Official Report: Tuesday 01 March 2022


The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Allister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Some time ago, you wrote to us all to advise that, due to the pressure of business in the House as we approach the end of the mandate, you were encouraging Ministers to make only oral statements that were necessary and to make further use of written ministerial statements. Yesterday, we had a frankly self-congratulatory statement about the high street scheme. It is quite clear that an election is coming. Today, we have a statement from the Communities Minister that amounts to giving us a date, and we have two other statements. Do Ministers not heed the advice that you give them?

Mr Speaker: Mr Allister makes a fair point. I wrote to Ministers, as Mr Allister said, to point out that we are coming to the end of the mandate, and we are working very hard to complete a substantial legislative programme, on which, thankfully, we are making significant headway. As with all these things, there is a balance to be struck. I am not going to comment on the wisdom or substance of any particular statement that a Minister will make in the Chamber. I suppose that we could be at fault; during the year, we normally ask Ministers to make as many statements to the House as possible. At the moment, we are asking them to consider that and to make only those that they consider to be important oral statements.

As I said, I do not want to make a judgement on the wisdom or otherwise, or the merit, of any statement, but, on the back of Mr Allister's point of order, I rehearse that we have somewhere in the region of 10 plenary days left, within which we have to try our best to complete a substantial legislative programme. I think that all Members will commend the parties that are exercising discipline by putting up fewer Members to speak, ensuring that they make shorter contributions and doing away with some of the more repetitious contributions that have been made at various legislative stages. I appeal to Members to maintain the discipline that has been shown to a large degree in the past weeks. It is a punishing programme, but we are a legislative Assembly, and that is what we are here to deliver.

As Speaker, I am very pleased to be able to say that we are doing really well in the passing of legislation. Every time that we have a plenary sitting, we complete a number of Final Stages, and that is to be welcomed. I appeal to Members to continue to exercise the kind of discipline and political maturity that we need to make sure that we bring to the House only matters that are significant or important and worthwhile bringing to the House for scrutiny and accountability. Again, I continue to commend the parties and Members who are exercising that discipline when these debates are going on. You can see from today's Order Paper that we are likely to be here until midnight and possibly beyond. I do not welcome that. In fact, I join Members in thinking that that is certainly not the way to go. However, I repeat that we have possibly 10 further days of plenary sittings in which to complete a fairly significant amount of legislation. I thank Mr Allister for raising that point of order, and, hopefully, it will be duly noted by all the relevant Ministers.

28 February 2022

Mr Speaker: Members, the first item of business in the Order Paper is the consideration of Executive business not concluded yesterday. When the sitting adjourned, Further Consideration Stage of the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill remained unfinished, so we will return to that now. After that, we will take the motion from the Public Accounts Committee before starting today's business, which will commence with a statement from the Minister for the Economy.

Executive Committee Business

Debate [suspended on 28 February 2022] resumed.

Clause 29 (Requirements for proposals and policies under section 28)

Amendment No 40 proposed:

In page 11, line 32, after "Ireland" insert—

", recognising that the island of Ireland is a single biogeographic unit,". — [Mr McGuigan.]

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

Mr Speaker: The Question will be put again in three minutes. I remind Members that we should continue to uphold social distancing and that those who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come into the Chamber.

Question, That the amendment be made, put a second time.

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. I remind all Members of the requirement for social distancing while the Division takes place. I ask Members to ensure that they retain a gap of at least 2 metres between themselves and others when moving around the Chamber or the Rotunda, and especially in the Lobbies.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Amendment No 41 proposed:

In page 11, line 36, at end insert—

"(c) commission a financial, social, economic and rural impact assessment on the effects of the proposals and policies." — [Mr McGuigan.]

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Mr Speaker: I have been advised by the party Whips that, in accordance with Standing Order 113(5)(b), there is agreement that we can dispense with the three-minute rule and move straight to the Division.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Amendment No 42 proposed:

In page 11, line 36, at end insert—

"(d) give due regard to the special economic and social role of agriculture, including with regard to the distinct characteristics of biogenic methane." — [Mr McGuigan.]

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

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

Amendment No 43 made:

In page 12, line 37, leave out subsection (5). — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I will not call amendment No 44 as it is mutually exclusive to amendment No 43, which has been made.

Amendment No 45 made:

In page 13, line 4, leave out "report under section 28" and insert "climate action plan". — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Amendment No 46 made:

In page 13, line 5, leave out "report" and insert "plan". — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Amendment No 47 made:

In page 13, line 6, leave out subsections (9) and (10). — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I will not call amendment No 48 as it is mutually exclusive to amendment No 47, which has been made. I will not call amendment No 49 as it is also mutually exclusive to amendment No 47.

Amendment No 50 made:

In page 13, line 10, leave out "or (10)". — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Amendment No 51 made:

In page 13, line 11, leave out subsection (12). — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Amendment No 52 proposed:

In page 13, line 14, at end insert—

"(13) Each report under Section 28 must explain how the Department intends to mitigate against any negative effects uncovered in the relevant financial, social, economic and rural impact assessment." — [Mr McGuigan.]

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 30 (Just Transition Fund for Agriculture)

Amendment No 53 made:

Leave out clause 30 and insert—

"Just Transition Fund for Agriculture

30.—(1) The Department must by regulations establish a scheme for the administration of a fund to be known as the ‘Just Transition Fund for Agriculture’ for the purpose of providing advice and financial assistance to the agriculture sector to deliver its contribution under proposals and policies for the purposes of section 28.

(2) The regulations may make provision—

(a) for determining eligibility or entitlement for advice or assistance under the scheme;

(b) regarding applications (if any) for advice or assistance under the scheme;

(c) imposing conditions or restrictions in connection with the scheme;

(d) requiring persons to provide specified information, or imposing other obligations on them, in connection with the scheme;

(e) conferring functions on the Department or other public bodies in connection with the scheme;

(f) about steps to be taken to bring the scheme to the attention of persons likely to be eligible for assistance under it;

(g) about the enforcement of obligations imposed by or by virtue of the regulations (which may include a power for the Department impose financial penalties);

(h) about the general administration of the scheme, including provision for the review of decisions taken under the scheme and for dealing with disputes as to eligibility or entitlement under the scheme;

(i) about any other matter which appears to the Department to be necessary or appropriate for the efficient and effective administration of the scheme.

(3) If the scheme provides for financial assistance, the regulations may make provision—

(a) for the assistance to be given in any form, including, in particular, by way of a grant, loan or guarantee;

(b) for determining the extent of assistance (including for the calculation of payments that are to be made);

(c) for the assistance to be provided subject to such conditions as may be specified in, or determined in accordance with, the scheme;

(d) for those conditions to include (in the case of a grant) conditions for repayment in specified circumstances;

(e) for assistance to be provided—

(i) directly to those entitled to receive it under the scheme; or
(ii) indirectly (for example by being made to a public body on terms which require that body to provide financial assistance to those so entitled)." — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Clause 31 (Policies and proposals: targets)

Amendment No 54 made:

In page 13, line 21, leave out "Policies and proposals under section 28 shall" and insert "Climate action plans must". — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Amendment No 55 made:

In page 13, line 34, at end insert—

"(3) Climate action plans must also include annual targets on—

(a) greenhouse gas emissions, and
(b) air quality." — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Clause 32 (Policies and proposals: further provision)

Amendment No 56 made:

In page 14, line 14, leave out "in relation to the exercise of its functions" and insert—

"regarding matters in relation to which it has functions". — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Amendment No 57 not moved.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): There are some complications, Members. To be clear, as amendment No 58 is an amendment to amendment No 57, which has not been moved, I will not call amendment No 58.

Clause 34 (Policies and proposals: impact on small businesses)

Amendment No 59 proposed:

Leave out clause 34 and insert—

"Proposals and policies: workforce, employers and communities
34.—(1) Each climate action plan must—

(a) explain how the proposals and policies set out in the plan are expected to affect the workforce, employers and communities; and

(b) include proposals and policies for supporting the workforce, employers and communities.

(2) The explanation, proposals and policies included under subsection (1) must make particular reference to small businesses.

(3) In subsection (2), a ‘small business’ is a business that employs fewer than 50 persons.
(4) The Department may by regulations amend subsection (3); and such regulations may define a small business by reference to such matters (or combination of matters) as the Department considers appropriate (including, in particular, the number of its employees, its turnover and its balance sheet)." — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): As amendment Nos 60 and 61 are amendments to amendment No 59, we need to dispose of them before returning to amendment No 59.

Amendment No 60, as an amendment to amendment No 59, made:

In subsection (1), leave out "climate action plan" and insert "report under section 28". — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Amendment No 61, as an amendment to amendment No 59, made:

In subsection (1)(a), leave out "plan" and insert "report". — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Amendment No 59, as amended, made:

Leave out clause 34 and insert—

"Proposals and policies: workforce, employers and communities
34.(1) Each report under section 28 must—
(a) explain how the proposals and policies set out in the report are expected to affect the workforce, employers and communities; and
(b) include proposals and policies for supporting the workforce, employers and communities.
(2) The explanation, proposals and policies included under subsection (1) must make particular reference to small businesses.
(3) In subsection (2), a ‘small business’ is a business that employs fewer than 50 persons.
(4) The Department may by regulations amend subsection (3); and such regulations may define a small business by reference to such matters (or combination of matters) as the Department considers appropriate (including, in particular, the number of its employees, its turnover and its balance sheet)." — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Clause 35 (Policies and proposals: carbon leakage)

Amendment No 62 made:

Leave out clause 35 and insert—

"Proposals and policies: carbon leakage

35.—(1) In deciding its proposals and policies for the purposes of section 28, each Northern Ireland department must take into account—

(a) the risk of that implementation of those proposals and policies will result in carbon leakage, and

(b) the desirability of eliminating or minimising that risk.

(2) ‘Carbon leakage’ means the transfer of the production of goods (including agricultural goods) and the provision of services to countries without comparable climate change policies.
(3) In subsection (2), ‘comparable climate change policies’ are policies that are intended to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for the country in question which are equivalent to the targets set out in sections 1, 3 and 4, by the years set out in those sections." — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Clause 36 (Just Transition Commission)

Amendment No 63 made:

Leave out clause 36 and insert—

"Just Transition Commission

36.—(1) The Department must by regulations establish a body to be known as the ‘Just Transition Commission’.

(2) The functions of the Commission are to—

(a) oversee the implementation of the just transition elements of this Act, and

(b) provide advice to the Northern Ireland departments on how to ensure that proposals, policies, strategies and plans required under this Act comply with the just transition principle.

(3) Regulations under subsection (1)—

(a) must make provision for the constitution of the Commission (including, in particular, its membership, general powers and proceedings);

(b) may provide that the Commission is established as a body corporate (and that section 19 of the Interpretation Act (Northern Ireland) 1954 applies to it with such modifications (if any) as may be prescribed in the regulations);

(c) may make provision for the payment of remuneration and allowances to members of the Commission, and for the defraying of its expenses;

(d) may make provision in relation to accounting, reporting and record-keeping by the Commission;

(e) may make such further provision in relation to the Commission as the Department considers appropriate.

(4) Regulations made by virtue of subsection (3)(a) must provide for the members of the Commission to include a representative of each of the following—

(a) the agricultural sector;

(b) the fisheries sector;

(c) academia;

(d) trade unions;

(e) youth groups;

(f) civic society;

(g) environmental groups.
(But this does not prevent the regulations from providing for other persons to be members of the Commission.)

(5) Regulations under subsection (1) may also make provision about the functions of the Commission, including provision specifying—

(a) how the oversight function is to be performed;
(b) what the just transition elements of this Act are." — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Clause 37 (Interim progress reporting for budgetary period)

Amendment No 64 made:

In page 15, line 12, leave out "report" and insert "climate action plan". — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Clause 38 (Final statement for budgetary period)

Amendment No 65 made:

In page 16, line 11, leave out "report" and insert "climate action plan". — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Clause 49 (Northern Ireland Climate Commissioner)

Amendment No 66 made:

Leave out clause 49 and insert—

"Northern Ireland Climate Commissioner

49.—(1) The Executive Office must by regulations establish an independent office known as the ‘Northern Ireland Climate Commissioner’.

(2) The functions of the Commissioner are to oversee and report on the operations of this Act.

(3) Regulations under subsection (1)—

(a) must make provision for the appointment of the Commissioner;

(b) may provide that the Commissioner is to be a corporation sole;

(c) may make provision about the general powers of the Commissioner;

(d) may make provision for the payment of remuneration and allowances to the Commissioner, and for the defraying of the Commissioner’s expenses;

(e) make provision in relation to accounting, reporting and record-keeping by the Commissioner;

(f) may make provision for the appointment of officers and staff by the Commissioner;

(g) may make provision about the acquisition and disposal by the Commissioner of property, rights and liabilities (including land);

(h) make such further provision in relation to the Commissioner as the Executive Office considers appropriate.

(4) Regulations under subsection (1) may also make provision about the functions of the

Commissioner, including provision specifying how the oversight and reporting functions are to be performed.
(5) The first regulations under subsection (1) must be laid in draft before the Assembly within the period of 2 years beginning with the day on which this Act receives Royal Assent." — [Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I will not call amendment No 67, as it is mutually exclusive to amendment No 66, which has been made. I will not call amendment No 68, as it is mutually exclusive to amendment No 66, which has been made.

Clause 50 (Climate action plan)

Amendment No 69 made:

In page 21, line 11, leave out "3 years" and insert "24 months". — [Mr McGuigan.]

Amendment No 70 proposed:

In page 21, line 13, after "must" insert—

"commission a financial, social, economic and rural impact assessment on the effects of the draft climate action plan and". — [Mr McGuigan.]

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Again, Members, I ask you to maintain social distancing during the voting.

The Assembly divided:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members will be pleased to learn that that concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments before the next item of business.

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

Committee Business

That this Assembly takes note of the following Public Accounts Committee reports:

'Major Capital Projects' [NIA 46/17-22];

'Management of the NI Direct Strategic Partner Project – helping to deliver Digital Transformation and The LandWeb Project: An Update' [NIA 68/17-22';

'Impact Review of Special Educational Needs' [NIA 75/17-22];

'Capacity and Capability in the Northern Ireland Civil Service [NIA 97/17-22];

'Driver and Vehicle Agency 2019-20' [NIA 101/17-22];

'Generating Electricity from Renewable Energy' [NIA 123/17-22]; and

'Speeding up the Justice System' [NIA 127/17-22];

and the following Department of Finance memoranda of reply:

'Major Capital Projects';

'Management of the NI Direct Strategic Partner Project – helping to deliver Digital Transformation and The LandWeb Project: An Update';

'Impact Review of Special Educational Needs';

'Capacity and Capability in the Northern Ireland Civil Service';

'Driver and Vehicle Agency 2019-20';

'Generating Electricity from Renewable Energy'; and

'Speeding up the Justice System'.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Business Committee has agreed to allocate two hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 15 minutes to propose and 15 minutes to make a winding-up speech. The Finance Minister — an tAire Airgeadais — will have 20 minutes to respond, and all other Members who speak will have seven minutes.

Mr Humphrey: As Chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), I welcome the opportunity to provide the House with an overview in this take-note debate of the PAC's seven published reports so far. In doing so, I will provide the House with an overview of the important issues that the Committee has grappled with in a variety of different areas of government and pull together some of the key themes emerging from our work. That will be important to Members and our successor Committee in the new mandate. The Committee has sought to complete as much work as is possible to identify the areas to be taken forward in the next mandate. I emphasise the constructive contribution that the Committee has sought to make to the review and reform of public services and to the delivery of value for money and principles throughout government here in Northern Ireland.

Before I open the discussion, it is important that I give thanks, on behalf of the Committee, to the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr Kieran Donnelly CB, and his team at the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO). The support that they have provided to the Committee has been invaluable. I also thank those who provided evidence to the Committee to inform our work. That is crucial to the Committee's effective carrying out of its functions.

I also take this opportunity to thank the Deputy Chair, Mr Beggs, and my other colleagues on the Committee. I do not think that we had a single vote in the past two years and more, so thank you very much to my colleagues.

In total, the PAC will have completed 14 reports by the end of the mandate. Seven of the reports being debated today have been published with memorandums of reply (MORs). That allows me to provide the House with a more complete sense of the response made to the Committee's recommendations in those areas. At the end of my speech, I will summarise the issues that have been cross-cutting across all the reports, identifying the thematic issues and monitoring the progress within and across the Departments to improve the functioning of government, which will be critical in the longer term. The work of our successor Committee in the new mandate will continue to be crucial to promoting accountability, transparency and commitment to good governance in Northern Ireland.

I will start with the 'Major Capital Projects' report. The focus is on the 11 high-profile, high-value infrastructure projects, including the A5, the A6, Casement Park, as part of the regional stadia programme, and the subregional stadia programme for football. Over an eight-year period from 1 April 2011 to 31 March 2019, almost £10·6 billion was spent on infrastructure projects. It was estimated that, by the end of March 2021, more than £14·8 billion would have been spent on those projects.

Each of the major capital projects suffered from time delays and cost overruns against the total timescales and budgets to a total value of £700 million. The Committee was shocked by the delays and cost overruns, including those associated with securing planning permission and the scale of judicial reviews. The Committee notes the importance of genuine concerns being addressed by judicial reviews but wondered whether a new balance could be struck to avoid vexatious challenges. The Committee notes that the £700 million of cost overruns could have been better invested in our schools, hospitals, roads and, of course, transport network. In short, not only was the system for commissioning and delivering major capital projects overcomplicated but it was clear that many of the senior staff did not have the relevant experience or expertise to allow them to deliver the projects within the agreed timescales and budgets.

One of the major recommendations coming out of the report was for senior staff to have the correct skill sets and experience to deliver major capital projects. We are pleased that that recommendation has been accepted by the Department. The Department has also accepted the recommendation for action to strengthen accountability and transparency for major projects. The Committee was disturbed to find that there was no single oversight body whose function is to ensure that projects are being delivered properly. Central overview is critical to improving project delivery. The Committee's report strongly recommends that Northern Ireland should have the same kind of oversight body that other jurisdictions have. The Department accepted in principle a further recommendation for independent non-executive members with a commercial background to be added to the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) board. In all, the PAC made 15 recommendations in the report, many of which have been accepted in full or in part by the Department. The recommendations will drive a large part of the reform agenda in that area.

Our report on digital transformation and the LandWeb project focused on a project designed to deliver a digital transformation to the Northern Ireland Civil Service, as well as LandWeb, which was a project to provide online access to Northern Ireland's Land Registry, Registry of Deeds and Statutory Charges Register. The Committee examined the two projects, both awarded to British Telecom (BT), to look at the way that each project was awarded and managed and at whether they provided value for money. The Committee took evidence from the permanent secretary and other officials in the Department of Finance, and, frankly, we were shocked at the inadequate negotiation and management of those two contracts. One thing that really stood out was the number of times that the contracts were rolled over to the benefit of BT. In the case of nidirect, the Department misunderstood the terms of the contract and was forced to extend it for three years as a result of failing to put alternative delivery mechanisms in place.

A new tender for LandWeb will not come into force until later this year, meaning that the contract will have been in place for 25 years, eight years beyond the original time frame. The result of the contract extensions means that the Executive have had to increase their payment to BT by over £120 million. The overall costs incurred are more than double the original contracted values.

The PAC made 11 recommendations in the report, and the Finance Minister accepted them all in full or in part. They included the need for a "deep culture audit" of contract management and related skills, robust monitoring of contract management and continuity and training of staff on the projects.


12.00 noon

The PAC is still concerned, however, that all Executive Department contracts must provide value for money for the consumer and the public purse. It is vital that Departments take immediate steps to guarantee that contracts are managed effectively, including by ensuring that staff have appropriate contract management and commercial skills and awareness. All projects must employ the necessary skills and experience to ensure that projects have staff continuity — staff were continually moved, resulting in loss of knowledge and experience — and, where that is not possible, training and access to new knowledge and transfer of skills should compensate for it. If local people are to have confidence that public moneys are being allocated and spent with consideration for value for money, the recommendations in the report must be implemented.

The next of our reports on which I will focus is on special educational needs (SEN). No inquiry that the Committee conducted in the past two years was more important than that one on investing in our young people. The report examines the way in which the Department of Education and the Education Authority (EA) support children with special educational needs, including those in mainstream schools. It looked at the period from 2015 to 2020, during which the Department and the authority spent more than £1·3 billion on supporting children with special educational needs, with costs rising each year.

An Audit Office report reviewed SEN practices in 2017. A follow-up in September 2020 found that none of the recommendations in 2017 had been fully implemented. The 2017 report noted:

"no strategic evaluation of the support provided to [SEN] children"

was conducted in order to ensure that the "best possible outcomes" were delivered. The Department spent over £3·6 billion on reviewing its practices in more than 13 years, with the Audit Office noting that unacceptable issues persisted.

We were disappointed to find a culture in the Education Authority that allowed it to deliver a substandard service continually for far too long. That is particularly clear in the operation of the statutory assessment process for SEN. The weaknesses failed families and, in particular, our children with special educational needs. That is intolerable and plainly wrong.

The Education Authority did not know how many children were seeking to access SEN support or why SEN was more prevalent in Northern Ireland than in any other jurisdiction in the UK. In the absence of such data, it was impossible to gauge the real demand for services and to identify the gaps in provision.

The PAC made seven recommendations, including on the need for independent reviews of the effectiveness of Education Authority and SEN processes. All the recommendations were accepted by the Department and should be taken forward to address dysfunctionality in the authority and to ensure that SEN processes are fit for purpose. That would help to build the confidence of the public and of families who rely on SEN provision for their children. As part of the external review, we would like to see an evaluation of all the types of SEN support that are provided. That should include benchmarking and data collection to demonstrate the progress that children make.

Although there is much to do to increase confidence in SEN provision, the Committee cannot and will not overlook the excellent work of those — indeed, we congratulate them — who deliver SEN services to children on a daily basis. The dedication of front-line staff is exemplary, and we applaud the fact that the educational attainment gap between children with and without SEN is closing. We recognise that commitment as steps are taken to embed reform; it is invaluable and deeply appreciated.

I will move on to the report on 'Capacity and Capability in the Northern Ireland Civil Service'. The report concentrated its investigation on the fundamental issues in the Northern Ireland Civil Service workforce: succession planning, recruitment and performance management. The PAC made 12 recommendations that it believes must be acted on in order to ensure that the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which employs some 22,000 staff, is fit to deliver the necessary public services to the people of Northern Ireland.

As a Committee, we were deeply appreciative of the exceptional work done by many civil servants across all Departments, particularly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, however, we were utterly shocked by the failure to ensure that the right number of people with the required skills, knowledge and expertise were in post.

The PAC identified the gap between where the NICS is and where it needs to be. It requires radical transformation. The Committee recommended that the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service be pivotal in driving fundamental transformation. Strong and decisive leadership from the top needs to drive the change, and it must include total commitment throughout the Senior Civil Service. Other recommendations included the fundamental revision of recruitment and selection, injecting independent, non-executive representation into the Northern Ireland Civil Service Board and delivering a Northern Ireland Civil Service that is wider in its representation of our workforce in Northern Ireland.

The Department accepted the vast bulk of the report's recommendations. Improving capacity and capability across the board is of huge strategic importance and will have a direct bearing on many of the issues that the Committee explores in specific areas of government. In the Committee's view, more needs to be done to strengthen the powers and role of the head of the Civil Service. Sadly, that was not taken up. We want the head of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland to have a role and powers that are similar to those of her opposite number in Scotland.

I move on to the report on the 'Driver and Vehicle Agency 2019-20', which follows two reviews commissioned by the Minister for Infrastructure. One was carried out by independent engineers; the other by the Northern Ireland Civil Service's internal audit and fraud investigation service. The Committee found that the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) had not correctly projected the lifespan of crucial equipment and that the scissor lifts, which were used to enable inspection of the underside of vehicles, did not have a phased programme for replacement. That led to a significant disruption of services that affected many homes in Northern Ireland as the lifts failed. Moreover, DVA used equipment that far exceeded the usual lifespan. It was a high-risk strategy that did not put health and safety first and placed workforce lives at risk.

As I am running out of time, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will now make a few points as a DUP member of the Committee. I draw attention to a report that we have just concluded, although we were unable to have the MOR for today: 'Closing the Gap'. As Members will know, that is close to all our hearts. It was a follow-up to the 'A Fair Start' report. That was produced after Peter Weir, when he was Education Minister, instigated work on closing the gap in educational attainment in working-class areas.

I pay tribute to Dr Noel Purdy and his team: Jackie Redpath, Mary Montgomery, Joyce Logue and Kathleen O'Hare. They did a fantastic job, and our Committee, in its report 'Closing the Gap', wants to build on that. We want to see government across Northern Ireland and across the Executive providing the resource to deliver for those young people. It is hugely important. There are files — cases of files — on this issue in Northern Ireland over the years. Sadly, there has never been a resolution. We need to see the gap being closed and government investing in our young people. All Departments should step up to that. We will push that to the head of the Civil Service when she returns to the Committee in the near future.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close, please.

Mr Humphrey: I also thank the Boys' Model School for allowing us to host the launch of the report there.

Mr McHugh: I will focus my remarks on the 'Major Capital Projects' PAC report. The Audit Office report on 'Major Capital Projects', released in December 2019, was illuminating and shocking. It identified 11 major capital projects, including seven flagship projects, that experienced huge delays, for various reasons, despite the vast resources provided to ensure their delivery.

Among the projects identified in the report were Casement Park, the A5, the Strule Shared Education Campus in Omagh and the regional children's hospital. Those projects have seen little to no progress over many years, with delays and cost overruns on a scale rarely seen elsewhere. Although the House regularly debates these projects, unfortunately, progress is frustratingly slow. These projects have faced setback after setback, including public inquiries, judicial reviews, procurement problems and funding issues.

It is recognised by all that the delivery of those major projects will provide a much-needed economic boost, as well as developing associated sectors such health, education, transport and sports.

The Public Accounts Committee looked at the issues that give rise to long delays in capital projects. One of the main factors is the high number of judicial reviews. Of particular concern is the A5 project in my constituency, which has been beset by legal issues from the outset. Far too often, we see tragic deaths on the A5. It is one of the most dangerous roads on the island of Ireland, and my heart goes out to the families who have lost ones on the A5. The simple fact is that, the more delays we have, the more grieving families there will be. Minister Mallon has said that another public inquiry must take place before work can commence. We need the Minister to give a firm commitment to when that inquiry will take place and to expedite it ASAP. The Audit Office has been investigating the JR process, and I eagerly await the publication of its findings. Perhaps lessons can be learned so that we do not get sucked into endless cycles of public inquiries and judicial reviews and citizens still have fundamental access to legal action, should they so choose.

Planning issues also often contribute to long delays. While planning powers were transferred to councils, the Department for Infrastructure retains planning powers over regionally significant applications. The proposed development of Casement Park is an example of how planning issues can cause huge delays. I hope that the issues have now been resolved and that we will soon see the long-awaited redevelopment of Casement Park commence.

Planning is an issue that the Public Accounts Committee has examined more recently, and the Department for Infrastructure is undertaking a review of the Planning Act 2011. Everyone who gave evidence to the Committee agreed that the system needed to work better and to work for the people. Departmental officials need to listen to the concerns of councils and statutory consultees to ensure that reforms can be brought forward that make sure that there is a more effective and efficient planning system that delivers for all.

Procurement is another area that impacts on the delivery of major capital projects. We need procurement policies that are fit for purpose and that deliver high-quality value-for-money contracts. Last year, the Minister of Finance restructured the Procurement Board to include representatives from the construction industry with skills and experience in delivering public-sector contracts. I welcome the renewed focus on the security of supply and the social value of public-sector contracts.

The Audit Office report identified multiple projects that suffered from funding issues. Projects that take place over a number of years need security of funding over their lifetime. That is necessary to attract the best contractors. There has been much discussion about the benefits of multi-year Budgets, particularly for our health service, but it must also be stressed how vital multi-year Budgets are for delivering major capital projects. It is extremely frustrating for all those in our community who wish to see the projects delivered that the first opportunity for a multi-year Budget in a decade has been jeopardised by the walkout by the DUP.

I hope that the next mandate will bring a renewed determination to see the delivery of major capital projects for the benefit of all our communities.

Mr Muir: I come here today as a member of the Public Accounts Committee to speak about two reports: 'Capacity and Capability in the Northern Ireland Civil Service'; and 'Major Capital Projects'. Both reports are vital, and they are interrelated. I will touch in due course on why I feel that that is the case.


12.15 pm

Being a member of the Public Accounts Committee for nearly two years and considering the reports that are presented to the Committee, it is clear to me that government has a number of roles. The first is to keep citizens safe. In the context of COVID-19, that role and aim of government has been clear. The primary duty of government is to keep citizens safe. It is also about delivering quality public services. We excel at that in many different ways. Lastly, it is about enabling economic growth and job creation and delivering thriving communities.

The role of the Civil Service is absolutely critical to what I have just outlined. I commend the role that the Civil Service has played, especially over the past two years in the context of COVID-19. There are many examples of when civil servants have gone way above and beyond their job descriptions and duties to assist the people of Northern Ireland, keep them safe and deliver good public services, and also to safeguard the economy and jobs.

In the context of what I have just outlined, the report 'Capacity and Capability in the Northern Ireland Civil Service' was extremely useful and important. The issue of the capacity and capability of the Northern Ireland Civil Service has arisen in multiple Public Accounts Committee inquiries, and is the theme that runs through most of the inquiries that we have considered. When considering the inquiry and report, and then the memorandum of reply that we received from the Department, key issues, such as workforce planning, recruitment and performance management were highlighted. Those are critical issues that came up as part of the inquiry and need to be addressed.

There is a high level of vacancies in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The last figure that I noted was over 1,400. There is also an elongated recruitment process. That adds to the challenges in the Civil Service, and is also an issue for people who consider applying, or who apply but go elsewhere because, by the time that they receive a job offer, it is too late.

One thing that I also picked up on in the inquiry was the significant over-reliance on the Strategic Investment Board. That needs to be addressed in order to ensure value for money.

The Department needs to give greater clarity on succession planning, taking into account that the Northern Ireland Civil Service has an ageing workforce. From my perspective, the principle of generalists also needs to be challenged. That is being considered in a number of areas, such as project and contract management, which I will touch on soon with regard to major capital projects.

On performance management, it came up that the performance of only 19 staff had been assessed as unsatisfactory, which equates to 0·1% of the total number of staff. That comes in the context of my view that the overwhelming, vast majority of civil servants whom we have the pleasure and honour of working for us in Northern Ireland are performing highly. However, we also need to have a performance management process in place.

The head of the Civil Service has a key role to play, as do the Civil Service commissioners. That arose in the recommendations for action. Change is needed in that regard. It is notable that 11 of the 44 RHI inquiry recommendations can be traced to shortcomings in the capacity and capability of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. That is a critical issue, and implementation of the recommendations that have been set out by the Public Accounts Committee is critical.

On the report 'Major Capital Projects', the ultimate demonstration of the challenges that we have in Northern Ireland in the delivery of major capital projects is the unspent money that is left at the end of the financial year. At the end of this financial year, there would, potentially, have been £36 million of unspent capital funding. It is only through luck and the Treasury's redoing its sums that that money will not be unspent. In other financial years, we have not been as lucky. In 2020-21, £22 million was returned. In the 2019-2020 financial year, over £100 million was unspent. That is a critical issue that highlights the associated challenges.

Multiple projects are listed that, as Maolíosa outlined, have a significant impact on people across Northern Ireland. A key issue for me is the delivery of an infrastructure commission for Northern Ireland. It is regrettable that it has been delayed. Lastly, clear benefits are associated with multi-year Budgets. It is regrettable that we are not able to grasp that opportunity.

I am proud to have been a member of the Public Accounts Committee. We are a unified Committee. There has not been one vote in the Committee thus far. We work together. Hopefully, it provides a role model for how other Committees should function.

Mr Irwin: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the take-note debate. I will focus my remarks on the report 'Generating Electricity from Renewable Energy'.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Excuse me, Mr Irwin, but you need to be in the proximity of a microphone.

Mr Irwin: Sorry about that. I will start again.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): We can hear you loud and clear now.

Mr Irwin: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the take-note debate. I will focus my remarks on the report 'Generating Electricity from Renewable Energy'. The generating of electricity from renewable sources is an area of growing importance, given the intensifying debate and actions on climate change and the efforts to lessen the reliance on fossil fuel energy sources.

The debate is also becoming more crucial because the House is debating the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill. Much to my displeasure and disappointment, it has voted for a net zero target by 2050, which is massively costly and increasingly unachievable. A vote by the House to opt for a net zero target by 2050 will have a significant impact on the generation of electricity from renewables and is something that I do not believe that MLAs and parties who have competed to out-green one another have taken into account. In opting for that target, they have disregarded the advice of the UK Climate Change Committee.

That having been said, and focusing on the report that the Public Accounts Committee produced, I believe that there are certain lessons to be learned, as the report highlights. DAERA believes that lessons are being learned in the Department for the Economy about that area of work, and that can only be a good thing as we move forward. The fact remains, however, that, in order to encourage businesses and sectors to pursue the generation of electricity from renewable sources, financial aid must be available, otherwise a business of any sort will resist such a costly exercise as pursuing renewable solutions. It is also the case that renewable technologies are very costly at this time and will remain so. That will change, however, as time progresses, technology improves and energy prices remain so volatile.

Those are the challenges that lie ahead for the Assembly and the Executive to ensure that opportunities are provided for industry to harness renewable energy generation. Already, 49% of electricity consumed in Northern Ireland comes from renewable sources. That has been achieved through various assistance schemes that have been initiated within the hugely ambitious new targets set for emissions, and those opportunities will have to be forthcoming for some time into the future.

The Committee's recommendations focus on any new energy initiatives by the Department and on the need to ensure that any potential environmental planning risks are discussed with other public bodies and mitigated. Skill sets and human resources in the Department must be at a level that gives adequate assurance that any new schemes are administered with an assured level of competence and less reliance on outside consultants. There are also improvements to be made by ensuring a greater sharing of information across Departments.

The Committee believes that there will be a huge benefit from ensuring that, where issues are cross-cutting, data and information is shared more widely across Departments. I welcome the Committee's contribution on the issue and welcome the fact that, since 2017, the Department for the Economy has actively taken steps to address concerns around the renewable energy scheme.

In closing, I note, from an official response to a question that I tabled to the Economy Minister, that work is ongoing at pace to meet the target set of having at least 70% of all renewable electricity consumed in Northern Ireland come from a variety of renewable sources by 2030. In his answer, the Minister for the Economy rightly mentioned the success of meeting the 40% consumption target by 2020, and, crucially, he states that meeting the 2030 target will require the establishment of a suitable support scheme for renewable electricity.

I understand from his official answer that a consultation will be undertaken this year, as per the commitment in the energy strategy action plan, to see how best to devise a support scheme, but I have no doubt whatsoever that lessons previously learned will feature in the building of any new supporting elements.

Mr Hilditch: I welcome the opportunity to highlight the work of the Public Accounts Committee during this Assembly term.

It is an honour to work with the Committee as it examines public spending with the benefit of hindsight. It allows us to highlight good practice and poor value for money and to recommend improvements to the stewardship of taxpayers' money.

The PAC has conducted significant work throughout the Assembly term, and I am pleased to see the motion being discussed on the Floor today. I hope that it will lead to significant change in the way that business is conducted and to lessons that can be learned. I thank all who have worked and engaged with the Committee, particularly the staff, the Audit Office and the witnesses. I also thank the Chair, Mr Humphrey, for his flawless navigation of the Public Accounts Committee during the term.

I will touch on some issues in the report on speeding up justice, which described a justice system that moves too slowly and is hindered by ineffectiveness and significant financial wastage. It is essential that all cases that enter the justice system are completed as quickly and efficiently as possible. It was welcomed that the justice system has begun to work in tandem to address the various issues, with the development of long-term high-level performance standards. However, it was noted that delays are still obvious and that, with the additional impact of COVID, it will take at least an estimated two years for the Crown Court system to return to the position that it was in prior to the pandemic.

Crown Court cases take twice as long to complete in Northern Ireland as they do in England and Wales and at a much higher cost. One particular concern is the lack of effective partnership working among key organisations in the justice system despite numerous attempts to remedy that. The Committee welcomes many of the initiatives that the justice system has introduced over the years to improve the system for citizens. However, it is critical that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) and the Department of Justice develop and publish a strategy for working together, including long-term high-level performance standards for improving the timeliness and quality of Crown Court cases.

One of the most worrying findings is that there has been little apparent effort to reliably establish the cost of processes in the justice system or the financial impact of delay and inefficiency. We know that the justice system in England and Wales is significantly less expensive, and it appears that the endemic inefficiency in Northern Ireland contributes to the higher costs. The PAC's report also recognises the impact that COVID-19 has had on the system. It has not only interrupted normal operations but slowed the introduction of some reforms.

The Department of Justice accepted the Committee's recommendations with some qualifications, including a clear plan to reduce backlogs to the Crown Court, modelling the financial impacts of delaying cost savings from reform and a cross-agency strategy with long-term high-level performance standards.

We deserve a justice system that delivers for everyone and does so quickly and effectively. Monitoring progress against that vital objective is critical for the period ahead. We look forward to when our successor Public Accounts Committee revisits the issue. We hope to see a vast improvement for the betterment of the judicial system in Northern Ireland to provide the service that our constituents deserve.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): Glaoim ar an Aire Airgeadais chun freagra a thabhairt ar an díospóireacht. Beidh suas le 20 bomaite agat, a Aire. I call the Minister of Finance, Conor Murphy, to respond to the debate. You will have up to 20 minutes.

Mr C Murphy (The Minister of Finance): I acknowledge the good work undertaken by the Committee and the Audit Office.

The financial context has changed dramatically over the last two years due to the pandemic. We have had to change how we conduct our business and take risks that previously we would not have contemplated. We have had to react at pace and radically change how we do things. There were new challenges and risks to be taken. In that unprecedented context, we did not get everything right, but risks had to be taken as we acted at pace. Schemes that previously would have been developed, tested and refined over many months were turned around within weeks.

While there must be accountability for decisions taken, the focus should be on learning lessons from that period. It is important that we do not become risk-averse. I hope that the Committee recognises that, as we continue in the time ahead to embrace new ways of doing things, applying innovation and creativity where possible, it will not be without risk. It is, therefore, important for the Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee to play their part in ensuring that Departments, agencies and other public-sector bodies can embrace change and take appropriate risks without the fear of criticism being foremost in their minds, overshadowing them or, worse, inhibiting the changes and transformation that are needed.


12.30 pm

Because we had to react at pace, decisions had to be taken outside the normal processes for ensuring value for money and without having the right controls in place at the outset. Many departmental accounting officers, mine included, had to seek ministerial directions on a range of issues due to the abnormal operating environment that we were in. As I said, we must be held accountable for those decisions, and I welcome the scrutiny of the Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee in instances where ministerial directions are sought and given. In particular, I have to mention and welcome the new enhanced openness and transparency with regard to ministerial directions, as driven by the Public Accounts Committee, whereby they are now published on the Department of Finance website.

As we move forward and into recovery from the pandemic, we must try to get back to our more normal processes and ways of conducting business. Our public sector has been under enormous financial pressure, as it had to react to the unique circumstances that COVID presented and put resources towards dealing with the health emergency. Without a multi-year Budget, we lose a significant opportunity to put plans in place to provide for longer-term stability and create a platform to transform our public services. Nevertheless, with regard to service delivery, it is essential that we do what we can to continue to transform how services are delivered in the future. It needs to be driven not only by the budgetary position but by the need to improve how we develop, design and engage in the delivery of all public-sector services. Several strands of work are going on that contribute to the transformation of how we deliver services. As well as tackling operational challenges, the transformation that we are embarking on needs to address the Executive's longer-term aims and identify and develop innovative and cost-effective ways to deliver high-quality services to the public.

It is key to have the right structure and balance in place between central government Departments and their delivery partners or arm's-length bodies (ALBs). After all, around 70% of the Executive's resource DEL Budget is spent on services delivered through our arm's-length bodies. Members will therefore be aware that a review of arm's-length bodies is a priority in 'New Decade, New Approach'. In June 2021, the Executive agreed that a two-part approach should be adopted to the review of the arm's-length bodies with legislation to be brought forward to facilitate the rationalisation of bodies, informed by an efficiency and effectiveness review. It is for each Minister to consider the effectiveness and efficiency of their ALBs. My Department is, however, working with other Departments to enable and support the process.

Given that almost three quarters of our Budget is spent through ALBs, it goes without saying that there needs to be a good working relationship between Departments and arm's-length bodies. They need to work in true partnership to deliver the best outcomes for the citizen. It will be of interest to the Committee, therefore, that my Department has been taking forward work in the area over the last few years to improve and rebalance those relationships. That work kicked off with an innovation lab, at the start of 2018, that was attended by key stakeholders and partners, including the chairs forum, the chief executives forum, the Audit Office and representatives from a range of Departments. My officials have continued to work in collaboration with those key stakeholders, and, up to early 2020, good progress was made and a number of products and guidance were agreed on. However, with the onset of the COVID pandemic in early 2020, unfortunately, progress on implementing the new arrangements slowed down as we all focused on responding to the unique challenges presented by the pandemic. However, now is the right time to refocus efforts and progress the full implementation of the action plan. That will help to rebalance relationships and facilitate a move towards a true partnership-working arrangement.

As we move forward, it is not just about working well in partnership with our arm's-length bodies to deliver public services; we need to think of a whole-systems delivery model to achieve our outcomes. We need to break down barriers and work as a joined-up Government across Departments and sectors, including the local government sector. A good example of that in my Department is how we are managing the delivery of city and growth deals. My Department is leading on a joined-up, cross-Civil Service approach to that £1·3 billion capital programme. Finance officials are opening doors for a whole-systems approach, facilitating cross-government working groups, agreeing governance on structures and delivery models, championing a consistent approach to city and growth deals and continually engaging and collaborating with councils and delivery partners.

We are working to get our organisation, relationships and leadership right and focusing on more joined-up thinking and working across Departments. We must also focus on our people, and getting a diverse range of people with the right skills in the right job at the right time is crucial to a well-functioning, modern civil service. We are making good progress but must not underestimate the programme of work required to address the breadth and depth of the Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee's recommendations on long-standing issues, such as recruitment, skills, performance etc. Department of Finance officials are working with the head of the Civil Service and trade union colleagues on the interventions that will make a real difference.

What I have talked about so far are ways in which we are trying to improve how the public sector operates in order to improve outcomes for the citizen. However, another key element in improving for the future is learning from the past. We are all familiar with the issues that came to light not only through the various PAC evidence sessions on the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme but through the RHI inquiry itself, and many lessons have already been learned and applied. However, top-line messages for the Civil Service from the RHI inquiry are that officials need to understand their role as civil servants; be confident and competent in fulfilling that role; and uphold the ethical standards of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.

Corporate policies and processes need to make it easier to do the job well, so there has been some revision of policies and guidance. The Executive's response to the inquiry is about making sure that things are done better, and that is not just a matter of changing the rules. Civil servants need to understand the principles behind those policies and practices and to abide by them. That is why the inquiry report states that its recommendations for the Civil Service require sustained system-wide change and will take time to implement effectively. Importantly, change needs to be driven at a political level, particularly by Ministers.

Learning from the past is where the Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee can continue to deliver real added value across the system. It is that retrospective look, shining a light on areas where things could and should have been done better or where they have gone wrong, that helps us to continually learn and improve. It will therefore be important that we — Departments, the Audit Office and the PAC — continue to work together to deliver an effective public audit process that adds value whilst ensuring a balance between constructive criticism and point-scoring or unfair criticism.

On lessons, I will address some of the main reports that the Committee dealt with as part of the debate. A number were touched on by Members.

The Chair, Mr Humphrey, touched on the one that a number of Members mentioned: the 'Major Capital Projects' report. My Department acknowledges the need to strengthen the capability in the Civil Service to commission and deliver major contracts and projects overall. We are working on reform in project delivery and commercial capability. Some reports are more specific to other Departments, of course. I am sure that the Public Accounts Committee will continue to engage with the Department of Education, the Department for the Economy and other Departments. However, in relation to capacity in the Civil Service, a review is under way of the operating model for people management within the Civil Service, and a report is expected by the end of March. I do not underestimate the programme of work required to address the full range of recommendations. We are working with the Executive Office, the head of the Civil Service and the Civil Service board to prioritise interventions that will make a real difference. I am pleased to say that there has been progress across all the areas identified by the Committee.

Mr McHugh also touched on capital projects. He mentioned specifically his frustration at a range of projects. The lack of delivery of projects has been a consistent theme from Members, specifically in relation to the Procurement Board, which falls under my Department. It has commissioned work to determine the root causes of delay in major projects and to quantify their impact. That information will be used to inform proposals for changes to systems and processes. The Committee is aware that the Department developed and introduced new business case guidance in November 2020 designed to improve the business case development process and ensure that relevant specialists are involved throughout. Work has begun on an interim review of the implementation of the guidance, with a full review to be undertaken after 36 months.

Andrew Muir also touched on some of the capacity issues in the Civil Service and on ensuring that there was a joined-up approach to dealing with them. As I said, the Department of Finance is working with the Executive Office, the head of the Civil Service and a reconstituted Civil Service board to provide strategic leadership, delivery focus and governance. An MOU setting out the respective roles of TEO and my Department creates a platform for the joint working between us. We are also developing proposals with the Executive Office to enable delivery and continuous improvement of HR services, as well as delivery of a range of organisational development commitments such as workforce planning. As I said, we need to review the operating model for people management.

Mr Irwin focused on the report on renewable energy and raised points about future schemes, consultation and ensuring that matters were got right. The Department for the Economy has assured my Department that any future schemes that are developed with appropriate stakeholder engagement will be done with particular regard to the information and evidence provided by vested interests and that it will ensure that they have access to appropriate costs and rates of return to ensure appropriate value for money.

Mr Hilditch raised points about the report on speeding up the justice system. The Department of Justice has informed us that it is working with the justice organisations to deliver a programme of work aimed at speeding up the criminal justice system. That is being overseen by a multi-agency programme board, which has representation from the key justice organisations and is chaired by the Minister of Justice herself. The Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill will, among other things, help to speed up some of the more serious cases in the Crown Court. The Bill has passed its Final Stage in the Assembly, and officials are working with justice partners to discuss its implementation. In response to the Committee's report, the DOJ is seeking to build on reporting opportunities to help to gain a better understanding of the impact of delay in the justice system.

I have covered a number of the points that were raised. The Public Accounts Committee has produced valued and valuable reports, and I am pleased to respond on behalf of my Department on some of the matters that we are dealing with and on behalf of some of the other Departments. Having been a member of the Public Accounts Committee on a number of occasions, I know that it will continue the work of engaging with Departments to ensure that, when reports are done and recommendations made, the recommendations are followed through in a timely fashion.

I thank all those who contributed to a good debate. I hope that we can all work collaboratively to meet the challenges that, no doubt, lie ahead and, in turn, help our public sector to meet those challenges.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I call the Deputy Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee, Roy Beggs, who will have up to 15 minutes to conclude the debate and make the winding-up speech on the motion.

Mr Beggs (The Deputy Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank my fellow Public Accounts Committee members for their contributions today and for the way in which we have worked together to bring about improvements in a wide range of areas. It is clear from the Northern Ireland Audit Office reports that things have gone wrong on many occasions. It is important to focus on those mistakes and to contribute constructively to bringing about improvements. That is certainly how I saw our members working. As was said, I do not believe that we divided on any issue. We worked together in the interests of the public.

The Chairperson, Mr William Humphrey, began the debate by giving an overview of the seven PAC reports that have been brought before the House. The Committee was inhibited during this Assembly session, in that it has been operating for only the past two years, which included a period when COVID was at its height. Therefore, quite an extensive number of reports were completed. Many have finished the process and have received memorandums of response from Departments. Others still require a response. The PAC shone a light — a further light — on those areas, and it is evident that there is a gap between where the Northern Ireland Civil Service is now and where it needs to be. I noted the Minister's comments, and I hope that many of those gaps will be filled.

The Committee came across a range of themes. They included the need for strong and decisive leadership from the top to drive change; the need for the correct skill set and experience to deliver projects, particularly large-scale projects; the need to identify barriers at an earlier stage; and, most importantly, the need for collaboration across Departments and, for that matter, other public bodies.

We cannot afford the cost of silos.


12.45 pm

Mr Humphrey focused on the 'Impact Review of Special Educational Needs' report. He highlighted the cross-cutting issues and, again, the need for collaboration, which is a constant theme in our reports. He later linked that to the report on 'Closing the Gap', where social deprivation and links to educational under-attainment are apparent. That is one of the additional six published reports that have yet to be fully responded to, but that will be done in the fullness of time. Mr Humphrey highlighted the fact that it is vital that we improve the lot of our young people.

The evidence sessions on special educational needs demonstrated to me how Committee members can bring their own experience and add to Northern Ireland Audit Office reports through our Committee work and our engagement with witnesses. A constituent had advised me about an issue involving special educational needs and had complained about multiple classroom assistants in post-primary school settings standing at the back of the classroom and not actually engaging. When I raised that during our evidence session, I got a wide range of comments, and a wide range of people agreed with me. The permanent secretary agreed that that does not show value for money. Mr Boyd, the former chief executive of the Education Authority, said, "You are absolutely right" and that it was one of the issues previously highlighted by a 2017 Audit Office report. Dr McMorran, who is a member of the Education Authority, said that I was absolutely right and that what I said was "100% true". He then said that it is a "total disgrace"; that is the language that he used.

Subsequently, Ms Logue, the principal of Long Tower Primary School, when discussing the 'Closing the Gap' report, said:

"I have a classroom at present with four — almost five — classroom assistants and over 30 children in it."

She said that she would much rather have the money to decide so that she could make better use of it for the benefit of those children. Ms O'Hara, the former principal of Hazelwood Integrated College, said:

"you have hit the nail on the head".

Mrs Montgomery, the principal of Belfast Boys' Model School, indicated how she had to fight to get autonomy with that budget each year, but she also demonstrated how much better use she had made of that budget by employing additional teachers for some one-to-one learning, small group classes and, indeed, some classroom assistants. I was pleased that that was taken on board by the Public Accounts Committee report, which recommended an:

"immediate independent, external review of the SEN service provision".

That recommendation was accepted by the Department of Education, and it will be commissioned by DE to address the specific elements and will be delivered in phases. Among the areas covered is an external review of:

"funding of SEN services including the delegation of budgets".

We have had an outcome there, and I am delighted about that. It is important that we contribute to change.

Andrew Muir spoke about the 'Major Capital Projects' report and the report on 'Capacity and Capability in the Northern Ireland Civil Service'. I agree that there is an overlap between those reports, because it is clear to me, from reading the reports, that the lack of capacity has created some of the difficulties. Often, there was not strong leadership, not the correct skill set to deliver and no experience to deal with the sheer scale of some of the projects. In particular, Ulster University's rebuild project in Belfast was plagued with problems, and the cost was ultimately paid from the public purse. That meant that other capital investment could not occur because it had been sucked up into some of the large investments. He also said that we needed to look more carefully at the capital spending left at the end of the year. In the past, moneys were returned unspent, and he said that it was almost by accident this year that we managed to balance out and not lose some of that funding. Clearly, there are many challenges going forward.

Mr McHugh spoke on the report on 'Major Capital Projects' and highlighted the delays to Casement Park, the A5, the Strule educational site and the regional children's hospital. He focused on a couple of issues that were, he thought, contributing to those delays, particularly the need for planning reform and to speed up planning decisions. Everyone agrees with that, and that urgency is becoming even more apparent to everyone. He highlighted the fact that public inquiries and judicial reviews are also causing delays. He said that it is important to learn from those, and I agree. He said that it is important that there is public access to legal process so that no inappropriate decisions occur. There is a need for balance: how do we ensure that we protect the public interest against not just bad decision-making but undue delays? That will have to be resolved. It is certainly having an impact on large projects, and we need to do things better than they are being done at present.

William Irwin focused on the 'Generating Electricity from Renewable Energy' report. He spoke about the importance of renewable energy, particularly in reducing emissions. That must be becoming clearer to everyone, especially as we have just spent two days talking about climate change and its implications. Going forward, this will be an increasingly important area. He also highlighted the need for awareness across Departments when bringing in new funding, to ensure that all cross-cutting issues are addressed. When we examined that report, we saw how public funding was given to some projects that did not have all the necessary planning or environmental requirements in place. Clearly, there is a need to be more careful in stipulating requirements before funding is approved and handed over.

David Hilditch concentrated on delays in Crown Court cases. He said that we were taking twice as long to dispose of such cases as our counterparts in England and Wales, which brought with it an additional cost. He highlighted the need for the PSNI, the PPS and the Courts and Tribunals Service to work more collaboratively to ensure that, collectively, they provide a better service. There can be no doubt about that. It is not just about the cost, which is an important element; we also have to think of the victims who suffer during those delays. He made the very important point that many relevant bodies need to work together in the public interest. Again, the issue of silo working was highlighted in the 'Speeding up the Justice System' report.

The Minister of Finance talked about risk and how it was important that we should not be risk-averse but take appropriate risk. We have to embrace change and take some risk. We need to be careful about what we do. That is the clear message that should go out to everyone. There is a danger of all public bodies and civil servants becoming risk-averse. It is important that we bring about change, which involves some risk. The point was well made that we should make that a calculated risk. The Minister also said that he wished that some of his reforms were further ahead but that COVID had contributed to some delays. He was hopeful that, going forward, those delays could be overcome and that he could get back on his intended path. He said that it is important that the Department works well with bodies such as local government — he mentioned city deals as an example of that — and that ethical standards are maintained across the Civil Service.

Mr Humphrey mentioned that we had engaged with the head of the Civil Service. It became apparent from our report on capacity and capability that there was a need for a change at a higher level. I do not recall this happening before, but I was pleased that the Public Accounts Committee engaged with the head of the Civil Service on those issues in order that she was fully aware of some of our areas of concern. A further meeting is scheduled for Tuesday 8 March with Ms Brady at which the Public Accounts Committee will review how she is progressing on the areas that we presented to her as requiring change. Those include ensuring that business cases are realistic and have all the required information and ensuring that the skills that are required to manage that area are available; ensuring that there is good governance; and being aware of the need to identify early warning signs of inefficiencies or that projects are starting to veer off course so that rectifying action can be taken at an early stage.

In conclusion, the Public Accounts Committee legacy report will include seven reports that have received a memorandum of reply. An additional six reports have still to complete their process. We will receive a response back from the Department of Finance on the recommendations. Those reports are 'Addiction Services in Northern Ireland'; 'Closing the Gap — Social Deprivation and Links to Educational Attainment'; 'Sports Sustainability Fund', 'The Northern Ireland Budget Process'; 'Broadband Investment in Northern Ireland'; and 'Planning in Northern Ireland'. We will draw that response to the attention of the subsequent Public Accounts Committee so that it can appropriately scrutinise those areas.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Mr Beggs: I have welcomed the opportunity for the Public Accounts Committee to present to the Assembly some of the key aspects of its work over the past two years. I hope that lessons will be learned for the benefit of the public.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly takes note of the following Public Accounts Committee reports:

'Major Capital Projects' [NIA 46/17-22];

'Management of the NI Direct Strategic Partner Project – helping to deliver Digital Transformation and The LandWeb Project: An Update' [NIA 68/17-22';

'Impact Review of Special Educational Needs' [NIA 75/17-22];

'Capacity and Capability in the Northern Ireland Civil Service [NIA 97/17-22];

'Driver and Vehicle Agency 2019-20' [NIA 101/17-22];

'Generating Electricity from Renewable Energy' [NIA 123/17-22]; and

'Speeding up the Justice System' [NIA 127/17-22];

and the following Department of Finance memoranda of reply:

'Major Capital Projects';

'Management of the NI Direct Strategic Partner Project – helping to deliver Digital Transformation and The LandWeb Project: An Update';

'Impact Review of Special Educational Needs';

'Capacity and Capability in the Northern Ireland Civil Service';

'Driver and Vehicle Agency 2019-20';

'Generating Electricity from Renewable Energy'; and

'Speeding up the Justice System'.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I ask Members to take their ease while we move to the next item of business.

Ministerial Statements

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I have received notice from the Minister for the Economy that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members in the Chamber that, in light of social distancing being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members who are participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members who are present in the Chamber must also do that, but they may do so by rising in their place as well as by notifying the Business Office or Speaker's Table directly.

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


1.00 pm

Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy): Members are not shy about declaring their ideas or policies as "game changers", even if few of those genuinely are. There is no doubt, however, that Project Stratum is a genuine game changer, not least for those living in rural communities who, previously, could not access fast or reliable broadband.

Project Stratum is the largest publicly funded telecommunications infrastructure project of its kind in Northern Ireland. I hope that Members across the House are familiar with the genesis of the scheme, but, for those who, perhaps, choose not to acknowledge the origins of the project, it came about as a direct result of the DUP/Conservative confidence-and-supply agreement. When given the opportunity to do so, DUP colleagues in Westminster used their influence to the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland by negotiating a broadband intervention scheme that was allocated £165 million of public funding, £150 million of which was secured under the confidence-and-supply agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party and the Conservatives, with £15 million coming from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

After a competitive tendering process, Fibrus Networks Ltd was appointed as the contractor to deliver gigabit-capable broadband to over 76,000 premises using the £165 million of public funding and its own substantial investment of more than £45 million. My Department has now secured additional capital funding of £32 million to bring a further 8,500 premises into Project Stratum, mainly, again, in rural areas of Northern Ireland. That additional funding has been allocated by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), along with additional funding allocations from DAERA and DFE. The additional premises now include those that were out of scope owing to insufficient funding when the contract for Project Stratum was signed and premises that were not considered for inclusion at that time owing to anomalies in the Pointer address database maintained by Land and Property Services (LPS).

It is important to remember that 97% of Project Stratum’s intervention area is rural. It is defined as Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) band H rural, which means small villages and hamlets of less than 1,000 in population and sparsely populated open countryside. As a result of this much-needed public intervention, some 85,000 eligible premises will now benefit from Project Stratum. Those homes and businesses will have access to gigabit-capable broadband, which delivers the fastest speeds available to consumers. The services will be provided on an open access network, where I expect healthy competition will emerge to provide consumers with more broadband choice.

Broadband is now increasingly viewed as a utility. In 2018, the National Infrastructure Commission, the Government’s independent adviser on the UK’s infrastructure needs, stated:

"Digital connectivity is now an essential utility, as central to the UK’s society and economy as electricity or water supply."

The broadband connectivity figures for Northern Ireland paint an improving picture. According to Ofcom’s latest data, Northern Ireland now has the highest coverage of high-speed broadband services in the UK, with three quarters of homes being able to access gigabit-capable broadband. That is a result of significant commercial investment from telecommunications providers such as BT Openreach, Virgin Media, and Fibrus Networks.

Commercial deployment of gigabit-capable infrastructure, regarded as the gold standard, has, however, been focused mainly on our urban centres. Ofcom's figures in its latest 'Connected Nations' report, published in December, indicate that, for urban areas, gigabit-capable broadband is available to 76% of premises, but the figure drops to 36% for rural areas.

The broadband connectivity gap is now closing, thanks in large part to Project Stratum. Although we are still behind the rest of the UK, 91% of premises here now have access to superfast broadband services that deliver speeds of 30 Mb per second or higher. In the past year, superfast access in rural areas has increased from 67% to 70% owing mainly to the implementation phase of Project Stratum.

To date, Fibrus Networks has completed infrastructure deployment work to over 22,000 premises. All scheduled builds in seven areas for this quarter are on track to be delivered in line with deployment targets. More than 10,000 fibre poles have been planted, and 2,000 kilometres of fibre cable have been installed, despite challenges to working conditions that the contractor and its subcontractors have faced during the pandemic. That is a remarkable achievement when compared with comparable projects in other parts of the UK or Ireland.

The additional 8,500 premises that my Department has now brought into the project's scope include 2,500 harder-to-reach properties that, owing to the exhaustion of funding, were not part of the original contract, plus a further 6,000 eligible premises in Project Stratum's state aid-compliant postcode areas, which were identified through the project team's ongoing engagement with LPS colleagues, following the further interrogation of premises data held in the Pointer data set.

That process was state aid-assured and approved by the Building Digital UK (BDUK) assurance board in early December, and the Department of Finance granted approval in late December. The portal that is managed by the contractor for Project Stratum will continue to be updated to reflect those changes, along with build plans and timelines. The public can go online at www.hyperfastni.com for information on continued deployment plans.

The deployment of the new full-fibre network infrastructure to reach all 85,000 premises now within Project Stratum will continue across four extended quarters of network build, with Fibrus Networks expected to complete deployment to some of the most hard-to-reach premises by March 2025.

As a result of our continued public investment in broadband infrastructure, the connectivity gap in Northern Ireland will be all but closed at superfast levels, with all premises to benefit from new infrastructure under Project Stratum having access to gigabit-capable fibre to the premises broadband. That means that Northern Ireland will be well placed to benefit from further government initiatives, including Project Gigabit, the UK Government's plan to bring full-fibre and gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK as soon as possible.

By building on the momentum that has resulted from both commercial and publicly funded investment in broadband infrastructure, Northern Ireland has the opportunity, once again, to lead on broadband connectivity. My Department will continue to engage with colleagues in DCMS to ensure that Northern Ireland benefits from investment in gigabit-capable infrastructure in predominantly rural areas, where it is evident that commercial investment is not viable.

Regardless of where people live and work in Northern Ireland, I believe that they should have access to the best broadband services available. A recent Ipsos MORI report that was prepared for DCMS and published in 2021 looked at the benefits of access to improved broadband services through extensive engagement with businesses and local bodies. Benefits highlighted in the report include increased employment; the creation of jobs; increased business turnover; efficiency gains; improved e-learning capabilities; enhanced school admin processes; improved e-health capabilities, including video-enabled consultations; and improvements to subjective well-being, particularly among older age groups.

As Project Stratum fulfils its objectives, and as my Department further develops opportunities to improve the broadband connectivity landscape in Northern Ireland wherever it is needed, we can look forward to the benefits that a better-connected society will bring to those who work and live in Northern Ireland, thanks to publicly funded initiatives such as Project Stratum. I commend the statement to the House.

Mr O'Dowd: That was not so much a ministerial statement as a party political broadcast. On the subject of party political broadcasts, since the previous time that I questioned your Department on the subject, you have spent a considerable amount of time misrepresenting my position. In fact, I even featured on a DUP social media channel.

When I see the words "DUP" and "subsidy" in a statement, I instinctively have to ask questions, and that is what I will continue to do. Minister, in your statement, you said that broadband is a utility, so why are you standing over a situation in which rural dwellers are paying twice as much for that publicly subsidised utility as those in urban settings?

Mr Lyons: I do not know whether that is a U-turn from the Member. If it is, I welcome it. What the Member said in the Committee was fairly clear. He questioned whether we should use public money to fund broadband improvements in rural areas. Neither I nor my officials believe that those improvements would have been sorted out through the market and private investment. If he has changed his mind, I am delighted that he has come on board and realised the importance of the DUP investment in infrastructure.

He referred to the different costs between urban and rural areas. That is something that can now be addressed. As I said in my statement, I hope that there will be increased competition, because that is the way in which we will drive down prices. I recognise that there are differentials in costs right now. However, thanks to the investment that we have provided, the infrastructure is in place, which means that competition can happen. We have been able to include 2,829 properties in his constituency that did not previously have access to broadband. Not only will they now be able to access broadband, but, thanks to the infrastructure that has been put in place and the competition that I hope will follow, they will get cheaper prices too.

Mrs Erskine: I thank the Minister. I know full well how beneficial Project Stratum has been to my rural constituency, even if other Members in the House are not so sure. Will the Minister detail how long people in rural constituencies such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone would have had to wait to get proper broadband were it not for Project Stratum?

Mr Lyons: Of course, that is a very difficult question for us to answer, because it would have been outside of our control. Had we not been prepared to put in the funding to enable that to happen, it would have been left entirely to private investment, which might never have come along. We could have been waiting for a very long time — possibly forever — for that essential infrastructure to be put in place, so it is the right question for the Member to ask.

I am pleased that, by the end of 2025, an additional 13,572 premises will be connected in her constituency. An additional 3,398 premises in Fermanagh and South Tyrone are connected today because we took action and were prepared to combine the public investment that we secured with the private investment from Fibrus. That is making a change today.

Ms S Bradley: I rise in fear of being a participant in a DUP party political broadcast. It is public money. Although I welcome people having fair access to broadband, can the Minister say with absolute confidence that every penny spent has been value for money and well spent? Is he absolutely certain that every penny can be accounted for, and that there are no shadows around the pot of money?

Mr Lyons: It went through all of the appropriate tendering processes, as she would expect. There was a business case for which all of that information was gathered. The work was done, and it was passed. I am confident that the project is set to do what we planned it to do. She will see the benefit in her constituency through the additional 10,132 properties that will have access to broadband. In fact, her constituency is behind only Fermanagh and South Tyrone and West Tyrone in the total number of properties that will be impacted by the project. As of today, an additional 4,828 properties in her constituency have been connected. I encourage her to ask those residents and businesses in her constituency whether they think that it is worth it, because I think that they will say that it is.

Mr Nesbitt: I am still reeling from John O'Dowd effectively quoting Margaret Thatcher. That will take some processing.

I will agree with the Minister: in the 21st century, this is as important as water or electricity supply. I hope that he will join me in making a distinction between premises that have access to gigabit-capable broadband and those that avail of it. I would be interested in the percentage of premises that have taken up Stratum and signed up with a telecommunications provider. What are his thoughts on the customer satisfaction data that he requested I forward to his Department?


1.15 pm

Mr Lyons: First, when properties became eligible, we wrote to individuals and made them aware that they would be able to avail themselves of it for their properties. They will have been made aware when that work was completed. I am happy to find out that information for the Member. I do not know what percentage of properties that were unable to get it before and are now able to get it have signed up, but, on the basis of the conversations that I have had and the discussions that my Department has had with individuals, I expect that percentage to be exceptionally high. For the Member's information, 4,729 properties in his constituency will benefit by the end of the programme. As of today, 1,084 have already been connected.

I appreciate the Member's sending through the results of the online reviews that were conducted in regard to Fibrus. I believe that that is the internet service provider (ISP), rather than Fibrus Networks, which is operating in Northern Ireland, so I have not had any complaints that I have been made aware of directly about Fibrus, either as the network or the ISP, other than the general cases that we are dealing with. I do not know whether that data was based on the rest of the UK or where it was based, but I am not getting a huge volume of correspondence about that in Northern Ireland. Of course, as I have said before, I hope that, as more and more people get connected, there will be greater competition between providers in Northern Ireland. That is the way in which we drive down costs and improve customer service.

Mr Dickson: Minister, there is not much confidence now between the DUP and the Conservative Party. You said in a previous answer in the House today that you were confident about the whole process of Project Stratum, yet the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) issued a report that issued criticism, particularly around the procurement aspect of Project Stratum. Can you tell the House what lessons you and your Department have learned from the criticism that you received from the Northern Ireland Audit Office?

Mr Lyons: Of course, we took that report seriously, and, drawing on some of the best practices acknowledged in the NIAO report on Project Stratum, we have identified a requirement for further funding to provide qualifying next generation access. Of course, we continue to monitor the connectivity landscape and take into consideration all available premises data in regard to that. Concerns were raised around the deployment and the tendering process, but my Department is satisfied that, without further funding, those premises would have remained commercially vulnerable. We believe that all of the appropriate processes were followed. Having raised the issue with my officials, I know that they are content that the right steps were taken at every opportunity. Of course, where there is opportunity for us to learn from these, we should do so.

Ms Dillon: On a point of clarity, I think that the Minister, when he responded to my colleague, said that the DUP funded this: I am fairly certain that it was the National Insurance and tax payers who funded it, as is the case with any subsidised project. People are paying for this already, and then they have to pay doubly for it. For some of my constituents, I question the value for money when people who live on one side of a lane have access to broadband through Project Stratum while, on the other side of the same lane, other people do not. This is happening across Mid Ulster, and I am certain that it affects constituents of Members across the House. Will the Minister please respond on how he will address that issue? It is not value for money where you are not connecting all houses on one lane or one road or where there is one house at the end of a road that is being left out of the project.

Mr Lyons: My goodness, Mr Deputy Speaker. Sinn Féin are turning into the Tories, it seems. First we hear that public money should not be invested in rural areas in this way, and now we hear that there is no such thing as public money but it is taxpayers' money instead. That is an interesting change to witness from Sinn Féin across the way.

The first issue that the Member raised was funding. I agree that the funding came from the UK Government, but it was my party that secured that funding, and, as a result, we are able to deliver those benefits for people across Northern Ireland, including 9,695 people in the Member's constituency, for 4,714 of whom the service has already been delivered.

We are keen to hear where there are issues. I have heard in my constituency about someone on one side of the road getting access while others do not. We have been able to find solutions or alternatives. If we can do that, I will be more than happy for her to pass the details to me, because our aim in the Department is to make sure that as many people as possible are connected. Additional funding has been provided to increase the capacity and the number of people who can get access to broadband, if we can do that in a simple, straightforward way. It does not make sense to build infrastructure down a lane to one house; if someone else can also benefit from it as well, you are essentially halving the cost of the subsidy. If there are ways in which we can help, I am more than happy to ensure that we do so.

Mr Weir: I welcome the statement from the Minister on this vital intervention for consumers and the wider economy. Some Members make jibes about confidence, but today's statement shows that, as a result of the arrangements that were made, there has been plenty of supply for Northern Ireland. In light of that, what is the Minister's assessment of the impact of Project Stratum on businesses across Northern Ireland?

Mr Lyons: I welcome the Member's words. We have been able to deliver on this and to secure the funding. He is absolutely right to raise the issue of impact on business because, as I said, research has proven that it increases the capability and efficiency of businesses and increases employment. When I was in the Middle East a few weeks ago to talk about why Northern Ireland is such a good place to do business, I did not have to raise the issue, but others raised the issue of our connectivity and Project Stratum with me. Businesses and investors have heard about it, and connectivity, along with talent and skills, is one of the major draws of Northern Ireland.

We hear a lot about regional disparity in the House, but we are making sure that we are not just helping cities and urban areas but helping across the board to make Northern Ireland a much more attractive place. Many Members have told me about the issues that they have experienced in struggling to get jobs and investment into their areas. Connectivity is one of the ways in which we can improve investments, jobs and businesses in rural areas. The scheme targets rural areas in particular, and we are seeing the benefits of that being delivered, including to over 1,000 properties in the Member's constituency already.

Mr K Buchanan: My colleague from Mid Ulster referred to the anomalies down a laneway, for example: four houses and one of them missed. Minister, you referred to the Pointer database that assisted your Department in producing the white list. How big an issue was that system, given that it was not correctly maintained to include all houses — there are five houses down a lane, but suddenly there are only four — and how can you be accountable if the LPS system was not correct and you did not know that a house existed?

Mr Lyons: That was one of the problems that we faced. We relied on data maintained by LPS that was outside our control. The issue became known to us because so many additional properties were identified and brought to our attention. That is why we were able to secure the additional £32 million of funding, and that is why we are now able to access those additional properties. This is not the end of our quest to ensure that more people in Northern Ireland can have access to broadband. I will continue to liaise with the UK Government on Project Gigabit to ensure that, where additional funding becomes available for Northern Ireland, we use it to increase those figures even further.

Mrs Barton: Thank you for your statement, Minister. I agree that the connectivity gap is closing, particularly in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. It is disappointing, however, that it will take another three years for some of the hardest-to-reach premises to receive broadband access. In particular, a lot of small businesses in remote and rural areas still have difficulties.

Mr Lyons: If I could ensure that everybody had it tomorrow, I would do that. Unfortunately, it is not within my power. However, we have set a timetable for it to be carried out. I confirm that we are on track, despite the difficulties that came as a result of the pandemic. We are on course to have, by the end of 2024, all the original properties identified delivered with that high-speed access. In 2025, we will deliver to the additional properties that have been identified but not picked up in earlier phases.

Many will be disappointed that it has not happened sooner. I hope that, in the Member's constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, 13,752 properties will be very pleased that they will get it by the end of that period. I am sure that there is great joy in Fermanagh and South Tyrone over the 3,398 that already have it as a result of what we have been able to secure.

Mr Dunne: I thank the Minister for his statement and his work in delivering Project Stratum across Northern Ireland. How important is connectivity when Invest NI sells Northern Ireland to investors abroad?

Mr Lyons: It absolutely is important, because, more and more, the connectivity issue is raised with us. I mentioned what foreign direct investors said to me when I met them. It is crucial, in particular, in those rural areas. That is what we are able to deliver.

Of course, it is not just in rural areas. We are still able to help in areas that have relatively good broadband provision. The Member's constituency is a good example of that. There has been good connectivity in North Down. However, this will deliver an additional 874 premises that will get access to broadband. That helps for those who have established businesses or are establishing businesses. They should make sure that they take advantage of it.

Mr Beggs: I welcome the improvement in broadband services generally. However, I understand that, in GB, 100% of homes will have access to a broadband service of 2 megabits per second or greater. Even after Project Stratum, approximately 2% of homes in Northern Ireland will still have a relatively poor broadband service with such a slow speed. Others, like me, have an unreliable broadband service — I declare an interest — of less than 10 megabits per second. My question is this: what options will exist for people who still have a poor broadband service to enable them to get the high-speed service that the Minister alludes to?

Mr Lyons: I understand the concerns expressed by some who have missed out on Project Stratum. There are those who have been identified as having a speed of more than 30 megabits per second but do not feel that they are getting that service and feel that they have been excluded. The Member probably falls into that category. I am sorry that I was unable to deliver for my constituent Mr Beggs on this occasion. However, this is where Project Gigabit comes in to make sure that there is an opportunity to use that funding to target those who have been missed out. We are talking about a relatively small number of people who have been left out. In the meantime, there are additional service providers that provide methods other than fibre to get increased broadband speeds. I hope that Mr Beggs is able to avail himself of those in the meantime. I continue to make the case to the UK Government so that we can get to the position that we all want to be in, which is 100% coverage and high-speed broadband for all.

Mr Allister: I take advantage of the self-congratulatory electioneering statement to ask about a group of my constituents in the Braid who were excluded from Project Stratum. Openreach had promised to make provision for them but has failed to do so. How can those residents be brought into the ambit of Project Stratum, or are they to be forgotten about?


1.30 pm

Mr Lyons: My Department is aware that some coverage claims from broadband suppliers may be susceptible to data anomalies or that, in some cases, those claims may not reflect a commercial supplier's ability to deliver against indicated plans or that a supplier's deployment plans may change That continues to be a source of frustration for my Department, but the target intervention area was defined based on the best data point that was available at the time.

We will continue to engage with broadband suppliers, including wireless internet service providers, to identify potentially viable solutions for premises. We realise that commercial roll-out plans sometimes change, but my Department encourages broadband suppliers to stand over commitments made during the Project Stratum open market review.

Individuals who require information on their premises' inclusion or exclusion from Project Stratum should contact my officials via the email address on the DFE website. If their premises are identified as having been incorrectly excluded, my Department will explore directly with the Project Stratum contractor, Fibrus Networks, what options might be available and whether it will be in a position to identify a viable connectivity solution that does not require an immediate public subsidy. If the Member would like to contact me, we can look at those options.

I am sure that the Member will also want to congratulate me on being able to deliver for 7,296 of his constituents in North Antrim who will benefit from this. That is real delivery for the Member, and I am happy to have done that through the money that was secured by my party. I have even better news for him: right now, as a result of my party's intervention, 2,982 households have broadband in Mr Allister's constituency as of today. I hope that that is a cause of great rejoicing in North Antrim and, indeed, across Northern Ireland.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): I do not think that there is a Standing Order on self-congratulation.

As the Business Committee has agreed to meet at 1.30 pm, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be questions to the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

The sitting was suspended at 1.32 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —


2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

Mr Speaker: Question 8 has been withdrawn.

Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): As I have not yet received an invoice, I am unable to provide an update on the total cost of the legal advice that I received in relation to halting sanitary and phytosanitary checks at points of entry.

Mr Dickson: Thank you very much, Minister, for a somewhat disappointing answer. Do you agree that sanitary and phytosanitary checks at points of entry are vital to upholding our animal welfare and good food standards? How will we deal with standards under the UK's free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand, which definitely threaten our food standards and regulations?

Mr Poots: I certainly do not agree that they are necessary. In the first instance, food that comes into Northern Ireland and is to remain in Northern Ireland poses zero threat to the European Union single market. The fact that the Alliance Party, today, through Mr Dickson, has indicated that it wants to have checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which will lead to less supply and, in turn, to higher costs and a reduced offer to consumers, demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that the Alliance Party is more interested in the politics of the European Union than it is about the people whom it serves.

Mr McGuigan: Minister, in your responses to previous questions for written and oral answer, including the one just now, you have not provided an answer about the cost of that advice on halting sanitary and phytosanitary checks. Can you confirm how much was paid to the Attorney General for his advice? Was he paid with public money?

Mr Poots: Well, we do not have a bill, the Attorney General is female, not male, and the Attorney General does not charge for advice.

Mr O'Toole: I note that the Agriculture Minister has not made clear why he chose to take legal advice from the former Attorney General rather than the current one. I want to ask about the free trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, the latter of which was signed yesterday. Last year, Minister, you said that you had been clear with UK Ministers that tariff-free access to the UK for New Zealand farmers posed a serious threat to our farmers. What went wrong, Minister? Did the UK Ministers simply not listen to you?

Mr Poots: First of all, the Member makes an assumption that I did not receive advice from the current Attorney General and, indeed, from the Departmental Solicitor's Office and others. The Member will be well aware that that is purely an assumption and does not have any veracity. Nonetheless, we will leave that to one side.

On the New Zealand trade deal, of course I have demonstrated quite clearly my concerns about potential trade deals. There are trade deals that will bring us significant benefits and open the doors for Northern Ireland to export its high-quality food. Quite a number of trade deals have already taken place that will be to our benefit. The trade deals with Australia and New Zealand will always be challenging for us because they are large food-producing countries. However, there are opportunities for other businesses in Northern Ireland, not least for people who export engineering expertise to Australia, for example, with all the mining equipment that is produced, mainly in mid-Ulster. Therefore, there are advantages to those deals as well as disadvantages.

The disadvantages, if they come through, will take time to come through. At present, Australia sells a large amount of its beef in Southeast Asia, and, consequently, does not need the UK market, but that may not always be the case. I have highlighted and expressed my concerns about that. That having been said, when we left the European Union, our beef was about 20% lower in price than it currently is, so it is hard for the Member to claim that we have done badly out of it.

Mr Allister: The Alliance party and the other rigorous implementers of the protocol are obsessing about the modest cost of legal advice, which established that the checks were unlawful, in contrast with the figure that the Minister gave last month of £10 million for the cost of those checks, never mind the tens of millions of pounds of costs to business under the Trader Support Service (TSS). Does the Minister agree that that is a telling insight into where the interests of such questioners lie?

Mr Poots: Absolutely. Thousands of checks and CHED documents have to be completed by businesses, and additional staff had to be recruited by businesses as a consequence of the protocol. The services that are provided by the TSS will be withdrawn, and, ultimately, that cost will be passed on. The European Union demands that we pass all the costs that the Government and this Department bear to businesses, and it even wants us to check people's cars and luggage. That is what the Alliance Party wants, and that is why the Alliance Party has shown itself up today in its demands for the rigorous implementation of the protocol. [Interruption.]

Mr Beggs: I thank the Minister for his answer

[Interruption]

Mr Speaker: Order, Members.

Mr Beggs: — to the question on legal costs, but there is an additional cost for transport arrangements and bureaucracy across business, with some suppliers not even continuing to supply Northern Ireland. What assessment has there been of the detrimental impact on the Northern Ireland economy and to the public, who cannot even buy some plants in garden centres?

Mr Poots: The fact is that it is easier to import a tree from Lithuania than from Lancashire. That might not be the case when Mr Putin is finished, but that is the reality, folks. We have a country that has had a barrier put within it. That has never been tried in any other country in the world. The fact that we have individuals in this country saying, "We want more of it [Interruption.]

Mr Poots, you have not done enough on the protocol. We want you to do more to make it difficult for people to buy goods

[Interruption]

from their own country".

Mr Speaker: Order, Members. [Interruption.]

Mr Poots: That is an outrageous situation and an outrageous proposal.

Mr Speaker: I do not want to have to keep intervening, but I will insist that we get order so that we can continue with Question Time.

Mr Poots: The report, 'Independent Strategic Review of the Northern Ireland Agri-Food Sector', was published on 26 January. Sir Peter Kendall and his team undertook a considerable amount of work in a short time frame under the very challenging conditions that were presented by COVID-related restrictions. I welcome the report and believe that it contains much that the industry will support. The report was open to comments and feedback from stakeholders until 23 February. Given the report's many recommendations, it will take time to produce a detailed and considered response that takes into account the views of stakeholders.

Ms Á Murphy: I thank the Minister for his answer. Minister, do you intend to include the independent strategic review recommendations in the development of future agriculture policies?

Mr Poots: We will consider the report in full. We did not ask for a report to be