemic and tried to get all the information for those who were shielding. Those records are kept by different surgeries, which all use different systems. The Department of Health is looking at an integrated system that will start to bring that all under one roof, but getting to that point will take time. That is why we are working closely with Health. We need to work closely with Health, because it has the professionals who can do the assessments and, importantly, who know the individuals. Those conversations are ongoing.

Ms Hargey: Face-to-face assessments for PIP resumed on 1 July last year. Currently, that is only for those who are unable to take part in a telephone assessment due to their condition; for example, people with hearing or speech impairments, those who do not have a telephone or those who experience technical difficulties with calls. The Department will continue to monitor the policy in that area as COVID-19 restrictions begin to change.

Mr Frew: I thank the Minister for her answer. The Minister will know the inadequacies of a phone conversation when it comes to assessing how an ailment affects a person, and the help and support that they may have with them at assessments is not the same through a phone conversation, even if it is on loudspeaker.

Mr Frew: Will the Minister do all in her power to get everybody back to face-to-face assessments, and when will that take place?


2.30 pm

Ms Hargey: We are keeping that under review with the changes in the restrictions. We know the difficulties in getting the changes through. Hopefully, the Health Minister will make an announcement on that shortly.

Over that period from 1 July, 30 appointments were booked for face-to-face assessments, at which 17 people attended. Nine did not show up, and that could have been for a variety of reasons. If anyone requests a face-to-face meeting, we will consider that.

I want to get to a point when we are offering face-to-face appointments again and not just for a prescriptive group. Many people found a benefit in having telephone assessments. Some do not want to do face-to-face assessments. It is about making sure that we find a variety of offers that suit the needs of the person who is applying and that we can offer whatever method they are most comfortable with.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: A 10-second question; a 10-second answer.

Mr Sheehan: What implication does the DUP's decision to unilaterally walk away from the Executive have for the work of the independent advisory panel on welfare mitigations, and will it prevent the introduction of further measures for hard-pressed families?

Ms Hargey: The mitigations review is ongoing. The aim is for the panel to submit a report to me shortly. I was then to bring recommendations on the outworkings of the panel to the Executive. With no Executive in place, I am unable to do that, which means that looking at any further mitigations cannot be done until a new Executive are in place to identify and agree which additional mitigations should be taken forward.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That ends the period for listed questions. We move to topical questions to the Minister.

T1. Mr Nesbitt asked the Minister for Communities for an update on the status of the anti-poverty strategy. (AQT 2041/17-22)

Ms Hargey: Good work has been ongoing with the anti-poverty strategy and, indeed, all the other inclusion strategies. Over a year ago, we appointed an expert panel that published a report, which is on the Department's website. After that, we got into co-design groups. There are a number of organisations and individuals involved in the co-design group for the anti-poverty strategy, which includes looking at children's poverty.

They are working at the moment. I met them, in December, when they were putting forward their proposals and position paper. I met the chair of the group again in recent weeks. A date was set for the middle of March to meet all Ministers around the Executive table to present that. Now, I am looking to see whether we are able to do that without the Executive Office Ministers being in position.

There was always the intent that we would bring the strategy forward before the end of the mandate. There were difficulties because the co-design group needed a bit more time to look through the issues. However, with no Executive, it will be in a new mandate or whenever an Executive can be up and running for all the inclusion strategies to go forward.

Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister. 'New Decade, New Approach' describes the anti-poverty strategy as an Executive one; therefore, you need sign-off. What is the impact without sign-off on the 17% of the population living in relative income poverty, not least the 100,000 children?

Ms Hargey: As you said, it is an Executive-wide policy, so any new schemes or proposals would need the approval of the Executive, as would any additional budget. We know the circumstances. The Finance Minister is seeking legal advice to see whether the Budget can be progressed. If not, we cannot look at a new budget with new and additional programmes of work going into next year.

For any proposals that are coming forward within the anti-poverty strategy, first, they cannot be signed off as policy, and, secondly, we cannot secure or agree the budget in order to progress them. They are on hold until an Executive are up and running. I will do what I can to mitigate in the interim, but some things are just not possible without the Executive.

T2. Mr Blair asked the Minister for Communities, having heard with deep concern that taproom licences for local producers have been delayed because of procedural issues, to confirm why that consequential impact was not considered at the time of legislative preparation and drafting and to outline what the Department is doing to deliver those licences as voted for by the House. (AQT 2042/17-22)

Ms Hargey: When we were going through those amendments, I raised concerns about the amendment that was proposed and subsequently passed. I said that there would be unintended consequences as a result, so this is, in fact, the outworking of the concerns that I raised as Minister.

Of course, the legislation is passed and the will of the Assembly has spoken, but we are trying to work through those unintended consequences and issues as quickly as possible. Once I have a date for when we can progress them fully, I will write to Members to update them on that.

Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for the answer. Further to that, will she consider giving compensation to traders who have suffered because of the delay in bringing forward those taproom licences, which, in many cases, are vital to our rural economies and to tourism?

Ms Hargey: I would have to look at legal advice around that. I could not say that now. As Minister, I warned or advised against pushing the issue at this point. Again, I am open to looking at legal advice, and I will come back to the Member.

T3. Miss Reilly asked the Minister for Communities to set out the importance of the Assembly’s decision to extend welfare mitigations. (AQT 2043/17-22)

Ms Hargey: It is good that the mitigations are starting to progress. We passed the regulations to extend the existing mitigations, and they are starting to go through at the moment and have been laid. We are also working through the legislation. We had Consideration Stage last week and discussed the bedroom tax, and I am thankful that we got the support of the full House after an amendment on the bedroom tax and reached the decision not to have an end date in the legislation. The legislation will go to Further Consideration Stage, and the aim is to have all this completed before the end of the mandate. That includes closing the loopholes in the bedroom tax mitigation, which will see protection for hundreds of families who have been impacted on. Indeed, with the bedroom tax itself, over 36,000 households will see the benefit of the mitigation and protection continuing.

Miss Reilly: Go raibh maith agat, a Aire, as an fhreagra sin. Thank you for that answer and for your clear and ongoing commitment to protecting the most vulnerable in our society. Given the uncertainty that now hangs over these institutions, will the Minister agree that compassionate measures such as these stand in complete contrast to the actions of the DUP, which has prioritised its own election concerns over the need to protect workers, families and individuals here?

Ms Hargey: There is a lot of work to be done before the end of this mandate, not just on legislation but on new policies that will be coming forward. We already spoke about the anti-poverty strategy, and there is the LGBTQI strategy, a disability strategy and a gender strategy. Those strategies will include proposals that would have a real impact on many of our citizens out there in our communities. Unfortunately, we have instability and no Executive, and any new policies, decisions or funding going forward cannot be dealt with without that Executive functioning.

T4. Mr Robinson asked the Minister for Communities for an update on future town revitalisation schemes in East Londonderry. (AQT 2044/17-22)

Ms Hargey: I do not have a specific update for the Member, but I have worked with DAERA and the Department for Infrastructure on revitalisation funding. On the back of COVID, there is a new £23 million fund for revitalisation, and that is going through councils for rural areas and particularly for populations below 5,000. There is a lot of interest in that capital programme at the moment. I will get the specific details for the Member's area and follow up in writing.

Mr Robinson: Will the Minister commit to have her officials investigate Linenhall Street in Limavady, which is in my constituency, with a view to implementing a much-needed revitalisation scheme to overcome the dilapidated state of that street? Such a scheme would help existing traders and attract new business to the street. I appreciate what you said, Minister, about the funding.

Ms Hargey: Yes, I will have a look at that for the Member and follow up in writing with a formal response.

T5. Mr Beggs asked the Minister for Communities to outline the action that she has taken, as an Executive Minister, to ensure that capital programmes are prioritised in order that social homes can be built and vulnerable people can have a roof over their head, given that the development of new social homes is being restricted by planning limitations and conditions as a result of the absence of sewerage capacity throughout Northern Ireland and, in particular, in Larne, parts of Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey in his constituency. (AQT 2045/17-22)

Ms Hargey: First, I have called for housing to be a key outcome in the Programme for Government. That would mean that one of the Executive's key priorities would be to deliver housing, from its inception through to the home being ready for a tenant to move into. I hope that other parties will support that call, which has been made by the wider housing family as well.

As the Member will know, a consultation has opened on the housing supply strategy, which looks at a whole-system approach, including the infrastructure that is needed in order to build homes. I have set out a plan to build over 100,000 homes over the next 15 years, and, of course, infrastructure is needed to go with that. The Department for Infrastructure, through Budgets over the last year or so, has received an increased budget for infrastructure spend, and, indeed, I, as Minister, have supported that. I have held meetings with the Department for Infrastructure and the Minister, who, I know, has a keen interest in housing as well. Of course, I will continue to work with her and the Executive, if they get up and running again, to ensure that we prioritise housing and, indeed, the infrastructure that is needed.

Mr Beggs: I thank the Minister for her answer. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive proposes to demolish the final block of multistorey flats in Larne. Will the Minister advise why the demolition of those flats was not directly linked to a fresh planning application so that social homes could directly benefit from the reduction in sewerage capacity and that those living in the flats could have the option of continuing to live in the adjacent area?

Ms Hargey: I know that we have communicated previously on those apartments. The Housing Executive has a responsibility to maintain and look after stock. If stock has gone beyond use, cannot be maintained or costs more money to upgrade than to demolish, a business case is developed, and that comes to the Department for approval. There are a number of those sites across the North, and we are working with the Housing Executive on them. Part of it is about trying to align them, where we can, with the social housing development programme. Of course, there are then bigger discussions about infrastructure more broadly and what is needed to deliver housing. We are continuing to look at all of them. If there is a more specific issue, I would be happy to take that up with you afterwards. The proposed demolition has been through a business case. The Housing Executive brought forward its assessment, and the Department supported its recommendations.

T6. Mr O'Dowd asked Minister for Communities to outline the practical support that will be delivered by her recently announced £10 million jobs and skills scheme to assist various sectors in their recovery from the pandemic. (AQT 2046/17-22)

Ms Hargey: That scheme came on the back of a report by the culture, arts and heritage recovery task force, which I established in the midst of the pandemic. There was a call from all those sectors for something to be done to stabilise them beyond the pandemic. There was financial investment from the Executive to help sectors that were forced to close throughout the pandemic. We are now focused on revitalising them and making sure that they are sustained over the next period.

The first recommendation in the task force's report was on support for individual artists. Indeed, before Christmas, I opened a scheme so that individual artists could receive direct financial support. The fourth recommendation was for a skills fund to employ people in those sectors, stabilise the sectors and create employment opportunities. I was glad that I was able to bring forward that £10 million fund, which will provide hundreds of jobs in each of the sectors, as well as the community and voluntary sector and sports. That will, for the first time in a long time, see funding opportunities for organisations and three years' funding for staff. Fundamentally, it is about retaining skills in the sectors. People leaving because of burnout is a big concern. We want to retain people in those sectors by providing financial support. The scheme has been widely acknowledged by the sector, and, indeed, it meets one of the commitments in the task force report.

Mr O'Dowd: Thank you, Minister. Another issue that you been working on recently is the Charities Bill. What will be the practical outworkings of the Charities Bill for that sector?

Ms Hargey: A High Court judgement in 2019 left 6,500 charities uncertain about the legal parameters in which they were working.

As part of the Charities Bill, which passed its Final Stage in the Assembly last week, we will, I am glad to say, start to retrospectively fix some of those issues and give peace of mind to the charities. We are continuing to work with charities. At the start of the year, we launched a new COVID recovery fund, which sees more financial resources going back into the sector in order to support it in the time ahead.


2.45 pm

T9. Mrs Cameron asked Minister for Communities, after declaring an interest as the wife of a playwright, to state whether, given the severe impact that the pandemic has had on the arts, entertainment and music sectors, she is considering any further financial packages for those sectors. (AQT 2049/17-22)

Ms Hargey: I met said playwright just before the outbreak of COVID; I went to one of his plays. A huge amount of additional funding has gone into the sector as a result of the COVID moneys that we have received. We have worked with the sector to develop the task force report. The task force was chaired by Rotha Johnston and was made up of individuals and organisations from the sectors. We implemented the first request that the task force made, which, as I said, was for an individual artists' fund to support those working within the sectors and associated freelancers. Payments from that fund will go out shortly.

In January of this year, I launched an additional fund through the Arts Council to stabilise and support organisations. That is on top of the £10 million fund. Working with the Arts Council and Future Screens, there are opportunities for organisations to apply for three years' funding and to employ people in those sectors in order to stabilise them.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: That concludes questions to the Minister for Communities. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments while we change the top Table. The next item of business will be the resumption of the Adoption and Children Bill.

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

Executive Committee Business

Clause 3 (Adoption authority)

Debate resumed on amendment No 1, which amendment was:

In page 4, line 6, leave out from "are" to end of line 7 and insert—

"are to its operational area as specified under paragraph 3A of Schedule 3 to the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1991." — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In page 4, line 9, leave out subsection (5). — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 22: In clause 144, page 89, line 10, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 23: In clause 144, page 89, line 36, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 24: In clause 145, page 89, line 39, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 25: In clause 145, page 89, line 40, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 26: In clause 145, page 90, line 3, leave out "Regional Board’s" and insert "Department’s". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 27: In clause 145, page 90, line 5, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 28: In clause 145, page 90, line 6, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 29: In clause 145, page 90, line 8, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 30: In clause 145, page 90, line 9, leave out subsection (4). — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 31: In clause 146, page 90, line 20, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 32: In clause 146, page 90, line 21, leave out subsection (3). — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 33: In clause 147, page 90, line 25, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 34: In clause 147, page 90, line 27, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 35: In clause 147, page 90, line 36, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 36: In clause 147, page 90, line 37, leave out from "Regional" to "Board" in line 38 and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 37: In clause 148, page 91, line 10, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 38: In clause 148, page 91, line 28, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 39: In clause 148, page 91, line 34, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 40: In clause 148, page 91, line 38, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 41: In clause 149, page 92, line 19, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 42: In clause 150, page 92, line 40, leave out "Regional Board" and insert "Department". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 43: In clause 155, page 94, line 18, at end insert—

"(aa) section 9 which include provision made under section 42;". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 44: In clause 155, page 94, line 20, leave out "or 148" and insert ", 148, 149 or 150". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 45: After clause 157 insert—

"Review
 
157A.—(1) The Department must review and make a report on the implementation of each provision of Part 1 and of each provision of Part 2—

(a) as soon as practicable after the third anniversary of the commencement of that provision; and

(b) at least once in every five years after the making of the previous report on the implementation of that provision.
 
(2) The Department must—

(a) lay a copy of each report under this section before the Assembly; and

(b) having done that, publish the report.
 
(3) The Department may by regulations provide that subsections (1) and (2) are to cease to have effect on the date specified; but the regulations may not specify a date which is earlier than the tenth anniversary of this Act receiving Royal Assent.
 
(4) Regulations under this section are subject to negative resolution." — [Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health).]

No 46: In clause 158, page 97, leave out line 14. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 48: In schedule 3, page 107, line 32, at end insert—

"The Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1991
 
14A. In Article 10A (definition of ‘social care and children functions’), in paragraph (1)(e), for ‘Adoption (Northern Ireland) Order 1987’ substitute ‘Adoption and Children Act (Northern Ireland) 2021’." — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 49: In schedule 3, page 117, line 33, leave out from "for" to "appropriate" on line 35 and insert—

"for the words from ‘or an’ to the end of the paragraph substitute ‘or an appropriate’". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 50: In schedule 3, page 117, line 37, leave out from "for" to "appropriate" on line 39 and insert—

"for the words from ‘or an’ to ‘(N.I.22)’ substitute ‘or an appropriate’". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 51: In schedule 3, page 120, line 4, at end insert—

"65A. In Schedule 2 (civil legal services: excluded services), in paragraph 6, at the end insert ‘or the Adoption and Children Act (Northern Ireland) 2021’." — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 52: In schedule 3, page 121, line 36, at end insert—

"The Health and Social Care Act (Northern Ireland) 2022
 
77A.—(1) Schedule 1 (transfer of the Regional Board’s functions) is amended as follows.
 
(2) Omit paragraphs 102 to 120.
 
(3) Omit paragraph 193(2)(b) and (3)(b).
 
(4) Omit paragraph 195(2)." — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 53: In schedule 4, page 133, line 29, leave out "or the Regional Board". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 54: In schedule 4, page 133, line 31, leave out "or the Board". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 55: In schedule 4, page 133, line 34, leave out from "or" to "Board" in line 35. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 56: In schedule 4, page 133, line 38, leave out "or the Board". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 57: In schedule 4, page 133, line 41, leave out "or the Board". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 58: In schedule 4, page 135, line 29, at end insert—

"The Adoption (Hague Convention) Act (Northern Ireland) 1969
 
7A.—(1) Despite the repeal of the Adoption (Hague Convention) Act (Northern Ireland) 1969 (‘the 1969 Act’) the following provisions of that Act continue to have effect—

(a) section 5(1) (recognition of foreign determinations) so far as it applies to a determination made by an authority of any British territory outside the United Kingdom in respect of a convention adoption order and to which subsection (1)(b) of that section applies,

(b) in section 6 (annulment etc.)—

(i) subsection (1) so far as it applies to convention adoption orders, and

(ii) subsections (3) and (4) so far as they apply to determinations,

(c)in section 8 (registration)—

(i) subsection (3) so far as it applies to convention adoption orders or any entry or mark erroneously made in pursuance of subsection (2) of that section, and

(ii) subsection (4).

 
(2) Despite the repeal of the 1969 Act, the following provisions of that Act continue to have effect so far as they are necessary for the purposes of sub-paragraph (1)—

(a) section 7 (provisions supplemental to section 6),

(b) section 9 (nationality),

(c) section 10 (supplemental),

(d) section 11 (rules),

(e) section 12 (interpretation).
 
(3) In this paragraph—
‘the 1969 Act’ means the Adoption (Hague Convention) Act (Northern Ireland) 1969,
‘convention adoption order’ means an order under Article 12(1) of the Adoption (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 made in accordance with section 1(1) of the 1969 Act,
‘determination’ means a determination that has effect by virtue of section 5(1) of the 1969 Act." — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 59: In schedule 5, page 136, line 5, at end insert—
"







The Adoption (Hague Convention) Act (Northern Ireland) 1969

The whole Act.
 

 
". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 60: In schedule 5, page 138, line 38, at end insert—

"







The Health and Social Care Act (Northern Ireland) 2022

In Schedule 1, paragraphs 102 to 120, paragraph 193(2)(b) and (3)(b), and paragraph 195(2).
 

 
". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

Mrs Cameron: At the outset, I wish the Minister, Robin Swann, all the best with his recovery from COVID. I presume that he will be coming back online to watch us through the debate. I thank the Chair of the Committee, Colm Gildernew, for summarising the Committee's scrutiny. That was really useful. As we know, this is a long-awaited Bill, so we are very glad to be at this stage today.

Before I address some of the amendments in this group, and I promise to be brief, I restate my support for the Bill in addressing the very pressing need for a more responsive and child-focused adoption process. In all of our consideration of the Bill, we must remember that at the forefront is a child, a child who, in these situations, can often be vulnerable. We must also prioritise the needs — financial, emotional and otherwise — of prospective parents. Adopting a child is a huge step for child and parent, and it can be such a blessing for both. It is our job to ensure that the law makes that transition as safe and robust as possible for both, and that it is not unnecessarily intrusive, delayed or off-putting.

When I look at this group of amendments, I see, in the round, improvements to the Bill. We will support the amendments in this group to improve the Bill. Amendment Nos 1 to 42, 48 to 50, 52 to 57 and 60 are consequential amendments as a result of abolishing the Health and Social Care Board. That being the case, it is important that those be made to the Bill. We have no objections to those amendments. That reconfiguration of services is vitally important, and we, as a party, very much wish to see further reform. The only point that I will make on that is to stress the need to ensure that any future reconfiguration of how services are commissioned maintains high levels of accountability and input in adoption services. A silo mentality will not produce the best outcomes. I trust that that will become the established practice when the Bill becomes law.

Amendment Nos 43 and 44 stipulate that regulations on the suitability of prospective adopters and access to adoption registers will be subject to the draft affirmative procedure. We welcome that extra level of scrutiny. It improves the Bill. Those issues are central to ensuring that the adoption process is fair, safe and robust. I know that Members across the House want the Bill to be at its best in those areas. On searching adoption registers, it will be important to consider privacy issues. I would welcome the Minister's views on how that can be guaranteed so as to be as robust as possible.

Amendment No 45 directs that the Department must report on implementation of the provisions of the Act within three years and once every five years thereafter. That is a welcome proposal, although it would be useful to understand the reason for the different reporting periods of five years for the Adoption Act and three years for the Children Order. If that could be clarified to explain the disparity, it would be greatly appreciated. Amendment No 51 ensures that legal aid will not be funded for the provision of advice, assistance or representation to any children's court guardian. That maintains parity with children's representation under the Children Order.

Finally in this group, amendment Nos 58 and 59 repeal outdated legislation from the Hague convention, an international adoption convention that is no longer in operation. We have no objection to that repeal. It is important that the position of those adopted under the former provisions retain their rights as part of any new framework.

I thank the Minister and his officials and, indeed, the Committee Clerk and team for the huge amount of work that has been done on the Bill. It is important that we also thank all of those who gave evidence to the Committee, whether in writing or verbally. I thank them for their very important input to such a really important Bill. The amendments would improve the Bill, and, as such, my party colleagues and I commend them to the House

Mr McGrath: Likewise, I begin by offering my best wishes to the Minister. You may look fine and well on a TV screen, but I appreciate you were catching for breath a few times in your contribution. I wish you all the best in your recovery from COVID.

This is an important debate, and the Adoption and Children Bill is an important piece of draft legislation. What we are discussing is another example of what this place can stand for when we achieve and work collectively and look forward progressively. I say that because it is 20 years since our adoption legislation was last amended. Society has progressed and operational systems have changed.

What has remained constant, however, is the fact that there are still children who require adoptive families, stability and consistency in their lives. They require a place that they can call home. We need to look forward and ensure that our adoption system is fit for 2022 and not stuck in 1995.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this group of amendments. The Health Committee spent considerable time and effort on its deliberations on and scrutiny of the Bill and the amendments that we are discussing today. I thank the Chair and the Deputy Chair of the Committee for guiding us through that process. I also thank the Committee staff team, who liaised with the Department to prepare, at very short notice, detailed papers providing us with information on what is a large and, in places, complex Bill.

For the most part, the Committee was able to agree on the amendments and work with the Department to achieve the best possible Bill for children. That cross-party support and scrutiny is important. We also engaged with and listened to a variety of groups from the sector. We heard evidence from the Children's Commissioner, the Department, Barnardo's, Family Routes and many more. Those organisations told us that our systems need to be less bureaucratic and that the needs of the child should be to the fore. That is what the Bill seeks to achieve.

The amendments in the first group are particularly relevant to that outcome. For the most part, amendment Nos 1, 2, 22 to 46 and 48 to 60 are technical amendments that reflect our recent vote to dissolve the Health and Social Care Board, to strip down the levels of bureaucracy and to make the system much more accessible. If we can help our adoption system become less bureaucratic and more efficient, that will help the children and young people who are still waiting on a permanent home.

Last year, we saw 57 children across the North adopted from care. They now have a home. Some 47% of them, however, had to spend between three and five years in care before they could be adopted. That is three to five years of instability, inconsistency and change. Although we acknowledge the sterling work that is done by carers and foster carers, and although those children are undoubtedly resilient, we must do more to cut down those times as much as possible. Hopefully, that is what the amendments will do: streamline the system. In an effort to make our adoption system more transparent and more efficient, we in the SDLP are happy to support the amendments in group 1.

Mr Chambers: I join other Members in wishing the Minister a speedy and full recovery. I am confident that double vaccination and the booster will help him achieve that outcome.

I am glad that the Bill has reached this stage. The legislation, which is long overdue, represents the largest overhaul of adoption legislation in almost 35 years. As the Minister said, it has been long awaited by all who are involved in the adoption process. Today marks one step closer to crossing the finish line. The Bill has faced many challenges, not least passing through the Executive last summer and, in recent weeks, the brief uncertainty over whether the Assembly would still be in place to allow it to continue its passage. Fortunately, however, common sense has prevailed.

Given the breadth of the Bill, I am pleased that we have been able to reach this stage with a strong degree of political consensus. Although there are quite a number of amendments in the group, many largely relate to the abolition of the Health and Social Care Board, while others, such as amendment Nos 43 and 44, relate to regulation-making powers.

I welcome the Minister's support for the Committee's amendment No 45, which concerns a review of the implementation of the Bill. It is important, given the Bill's size and importance, that appropriate reviews and reporting mechanisms be put in place.

Finally, as was touched on earlier, we face a major shortfall in legal provision for the preservation of records from mother-and-baby institutions. It is important that the House keep all options open on that vital issue.

Mrs Erskine: I, too, wish the Minister well as he has to endure COVID. I wish the Swann household well in its isolation.

Everybody has said it so far today, but it cannot be overestimated how overdue this piece of legislation is, and I welcome its progress to date.


3.00 pm

The challenge and the need for the legislation is clear, as over recent years there has been a decline in the number of adopters. As the Chair outlined, the range of information that was given in evidence to the Health Committee by adopters and foster carers, as well as organisations and agencies, has detailed at times why that may be the case. It is important that we change the narrative around adoption and fostering. It is sometimes seen as a very difficult path, yet it is so enriching, as, by becoming an adoptive or fostering family, you are giving our children and young people opportunity and hope. The overriding aim of the Bill is to place the child's interests at the heart of every stage of the adoption process. Of course, that is something that all parties can and should unite around.

There are certain amendments in the first group that I would like to deal with in particular. It is important to stress that many of the provisions in the Bill relate to enabling powers and future scrutiny of the regulations that are drafted. On that basis, they will be critical to monitoring the impact of the legislation.

In considering amendment Nos 1 to 42, amendment Nos 48 to 50, amendment Nos 52 to 57 and amendment No 60, the need to ensure that any future reconfiguration of how services are commissioned maintains the high levels of accountability and input in relation to adoption services must be stressed.

Amendment No 45 directs that the Department must report on the implementation of provisions of the Act within three years and once every five years afterwards. That is a welcome proposal that will ensure robust scrutiny, although it would have been useful to understand the reason for the different reporting periods for the Bill — five years — and the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 — three years — to ensure a level playing field, so to speak, for the children they impact on.

My colleague Pam Cameron dealt with the amendments in the group in her contribution, which is why I am keeping my comments brief. Suffice to say, I support the amendments.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call the Minister of Health to make his winding-up speech on the first group of amendments. Like everyone else here, Minister, I wish you all the very best for a full and speedy recovery.

Mr Swann: Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank Members for their good wishes. As Mr Chambers said, the fact that I am able to be here today and take this Consideration Stage is testament to the power of the vaccine and the booster doses.

I thank Members for their contributions to the debate on the first group of amendments, which has focused mostly on the technical and consequential issues. In response to Mr Allister's earlier point of order — I am not sure whether he is in the Chamber — I can assure him that I would rather be in the Chamber in person. If any Member needs clarity on any point that I am unable to provide today, I will follow up with them directly in writing following today's debate.

A number of Members referenced the long overdue need for this update of the legislation. That is why I welcome that we are where we are today. It is worth noting that the last Health Minister to try to get legislation of this nature to this stage was my party colleague, Michael McGimpsey.

I acknowledge a number of recommendations that were made by members of the Health Committee in its report that, whilst falling outside the direct purview of the Bill, are nonetheless relevant to my Department's broader objective of providing effective support to looked-after children, children in need and children who leave care. I can assure Members that I have noted the matters that have been raised and that my Department will give due consideration to each of the recommendations that were made in the Committee's report.

As I indicated, I have tabled amendments to four clauses that the Examiner of Statutory Rules highlighted and the Chair raised. The regulations to be made under the remaining clauses — 24, 52 and 77 — are mainly procedural in nature and, on that basis, should remain subject to the negative resolution procedure. However, I am content to work with the Committee on what is tabled at Further Consideration Stage.

In clause 24, "Contact: supplementary", while the regulations to be made relate to refusing contact, they do not specify the grounds on which contact may be refused. Rather, it is intended that they would specify who must be informed when contact is refused, and this would include the child, the prospective adopter and any person for whom contact is made possible by way of a court order. I am not sure who else would need to be considered.

It is also intended that regulations would specify what needs to take place in advance of the decision to refuse contact. That is intended to include the agreement of the child, prior to consultation with the prospective adopter, and a written, rather than a verbal, agreement. It is important to note that the reason on which such decisions should be based is set out in the Bill, that is clause 24(2), which provides that an agency may refuse to allow contact if:

"it is satisfied that it is necessary to do so in order to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare;
and the refusal is decided upon as a matter of urgency and does not last for more than seven days."

Therefore, on the basis that these regulations are intended to specify the process around a decision to refuse contact rather than the grounds on which contact might be refused, I remain of the view that affirmative resolution procedure is not necessary.

Clause 52 is the "Modification of Children Order in relation to adoption". That clause enables the Department to make regulations applying, with modifications, or disapplying certain provisions of the Children Order in relation to a child whom an adoption authority has placed or is authorised to place for adoption. So, once an adoption agency has been authorised to place a child for adoption, that child becomes looked after, and the Children Order should, as a result, apply. However, some adjustments are required that will take account of the fact that requirements under the Bill also now apply. It is not appropriate to have a continuing duty to promote contact under the Children Order, as contact will be agreed as part of the placement for adoption arrangements under the Bill. Indeed, that could cause issue, if the court has already imposed certain restrictions on contact as part of the placement arrangements. Likewise, the requirements under the Children Order to seek the views of the parent no longer need to apply. That does not mean that their views will not be sought, because clause 3 of the Bill requires the adoption agency, in coming to any decision about a child's adoption, to have regard to the wishes and feelings of the children's relatives. Finally, any requirements under the Children Order for the child's parent to make contributions to the child's maintenance will also be disapplied, which, in the circumstances, is right and proper.

It is important to highlight the fact that the regulations to be made under clause 52 will not amend any provision in the Children Order, and such provision will just not apply in this specific set of circumstances. I consider that this is a technical necessity to avoid the duplication of duties and any confusion that might arise as a consequence. As a result, I do not consider the affirmative resolution procedure is required or necessary, and we should keep our approach consistent with that taken in England and Wales in relation to similar regulations.

Clause 77 is the adopted children register "Searches and copies". The clause creates a power to prescribe in regulations the information that must be provided to the Registrar General on seeking to obtain certified a copy of an entry in the adopted children register relating to an adopted person who has not attained the age of 18 years. These regulations will be made by the Department of Finance. It is anticipated that the information required to be provided will be the full name and date of birth of the adopted person, the full names of the adoptive parents and the minimum information required to support identification. The details are the same as those currently prescribed in regulations that are required when an adopted person over the age of 18 applies for their birth certificate and when an adopted person under the age of 18 is applying for information about whether they and the person they intend to marry may be within the prohibited degrees of relationship.

The regulations prescribing this were made by way of negative resolution procedure. I do not consider that it would be appropriate for regulation that is to be made under clause 77 of the Bill, which may actually be an amendment to the existing 95 regulations, to be subject to a different procedure from those original regulations. As the matters will be prescribed already, as applied to existing applications to the General Register Office (GRO), I consider that the affirmative resolution procedure will not be necessary. I am, however, content to explore that with the Committee between now and Further Consideration Stage.

With regard to cross-border placements and care, under both current law and the Bill, adoptive parents and children in Northern Ireland are afforded the same access to assessment for adoption support, regardless of whether the adoption took place in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland or overseas. In particular, clause 2(8) makes clear that the adoption service is comprehensive and is intended to include domestic and inter-country adoption. All adoptions between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, whether or not they involve relatives, are treated in legal terms as inter-country adoption. A North/South protocol for handling inter-jurisdictional child cases, including kinship placements, has been in place since 2011. That protocol was recently revised, and an updated version was agreed by the North/South Ministerial Council child protection officials group and came into effect on 1 August 2021. It will be subject to annual review by relevant authorities in both jurisdictions. It provides a framework to assist relevant social work authorities in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to work together in relation to children and/or families known to social services who move or are placed across the border. I am happy to supply that information to the Committee. We are exploring whether, under the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption and/or domestic legislation, there is scope to establish a special arrangement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, with the aim of streamlining or harmonising current practice and/or procedure relating to the adoption of children between the two jurisdictions.

Officials will give careful further consideration to SGOs and their application on a North/South basis. On EU exit, which the Chair raised, my Department's legal advisers have confirmed that the 1996 Hague Convention provides the necessary cover in place of the Brussels 11A regulation, which no longer applies.

On social work vacancies and challenges, which the Committee Chair also mentioned, the Department has recently completed a review of the social work workforce; it is with the Department of Health programme board for consideration and approval. The review report includes projections for the number of social workers needed to meet current and future service demands. Those projections include the number of additional social workers who will be required on the basis of demographics and analysis of current and future needs. There is also a significant body of work that needs to be implemented on commissioning, recruitment, retention and development of our workforce. An implementation board is being established to oversee the implementation of the review's recommendations, which will address those workforce issues, including vacancies, and build a strong social work workforce. A collaborative regional approach to recruitment of band 5 and band 6 social workers in health and social care trusts commenced last year. Whilst it needs to be formally evaluated, there is general consensus among all trusts that, on the whole, it was a worthwhile approach to take.

My Department also intends to develop legislation on safe staffing levels that will apply to all professional groups, including social workers. The Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC) has built an excellent resource on its website to encourage and guide people through the application process to become a social worker. As a result of that activity and investment over the past three years, applications to the degree programmes have increased significantly. In recognition of increased demand for social workers and as a commitment to providing more career progression opportunities for social care workers, my Department has invested initially in 15 Open University undergraduate social work places, which commenced in the last financial year.

The review of children's services will also inform actions that will build the capacity of children and family social services.


3.15 pm

It is clear just how many important issues this Bill touches on and how important it is that we get it right. What we are talking about today will impact on the lives of some of the most vulnerable children, on the arrangements for their future care and on the ability of caregivers to provide that care. We should not forget about that as we debate and take decisions on these amendments and amendments in the subsequent groups. That brings me to the end of my concluding remarks on the group 1 amendments.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment No 2 made:

In page 4, line 9, leave out subsection (5). — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5 (Assessments etc. for adoption support services)

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): We move to the group 2 amendments. I remind Members that all contributors should address the amendments that have been selected for debate and that Members had the opportunity to debate the general principles of the Bill during the previous stage.

We now come to the second group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 3, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 4 to 13 and amendment No 47. In this group, amendment Nos 7, 8 and 10 are consequential to amendment No 6, and amendment No 13 is consequential to amendment No 11.

Glaoim ar Chathaoirleach an Choiste Sláinte, Colm Gildernew, leasú uimhir a trí a mholadh agus na leasuithe eile sa ghrúpa a thabhairt faoinár mbráid. I call the Chair of the Committee for Health, Mr Colm Gildernew, to move amendment No 3 and to address the other amendments in the group.

In page 5, line 14, leave out "that person is within a prescribed description." and insert—

"—

(a) that person is a child who may be adopted;

(b) that person is a parent or guardian of a child who may be adopted;

(c) that person is a person wishing to adopt a child;

(d) that person is an adopted person;

(e) that person is a parent, natural parent or former guardian of an adopted person; and

(f) that person is within a prescribed description."

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 4: In clause 102, page 60, line 20, at end insert—

"(aa) assisting a natural parent of a person referred to in paragraph (a) to obtain information in relation to that person’s adoption; and". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 5: In clause 102, page 60, line 21, leave out "such persons" and insert "persons referred to in paragraph (a)". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 6: In clause 102, page 60, line 24, at end insert—

"(2A) Regulations under section 9 may make provision for the purpose of authorising or requiring adoption agencies in prescribed circumstances to disclose or provide access to prescribed information relating to the adoption of a person adopted before the appointed day who has attained the age of 18." — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 7: In clause 102, page 60, line 34, leave out lines 34 and 35 and insert—

"(4A) For a purpose within subsection (1), (2) or (2A) the regulations may impose conditions on the disclosure of information, including conditions restricting its further disclosure." — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 8: In clause 102, page 60, line 37, after "subsection" insert "(2A) or". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 9: In clause 102, page 60, line 38, after "(4)(b)" insert—

"; but an adopted person (‘A’) may not be required to pay any fee in respect of any information disclosed to A or to which A was provided access". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 10: In clause 102, page 60, line 40, after "subsection" insert "(2A) or". — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 11: In clause 119, page 71, leave out lines 19 to 30 and insert—

"(3) An authority must at the request of—

(a) a relevant child;

(b) a special guardian of a relevant child;